Friday, January 22, 2016

Why My Interpretation of "Station to Station" Differs From Others'

Preliminary Notes

  • The kinds of interpretations I'm referring to here are like these ones and this one.
  • I'm not sure I have a naive interpretation of this song - I mean, "The European canon is here" has always had a very immediate meaning for me, but other that that I'm not sure I made much sense of it before already reading some of the material that's available online.  My explanation of my own interpretation is therefore informed by these other interpretations even as it simultaneously sets itself out in opposition to them.  It's just quite clear to me these interpretations are fundamentally not getting something about what the song means to me.
  • Happily for everyone, the lyrics on David Bowie's official site say "European canon," not "European cannon."  Most other lyrics sites seem to say "cannon," which is mind-boggling to me, but on the other hand, like I said, that particular line has a very immediate meaning to me which I suppose isn't quite as immediate for other people.

Areas of Agreement

  • The song has something to do with Bowie's mystical interests.  These obviously include Crowley, Kabbalah and the Hindu Tattva system, both of which are explicitly referenced in the song, and may also include Gnosticism and Buddhism.
  • The song undergoes a movement from a bare, stark opening section to a wild, euphoric close.
  • The song refers to and incorporates Bowie's genuine strung-out, paranoid and cocaine-infused state at the time of its writing.  Cocaine plays a role as a key symbol in or even impetus for the song.
  • The song looks back on a past period of joy and happiness, connection, which is now lost.
  • The euphoria of the final section is in some way fake or insincere - when Bowie sings "it's not the side of effects of the cocaine,"it probably is the side effects of the cocaine.  When he asks,"Should I believe that I've been stricken?  Does my face show some kind of glow?" the answer is that no, he shouldn't believe that he's been stricken.  Any glow his face does show is a side effect of the cocaine as well.

An Interpretation, With Reference to Others'

