Oh, I’ll Be Free: Bluebird and the Soul in David Bowie’s Lazarus
This is a long title for such a little footnote I’ve made in my re-read of the mid-century book, Ever-Present Origin, a cultural philosophical tome by Jean Gebser.
Gebser was a poet, and studied poetry. It was through his careful reading of Rilke – who many of us are now familiar through Stephen Mitchell’s popular translations – that Gebser intuited a tremendous transformation in Western consciousness evidencing itself through artistic movements and new forms of creative expression.
This nearly 500 page text examines works of art, archeological artifacts, the evolution of language and even scientific breakthroughs to trace major transformations – mutations, if you will – across history.
The #litgeeks read is nearly halfway through the text, but we started, ironically, on the eventful day of David Bowie’s death.
It was January. He had just released Lazarus the previous week, featuring Bowie dressed in his now iconic “button eyes” persona, with clear references to his own mortality. The skull on his desk as he frantically penned something down. The strange figure lurking beneath the desk and hospital bed. The dresser cabinet as coffin. When we heard the news on Monday morning that he had died, Lazarus began to make a lot more sense. “Look at me, I’m in heaven,” the lyrics began, and the internet exploded into a David Bowie social media supernova.
I was personally shocked by the outpouring of support and emotion – Bowie’s singles made it up to the top of the charts in the U.S. that week as it began to be clear that he had intended the release as a “final goodbye” to his fans. More than that, however, in a moment.
Back to the #litgeeks read.
Jean Gebser has an intriguing chapter, “On the History of the Phenomena of Soul and Spirit,” exploring the coming-to-consciousness of the soul in history. Like Gebser suggests, the soul is noted across cultures for its polarities: life and death, growth and decay, Eros and Thanatos, beginnings and endings. In ancient Egyptian mythology for example, the soul has five parts, and the Ba, which is the unique personality of an individual, is often depicted as a human-headed bird.
As I was reading this, looking at the various images of birds standing beside “false doors” (doors in which only the soul may traverse through), I thought of Bowie’s lines in Lazarus.
This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me
Considering this stanza in the context of Bowie’s album, a true memento mori for a modern culture that otherwise ignores its own mortality, I asked myself: is Bowie describing his own soul here? Considering how much is already out there, postulating about Bowie’s intentions and occult meanings behind his art, I won’t do much more myself. While it’s possible that Bowie was consciously relating his death to a bluebird, a soul taking flight, I’d also like to suggest a kind of profound mundanity to this image. In the layers of consciousness, cliché and motif, the image of bird-as-soul is something perhaps written into the archeology of consciousness.
They spring up, even without us making the connections.
“David Bowie’s death was like a supernova,” Marco Morelli, fellow #litgeek crew member, mentioned to me a few weeks ago. It really seemed that way, too. Social media streamed endlessly with Bowie’s various personas – often in the form of rapidly progressing GIFs. Ziggy Stardust, the Tall Thin Duke, and Button Eyes all paraded about Facebook and Twitter and every other medium. Something creative and spiritual seemed to shine through the decades of this single artist’s lifetime that seemed to connect with our own. What made his death so powerful?
Lazarus and Black Star seemed to perform a function – an electronic rite zapped through every phone, laptop and tablet. Bowie made his death into art. “Something happened on the day he died.” His death was like his life, creative. he reminded us of the now neglected insight given to us by most traditional cultures that death itself is a metamorphosis, not a finality. Death is becoming. Mutation. Transformation.
I could make a transformation as a rock & roll star
So inviting, so enticing to play the part
I could play the wild mutation
As a rock & roll star
– David Bowie, Star
Bowie’s whole life, after all, seemed to be a series of mutations. Becoming personas. Creative revolutions. By going into his death in an equally creative way, perhaps it lifted, for a moment, the morbid paralysis we moderns have with the mysteries of death, and reminded us of the creative forces that flow through us as inherently creative, mutative beings ourselves. For a brief cultural moment, a blip on the historical radar, Bowie’s dying star revealed to us the tremendous stars that we are, each of us, of creative spiritual potency.
Bowie was all about mutation. And so are we, as Gebser has been aptly pointing out.