Can a book be beautiful?

When we think about beauty these days a large number of potential objects come to mind; anything from a well-executed goal to a particularly difficult math problem may elicit the term. This has not, of course, always been the case. To the ancient world beauty was associated with the good, the true, and the divine. Form, measure, and proportion were considered crucial elements of the beautiful, and the thinking involved famously led to the creation of works of art like this (Venus de Milo from the Louvre):

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Symmetry has also long been associated with the beautiful, connected in with order and harmony. Denzel Washington is considered one of the world’s most beautiful people and it has often been said that his features are remarkably symmetrical.

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As noted, however, common usage has extended beauty much further from the purely visual; to which it was never bound anyway. It has been argued that beauty is a quality that is possessed and can be recognized, a secondary quality (that is, sensation – rather than fact – conveying, such as a color) that is observable and dependent on response. It has also been argued that beauty is not a quality but an idea, and that something that causes that idea to form in us is beautiful. This raises the question of experience, and on that we may wish to consider Monroe Beardsley’s five criteria to judge whether an experience is aesthetic or not: 1) object directedness; this is a must, and of the following four three must also be present, 2) a sense of freedom, 3) a sense of detachment, 4) discovery, and 5) wholeness. We can perhaps imagine taking this list to an art museum but possibly not to the library. There our approach to a book may be of more importance, and therefore the notion of disinterest comes to the fore. This is an idea developed by Immanuel Kant that connects pleasure with an object perceived entirely for its own sake, regardless of issues of possession or use. Arthur Schopenhauer added that removing oneself from practical concerns when engaged in such perception provides an out from the suffering that seems to ground our human nature. Our interests and desires are suspended and we engage with the beautiful purely for the sake of the beautiful. This is clearly a far more profound way of thinking about the beautiful than that behind the exclamation of “Beauty!” shouted by someone watching a hockey game. Or is it? The same root elements seem to be in play if we look hard enough.

Still, this seems far from our experience of reading. Is the manner in which we engage with a book at all like the way in which we interact with a painting, sculpture, piece of music, or photography (to name but a few)? Consider the two well-known books below; would either of them qualify as beautiful? Perhaps both? Neither?

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I would be prepared to argue that Pasternak’s does but Vonnegut’s does not. This is by no means a criticism of Vonnegut’s work nor his oeuvre generally – I am a big fan of the man’s writing -, however as a reader I find that Vonnegut’s novels and short stories are often about the characters and events contained within them rather than being expressions of the characters and events contained within them. I chose Pasternak’s work as a counterbalance here because whatever lyricism it contains such would no doubt be very largely lost in translation; there must therefore be something else to it. What I think sets Pasternak’s work and others like it apart is the way in which we the reader are led to deeply associate ourselves and our own ways of being with the protagonist(s). Even if we think the good titular doctor a romantic fool we find ourselves empathizing with his plight and the struggles he engages in to continue to express himself as a human being, as one human being, in the midst of all the externals raging around him. Even in our most prosaic moments we can feel as he does, and it is that connection that touches us the way a great painting can. Contra Schopenhauer then, or perhaps better put as Schopenhauer with a caveat, when it comes to literature as art I think that the way in to suffering (suffering with, not as) that such can provide is what qualifies the writing as beautiful, and from there, possibly, to art.

I offer the above merely as some initial thoughts on a very nuanced topic. As with all things academic there is a vast literature on the question of literature as art and I am only just beginning to scratch the surface of many of the issues involved. I would be very happy to hear counterarguments and/or other perspectives. Surely the well here is deep.

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I referenced the very accessible Key Terms in Philosophy of Art by Tiger C. Roholt (Bloomsbury, 2013) when writing this post.

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Hardware and software

One of the many beauties of self-pubbing is the full control over nearly every aspect of the project that you retain. Want to put a picture of your pet dog on the cover? Go ahead! Think that a nice chapter-long section of stream-of-consciousness rambling from your protagonist is called for? Put it in! Decide that after all you want your battle-weary hero to give in and join the enemy she’s spent the entire book fighting against? Why not! The sky’s the limit as far as content goes, and structurally you have plenty of freedom as well.

