HENT DE VRIES: Good afternoon. My name is Hent de Vries. For the record, since we will be recording this. It is a great pleasure and distinct honor to introduce this afternoon's plenary lecturer Professor Simon Critchley, the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School University in New York.
Professor Critchley studied philosophy at the universities of Essex in Britain and of Nice in the south of France under the guidance of eminent teachers in both the continental and analytic traditions of thought. Eminent figures, such as Robert Bernasconi and Jay Bernstein, Frank Coiffi and Onora O'Neill and in France, Dominique Janicaud. And we now know Michel Haar and [INAUDIBLE].
After a stint, as a postdoctoral fellow in literature at Cardiff University, he was appointed at Essex, where he quickly rose through the ranks in the Department of Philosophy. In 2004, he moved to the United States to the New School for Social Research. As you may know, an iconic institution in the European imagination and of intellectual immigration to the United States. An institution, where for several years he chaired the Department of Philosophy and where since 2011, he occupies the prestigious Hans Jonas Chair, named after one of the famous German emigrant philosophers. Friend and colleague of Hannah Arendt and specialist in gnosticism and the philosophical concept of life among many other things, Professor Critchley also helped distinguished visiting positions at the University of Sydney Notre Dame, University of Oslo, the Cardozo Law School in New York, while being a regular faculty member at the University of Tilburg, the Netherlands, my former home country, and the European graduate summer school in Saas-Fee in Switzerland.
I for one have attentively followed Simon's work from 1992 onwards. This was the year I read his seminal and first book published by Blackpool and entitled The Ethics of Deconstruction. It was the very first book making an in-depth comparison of the philosophies of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, and a book that I honestly would have loved to have written and would take many years to catch up with coming to terms with its arguments, its overall implications, and charting my own modest path in its wake. However, Simon got there first and thereby established a characteristic pattern. That, says something, I think, about his intellectual persona and stamina, his insatiable curiosity, and his enormous energies in all matters philosophical, ethical, political, and literary.
Among the contemporary philosophers, both confidently and analytically trained, the philosophers that I am at least familiar with, Simon stands out by his seismographic sensorium, adventurous intelligence, free spirit, and sheer determination to name trends and contradictions, pitfalls and predicaments in contemporary life as he sees them around him, undisturbed by the need to belong to a philosophical school or for that matter to form one. In his prolific and ever expanding writing, the philosophical canon receives as much attention as do the phenomena of popular culture from dress codes to television and sports. I fondly remember a series of discussions and screenings that Simon set up in New York City during the last world soccer cup under the accurate, as well as evocative title quote "Man with Balls, the Art of the 2010 World Cup" end of quote. And I know that the topic is again on his mind these days.
Witness also the latest posting that Alice just forwarded to us all. Over the years, Professor Critchley has authored an impressive number of books. And he edited important volumes, among them I would mention Very Little, Almost Nothing published by Routledge in 1997; the collection of seminal essays entitled Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity published by Verso in 1999 and 2009; Continental Philosophy, a Very Short Introduction by Oxford in 2001; On Humor published by Routledge in 2002; and Things Merely Are published by Routledge in 2002, a book with profound meditations on Wallace Stevens late poems and on Terence Malik's cinematography.
Among the edited volumes there is also the volume co-edited with Robert Bernasconi and Adriaan Peperzak of Levinas's basic philosophical writings, just as there is the Cambridge Companion to Emmanuel Levinas co-edited likewise with Bernasconi. After this, two published collections of interviews entitled How to Stop Living and Start Worrying in 2010 and Impossible Objects published in 2011. And the picture is nearly complete. Two or three works, however, merit special mentioning. Simon's book Infinitely Demanding published by Verso in 2007 is, in my view, a tour de force argument that blends insights from different sources effortlessly to make a strong case for an empathic and emphatic ethics of political anarchism. It is a major programmatic statement and has been translated into some eight different languages.
Together with his more recent book, The Faith of the Faithless that I have been rereading with great profit these days, published by Verso in 2012, and a book that actually first caught my attention when we both spoke at a conference at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, where Simon presented a strong chapter from it. These works, Infinitely Demanding and The Faith of the Faithless, represents Critchley's at once synthetic and analytic mind at its best, just as they express his smooth, elegant, moving, and humorous writing at its deepest and most expensive levels of articulation. Among many other things, reading Simon Critchley is also overhearing a Beckett, if not Joyce or more broadly tragic tone and tune, even where literature is not the topic at all-- and we'll get a taste of that at least later this week.
Another final, perhaps, ultimate over determination, if you like, of Simon's work is consistently and increasingly that of psychoanalysis. On the one hand, that is of seeing philosophy as an quote unquote "obsessional activity," the subsuming of data under concepts. But also that of tragedy on the other hand. Tragedy, which he writes in its classic renderings, offer something like a quote "[INAUDIBLE] of philosophical discourse." And you will be hearing about that more in the seminar if that's the seminar you're taking.
