1975, Aeschylus, Boccaccio, Bowie, Bowie IS, Broakes & Marsh, cartesian Duality, Charles Laughton, Chaucers, Dante, David St Hubbins, Descartes, Donne, Empathy, Extasie, Georg Cantor, Greek Chorus, Iain McGilchrist, Infinity, Lady Macbeth, Marlowe, Master & His Emissary, Neuro-imaging, Otherness, psychology, Right Hemisphere, Rosalind, Shakespeare, Spinal Tap, Station To Station, The Bard, The Soul, The V&A, Thin White Duke, Throwing Dart's In Lover's Eyes, Troillus & Cressida, University of Liverpool. Olivier, Ziggy Stardust
I think there’s been a happening in the cosmic fizz just beyond our mortal measure and comprehension – but thankfully those of you Right-Hemisphere leaning kids out there will be none the poorer for it – quite the opposite one would hope, if the laws of social contagion are to be believed.
On 10th January 2016, David Bowie, a rock and pop performer of exceptional elegance and a master of transformation, died.
He left behind a staggering back catalogue of human invention. His ability to shift from masque to masque, identity to identity, not only in his career and lifetime but even in the process of one performance was in retrospect one of the great artistic spectacles of the 20th Century.
Until the point of his death, history was preparing to view 2016 through the eyes of another Great British artist (some would say the greatest), and a master of the dramatic theatre of shifting masques and identities.
2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
2016 was to be the year of the Bard, generator of some of the English language’s greatest turns of phrase; creator of some of its greatest dramatic masterpieces, characters and archetypes.
Hamlet. Lady Macbeth. Iago. Juliette. Oberon. The list is endless, and the construct and dynamics of their identities have been studied in minute detail and from every conceivable perspective.
The Bard’s own real identity has also come under intense scrutiny over the years – was he part of his work, merely the quill of it, or himself the greatest piece of literary confection of the English lexicon?
Was he a thief, an imitator, a fake, a sage or a genius? The jury it seems is still out.
Speaking of The Bard, genius, shifting identities and cosmic collisions – it is worth noting that on the evening of the 10th of January 2016, as David Bowie peacefully departed for a place from which he could chime ‘Look up here, I’m in Heaven’, another great shape shifter of the stage, (already an inhabitant of the intangible Otherness) was being celebrated in an RSC film night at the Barbican.
The film was Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream starring Charles Laughton – a man known to have infuriated his contemporaries(Olivier particularly) with statements such as:
“Great artists reveal the god in man,” he said in an interview, “and every character an actor plays must be this sort of creation. Not imitation – that is merely caricature… The better – the truer – the creation, the more it will resemble a great painter’s immortal work.”*
Reaching out beyond what is known, what is given and what exists is the simple process of creation – a conscious or unconscious action – and one of the greatest slingshots of our conscious development. It was certainly what drove Laughton.
Laughton’s post-war masterpiece, Night of The Hunter, delivered a ground-breaking collision of theatrical chiaroscuro and dramatic tour de force that had until then never been seen on the movie screen.
In his need to see and go further than any one had ever gone before he aligned himself with the belief that the primary force of the stage is creative, not imitative – a belief system by which both The Bard and Bowie patently lived their lives.
The Bard & The Thin White Duke were, I believe, driven to do so – compelled to create something of a higher order – using contexts and characters to draw the sky towards them, to study the whole of our existence, instead of scratching out increments of cause and effect, measure for measure.
I believe that they did this because one aspect of their conscious self compelled them to do so. They were wired that way – more attuned to the right hemisphere of our brain; and its quest to seek that which lies just beyond our sight and our reasoning, rather than just controlling and measuring that which we already have.
This reaching for some sense of Otherness – just out of sight and beyond our reasoned comprehension – is not just some artsy humanities piffle.
Georg Cantor the 19th century Mathematician struggled with finite or ‘fixed’ concepts of infinity – he struggled with the idea of there being a necessary (rational/reasoned) uncertainty and incompleteness in the realm of mathematics.
He struggled with the idea that Beyond the infinity of infinities; (lay) Something Other. Infinity was no longer tameable by turning it into an abstract concept and then just carrying on as though it were just another number.