It is on that point that I wish to spend a few moments this week. When we, as writers and as readers, think about books we tend to focus on issues related to the relaying of the information that we or the writer wish(es) to get across (whether fictional or nonfiction), and beyond that we only really give a thought to cover design; and even that often enough just as an afterthought. There is more that goes into the making of a book, however, and here I naturally mean the making of real books. To borrow a metaphor from the computing world, books are the hardware and their words are the software; although it is right and good to fret and obsess over the software, why not also consider the hardware? If we are truly interested in giving readers an experience that they can’t get elsewhere it is with this aspect that we may wish to start experimenting.

Areas open to innovation beyond the crappifying effects of just dumping the text into a digital format start with the cover but don’t end there. The book’s size, paper type, image use and method of such use, type font and design, headers, footers, endnotes, appendices, all lie within your range of choice. There are limitations of course (printers will only offer a small number of paper type choices or book dimension sizes), but there is also plenty of wiggle room within those limitations. Images can be made to bleed off the page or to stop within boundaries, the font and/or layout can be shifted however you’d like to any number of times within the text’s body, and the only thing you must include on the full cover (front, spine, back) is the book’s ISBN. Why on earth stick solely with the tried and true? Imagine reading a book where suddenly, completely out of nowhere, the text flipped and then flipped back. Or one character’s thoughts are presented at the top of the page while the character they are conversing with has their thoughts at the bottom of the page and in the middle of the sandwich is the actual dialogue they are engaged in. Or a book sized to fit into your pocket that is a series of images fantastically inappropriate for public display. Such disconnects heighten the experience of reading and are limited only by the creativity and boldness of their creator(s).

It helps with all this not to be (overly) motivated by money for what is new – really new – is often met with resistance. We here at DSB write for the love of it (which is one of the reasons our site is so wonderfully free of ads) but we realize that our day jobs afford us a degree of luxury in that regard that others might not have. Ours is an imperfect world, and the modern artist is only very rarely rewarded and more often used; practical concerns will always weigh in at some point. C’est la vie. Or, if you prefer, a finger in the air and the determination to express yourself come what may. Self-pubbing has made that possible, the rest is now up to us.

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Touring the Garden

We call it “the Garden of Earthly Delights.” But we have no idea what name the artist Jheronimus Bosch intended for it. He died 500 years ago in April, and for all I know, perhaps exactly 500 years to the moment I clicked on the link to enter the new website dedicated to his masterpiece. It was like I was seeing his painting for the first time. I’m guessing that anyone who is reading this brief blog will recognize Bosch’s famous panel painting, called a triptych. Do yourself a favor: take the tour and then feel free to wander around a bit. Zoom in on the three-headed bird. Take a gander at the duck-fish cloaked and reading a book.

Every patch and corner of his paradise, earth, and hell has some eye-catching detail. Throughout the tour the narrator provides some interesting tidbits about the social background of Bosch. But the power of a timeless imagination is testified to here. And I’m wondering, now that I’ve spent a good chunk of time getting lost in Bosch’s figures, if others will agree with me that what Blake wrote about Milton might also be true here. “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it!”

I didn’t have the space in my last blog to clarify what Blake is up to with that quote. He certainly doesn’t mean (just as I never meant to imply similar things when writing about Bowie and Lucifer) that Milton dressed up in dark robes, sacrificed infants and drank their blood. Blake’s lines were intended as literary criticism, explaining why the scenes with Satan in Books I and II of Paradise Lost are so powerful and the counterparts in heaven so dull. So it is clear he meant that something about evil, villains, and hell seems to inspire the best works in great artists.

I couldn’t help thinking this was true of Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” The left side Paradise panel has beauty and vibrancy. And the center Earth panel has both of those aspects and more. But the scenes of Hell, once seen, are unforgettable. In appreciating Bosch’s painting, we vote with our eyes. So despite our expected and universal claim of preferring heaven, we can’t take our eyes off of hell.

 

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Mark Twain and marketing

In a very difficult decision my family and I recently moved out of Tokyo and into the southern hinterlands of the country, but before we left that glorious capital I was able to sneak in one last visit to a used books bookstore, and what I found was something remarkable indeed.

