Major Tom’s Magic Tricks

Of all the celebrities who died this month, David Bowie left the stage with the greatest eloquence. The collective outpouring of emotion at the news when he died surprised me at first. I mean, I remember liking “Modern Love” back in 1980-whatever, but that’s all I knew of him until a week ago, when I watched his two last and latest videos, “Lazarus” and “Blackstar.” Then I said, Oh.

“Lazarus,” intensely personal and inward, shows a mortal human, a desperate man facing his own death. It’s set indoors, much of it with the main character (played by Bowie) lying in a hospital bed. Let’s call this figure Bed Bowie. Sometimes an alternate version of this character (also played by Bowie) appears, standing or sitting, wearing a dark blue shirt and pants with parallel white slashes painted across the front of the clothes, much like Bowie wore on the cover of one of his old albums where he drew a Kabbalah — a magical Tree-of-Life schematic from Jewish mysticism. We could call this figure in the video Old Bowie, because he’s clearly not young anymore and because he represents the Bowie of old. Old Bowie, the aging magician, is Bed Bowie’s image of himself as an artist.

Old Bowie dances and writes in the video, but his dancing seems desperate, defiant, probably painful. He writes at a desk maniacally, a pathetic figure with an exaggerated sense of his own importance. He’s a shape-shifter whose illusions don’t dazzle the way they once did, a trickster whose jokes everyone knows. But at least he can see. Bed Bowie half-floats beneath his blanket, his arms straining to swim through the air, mummy-like bandages over his eyes. Beady black buttons sewn to the bandaging make a hideous parody of vision. Bed Bowie is blind, immobilized, terrified, trapped in a failing body.

The video ends with a chilling image of Old Bowie, wide-eyed and unblinking, shuffling backward with palsied, jerky movements, into the shadows of an empty wardrobe like the one that leads to Narnia. He pulls the door closed behind him. Then he’s gone, even though he was imaginary and unreal to start with. It’s over, it’s all over, and you cry for a stranger you suddenly feel you know so well who doesn’t even actually exist.

But the song is called “Lazarus,” after a man Jesus raises from the dead in the Christian Bible. Lazarus is a man Jesus loves (John 11: 3). A man Jesus says has merely fallen asleep, metaphorically speaking (John 11:11). When Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, Lazarus walks out with a cloth around his face, reminiscent of the bandages Bed Bowie wears in the video (John 11:44). Lazarus is a creepy, ironic, yet hopeful name to claim.

“Blackstar,” on the other hand, opens wide — as vast and cosmic as “Lazarus” is introspective. If “Lazarus” asks the question, “What goes on inside of me?”, “Blackstar” asks, “What goes on out there?” “Blackstar” is set in outer space, on at least one alien planet, with rocky moonscapes, fields of tall turquoise grasses, a distant silhouetted city of stone. The video takes place after the death of an astronaut, obviously Major Tom, whose body is now reduced to a gem-encrusted skull and a headless skeleton that drifts toward a black star. A star that died. A star whose light shines no more. Just like Bowie.

The otherworldly vocals engage cosmic issues, too: “I’m the Great I Am (I’m a blackstar).” This video is about that which is ever vaster, greater, more unfathomable, that which many people refer to as God. When Bowie appears here, in this mysterious place after and outside earthly life, he wears an old-fashioned black suit coat like a charismatic nineteenth-century preacher-prophet. He holds high an old, worn-out (like him) book of scripture, with of course a black star on the cover, but he’s looking past the book — his expression searches the distance. Once Bowie the Body is gone, what’s left is Bowie the Eternal, Bowie the Prophet. Sometimes, though, this figure also wears the eye bandages with button eyes, like Bed Bowie in “Lazarus.” He alternates between blindness and vision.

“Blackstar” ends with three braided events. A circle of women in plain dresses, led by a priestess with amulets, conducts a ceremony around the gem-encrusted skull, perhaps a ritual to ease the soul’s passage. At the same time, a shamanic figure in a costume of bells, horns, and long ropy hair seems to attack three tortured scarecrows on crosses in the turquoise field, all while Bowie the Prophet, blind behind the bandages again, slowly sinks toward the ground.

