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Analyzing Bowie: Quicksand

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The slow strumming on a lone guitar, the confessional tone and the somber mood that dominate `Quicksand` and make it sound and feel quite different from most other tracks on Hunky Dory put us right in the world of the singer/songwriters, that brand of self-reflective rock poets that flourished in the early seventies. Up until then, rock`n`roll and youth culture were just living in the now, enjoying the rebellion against the old world and all the new and joyous possibilities it brought. But then, the possibilities seemed to dry out, the joy was gone, and youth culture lost its way. It was time to rethink the direction, and so the singer/songwriters turned their gaze inwards, commenting on the history of rock`n`roll and youth culture and trying to find new possibilities for happiness. And in Bowie`s case, naturally, this reflection took on a highly philosophical guise.

Like any singer/songwriter, Bowie is looking at things through the prism of his own personal history and experiences. In the mid-sixties, he was part of the Mod subculture, a generation of working-class kids who rebelled against the old traditions and stressed their individuality and personal freedom. But by 1967, youth culture started to feel that personal freedom is not enough, and rebellion should commit itself to a higher cause. The rock`n`rollers started to look for spiritual and mystical answers, for an eternal and permanent truth to hold on to. In Bowie`s case, the answer seemed to come from one of the more extreme forms of mysticism: Tibetan Buddhism.

When I call it "extreme", I mean from a Western point of view, because Buddhism goes against one of the deepest intuitions of Western thought: the belief in the existence of the self. Buddhism preaches that human life is full of sorrow, and that no permanent answer can be found in it. Therefore, it basically regards life as an illusion, which we must release ourselves from in order to find eternal happiness in a place that is beyond life, a place where everything is as one. The individual self, which binds us to life, is also seen as an illusion that separates us from the oneness of true being, and therefore should be transcended. This way of thought appealed to Bowie, and he was quite serious about his Buddhism for a while and even considered becoming a monk. Eventually he decided it was not for him, but even then, he kept holding on to the Buddhist perception that everything is impermanent and nothing in life can be relied upon to provide eternal happiness. The question of how to deal with this situation is a question he would grapple with in the coming years, and would actually never leave him.

In the late sixties, Bowie was part of the counter-culture, which was based on Hippie mysticism, a mysticism that was partly influenced by Buddhism but had a more Westernized approach. The (original) Hippies believed that everything in the universe is constantly moving, but doing so in harmony, and that the self is part of that harmony. The technocratic Western society, they blamed, is enforcing a false self on us, a self that is not harmonious with the universe, and we should destroy that self in order to liberate our real self. Once we do, we will become part of the ever-moving universal harmony, and be happy in our existence. Bowie`s records from that period, such as `Space Oddity`, `Memory of a Free Festival` and `All the Madmen`, show that he identified with the idea that we should free ourselves from the technocratic society in order to be happy, but they also expose the problems in the Hippie stance. In the end, the beliefs of the counter-culture are shown to be no better than the world it rebelled against, and to only lead to more misery.

So Bowie started looking for an alternative kind of mysticism, and sampled the teachings of Aleister Crowley. The basic belief here is that Christianity believes in a false god, and blocks our way to achieving a real mystical union with the true God. Christianity divides reality into "good" and "evil", and puts other kinds of mystic knowledge, such as those contained in what is known as the Occult, in the "evil" category. But this division is wrong, and only part of the truth is contained in Christianity, while another part of it is actually in what it defines as evil. In order to reach the truth, the mystic should walk the path between "good" and "evil", and get to what lies beyond. Crowley had appeal to the counter-culture kids because he shared their belief in the positive mystical powers of sex and drugs (the "evil" that is actually good), but he put an even bigger emphasis on the self than the Hippies did. Liberation, he preached, is to be reached through individualism, through bonding with supernatural forces to reach personal empowerment. In `Width of a Circle`, Bowie starts out by telling us how all the roads that he tried before led nowhere, how he was looking for a new way, and how he found it through copulation with a supernatural being. For a while it seems that he found the key to happiness, but then he becomes addicted to the dark side, and finds himself in hell. Crowley`s satanic ways, then, are not the answer either

But Bowie did retain the notion that Christian mysticism is insufficient, and that some of the things that Christianity defines as "bad" are actually good. He also connected to Crowley`s belief in the positive power of personal will and his belief that man can transcend himself and become something greater, and those beliefs connect to another path he checked at the time, the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche preached that Man is only a bridge to the Superman, a being that will not repress his inner forces but learn how to master them and direct them towards self-creation, and thus live a joyful existence. In `The Supermen`, Bowie envisions a utopian world populated with Nietzschean Supermen, but comes to the conclusion that this world will not be joyful. However, records like `After All` and `Oh! You Pretty Things` show that he did embrace the Nietzschean idea that Man has potential to be something greater, and believed that youth culture should aim towards that goal. But here comes the second question: how do we get there?