In a thin little volume, more of an essay really, I came across a charge that never in a million years would have occurred to me: that Mark Twain (real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens) was on the take, a corporate shill. The book, published in 1963, is titled 「隠れている真実: トウェーンと資本主義」 (A Hidden Truth: Twain and Capitalism) and was written by a former professor of American Literature at the University of Tokyo by the name of Shuntarou Tanaka. In it Tanaka details his claim that Tom Sawyer was perhaps the very first example of a writer being paid by a business interest to subtly influence the public with the express intent of increasing sales, employing the type of minutiae in support of his argument that literature scholars in particular are exemplars of. It is put forward that the whole book is structured around the famous fence painting scene, and that in fact that scene alone was the point of the entire novel – the company providing Twain with his financial backing was purportedly one Housepaints of America Incorporated. All of the rest of Tom’s adventures, it seems, were put there to be entertaining enough so that the directive of the importance of frequent and thorough home painting would get through without being overtly obvious.

I was shocked. The evidence mustered to support the claim was rich and far-reaching, but it seemed to fly in the face of everything I thought I knew about the man and the messages he intended to put across by his writing. Here was an author widely known for being ahead of his time on a host of progressive issues, even vivisection, and to have championed social changes that could hardly have been said to be popular at the time. I do not mean to say that with every advancing year human society is getting better and better – such a strictly linear view surely misses out on too much of the back and forth a study of history reveals – but most of us would likely now agree that Twain was nevertheless right about issues such as anti-imperialism, civil rights, and a more broad-minded approach to religion. Yet here he was underhandedly hustling house paints. Certainly that must be a mismatch?

Well, perhaps each individual is more than he or she seems, and perhaps what goes on in the minds of even those we hold up to be heroes are mysteries darker and more opaque than we could admit or even wish to know. Twain did have his money problems and it might simply be that he saw penning The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a simple, and maybe also fun, way out of his difficulties. The amount Tanaka has him receiving for his efforts comes to around $50,000 in today’s money; that’s one heck of an advance for a writer in any age. Still, there’s something very disturbing about this master satirist turning a novel into little more than a subliminal message to pad a CEO’s wallet, a great classic turning out to be a billboard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

April Fools!! Did I get you? 🙂

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Postscript: Bowie and Lucifer

“We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar,” says producer Tony Visconti. “The goal was to avoid rock & roll”

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The wings of Coincidence flutter about me again. I had a bit more to say on the topic of Bowie and Lucifer so I decided to prepare a postscript to my previous two-part blog. But first I wanted to look up Kendrick Lamar. It was on my to-do list ever since I read an article about Bowie’s new album Blackstar in December of last year. In that article long-time Bowie collaborator and Blackstar producer, Tony Visconti, dropped the name of an artist I was not familiar with.

Curious about what might have drawn the dying Bowie to a young hip-hop artist, I went to YouTube to have a look. That was about an hour ago. There I clicked on the first Kendrick Lamar video I saw. Around 00:57 of that song I got, what? a kick? a jolt? a gift? Whatever Coincidence dips her arrows in. From Lamar’s “Alright” I heard: Found myself screaming in the hotel room. Lucifer was all around me.

Visconti and Bowie do not mention this song specifically but it hardly matters: Lucy (aka Lucifer) is a recurrent trope throughout Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly (2015). They may have been mentioning his work out of admiration, or a sense of solidarity over the evils of Show Biz and all its trappings, or even as a sly tip referring us back to what’s underlying the lyrics of Blackstar. Maybe all of the above.

Let’s take another look at the title song on Blackstar. As I mentioned last post, there is some evidence which suggests that references to Lucifer, the fallen angel who became Satan, are embedded in the lyrics: “How many times does an angel fall? How many people lie instead of talking tall?” Those lines might also be connected to later ones: “We were born upside down (I’m a star’s star)/ Born the wrong way ’round (I’m not a white star).” Upside down and the wrong way ’round, perhaps not more than mildly suggestive. But we’ll come back to them.

We have to jump to another song, Lazarus, on the same album to see anything more conclusive. That song starts with, “Look up here, I’m in heaven”. Those first two verses bear the weight of terminal illness, private suffering, and the irrelevance of fame to his dire situation. But the third verse struck me at first as a false note:

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By the time I got to New York

I was living like a king

Then I used up all my money

I was looking for your ass

Isn’t it jarring to feel it shift from 1st person to 3rd here? Who is he addressing? Whose ass? The immediate impression of sense is sexual. But taking some time away from the song to read other things and reflect back on this verse, I’ve reached a conclusion that is at least satisfying to myself. Remember the famous scene in Dante’s Inferno, where Virgil leads them out of hell through a hole in the lake of ice encasing Satan: “When we had come to where the thigh joint turns, just at the swelling of the haunch.” In other words, in Dante’s Inferno, the way out of hell is next to Satan’s ass. So when Bowie sings, “Then I used up all my money/ I was looking for your ass”, is he referring to the wild days of cocaine addiction, sexual abandon, creative superabundance, and the life of stardom? It’s not much of a stretch to see he is playing ironically with his personal biography here.

