I haven’t slept. I want to try to write up some sort of account that can explain why some people are reacting this way to the people who are not reacting this way. I will say that there is this line that comes to mind, from Ossie Davis’ eulogy for Malcolm X (paraphrasing): “he was our shining prince.” It was not primarily about liking the music and the other things he did, though of course we were fanatics for them. He was one of the great personalities “fit to stand the gaze of millions” (as Stanley Cavell once said of Cary Grant). But rather than being a man who “carries the holiday in his eye,” Bowie’s magnetism was born of a confidence that braved a broken landscape within, a confidence that anything, no matter how dreadful or undermining, could be transformed into something meaningful and pleasurable, because this particular center of consciousness in the world thought itself supremely worthy of existing, regardless of what it was conscious of. That confidence underlay a tremendous artistic fertility and ambition, a tremendous restlessness, the central achievement of which was to take Modernism in the arts and make it popular, expressive, and accessible, thus giving the lie to the thesis that Modernism has to be elitist or fraudulent. For many of us, Bowie’s restlessness was educational, and we learned about all sorts of developments in art and music and literature just because he had become enormously excited by them and mentioned them, whether it was ambient music, or German Expressionism, or William S. Burroughs, or something else. He is the only pop star to have two of his albums transformed into successful classical symphonies by one of our leading composers, and the only pop star who had a museum show retrospective, not about his paintings, but about his very existence. From the beginning he conveyed a sense of vulnerability and alienation that on some level we all possess just by virtue of being human, and transformed it into a sense of dignity and importance deriving from our awareness of that very vulnerability. For someone who seldom acted, he had a handful of the most iconic moments in cinema of our time, whether it was as the stranded extraterrestrial who quietly explains that he misses his children, the army major who triumphs over the madness of war and its ethos with a kiss, or the weary Roman governor condemning “just another Jewish politician” to die on a cross. Though the press always characterized him as endlessly mutable, appropriative, and false, he always seemed to me to be essentially the same, always hiding in plain sight, always himself… and his existence seemed a kind of continual triumph over an underlying and imperishable sadness that is perhaps the only truly rational response to a world such as this. There will never be another like him.
David Bowie, 1947-2016