That is the question that Hunky Dory deals with, sampling all sorts of ways suggested by heroes of the past. But `Life on Mars?` dramatizes the problem: everything has already been tried, nothing really worked, and we are fresh out of ways to reach a different type of existence. After years of wandering, Bowie feels that he has reached a spiritual desert. And where there is desert, there is quicksand.

I`m closer to the Golden Dawn
Immersed in Crowley`s uniform of imagery

Bowie begins by naming some of his influences. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was an order formed in late 19th century to resurrect the ancient knowledge of the Occult, and Aleister Crowley was one of its most highly ranked members before he left to form his own order. Bowie tells us that he feels closer to the Golden Dawn, and "closer" presumably means closer than he does to other ways of thought. But it also means that he does not really identify with their message, merely feels close to it. Similarly, he is immersed in Crowley`s imagery, and it moves him more than other imageries, but the fact that he calls it a "uniform" suggests that it is only the exterior, while his innermost inklings are different than Crowley`s. The Occult, then, may hold the answer, but Bowie isn`t sure if this is the path he should choose. The first line may be invoking the phrase "the nearer the dawn, the darker the night", showing us that his life became darker because of this infatuation.

I`m living in a silent film
Portraying Himmler`s sacred realm
Of dream reality

Heinrich Himmler, as is well known, was one of the leaders of the Nazi party and the head of the SS. What is a little less known is that he was also in charge of the mystical expeditions of the Nazis. The Nazis had their own Superman theory, which drew from Nietzsche and Crowley among others, and they believed that the Germans are the descendants of an Aryan master-race of heroic conquerors that once brought enlightenment and progress to the world, but was then corrupted by race-mixing and Judeo-Christian ideas. In 1935, Himmler founded the Ahnenerbe, an organization dedicated to archeological expeditions that would prove this theory and would also unearth the lost knowledge and powers that the Aryan master-race possessed. The aim, of course, was to use this knowledge to form the new master-race of Supermen. Again, Bowie feels an affinity to this kind of search, dreaming of a different reality where humans can express the full variety of their inner powers. Compared with the reality that he envisions in his mind's eye, the humans of today seem limited, as limited as silent film figures are in comparison with us: two-dimensional, and devoid of some of the most basic human powers. Therefore, Bowie feels like he is himself living in a silent film, and all he can do in this film is portray the character that hints at the existence of that other realm.

I`m frightened by the total goal
Drawing to the ragged hole
And I ain`t got the power anymore
No I ain`t got the power anymore

Reduced to that inferior human state, he is also instilled with the fear to pursue the total goal, the realization of his full potential, so he`d rather draw even further into himself, cowering from the world. The line "I ain`t got the power anymore", coming right after he sang about those excavators for lost powers, suggests that he is afraid that he lost those super powers that humans once possessed, and that the search is pointless.

I`m the twisted name on Garbo`s eyes
Living proof of Churchill`s lies
I`m destiny

Another Nazi reference here, coming from Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, who referred to British propaganda as "Churchill`s lie factory". What this line suggests is that the Nazis did get some things right, and some of their ideas could form the basis for a society better than our own. Unfortunately, they were also vile mass murderers, and once they were defeated, all the things they stood for were branded as evil, while anything associated with Churchill`s democracy was hailed as good. But now, a quarter of a century later, Bowie tells us that his miserable condition serves as living proof that Churchill`s way did not produce a perfect and happy society, and maybe we should not reject the notion of the Superman just because the Nazis believed in it. Bowie`s assertion "I`m destiny" shows that he believes that he is destined for greatness, that he has the power to lead us to a better world. But how?

Well, if he is trapped in a silent film, unable to find the language to express his powers, then it is the heroes of silent film he must learn from. In other words, the Hollywood stars, those who managed to seize the minds and hearts of the world not through their rhetoric or their acting abilities, but through their ability to project a larger-than-life image. The glamour of those stars defies explanation, exists beyond words, and yet we can all feel it. And when you talk about Hollywood stars, none of them shined brighter than Greta Garbo, the archetypal female movie star. Many tried to capture what created Garbo`s magic, and it is generally acknowledged that it was her eyes that did most of the work. Garbo`s eyes reflect a promise for greatness, and Bowie feels like he has that greatness in him, but that it has been twisted to produce the wretched being he is today. If he can find a way to turn it back on, to acquire some of Garbo`s star dust, he might fulfill his destiny.