The next verse has two lines which lead, where else? back to Satan: “This way or no way/ You know, I’ll be free”. If there is another literary work with Satan in it which is more famous than even Dante’s Inferno, it must be Milton’s Paradise Lost. In that epic poem, specifically Books I and II, the figure of Satan is so majestic, darkly magnificent, and heroic that after reading one is compelled to agree with the famous words of William Blake, ‘The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it‘. Bowie’s brief lines work as an apt paraphrase of words spoken by Milton’s Satan in Book I:

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. 
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence: 
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n. (l. 262)

Finally, and I must be brief because I’m running out of space, there is the issue of Blackstar played backwards. Oh, I could just feel you rolling your eyes! Before we look at what comes up with a backwards playback (recall “Born upside down, born the wrong way ’round”) we should ask a pertinent question: Are there grounds for even considering such a move? Finding secret messages in songs played backwards is a common cultural device. A vast majority of the speculation could be ludicrous nonsense, but the fact is that the speculation is well known. Bowie was certainly aware of the talk about other band’s songs (the Beatles included) being played backwards. And according to the Wikipedia page for Bowie’s album Lodger (1979), “Move On” was lyrically Bowie’s ode to his own wanderlust [and] sonically his earlier classic “All the Young Dudes‘ played backwards.”

So what do we get from a backwards Blackstar? You can listen to one here without commentary. But if like me you are running short on time, I’ll give you the quick and dirty: the line, “At the center of it all”, which is repeated several times in the song played normally, comes out backwards as, “livré à Lucifer” (around 07:00). That’s French for “given over to Lucifer.” Is this hogwash, homage, or literary allusion? Or perhaps it’s the artist’s tip of the cap to his shadowy muse, as a way of saying, so long and thanks for all the songs?

 

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The book as thought

Prepare for a rambling post.

I will be the first to admit that my tastes are likely outside the mainstream when it comes to entertainment, and particularly regarding pace. I like slow and detailed stories; thrillers do nothing for me, even if I find myself caught up in one I end up bored which is pretty much the opposite of what the writer intended. I similarly have little time for action and find that many action scenes in both books and movies add nothing to the overall plot even if they do succeed in making me feel tense briefly. But then I ask myself why I would want to feel tense briefly and move on to something else. Comedy I do like, especially when it’s smart or very ridiculous, but there we have something different, something that has transcended entertainment. Hit pause.

Modern life is filled with entertainment, to the extent that even our politics has now become little more than that. Aristotle would shudder at what we call “politics” and he was the guy that labelled humans as zoon politikon – the political animal – building it right into the definition of what we are. (What does how we do politics say about the type of creatures we have become since his time? There are good and bad aspects to be found in answering that, to be sure, but rather we continue.) So all has become entertainment, a turning away, a chasing after pleasant distractions. Is that so unlike previous generations? Perhaps not, but there were outlets for previous generations that offered more than just passing enjoyments and they were often called “books”.

Unpause. I think that our approach to books (and to the writing of books) has shifted significantly in the past century, speeding up since the fall of the Soviet Union and the presumed victory of a certain (rather hollow at its core) ideology. Without doubt there has been plenty of pulp to be read ever since writing began to be used for more than just keeping track of how much grain was in a silo but in my view the pulp has now become the vast majority of what is produced with all the rest marginalized. I do not think I’m alone in holding this view. Blame movies if you like, blame the internet, blame smartphones, blame Suzy Creamcheese next door and her outrageous v-neck sweaters; the point is that we no longer look to books to challenge our thinking but rather simply to coddle us as we sit on a bus or train or have a nice long lie-in on a Sunday morning. This does the idea of a book a tremendous disservice.

