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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: The Supermen

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In 'Saviour Machine', we see Bowie rejecting the regular modern concept of Utopia as unsatisfactory. The question then becomes: can he present an alternative?

Of course, Bowie was not the first to struggle with this question. In 'Saviour Machine', as in several other places in the album, we can detect the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche, who was similarly critical of the modern Utopian dream. Nietzsche's claim, in a nutshell, is that although Western consciousness is now looking for paradise on Earth and not in Heaven, it still thinks of it in terms that are taken from Christianity and therefore does not realize the full potential of humankind. Therefore, stated Nietzsche, we must first learn to think of humans in a different way and create a new concept of paradise based on this new perception.

The problem is this: Christianity separated human existence into body and spirit, and asserted that the spirit emanates from God and wants to return to him, but is trapped inside the body. The spirit is seen as driven by its inner free will, while the body is perceived as driven by cravings to outer things, cravings that cause suffering. To be happy, according to Christianity, a person should repress their bodily cravings while directing their spirit towards God. If successful, that person will return after death to heaven, where they will be free of the body and its cravings, and their spirit will feel fulfillment and happiness from reconnecting with God.

When modern movements denied the existence of God and Heaven, they took the spirit out of the picture. And so they were left only with the picture of Man as a system of cravings that need to be fulfilled. So the Utopia they envisioned was merely a world that will satisfy all human cravings and keep the people content. But this contentment, claimed Nietzsche, is not true happiness. Humans are capable of reaching a much higher form of joy, because the human being is not driven by cravings alone. The cravings are merely expressions of a strong inner force which he termed "The Will to Power", and what this Will wants is to overcome. When a human being manages to overcome something, said Nietzsche, they are filled with ecstatic joy which is the highest form of happiness. Human salvation, he concluded, is to be brought about by a constant process of overcoming.

So merely satisfying the cravings is not enough to make humans happy. Instead, a person should release that inner force that is within them and direct it towards overcoming themselves, towards recreating themselves as a more powerful being. While other modern philosophies aimed to eliminate suffering by removing the causes of it, Nietzsche preached that one should face these causes and overcome them. In other words, you should form a way of life that turns their power around to work in your favor, as a source of joy instead of suffering. When you overcome a cause of suffering and internalize it as a source of joy, you become happier and stronger and can then take on an even bigger cause of suffering. And at the end of that process of constant overcoming, Nietzsche prophesized, humans will live an existence where everything will be a source of joy to them and Utopia will be achieved. The kind of human that will embody this ideal is what he called "The Superman".

It should be noted that this is actually not the final Nietzschean message and the Superman is not the real Nietzschean Utopia. The Superman is actually just the ideal that we put in front of our eyes, so that by aiming ourselves towards it we can live a life of constant overcoming. That, for Nietzsche, is the ultimate happiness: an existence of never-ending recreation and overcoming. But historically, the Superman is the Nietzschean idea that most excited his readers and had the greatest influence in literature, science-fiction and philosophy. For Bowie, naturally, the Superman idea took a decidedly sci-fi direction, but he was also quite influenced by Nietzsche's philosophy. We witness it in other tracks on the album: in 'She Shook Me Cold', the hero is busy living a life of sexual conquest to satisfy his sexual cravings, until he meets a lover who makes him realize that there is a stronger force inside him, a force that can take him to another level; in 'Running Gun Blues', the hero cannot cope with a peaceful existence, because there is a confrontational force in him that demands to express itself; and in 'Saviour Machine', the society that eliminated all sufferings is deemed unsatisfactory, because it doesn't provide ways of expression to these forces within man. So now, in 'The Supermen', Bowie ventures to envision an alternative Utopia, based on Nietzschean concepts. Will this Utopia prove to be better?

When all the world was very young
And mountain magic heavy hung
The supermen would walk in file
Guardians of a loveless isle
And gloomy browed with superfear
Their tragic endless lives could heave nor sigh
In solemn, perverse serenity, wondrous beings chained to life