  • The Thin White Duke was of course Bowie's character at this stage in his career, and so I think the typical reading is that the singer is himself the Thin White Duke.  Possibly because the Thin White Duke is described in the third person, I don't see it that way.  I see the Thin White Duke as an external force, something that is being described in the song but is not identical with the singer.
  • The Thin White Duke "throw[s] darts in lovers' eyes."  This connects the Thin White Duke with the concept of love.  Love is blind.  Does throwing darts into lovers' eyes imply that the Thin White Duke is the one blinding the lovers?  The Thin White Duke thus is some sort of mechanism of love, something external to the lovers themselves but that has a power over them.
  • "One magical moment, such is the stuff from where dreams are made of" - a line that seems to be discussing inspiration, imagination - not just an external force but an external force that is connected to dreams
  • "Tall in this room overlooking the ocean" and "lost in my circle" - the persona of the singer is enclosed or entrapped in a confined space ("this room" implies containment, a small realm).  "Lost in my circle" - a circle is linked to magic, the magician's circle drawn on the ground, but it's also a way of describing something cyclical - a series of events that keep on recurring over and over again in the same order.  From a personal perspective (and also speculating about what drug addiction might be like), it reads as someone caught in an addictive habit or state and on the downside of that.  Unable to escape the repetitive pattern but unable to join it.
  • "Flashing no color" - evidently an explicit reference to this Tattva system.  Not knowing about that, the associations I make are twofold - firstly, a further reference to white, the absence of color, and secondly an association with depression - colorless is also emotionless, experiencing nothing, flat.
  • "one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth" - Well, this is explicit - something is going from, as Pushing Ahead of the Dame tells us, "Godhead" to "the material world."  But Pushing Ahead of the Dame tells us it's Bowie himself who's making the drop.  I think, again, that I see the Thin White Duke as something outside of Bowie, and thus I maybe see it as something else that's trying to come into Bowie's own material world.  Or, if not that, that the fall was a long time ago - inevitably, and especially in the context of David Bowie, I'm going to interpret mystical references in terms of Valis, and so if it's Bowie that's fallen, he's been fallen for quite a while.
  • Why is the Thin White Duke returning?  The Thin White Duke must have been gone for a while.  If he's back now, he must have been somewhere else.  Was the Thin White Duke in Kether?  Is he the one moving from Kether to Malkuth?
  • The whole first section seems to be describing a pair of lovers.  After all, when they are together as "we," it is "one magical moment" and "one magical movement."  But they are also separate - now "I" is "here" and "you" is "there."  The persona is stationary, or, if not, then stuck in a repetitive movement.  "In this room" or "lost in my circle."  But the persona's counterpart is moving - "rush[ing] like a demon from station to station."  Together, one could see them as stable ("one magical moment") or moving ("one magical movement").  The separation of the two characters, however, could be part of what's wrong with the persona - he's stuck in a room and lost in a circle because his motive force isn't there, or isn't there all the time.  But the person travelling out alone is "like a demon" - perhaps running about from station to station is not that rewarding either.
  • Someone is alone and needs to be returned to.  It would seem to be the person described as "you" returning, since the one described as "I" seems to be staying where he is, but of course it could be that the return of the Thin White Duke isn't directly describing either character.  If the two characters are lovers, then the Thin White Duke is a separate person who throws darts in their eyes.
  • The Thin White Duke "mak[es] sure white stains."  Other interpreters see it as cocaine (for obvious reasons), which probably is a relevant theme.  More directly, it's an explicit Crowley reference.  But I, Shelley devotee that I am, cannot help myself in linking this to "Adonais."  In "Adonais," Shelley writes that "Life, like a dome of many-colour'd glass, / Stains the white radiance of Eternity."  It's "stains" and "white" in the same line!  As I once already mentioned, Crowley also once wrote a poem entitled, "In the Woods with Shelley,"  (Shelley is obviously Percy B.), which includes the lines, "Spurning the stain of all grief here" and "Loose but your soul — shall its wings find the white way so appalling?" (in reference to Heaven), which is fairly close in meaning to how Shelley used "stains" and "white" in "Adonais"; this is presumably a coincidence but is an unlikely enough one that I find it intriguing anyway.
  • In "Adonais," colors represent regular life.  They're an infection that gets in the way of "the white radiance of Eternity."  By the end of "Adonais" the persona is happy to die because that's how you get to the Eternal, which is where love and light and beauty all reside.  It's a Neo-Platonic poem (the epigraph is typically attributed to Plato) where the Platonic idealism is so strong that it almost approaches Gnosticism - life is just a stain on what's really vital, which is something outside of life.  It's an illusion that obscures the absolute and the unified.  White is the color of the eternal, something that's outside of us and the source of us and everything that's of any significance.  This is a key Shelleyan idea - he also calls it intellectual beauty.
  • The Thin White Duke is white.  He seems like a representative of Eternity or intellectual beauty.  But, unlike in "Adonais," we're not going to him.  He's coming here, from Godhead to the material world.  And he used to be here before.  It's a return for him to come back here. But in Shelleyan terms, this makes sense.  "The One remains, the many change and pass."  The Eternal is, well, eternal.  It's always been around.  It's only us who don't always recognize it.  This is clearer in "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" which posits that Intellectual Beauty, "The awful shadow of some unseen Power. . . visit[s] / This various world with as inconstant wing / As summer winds that creep from flower to flower."  Intellectual Beauty is something that we can interact with in this world, but not always.  Its accessibility to us here is "inconstant."  "The painted veil, by those who were, called life, / Which mimicked, as with colors idly spread / All men believed and hoped" must be "torn aside" if we want to view it  (And there come colors again.  White is the absence of color, but also, of course, the unification of all colors.  White represents the unity to be found in Eternal Intellectual Beauty whereas colors are the divided, unified world of real life that is only an imperfect mirror of the true unification of Eternity.).  
