It is said that Oscar Wilde was once asked whether it was true that he had walked down the Strand with a lily in his hand. “To have done it was nothing,” he replied, “but to have made people believe one had done it was everything.” Wilde’s point was that the truth was less important than the image which one projected of oneself, the latter of which would become the source of all sorts of legends and rumours. For Wilde, this was the so-called “truth of masks,” which reduced all of reality to that of a mere masquerade.
There are many parallels between Oscar Wilde and that other wearer of multiple masks, David Bowie. Both men sought to conceal themselves behind an array of artificial personae, thereby hiding themselves from themselves, as well as from their public, preferring the seductive lie to the uncomfortable truth. Wilde and Bowie both experimented with homosexuality and both were at pains to distance themselves from it later. Wilde described his homosexuality as a “pathology,” a negative view of the “gay” lifestyle that would be considered a so-called “hate crime” in many decaying western countries today. It is, therefore, more than a little ironic that the “homosexual liberator” and “gay icon” of popular legend would have found himself in trouble with the law as a hateful “homophobe” were he alive today.
Bowie was too astute to be as forthright as Wilde in his efforts to distance himself from his dalliance with homosexuality, but he was clearly irritated when asked to discuss it by interviewers and insisted that it was just a phase he had gone through. It had coincided with the most narcissistic period of his life in which narcissism and narcotics fueled the flames of hedonistic appetite. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, it also coincided with a period in his life when he was flirting with fascism, a flirtation which lasted from the Nazi and Nietzschean nonsense on his album, Hunk Dory, in 1971, to his declaration in 1976 that “Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader” and the Nazi kitsch of the Heroes album the following year. It is, therefore, unsettling for those seeking to champion the homosexual agenda that Bowie’s homosexual period coincided with the narcotics, the narcissism and the Nazism. The last of these, by the way, is not in the least out of place in this hedonistic company. Adolf Hitler was not only one of history’s greatest narcissists, he was also an habitual user of narcotics. He was not, it would seem, a homosexual, but many of his comrades were. The original Nazi Stormtroopers, the Brownshirts, were led by the outrageously homosexual Ernst Röhm, who seems to have cultivated a homosexual sub-culture around himself, and homosexual practice was known to be rife in the S.S. during World War Two.
It would, of course, be a gross miscarriage of justice to brand Bowie as a Nazi because of the several years in which he exhibited fascist sympathies, as it would be a gross miscarriage of justice to brand him as a drug addict and coke head because of the cocaine habit that he indulged at around the same time. He grew up enough to leave these destructive beliefs and lifestyles behind. And yet, and here’s the rub, it is equally a gross miscarriage of justice to continue to refer to Bowie as a homosexual or bisexual simply because, during the time at which he was at his narcissistically nastiest, he indulged in homosexual practices. As with his other bad habits, he grew up enough to leave this destructive lifestyle behind.
The saddest thing about the life of David Bowie is not the years he spent abusing his body sexually and chemically, but the years he spent failing to see the real presence of goodness, truth, and beauty because of what might be called the myopia of masks. This myopia was exemplified in an interview he gave to the Daily Telegraph in the 1990s in which he claimed to have experienced everything that Western Civilization could offer. The very fact that he could believe such a self-evident falsehood illustrated the singular blindness with which he was afflicted throughout his life. The pathetic truth is that Bowie never experienced anything of the true life of Western Civilization, which is to be found in the great conversation which has animated it for almost three thousand years. One will search in vain in any of his work for an engagement with the works of Homer, Virgil, Boethius, Dante, Chaucer, or Shakespeare; one will search in vain for an engagement with the ideas of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas; one will search in vain for any understanding whatsoever of the Christian faith, which is the very breath of life with which Western Civilization breathes. Perhaps, most damnable of all, one will search in vain for any sign of awe in the presence of the beauty of nature.
The sorry truth is that one will find no engagement in Bowie’s work with anything older than the nineteenth century, before which, as far as Bowie is concerned, nothing seems to have existed. His work is awash with the backwash of Nietzschean arrogance, consigning itself to the nebulous nihilism of postmodern deconstruction. Although it asserts nothing because there is ultimately nothing to assert, it suggests that there is no real meaning to the cosmos and that, therefore, everything is ultimately meaningless. Bowie’s own work is, therefore, meaningless, a fact which he would presumably not deny and perhaps might take as a compliment.
The tragedy is that he chose to reject the great conversation without ever taking the time or trouble to join it. It is the arrogance of ignorance.