A case in point here is a book on Shakespeare and much more, recently published with Jamison Webster, a wonderful psychoanalyst and his spouse, entitled Stay Illusion, the Hamlet Doctrine published by Pantheon Books and Vintage in 2013 and 2014. This book, likewise, has made an enormous splash. I remember being on a book presentation in Brooklyn's BAM, where the book's praise was literally sung by Courtney Love. And come to think of it, few among us, humanists and social scientists, get reviewed in the Wall Street Journal as this book deservedly did. Even fewer in philosophy make it into or onto the bestselling list of the New York Times, as did Simon's book The Book of Dead Philosophers, which by the way, was translated into 17 languages, and it made the bestseller list in March of 2009.
This brings me to my final point. What is deeply admirable is Simon's ability to pair academic rigor and the highest standard of logical and moral reasoning with the role, clarity of mind, plain speech, as well as courage of the public intellectual; venturing out there, sometimes going all out, without sacrificing any of the scholarly commitments, erudition, and aesthetic taste that he rightly holds in the highest esteem. Not only is Simon the editor of the New York Times block, "The Stone", that has significantly raised the level of philosophically informed debate in that journal and in that context. He was also in charge of a series of essays published in the British newspaper, The Guardian, on Martin Heidegger's epochal [INAUDIBLE] Being and Time, no easy matters.
We have the good fortune of being offered spectacular previews this week of two of his newest books, Memory Theater, forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo editions in London, which we will read and discuss this coming Thursday, and Bowie, forthcoming from OR Books in New York and London, also this upcoming September or this early fall, about which we will hear more today, as this Bowie is his very title. Please join me in welcoming Professor Simon Critchley.
SIMON CRITCHLEY: Wonderful introduction. That was wow. Thank you, Hen. And it's nice to be here. The microphone seems to be working. OK. Booming out the iPhone. I've got the computer. I don't usually use technology. OK. The reason for doing this this week is that there are two these two little books. This book called Bowie. It was called something much cleverer before, but then they said, this wouldn't be Google-able. So they said, why not call it Bowie? I said there must be a book called Bowie. They said, there isn't a book called Bowie. There's lots of books called David Bowie. So Bowie.
And a book called Memory Theater, which is really strange and I don't know what to make of it. I mean, going back to what Hent was saying about philosophy is an obsessional activity and a kind of hysterization of philosophical discourse, which I agree with, is they're both dealing with kinds of aspects of unconscious material, let's say. And they both come out of a kind of interest in a remark that nature makes early beyond good and evil, where he says that all philosophical work is more or less disguised unconscious memoir. So if one thinks about that, autobiographical at some level. I'm trying to kind of think that through in two different modalities.
The two books are not connected in time. They're several years apart. But [INAUDIBLE] echoes back and forth. Anyway, so Bowie. Let's see if this all works. So Bowie.
"My first sexual experience. Let me begin with a rather embarrassing confession--" Is this booming too much? We have a boom. Is it booming too much back there? How do we turn it down just a little bit? Can we? Is it one of these? I don't want to drown people out. I'm not speaking so loud. We're going to try and turn it down. I'll speak quietly. (WHISPERS) "My first sexual experience."
"Let me begin with a rather embarrassing confession." That's good. "No person has given me greater pleasure throughout my life than David Bowie. Of course, maybe this says a lot about the quality of my life. But don't get me wrong. There have been nice moments, some even involving other people. But in terms of constant, sustained joy over the decades, nothing comes close to the pleasure that Bowie has given me.
It all began as it began for many other ordinary English boys and girls with Bowie's performance of "Star Man" on BBC's iconic Top of the Pops on July the 6th, 1972, which is probably watched by a quarter of the British population. My jaw dropped as I watched this orange haired creature in a cat suit limp wristedly put his arm around Mick Ronson's shoulder. It wasn't so much the quality of the song that struck me, it was the shock of Bowie's look. It was overwhelming. He seemed so sexual, so knowing, so sly, and so strange. At once cocky and vulnerable, he seemed to understand. His face was like a door to a world of unknown pleasures.
Some days later, my mother, Sheila, bought a copy of "Star Man", because she liked the song and Bowie's hair. She'd been a hairdresser in Liverpool before coming south, and used to insist dogmatically that Bowie was wearing a wig from the late 1980s onwards." I don't think he was. But she always said that on television, he's wearing a wig. She always blamed me for going bald as aggression against her, but that's another story.
"I remember the slightly menacing black and white portrait photo of Bowie on the cover shot from below and the orange RCA Victor label on the 7 inch single. For some reason when I was alone with our tiny mono record player in what we called the dining room-- not that we ate there. There was no TV-- I immediately flipped the single over to listen to the B side. I remember very clearly the physical reaction I felt listening to "Suffragette City". The sheer bodily excitement of that noise was almost too much to bear. I guess it sounded like sex, not that I knew what sex was. I was a virgin. I had never even kissed anyone. I had never wanted to. As Mick Ronson's guitar collided with my internal organs, I felt something strong and strange in my body that I'd never experienced before. Where was suffragette city? How did I get there? I was 12 years old, my life had begun. Two episodic blips.
