Bowie the Rebel and Romantic Typology

In a culture generally unaccustomed to theatrical displays of male plumage, the glittered, feathered, frequently half-naked David Bowie of the glam rock 1970s presented an affront to traditional notions of gendered norms, introducing instances of “gender expression” some forty years avant la lettre. Fast-forward to the relatively conventional final decades of Bowie’s private life, and his legacy takes on a sort of prismatic function, separating into strategic deployments of gender, sexuality, and desire that both piqued and provoked the public, disrupting notions about masculinity, desirability, the function of the artist, and the future of mankind.

Samuel Lyndon Gladden, David Bowie and Romanticism, p. 163

One perhaps lesser-known synchrony between the Romantic era, especially British Romanticism, and the rock and roll era is celebrity culture. Celebrity culture magnifies the personal lives of famous individuals to international importance. Often tied to scandalous behavior, figures who become famous for writing poetry or recording rock songs soon become famous for being an object of gossip and then, eventually, famous for being famous.

Figures in this position soon learn how to leverage it further through affairs, gossip, and outrageous behavior. Celebrity culture as we understand it today originates in the Romantic era, most notably (but not solely) with George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824). During his own time, Byron was infamous for being “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”: he had a number of famous affairs that eventually drove him from mainland England to the European continent for the remainder of his life. The most famous (but least likely) of these affairs was with his half sister Augusta Leigh; his ex-wife Anne Isabella Milbanke (Annabella) spread the rumor aggressively, finding it very easy to think the worst about him.

Byron, for his part, did little to suppress these rumors and in fact seemed to play them up, indulging in teasing references to incest in his play Cain. Byron’s dialog imagines a twin sister Adah born alongside Adam and Eve’s first son, Cain. Byron here spells out the implications of a Genesis narrative in which all human beings were sons and daughters of Adam and Eve: by necessity, brothers married sisters. Adah, hearing from Lucifer that these marriages would be condemned in the future, is shocked:

Adah.‍ But all we know of it has gathered / Evil on ill; expulsion from our home, / And dread, and toil, and sweat, and heaviness; / Remorse of that which was—and hope of that / Which cometh not. Cain! walk not with this Spirit. / Bear with what we have borne, and love me—I Love thee.

Lucifer.‍ More than thy mother, and thy sire?

Adah. I do. Is that a sin, too?

Lucifer.‍ No, not yet; It one day will be in your children.

Adah.‍ What! Must not my daughter love her brother Enoch?

Lucifer. Not as thou lovest Cain.

Byron is, to say the least, being unhelpful if he wants to defuse scandal and rumors. But he does not. Confronted with a dumpster fire, Byron brings the gas can.

Other aspects of celebrity culture involve the visual representation of the celebrity in culture. Both Byron and Bowie were famous for publicly disseminated images; we could even say the variety of paintings of Byron could represent personas in a way parallel to Bowie’s numerous personas adopted through the 1970s.

Rock music transformed the male gaze of traditional western culture from a gaze upon women’s bodies to a gaze upon men: men became dandies, wore makeup, suddenly cared about clothing beyond generic expressions of masculinity which, in turn, upset gender norms. The scandalous celebrity benefiting and suffering from celebrity culture invariably became a rebel.

Samuel Lyndon Gladden in “‘Rebel Rebel’: Bowie as Romantic ‘Type,'” chapter 8 of David Bowie and Romanticism, argues that during the era of Bowie’s superstardom (which, for Gladden, begins in the 1980s with Bowie’s best-selling album, Let’s Dance), “Bowie remains constantly visible and cycles through artistic phases in rapid succession” (p. 167).

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

Bowie’s superstardom moves through three distinct phases in Gladden’s chapter: a heteronormative era during which he is accused of selling out (1980s); an era of experimental work and early adoption of new musical styles (1990s); and a third era of discovery (2000s). Each of these have their parallels in Romantic era literature.

You can read more in David Bowie and Romanticism. Order it from the Bookstore or have your local, college, or university library order it.