If we are simply looking for a good yarn there are a myriad options surrounding us at all times, many of them requiring much less effort than it takes to read a book. We might not like who we encounter in books, as I remarked last week we might not even like who are writing when we set about making a book, but in discovering that we find a chance for personal growth as we reflect on the character, their traits and actions, and on our reactions to them. In the best traditions books have challenged social mores and existing cultural practices and/or trajectories, they have made us think and left us different than they found us when we set them down. Pure entertainment will never be able to accomplish that. Instead of approaching books as mere pastimes, then, I suggest that we view them – and select them – as training, as a means of strengthening those important muscles between our ears and in the center left of our chests. If the content of a book can do that then the logo on its spine will hardly matter.

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On vanity

My sister-in-law was visiting with her kids (three girls) this week and the whole brood plus my wife and daughter took a trip to Tokyo Disneyland on Sunday. I was mercifully spared that and spent the day instead at the National Museum of Western Art in Ueno Park. The permanent gallery – which is what I went to see – was unfortunately closed for renovations but there was a special exhibit on Caravaggio being held to celebrate the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Japan and Italy. (Not that long, I know, but don’t forget about that whole Shogunate closed-doors period they had here.) There I had a most fortuitous encounter.

Narcissus (1599) stopped me in my tracks and I stared at it for many long minutes, particularly at the eyes and forehead, as bunches of people shuffled behind, in front of (annoyingly), and into (more annoyingly) me while I stood there frozen in place. See the below to get a shadowy impression of what this great painting might feel like hung on a wall in front of you. 300px-Narcissus-Caravaggio_(1594-96)_edited

The lad’s face is pensiveness itself, wordlessly expressing fascination, satisfaction, longing, as he is locked in the spotlight cycle of himself, all else in the painting – and surely his world – dark, unacknowledged, absent. If ever there were to be chosen a single image of the human condition this must rank amongst the top choices.

Writers will often lovingly gaze into the pool of their own reflections as well; the trend is so ubiquitous that it almost seems pointless to list examples. Simply to have an image in mind for the remainder then let’s start and stop with James Joyce. Got the image settled? Great. Now, many who create will consider themselves more highly than they ought to as they go through life, and in hindsight some of them would have been arguably right to do so, but that is not what I wish to discuss. Instead I want to look at character building by way of such self-gazing.

As I mentioned a few months back I have recently undertaken a massive new project (yes that last link is a joke!). In that post (and note Paul’s comment on it as well) I described my idea of taking some elements from myself for my main character. A tried and true method, to be sure, and nothing particularly worth dwelling on. How that’s developed has been quite interesting, though. Almost at once my character took off away from me and developed the self-born tendencies I had laid in him in peculiar and unforeseen ways. He became someone wholly other, and no one I would like to spend much time with. Mind you, stating that is neither a cry for help nor a starter to stretching out on the psychiatrist’s sofa, it is a comment on the strange manner of quasi (almost?) life that fictional characters go through. It is a testament to our human powers of creativity. He is growing and, with what I’m putting him through, developing into a person that I would like to meet in the flesh, but he is not there yet. How can I speak of a character in a story this way, as if he were real? In large part because he is real in the sense that he has been born of me, my experiences in the world, my thoughts on those experiences, and how I imagine another like him might respond to the (fictional) experiences he confronts in his (fictional) world. Pebbles were thrown into the pool I was gazing into when I began to write and my reflection warped as the waves hit, changed shape, took on new features, and then – astonishingly – climbed out and dried himself off, with a backwards wave farewell as he strode down the path I had come by. What started with my inward eye turned into something altogether new and that process has been a joy; and a struggle. Certainly Joyce knew this, certainly every writer worth their stripes does. How fascinating this is, and how fortunate we are to be a part of it, to see these lives take their time in the sun and to co-create with our self-figments as they arise from within.

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Wondering about Bowie

I wrote last week about the difficult pleasure of trying to interpret David Bowie’s songs. Some people probably think it’s pointless to try and find any meaning in his lyrics in the first place because of his famous “cut-up” method for generating lines. And others would argue in a general way that all art is beyond summary, beyond coherence. I don’t agree. I think one aspect of a great song, or poem, or story, is its ability to keep us curious, in a state of questioning and searching, always willing to come back to have another look.