There's a view that some people call narrative identity. This is the idea that one's life is a kind of story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Usually, there is some early defining traumatic experience, a crisis or crises in the middle. Sex, drugs, any form of addiction will serve that one miraculously recovers from. Such life stories usually culminate in redemption before ending in peace on Earth and goodwill to all men. The unity of one's life consistent the coherence of the story one can tell about oneself. People do this all the time. It's the lie that lies behind the idea of the memoir, such is the raison d'etre of what remains of the publishing industry, which is fed by ghastly gutter world of creative writing courses. Against this and with Simone Weil, I believe in deep creative writing that moves through spirals of ever ascending negations before reaching nothing.
I also think that identity is a very fragile affair. It is at best a sequence of episodic blips, rather than some grand narrative unity. As David Hume established long ago, the life is made up of disconnected bundles of perceptions that lie around, like so much dirty laundry in the rooms of our memory. The episodes that give my life some structure are largely provided by David Bowie's words and music. He ties my life together like no one else I know. Sure, there are other memories and other stories that one might tell. In my case, it's complicated by the amnesia that follows a serious industrial accident that happened when I was 18 years old. But Bowie has been my soundtrack, my constant clandestine companion in good times and bad, mine and his.
What's striking is I don't think I'm alone in this view. There was a world of people for whom Bowie was that being the permitted a powerful emotional connection, the freed them to become some other kind of self, something freer, more queer, more honest, more open, and more exciting. Looking back, Bowie has become a kind of touchstone for that past, its glories and its glorious failures, but also for some kind of constancy in the present and for the possibility of a future, even the demand for a better future."
I think I should say throughout this text, there's all sorts of allusions that Bowie's music, which aren't laid out. If you know those allusions, you'll get it. If you're not, you could listen to it and find out. That's up to you. There's a song called "Better Future", for example.
"I don't mean that mean this to sound like hubris. Look, I've never met the guy, Bowie I mean. I doubt I ever will. And to be honest, I don't want to. I'd be terrified. What would I say? Thanks for the music? That's so ABBA. But I feel an extraordinary intimacy with Bowie, although I know this is total fantasy. Although, I also know it's a shared fantasy, common to huge numbers of loyal fans for whom Bowie is not some rock star or a series of flat media cliches about bisexuality in bars in Berlin. He is someone who's made life a little less ordinary for an awful long time.
3, "The Arts' Filthy Lesson." After Andy Warhol had been shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968, he said, "Before I was shot, I suspected that, instead of living I'm just watching TV. Since being shot, I'm certain of it." Bowie's acute 10 word commentary on Warhol statement in the eponymous song from "Hunky Dory" in 1971 is deadly accurate, "Andy Warhol, silver screen, can't tell them apart at all." The ironic self awareness of the artist and their audience can only be that of their inauthenticity repeated at increasingly conscious levels. Bowie repeatedly mobilizes this Warhol-ian aesthetic.
The inability to distinguish Andy Warhol from the silver screen morphs into Bowie's continual sense of himself being stuck inside his own movie, such as the conceit of "Life on Mars", which begins with "The girl with the mousy hair, who's hooked on the silver screen." But in the final verse, the movie's screenwriter is revealed as Bowie himself or his persona, although you can't tell them apart at all. "But the film is a saddening book, as I wrote it 10 times or more. It's about to be write again." Repetition. The conflation of life with the movie conspires with the trope of repetition to evoke a melancholic sense of being both bored and trapped. One becomes an actor in one's own movie, and this is my sense of Bowie's much misunderstood lines in "Quicksand." I'm living in a silent film, portraying him the sacred realm of dream reality."
Bowie displays an acute awareness of Himmler's understanding of national socialism as political artifice, as an artistic and especially architectural construction, as well as a cinematic spectacle. Hitler, in the words of, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg was [SPEAKING GERMAN], a film from Germany. As Bowie puts it, Hitler was the first pop star. But being stuck inside a movie evokes, not elation, but depression and a Major Tom-like inaction. "I'm sinking into quicksand of my thought and ain't got the power anymore." In five years, after having received the news the Earth will soon die, Bowie sings, "And it was cold and it rained and I felt like an actor."
Similarly, in one of my all time favorite Bowie songs, "The Secret Life of Arabia", outrageously ferociously covered by the late great Billy McKenzie and the British Electorate Foundation Bowie sings, "You must see the movie, the sand in my eyes. I walk through a desert song, when the heroine dies." The world is a set. And the movie that's being shot might well be called melancholia. While Bowie's best and bleakest songs, "Candidate", begins with a statements of explicit pretense. "We'll pretend we're walking home." This followed by the line "My set is amazing. It even smells like a street." So art's filthy lesson is inauthenticity all the way down, a series of repetitions and reenactments. Fakes that strip away the illusion of reality in which we live and which confronted with the reality of illusion. Though his world is like a dystopian version of the Truman Show, the sick place of the world is forcefully expressed in the ruined violet landscapes of Aladdin sane and diamond dogs. And more subtly, in the desolate soundscapes of "Warszawa" and "Neukoln."