  • If, as seen from the perspective of a true understanding of Eternity, the colors of life are just stains, on the other hand, from the perspective of someone living life, full of colors, the occasional appearance of Intellectual Beauty would leave "white stains" on the painted veil of reality.
  • Eternity is described later on in "Adonais" as "that sustaining Love / Which through the web of being blindly wove / By man and beast and earth and air and sea, / Burns bright or dim, as each are mirrors of / The fire for which all thirst."  In "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty," he not only mentions "Love, Hope, and Self-esteem," but he literally addresses Intellectual Beauty as "Thou messenger of sympathies, / That wax and wane in lovers' eyes," which I only just discovered and which makes me wish more than ever that there were any evidence whatsoever of a direct link between Bowie and Shelley.  Anyway, the point is clear - we humans caught in the dismal muck and multicolored falsity of life are relieved by love; Intellectual Beauty and Eternity have some connection with our experience of love.
  • None of this is babbling about Shelley is explicitly justified by the text in the way that babbling about the Kabbalah or Crowley is; it might be justified as an authorially-intended reading if there were any external evidence whatsoever of Bowie being influenced by Shelley, but there isn't.  And yet, the reading still works, I think, even if I got it from Shelley and not from Bowie - the Thin White Duke represents the emanation of Kether into Malkuth, the impingement of unified eternity into the material world, and that emanation is something that you make contact with or touch when you are in love.  The Thin White Duke shows up when the lovers are together, throws darts in their eyes and leaves pure white stains.
  • The Thin White Duke might be an emotionless thing, in and of himself (are there emotions in eternity).  Might be a threatening thing, actually.  To quote Valis, "if your god takes you over, it is likely that no matter what name he goes by he is actually a form of the mad god Dionysos. He was also the god of intoxication, which may mean, literally, to take in toxins; that is to say, to take a poison. The danger is there."  But, in my reading, he isn't something which is identical to the trap that the narrator is in, lost in his circle.  The Thin White Duke at least looks like the way out.
  • The persona is lost in his circle.  He's stuck.  It's the Thin White Duke leaving pure white stains that coaxes him out.
  • At first, of course, the persona can't escape the circle.  But slowly he remembers that there is a way out.  He remembers he wasn't always there.  "Once there were mountains on mountains and once there were sunbirds to soar with and once I could never be down."
  • Chris O'Leary positions this midsection as the beginning of Bowie's "eventual escape, with release only coming from renouncing magic," writing that the music of this section provides "an audible sense of escape from the bad mojo of Los Angeles" and suggesting that this somehow signals an abandonment or turning away from Gnosticism.  This strikes me as odd - the commentators on SongMeanings seem to get this more right when they point to it as being more a memory of an ideal past that one desperately longs to recover, which is an idea more in line with Gnosticism or mysticism than against it.  Once you're in Malkuth, surely you want nothing more than to get back to Kether?  But the music is certainly hinting at escape, freedom.
  • It's hard not to see this as a description of someone beginning to wake from a long depression. It's a bit like Plath in "Black Rook in Stormy Weather": "At any rate, I now walk / Wary (for it could happen / Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical / Yet politic, ignorant / Of whatever angel any choose to flare / Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook / Ordering its black feathers can so shine / As to seize my senses, haul /My eyelids up, and grant / A brief respite from fear / Of total neutrality."  Depression is being trapped in a rut, unable to escape, having no sense of connection or meaning.  It doesn't lift immediately - you can't go in one magical movement from Malkuth to Kether.  But at a certain point, you remember that things can be different.  You remember that there are other possibilities.  Coming out of depression, some people say, is actually the time when people are most likely to commit suicide, more so than when they're fully in the grips of that.  Maybe in part that's because it's only in coming out of depression that you realize exactly how much you've lost.
  • You remember that the Thin White Duke used to be here - once you were touched by this inconstant principle of love - but it's gone now.  How can you connect to it again, since that's what really matters?
  • The final section. . . this is the most joyous, ebullient section.  And yet everyone can't help but see it as ironic.  A commentator on SongMeanings writes that it is "cynical" and that Bowie "means the exact opposite" of what he's saying.  Even O'Leary, who does see the song as depicting an escape (but from Gnosticism, not just from depression), writes that it is "resigned" and "a retreat."
  • I see this as ironic, too.  But I don't really buy either reading of why it's ironic.  On the one hand, I see the persona as meaning what he's saying.  He thinks he's in love.  I don't think he is, or if he is, it doesn't matter, it's futile and bound to dissipate - but I don't see it as cynical or meaning the exact opposite.  I think it is the genuine words sung by a person who genuinely sees himself as being in love.  On the other hand, I also don't see it as resigned or a retreat.  "It's too late to be hateful"?  That's not a resigned statement; that's a good thing!  "The European canon is here"?  What could be better?!  A retreat from Gnosticism?  But this section is transcendent!  It's ironic, but the irony stems not from the persona's stated emotions but rather from the unreliability of his narration.
  • What does the persona think is happening here?  Remember, he was searching for a connection with love, the Eternal, Intellectual Beauty.  And now that he is in love, now that he "won't let the day pass without her," he thinks he's found that connection.  From being lost in his circle and tall in his room, he's managed (so he thinks) to reach outside of himself, to find others, and to find a way back to the happiness that he had lost.  "Stricken" is used here in a positive sense, linked to his face showing a "glow."  The colorless lack of emotion in the first section has now been utterly changed into the return of the euphoria elegized in the second section.  He has that connection back.  He's found the Intellectual Beauty he sought.
  • The return of euphoric emotion is characterized as "love," and the link to a supposed "her" that he won't let the day pass without suggests romantic love.
