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

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.

To Amuse the Cosmic Ass

Drunk on his own brew and half asleep at his office desk, the most honored man in the world cries. He cries the tears of one whose sadness is his greatest gift and his greatest curse simultaneously. Rheb Larsden, founder of Sadventures Incorporated, who specialize in reconstructing negative emotions for people who have never known them, clutches the little pills in his hand as he works up the courage. Today is a good day to die.

Eight years ago Rheb somehow stepped out of the 21st century into wherever he is now. In eight years he still has no idea how he got here or where he is. It could be the future or an alternate universe or even hell, so far as he knows. A hell in which everyone was happy but him, and where he was made the most powerful man simply by offering them a glimpse of his sadness.

When he was taken out of the world he was born into he was running through the woods clutching an epi-pen, racing to save the life of the woman he would marry in just a few weeks. He and Mareva had gone for a short walk from their camp when the bee stung her. As he raced back to her after retrieving the life-saving device, he was snatched from his existence and dumped willy-nilly wherever he was now.

Not a day goes by when he doesn’t set the table to eat himself inside-out emotionally over the ordeal. He knows he could handle it if he had just been taken from her, but that she almost certainly died because he could not reach her, he can never find comfort or peace. Or maybe he just doesn’t want to. Maybe we fall in love with our pain so we never have to be completely alone.

Still clutching those pills, those little distillates of poisons he had extracted himself for this very purpose, Rheb stumbles from his chair into a simulation room.

“Computer, run program Romeo & Juliet,” he says to flashing lights on the wall. A door opens and he walks inside the brightly lit room that quickly fades into shapes and colors and objects and faces and voices. This simulation was his first, before he added olfactory elements to further enrich the experience. It was a crude a clunky program, but it was his first and he had wanted to preserve it in all of it’s glorious clumsiness.

Rheb left the 21st century knowing almost nothing about the works of Shakespeare, a bard who had lived far before the time and place he was born in. His reconstruction of Romeo and Juliet was, he knew, so laughably inadequate that anybody from his original home would have called shenanigans. But even if it was only a shadow of the original tale, supplemented with Shakespearean tropes that probably weren’t even in Romeo and Juliet, the people here had loved it. For most, it had been their first real immersive experience in sadness and despair.

“Chose role,” a computer voice prompted him.

“Romeo.”

Wherever he was, wherever this was, this maddening utopia he had been delivered to by unknown forces, it was not a place for him. Everyone here was happy, perfectly and flawlessly happy. They paid him great money to experience the sadness he brought here with him. They rode his angst like a roller coaster through simulations he had programmed from his own experiences and memories of a world where everyone was far from perfectly happy. A world he missed more than imaginable.

When he arrived he found himself running down a street, still clutching the epi-pen meant to save Mareva’s life. Everything was pristine and beautiful, and his confusion and anguish were so out of place he became an instant spectacle. He scanned around. He screamed her name. He ran in circles. He jumped up and down and fell into a pile of confusion, fear and frustrated rage.

“What game is this, brother, and can I play with you?” asked a stranger standing over him.

Rheb looked up to notice that he was surrounded. All around him there were maniacally smiling faces, looking at him like he was the most fascinating thing they had ever seen.

“Play,” he responded. “PLAY?”

The man who had asked stood over him, grinning ethereally, without a care or concern in the world.

“You think this is some kind of fucking game? Who the fuck are you? Where am I? Where is Mareva?”

His face turned red then purple. His fist balled up and he began to shake.

“Where is Mareva?”

The man and the crowd still just smiled, waiting to see where this game was going. Rheb coiled up and struck out in a flash, punching the man square in the jaw. For a moment his smile was gone, not replaced by anger or pain, just curious confusion. Then he smiled again.

“What do you call this game, brother? What am I supposed to do?”

Rheb wound up for another, but before he could throw his punch he deflated and crumpled to the ground and curled up in the fetal position and began to wail. After a few minutes of total absorption in his own confused misery he heard dozens of other voices wailing. He sat up and looked around and all around him people were lying in the fetal position throwing mock tantrums of their own.

His anger flared. He jumped to his feet and was about to lash out in violence when he noticed that all eyes were on him. Not in mockery or contempt, but awe and wonder. They were following his lead, not ridiculing it. They gazed on him like some kind of glorious freak or a god. So he did the only thing that made any sense and blacked out.

Over the next few weeks he learned that wherever he was, sadness no longer existed. It was a world which had solved all of its basic problems, freeing its people the existential angst of their vestigial evolutionary quirks. Negative emotions had no bearing on these people, because the situations which gave rise to them had all basically been solved. From resource scarcity to reproductive patterns, everything that caused disharmony had been weeded out through careful innovation of all aspects of life.

