I prefer the enormous risks. There were indeed errors, there were inaccuracies, because a book that’s worth living with is the act of one voice, the act of a passion, the act of a persona.
George Steiner was born in 1929 into an established Viennese Jewish family, the sort of multilingual, culturally distinguished clan (his mother’s great uncle had discovered a manuscript of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck) that often wound up being murdered and dispossessed during the war.
The Steiners were luckier than many. On a business trip to New York in early 1940, his father was tipped off by an old Viennese friend (now procuring oil and equipment for the Nazis) to get his family out of France, where they’d moved in the Thirties. There had already been anti-Semitic marches on their street. Steiner recalled “the parades of people out there shouting, “Death to the Jews!” Papa comes home and says, “Up with those shades!” and takes me by the hand to look outside. I was fascinated, of course; any child would be. And he says, “You must never be frightened; what you’re looking at is called history.” I think that sentence may have formed my whole life.” They fled “in the last of the American boats” to New York.
He became a novelist, poet, professor and critic, shuttling from American to European to British universities and writing for the New Yorker. Thirty years after his family had escaped their possible slaughter in a concentration camp, he was asked to deliver the T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent in Canterbury.
Collected in book form, Steiner’s four lectures became In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture. Here Steiner ranged from the weight of the past on the present day to the argument that, post-World War I (“decisive reserves of intelligence, of nervous resilience, of political talent, had been annihilated“) and the Holocaust (“[Walter] Gieseking was playing the complete Debussy piano music on the nights when one could hear the screams of the people in the sealed railway cars at the station in Munich, on the way to Dachau“), the long, knotted chain of Western high culture that had extended back to the Athenian Greeks was now broken.
The past became a lost country. Pindar, Virgil, Theocritus, Milton, Keats, Shelley, Auden and Yeats share a frame of reference, a common pool of metaphor and imagery. Steiner used Milton’s “Lycidas,” a poem whose analogies are hard for today’s reader to untangle without a handy page of references and copious footnotes. In the first stanza alone, “ivy,””myrtle,” and “laurel” all have specific traditional meanings, for which a ‘common’ reader immersed in “high” culture would’ve required no explication. Today only an academic would know them, and even then perhaps not. Prof. Cosma Shalizi, writing on Steiner’s book, said “laboriously, with guides like Steiner, I can follow [the poem] intellectually, but clearly it was meant to be immediate, visceral, second nature: and for a reader from a classical culture, that classical culture, it would be. I am not such a reader; and for most of my students, beyond the level of a “vague musicality,” Milton’s references might as well be to Mars.”
We were in a “post culture,” Steiner wrote. This wasn’t necessarily a tragedy. The grand sweep of Western civilization had required the subjection of entire cultures and the annihilation of vast numbers of animal species and environments in the name of “progress.” It might have been an evolutionary mistake: maybe we should have stayed in the trees. Leonard Cohen’s description of Mozart and Shakespeare as being merely “the nail polish on the claws” can seem apt enough most days.
“We cannot turn back. We cannot choose the dreams of unknowing,” Steiner concluded. Instead, one should enjoy the fact that “it is enormously interesting to be alive at this cruel, late stage in Western affairs…It may well be that our post-culture will be marked by a readiness to endure rather than curtail the risks of thought. To be able to envisage possibilities of self-destruction, yet press home the debate with the unknown, is no mean thing.”
We feel ourselves tangled in a constant, lashing web of crisis.
We don’t have a God. We don’t really have a trust in any kind of politics. We are completely and totally at sea, philosophically. And I don’t think we want new things. I think we’re kind of scrounging around among the things we know to see if we can salvage some kind of civilization which will help us endure and survive into the future. We don’t need new. We are fucked. We’ve got enough new. Enough!…There is no structure, there is no plan. We are not evolving. We have to make the best of what we’ve got.
Bowie, Filter interview, 2003.
Why the long digression about Steiner and the death of Western civilization in an entry about a Bowie rock song? Well, it’s Bowie’s fault. He named In Bluebeard’s Castle one of his top 100 books, and in interviews for Reality, he kept bringing up Steiner to frame what he intended with the title track.
Steiner “was the first thing I read on post-modernism,” Bowie told Ingrid Sischy. “That book just confirmed for me that there was actually some kind of theory behind what I was doing with my work…I have an undiminished idea of variability. I don’t think there’s one truth, one absolute.”