To borrow Iggy Pop's idiom, it's self-borrowed from Antonio in his 1975 movie, "Bowie's the passenger that rides through the city's ripped backside under a bright and hollow sky."
4, "Utopian Something." Bowie incarnated a Utopian something, some other way of existing in the suburban shitholes of Bromley, Beckenham, Billericay, Basingstoke, Braintree, or Biggleswade. Yes, there is a place called Biggleswade. It wasn't, I repeat, it wasn't some reflection of life on the street. Why would we have been interested in that? Life was routine, gray, cramped, and dull. Our parents were deeply morally confused by the 1960s, having affairs, getting divorced, and wearing flared trousers. We were just bored. Bored. As the Buzzcocks sang on Spiral Scratch, "Let the upper middle classes celebrate street life after their winter skiing trips with their parents or taking the Volvo on a tour of the [INAUDIBLE]." Bowie represented something else, especially for the intelligent disaffected ordinary boys and girls. It was something impossibly glamorous and strange. It rejected the street.
As John Savage rightly writes, "Bowie was not about any sort of realism." His success connected with a a latent, low-budget science fiction exuberance, more Michael Moorcock than Isaac Asimov, more Quartermass in the Pit than Star Trek. It was the template for the ruined landscapes through which the space boys and girls of glam punk and post punk would run, wearing outrageous often homemade and slightly crappy outfits. It was what Nicholas Pegg called in a choice phrase, "a home counties apocalypse complete with milk floats and the mental hospitals that encircle London at the time."
As others have pointed out, Bowie spoke to the weirdos and the freaks, but it turned out there were a lot of us. It left you wondering, who exactly where the insiders? Much, much later, Bowie found a new word to name them, heathen. We simply didn't want to be heathen.
5, "I Am a Heideggerian Boy." If Bowie's art is inauthentic, if it is F for fake, as Orson Welles might have put it, then is it also F for falsehood? I remember reading an interview years back with Robert Fripp, where he talks about watching Bowie in the studio in the late 1970s. Bowie was listening to a track and very carefully, repeatedly, and quite deliberately and for the longest time tried to generate the right emotion in his voice. What could be more contrived and fake than that? Shouldn't true music come straight out of the heart up through the vocal chords and into our waiting shell-like ears? Yet, as others have observed, Bowie's genius lies in the meticulous matching of mood with music to the medium of the voice.
If I were even more of a Heideggerian boy than I am, and I am, we could talk about the link between voice, [NON-ENGLISH] and mood, [NON-ENGLISH]. As that basic activities for which a world is disclosed to us and disclosed, moreover, emotionally, rather than rationally. Bowie's genius then is one of interpretation. Interpretation in the sense of [NON-ENGLISH] or [NON-ENGLISH] and something else, making it accord with us or resound for us sonorously in a way that you can hit as hard or soft." This is an important point, I guess, for me.
"We need to add an important caveat to this line of thought. Music like Bowie's is not some way of somehow recalling human beings effectively to some pre-established harmony with the world. That would be banal and mundane, literally. Rather, Bowie permits a kind of de-worlding of the world, an experience of mood, emotion, or [NON-ENGLISH] that shows that all in the world [NON-ENGLISH] is not in agreement or in accord with the self. In this sense, music is a discord with the world, but can allow a certain de-mundanization, a withdrawal that might permit us to see things in a Utopian light.
Anyone who's listened to Bowie over the years is completely familiar with his almost vaudeville or pantomime quality, the almost vaudeville or pantomime quality, of his cast of stock characters. Each character has its distinctive voice, from the cheeky mockney cockney Tony Newly, or even the bloody laughing gnome, to the cherubic Anglo-surrealism of Syd Barrett to the rich basso profundo of the great, the very great Scott Walker." If you're not students of Scott Walker, then you should be immediately. I mean, there's one thing you can listen to if you're interested in music, listen to Scott Walker. "To a higher pitched Iggy Pop--" I'm not the biggest fan of some of Bowie's Iggy imitations-- "to the breathy white soul boy, and onto the quasi-operatic or even hymnal, as on "Word on a Wing". So all those voices are at play in Bowie. He shifts from this cheeky mockney cockney to the Syd Barrett, the Scott Walker to the Iggy Pop to the white soul boy to the quasi-operatic and the hymnal. And variations on these characters and others appear on album after album.
We're not stupid. We know that they're fakes. So how in all this fakery does something true emerge? One might reply that it just does. And you just feel it or you don't. After all, there's no accounting for taste, particularly bad taste, particularly among philosophers. Citing that famous line from "Changes", "So I turn myself to face me, but I've never caught a glimpse of how the others must see the faker. And I'm much too fast to take that test," Bowie says. To turn yourself to face yourself is not to confront your authentic subjectivity. It is to see nothing, not even a glimpse. Warhol is the silver screen. Hang it on your wall. Nothing is hidden behind. Others may see this as fakery. But Bowie is too fast, as he arrogantly, but rather accurately reports. He has already moved on to some new form."