Samuel Lyndon Gladden serves as Professor of English and Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Education, and Human Development at the University of New Orleans. He has published widely on key figures in nineteenth-century British literature with books on Percy Shelley and Oscar Wilde and articles on Mary Shelley, Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker, and others.

When David Bowie Fell to Earth

Newton’s mission clearly suggests a Romantic “return to origins,” specifically the pastoral origins of a lost homeland, so as to redirect his profits toward reviving a dying community that will presumably be founded on use rather than exchange values for his alien race and earthly allies. This restorative vision also would allow the fulfillment of a Romantic selfhood, a full realization of an inner life and agency that would no longer be divided by economic subjectivization.

William Levine, David Bowie and Romanticism, p. 88

David Bowie’s acting career extends to 37 appearances in film and television alone, not counting theater roles. That number covers numerous supporting parts, of course, but a number of leading ones as well. His two most important leading film roles were in Nicholas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth as Thomas Jerome Newton and Jim Henson’s 1986 Labyrinth as Jareth, the Goblin King. I’m happy to say that David Bowie and Romanticism has chapters dedicated to both films; I would have felt that the book was incomplete without covering at least both of them.

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

One idea that surfaced in both chapters is how strongly Bowie’s public persona intruded on the films through these roles. There’s something a bit obvious about casting Bowie as an alien because his first musical persona was Ziggy Stardust. It complicates our reading of the film, inviting us to read the film as commentary on Bowie’s career as much as an artistic statement in its own right. The film’s title also invites a comparison with Bowie’s 1970 song, “The Man Who Sold the World.” The man who sold the world is a reference to Lucifer’s third temptation of Christ, who offered Christ all the kingdoms of the world if he would bow down and worship him. Similarly, the man who fell to Earth, representing a fall from the sky, invokes Lucifer as well as an alien, both fallen beings in both a material and a moral sense. Lucifer was cast out of heaven; Thomas Jerome Newton came to Earth to rescue his arid homeworld from drought but then never left; and then David Bowie, during the making of this film, was nearing the end of his first stay in America. Verging on cocaine psychosis, if not falling in and out of it, at one point his weight dropped to only 90 lbs. because he was living on a diet of milk and peppers and hardly sleeping. Bowie fell to America the way Lucifer and Newton fell to Earth. Before the end of 1976 he left America for Europe to escape the ready availability of drugs and to save his own life.

William Levine’s “Capitalist Co-optation, Romantic Resistance, and Bowie’s Allegorical Performance in Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth,” chapter 5 of David Bowie and Romanticism, is a sophisticated close reading of the film and its intersections with Bowie’s public persona and Romantic themes and images. Levine writes about “capitalist co-optation” in the film because Thomas Jerome Newton’s goal to save his homeworld requires him to secure a number of patents that make him a very wealthy man, give him access to Earth’s industrial capabilities, and make him a threat to established corporations that ultimately cause his downfall.

In Levine’s words, “Newton commands the regime of modernity even more decisively than its major corporations.” But by the end of the film, in Bowie’s words, “Newton has ‘actually found some sort of real emotional drive; he knows what it is to relate to people.'” He has transcended his capitalist, opportunistic, and exploitative goals to form relationships with people on Earth, however doomed they were to fail.

You can read all of Levine’s chapter in the book, of course, which you can purchase through the Bookstore or request for your local, college, or university library.

William Levine regularly teaches courses in the literature of jazz and the blues, philosophy and literature, and the history of literary criticism at Middle Tennessee State University. He has published articles on almost every major English poet and literary critic from Pope to Anna Barbauld and Coleridge, and his current work on the literature of jazz and the blues is informed by many years spent as a jazz journalist producing radio interviews and writing for urban arts weeklies.

David Bowie and Drug Literature from the Eighteenth Century to the 1970s

[Aleister] Crowley does not figure on Bowie’s debut LP, but by the time of Man Who Sold the World (1970) and Hunky Dory (1971), he would be an influence directly on Bowie’s lyrics and continued to influence Bowie’s lyrics, ideas, and philosophies throughout the 1970s. Of particular interest to this chapter are Crowley’s experiments with drugs and his ideas about how drug use is related to creativity and religious experience, two ideas that Bowie also pursued in his work.

