David Bowie’s Artful Death

On January 7, 2016, about a week before his death, David Bowie released his final music video, “Lazarus.” The similarities between Donne’s death shroud portrait and Bowie’s video are unmistakable as both highlight the artists’ engagements with mortality and creation of an artful death. In this song and video, and throughout his final album, ★, Bowie’s use of symbols associated with early modern death rituals as well as the communal aspects of his parting gift to fans reveal possibilities for rediscovering the art of dying for our modern age.

Jennifer Lillian Lodine-Chaffey, David Bowie and Romanticism, p. 258

I have my own memories of the release of Bowie’s Lazarus video. I remembered I’d first caught it not long after its initial release, just hours. I remember thinking to myself, wryly but pleased, “He did it again. Weirded us all out.” Not just the visuals. The music too. I’d never heard anything quite like it. Then I checked the video again about 24 hours after it was released and was very, very pleased again: the video had received over 1 million views in a little more than 24 hours. It was a hit.

And then I heard he died, and then I watched the video again, seeing it differently this time. He knew. And then, before the next day had passed, I committed to this book. Bowie had been on my radar since my teenage years, and especially since I saw him perform live on Saturday Night Live in December 1979, when I was 15. But I didn’t buy many of his albums. I picked up his Singles Collection on CD within a couple years of its release in 1993 and loved it. Then I picked up another CD at a flea market, I think Reality, overpriced because it was “rare,” sometime after 2008. But then he died, and now I have all of his studio albums on vinyl and a nice stack of his CDs. And now I have this book, David Bowie and Romanticism.

What struck me the most about Bowie’s loss was the loss of his genius and humanity at the beginning of a year in which Trump’s star started to rise. It seemed so unfair–such a horrible tradeoff, like trading in a Ferrari for a brown Matchbox sedan. Plus it was the loss of David Bowie. The world lost some of its color that day; I knew it could come back, but I didn’t know when it would.

A colorless world. His final album, Blackstar, ★, packaged black on black. Even the inner booklet is matte black with gloss black lyrics and images printed on it. But when you hold the outer sleeve up to the light, you see stars through the Blackstar cutout. Constellations. There’s little joy on this album. There’s bitterness, confusion, anger, betrayal. Death. But he took all of that and turned it into art. He wants us to see the constellations through all of that darkness.

Bowie reinvented himself musically once again on this album. I write about his musical transformation in my chapter on Bowie and jazz in the forthcoming collection Jazz and Literature (Routledge 2023), but I believe as much is communicated through the album art, as sparse as it is, and through the videos, as is communicated through its music and lyrics. It begs for visual interpretation. Jennifer Lillian Lodine-Chaffey’s “‘Blackstar’: David Bowie’s Twenty-First-Century Ars Moriendi,” chapter 11 of David Bowie and Romanticism, the book’s final chapter, does this work of visual interpretation. She interprets Bowie’s album and videos in the light of the ars moriendi tradition, or the early modern practice of an artful death which “encouraged individuals to thoughtfully and artfully plan for and practice their deaths” (pp. 257-8). She traces the loss and then rediscovery of this tradition in the Romantic era, particularly “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Just as Keats’s urn preserves eternally the memory of a moment, Bowie’s “Lazarus” video “re-envisions his history through objects that tell of his demise, while simultaneously reminding the viewers of his past and pointing toward his future as an object of memory” (p. 269).

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

Lodine-Chaffey’s chapter is graceful and cathartic. You can read more in David Bowie and Romanticism. Order it from the Bookstore or have your local, college, or university library order it.

Jennifer Lillian Lodine-Chaffey is Assistant Professor of English, Department of English, Philosophy, and Modern Languages, Montana State University. She is the author of A Weak Woman in a Strong Battle: Women and Public Execution in Early Modern England (2022).

And some days it’s nothing but bad news…

death448484Back in July of 2011 I had the privilege of traveling to Graz, Austria. I had been invited to present a paper on the relationships between seventeenth-century pietism, Kierkegaard, and twentieth-century existentialism. I had the pleasure of reading aloud a paragraph by Heidegger and then exclaiming to the audience, “Why the hell do we read this stuff?” And then try to explain it in simpler language, which is always a perverse kind of fun to have with Heidegger. I was lucky enough to meet a young woman who wanted to meet me because she’d read something I’d published on a blog in the late 1990s and was inspired by it. I was lucky enough to meet some great scholars of the eighteenth century whom I’d only known previously from email lists and their publications. These were great and generous people. And I was lucky enough to sit next to a beautiful thirtysomething woman named Anna on the transatlantic part of the trip.

We talked, we flirted (nothing serious, and okay, mostly I did), and she told me about her battles with cancer. She only lives about an hour from me in Ohio, and I always meant to stop by to say hi, maybe meet her husband (no children), but never had the time. Just today she came to mind and I went looking for her online (yes, I was creeping her on Facebook and Google — so shoot me), and I found out that she passed away in November of last year. The cancer won. Worst of all, she passed away one day after she and her husband moved into their new house.

I wish I could remember more of our conversation.

I’m glad I remember many of her facial expressions. She had a great laugh and a big smile and was very generous with both.

I could tell from our conversation that she was loved by many people. It’s always great to meet people like that. The love tends to overflow and spill over and messily splash around, randomly, on everything around it. That’s great to be around.

I wish I could say something to her husband. Something substantial that I remembered about our conversation, or about her. But because I have never met him, I don’t know what would be right or best. All I can do right now is just feel really bad for him, for what he lost, but grateful for what he had, though for too short a time.

So I will wish him a future. I hope, maybe five years from now, maybe more, maybe less, he meets someone special. Someone who will help him heal. Someone whom he can love and who will love him. And I hope they have a daughter, and I hope they name her Anna — I hope he marries a woman who would be willing to do that. And then I hope, when he gets his Anna back that way, he loves her for the rest of his life, and tells her about this great stepmom that she has waiting for her in heaven, her namesake.

I only met you once, Anna, but I’ll miss you. You made my life better for a few hours on a plane one day. Thank you.


12th August 1827 – the Death of William Blake | Dorian Cope presents On This Deity

william_blake1While I think the gnostic Blake thesis is overly simplistic, much appreciation for this tribute to Blake’s life on the anniversary of his death:

12th August 1827 – the Death of William Blake | Dorian Cope presents On This Deity.


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