And what I try to do in the book is try and plot some of these new forms that he inhabits, in particular from the period between 1972 and 1980, where he's constantly moving every six to eight months, shedding a form and acquiring a new form with extraordinary discipline. So I think that I put the center of Bowie's work, which is not what you'd normally associate with the work of a rock star, is an aesthetic discipline, which is a discipline about form in his case. Like I say, Bowie wasn't a rock star. He just appeared as a rock star. That wasn't really what he did.
"My hypothesis is that Bowie's genius allows us to break the superficial link that seems to connect authenticity to truth. There was a truth to Bowie's art, a moodful truth, a hard truth, a felt truth. But this truth is inauthentic, completely self-conscious, and utterly constructed."
6, "Dystopia. Get It Here. Thing." "One of the strangest moments in the history of British popular music is Peter Noone cover version of "Oh, You Pretty Things," which did pretty well in the UK charts in 1971. Noone, whose name wonderfully splits open into no one, little like Odysseus's reply to the cyclops, have been the frontman of the oddly named, but hugely successful "Herman and the Hermits". Noone displayed a truly bravura lack of understanding of Bowie's lyrics. Bowie's lyrics, which is replete with references to Nietzsche's Zarathustra, Aleister Crowley, and the rest. More precisely, the song asserts the uselessness of homo sapiens and the need to make way for homo superior. Admittedly, all this is framed in a rather cheap British BBC Doctor Who version of the future with crappy sets and bad outfits. But the point is clear enough. The extra terrestrial strangers have come to take our children towards a non-human future. For us, the nightmare has begun and we finished our news.
Funniest of all, fearful of radio censorship, Noone replaced Bowie's line "the Earth is a bitch" with the apparently more upbeat, "the Earth is a beast." The basis, the constant, the ground of Bowie's most important work is that the world is screwed, used up, old, and done. The earth is a dying dog that awaits its beating from a new master. Bowie's vision is completely and consistently dystopian. One can hear this in the pre-apocalyptic melancholy of "Five Years" or indeed, in the post-apocalyptic visions like "Drive In Saturday." In "Drive In Saturday," the survivors of a nuclear catastrophe live in vast domes in the Western desert of the USA, using old movies in order to re-enact what they imagine ordinary life was like before the war, like the video films we saw. But of course, what is created in this reenactment is not the past, but just the cliched schlock of 1950s romantic movies, where his name was always Buddy.
But the most profound and extended dystopian vision comes after the introduction of cut up technique in "Diamond Dogs" in 1974, what Peter Doggett calls "Bowie's dark study in cultural disintegration." Whatever judgments one might make about Bowie's musical development, "Diamond Dogs" is a courageous cult conceptual step into new territory. To my mind, it's the album where Bowie finally rids himself of the ghost of Ziggy and begins the rich and speedy series of aesthetic transformations that will carry through until "Scary Monsters" in 1980. Despite its obvious and repeated acts of homage to the Rolling Stones, particularly through Bowie's wonderfully scratchy and slightly twisted Keith Richards guitar imitations, the album pushes past whatever rock and roll had been, slashing and mutilating it before carting it off to the graveyard. This ain't rock and roll. This is genocide.
Inspired by Burroughs's Wild Boys-- and there was this encounter between Burroughs and Bowie around this time, actually, in '73-- inspired by William Burroughs's Wild Boys with marauding gangs carrying 18-inch Bowie knives that cut two ways, a premonition of the suburban boys and girls, it would hit the streets of sundry decaying British cities in the righteous days of punk. "Diamond Dogs" begins with the prophecy of future legend."
Let's see if this works.
[MUSIC - DAVID BOWIE, "FUTURE LEGEND"]
It's the first track on "Diamond Dogs".
And in death as the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare, the shutters lifted an inch in temperance building, high on Poacher's Hill. And red mutant eyes gazed down on Hunger City. No more big wheels. Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats. And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes. Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers. Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass front of Love-Me Avenue. Ripping and rewrapping mink and shiny silver fox, now leg warmers. Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald. Any day now, the year of the Diamond Dogs. This ain't rock and roll! This is genocide!
"Ripping and rewrapping milk and shiny silver fox, now leg warmers. Family badge of sapphire and cracked emerald. Any day now, the year of the Diamond Dogs."
"Bowie has a vision of the world as ruined. Complete civilizational collapse. Here is a picture of urban space prior to gentrification. Bliss it was to be alive in that dawn, a space of crime and inverted consumerism. Tramps, where diamonds silver fox fur becomes leg warmers. heraldic emblems of jewels become rich trash to be draped around freakish peoploids."