In other tracks on the album, like 'Black Country Rock' and 'She Shook Me Cold', we encounter Bowie's wish to go up the mountains, high above human society, to find a more powerful, heroic and magical way of life. Here he describes a society that has no need to search for such a way of life because it is already living it – "mountain magic" hangs on its members and they naturally embody Nietzsche's powerful human ideal. But right away, we see that Bowie's vision of the Supermen is very different from Nietzsche's (it may owe something to popular books that distorted Nietzsche's message, and we know that Bowie was reading such stuff at the time, but I have no idea which). First of all, he places his Utopian world not in the future but in the past, at the dawn of humankind. Secondly, he endows his Supermen with traits that take Nietzsche's ideas much further than the philosopher ever did. Nietzsche emphasized earthly life (as opposed to the Christian myth of heavenly afterlife) as the place where ultimate happiness should be sought, as the real paradise. Bowie also puts his paradise on Earth, but adds eternity to it, making his Supermen immortal. Nietzsche also attacked the concept of Christian Love, in which a person represses his inner drives for the sake of others, and demanded to overthrow it. But he did not suggest that we should give up love altogether. Bowie, on the other hand, envisions the Superman world as devoid of any kind of love.

But it is also devoid of any laughter, and this goes completely against Nietzsche. Bowie's Supermen are not happy. The fact that they are immortal is not a source of joy to them – they are described as "chained" to life, as if their immortality enslaves them.

Strange games they would play then
No death for the perfect men
Life rolls into one for them
So softly a supergod cries

The vision exposes the truth behind the illusion of happy immortality. One of the temptations used to sell the idea of Heaven is that in it you will live an eternal existence, without the fear of death. But when you think about it, you realize that an eternal existence is tasteless and meaningless. It is the temporality and transience of your life that gives meaning to your choices, that discerns one action from another. Because these supermen are immortal, their life "rolls into one" – everything feels the same and nothing really matters. They play strange games, trying to amuse themselves, but nothing can save them from their eternal sadness.

Where all were minds in uni-thought
Power weird by mystics taught
No pain, no joy, no power too great
Colossal strength to grasp a fate

We hear Nietzsche again here: these beings are so powerful that they can withstand any experience that their fate throws at them. Bowie also gives them telepathic powers, with their minds all shared together, so they can all learn from each other. I think what he is trying to say here is that they went through a period where they learned how to increase their power (and that was supposedly a happy period), but now that they reached the ultimate power, nothing can excite them any more.

Where sad-eyed mermen tossed in slumbers
Nightmare dreams no mortal mind could hold
A man would tear his brother's flesh, a chance to die
To turn to mold

This passage can be interpreted in two ways, depending on how you understand the word "man" in the third line. He could be saying that the kind of dreams that the Supermen are having would drive mortal men (that is, humans as they are today) insane, to the point where they would try to kiIl themselves. So it is an expression to the power of these beings, who, like the Nietzschean Superman, can endure sufferings which a regular man cannot. Or it could be that the word "man" pertains to these ancient humanoids, in which case what he is saying is that these dreams drove the Supermen insane, to the point that they didn't want to live any longer and did everything they could to kilI themselves, to escape this nightmare of immortality.

Far out in the red-sky
Far out from the sad eyes
Strange, mad celebration
So softly a supergod cries

Again, an ambiguous passage. It could be that the "sad eyes" are our eyes and the singer is painting a different world for us, a world where Supermen hold mad celebrations to their Supergod. But to me it seems that the "supergod" is just another name for the sad Supermen who are themselves dreaming of another "far out" existence, an existence in which they could escape their misery. Maybe Bowie is trying to suggest that this is how the idea of Heaven was born and ultimately destroyed the Supermen. When he repeats this verse for the second time, he replaces "cries" with "dies", and we sense that this wish finally brought that civilization to its downfall and that the Supermen finally figured out a way to die and became mortal.

And so, the immortal Supermen cleared the way to the human race, a race of mortals with lesser powers who dream of a Utopian existence. But Bowie shows that any "utopian" world is inevitably bad, no matter if it is the Utopia of 'Saviour Machine' or of 'The Supermen'. Any philosophy that aspires to reach the perfect and "final" form of humankind has got it wrong. To be happy, humans need a world which is imperfect, a world which leaves them with the task of creating their own way of life.

But 'The Supermen' does not completely dismiss the idea of the Nietzschean Superman. From other records in this period, we know that Bowie felt that these powers do exist within humankind as a potential that can be awakened. His goal would become to figure out a way to realize this potential and live a heroic existence.

In latter year interviews, Bowie would talk embarrassedly about his Nietzschean phase and how he misread the great thinker. But this phase was enormously important in the formation of Bowie's own way of life, a way of life which, perhaps more than he ever realized, came very close to living up to the true Nietzschean ideal.

This great alternate take is stripped of most of the bombast, but somehow it sounds even darker.

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