Saying No but Meaning Yes: What I Learned from David Bowie’s Life
Posted on January 10, 2017
A year ago today, David Bowie died, as we all will have to at some point. In that there is arguably nothing too remarkable, no lesson that is all that unique, and memorializing someone none of us really knew could be overfamiliar and self-indulgent. After all, it was David Jones who died, who we strangers have no right to grieve. Who that person is remained a mystery to the end, by his own artful design—and by the nature of personhood itself, which he demonstrated again and again to be an ongoing construction, an art form. The tone and even title of his last song on his last album, “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” suggests what any appreciative listener already knew. It was his life’s work to show us that we are unknown to ourselves, and that being thrown into question by this alien dimension of ourselves is really a message, as if from on high, that there is freedom and joy and perhaps even peace to be found in being otherwise than we’ve told ourselves we are. There can also be terror in that, and loneliness, but ultimately embracing the risk of possibility is the only way to live life deliberately.
You aren’t simply born knowing how to embrace this, and as with every process of education, it helps to have someone model it for you, an exemplar. For a while you imitate the exemplar, and eventually you must move on in your own way toward the ideal they exemplify. But how do you make this transition? How do you learn to learn without this guidance? My experience teaching Confucius during the fall semester has helped me to make sense of this question that Bowie’s death left me with last year. I was struck by one word that kept recurring from people who met him—that he was a gentleman. A look at the Confucian conception of the gentleman as moral exemplar reveals some striking parallels that I don’t see as accidental. By that I don’t mean that Bowie intended this parallel, because so far as I know he had no interest in Confucius. What I mean is that Bowie’s artistic life reveals that Confucius was onto something in arguing that truly virtuous character has an inherent charisma that draws people far and wide to live with each other in a less fractious, more harmonious way.
Bowie had that power, or as Confucius would call it, de (which also means “virtue” in Chinese). Aside from his wide appeal to many different kinds of listeners, from his capacity to excel at just about every genre of music, he was able to speak to people from many different walks of life. Even somewhat gruff people who had no time for his gender-bending or his music expressed admiration at the way he kept his eighteen month battle with cancer a private affair: “I hope I go out like that.” I saw many comparisons to a bright star being snuffed out, and the world becoming a darker place for it.
His sudden and premature death signify for many a victory for social forces of retrogression and the authoritarianism that is on the rise, because what his life meant for so many was antithetical to such repression. For some, it was his fluorescent sense of style in his glam rock period that encouraged them to try styling themselves in a new way. For some, it was his experimentation with other genres or even marginalized genres (such as electronica was in 1977 when Low came out) that encouraged them to be unafraid of trying new things. For some, it was his genderfluidity, or more strictly speaking his androgynous self-presentation, that encouraged them to come out of the closet, or at least to not feel so alone. For some, it was the sensitive intellectuality of his lyrics that encouraged them to write or compose for themselves. For some, it was all of these things and more that he meant to them. His universal significance was that he was a kind of spokesman for the socially outcast, for the freaks, for those who are outsiders by derogation or design.
What I rarely see people noting—and what he meant for me—was that Bowie could be eccentric and have quite a measure of social success. By that I don’t just mean fame or money. What I mean is that to me he showed that it is possible to be strange and be sociable. To the contrary of widely marketed bromides, “being yourself” often comes at a cost, or at least it appears to when you’re sixteen and your fledgling attempts at identity often fumble (in retrospect, largely as your own fault). It’s hard to manage the reaffirmation and cultivation of a weird personal aesthetic while also not being a jerk and engaging in a reactive tribalism. The great majority of our social acceptance is bought on the cheap, by doing as the Romans do, or if you can’t make that work, you join the Goths. It takes great skill to be as weird as you want and be able to make people feel at ease with you. The honest self-evaluation of any eccentric person is that you frequently put people off through your anxiety about living life on your terms, and to feel that you can only belong by conformism only deepens that anxiety, which sharpens your mistaken sense that it’s “their way or my way.” Or, only slightly better, you camp together with others who share your ressentiment for the mainstream, engaging in subcultural signaling. Many false friends are found this reactionary way.
You retreat back into your shell. Much of my adolescence (and not just adolescence) I spent alone in my room, thinking about how other people have thought about things, daydreaming, reading. A quiet life. In high school I once wrote a short story in Latin, for my own amusement, just me and my paper and my Langenscheidt on a Saturday afternoon, if that will give you some idea. To a kid who felt completely alienated by sports (despite his parents’ best efforts), who grew up with no brothers or my father around, and who could not recognize himself as a himself in a number of the social markers for it, Bowie signified a kind of alternate masculinity that was missing. He struck me as suave and cosmopolitan and considerate. You could be smart and adventurous, you could like to read and travel all over the world, you could be creative and versed in classical things. Somewhere out there, a different adulthood was possible.