7, "Les Tricoteuses." Maybe I'll put that word up. This isn't a board, is it? No? OK. Tricoteuses. T-R-I-C-O-T-E-U-S-E-S.
"Bowie's albums often have traces of musical styles that are being abandoned, like outworn skins alongside the premonition of something new that will find voice in future work. In "Diamond Dogs", "Rebel, Rebel", and "Rock and Roll With Me" belong to that past and arguably the soulful Isaac Hayes influenced wild, wild guitar of 1984 points forward towards "Young Americans". But the real innovations are the nine minute sequence of "Sweet Thing Candidate" and "Sweet Thing Reprieves" and the nightmarishly brilliant "We Are the Dead", although one could also make a good case for the "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family."
If you know the "Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family." That's not it. That is the beginning of "Candidate". Oh look, no, no, no. Hang on. I'm doing this on my iPhone. There's no sexy technology here. I'll just play right at the end. This is how the album finishes.
[MUSIC - DAVID BOWIE, "CANDIDATE"]
It goes like that for a bit.
And it ends with that. And on the 12th inch vinyl version of this, this went on and on and on and on, like the record gets stuck. And you just leave that going, which for me kind of makes the point I was making this morning about repetition and Mark E. Smith, and the Mighty Fall, and the three R's repetition, repetition, repetition. And trying to kind of force that. And Bowie is that point, producing a kind of repetitive loop which is increasingly disturbing.
"In the dead "Diamond Dog" world of Halloween Jack, one of the personae on the album, sex is no longer some transgressive excitement, it is putting pain in a stranger. Its image, like a Bacon painting, is a portrait in flesh who trails on a leash. If this is a world of flesh, then that flesh is dying. We find here an almost paranoid schizophrenic picture of the world as extinct, rotting, and in need of redemption. This is the kind of world that we find in President Shriver's delicious delusions or the inhabitants of Artie Lange's Kingsley Hall Free Asylum in London in the late 1960s. "Can't you tell I'm dead? I can smell the flesh rotting."
Perhaps has also some memory of the world of Bowie's schizophrenic half-brother, Terry Burns, from whom he learned so much so early; and who somehow thought that David could save him after the brother had been institutionalized in a mental hospital for many years. Terry killed himself in the final days of 1984. And Bowie set off a family feud, a media storm by not attending the funeral." It seemed he didn't want to turn it into a circus. Much of what we learned about literature was from his half-brother Terry.
"It's often been said that there is something of the psychotic in Bowie, which I rather doubt. Bowie was not a lad insane. If such psychotic tendencies exist, then as with Joyce in Finnegan's Wake, they're sublimated into art. Thanks to his art, maybe he's not crazy. Maybe we're not crazy either. The constant references to madness, paranoia, and delusion, particularly in the early tracks of "The Man Who Sold The World" are a musical transformation of the terrors of madness, even the crazy closing canine chant to "All the Madmen," "Zane, Zane, Zane, ouvre le chien." So [INAUDIBLE], "Zane, Zane, Zane, open the dog." What does it mean? (WHISPERS) I've got no idea.
"That said, a mad dead half-brother is a kind of shadow figure. And a history of madness in the family, as was the case with Bowie's mother, Margaret Mary Burns, is a terrifying thing. We are the dead. The air is full of their cries. "Is it nice in your snow storm, freezing your brain?" Bowie asks. It's the exhilarating bleakness of Bowie's vision in "Diamond Dogs" that pulls me in with its dirty claws. As a protagonist in "Candidate" says as he walks through his film set that even smells like a street, he boasts someone scrawled on the wall, I smelled the blood of les tricoteuses, who wrote up scandals in other bars. Les tricoteuses were the insurrectionary working class Parisian women who watched and cheered on executions during the terror of 1793 in 1794 and watched the surgically precise work of madame guillotine.
Candidate builds. If you know this track, it builds with a kind of extraordinary kind of claustrophobic intensity towards the end. I won't play the whole thing. It's about three minutes long. And this kind of thing doesn't work in this context, I'm aware of that. But I want to play just a tiny bit. It builds and builds and builds.
[MUSIC - DAVID BOWIE, "CANDIDATE"]
Anyone out there? Any time? Tres butch little number whines "Hey dirty, I want you. When it's good, it's really good. And when it's bad, I go to pieces." Well, on the street where you live I could not hold up my head for I gave all I have in another bed. On another floor, in the back of a car. In the cellar of a church with the door ajar. Well, I guess we must be looking for a different kind. But we can't stop trying 'til we break up our minds. 'Til the sun drips blood on the seedy young knights. Who press you on the ground while shaking in fright. I guess we could cruise down one more time. With you by my side, it should be fine. We'll buy some drugs and watch a band. Then jump in the river holding hands.
People don't listen to lyrics, but they're important, right? The sun beats love on the seedy knights lights. They press you on the ground while shaking in fright. "I guess we'll cruise down one more time. With you by my side, it should be fine. We'll buy some drugs and watch a band. And jump in the river holding hands." So the only possible connection in a desperate ruined world is that, a kind of suicide pact.
