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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Width of a Circle

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One of Bowie's most epic pieces, in every sense of the word. But what's it all about?

Let's begin with the title. What does "Width of a Circle" mean? Well, it is obviously a paraphrase on "Depth of a Circle", the George Underwood painting that comprised the back cover of the Space Oddity album. It is possible that the title doesn't mean anything at all, and is just an abstract phrase that sounded good to Bowie. If we do try to make sense of it, then we should remember that the Underwood painting was an Escher-like maze of different perspectives, which give you different ways to understand the reality of what you see. So perhaps this is the circle that Bowie is thinking about: whenever you think you figured out the true way to view the world, you find that you are merely the creation of another worldview, and if you adopt that worldview, you find out that it too relies on another worldview, and so forth until you go all the way back to the original worldview. Is there a way to break out of this circle and reach the ultimate truth? Maybe. But for that, you have to find a place that is not part of the circle - you have to find another dimension, through which you can enter the width, or the depth, of the circle. But how can that other dimension be reached?

One traditional answer is the mystical one. The mystics, by employing certain techniques, presumably transcend the human dimension and unify with God. Bowie was into mysticism for a while now, at least since his 1965 fling with Buddhism, but by this point he was into a darker kind of mysticism coming from the Occult. He was, therefore, affected by the idea that the Christian God is a false one, so any attempt to unify with it would not bring you the truth and joy you seek. This "God", according to some Occult teachings, is masking the true divinity and hinders our way to it, so you must go beyond it if you want to unify with the true god. How? Well, along with this false God, Christianity also created a false negative image. It divides the metaphysical world into the world of God, the world of light and good, and the world of Satan, the world of darkness and evil. If you want to transcend this picture, you have to walk the path between the light and dark, go all the way through it, and get to what lies beyond. That means you have to open yourself to the darkness, immerse yourself in it for a while, and then overcome it. It's a dangerous path, but it will take you out of the circle. Or will it? Let's find out.

In the corner of the morning in the past
I would sit and blame the master first and last
All the roads were straight and narrow
And the prayers were small and yellow
And the rumour spread that I was aging fast
Then I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree.
And I looked and frowned and the monster was me

The protagonist opens by describing the way he was in the past. He could find no meaning to his life, as all the paved roads in front of him seemed to be leading to a straight and boring existence with no options to divert; and all the prayers were old, pertaining to a God that doesn't answer. But instead of doing something to try and change his condition, he would "blame the master" for it, demanding that the system be changed rather than demand anything from himself. All his attention, then, was focused at the monsters outside of him, which he believed must be slayed before anything could be done. Until one day he came face to face with himself, and realized that he is one of those monsters. By focusing on outer enemies, he neglected his own spirit which became dormant and started to decay, and as a result, he is aging fast and becoming part of the system he despises. He must find his own way out.

Well, I said hello and I said hello
And I asked "Why not?" and I replied "I don't know"
So we asked a simple black bird, who was happy as can be
And he laughed insane and quipped "KAHLIL GIBRAN"
So I cried for all the others till the day was nearly through
For I realized that God's a young man too

Our hero's being is split. There's the spiritual side of him that is searching in vain for the truth, while his physical side is grounded to earth and slowly decaying. The two sides have become strangers to one another and he must find a way to bring them together again to be whole and happy, but he doesn't know how. Seeking illumination, he asks the blackbird what makes it so happy, but the latter laughs at him and gives him a sort of a Zen reply, naming the poet Kahlil Gibran. What is the blackbird trying to say? I believe it tells him to stop looking for an answer beyond this world, and instead learn how to become part of it – in other words, learn to enjoy being part of the circle instead of trying to transcend it. This, basically, is what Gibran preached. The blackbird is laughing at him for believing that there is an answer to the question "what is happiness?", when it should be obvious that there isn't one answer to this question, because happiness is not something concrete but something that comes out of living in the way that is right for you.

But our hero, it seems, understands something else. He does get illuminated by the reply, but he reaches a different conclusion. He realizes that "God's a young man too". What does that mean? I think it means that he realizes that God is not the all-knowing, infallible being that the monotheistic religions describe, but is rather like a curious young man, trying out stuff, and his creation is therefore rather mixed-up, transient and chaotic. But in that case, it means that in order to reach a mystical union with this God you should do what young people do. Instead of trying to find the permanent order of creation, you should immerse yourself in its transience and live a life of danger and change.