Romance and love still existed, but without expectation or urgency. Love spread itself out so that everyone generally loved everyone else. Romance was something that happened in brief spurts, usually over a day or two, as two fascinated people explored one another before moving on to explore someone or something else. A life of total leisure had reduced the passion of love from a burning desire to playful curiosity.

Reproduction became a matter of community planning. Whenever somebody died a new human was created from the genetic framework of that person and the person who had died before them. They maintained population equilibrium this way while still preventing genetic bottle-necking. Babies were raised by volunteers for the first few years, but as they began to gain more independence they were given more opportunities to make choices for themselves while still be tended to by other members of the community. However in this world you were unlikely to meet a five year old who wasn’t as capable of self-sufficiency as most adults had been where Rheb came from.

An absence of fear and multitudes of trust tended to point everyone in healthier directions. It all began to make sense to him over time but there was one thing he could never explain. Even babies did not cry. Was this the same human being stock he had been bred from, or was it an entirely alien species? Was the difference in their basic structure, or just that they had eliminated sour emotions from their species for enough successive generations that they had been entirely bred out?

These people did not even fear death. It was every bit as accepted and even exciting as births were. Every individual even spent their lives composing a death song, a tune which would be sung by others for the first time after death, and would be used to memorialize them joyously. Festivals were regularly had in which songs for the dead were sang while people took ‘enhancers’ and danced and laughed and told stories. Of course the songs came and went over time. Few songs existed from even four or five generations back. The best way to be remembered was to write a great song, but nobody seemed much too concerned with being remembered and just tried to write a song they liked.

It was the perfect world and Rheb was the most beloved man in it, and yet he still resented it with every bit of his being. It had taken him away from Mareva, and it had prevented him from saving her life. He was trapped here alone with his sorrows and she was gone forever, not even a song to be sang to remember her.

A character spoke to him, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” It handed him a simulation of the poison which Romeo takes in the scene lying beside his sleeping lover Juliet whom he believes to be dead.

Rheb will be taking his own very real poison this time. Laying next to Juliet, who he had programmed to look like Mareva, he will swallow his mercy for once and for all. The simulation moves him ever closer to that moment and his heart swells with relief. He is not afraid.

The people of this world, this future, this hell, this godforsaken whatever, had long forgotten sadness when Rheb arrived. They lived peacefully and blissfully. To all outward appearances they were perfectly adjusted. But through their constant smiles and enthusiasm there was something else. It had taken awhile to see it, but it was there.

Where once had been sadness, pain and all of those negative emotions there was now a hole. A great emptiness that longed to be filled. Although they could not verbalize it directly it became obvious that everyone carried around a sense of incompleteness. And his sadness, an experience which was absolutely alien to them, had become a fast, cheap fix. Through reliving the misery he was able to relate to them, they temporarily were able to fill this gap. However it never lasted and they were always hungry for more. Until finally the gnashing of the teeth of these emotional vampires, demanding his anguish so they could feed from it, became too much for him to bear.

The saddest man could never be given any peace in the happiest of worlds.

As the poison took hold he began to lose consciousness. Suddenly he was back in the woods, running towards Mareva. He cried out, “Don’t worry baby, you are gonna be okay. Everything is going to be okay.”

When his body was found in the simulation room a memory tube was found in his pocket which contained his death song. Within hours it had spread over the entire world and was being sung by every person alive. For the first time they shed tears and felt the sadness that Rheb could only give them a small taste of in life. But by his death and by his song, the currency of pain was made real by the guilt of what they had done. They had driven their savior to oblivion in their hunger for his knowledge. They had caused the fruit which shall not be eaten to eat itself.

I am an ark upon an endless sea
Built from pain and misery
Surrounded by waters of endless glee
That jump the bough to ride in me

How can a boat so small and frail
Hold an entire sea it was meant to sail
Surely such a thing must fail
Why must I sink to tell my tale

As all things must come to pass
To amuse the cosmic ass
Into the void where I belong
Feast your fangs on my life’s song

Famous Song Lyrics/Celebrity Mashup Parodies

 

Since this website has began I have written over seven hundred pieces around the internet. I take the craft of writing very seriously and feel blessed to have pursued my dreams to the point where they have begun to pay off. But sometimes very seriousness gets a bit tiring and I just want to write silly nonsense for fun. Instead of keeping all that joy to myself I have created a fun writing exercise I hope you will join me in.

