Saturday, 16 January 2016

2016 – Charlotte Brontë and David Bowie

David Bowie is dead! For all his many fans in the music world, across several generations, the news this week has come as a great shock. We thought he would be around forever, like an undying god, but no – he is gone. The passing of Bowie, the beloved Thin White Duke, is a huge happening in this early new year 2016.

2016 of course, is also Charlotte Brontë's big year, the bicentenary of her birth, and events are already taking place around the world to celebrate her life and legacy. Thus, while sadly we bid farewell to one huge figure in the world of popular music, we are also remembering one of the great icons of literary culture.

Out of homage to these two great artists, David Bowie and Charlotte Brontë, I would like to approach here some common themes and parallels found in their lives and works. I would like to show how they were kindred artistic spirits in many ways – however strange the idea might at first seem!

Solitude and despair

One the major themes Bowie and Charlotte share, one informing constantly their artistic projects, is that of solitude. Both artists are obsessed and haunted by black ideas of solitude, by despair and social isolation. From an early age, they both felt different, unwanted and alone. Reading Charlotte's letters collection, it's clear how she so often feels to be an alien, an outsider adrift in a hostile world. In 1836, at the age of twenty, she wrote to Ellen Nussey: "Ellen, I have some qualities that make me very miserable, some feelings that you can have no participation in – that very few people in the world can at all understand –".

It's in her novels too, and in all her heroines – the loneliness of Jane Eyre, Lucy Snowe, Frances Henri, and Shirley's Caroline Helstone. Charlotte’s writing deals much with the solitude of young orphaned women, women floating uncomfortably on the margins of society – loveless, homeless and desperate women, who are looking for a place to live, a little friendship, and some crumbs of love. In Shirley and Villette, the two novels she wrote (or finished) after the deaths of her siblings, the atmosphere of gloomy solitude and despair is oppressive. In Villette, Chapter 15, Lucy Snowe experiences a sort of nervous breakdown, having been left alone in her school during the long summer holidays. It is difficult to ignore the searing pain in her words:

"Even to look forward was not to hope: the dumb future spoke no comfort, offered no promise, gave no inducement to bear present evil in reliance on future good. A sorrowful indifference to existence often pressed on me – a despairing resignation to reach betimes the end of all things earthly."

Now this bereft, solitary territory was the very space that David Bowie knew all too well, a landscape he travelled through and inhabited for much of his life. He outlines it in his interviews and in his song lyrics, where he tells how he felt like a space oddity, or, as he puts it in another song, a cracked actor. He was a man who was so often afraid, who did not like himself, and who, beneath all his façades and smiles, felt lonely, cut-off from common human living, so mentally unwell.  Bowie's interviews, easily found on the internet, offer many quotes on the themes of emotional pain and solitude, such as: "what I do is I write mainly about very personal and lonely feelings, and I explore them in a different way each time". Bowie endured many painful psychologic extremes, just like his Major Tom in Ashes to Ashes, who was "strung out in heaven's high, hitting an all time low".
 Bowie and Charlotte never tired of writing about their stark emotional suffering; perhaps it was the only way they found to exorcise the dark demons tormenting them.

Identity crisis

For much of their lives, both artists were also very troubled by problems of Identity. They were never really sure of themselves as persons – who or what they should be, or what role they should play, or how they should fit into the various identities their respective epochs offered them –identities of self, society, class, gender. In their art, they deal extensively with identity questions – so much more so than many of their fellow artists.


It should be noted too, from the start, that both chose artistic pseudonyms. Bowie's real name was in fact David Robert Jones. Charlotte adopted the name Currer Bell for her first book publication, and the name stayed with her, even long after her real identity became publicly known.

Bowie's explorations on and confrontations with identity questions are legendary. At the height of his music career, he flitted like a chameleon from one identity to another, from Ziggy Stardust, to Aladdin Sane, to the Thin White Duke. All the time he was reinventing himself, or running away from himself maybe, because he never really knew who he was, or who he was meant to be, and because the person he saw, when he looked in the mirror, was never really there. Or, as he sings in Changes, "So I turned myself to face me, but I never caught a glimpse / of how the others must see the faker, I'm much to fast to take that test…".

Charlotte Brontë too had many problems related to personal identity, and the search for a suitable social role. Villette is the novel where she gives these questions their most subtle treatment, and where Lucy Snowe is so often slipping away from any attempts by the reader, or by other characters in the novel, to fix her with a set identity. So much so that a confused Ginevra Fanshawe has to ask her, in Chapter 27 of Villette, "Who are you, Miss Snowe?"  Shortly before this (Chapter 26), Lucy had remarked: "What contradictory attributes of character we sometimes find ascribed to us, according to the eye with which we are viewed!"

In each of her four novels, Charlotte can be said to offer a different fictional version of herself. In Jane Eyre, she is the fighting, rebellious Jane, in Shirley she is the passive, melancholic Caroline Helstone, in Villette, the tortured, bitter Lucy Snowe. With regard to The Professor, the case is more complicated – who is the Charlotte in the story?  Is it the cold, blunt teacher William Crimsworth, or is it his imaginative pupil, Frances Henri? Indeed, The Professor is a curious novel from the point of view of gender and role. It is, in brief, a novel written by a woman (Charlotte), using a male pseudonym (Currer Bell), whose first person narrator is a man (Crimsworth) – a man whose story bears so many elements taken from Charlotte's own real life experiences. Bowie, with his interest in cross-gender experiments, would have loved it!