I`m torn between the light and dark
Where others see their targets
Divine symmetry

The "others" are people who see their goal in reaching total light, or people who aspire to total darkness. Bowie admits that both light and dark are tempting him and he is torn between them. He is seeking the right balance.

Should I kiss the viper`s fang
Or herald loud the death of Man?

This couplet seems to be referencing his own records. The first line is a throwback to `Width of a Circle`, where he was getting it on with an infernal serpent, and the second line connects to `Oh! You Pretty Things`, where he was playing the part of the Nietzschean prophet, heralding the death of Man and the cometh of the Superman. But Bowie already tried these paths, and they did not produce happiness.

I`m sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain`t got the power anymore

Thrown in all these different directions, not knowing which one he should commit to, Bowie feels trapped inside his head. Worse, he is not only trapped, but sinking. The line "I ain`t got the power anymore" no longer sounds like he`s talking about those super powers we once possessed; now it sounds like he simply doesn`t have the power to face the world anymore, that he is unable to pull himself out of the quicksand and back to active life.

Don`t believe in yourself
Don`t deceive with belief
Knowledge comes with death`s release

Unable to face life, he falls back to Buddhism. If he cannot find the answer within life, then maybe the solution would be to look for it in death. Maybe he should do what Buddhism suggests and seek liberation from the self, which would lead to happiness after life. One gets the impression that Death is calling to Bowie, tempting him to give up on his Superman ambitions and just fade away into nothingness.

I`m not a prophet or a stone-age man
Just a mortal with the potential of a superman
I`m living on

Finally, Bowie comes out and states what until now he was just circling around: that he believes he has the potential to be a Superman. But he does not know how to realize this potential, so he is doomed to live as a mere modern man. He does not belong to any Superman race that might have existed in prehistoric times, and he is not a prophet who can foresee a Superman race in the future. He is stuck in the mundane and gloomy present, and all he can do is live on, dreaming of another existence.

I`m tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien
Can`t take my eyes from the great salvation
Of bullshit faith

Being a mere human, he is also bound to the logic of humans and to their perception of happiness. Most humans do not realize that the key to happiness is within them and believe that they should have faith in some external force, either God or some ideology, which will lead them to a happy future, either in heaven or in a utopian society. Bowie deems this sort of faith as bullshit, and knows that if he wants to transcend Man and become Superman, he must liberate himself from the human inclination for faith in external forces.

If I don`t explain what you ought to know
You can tell me all about it on the next Bardo

A "Bardo" is the Buddhist term for the stages in the cycle of existence. This cycle has several stages, including life, death and rebirth. The Buddhist belief is that we should break this cycle, because life is misery. Therefore, we should dedicate our life to learning how to transcend the self, so that once we die we become part of the oneness of being. If you fail to do so, you will be reborn into life, and into the misery that comes with it. Bowie sounds like a Buddhist here, suggesting that this knowledge is already contained within us (we "ought to know" it) and that he is only trying to awaken it, and if he doesn`t succeed, we will all meet again on the next Bardo. But I don`t think Bowie is preaching Buddhism; I believe he is using its terms to say something else. I think the mention of Bardo is to awaken us to the cyclical nature of existence, an awakening that can free us from our "bullshit faith" that there is some eternal happiness at the end of the road. But the way we should deal with it, for Bowie, is not the Buddhist way. The answer should be found in life, not in death, and if we don`t find it… well, we can meet on the next Bardo and try again.

I`m sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain`t got the power anymore

Don`t believe in yourself
Don`t deceive with belief
Knowledge comes with death`s release

The record basically ends in failure. He did not find a way to realize his Superman potential, and so he continues to be trapped in his head, sinking slowly into the quicksand of his thought, with Death beckoning him, promising the possibility of something better than this. If he doesn`t find a cause to live for, he might eventually give in.

`Quicksand` throws a new level of drama into the Bowie saga. Until now, we have followed his attempts to find a more heroic way of life, watched as he sampled all sorts of paths, and enjoyed his ability to see through them and expose their weaknesses. The main fear he seemed to be living with was the realization that he is "aging fast", that he might grow old without fulfilling his potential. Now, we discover that his distress is more acute. He is not just lost, he is sinking. The discrepancy between his Superman dreams and the drab reality of his actual life is driving him mad, and he won`t be able to take it much longer. If he doesn`t find the right path, if he cannot come up with a way to pull himself out of the quicksand of his thought and into a life of action, he might drown completely.

`Quicksand` is a favorite among Bowie connoisseurs, but was never performed live until 1997, when a much happier and content Bowie could not really do it justice. Still, here is a nice performance from 2004

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