David Bowie’s Unblinking Gaze

So the new Bowie album is really good.

I know, I know he’s dead. I’m aware. In fact, the evidence emerging suggests that he knew he was going to die when he was working on this record, on this videos, on this material.

When I know that, and I watch them, something deeply chilling and ecstatic begins to emerge. Even before, they had such an energy, such a terror, such a heightened reality to them, like I was watching them on too much Sudafed. And now that heightened reality makes sense.


Another of my favorite works was created while the author was facing death. Ernest Becker wrote a book called The Denial of Death, while he was dying of cancer. It’s a book about how the fear of death colors our whole life, only we don’t realize it. We do so many things in order to be permanent, in order to feel vital, like we’re not falling apart.

But we are. All the time.

When I was 23 I was paranoid that I had skin cancer; I was having panic attacks and I couldn’t function. That book changed my life. Because what Becker taught, unlike a lot of the therapists I was seeing, was that the only way to overcome the fear of death is to stare it in the face. To think about it all the time. To live with it.

We’re all floating in that terrifying ocean, looking for flotsam to grab on to just to feel better. But in Becker’s estimation the most profound and native human experience is that desperate searching; that moment of wide-eyed terror when the drowning man is looking for a plank or a barrel to keep from sinking. Stay in that moment, he said. There is no answer. That searching is what it means to be alive.

David Bowie never stopped searching and never stopped living. He gave himself to change over and over again — in his visual identity, in his experiments with gender and personhood, and in the exhaustive musical reach of his work.

It’s difficult to convey, to those who haven’t done it, what it’s like to play with your own identity in public. Artists and public figures in the audience will know what I mean. When you present yourself to the people, and you can only present fractions at a time, parts of you die and other parts live. You lose control of your selfhood — but you do it on purpose. You give a thousand selves to the world, to be burned up by critics or eaten by the hungry mouths of your audience.

Yet you come back to the table to be devoured, over and over again.


No wonder, then, that in his final work Bowie stared into the abyss with unwavering vision. He was used to this. He staked this territory out long ago, in late-night coke-fueled writing sessions for Station to Station. He was no stranger to the forbidding, creaturely spasms of the onrushing dark.

In being this person, in always walking directly into the vision and putting his very body on the line, Bowie made us all feel that our own embarrassing humanity was okay. Whether we were queer perverts or femme dandies or butch aliens, whether our art was foolish and vulnerable or screaming and obscene, Bowie let us know that this was a real war with real stakes, not a frivolous engagement. We have always been fighting for ourselves, and he always led the charge. He was not always perfect. Neither are we.

To see him trembling in the grip of occult mystery in Blackstar and Lazarus confirms for me who this man was. So many older artists, so many older PEOPLE really, slide down into easy comfort. It’s not their fault. It’s just fucking exhausting to stare into death every time, to let that trembling, manic energy fill your body again and again. Why not just have wine with friends and make an acoustic record, or a detached album about politics? That frenzied terror is a game for the young.

Unless you’re David Bowie.



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