It’s been a tough few weeks, everyone. The death, violence, and general depravity creeping into our collective consciousness has wormed into my head and left me so exhausted and drained that the days are turning into one, long, sad experience of loss. The end of the year feels like the end of many things: my innocence, my childhood, my hope for the future. When things start looking bleak, I always turn to Bowie, for some odd reason. I couldn’t figure it out until recently. It’s about my history, and what his history means to me. Of course, it’s not about the man himself; I don’t know him, and I am old enough to realize that everything I say here is pure projection and self analysis. So here goes . . .
When I was 15, I watched Bowie sing “Space Oddity” on some variety show. I was terrified and overwhelmed by what I felt. When the camera zoomed in on his mismatched eyes, I felt something crack and shift in my psyche. It was the beginning of something dangerous, unknown and utterly mysterious. One could say it was the beginning of my realization that sexuality existed and was a powerful, uncontrollable force. I think, however, that it was beyond that: it was the sense that there is something completely outside of my understanding lurking beneath the surface of things. I sensed that in the song, and in the image of the man himself, strumming the guitar and not blinking. Not once.
When “Heroes” came out, it was about my dawning cynicism. I understood the song to be about a culture without role models, without mentors, without guides and of course, without heroes. It matched my disengagement with politics, my rebellion against anyone and any institution with authority. It spoke to my general need to hate my culture, which sent me straight to Socialist Spain, where I spend many nights in dark clubs berating America and pretending that I wasn’t a product of my own country. My rebellious poses were so, very, very American, after all.
Then I hit 50 and have been dealing with the resultant crisis, which as upended my world completely. I always knew how to take advantage of my youth. I understood it was a powerful ally in my culture. To be young and pretty was to possess something my elders had forever lost, and I knew it was my only weapon against them. I was Bowie’s “pretty thing”, driving my mother and father insane. Even in my 40s, it was possible to ‘pass’, to still be seen as precocious, to pretend, in other words. But 50 has shattered those illusions and forced me to realize that even if I could pull off the face and body of youth, it doesn’t change my age. A friend told me a couple of years back that I could fool people with my face, but my eyes gave me away. “You are old in the depth of your eyes” she said, and I suppose that’s true. There’s no hiding it.
Then Bowie comes along with “Blackstar,” and he teaches me something again, just like he did when I was 15. As he holds up the pseudo “Blackstar” bible, he makes no attempt to look young or hip. In fact, he is deliberately exposing you to an aged face, just to see how you’re going to react. Will you turn away, disgusted that he committed the sin of reaching 68 years? Or, will you reach the level of confusion that he inspired in 1980? For me, it was almost the same experience I had before: a paradigm shifting awareness that there was something mysterious and powerful behind the surface that was capable of destroying everything I thought I understood about myself. Bowie’s face, so relentlessly public, dares the viewer to reassess what age signifies. What I saw in that face in 1980 has not changed at all; in fact, it’s intensified. It’s not the face itself, it’s what’s behind it, what it hints at, what it both reveals and disguises.
I won’t tell you what that mystery is, because it’s supposed to remain a cipher, only partially understandable but infinitely strange. It is what invalidates our notion that our little lives are all that there is, that our understanding of the world and ourselves is somehow accurate. No, we know very little about the world, about life and death, about love and sex, about the ultimate meaning of our tiny spark of existence on this planet. The fifteen year old and the fifty year old are one and the same, separated only by experiences, but not by essence. That epiphany has, once again, forever changed how I see myself and all those other mysterious beings with whom I share my experiences.
–Kirsten A. Thorne, PhD/PHW