The new persona that we might call “David Bowie in Berlin” was created through a turn to the art of a past era that also grappled with capitalist realism: Expressionism, an artistic movement that deepens the Romantic vein of expressing emotional experience. . . A future is mourned in the spectral fade-out that closes “Speed of Life.” Through vanishing clouds of futurity, Bowie’s unprecedented musical landscape emerges.Paul Rowe, David Bowie and Romanticism, pp. 147, 149
Paul Rowe’s “Relics of The Future: The Melancholic Romanticism of Bowie’s Berlin Triptych,” chapter 7 of David Bowie and Romanticism, negotiates the tensions between modernism and Romanticism in Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy.” Drawing from Michael Löwy and Robert Sayre’s Romanticism Against the Tide of Modernity (2001), Rowe emphasizes that Romanticism remains embedded in modernity; that it is, in fact, a modern critique of modernity, modernity’s self criticism.
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This conceptual move allows him to bring together Bowie’s modernist electronica of the Berlin albums with Romantic nostalgia, melancholy, and, in Schlegel’s words, “the willows of exile.” Rowe sees Bowie in Berlin as an exile, “an outcast in his own time who mourns the future without knowing what he has lost or will lose, a dreamer who yearns for relics of the future, powerfully prophesizing the end of history associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall” (p. 143). What’s stunning to me about Rowe’s work is not just his identification of Romantic nostalgia in Bowie’s work, but in defining that Romantic nostalgia as nostalgia for the future. What could nostalgia for the future be but a longing for lost hopes, a lost trajectory, a lost vision for the future?
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Paul Rowe teaches at Endicott College and works as a music writer for PopMatters. His work also appears in Literary Imagination and Literary Matters.