Eric Pellerin, David Bowie and Romanticism, pp. 69-70

Between 1970s’ drug culture and its ultimate origin, Romantic-era drug literature in the works of Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), lies Aleister Crowley’s (1875-1947) Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922), the seminal work of an author who became a central figure to many rock figures of the 1960s and 1970s, even appearing in the upper left corner of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). Diary of a Drug Fiend is generally considered a roman à clef: a work of fiction based upon real people and actual events. Crowley, in my opinion, is generally misunderstood in some ways that he would find flattering and in other ways that he brought upon himself, and it’s not clear to me that the work needed to understand him would yield much in the way of real benefit. But he deserves the dignity of honesty about his legacy–while I’m not a Crowley scholar, and never will be, I will attempt to tell the truth about him as someone who is neither an adept in his religion nor hostile toward him as “the most evil man alive.”

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

Crowley’s Diary of a Drug Fiend follows the life of Sir Peter Pendragon, a minor English aristocrat who, early in the story, on a single night meets a woman whom he marries without knowing and takes cocaine for the first time. Their honeymoon consists of a drug-fueled romp across Europe that becomes part tragedy and part comedy of errors, as Pendragon’s judgment is badly impaired by drug use. They progress from cocaine to heroin, rapidly degenerating into a serious addiction that leads them to the point of suicide until rescued by Basil King Lamus, who had been their guide through drug use from the beginning and is a leader in the religion of Thelema. On the one hand, the narrative propagates the myth that even heroin use can be controlled to lead users to higher states of consciousness, but on the other hand, it is graphic, detailed, accurate, and unflinching in its depiction of the worst aspects of heroin addiction.

Thelema in this novel and its follow-up, Moonchild, is a syncretist religion that appears to me to use the Sefirot (Kabbalah’s Tree of Life) for its conceptual structure, the teachings of Christ for its moral consciousness, and then associates the insights of other religions and empirical science on different nodes of the Sefirot. Adherents of this religion practice “magick,” which because of Thelema’s study of nature is able to create real effects in the world (according to the religion). “Magick” is therefore not an occult practice as commonly understood but the proper understanding of the relationship between human beings and the natural world, the ultimate integration of empirical science, philosophy, psychology, and religion.

The fundamental principle of Thelema is “Do what thou wilt,” but it’s carefully distinguished from “Do as thou wilt,” the former being the practice of deliberate action moving toward carefully chosen goals while the latter is the practice of caprice or mood without regard for consequences. Thelema and the practice of magick by its own account should be distinguished from Satanism and the practice of black magic: while Crowley could write poems like “Hymn to Satan” in the very early twentieth century, probably working with a gnostic view of Satan, by the 1930s he would compare practicing black magic to a mouse trying to make a pact with a cat. Thelema, overall, is conceptually naive in that it makes identifications among objects based on superficial similarities alone, and it is dependent upon early twentieth-century science only partially understood by the author. However, in many ways, it’s not hard to see how so many rock stars from the 1960s and 1970s would be attracted to Crowley — Diary of a Drug Fiend at times reads like a user manual for a 70s’ rock star: the life of someone wealthy, aristocratic, young, and free.

Eric Pellerin in chapter 4 of David Bowie and Romanticism, “Drug Use and Drug Literature from the Eighteenth Century to David Bowie,” covers the ground described in his title, locating Bowie’s 1970s’ lifestyle and songwriting about drug use at the end of a lineage of drug literature that begins with Coleridge and De Quincey, moves through Baudelaire and Crowley, and then moves on to David Bowie with additional discussion of contemporaries such as Jimmy Page.

Read more in David Bowie and Romanticism: you can order the book from The Bookstore or ask your local, college, or university library to order it for you.

Eric Pellerin is Assistant Professor and the Electronic Resources & Serials Management Librarian at Medgar Evers College, CUNY. His research interests include genre theory, authorship in film, and Hong Kong cinema.