What he found in Steiner was a vocabulary to explain his innate catholicity of taste, his love for Anthony Newley and Lou Reed, Little Richard and Steve Reich, The Beano and William Burroughs. There was never a “high” or “low” culture for Bowie, who’d absorbed the whole of Sixties London, steered by his brother Terry’s love for Beat novels and jazz, his former manager Kenneth Pitt’s access to the London theater scene and the influence of various showbiz pros like Lindsay Kemp, Lionel Bart and Lesley Duncan. Bowie ate up America in the early Seventies; in Berlin in 1976-78, he dressed as Christopher Isherwood and spent much of his free time in museums and night clubs.
“There were several of us dealing in this newly-found pluralistic vocabulary,” he recalled of the glam era to Ken Scrudato (Bryan Ferry and Eno were the other obvious examples). “This whole George Steiner-ism of life, you know? But I think that the world caught up really quickly and everybody is so totally aware of the kind of vocabulary that we were throwing around at the time, that one feels kind of superfluous now. I still enjoy what I do. But I don’t think what I do is terribly necessary…at all.”
So “Reality” is Bowie crediting his performing self in helping to create a world. When he was young, he’d enjoyed playing the vanguard of a civilizational collapse. At a press conference in 1972, he said he and Lou Reed “were probably predicting the end of an era….any society that allows people like Lou and I to become rampant is pretty well lost.” “They’re in the Seventies,” Neil Young had admired at the time. Bowie and Reed “don’t expect to live more than thirty years and they don’t care. And they don’t care.”
He enjoyed admitting to being a fraud. I’m not a real musician, he’d say. I’m not a real singer. He called himself a pastischist, a collagist, someone happy to throw up things he’d dug out from the ruins, not concerned with how long they’d stand upright. His songs were readymades, genre-mucks. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” married Jacques Brel to a Fifties doo-wop ballad, then threw in Peter Pan and James Brown. He nicked lyrics from short stories and films, scripted films from his songs, cannibalized the lost films into new songs. “I hid among the junk of wretched highs,” as he’d sing in “Reality,” punning on the idea of cultural detritus as being cheap dope. This was life in the post-culture: you’ll have live off the land more, so learn to compost.
In 2003, Bowie said he’d done his job perhaps too well. Millennial culture had beaten him at his game. “Over the last 20 years, many of our ideas of the absolute, the ideas we all have held sacred, have been taken apart,” he told the New York Post. The reporter pushed back, saying “that seems slightly superficial.” To which Bowie smiled. “It’s flippant in a post-modern way.” And in a privileged way. “If you’re struggling to find a job and get food and shelter for your family, you’re going to have a very accurate idea of what reality is.”
But for the middle-class Westerner in the 21st Century, your life could be an anodyne version of David Bowie’s in 1972. You make a mash-up of X-Files dialogue over “99 Luftballoons,” post it on YouTube, maybe get picked up by Buzzfeed. David Bowie “is the medium for a conglomerate of statements and illusions,” Bowie had said in 1976, to get a rise out of People magazine.* Today much of our cultural life is the property, and the workings, of a literal conglomerate of statements and illusions: Tumblr, YouTube, Facebook, what have you. “David Bowie” is an algorithm.
Or an avatar. The cover of the CD is a saucer-eyed “anime” Bowie that, once you flip the cover open, is replaced by the “real” Bowie. Who is, of course, also a fake—it’s just the latest magazine cover that David Jones has made to represent himself in 2003. “There’s a fakeness to the cover that undermines” its title, Bowie told Anthony DeCurtis. “It’s the old chestnut. What is real and what isn’t? It’s actually about who’s stolen this world.”
If we accept that we live in absolute chaos, it doesn’t look like futility anymore. It only looks like futility if you believe in this bang up structure we’ve created called ‘God’ and all. [But] all of these structures were self-created, just to survive, that’s all…It wasn’t handed down to us from anywhere…What people are beginning to feel, is that there’s a transition taking place. We’re leaving those old structures behind, whether we like it or not; they are all crumbling.
Bowie, to Ken Scrudato, 2003.
