The Roots of Romanticism in David Bowie's Berlin Triptych

In its response to modernity, Romanticism's grand enterprise inspires us to question the current state of things, to ponder how we might "be heroes / just for one day".

Romanticism lives on in the modern era as an emotional, reflective, and reactive criticism of modernity. David Bowie's collaborations with Brian Eno in late '70s Berlin exemplify many aspects of Romanticism. If Robert Sayre and Michael Löwy are correct that this movement may be expressed through a multiplicity of artistic forms, then critics have the foundation required for a reading of the albums Low and "Heroes" as Romantic endeavors in the vein of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's output at the turn of the 19th century. These albums rebel against and express the painful melancholy of a sense of alienation within modern civilization. They evoke tonalities in which critiques of the modern world may be conveyed and they express "the painful and melancholic conviction that in modern reality something precious has been lost… certain essential human values have been alienated."[1] Low and "Heroes" evoke the discontent felt by Wordsworth and Coleridge and the transcendent aspirations typified by Shelley while dredging up authentic emotion recollected in tranquility for the first time in Bowie's career; indeed, Bowie is an indispensable figure in rock's expansion of Romanticism. The intersections of Romanticism with Low and "Heroes" nuance and deepen our contemporary understanding of Romanticism.

Romantic elements are already present on Station to Station (1976), the enigmatic precursor to the trilogy of albums Bowie called his "Berlin Triptych". Opening with the discord of a train clamoring along the tracks, this decadent album recalls the omnipresence of industrial society and heralds what Hugo Wilcken, author of a marvelous book on Low, dubs "the theme of restless travel as a spiritual metaphor… present on… Low, 'Heroes,' and Lodger."[2] This theme is undeniably Romantic. Travel continually inspired Romantics as evidenced by accounts of Mary Wollstonecraft's expedition to Scandinavia, Wordsworth's Continental walking tour of 1790, the roving of the Shelley circle in the Alps, John Keats's pilgrimage to the Scotland of Burns, Gérard de Nerval's travels to the Near East, and François-René de Chateaubriand's voyage to America. Readers of the Romantic Age were fascinated by the revelations, and consequent emotions, of explorers, poets, emigrants, and tourists in their published journals and letters.[3] Restless movement inspired by the possibility of the open road pervaded the spirit of those times as it did for 20th century Beat Generation writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, writers who extend the Romantic theme of spiritual exploration and the glorification of motion. Furthermore, the aural landscape of Station to Station, a combination of funk and rock, exhibits the tumultuous colors of Romanticism through its assimilation of diverse sonic material. This hybridization of genre agrees with the Romantic theory of Friedrich Schelling and Henrik Steffans, shared by Coleridge, that organicist conceptions of art provide the essential criteria for gauging aesthetic value. M.H. Abrams expounds this theory in The Mirror and the Lamp:

For a work of art, the gauge of greatness becomes, jointly, the richness—the quantity and diversity—of the component materials, and the degree of beauty varies directly with the multeity: a work of art, as Coleridge puts it, will be "rich in proportion to the variety of parts which it holds in unity." [4]

Multeity in unity provides the backbone of Station to Station. Bowie's comprehensive standard of aesthetic value on the album "manifests itself as the Faustian ideal of insatiability, and the unceasing quest to include, and to assimilate to one's own integrity, the fullest measure of the most diverse experience."[5] The Thin White Duke, Bowie's self-invented persona on the album, embodies the Romantic desire to go beyond the limits of nature and custom associated with the Byronic hero figure exemplified by characters such as Byron's Manfred and Childe Harold, Lermontov's Pechorin, and Brontë's Heathcliff. The Thin White Duke emotes a discontented skepticism towards sexual relationships on "Stay" and an unhealthy fascination with Aleister Crowley's occultism and the kabbalah of Jewish mysticism on the album's jarring titular track: both indicating a voracious desire to reach beyond the limits of traditional value systems.