So “Lazarus” emphasizes the secular and psychological, “Blackstar,” the religious and spiritual, but really the two intertwine and talk to each other constantly, inextricably, like psychology and spirituality do in real life.

This barely brushes the layers of meaning and detail in these videos. The point is Bowie made them, then he died. His star went out. But when I watch the videos, he seems so present, so alive in all his many guises, in every single scene, that it’s difficult to comprehend he’s actually dead. Reality’s edges blur, in part thanks to the videos’ surreal imagery. Women with cat tails seem real, ghoulish scarecrows writhing on crosses seem real, but Bowie’s death seems impossible, make-believe. That makes death itself seem make-believe, preposterous. At the same time, Bowie truly is dead, so imaginary death feels real too, which makes imagination feel real!

See the rabbit that popped out of the hat? Persuasive images of the unreal drain the persuasive power out of the spell of reality. This phenomenon is a powerful weapon in the arsenal of marketers, politicians, and religious figures, who constantly try to convince us that the things they make up are literally true. But it’s also a tool in the artist’s and metaphysician’s bag of metaphor tricks, suggesting that there’s more to the universe than meets the eye, that reality is bigger and more mysterious that our physical senses admit.

Bowie could not have created these astonishing videos without the company of his own imminent mortality. Their poignancy and urgency draw energy directly from his own process of dissolution and death. I love how Bowie engages with those ferocious forces. His parting gift to the world isn’t so much the music or the images as it is his demonstration of how to express one’s longing, desperation, imagination. By giving voice and form to all that powerful emotion, Bowie had to have loosened some of its hold on him. More importantly, his art introduces a radical, new form of energy into what would otherwise be the quintessential draining of energy. His creativity energizes his death, making what would otherwise seem senseless pregnant with meaning.

In “Lazarus,” Bowie sings, “This way or no way / You know, I’ll be free.” He didn’t know how he’d be free, but he knew that he would. He released the album Blackstar on his birth-day, two days before his death-day. The album was born, its maker died. The cover even looks like a stylized headstone, with the big black star and the name “Bowie” spelled out graphically in star parts below. The work and the timing certainly suggest that he wondered how death might also function as a birth, or as in the Lazarus story, a prelude to being woken, in who knows what way, by powers unfathomably vaster than his temporal self.

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“This is the eternal origin of art…”

“This is the eternal origin of art that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul’s creative power. What is required is a deed that a man does with his whole being: if he commits it and speaks with his being the basic word to the form that appears, then the creative power is released and the work comes into being.”

– Martin Buber, I and Thou, p. 60

Wars and Stories

Last weekend I went to a matinee. The lights dimmed, previews began, and two last people entered the theater, yelling. They sat near the front, still shouting, over and over: “JUST WANNA SEE THE MOVIE! JUST WANNA SEE THE MOVIE!” They weren’t shouting at each other or at anyone else, but at the theater, at the world, who knows. They mentally waged war with something invisible.

At the time, though, my whole body tense, I only thought, “Are they armed? What guns could they have? Is this it? Do we hit the deck and hope to live? Door, where’s the door?” I ignored the screen, leaning forward in my chair and straining to focus on what was going on in front through the strobe of the film — bright and dark, bright and dark — and the din of gunfire, explosions, a sweeping orchestral soundtrack. At last the police arrived and escorted the shouters from the theater, forcibly, over the running movie. I’ve never felt so relieved to see the cops.

lights at the whitneyFinally I watched the show. I tried to relax. This was supposed to be fun, after all —  Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the epitome of a feel-good adventure film. So I watched. I watched. I kept watching, but I did not relax. Every scene with blasters seemed a thinly veiled mass shooting (San Bernadino, Colorado Springs, Charleston), every scene with weaponized spacecraft an aerial bombardment (Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan). After a brush with the possibility of real-world violence, I couldn’t see the movie as anything but glossed-up news footage.

