Giles Fraser Guardian/UK 13 January 2016
Mesmerised by the starman’s sexual chemistry, we all mouthed the lyrics of his vision of radical singularity. Yet his ideas only worked in the realm of fiction. ‘Whatever else we mean by society, doesn’t it have something to do with that very un-Bowie-like idea of an obligation that precedes our responsibility to ourselves.’ Human beings do not fall to Earth. They come from somewhere. Located in time, space and history. They have roots, families, traditions, backgrounds. They are born and grow up in specific streets, into specific communities and within various networks of concern. And in most communities throughout history, this has meant that human beings come with responsibilities that are pre-loaded.
David Bowie was an aristocrat of rock. And a man of his time precisely because he fought against all the above – let’s call it convention for now. For Bowie, we are who we choose to be. His famed capacity for reinvention was a minority report on the stultifying imposition of background on identity. Sartre had another way of putting it: existence precedes essence. In other words, we are not handed our identity as something ready-made, as some this-is-how-you-are essence. But rather who we are is something we are to make up as we go along. Our life journey, our existence, our choices, shape our essence. There are no givens. Even biology is rejected as destiny.
David Bowie was the super-glamorous poster boy for this whole philosophy of life. As Bowie’s sometime hero Nietzsche proposed in the previous century, it is not the job of art to reflect life but rather to create it. The human project is to make ourselves up as a novelist writes a novel or an artist creates a painting. Only thus are we free, liberated from the dead weight of convention and destiny. In Nietzsche’s philosophy, the aristocratic ubermensch was first and foremost an artist, with himself as his greatest project. On Bowie’s retake, the ubermensch becomes a celebrity artist and aspiring astronaut. “I always had a need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, I want to be a superhuman.’” Bowie wanted to rise weightless above the human herd.
In Nietzsche’s philosophy, the aristocratic ubermensch was first an artist, with himself as his greatest project. But what if convention and history, our pre-loaded commitments, are not just the threads that tie us down – like Lilliput’s strings that imprison the strangely brilliant ubermensch – but rather are the connecting filaments of our civility, the infrastructure of care and concern, one for the other? For whatever else we mean by society, doesn’t it have something to do with that very un-Bowie-like idea of an obligation that precedes our responsibility to ourselves and our self-development? When it comes to morality, we precedes I. And this places considerable limits on individual self-creation.
This is not about Bowie per se. Bowie embodied a reaction against the drab social conservatism of the postwar era. Though remember, it was in that period of drab conservatism that we invented the welfare state and the National Health Service (inaugurated the year after Bowie’s birth) – arguably this country’s finest moral achievements. But nestled in the postwar reaction to fascism – the ultimate and pathological imposition of un-freedom – was a belief in its opposite, infinite freedom. The freedom of the individual as the ultimate moral goal. And as capitalism advanced, so choice became the only moral value many people thought worth advancing. The world collapsed in on the black hole of the me, myself and I. And what we have learned about this approach, especially as harnessed by libertarians, is that in practice, it means the destruction of public services and thus unfreedom for the many. Yet mesmerised by the starman’s sexual chemistry, we all mouthed along the lyrics of this unearthly vision of radical singularity.
But in real life, and without the liberation of his financial resources, the rest of us are all pinned down by moral gravity. And rightly so. You can’t escape the moral demands of a sick mother or a crying child through artistic reinvention. You can’t fix the local housing problems or run the local youth club – and I repeat local deliberately – by “floating in a most peculiar way”, above the fray, beyond the limitations of the boringly specific.
And that’s my Bowie problem. His work was the fantasy of life without constraint, without the restrictions of (moral) gravity and directed exclusively by the lone star of choice. This philosophy can only work in the realm of fiction and fantasy. On planet Earth, the unencumbered life turns out to be more of a curse than a blessing. [Abridged]