  • But there's more to it than romantic love, or, as the "throwing darts in lover's eyes" line suggests, love is something that connects you to a broader sense of the good.
  • Shelley characterizes the Eternal as. . . well, eternal.  And changeless.  Something outside of time, something unitary when real existence is manifold.  It is "That Benediction which the eclipsing Curse / Of birth can quench not."  Being alive takes us out of it; when we are dead we will, however, return to it.
  • The only way we know, in life, to the Eternal is through love, through Intellectual Beauty, through those things that touch us within time.  But our connection to the Eternal takes us outside of time.  If "it's too late" for us to continue the various emotions and experiences we have within life, then that's because life is over.  But life is over when we tear aside the painted veil.  These references to time coming to an end suggest that Eternity is beginning.
  • The European canon is here. . . other people might love other things.  Maybe even the persona loves or thinks he loves some girl.  But I love art.  More than that, part of the power of art comes from its intertextuality.  Art is not reality.  But art seems more real the more people treat it as real.  The European canon - any canon, really - is a web of people making connections to each other, being brought to intellectual beauty by each other and then reaching down from there to give a hand to the next person on her way up.  This can even be seen in this context itself, with Bowie being a Philip Dick reader who references SF in his songs and then influencing Dick to write Valis - all of these things which may not seem to be real are brought into some kind of semi-reality thanks to the weight of the numbers of people who treat them as real.  The European canon is here, combined with all the "too late"s, paints a very definite picture in my mind - an image of the weight of it, all of the art and thought of European culture, finally putting an end to reality, overtaking it.  The sheer solidity of Intellectual Beauty conjured up by all these people - when it doesn't really exist! - in conversation with each other finally coming to fruition.  "If God does not exist in this world...... I will make God with my own hands!"  It's never going to happen, of course.  But then it does.
  • Well. . . or that's what the persona seems to be gesturing at.  After a seeming eternity of being stuck in reality and depression, the painted veil, by those who were called life, with no escape, an escape is finally created by the weight of art building up so heavily that even the formerly depressed persona can at last experience love, escaping once and for all from the burdens of time into Eternity.
  • That's what I see the persona as thinking.  But is it really what's happening?  Well, of course not.  The persona makes that clear, although, unlike the SongMeanings commentator, I think it's unintentional, that the persona is in a genuine state of delusion at this point.  Why would he even tell us, "It's not the side effects of the cocaine"?  Because he's taken enough cocaine that it legitimately could be the side effects of the cocaine.  The certainty of "it must be love" is undercut by the qualification that this is just what the persona is "thinking."  As the SongMeanings commentator points out, "I must be only one in a million; / I won't let the day pass without her..." is obviously rather ludicrous - that's how everyone who's in love, or even just infatuated, feels, so why would the persona think he's "only one in a million"?  Because he's delusional about the power of his love, thinks it's something unique and transporting when in reality it's mundane and banal.  And, of course, the possibility that he's been stricken is so unlikely that he has to ask us if he should "believe" it, and rather than tell us outright that he's glowing ask us.
  • So I disagree with the readings that portray this as someone emotionless trying to fake emotion - I see it as someone who genuinely believes that he is experiencing transporting emotion.  But the issue is that just because you feel something doesn't mean that it matters.
  • It is just the side effects of the cocaine.  You weren't really stricken.  You'll have plenty of time to be hateful, grateful and even late again tomorrow.  The European canon isn't here yet and probably never will be.  This is probably the mad god, Dionysus.  You can't make God with your own hands.  And if you lift the painted veil which those who lift call life, you won't find Truth, just "Fear / And Hope, twin Destinies; who ever weave /Their shadows, o'er the chasm, sightless and drear."
  • "Lift not the painted veil which those who live" is, frankly, fairly apropos in general - "I knew one who had lifted it--he sought, / For his lost heart was tender, things to love / But found them not, alas! nor was there aught /The world contains, the which he could approve."
  • The European canon cannot actually transport you to Kether, because there is no Kether.
  • The euphoria is going to wear off, and when it does, you'll be right back at the beginning again.
  • My reaction to this song is probably heavily influenced by the fact that, when I had my transporting transcendent experience with it, I was listening to it repeatedly.  On YouTube.  I didn't even own it at first, although you better believe I bought it after that.  But at first, I was just  hitting play over and over again on YouTube.  I had to do it manually!  Over and over and over again.  "The European canon is here," and I always made it go back into the train noises.  That was the only way to get back to the sunbirds and the European canon, after all.
  • But it's worth noting that every single live performance - and you can go and look at the videos on YouTube - ends with a return to the "Thin White Duke" section of the song at the very end.  Yes, okay, it's the final part, the part that opens up into the "mountains and mountains" section, but still.  It always returns to the downbeat part.  I think it's telling that I picked up on that just from listening to the recorded song, which doesn't actually do that if you're not playing it on repeat.
  • It's not a song about a completely emotionless guy trying to fake the connection he doesn't really have.  It's a song about how mania (the mania from cocaine, but the mania from anything really, romance, or art, or religion, or whatever) can't sustain us.
  • "I think you can apply that to nearly any of life's pleasures. They all leave you unsatisfied because you try to reach that high every time. You always have to go back. . . . You have to keep trying. You keep going for it. Not just to get the high but you're hoping in desperation that one day the high that you do achieve will stay with you. But of course it never does, so in its own way it's an avenue to insanity. It produces a rat syndrome, you know, where you just go round and round and round. Circularity." (link to link)
  • "Dredging the ocean, lost in my circle" (station to station)