David Bowie and Space

Bowie’s space/alien lyrics express Keatsean negative capability in the often paradoxical–both egotistical and humble–visions of alternatives in anticipation of the deaths of self, the Anthropocene, humanity, and the Earth itself.

Shawna Guenther, David Bowie and Romanticism, p. 53

David Bowie’s most enduring persona, even to the present, years after his death, is as the alien Ziggy Stardust on the 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie extended alien imagery to the cover his next album, Aladdin Sane (1973), performed as an alien in the 1976 film The Man Who Sold the World, and then continued the persona of Thomas Jerome Newton, his alien character from the film, on his album covers for Station to Station (1976) and Low (1977). He revived Newton’s character at the very end of his life with the stage play Lazarus (2015), which he was able to see in its New York City debut on December 7, 2015 just over a month before his death on January 10, 2016.

Watch the original 1969 video for “Space Oddity” on YouTube, the video for “Ashes to Ashes,” and check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

Shawna Guenther’s “Negative Capability in Space: The Romantic Bowieverse,” chapter 3 of David Bowie and Romanticism, discusses Bowie’s space imagery from 1969’s “Space Oddity” to the end of his career in the light of John Keats’s idea of “negative capability,” or in Keats’s words, “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Guenther argues that in “creating his space/alien music, Bowie employs these aspects of negative capability not only to artistic benefit, but to engage culturally and socially with the rapidly changing world and several generations of listeners/readers” (p. 54).

I think of it in terms of being suspended: just as Major Tom was suspended between the earth and the stars, Bowie suspends a fixed identity or certain knowledge in his music to establish a vantage point from which he can comment on, as Guenther says, “the deaths of self, the Anthropocene, humanity, and the Earth itself” (p. 53). Read more in David Bowie and Romanticism, which you can pick up from The Bookstore for yourself or request that your local or college and university library order for its collection.

Shawna Guenther, credited with coining the term “Bowieverse,” is a Ph.D. candidate at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, and has published a memoir, creative non-fiction, and scholarship in journals including Analyses/Rereadings/Theories and Beyond Philology.

Virtual Book Launch for David Bowie and Romanticism

Check out the book and, if you like it, order the book.

Please join us for a virtual book launch for David Bowie and Romanticism on Saturday, September 17th, from 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. ET via Zoom and Instagram Live Feed @rock.and.romanticism. Contributors will be discussing their chapters.

I’ll be on location at the Melbourne, FL record store Savvy Vinyl Records. It’s a small, independent, woman-owned and operated business. 

Note that FL recently voted for permanent Daylight Savings Time. 

12:00-12:15 Introduction to the book and welcome to the event. Virtual walk through of Savvy Vinyl Records. 
12:15-12:30 Eric Pellerin, “Drug Use and Drug Literature from the Eighteenth Century to David Bowie”
12:35-12:50 William Levine, “Capitalist Co-optation, Romantic Resistance, and Bowie’s Allegorical Performance in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth
12:55-1:10 Samuel Gladden, “‘Rebel Rebel’: Bowie as Romantic ‘Type’”
1:15-1:30 Aglaia Venters, “The Goblin King, Absurdity, and Nonbinary Thinking” 

1:35-1:50 Paul Rowe, “Relics of The Future: The Melancholic Romanticism of Bowie’s Berlin Triptych”
1:55-2:10 Jennifer Lodine-Chaffey, “’Blackstar’: David Bowie’s Twenty-First-Century Ars Moriendi
2:15-2:30 Julian Knox, “Too Late to Be Late Again: David Bowie, the Late 1970s, and Romanticism”
2:35-2:50 Julian and Jim talk about Romanticism and Heavy Metal
2:50-3:00 wrap up

If you’d like to join the Zoom session rather than watch on Instagram, please email me at jamesrovira (at) gmail (dot) com for the meeting ID and password. 

Read more about the book at

David Bowie and Romanticism is now available for 20% off through October 17th. See The Bookstore for details.

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