There was also a conservatism in Bowie’s statements. For all his fluid mercurial qualities, there was also an internal consistency to his work and a literate depth that he’d tried to disguise with flip interview statements. In 1995, he contrasted his filmmaker son Duncan’s dealings with art to his own:
“He seems to be able to scan things so much quicker than myself. He can make sense of the surface of things. It gives him some foundation. My natural inclination, coming from a different time, is that I don’t just want a surface image; I want to read depth into everything,” Bowie said. “And that isn’t part of the vocabulary now in quite the same way as when I was young. My son can just whiz around it and get what he needs to get on to the next place. And it looks like lethargy. But there again, he’s now doing a doctorate in philosophy. (Laughs). So what I presumed was lethargy is not—it’s all being internalized. He just doesn’t assimilate things the way I think you’re supposed to.”
The title also referred to a common source of newspaper complaint at the time—the surge of “reality” television (Bowie wasn’t a fan, mocking American Idol as being “cruise ship entertainment”). “The word has become so devalued, it’s like it’s been damaged,” he said. “Reality TV” was, of course, nothing like “reality”—its contestants were often would-be actors, its conflicts were scripted and spun out of crafty editing. What reality TV represented—replacing unionized writing jobs with freelance “creators,” and using unpaid non-actors instead of unionized actors requiring scale payments—reflected 21st Century economics as much as it did any new cultural coarseness.
But again, this showed a growing sophistication among the public. If the glam era was the first pop era meant for kids fluent in the language of pop, the popularity of reality TV suggested that TV viewers had grown bored with the old cop/office/family life TV show scenarios. They wanted to see “real” people, who were playing to the cameras, at least for a novelty.
For Bowie, all of these qualms reflected the old generational terrors of “Kooks” and “Oh! You Pretty Things.” The kids keep coming, keep crowding you up. No matter how hard you try, you wind up obsolete. Even David Bowie?
As for the song itself, among the first he wrote for the album, “Reality” seems too flip, loud and pummeling a track to have to embody all of this cultural hand-wringing. Built on a typical Bowie volley between two major chords (D and E for verses, C and F# for refrains) and given a lyric that mashes “Teenage Wildlife,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Hallo Spaceboy,” and “Beat of Your Drum,” it sets up Bowie as an aging rake, lusting for youth in the mirror. There was a touch of Monty Python in it: tragic youth was going down on me! Well, I swear—hoo! hoo!–Yes I swear!
Deeper in, the song starts shaking open—the guitars seem in open warfare against it, the beat is remorseless. The refrain’s a boast of a man about to walk off the set—whatever you say kids, I got there before you—with Bowie’s vicious run of ha-ha-ha-has feeling like slaps to the face. And then he gives as much of an epitaph as he may ever offer:
I still don’t remember how this happened
I still don’t get the ‘wherefores’ and the ‘whys’**
I look for sense but I get next to nothing…
Then in a brief acoustic aside that reminds you of the pause for breath in “Big Brother,” just before the final conversion:
I’ve been right and I’ve been wrong
Now I’m back where I started from…
A drum fill, and the guitars knock him off into space again.
Once upon a time, when “Reality” was sequenced near the end of Bowie’s ‘last’ album, the title track could seem the work of a man trying to settle his long-overdue accounts, and finding that he was just as broke as when he started.
That a life of perpetual movement and change is just as pre-determined and fruitless as one where you stayed in one place and hunkered down. That the David Jones who stayed in Beckenham, watching Survivor with his grandchildren in his living room in 2002, may have regarded post-modern life much the same as the pop singer who was promoting his 23rd album and talking about George Steiner.
But Bowie’s having a blast in “Reality,” both in its guitar-crazy recording and its raucous live performances —throwing himself around in the song, clowning, making an ass of himself, refusing the dignity that the aging are supposed to take up, like a post-retirement hobby. If he’s never done good things, bad things, or anything out of the blue, he doesn’t give a toss. In a post-culture, “progress” is for suckers, and Bowie always played the grifter.
Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York.
* People, regarded by the likes of George Trow as the vanguard of a surface-level celebrity culture being hatched in the Seventies, now seems quaint whenever you see it in the newsstand, desperately trying to catch the eye with some Kardashian headline. It’s another pioneer made obsolete by the world it discovered.
** A possible Steiner-esque joke. “Wherefore” means much the same as “why,” but as anyone who’s seen an American TV commercial referencing Romeo and Juliet can attest, the former word is often taken to mean “where are you?,” with the Juliet actress peering off her balcony, looking for her beau.
Top: Bowie, a life in press conferences and interviews: 2004, 1977, 1983, 1987, 1972, 1999, 1974, 1976.