I’ve realized since that masculinity is socially constructed and has meant many things in many societies, but at the time this alternative was a revelation, and with it came my first foray into truly appreciating music. I used to spend hours and hours mulling over the lyrics. Through Bowie’s use of the cut-up technique, where semantics attain a fairytale instability, I came to appreciate that texts could mean multiple things all at once. Ambiguity and polysemy strengthened a text’s longevity by giving it a lively indefiniteness:
I’m torn between the light and dark
Where others see their targets
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
I came to see that there was more potency in what Kierkegaard would call “indirect communication,” in irony and understatement, than in the didacticism of my know-it-all attitude. It struck me as quite meaningful to read in his interviews that he knew, through studying with the great mime Lindsay Kemp, that moving very little on stage and then raising a hand just the right way at just the right moment makes a far more powerful statement than jumping around vigorously. To gesture rather than lecture, to suggest rather than spell.
I bought up more albums of his, and devoured those too. I started writing really dreadful poetry that was shamelessly imitative. I saw a picture of him in the character of the Thin White Duke: a simple and stark look, with an elegant vest, shortly before heading off toward Berlin to reassemble himself after his life fell apart in Los Angeles in 1976. Words can’t quite express how much this picture meant to me at that time when I was undergoing my own spiritual awakening.
When I traveled thousands of miles east to go to college, I saw myself as doing another pale imitation: plunging into an environment where I knew nobody and would be forced and free to reinvent myself. I tried being more open-minded and open to others, which eventually turned out well, but involved many painful self-discoveries along the way. In that spirit I got Bowie’s Low album that winter (my first winter with snow), and found myself drawn in not only by its austere and strange beauty—there isn’t a single note on that album that doesn’t belong there—but also by its warm and sincere depth as an artistic and personal renaissance.
There is a lore surrounding Bowie’s time in Berlin, and for a reason. Here was Bowie, overcoming his drug addiction and turning his back on international fame to live above an auto repair shop at 155 Hauptstrasse in West Berlin, making avant-garde electronic music with a few friends with no thought to how outré it was. To reach deep down into yourself in a wintry period of your life, to find rejuvenation through complete honesty and discipline, to find something mysterious you didn’t know you could do or be, while also taking inspiration from the place around you—that, to me, remains to this day the high-point of what it is to be an artist, to live beautifully by living for Beauty.
I hoped to live that kind of life—not as a musician (I can’t carry a tune), but as a different sort of artist, an artist with one’s life. As Nietzsche puts it:
How can man know himself? He is a dark and veiled thing; and if the hare has seven skins, man can shed seventy times seven and still not be able to say: “this is really you, this is no longer slough.” In addition, it is a painful and dangerous mission to tunnel into oneself and make a forced descent into the shaft of one’s being by the nearest path. Doing so can easily cause damage that no physician can heal. And besides: what need should there be for it, when given all the evidence of our nature, our friendships and enmities, our glance and the clasp of our hand, our memory and that which we forget, our books and our handwriting. This, however, is the means to plan the most important inquiry. Let the youthful soul look back on life with the question: what have you truly loved up to now, what has elevated your soul, what has mastered it and at the same time delighted it? Place these venerated objects before you in a row, and perhaps they will yield for you, through their nature and their sequence, a law, the fundamental law of your true self. Compare these objects, see how one complements, expands, surpasses, transfigures another, how they form a stepladder upon which you have climbed up to yourself as you are now; for your true nature lies, not hidden deep within you, but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you normally take to be yourself. Your true educators and formative teachers reveal to you what the real raw material of your being is, something quite uneducable, yet in any case accessible only with difficulty, bound, paralyzed: your educators can be only your liberators. 
This came through most of all in the song “A New Career in a New Town,” with its soulful and simple harmonica that conveys both the pain of the past and the freshness of the future. When I think of what hope sounds like, I think of this. I only permit myself to listen to the song on special occasions: my wedding day, moving to DC from Mississippi, certain kinds of epiphanies. In Bowie’s instrumental music, all words drop away, and all that is left is Sehnsucht, the longing for the infinite.
Having avoided German culture in high school, I became interested in German culture because of Bowie’s interest in it. I took German and read Nietzsche and Kant and from there became increasingly interested in knowing more. I was lucky enough to be able to go to Germany for four brief weeks, with a few days in Berlin. I landed at Tegel Airport in the late afternoon, finally settled into my hostel room at sunset, and played “A New Career in a New Town” for myself, sitting alone by a window near the orange sky. I pilgrimaged by foot to 155 Hauptstrasse. I wandered around the Neukölln district Bowie named one of his songs after. People usually assume that with a last name like Trullinger my interest in things German must be for heritage or about “going back to my roots,” when in fact it comes from Bowie, and is about uprooting myself and going forward.