One does not want to be too harsh on the dead, especially the recently deceased for whom we should still be grieving, nor should one forget the human moments in his work, at which the masks are removed, albeit very briefly: such as on the track “Kooks” on Hunky Dory, in which Bowie celebrates the birth of his son in a quirky pouring forth or paternal affection; or the tracks on the later album, Black Tie White Noise, in which he wears his heart on his sleeve in songs written in the afterglow, or what might be called the honeymoon spirit, of his marriage to his second wife, Iman. These are, however, exceptions that are all too rare. For the most part Bowie hid himself from reality behind an array of ultimately meaningless masks, playing hide-and-seek with a truth he never really sought to find. This is his tragic legacy.
In closing, let’s return to the parallels between Bowie and his Victorian alter ego, Oscar Wilde.
If Oscar Wilde and David Bowie can be said to have had much in common in the manner in which they lived their lives, there is an abyss that separates the manner in which they ended them. Wilde, destitute and living in the squalor of a garret in Paris, was received into the Catholic Church on his death-bed, receiving the Last Rites of the Church and having his sins absolved. Bowie, having a net worth of around $230 million and living in opulence in his luxury New York apartment, was apparently an atheist on his death-bed and took his sins with him to the grave. Wilde died a pariah in the eyes of the world but was washed clean before he went to meet his Maker; Bowie went out in a blaze of glory in the eyes of the world but went to meet his Maker with his sins still clinging to him. Who was the richer man? Who was the winner? The answer depends very much on whether God exists. If He doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter. Wilde and Bowie are both equally dead and their lives are both equally meaningless. If He does exist, there is no doubt that Wilde died the much richer man, for, as Christ asks us, as does Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and yet loses his soul?
Post Script: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I confess to Almighty God that I have gravely sinned. Upon finishing this essay, I read it to my wife, expressing my discomfort at the harsh and even uncharitable tone with which it seemed to have been written. She agreed with my misgivings, especially the final part in which I purported to know the state of Bowie’s “apparently atheist” soul at the point of death. Could I be sure that he died impenitent, taking his sins with him to the grave? Did I know for certain that he hadn’t made his peace with God before dying?
Suitably mortified by my wife’s words of gentle rebuke, and feeling like the Pharisee in the temple looking down his holier-than-thou nose at the publican, I went back to the proverbial drawing board and did some research online, rectifying the sin of omission which had exacerbated my sin against charity. Having done so, I discovered that David Bowie had discovered a faith in God during his final illness. Telling friends a few weeks before he died that “there is something greater than all of us,” Bowie recanted his atheism, adding that “you don’t get any atheists on the battlefield.”
“Despite some of the comments David made during his career,” a family friend said, “from talking about dabbling with Christianity, Buddhism and Satanism, he reassessed everything when told he was terminally ill a year ago.”
And yet, to my surprise, I also discovered that Bowie was closer to Christianity, even in the dark days of 1976, declaring in an interview with Q Magazine in 1997, that the Station to Station album, recorded when Bowie was heavily addicted to cocaine, was “an extremely dark album,” expressive of the “miserable time” he was living through, and that the title track was a Cri de Coeur at the foot of the Cross: “The ‘Station to Station’ track is very much concerned with the Stations of the Cross,” he said. “I’ve never read a review that really sussed it.”
In an interview Bowie gave a few years later, in 2003, he revealed that he was questioning his spiritual life: “It’s because I’m not quite an atheist and it worries me…. That is the shock. All clichés are true. The years really do speed by. Life really is as short as they tell you it is. And there really is a God. Do I buy that one? If all the other clichés are true, hell, don’t pose me that one.”
Perhaps the deepest insight into the state of David Bowie’s soul at the moment of his death is to be found in the poignant words of Iman, his wife of twenty-three years, who wrote only hours before his death was announced that “the struggle is real, but so is God.” It is not difficult to imagine her whispering these words to her husband in his final moments of life.
The image of Bowie’s broken body, ravaged with cancer, brings to mind the plaintive words of Maurice Baring, the Catholic novelist and friend of G. K. Chesterton, as he suffered the debilitating effects of the Parkinson’s disease which would eventually kill him:
My body is a broken toy
Which nobody can mend
Unfit for either play or ploy
My body is a broken toy;
But all things end.
The siege of Troy
Came one day to an end.
My body is a broken toy
Which nobody can mend.
Sometime later, Baring appended a second verse, gently reprimanding himself for the earlier plaintiveness, in which he expresses the same faith as Iman that “the struggle is real, but so is God”:
My soul is an immortal toy
Which nobody can mar,
An instrument of praise and joy;
My soul is an immortal toy;
Though rusted from the world’s alloy
It glitters like a star;
My soul is an immortal toy
Which nobody can mar.
Mindful of the Divine paradox that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, let’s end, as we began, with the words of Oscar Wilde who, like David Bowie, removed all self-deceptive masks so that, on his death bed, he might be fit to see God face to face:
And thus we rust Life’s iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God’s eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone….
Ah! happy those whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?
Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.