Interpreting the Mystical World of David Bowie’s ‘Quicksand’

The song Quicksand from David Bowie’s album Hunky Dory is loaded with mystical references and metaphors that reveal the musicians own relationship to mysticism.

Today I asked an online friend, who we will call Mirabella, what she thought the following lyrics from the song were about:

“Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief; knowledge comes with deaths release.”

Mirabella’s responses were:

“Life doesn’t matter a shit, have fun, have as much of it as you can.”

“I take it to mean don’t take stuff too seriously, death is final that is the knowledge.”

Even though I am only working from my own interpretation, I am absolutely certain that the song was not intended by Bowie to be a lighthearted endorsement of nihilistic hedonism as my friend had implied.

I could easily debunk that theory of the song with the examination of a single line, but what fun would that be? Instead, I am going to deconstruct the entire song for my own entertainment and hopefully yours. There will be an even bigger message about modern art and thought at the end. But before we start…

I’m closer to the Golden Dawn
Immersed in Crowley’s uniform
Of imagery

The Golden Dawn is a system of magic from late 19th century Britain which sought to endow it’s users with supernatural understanding and capabilities through a wide plethora of knowledge, rituals and methods. One of the ways they did this was through communication with the ‘Secret Chiefs’ – transcendent beings who possess knowledge of all realms of existence. A state that a human might aspire to become via magical means. 

Suffice it to say the Heremetic Order of the Golden Dawn did not place as much value in the life/death dichotomy as Mirabella does.

Aleister Crowley was a poet, mountain climber, philosopher, inventor and one time member of the Golden Dawn. An image in a popular tarot card, The Magician, is often thought to be one of Crowley. In tarot the magician is dressed in one garment symbolizing purity and innocence, and another symbolizing experience and knowledge. The magician embodies these dualities in order to dissolve them, in the same way magic is a way of overcoming the life/death dichotomy in order to be transformed into something greater.

So again, in just those first three lines Bowie has referenced ideas that are opposed to the modern materialists life/death dichotomy and the nihilism that follows it, and has cast himself in the role of a magician trying to break free from that duality.

I’m living in a silent film
Portraying Himmler’s sacred realm
Of dream reality

Bowie’s comfort with eschewing duality (good vs. bad) is evident in his reference to Nazi icon Heinrich Himmler, who was also interested in mystical and occult knowledge. 

The “silent film” might refer to the Charlie Chaplin movie – The Great Dictator – a satire of Hitler and the Nazis. However that was actually Chaplin’s first film with sound. It might just be that Bowie was trying to evoke a sense of that period in time.

What he meant by a “sacred realm of dream reality” is also unclear, as there are no direct references to be found in that. But if you study the occult history of Nazis, and Himmler in particular, there was a rejection of objective reality. There was also a belief that through strengthening of the will, humans could rise above the limitations of the seemingly objective. The philosophers stone, or alchemical elixir, as it were.  And what greater limitation is there in life than death?

I’m frightened by the total goal
Drawing to the ragged hole
And I ain’t got the power anymore
No, I ain’t got the power anymore

Achieving the transformation necessary to transcend objective reality is the probably the “total goal”. And that should frighten anybody, since it is the most absolute unknown possible. Those who seek it often experience extreme psychological turbulence, often known as The Long Dark Night of the Soul or Chapel Perilous. And those who have been there understand exactly what the ragged hole and feelings of powerlessness are all about.

And thus the title, Quicksand. This state is one in which struggle only makes things worse, and so in which the first step to rescue is resignation. Here Bowie resigns by admitting he has become powerless.

I’m the twisted name on Garbo’s eyes
Living proof of Churchill’s lies, I’m destiny

I am stumped on this one. A bit of research shows that “Garbo” is a reference to a WW2 spy, and not the actress. Garbo was the codename of a double agent who worked for the British government against Germany. But how this all relates to anything is well beyond my ability to even guess.

I’m torn between the light and dark
Where others see their targets, divine symmetry

Once again, dichotomy and Chapel Perilous. The targets beings the black and white with which most people grasp the world, but through which Bowie is no longer able. The struggling alchemist caught between two equally true ideas that oppose one another, and unable to reconcile enough to even function normally. Glitched out on cognitive dissonance.

Should I kiss the viper’s fang?
Or herald loud the death of Man
I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain’t got the power anymore

The equally true but opposing truths are…
a) From a macroscopic perspective the individual is existentially irrelevant and meaningless.
b) From a microscopic perspective the individual is the only source of existential meaning and relevance.