Lonin said...

I love this part:

"The sheer solidity of Intellectual Beauty conjured up by all these people - when it doesn't really exist! - in conversation with each other finally coming to fruition. 'If God does not exist in this world...... I will make God with my own hands!' It's never going to happen, of course. But then it does."

I want to email you about this, I think. Rather than commenting here, I mean, seeing as I plan to reference some of my own writing (you can probably guess which).

I was already going to email you about a Neil Young song.

Grace Mulligan said...

Will respond to your email via email, so I guess here I will say only - thank you for your kind words!

Lonin said...

Okay, so although this is one of the more trivial topics from my email, I thought I'd split this off into a public comment at least: What really impresses me is that, when I tried to remember my exact rankings of the songs on the Station to Station album before you started writing about the title track, I was pretty sure they went something like this:

Wild Is the Wind (yes, the one cover on the album was pretty consistently my favorite)
Word on a Wing
Golden Years
Station to Station

Okay, so the fact that "TVC15" came in last was always pretty clear to me, but other than that, I can't think of a single song on the album I would have preferred "Station to Station" to. It's amazing what a little analysis (well, maybe in this case a big analysis) can do!

Grace Mulligan said...

Interesting that you feel that my analysis actually changed your attitude towards the song. I would say offhand that I can't think of a time when I've had the same experience. There have certainly been texts that I've seriously rethought after learning of a new perspective on them. I've already talked about that on this blog here (I guess I've already talked about everything somewhere, realized I already kind of answered a lot of questions in your email much more succinctly in the comment here from 2009). But the kind of experience that I have in such a case is one of gaining a new intellectual appreciation for a text - I wouldn't say that there's much alteration to my visceral emotional reaction. It may well be the case that the reading of 1984 I describe in that post is a superior one to my own reading, but if I reread the book again it will still take some effort for me to read it in that way because it isn't as intuitive to me as my less sympathetic reading, as much as I prefer the unintuitive reading.

And if I can't bootstrap myself into a greater immediate appreciation of a book based on an intellectually congenial analysis, how much less would I be able to bootstrap myself into greater immediate appreciation of a song? Obviously I sometimes analyse songs, but the analysis is much more secondary than it is in the case of written texts - I tend to assume that my reactions to music are almost purely instinctual. So it's very hard to imagine ever changing my mind about a song based on an intellectually persuasive and appealing analysis!