Heathen: David Bowie’s Second Religiosity

David Bowie and Nietzsche

“I’m closer to the Golden Dawn,” sang David Bowie, “Immersed in Crowley’s uniform.” Bowie’s enigmatic and ambiguous stage personalities — the “thin white Duke”, Aladdin Sane, the man who fell to earth, and so on — seem, by default, to associate the British singer with the occult.

Angie Bowie — his disgruntled former wife — also suggests, in her acrid bio of the singer, that there was at least some vague connection. “Then, too, he had lots of books on occult practices,” she says, snootily, “some of which he might even have read.” Bowie’s invocation of strange personalities, and his use of Brion Gysin’s cut-up method, to engender inspiration for lyrics, non-rationally, certainly seem to cross over the threshold into the shamanic.

David Bowie and Nietzsche
Heathen: David Bowie

But, despite this, and despite invoking the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley in his song “Quicksand,” his understanding of contemporary spirituality is more complicated, and seems to owe more to Oswald Spengler — “the philosopher of pessimism” — than to the aforementioned Victorian occultist (who, by the way, was certainly a significant influence on Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, as well as other several musicians and singers).

For Spengler, as civilizations decline, the original, authentic religiosity returns, but in inauthentic and corrupt forms. (We are, for Spengler, witnessing the decline of the West.) Syncretism (which can certainly be found in the Golden Dawn, with its fusion of Egyptology, Tarot, and Rosicrucianism) is a defining characteristic of this “second religiosity.”

This “Second Religiousness,” he says, “starts with Rationalism’s fading out in helplessness, then the forms of the springtime become visible and finally the whole world of the primitive religion, which had receded before the grand forms of the early faith, returns to the foreground, powerful, in the guise of the popular syncretism that is to be found in every Culture at this phase.”

Bowie, Heathen, and the decline of the West
Books by Einstein, Nietzsche, and Freud on David Bowie’s album heathen.

Similarly, in an interview about his album Heathen, Bowie has complained that, today, “there’s quasi-new religions, but there is no direct sense of what our purpose is any more.”

“The repercussions,” he suggested, “of what we had done by standing in for this idea of morality — creating it all ourselves [instead of it being inherited through tradition believed to have been initiated by God] — so destroyed our fix on what we should be doing in life that we are still living through that chaos right now. We have no spiritual lives to speak of.”

Although “heathen” is a term sometimes associated with “pagan” or pre-Christian European religion, Bowie used it to signify a rejection of culture — or, more precisely, of classical, pre-modern culture.

On the cover of the album, there are several black and white images of slashed and torn painting and books, one of which is Nietzsche’s Gay Science. The other two are Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and Freud’s Interpretations of Dreams. “All these culminated in the idea that everything we knew before was wrong — everything,” says Bowie, “so we start out the 20th century with this clean slate. We are now the gods. And the greatest thing that we could do… was create the bomb…” Or, in the words of Spengler, from the new intellectual discoveries, then, we discovered, not our connection to the Divine, but only “Rationalism’s fading out in helplessness.”

“The three books [on the album cover],” Bowie tells us, “in fact were very important, in as much as The Gay Science by Nietzsche was the book in which he said ‘God is dead’, which was a culmination of all the thought of the previous century… the lat 19th century… people we so aggrandized by their own sense of science and the aftermath of the Enlightenment, and how man himself could improve the world…”

Bowie’s complaint (there are “quasi-new religions, but… no direct sense… of purpose”) suggests a longing for an authentic, pre-modern spirituality — not shamanism, but a spirituality linked to, and that informs the creation of a new high culture. But the singer also suggests that we push beyond Nietzsche, modernity and rationalism’s fading out, to a Zen-like or, perhaps, primordial state where we live “one day at a time,” totally independent of past, civilizational expectations. Once man has experienced this self-overcoming, he will be reconnected to the Divine, yet master of himself.

Angel MillarAngel Millar is an author, blogger, and the editor of People of Shambhala.


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