Now, just because a song might not have any single, definite meaning doesn’t mean interpretation is a free-for-all. I got a chuckle out of an excellent video from 1980 with Johnny Carson introducing Bowie: “He’s going to do two songs for us tonight about space.” He wasn’t trying to be funny. But whatever these songs are about, space is certainly not one of the possibilities. Life On Mars is the first one and you can judge for yourself what’s going on in the song. The second one, Ashes To Ashes, is more mysterious and open to interpretation.

What follows is a somewhat outlandish reading of mine that connects the lyrics of Ashes To Ashes (1980) with some of the new Blackstar lines, treating his career like one giant cut-up song. First, here is a verse and chorus from Ashes To Ashes:

Time and again I tell myself
I’ll stay clean tonight
But the little green wheels are following me
Oh no, not again

I’m stuck with a valuable friend
“I’m happy, hope you’re happy too”
One flash of light

But no smoking pistol
I never done good things
I never done bad things
I never did anything out of the blue

Want an axe to break the ice
Wanna come down right now

Ashes to ashes, fun to funky
We know Major Tom’s a junkie
Strung out in heaven’s high
Hitting an all-time low

Notice the play on dichotomies good/bad, high/low. The standard interpretation taken from the lyrics and what Bowie has said in interviews is that the song is about living with addiction. No argument here. But the lines, “Want an axe to break the ice/ Wanna come down right now”, make me wonder if it could be about more. By sheer coincidence I was rereading Dante’s Inferno around the time that Bowie died. There is a fantastic scene near the end of the poem, in Canto 34, where Dante and Virgil witness Satan beating his giant wings as he is encased in a lake of ice. Once he was the archangel Lucifer who rebelled against God. But now Satan beats his wings in an attempt to free himself from his icy prison, and the act of beating his wings creates frigid gusts that cause the ice to harden, securing his imprisonment.

Virgil shows Dante the way out of hell. Here is a prose translation of that Canto:

I clasped his neck, as he wished, and he seized the time and place, and when the wings were wide open, grasped Satan’s shaggy sides, and then from tuft to tuft, climbed down, between the matted hair and frozen crust.

When we had come to where the thigh joint turns, just at the swelling of the haunch, my guide, with effort and difficulty, reversed his head to where his feet had been, and grabbed the hair like a climber, so that I thought we were dropping back to Hell. ‘Hold tight,’ said my guide, panting like a man exhausted, ‘since by these stairs, we must depart from all this evil.’ Then he clambered into an opening in the rock, and set me down to sit on its edge, then turned his cautious step towards me.

I raised my eyes, thinking to see Lucifer as I had left him, but saw him with his legs projecting upwards, and let those denser people, who do not see what point I had passed, judge if I was confused then, or not.

Up becomes down. Down becomes up. Is Bowie referring to this situation, this “ice” in Ashes To Ashes? Another line from Blackstar (2016) baffled me at first, but now I think there might be a connection: “How many times does an angel fall?” The most famous angel who ever fell is Lucifer. So there is a good chance he’s talking about the Major Tom figure in the video who falls from the heavens in the song’s foreground. I can’t prove any connection between songs, between Dante and Bowie, between any lines of the songs. But it makes me wonder. How many singers can make you do that?

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Listening to Bowie: the playful dichotomies

David Bowie keeps getting more and more interesting. Never mind that he died on January 10 this year. Good works don’t die, and death doesn’t seem to have done anything to dull the luster of his songs. If literary immortality means achieving the kind of life now shared by the likes of Dante Alighieri and William Blake, Bowie might be somewhere in heaven. Time will tell. But my guess is that readers and listeners will keep coming back to Bowie to get what we get when we read a great poem, play, or story. What makes him so darn interesting? A thousand things. But in this two-part blog I will focus on just two. This brief section will focus on one feature of his songs on the latest Blackstar album, and next week’s post will explore the thematic connection between Bowie and Lucifer. Yes, that Lucifer.

One aspect of Bowie’s Blackstar songs works like an intellectual teaser: his playing with dichotomies. Before I get into the lyrics, I’d like to cite an example of this kind of writing in another songwriter. Here are a few lines from Bob Dylan’s Idiot Wind (1974):

What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good/ You’ll find out when you reach the top, you’re on the bottom

I bet Bowie would love those lines. Everybody thinks they know what “good” and “bad” mean, and the same with “top” and “bottom”. But the singer has news for you. The effect of playing with these dichotomies is to invite interpretation. When we ask, “What does it mean?”, we have started the journey. Is the song about fame, gender identity, or perhaps some kind of spiritual awareness? The artist’s job, when making good works, is to keep the reader/listener coming back for more. Some people claim that the real meaning of Bowie’s lyrics is meaninglessness, but that seems like a cul-de-sac to me. A dead and deadening destination. In that case, no one would keep coming back for more.