8, "The Majesty of the Absurd". "I want to go back to the illusion to les tricoteuses and make a little leap here, or at least take a small step. When I listen to "Diamond Dogs" and I think about Bowie's dystopian vision, I think of Georg Buchner's Danton's Death. This extraordinary work, Buchner's Danton's Death, is defined by a post-revolutionary sense of despair in action and pervasive nihilism. Just prior to his execution, the imprisoned Danton says, everything is packed and swarming. The void has destroyed itself. Creation is its wound. We are its drops of blood. And the world, the grave in which it rots. Such, I think, is Bowie's dystopia defined by Enlightenment's deadly dialectic. We declare that God is dead and turn ourselves into gods only in order to kill better, to exterminate more effectively. We have become heathen. Danton goes on, the world is chaos. Nothingness is the world god waiting yet to be born.
Now, Danton's Death by Buchner ends with Lucile most Ophelia-like mounting the steps of the guillotine, where the guards are sleeping. And she shouts, long live the King. It seems like a suicidal gesture. And one imagines that she is swiftly dispatched, although Buchner leaves the audience to draw the inference. Yet Paul Celan, in his justly famous Meridian speech, given when accepting the Buchner Prize in 1960, finds another meaning to Lucile's words. He insists that this "long live the King" is an act of freedom. It is a step. If that step might appear to be a reactionary defense of the ancien regime, "long live the King," then Celan counters-- this is Celan. This is the quote that for some reason jumped out at me when I was thinking through Bowie. Celan says, is this reaction? "But it is not. Allow me, who grew up on the writings of Peter Kropotkin and Gustav Landauer to insist this is not homage to any monarchy to any yesterday worth preserving. Its homage to the majesty of the absurd, which bespeaks the presence of human beings. This, ladies and gentlemen, has no definitive name, but I believe that this is poetry."
Fascinatingly, Celan places Lucile's act under the [INAUDIBLE] of Kropotkin's [INAUDIBLE] of Mutual Aid and Landauer's more heady mystical anarchism. Slightly further on, Celan adds what he calls a topological dimension to this thought. To take Lucile's step is to see things in a Utopian light. Therefore the act of freedom, which is poetry, is Utopian, Celan says. We came close to a free open space, and finally to utopia." It's a little like that remark in Oscar Wilde, where he says, the maps of the world that do not include utopia are useless, because they do not include that place that human beings keep coming to.
"Poetry is a step, an act of freedom, taken in relation to a world defined by the majesty of the absurd, a human world. Thus, Buchner's dystopia is the condition for utopia." My thesis in this inquiry at this point into Bowie is that Bowie's art is also such a step. "It sets us free in relation to a civilization that is essentially dead. One does not fix up a house that's falling off a cliff. Bowie's dystopia is Utopian in equal measure.
And I think this casts a different light on Bowie's vision of the world and world politics. Consider a track like "It's No Game," which appears in two versions on "Scary Monsters." I'll just play tiny bits of this, just to show-- OK. "It's No Game part 1, part 2." I'll play a tiny fragment of it. This is part 1, the beginning. And the album begins with this.
[MUSIC - DAVID BOWIE, "IT'S NO GAME PART 1"]
Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution. No more free steps to heaven. It's no game.
Then Part 2.
Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution. No more free steps to heaven.
Same backing track. It's amazing.
The first version features Bowie at his most powerfully histrionic, accompanied by a menacing voiceover in Japanese by Michi Hirota, and insane guitar part by Robert Fripp. I'm going to play you this, because it's just fun. This is how part 1 finishes with Bowie screaming, shut up, over the top of Fripp.
[MUSIC - DAVID BOWIE, "IT'S NO GAME PART 1"]
Shut up! Shut up!
"What Bowie describes as a Buchnarian world of terror, the first line is "silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution" describes the languor and disappointment of a post-revolutionary situation. In allusion to Eddie Cochran's posthumously released 1960 hit, there are no longer three steps to heaven. All that remains are big heads and drums, full speed, and pagan. "So where's the moral?" Bowie asks. People have their fingers broken. And in the final verse of part two, Bowie concludes, "children around the world put camel shit on the walls. They're making carpets on treadmills or garbage sorting." So where's the moral in camel shit?
Pop stars like the dreadful, dreadful Bono are meant to morph into slimmer versions of Salman Rushdie, a mouth liberal platitudes about the state of the world and what we can do to put it right. But here, Bowie gives the lie to such liberal complacency by supposing it to a simple visceral critique. Inexpensive carpets that we used to furnish our home are made by people living in camel shit huts. Rather than amuse ourselves by playing some fraudulent political agenda, Bowie simply declares that it's no game.
The next track on "Scary Monsters" is called "Up The Hill Backwards." And it begins, "The vacuum created by the arrival of freedom and the possibilities it seems to offer." Like Lucile's cry at the end of Danton's Death, this line sounds like Edmund Burke's conservative critique of the French Revolution. But adapting Celan's logic, it's not homage to any monarchy or any yesterday, apart from the majesty of the absurd, which is the world of human beings. Such is poetry in Celan's sense, Bowie's poetry."