The name of the game is very simple. First you select a famous song, something everybody knows, at least vaguely. Then you select a celebrity with equal public clout and rewrite the songs lyrics from their perspective. You do not have to remain true to the original lyrics message or theme, just keep the melody and let your chosen celebrity speak. I will provide a few examples below, but the hope is that it will inspire you to contribute one or two of these famous song lyrics/celebrity mashup parodies of your own, which I will publish in a part two of this article later.

You can submit your lyrics in the comments of this article or on the AdvancedApe.com Official Facebook Page.

Me first…

I Love Rock n’ Roll by Joan Jett
Reimagined by Charlie Sheen – I Love Sluts n’ Whores

I saw her dancin’ there by the silver poles gleam
I knew she must a been a legal eighteen
The beat was goin’ strong
Feelin’ my swelling dong
An’ I could tell it wouldn’t be long
Till she was with me, yeah me,
An’ I could tell it wouldn’t be long
Till she was with me, yeah me, screamin’

I love sluts n’ whores
So let me put my straw in your juicebox, baby
I love sluts and whores
I’ll pay ya for your time to depants with me

She giggled when I asked her how much to turn out
That don’t matter, she said,
‘Cause it’s on the house
Said can I take you home and work that stiff pink bone
An’ now we were turnin’ out
She was in me, yeah me
First class reacharound
She was with me, yeah me screamin’

I love sluts n’ whores
So let me put my straw in your juicebox, baby
I love sluts and whores
So cum a dozen times with no romantic fees

Said can I take you home n’ make you sweat n’ groan
Next we’re turnin’ up
She was with me, yeah me
And we’ll be turnin’ on up
An’ slingin’ that big ol’ dong
Yeah with me, screamin’

I love sluts n’ whores
So let me put my straw in your juicebox, baby
I love sluts and whores
No shame if I gotta pay or you’re real easy

 

Mickey by Toni Basil
Reimagined by Ed Gein – Mary (Gein’s first verified victim’s name.)

Oh Mary, you’re so fine
You’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mary…
Hey Mary!

Hey Mary!
You work the bar all night but I can wait that long
You think everything’s alright but it’s about to go real wrong
Why can’t you say goodnight so I can take you home, Mary

‘Cause when you give me thrills, I tell myself I won’t
You’re givin’ me the chills, baby, please baby don’t
Tonight when you lie still we can be alone, Mary

Oh Mary, what a pity mom won’t understand
I wanna feel your heart beat extinguished by my hand
Oh Mary, you’re so pretty, I can’t understand
It’s gals like you Mary
Oh, what you do Mary, do Mary
Don’t make me kill again

Hey Mary!
Now you can be all mine and nobodies gotta know
I’ll wear you like a mask and put on a little show
There’s nothin’ we can’t use, skin and bones, Mary

So let me use your body any way I can
To feel like a pretty lady though I’m just an ugly man
Oh please, baby, please, why can’t mom understand

Oh Mary, what a pity mom won’t understand
I wanna feel your heart beat extinguished by my hand
Oh Mary, you’re so pretty, I can’t understand
It’s gals like you Mary
Oh, what you do Mary, do Mary
Don’t make me kill again

Oh Mary, you’re so fine
You’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Mary
Hey Mary

Oh Mary, what a pity mom won’t understand
I wanna feel your heart beat dying in my hand
Oh Mary, you’re so pretty, I can’t understand
It’s gals like you Mary
Oh, what you do Mary, do Mary
Don’t make me kill again

 

I Wanna Rock by Twisted Sister
Reimagined by Leonard Nimoy – I’m Not A Spock

Not a Spock (Spock)
I’m not a Spock (Spock)
I ‘m not a Spock (Spock)
I ‘m not a Spock (Spock)

Wear the ears you say
Well, all I gotta say to you is time and time again
I say no (No)
No no, no no, no

Do that finger thing
Well, all I gotta say when you want the finger thing
I say no (No)
No no, no no, no

So if you ask me why I will not act a Vulcan
There’s only one thing I can say to you

I’m not a Spock (Spock)
I ‘m not a Spock (Spock)
I ‘m not a Spock (Spock)
I ‘m not a Spock (Spock)

There’s a fanbase that
Typecast me as an alien from a far more rational world
I wish they’d go (Go)
Go go, go go, go

Burned my career up
I’ve waited for so long to not have to play along
So just go (Go)
Go go, go go, go

When it’s like this, I feel the fans just look right through me
There’s nothing else that I’d rather not do

I’m not a Spock (Spock)
I ‘m not a Spock (Spock)
I ‘m not a Spock (Spock)
I ‘m not a Spock (Spock)

I’m not a Spock (Spock)
Spock (Spock)
Spock (Spock)
I AM NOT Spock

Okay, your turn!