The final song on Blackstar, I Can’t Give Everything Away, seems to invite the interpretation of meaninglessness. Here is the relevant verse:

Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent

One is tempted to conclude, “There you go, he said it: his lyrics don’t mean anything.” But is that what the verse means? Isn’t it an ironic play on the dichotomies yes/no, more/less, saying/meaning? Seeing meaninglessness here is to err as a result of being hasty. It makes me think of the line from French author Andre’ Gide: “Please do not understand me too quickly.”

To point out an obvious fact, song verses are not built like rational arguments. So conclusions have to be put on hold, perhaps indefinitely. What does Blake’s “Tyger” mean? Or, in another Blake poem, what is “the invisible worm/ That flies in the night/ in the howling storm”? Who is to say a poem, or story, or song, should have one, and just one, meaning?

In the limited space I have left, I’d like to look at another song off Blackstar that plays with dichotomies and seems to lure us into interpretation. This verse comes from the title song which is represented as a non-verbal symbol, Blackstar:

I can’t answer why (I’m not a gangstar)
But I can tell you how (I’m not a film star)
We were born upside-down (I’m a star’s star)
Born the wrong way ‘round (I’m not a white star)

What does it mean to be “born upside-down” and “the wrong way ’round”? It’s suggestive on multiple levels, but one message I see in it relates to conventional thinking. Just as in Dylan’s “what’s good is bad, what’s bad is good”, the singer is inviting us to think again (about anything and everything), be open to truths we might reject at first glance, and harness the energy that comes with kicking against the pricks. As with much of Bowie, I can’t tell what the verse means, but I know what it suggests.

 

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Speculative writing

There is a long and involved section of René Descartes’ A Discourse on the Method (self-published (as we would label the process now) in 1637) in which he discusses the workings of the heart (as in the organ, not an allusion to emotions; it is found in Part Five). Dense pages-long paragraphs describe in minute detail what valves are to be found where, their purpose, how much blood enters each chamber and what happens to it while there, where the blood is then sent after leaving the heart, how the whole process works and what the purpose of it all is. Needless to say he was wrong about quite a lot of it but we can admire his attempt. (Incidentally, William Harvey, whose account Descartes praises but differs with, is considered to have rightly set the stage for the picture provided by modern medicine.)

In working my way through all this, for little reason other than pure stubbornness, I started to think tangentially about speculative writing. Such is of course most common, but not limited to, the main strains of science fiction. Writers such as Frank Herbert and Hamish Spiers project a world vastly different from our own and give us stories about how the inhabitants of that world interact and pursue their goals within the confines of their situations. Often these stories will include imaginative technologies that are in some ways extensions of current technological developments and/or trends. (On some other types of science fiction than the very rough sketch of one type here see this post on Hamish’s site.) Like Descartes’ notions about the heart many of these descriptions will likely prove to be wrong, and perhaps fantastically so. Still, they provide the necessary setting for the events contained in the books, so does being wrong really matter?

Ours is an age obsessed with science and being empirically correct. We are reluctant to make claims that we can’t prove with observation and data and are prone to thinking that we “know” more from such methods than might actually be the case, a point I tried to raise when discussing recent research into the science of creativity here. This could well be to our detriment. By thinking only in terms of what is “known” and “provable” we significantly limit our field of view and, for this reason and others, can come to rely on technology as the answer for every one of our social ills. Human society is a creation that we are all continually contributing to and we do ourselves a disservice by allowing how we might choose to live to be hemmed in by contemporary circumstances or expectations. As for life, for writing.

Personally I applaud adventurous novels like those Hamish has written. As mentioned above, however the real world might come to look what is most important for the imagined futures (or pasts, or presents as occurring far, far away) in these works is the manner in which they contribute to the stories being told and the lives of the characters therein. The more imaginative, the more speculative we allow ourselves to be, and the more freely we cause our characters to act, the more we are able to explore what it is to be human – that is, to explore the workings of the heart.

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