Kissing the vipers fang is to consume its poison and accept the macroscopic truth of his own pointless existence by ending it. While heralding the death of man is to reject the microscopic truth and accept his own divinity. “Do I give up or become as God?” he asks, which is definitely a draining question. yet it is the one which must be answered with total self-belief in order to escape the the Long Dark Night of the Soul.

I’m not a prophet or a stone-age man
Just a mortal with the potential of a superman
I’m living on

So what do 19th century Magic Societies, Aleister Crowley, Himmler and the rest of this have in common? If you guessed Nietzsche, you were probably right. More specifically the Nietzschean concept of a a race superhumans, those beings we discussed earlier who could rise above “objective reality” and “become as God”.

“Not a prophet” could mean that he is not foretelling some secret wisdom. In addition he is not a stone age man. He seems to be saying that there is nothing magical about these potentials, but rather that they are an evolutionary inevitability. But it is an evolution which necessitates our will – we need to realize the future to become it.

I’m tethered to the logic of Homo Sapien
Can’t take my eyes from the great salvation
Of bullshit faith

And now he complains that the necessary will cannot be created in a world of ancient religions and followers who are waiting to die for their salvation rather than live for it. As well as the bullshit faith of other dogmas, as we will explore near the end. Human transcendence is not a one man job. The task of awakening others so as to become further awakened himself just adds more weight to his powerlessness in the face of his realizations.

If I don’t explain what you ought to know
You can tell me all about it on the next Bardo

“Bardo” is a Hindu term for the intermediate state between a soul’s incarnations. The place between lives. The self beyond our recyclable egos.

When I said one line could pretty much destroy’s Mirabella’s interpetation, that was the one. If Bowie believed he would go back to Bardo after his earthly demise, then he definitely was not discussing the nihilism of the live til you die dichotomy she sussed out of these lyrics.

Yet it is also Bowie accepting that the superhuman world might not happen in his life, and admitting to his failure to be clear enough on the concept to bring it about.

I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain’t got the power anymore

A seemingly impossible predicament partnered with a seemingly impossible task, this is the stuff existential nightmares are made of. Quicksand indeed.

But is everything just hopeless bullshit?

Don’t believe in yourself, don’t deceive with belief
Knowledge comes with death’s release

So we saw what my friend Mirabella thinks this bit of lyrics means at the top of this article. So now here is my version…

The self you are not supposed to believe in is the ego. But not in the sense that you shouldn’t have confidence or pride or admiration for yourself, but that it is only one small part of the puzzle of your entire existential self. Your soul or whatever you want to call it. I like to think of my ego as an avatar that my higher self picked to “play” in the game of life this time through. Undoubtedly only one of many avatars it has played throughout the existence of this world/game.

To not believe in myself or not deceive myself with belief is to have faith that the higher self, even when it seems like a total asshole for putting me here in this mess, is gaining something from it and working towards evolution of the game through avatars like myself.

When I die I will reintegrate into that higher self who remembers all of the games it has played…knowledge comes with deaths release…and all of this will make sense.

In the end this is a song about faith. It is about trying to transform ourselves and our world, but doing so humbly with faith that failure is not a possibility in the bigger picture.

You might play a video game a hundred times before beating it, but those first 99 tries made the final victory possible. So even in failure there is purpose and meaning. The little character on the screen, if she could believe anything about her existence, might believe she died forever 99 times. But the player, the higher self, always was, is and will be there hitting the start button and transforming the game with every run through.

So if Mirabella could be so wrong about one David Bowie song, what does that mean?

It means that our modern attachment to scientistic materialism has become a filter which limits our minds. And even transcendent art that passes through it is transformed into nihilistic pop kitsch.

David Bowie and many of the artists we all love did not see the world through that filter. They saw a world of endless secrets and possibilities. They saw chaos teeming with the potential for creation. They saw magic and the transformation of humanity through the filters of their art.

It is a shame that so many of those messages are lost, translated into something that goes against the intentions of the artists themselves. We have forgotten that artists are teachers, every bit as important as scientists, who have much to show us about our world. By shoving art through the filter of the materialist worldview we are rejecting its lessons and aiding our own ignorance. And by doing that we are holding ourselves back from the transcendent superhuman potential Bowie got himself caught in the quicksand of his mind thinking about.

Materialism is just another bullshit faith.

Rock music is fucking alchemy.

Now think about this whenever you hear a song that you thought you understood. You might be surprised.

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