9, "Sun. Fire. Rain. Me. And you." "Something beautiful and completely unexpected happened on the morning of Tuesday the 8th of January 2013, Bowie's 66 birthday. I got out of bed in the blank cold of a Brooklyn midwinter to find messages from my old Bowie fan friends, Keith Ansell-Pearson and John Simmons. A new Bowie song with a stunning video by Tony Ursula had just been dropped onto the internet without any announcement. It was called "Where Are We Now?" And I watched it in quiet disbelief. The song was number one on [INAUDIBLE] in the UK by 3:00 PM in the afternoon.
The song is about the past, specifically about his time in Berlin in the late 1970s. His most fecund creative period. Bowie himself once admitted in an interview that nothing else he recorded comes close to the work of that period. "Where Are We Now" is an episodic act of memory, a scattering of fragments brought together through the naming of places."
We just got to do some technical magic here. And I give you this, right? We got a couple of minutes. --"through the naming of places, like Potsdamer Platz, the Dschungel nightclub, KaDeWe department store, and Bosebrucke, a former border crossing, which in East and West Berlin. Bowie describes himself as a man lost in time, who is walking the dead.
I can't begin to explain the effect that this video had on me together with the prospect of a new album, first in 10 years, the next day, whose cover"-- if you've seen the cover-- "is an iconoclastic obliteration of the 1977 cover of "Heroes." The album was released on March the 8th, a preordered item that sadly inserted itself onto my iPhone on the morning of that day. Of course, the amazing thing is this album exists at all. But it helps that it's really good. I mean, it made me happy. Bowie was not dead yet, far from it, nor were we as long as there was sun, rain, fire, me, and you.
Bowie released four fascinating videos to accompany the next day. But there'd been no interviews, no announcements of tour dates, no explanations, no media froth. The only thing that Bowie has done since the release of the album was to send to the novelist Rick Moody 42 words left justified in an email." That's it. 42 words, which include words like nerve, tragic, chthonic, turbulence. And then moody goes into a meditation on these words, which is really very good. Its online. I can give you the URL. But that's it.
"So Bowie produced an album and nothing more. Personally, I don't need a David Bowie that appears on dumb chat shows with uninformed and disrespectful hosts, chatting in his best cheeky cockney accent and studied evasion. But I do need his music.
One final recent memory. The other big Bowie event in 2013 was "David Bowie Is" an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which ran from March the 23rd to August the 11th. It was a huge, huge success." Its opening in Chicago in September. It's currently in Berlin. It goes to Paris. Its been in Sao Paolo and whatever.
"The crowds at the V and A were massive. When I turned up one morning early June last year, the line was so long that I actually gave up trying to get in. But then I found a way of sneaking in without paying by following closely behind a couple of special guests, they were a woman and a child who were being escorted past the guards into the exhibition space. Looking like a rather older version of the holy family, I just tagged slightly behind and kept my head down, and got in. What was amazing were the amounts of stuff that Bowie have preserved, even the keys to his apartment in Berlin from 1977. I mean, who does that? He kept everything.
The climax of the exhibition was a huge room with a plethora of video material extending around three walls, fishing fragments of live performance going back to the 1970s. The place was packed. But luckily, I found a seat and sat there for 40 minutes soaking in the end of one cycle of videos and the entirety of the next. It finished appropriately enough with "Rock And Roll Suicide" made from the Hammersmith Odeon performance in July 1973. The song ended. The lights came up. And around me, people were just smiling. They were just happy. It was wonderful. I don't want Bowie to stop, but he will and so will I." But not before showing you the video that Tony Ursula made of "Where Are We Now", which came out last year. So we can do the lights. And we're going to see whether this works.
[MUSIC - DAVID BOWIE, "WHERE ARE WE NOW?"]
Had to get the train from Potsdamer Platz. You never knew that, that I would do that. Just walking the dead. Sitting in the Dschungel on Nurnberger Strasse. A man lost in time near KaDeWe. Just walking the dead. Where are we now? Where are we now? The moment you know, you know, you know.
Twenty thousand people. Cross Bosebrucke. Fingers are crossed just in case. Walking the dead.
Where are we now? Where are we now? The moment you know, you know, you know. As long as there's sun. As long as there's sun. As long as there's rain. As long as there's rain. As long as there's fire. As long as there's fire. As long as there's me. As long as there's you.
I like this bit now. That's it.
HENT DE VRIES: Thank you, Simon.
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This talk is an excerpt from a forthcoming book by Simon Critchley called 'Bowie', published in September 2015 (O/R Books, New York). Critchley makes the case for the importance of Bowie's music for how we think about the relationship between pop culture and the experience of truth.
Introduced by Hent de Vries, Russ Family Professor in the Humanities and Philosophy, Johns Hopkins University.