From The Desk Of Ann Magnuson: David Bowie And Carl Jung Rockin’ The Persona

At her funniest, musician/actress/performance artist Ann Magnuson skewers pop and celebrity culture like nobody else. And there’s a lot of that skewering on her new album, Dream Girl, Magnuson’s third LP following the strangely underrated The Luv Show and Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories. Magnuson will be guest editing all week. Dream on.

Magnuson:  It’s hard to imagine a world without David Bowie in it, but … here we are. It’s been especially hard on certain folks in my generation. Bowie was our Starman, our Shaman, our Thin White Shape-Shifter who reimagined Jung’s archetype of the Cosmic Man as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and, well … “Bowie.” Many of us used the easy shorthand, “Bowie” (usually said in low, revered tones), to connote an entire ethos, an artistic way of life, and…dare I say it? A religion!

Bowie first appeared to most of us as an androgynous alien, an oversexed Pied Piper in kabuki drag who led us innocent teens out of Denim Hell and into a Moonage Daydream full of hedonistic highs (cosmically enhanced by Mick Ronson’s transcendentally sexy guitar work) until Ziggy/Zarathustra/Icarus fell from the peak, hitting his own all-time “Low.”

Ironically, Bowie ran from the Dream Factory of Los Angeles into the decaying arms of Berlin to try to save his soul. Drinking himself into a vomiting mess with Iggy wasn’t exactly the healthiest way out of madness but he did manage to shake off the Ziggy persona, which was well on it’s way to becoming the haunted mask that cannot be removed. By Bowie’s own admission, Ziggy Stardust nearly killed him. Plus there was all that cocaine. Given his history, it’s somewhat of a miracle that David Bowie managed to live to the relatively ripe old age of 69. (About 112 in Rock ‘n’ Roll years.)

All this and much more is brilliantly parsed in psychologist Oliver James’ new book, Upping Your Ziggy: How David Bowie Overcame His Childhood Demons—And How You Can Too. I just finished reading it and I have to say, it’s a must read for not only Bowie fans but for anyone in the arts (especially those in the theater!) Actually, it’s a must read for everyone because, as the author stresses throughout, we all adopt personas, often self-destructively, to cope with life.

It’s known to be unethical to analyze a person one has never met. However, these days everyone is doing it with Donald Trump (with good reason.) So much so that the American Psychiatric Assn. recently issued a statement reminding it’s members to avoid psychoanalyzing presidential candidates. There is an excellent op-ed piece in the L.A. Times explaining why. Having said that, Oliver James makes a compelling analysis of how David Bowie used persona therapy to save David Jones. Given Bowie’s own interest in all things Jungian, I think he might have dug it. (Then again, he was famously private and infamously obfuscating so, maybe not.)

While many musicians adopt stage names (and some, seeking similar success, full-blown Bowie-esque personas) Oliver James points out that:

“In most cases they fell far short of Bowie … The difference was that Bowie was using personas to understand his current psychology and it’s history. Like most art of any profundity, it was an expression of his inner conflicts—but in his case it was a desperate and more or less deliberate attempt to use personas to overcome then. Ziggy may have started life as a gag through which to achieve fame, but he was also the culmination of Jones’s struggle to experience madness in a safe way, much as the ‘schizophrenese’ of his lyrical style was a way for him to be safely psychotic. It was a means to develop multiple personalities without becoming a case of multiple personality disorder … The persona therapy that was the Ziggy project was his way of dealing with his family’s myth of genetically transmitted intergenerational madness and of addressing his personality disorder, caused by the way his parents cared for him. “

Oliver James’ main theory is that early childhood experience determines personality more than genetics. Actually he doesn’t believe genes have much to do with it at all. Comparing and contrasting the histories of David (Bowie) Jones and his half brother Terry —who went fully “mad,” was committed to an asylum and later committed suicide—James theorizes that David, often teetering on the edge himself, managed to escape a similar fate because a) he wasn’t treated as cruelly as his half-brother growing up and b) Bowie was able to channel his demons via his music and persona therapy.