An irrational response? Or had reality burned away the veil of compliant hypnosis I would have worn otherwise? The one that says, Yes, a galaxy far away! Sweep me into this fictive dream, away from the mundane world! Instead of that sweetly stoned feeling of escapism, I felt hollow. I felt ill. I wondered what the victims of actual trauma experience during this kind of entertainment.

But it’s all just cartoon violence, right? Good, clean fun for kids? Maybe, except more adults than children filled that theater. And the movie boasts the biggest grossing opening night of all time so far. This material makes a major impact on our culture, and as I sat there in shock in the theater, I became acutely aware of the film’s simplistic ideas about good and evil, right and wrong, “light” and “dark” — value-laden, racist terms that have no correlation to the real world. Is sleep worse than waking? Is night worse than day? Does skin tone affect the worth of a soul? But the imagery of Star Wars tells us to draw a sharp line between two sides, to love the “light” and fear the “dark.”

Blake_The_BlasphemerEven while watching the film I felt the blasphemous nature of my thoughts. How dare I question the world of Han Solo! Of Luke Skywalker, the hero’s journey, spiritual guidance for our times! Surely I violated some unwritten rule, betrayed a sacred trust. But that’s an interesting word, blasphemy. To blaspheme, you first need dogma from which to deviate. You have to believe something is true and right, regardless of evidence and rational analysis. Jediism is, in fact, a religion in the UK. This made-up, for-profit story is as susceptible to ideology and fundamentalism as any religion.

Speaking of religion, for the ancient Greeks, the god Ares ruled the physical act of fighting. When called upon to do battle, Ares, like Star Wars, excels at hand-to-hand combat. Ares-at-war and this film share the ethos, “Kill or be killed.” Both demand winners and losers. Both fetishize weapons — blasters (guns) and sabers of “light” (swords) which, because they’re made of light, must be “good” killing tools. Both, if they don’t like someone or something, shoot ’em, slash ’em, or blow ’em up. Even the name of Star Wars’s spirituality — “the Force” — militarizes metaphysics. “May Ares be with you,” the characters could say. Star Wars: Ares Awakens.

The Greeks related to Ares differently than Star Wars does, though. They didn’t only call on him in times of war. They also asked him for protection from their own inclination to fight. The Homeric Hymn to Ares closes like this:

“…diminish that deceptive rush
of my spirit, and restrain
that shrill voice in my heart
that provokes me
to enter the chilling din of battle.
You, happy god,
give me courage,
let me linger
in the safe laws of peace,
and thus escape
from battles with enemies
and the fate of a violent death.”

aresIn other words, Ares can prevent people from flipping out and wreaking havoc. He provides the courage to choose to get along. The strength of the warrior can work on behalf of the complex, nuanced, creative work of peace-making.

Everyone in the theater just wanted to see the movie, but an inner battle prevented those two disturbers-of-the-peace from realizing they could. No one blocked their view. If they could have set down their mental blasters and light sabers, they could have had their wish. It makes me wonder what other deep desires wait right in front of us, freely available, when the deceptive rush of our spirits diminishes.

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located…”

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them…. [I]f they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

— C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”

In the Service of Hermes

When I moved to Santa Barbara, one of my friends asked me if I’d like to work as a guide for her events company, shepherding groups of visitors around to various destinations. A guide? I thought. For travelers? Something gleamed at the corner of my eye, like a golden, winged sandal whizzing past. My friend continued: I’d have to beguile the visitors with stories about the area, and I’d have my phone pretty much grafted onto my hand to receive and relay last-minute changes to itineraries. I couldn’t help but think of Hermes — the guide of souls, patron of travelers, the speedy, talkative (text-)messenger of the gods. How about it? he seemed to whisper. I said, “Absolutely.”