(Obviously one should be aware that there is a danger here of falling into the Spinal Trap of David St Hubbins and his discourse on Infinity:
‘It’s like saying when you try to extrapolate the end of the universe, you say, if the universe is indeed infinite, then how – what does that mean? How far is all the way, and then if it stops, what’s stopping it, and what’s behind what’s stopping it? So, what’s the end, you know, is my question to you.
Though, as a form of dramatic proof, in this astonishingly funny moment, as with all great characterisations, we find a far deeper and more expansive question waiting to be asked hidden in the subtext of their comedy.)
If we delve deeper into the ties that bind the Bard and Bowie the deeper threads of influence ad interrelation strung between them are many.
In their astonishing curation of the man ‘DAVID BOWIE IS’ for the V&A, Victoria Broakes & Geoffrey Marsh refer to Bowie’s formulation of a theory of Gender as Performance, ‘… antecedents for which can be found in Shakespeare’s plays, where theatre becomes a master metaphor for life.’
Broakes & Marsh also refer to how ‘with his silver lipstick and forehead astral sphere he evoked the radiant allegorical figures of courtly masque.’
Going further, they attest to the belief that ‘Indeed, in Ziggy Stardust’s supernormal militant energy and shuffled masks we may have come closer than we ever will again to glimpsing how Shakespeare’s virtuoso boy actors performed the roles of Rosalind, Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth.’
As we should remember, the relationship between Bowie’s Thin White Duke (an exquisite confection of Abdicated Edward’s veneered hair and permanent cigarette painted in the gaunt Berlin draw of a smack-head aristocrat) and the Elizabethan Bard are more than just accents and accidents of gender performance.
The Thin White Duke was a man who spent much time ‘throwing darts in lover’s eyes.
love’s arrow or love’s darts and a penchant for casting them was a popular Elizabethan conceit favoured by Donne, Marlowe et al.
This emanation from within – reciprocity of feeling not thinking – was a reoccurring theme in the dramatic and written arts.
In Il Filostrato, circa 1338 Giovanni Boccaccio fused the tradition of love at first sight, the eye’s darts, and the metaphor of Cupid’s arrow:
“Nor did he (Troilus) who was so wise shortly before… perceive that Love with his darts dwelt within the rays of those lovely eyes… nor notice the arrow that sped to his heart.”
That this piece of writing was the inspiration of Chaucer’s ‘Troilus and Crisedye’ which in turn was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida should come as no surprise.
Many were enamoured by the idea of an inner ‘light’ of intimate observation, emanating from inside the ‘soul’ of the observer to become one with soul of the observed.
Take the lovers of Donne’s Extasie for whom
Our eye beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon a double string
And Shakespeare’s Oberon says of Cupid:
“A certain aim he took
At a fair vestal thronèd by the west,
And loosed his love shaft smartly from his bow
As it should pierce a hundred thousand hearts.”
Equally, Dante in his ‘Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore’ (Rime XIV) was not inured to the charms of the reciprocal gaze.
“The very paragon of Beauty, who
Will wound the eyes of any who dares view
The flame-like essences of burning love
She shoots from her bright eyes – which, when they move,
Penetrate to the heart and wound it too.
Thus in her face one sees the vital strength
Of Love portrayed where none may gaze at length.”
There is a vital reciprocity in all their gaze – a mutuality and transaction of something alive. This is not mutual seeing of the direct referential See the Crow. Point at the Crow. Shoot the Crow type
Something has been shared – an inspirational and profound thing – a thing that improves each of them equally.
To Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master & His Emissary, a book on how our conscious selves and the world in which we exist is being shaped and moulded by hemispheric sensibility, the light ‘darts’ from the eyes of lover’s was the Elizabethan’s way of describing a form of seeing or observation that is fired by the right hemisphere and its pursuit of the intangible immeasurable higher order of us – whole expansive pictures of our existence far beyond the scrabbling measures of the left hemisphere’s control-freakery.
In reference to Dramatic Tragedy and the role of the Greek Chorus, McGilchrist points out that this new form of observation – distant – removed – taken out of the immediate rational linear Now – is one of the illuminating and enlightening moments of our conscious human development.
In viewing life and its tragedies from a distance, Drama allowed us to engage in an evolving form of human learning – of matters of the soul – of Otherness.