Every performer knows that ‘acting out’ on stage (or in any art form) is a lifesaver. Every performer (especially The Method actor) is very aware of the line that can easily be crossed—onstage and off. Crossing that line on stage makes for a great show. Crossing the line off stage makes for a very messy life.

It’s no secret that David Bowie’s life got messy. Iman helped clean it up. She has said, “We both understand the difference between the person and the persona … I fell in love with David Jones. I did not fall in love with David Bowie. Bowie is just a persona. He’s a singer, an entertainer. David Jones is a man I met.” Bowie likewise said (in 2005), “The Bowie character, for me, is strictly to be used on stage. With my family, I am David Jones, very much.” Both of them knew they had to drop the schtick with one another. Late-in-life marriages are smart that way.

Carl Jung firmly believed one had to recognize and integrate personas that compose our defensive (and often offensive) ‘provisionary’ selves in order to find wholeness and health; a process he called Individuation. Usually occurring in middle age (hence, the ‘mid-life crisis’) this self-actualization is an integration of the conscious and unconscious. The 12- step process of Alcoholics Anonymous brilliantly provides very specific steps that can lead to that integration. (In fact, Bill Wilson sought guidance from Jung himself when starting it!)

Bowie famously found sobriety in mid-life and probably engaged in some deep Jungian housecleaning. (This ain’t rock ‘n roll, this is persona-cide!) I wonder if he ever read James Hollis’ The Middle Passage: From Misery To Meaning in Mid Life? I’m on my fifth reading of it. I can’t recommend it enough. Hollis’ book is an excellent explanation of this whole process; a process that Jung believed every human being must go through.

It’s a process that Oliver James discusses very specifically in relation to David Bowie in “Upping Your Ziggy”. James’ book may, in fact, be the easiest way into Jung for novices– at least a first step. Especially for those who find The Red Book tough going.

David Bowie certainly knew his Jung. But just how deep it went, I didn’t know until I found Tanja Stark’s remarkable essay Crashing Out With Sylvian: David Bowie, Carl Jung And The Unconscious.

Tanja Stark is an artist and deep thinker who lectured on Bowie during the Australian leg of David Bowie Is…, the travelling V&A exhibit. She also made a series of very Jungian “pop art mannequins” of the various Bowie personas (featured in the extremely agonized Bowie video “Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich Mix By James Murphy For The DFA-Edit).” The mannequins, ostensibly commissioned by Bowie’s “team,” are now housed in the Bowie Archive in New York.

In the Bowie/Jung essay, Stark writes: “When Bowie famously sung of ‘Jung the foreman’ on Aladdin Sane, with it’s iconic ‘lightning flash’ cover and word play on sanity, it seems the artist was heralding the pivotal resonance the psychiatrist’s ideas had upon his life. Forty years later, artist Tony Oursler, Bowie’s long-term friend and director of the Where Are We Now? (2013) film clip, affirmed Bowie’s deep and abiding connection to Jung. “David Bowie inhabits Carl Jung’s world of archetypes, reading and speaking of the psychoanalyst with passion,” revealed Oursler, who also accompanied Bowie to the first public exhibition of Jung’s Red Book in New York in 2009.”

She goes on to explain that “Bowie’s often cryptic, multi-layered work … often conceptual and poetic barely touching the nuances inherent in Jungian psychology but nonetheless compellingly suggests Jung has been a central influence upon (and compass for) Bowie as both men have navigated the mysterious, sometimes perilous, depths of the psyche.”

Stark’s essay discusses Bowie’s work in connection with Jung, The Unconscious, Dream Dystopia, Mystic Myth, Personas, the Numinous … and so much more! This stuff is must reading for Bowie fans. Indeed, for all artists and dreamers!

I first learned about Tanya Stark when she replied to a Twitter post by Oliver James (who had just begun promoting Upping Your Ziggy this past May). Stark pointed James to another essay she wrote on the archetypes of death in Bowie’s work, adding, “It’s eerie to read now.” The two Bowie/Jung enthusiasts then twitter about meeting and possibly collaborating. Now that should be interesting!

Gosh, The internet really can be an astounding place, can’t it? (Trolls notwithstanding.) No wonder Bowie took to it from the very beginning. Carl Jung would have, too.