Photo by Michal Maňas, via Wikimedia Commons
By Michal Maňas, via Wikimedia Commons

So I’ve been playing mother duck, leading visiting executives around. Hermes relishes hanging out with all that money. He’s the god of commerce and thieves, after all, and his sandals and caduceus are made of gold. I love how the two serpents climb that winged wand, moving together, moving apart, moving together, moving apart, always in perfect synchrony. They rise in tandem as though lifting each other. Serpents symbolize fear, but also wisdom and rebirth. In the caduceus, they transcend their limitations; they rise up off the ground toward the golden wings. An image of evolution, they even look like the double helix of DNA. But they climb the magic wand of a god, so they also suggest the dazzling surprise of psychological and spiritual growth. Soul evolution. And their image has a unique form of gender fluidity — phallic, but also sinuous and circular. They side-slip all attempts to label them as masculine or feminine. Their relationship is a relationship of two, that’s all the image says.

Anyway, one night last week, after I guided a board of directors during the day, another friend asked me to go with her to get her first tattoo. I picked her up and drove her to an ink den straight out of central casting: everything in black and red, unshaven but heavily tattooed personnel, a gluey residue coating the binders of clip art. The tattooist scheduled to draw on my friend hadn’t shown up because someone else who worked there died that day. They assigned another tattooist to my friend, a gentleman of maybe 60 wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt and coke-bottle glasses with thick black rims. He injected ink (subcutaneously) into my friend’s foot (the lowest part of her body) until a dragon appeared there (a creature that inhabits caves and underground lairs). Down, down, down I went, from the luxurious realm of CEOs, into the earthen underworld. Meanwhile three other tattooists sat in a circle talking about their dead colleague, tallying up the many people they knew or knew of who died from combining Xanax and alcohol. Beside them lay a giant black dog, part Great Dane, part elephant, all black, all the way. I almost called him Cerberus.

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Hermes, by the way, is the only Olympian authorized to visit the underworld. He guides souls around the earthly plane, sure, but more importantly he leads them to the kingdom of Persephone and Hades when it’s time to make that journey.

Once, maybe a year ago, I attended a writing group where we did a free-writing exercise about a childhood memory. I wrote about my old imaginary friends, and one of the other participants, a woman in her late sixties or early seventies, said, “That reminds me of my daughter’s imaginary friend, who only showed up when she was seven years old and in the hospital. She said his name was Hermy, and he came over to her room from the cemetery across the street.” I said, “Wow, that makes me think of the Greek god Hermes, the guide of souls.” The woman blinked at me, startled.

After the meeting she chased me down outside and spoke urgently, in an undertone: “Hermy stayed with her all the way until the end. She died the next year. She was eight.” She insisted that her daughter had no access to Greek mythology, would have had no possible way of reading or hearing about it.

Antonio da Correggio, Mercury in "The Education of Eros" [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Antonio da Correggio, Mercury in “The Education of Eros” [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Coincidence? If so, it’s a coincidence drenched with meaning. Maybe there’s a logical, linear, cause-and-effect explanation for a little girl’s imagination providing her with a friend and helper named Hermy, from a graveyard, at that time in her short life, and for her mother finding out decades later that the image of this friend has resonance far beyond her family’s experience. Meanwhile the woman wanted to know everything everything everything about Hermes. I told her what little I knew at the time, but it felt hopelessly inadequate. I couldn’t tell her what she wanted to hear: that her daughter was all right, that the girl lived on, that Hermy/Hermes had somehow made everything ok.

Now I know that, in addition to moving with ease to and from the underworld, Hermes also guides the way to growth, change, relationship building. He’s funny and fun, he loves tricks, and, being the messenger of the gods, he carries divine meaning and inspiration. He offers the gift of seeing the world with sparkle, with fresh eyes. To him, souls are as equal as they are unique. He accompanies CEOs around in their private jets, tattoo artists on the way to funerals, children across the great divide, perhaps entertaining them along the way with magic tricks. If I could talk to that woman today, I would tell her that I can’t think of a better friend for a little girl stuck in a hospital room, nor any better traveling companion.