McGilchrist writes ‘In tragedy we see for the first time in the history of the West the power of empathy as we watch …the painful moulding of the will…’
The central role of faces and identities in drama and theatre is telling in regards to what both the Bard and Bowie understood – they ‘knew what was right without knowing’ – a very right hemisphere trait apparently.
McGilchrist points out that ‘the interpretation of faces is a Right Hemisphere prerogative: in looking at the face of one’s partner (compared with an unknown face) the right insula increases in activity.’
At the beating heart of drama we explore faces and the tension lines drawn between them. In faces and living expressions played out across identities and their myths we learn to understand the abstract, unseen and unimaginable – we use the dramatic shifts in the face – its expressions and light – to interrogate and comprehend our own existence, our empathy for others, our otherness in relation to the world around us.
In 1973, few young English teenage girls understood death other than through that of Ziggy Stardust. Their pain and loss were real; as the emotions had been created within them by the artist. They were not imitating life changing sadness and mourning. They were living it.
To be clear, Iain McGlchrist is not advocating some Cartesian Duality of Either Or. He is utterly committed to the lateral truths of how both the right and left hemispheres interrelate and relentlessly inform enrich and recalibrate each other. BUT.
He does contest that the greater dimensions of our conscious selves owe much to a hemisphere which until now has had to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune showered upon it by the very rational, left-hemisphere-leaning, scientific prism through which we are now all required to view and celebrate life. Hubble and Hawking must be enough for us now. How could we ever seek more
McGilchist’s polymathic interest in the collision point between neuro-imagination, literature and language and psychology is not working alone in the world.
Recently this world view has been bolstered by the works of another cluster of diverse minds.
Julie Henry writing for the Telegraph on the 13th January reported that ‘Scientists Psychologists and English academics at Liverpool University found that reading the works of the Bard …had a beneficial effect on the mind, catches the readers attention and triggers moments of self reflection.
Henry continued “Scans showed that the more “challenging” prose and poetry set off far more electrical activity in the brain than the more pedestrian versions.
Scientists were able to study the brain activity as it responded to each word and record how it “lit up” as the reader’s encountered unusual words, surprising phrases or difficult sentence structure.
This “lighting up” of the mind lasts longer than the initial electrical spark, shifting the brain to a higher gear, encouraging further reading.
The research also found that reading poetry, in particular, increases activity in the right hemisphere of the brain, an area concerned with “autobiographical memory”, helping the reader to reflect on and reappraise their own experiences in light of what they have read.”
Rational minds that dismiss the humanities and the arts as a distraction from the improving nature and evolution of being human seem to deny one pure truth that their own science reveals.
Our minds positively respond to reaching beyond what ‘is’. We are made better – improved – for it. Our humanity is illuminated and given depth and expanse by the creations of these pioneers of identity and conscious self. We learn to empathise with what is otherwise intangible – the feeling carried within another – beyond the linear and immediate.
The works of The Bard and of Bowie, compelled by their right-hemisphere need to reach beyond the measurable and the given – to seek to capture the ‘light’, the darts thrown from lovers eyes – created works both for the creator and the receiver – to inspire both themselves and us to reach to a greater degree of self understanding – of greater consciousness. They created a moment of mutual gaze between us and them -to allow us a glimpse of the light within in their own.
Their works become the dart and we the lover. And Vice Versa
One might even venture that the utter lack of utility or function seemingly required to render something ‘art’ is a defensive evolutionary mechanism. Perhaps its artfulness, its redundant pose, is itself an artful deceit designed to obscure the primary and far more powerful role the pieces of dramatic creativity are undertaking – to relentlessly improve and expand us through firing in us a greater quest for more conscious enlightenment in, and doing so while our left brain’s back is turned – for fear that otherwise the left will wade in, spoil and obfuscate what it cant understand – and in doing so diminish us and our potential to exist.
Or was it just that both Shakespeare and Bowie liked a man in tights (as did Laughton) – the Dressing Up box of Creativity and Dramatic effect and the reaching for Otherness being preferable to the real tragedy and visceral slaughter that came from those only interested in reaching for the Now and what existed in front of them, as they sought to measure, map, grasp and rule it.
*Quoted – Simon Callow Charles Laughton: dazzling player of monsters, misfits and kings 2013 – Telegraph On Line