But one must be careful not to too closely identify Charlotte with her fictional characters. Ultimately she was not Lucy, Jane, Caroline – not even Frances Henri or William Crimsworth. She invented personae, drawing on her own life experiences, but kept an artist’s distance from these creations. Just as David Bowie was never really Ziggy, Aladdin, or the Duke.

Charlotte, indeed, hated being identified in real life with the heroines of her novels. In 1852, she even considered trying to publish anonymously her upcoming novel Villette, thereby limiting the chances of her being identified in any way as the model for Lucy Snowe. Still, she could not prevent people from associating her with one or other of her literary characters. Like William Thackeray, who, after meeting Charlotte Brontë once, went off boasting to his friends:  'Boys! I have been dining with "Jane Eyre"! '

Alas, the question of identity, concerning Charlotte Brontë and David Bowie, is far too complex to be dealt with here in a blog post, but it could make for an interesting study, someday.

The eyes, the gaze

Both Bowie and Charlotte were remarkable for their eyes, and their gaze. Surely one of the first things one notices about Bowie in any of those old video clips is his way of looking, his most curious eyes. Bowie had one eye pupil bigger than the other, making his eyes appear to be of different colours. This was due to a rare medical condition, called anisocoria, it seems. But that is not the only reason why his gaze captures attention – it is also the way in which his eyes seems to stare, to laugh, to mock, to be intensely present and attentive, yet other worldly and distant. There is something magical, sensitive, and alien-like about Bowie's gaze, something which is difficult to capture in words, but it is hard to deny it is there. Bowie took a lot of drugs, especially cocaine, but the particularity of his gaze is not simply a result of his drug intake. No, "it's not the side effects of the cocaine", as he sings in Station to Station; it is something else. What else? Maybe it has a lot to do with living most of his life in a state of intense, excited, and insecure artistic wonder. As he once said, "once you lose that sense of wonder at being alive, you're pretty much on the way out".

Charlotte Brontë too was noted for her very special eyes. Several commentators state that although she was a plain sort of woman, her eyes stood out in a remarkable manner, lighting up her whole being. Maybe because Charlotte, like Bowie, was a child of powerful and profound artistic wonder too. Elizabeth Gaskell in The Life of Charlotte Brontë (Chapter VI), gives a fine description of Charlotte's eyes. According to Gaskell, she had:
 "peculiar eyes of which I find it difficult to give a description, as they appeared to me in her later life. They were large and well shaped; their colour a reddish brown; but if the iris was closely examined, it appeared to be composed of a great variety of tints. The usual expression was of quiet, listening intelligence; but now and then, on some just occasion for vivid interest or wholesome indignation, a light would shine out, as if some spiritual lamp had been kindled, which glowed behind those expressive orbs. I never saw the like in any other human creature."
If Gaskell could ever have been presented to David Bowie, how would she have described Ziggy's own most peculiar eyes..!?

The drugs

As already mentioned, Bowie took a lot of drugs, especially in his peak rock star years. He was above all a cocaine addict, and liked the illusion of power, control and pace it gave him. No doubt his feelings of insecurity, weakness and alienation led him to first taking drugs, and doubtless too his personal problems were only exacerbated in the end by his heavy chemical abuse. In his later years, he realized that the drugs did not work, that there was no point in trying to seek a cure for life's enormous personal and existential dilemmas in chemicals. Bowie dabbled with LSD it seems, and heroin too, though he never liked very much heroin – "I don't like drugs that slow you down", he once declared.

Charlotte Brontë and drugs? Lately there has been some speculation in Brontë circles as to whether or not Charlotte took opium. The case however seems to have been definitively dealt with many years ago. Elizabeth Gaskell, in her 1857 biography of Charlotte (Chapter XXVII), recounts how she asked Charlotte one day whether or not she took opium. Charlotte replied that "she had never, to her knowledge, taken a grain of it, in any shape". Gaskell had found it necessary to investigate the matter, feeling, like others before and since, that some of Charlotte's work, such as the Park scenes of Villette, had an acute, sensual aura about them which suggested the influence of drugs. It is true that Charlotte's work at times has a distinctly hallucinatory feel; one French critic has even suggested links between Villette and Arthur Rimbaud's Les Illuminations. Yet brilliant artistic creation does not necessarily require any drug input, and drugs such as opium and heroin have done far more to destroy artistic projects than to enhance them. The best artists usually have all they need in their own brain and imagination, and rarely, if ever, need to visit les paradis artificiels for further inspiration.

However, if one persists in seeking a link between Charlotte Brontë and drug taking, maybe it would be more fruitful to ask whether Charlotte ever indulged in magic mushrooms (psilocybe semilanceata). These psychedelic mushrooms apparently grow free and wild on the Yorkshire moors. It is not impossible that the Brontës came across them on their long walks, perhaps bringing some back home to consume during an evening fireside soup at the Haworth Parsonage (!) Some indulgence in a mildly psychedelic fungus might have helped Charlotte, and indeed her siblings, to acquire different spatial, chromatic and visual perspectives, which in turn might have had an influence on their artistic works. But, once again, one must thread carefully here, and not seek to attribute vast and great art-enhancing powers to chemical substances. Besides, that would be only to encourage the many tiresome artists out there who claim that their chronic chemical abuse will bring forth… masterpieces!

By way of conclusion, I think that there are several interesting parallels to be drawn between the life stories and art of Charlotte Brontë and David Bowie. Although they belonged to radically different epochs and artistic worlds, they shared a lot of common ground. They were both struggling, tormented, obsessive souls, and they were both immense artists. Heroes, they were, both of them, and not "just for one day...".

Brian Bracken
14 January 2016.

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