So I said "So long" and I waved "Bye-bye"
And I smashed my soul and traded my mind
Got laid by a young bordello
I was vaguely half asleep
For which my reputation swept back home in drag


Transience, then, is the answer, so our hero waves bye-bye to his old life and looks for a different lifestyle. Not just looking: he actively tries to destroy his old personality, to free himself from it. We can sense the influence of Beatnik philosophy here: the Beatniks believed that our mind is shaped by a technocratic society, which represses the spiritual side of man and thus prevents him from reaching happiness. The road to happiness, they claimed, should therefore begin by "beating" your technocratically-shaped-mind, destroying it and setting yourself free from it. There were several techniques they designated to obtain this self-destruction, among them drug abuse, hobo life and shock treatments, and we can find traces of them elsewhere on the album. Here, however, we get another one of the ways to "smash your soul and trade your mind": wild sex.

And here is where we also connect with Occult mysticism. Sex is one of the things that Christianity related to the Devil, thus infusing it with strong mystical power. Sex, therefore, was one of the ways to pass through the darkness and transcend the Christian God. For Occultist Aleister Crowley, the main influence on Bowie's mystical quest, sex was a key to the worlds beyond. We see this fusion of wild sex and the supernatural in 'She Shook Me Cold', but there we also find that he has his own take on what it does: the act of copulating with an out-of-this-world being releases an inner force within the hero's soul, a force that smashes his old identity and transforms his mind. So for Bowie, sex is important not because it is "evil", as Crowley would have it, but because it is something that is alien to the Victorian-minded society he grew up in and can take him out of it. Bowie, then, blends Beatnik and Crowlian mysticism, to create something of his own. Therefore, it is not just sex that the hero of this record craves, but "perverted" sex, something that is unacceptable to society. The claim that his "reputation swept back home in drag" hints that the sex he had by that bordello was of a homosexual nature.

And the moral of this magic spell negotiates my hide
When God did take my logic for a ride

In 'She Shook Me Cold', we are told that his sexual partner "sucked his dormant will"; meaning, that his spirit was dormant before he met her, and she awakened it through her erotic powers and took it to higher grounds. We get something very similar here: he was "vaguely half asleep", but then, when he gives himself up to some fiendish sexual power, God takes his logic for a ride and the mystical journey begins.

Now we have a long musical break, and when he performed this number on stage Bowie used to do a mime routine that dramatized what happens in our hero's mind at this moment. It starts with him running his hands against an imaginary wall, trying to find an opening in it, trying to find a way out of the circle. He finds the opening, steps through it, and right away gets swept up to the heavens, where he flies with the gods, riding high on a mystical experience. Ronson's guitar soars along with him and keeps him afloat for a while, but then the music changes again as we reach another twist in the plot.

He swallowed his pride and puckered his lips
And showed me the leather belt round his hips
My knees were shaking my cheeks aflame
He said "You'll never go down to the Gods again"
(Turn around, go back!)

The deity he's been having intercourse with is beginning to show its face. It wants our hero to submit to it, and threatens him that if he doesn't he will never have that experience again. The back of his mind is warning him to break off and go back to his old life, but he is so engrossed in the ecstasy of the experience that he can't help himself – he must carry on.

He struck the ground a cavern appeared
And I smelt the burning pit of fear
We crashed a thousand yards below
I said "Do it again, do it again"
(Turn around, go back!)

Now it is obvious that this deity is actually the devil, who wants him to be his sex-slave in hell. The back of his mind is still screaming, telling him to escape before it is too late, but he cannot help himself. He wants more and more.

His nebulous body swayed above
His tongue swollen with devil's love
The snake and I, a venom high
I said "Do it again, do it again"
(Turn around, go back!)

Breathe, breathe, breathe deeply
And I was seething, breathing deeply
Spitting sentry, horned and tailed
Waiting for you

And so the story ends, with our hero stuck in hell, as Satan's plaything. 

We opened our exploration by recalling that Bowie, at the time he wrote this song, was influenced by Aleister Crowley and Occult mysticism. Here we find him writing a mystical song that deals with good and evil, showing them not as totally separate, as Christianity would have it, but blended together in a more Crowlian way. However, it is a different story than the Occult tells. Instead of passing through hell to get to the heaven that lies beyond, Bowie shows us that this mysticism leads to something else: there's a short period of heaven at the beginning of the ride, and you think you are on the right path, but then you lose control and get carried away and end up in hell.

It is, actually, the same story as in 'Space Oddity'. There too we see the hero leaving his world and initially floating in heaven, but eventually surrendering control and getting carried away into oblivion. But here, Bowie expands the story some more, and for the first time he presents the full version of what I call "Bowie's main story", the story that is the central theme in his seventies work: it starts with the hero stuck in a meaningless existence; continues with him hooking up with an alien being, which takes him out of his old life and into an existence of joy; but then it drives him too far and makes him lose contact with reality, and he is so absorbed in it that he can't stop; and ultimately he ends up in an existence that is even worse than the one he started out from.

A little more than a year later, this will become the storyline of an entire album.

A 1973 performance:

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