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In praise of David Bowie’s nihilism.

In the wake of his death, it’s hard to know which Bowie to pay tribute to, since we knew so little about the nucleus that was shared by each of his personas. Most people have taken the safe and probably right path and eulogized them all at once—it’s not as if we lost one man, but a dozen. 

In doing so, we can’t help but emphasize Bowie’s otherness. That’s especially true when tributes focus on Ziggy Stardust and the Man Who Fell to Earth, the alien Bowie, whose place was always somewhere else, far away from here. That’s fair, but it also obscures the theme that held Bowie’s career together: his exploration of alienation. 

For Bowie, to be born into this world is to be an alien—dropped into a strange and unforgiving planet without a map. To be human is to be lost and alone, without any hope of redemption. But while Bowie’s nihilism grew darker as he grew older—Blackstar is a rarity in his catalog, a bleak album—he was never fatalistic or despairing. Instead, he made art about how the meaninglessness of life is freeing—that it opens, rather than closes possibilities. In his book, Bowie, Simon Critchley writes “at the core of Bowie’s music is the exhilaration of nothing.” In an interview with a Bowie fan site, Critchley explained that comment: 

Bowie’s nihilism is not nihilistic. Namely, that the bad nihilist doesn’t know that they’re a nihilist, but goes on believing all sorts of dumb shit. But the insight into nihilism, of the kind that we find in Bowie, allows us to imagine another set of possibilities.

That, to me, is Bowie’s legacy—not just carrying on the legacy of Sartre and Beckett and Nietzsche, but opening up a set of doors that we didn’t know were there before.