In the years since, my tastes have expanded quite a lot past Bowie, to include things ranging from the eerie longing of Burial to the volcanic sublimity of Einstürzende Neubauten. As Bowie quietly slipped into his late-period hiatus, I listened to him less and less and other artists came into the rotation more and more. Some of Bowie’s albums are, in retrospect, more uneven than I remembered them being, and then there is his eighties period. He was an autodidact and insanely talented and could learn to ambidextrously play an instrument within a few hours (such as the viola or the koto), but over the course of more than five decades, they can’t all be winners. Even clunkers like “Lucy Can’t Dance” still contain the occasional gem—“Now you’re looking for God in exciting new ways/I say trust him at once, which is something these days”—a couplet that still brings a smile to my face and speaks to how I go about in the world. What I admire about Bowie is that he didn’t let his mistakes stop him from continuing to create and try new things. He picked himself up, dusted himself off, and carried on. Professor Will Brooker spent a year trying to live like Bowie did, through each one of his time-periods, and shared how it inspired him to pick up old creative pursuits:
I hope I’ve learned something new about David Bowie during this year. But I’ve learned other things, through the process. I’ve realized that we give up so much as we grow up, because we think we’re not good enough, that we’re never going to be great – but we don’t have to give up, and we don’t have to be great. Bowie never became a great actor, though he played himself wonderfully in a handful of movies. Bowie never became a great painter: his fame meant his work was exhibited, but it’s assessed as “good amateur” by serious critics. I’m never going to be outstanding as a singer or a painter. I’m not even going to be great at reading German. But doing those things – forcing myself to do those things – because I told myself I had to, in imitation of Bowie’s life, has not just increased my admiration for him. It has enriched me. I’m a poor imitation of David Bowie. But this year, because of him, I’ve become a brighter, braver version of myself.
This year I’ll turn thirty-six, and while that’s young by a number of perspectives, I think about how that’s over half of how old Bowie lived to be—and how I haven’t realized a percent of what he did—and all of a sudden it feels very old. (I did marry Lina, so I’ve got that on him.) I am likely to be closer to the end of my life than to the beginning. I don’t have the self-assurance that most people seem to get around my age. As I’ve learned again recently, and keep on learning again and again through my life, just because you care deeply about something that doesn’t mean you’re good at it. It doesn’t even mean that you’ll succeed at getting people to care about it. It doesn’t mean you’ll succeed at all. But the sort of person who can face this honestly, while striving hard at becoming better, enacts daily the humility and courage that are a part of virtuous character, receptive to learning from the world. It can be a lonely business, but an honest one.
On my good days, I manage something like it, so long as I remember the continuity between myself now and myself when I began. Bowie, as I think a preponderance of evidence shows, managed this again and again over a lifetime. Even his last song bears witness to this negative capability that served as his guiding star:
I know something’s very wrong
The post returns for prodigal sons
With blackout hearts, with flowered news
With skull designs upon my shoes
I can’t give everything
I can’t give everything
Seeing more and feeling less
Saying no but meaning yes
This is all I ever meant
That’s the message that I sent
I can’t give everything away 
Can you imagine what it would be like to know that you are dying and keep it a secret, wearing a death’s head on your shoes to make light of it, walking around as though nothing’s wrong? “I can’t give everything away”—on the one hand, I choose not to tell you everything about me, I choose to keep my interiority interior. You will know exactly what I want you to know about me when I want you to know it, and no sooner. “I can’t give everything away”—on the other hand, even if I wanted to give it all away, I couldn’t, because interiority cannot be fully or directly communicated. Gushing over in hyperbolic didacticism enervates the message that one sends. One must “say no” even when one “means yes.” Bowie is speaking at once about his personal circumstance, but ours as well—for we are all walking around as mortals. “That is all I ever meant”—a life’s work spent in working on one’s life.
When I listened to this song the second night after the album came out—the night Bowie died, it turns out—I could tell this song was his goodbye, his final testament. Subtly included in the song’s beginning is the harmonica from “A New Career in a New Town”—as though the sly bastard knew what it meant to me. Which of course he didn’t, but he knew what it meant to himself—and dare we postmoderns say it?—what it meant, and what it means. If we’re being honest, at every point in life there is a new career awaiting us, the vocation to become what we are. There is no substantiality in the sense of stasis, nor should we really wish for there to be, but in a life spent in self-cultivation, in giving style to one’s character, the inner dynamism of something else shines forth that is not a thing—what I would call a soul. The Buddhist and postmodern position that there is no self because there is no stasis always seemed fallacious to me, and looking back on how Bowie lived, I see an example of why: he changed all the time, yet of him we can surely say, “here was a person.” And not just any person: a gentleman, whose character has an indirect political significance I could show in some future time. For now, I can only hope that this reflection on his personal significance has meant something, whose full meaning I can’t give away.
 Some people call this a postmodern thought. Some people need to read Augustine. Augustine, Confessions, Book IV. As Plotinus argues, the soul is not a fait accompli, but must always enact its unity by overcoming the fragmentation it finds itself in.
 David Bowie, “Quicksand,” from Hunky Dory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP2SS8ggLtU
 Nietzsche, Schopenhauer as Educator §1, in Untimely Meditations (trans. Daniel Breazeale), p. 129