‘Thought-tormented Music’: David Bowie’s Low and T.S. Eliot

Fragmented language, Nietzschean elitism, and disillusionment with art: could Bowie’s Thin White Duke era have been inspired by The Waste Land?

-Kathryn Bromwich

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Submitted for MA in English: Issues in Modern Culture, University College London, 2009. 

Shorter, snappier version here.

T.S. Eliot’s early work, particularly The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) and The Waste Land (1922), and David Bowie’s Low (1977), are considered to be ground-breaking in their respective genres of poetry and music. Both antagonise the reader or listener with fragmented language and obscure references, and are united by a similarity in tone: disillusionment with art and distrust of language. Through a discussion of the influence of Eliot on Bowie, this essay will examine the motivation behind the aesthetic choices in both artists, and the ways in which they strive to bring about ‘newness’. The trend in 1970’s rock towards experimentation and intellectualism is well exemplified by Bowie’s interest in literature in 1977; the link between him and Eliot appears to be considerable, and can be seen as a symptomatic example for a wider movement of innovation in music. The focus will be on Low, in relation to Eliot’s early poetry and the critical writings of Eliot and Ezra Pound, in order to illustrate the ways in which Modernist ideas, themselves incorporating musical aspects, function when applied to the field of music.

The disciples of Eliot are numerous, but one who is not often discussed is David Bowie. Passing through William Burroughs, it is possible to establish an indirect influence of Eliot on Bowie. Hugo Wilcken, in his extended analysis of Low, states that Bowie’s lyrics were often composed in a ‘cut-up writing style, derived from William S. Burroughs,’[1] who in turn referred to The Waste Land as ‘the first great cut-up collage’[2] and ‘terrifically important […] I often find myself sort of quoting it or using it in my work in one way or other.’[3] However, there is also a more concrete link to Eliot. Three years before Low was released, Burroughs interviewed Bowie and remarked:

Burroughs: I read this ‘Eight Line Poem’ of yours and it is very reminiscent of T.S. Eliot.

Bowie: Never read him.

Burroughs: (Laughs) It is very reminiscent of ‘The Waste Land.’[4]

Given that Bowie considered Burroughs to be ‘the John the Baptist of postmodernism,’[5] it appears likely that this encounter would have encouraged Bowie to read Eliot.

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Book: André Gide, L’Immoraliste

Based as it is on misanthropy, ennui and lewdness, it is tempting to describe The Immoralist as a pamphlet to Modernism

-Kathryn Bromwich

That The Immoralist (1902) was criminally ahead of its time is a given. In a pre-Chatterley, pre-Burroughs, pre-Henry Miller era, André Gide’s candid and unjudgemental depiction of an outwardly immoral and selfish man came as a bolt from the blue. Now the modern world has more or less caught up with it, and Gide’s work reads as freshly as if it were published today.

Brilliant Parisian scholar Michel, married to the delicate Marceline partly out of duty to his father, partly out of boredom, grows sick with tuberculosis. In his slow convalescence, he discovers a joie de vivre he had never known: in his own words, ‘daylight acquired an unhoped-for radiance.’ Once found, however, this feeling proves difficult to hang on to, and Michel finds that he can only recapture it in the company of young boys.

Like in Hesse’s Siddhartha, the protagonist first experiences the world of the intellect, and is later on in life awakened to the possibilities of bodily pleasures. While the former transcends the mind and body dichotomy to achieve a state of Nirvana, the latter unsuccessfully tries to balance the two, resulting in existential anguish and dissatisfaction. The conversations with his nihilistic acquaintance Ménalque express dialectically the difficulty of finding a balanced stance in relation to society. Yet he is not a figure altogether worthy of hatred: there are elements of Dostoyevsky’s innocent Prince Myshkin in Michel’s frank attitude to his feelings, and Gide’s unwillingness to condemn him makes the reader makes the reader question their own standpoint.

Highly innovative and pithily written, it proved to be a milestone for 20th century literature, influencing Camus and Sartre, among others. The novella encapsulates the spirit of the following decades, prefiguring the early 20th century interests in primitivism, sexual instincts, and repression.