Yet despite the splendid appearance of Romantic myth making on Station to Station, Bowie's tone of cryptic detachment on the album is disagreeable with pivotal tenets at the heart of many Romantic typologies. This distant tone instead reflects the art-for-art's sake aestheticism of the late 19th century "Decadent" movement championed by Oscar Wilde, "an anti-bourgeois Bohemianism or 'decadence,' and a pseudo-politics of extravagant gesture conscious of its ineffectualness."[6] Although anti-bourgeois Bohemianism does fall in line with a few of Sayre and Löwy's typologies of Romanticism,[7] I believe that the pursuit of ineffectualness is precisely what Romanticism tends to denounce; in my analysis of "Heroes" below I assert that Romanticism frequently answers a genuine call to effect change. The Thin White Duke, on the other hand, was merely masquerading emotion, ironically belting songs with feigned emotional intensity from a hollow emotional core. Although Bowie's vague spiritual outline of the Duke may indicate that his own astronomical intake of cocaine has taken a heavy psychological toll, any penetrating glimpse of his inner life is blurred by drug-fueled obfuscation and arcane references to oracular mythic obsessions, creating the sense of estrangement we associate with Bertolt Brecht. Bowie was on the brink of psychological collapse during this period, and authentic, expressive Romantic yearnings became essential in order for his next album to fill the psychic gaps left by the Thin White Duke. The turn to curative and expressive Romantic yearning begins during the closing section of the album's title track. The return to the theme of restless travel, the quest for psychic wholeness and spiritual meaning in a fragmented world, is indicated by the lyric, "got to keep searching and searching and what will I be believing and who will connect me with love?"[8] The lyric "the European canon is here"[9] signifies that Bowie's return to Europe's rich cultural heritage and his participation in the Romantic tradition far from the alienating glamour of Hollywood, will spark an artistic rebirth. "I realized that what I needed to do was experiment," Bowie has said. "To discover new forms of writing. To evolve, in fact, a new musical language. That's what I set out to do. That's why I returned to Europe."

This statement recalls Wordsworth's own self-proclaimed desire to adopt a new poetic language in his 1800 preface to Lyrical Ballads, his poetry collection released with Coleridge in 1798, marking the arrival of Romanticism in Britain. Art's expressive function proves as key for Low as it does for Lyrical Ballads. Low's lyricism contains key concepts of Romanticism, and Bowie's turn to minimalism echoes Wordsworth's own turn to cultural primitivism. Bowie's articulation of isolation through Low helps him express what Wordsworth calls "those thoughts and feelings which, by his own mind, arise in him without immediate external excitement."[10] Low's rejection of outward decadence in favor of self-expression in isolation exhibits how Wordsworth's theory of poetry as "emotion recollected in tranquility" dominates 20th century rock music. This expressive musical language helped Bowie conquer his addictions, delusions, and paranoia, and ushered in the post-punk and art rock of our present age.


Throughout much of the '70s Bowie wore masks: Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, and the Thin White Duke, to name a few. Shelton Waldrep writes, "If the ultimate goal of German Romanticism… was to make objective forms expressive—the ultimate way to express self—then the use of the mask was an ideal way to do this."[11] Upon his arrival in Berlin after recording some of Low's material at the Château d'Hérouville in France, Bowie began to speak from the most Romantic mask of all of his self-invented mythic characters: David Bowie. This new persona, David Bowie, was created through self-expression. Bowie refined his expressive abilities in Berlin, began to paint again, and took frequent bicycle trips to the Die Brücke museum where he rekindled his love affair with Expressionism. Bowie set up shop at Hansa Studios near the Berlin Wall surrounded by friends and collaborators Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, and Tony Visconti. Here, he began an expressive journey that would heal his mind and body from the scars of his well-documented cocaine addiction, manic episodes, and fearful delusions. As his music flourished his psyche healed, and with Low Bowie gave rock one of its most innovative albums to date. While Station to Station derived its raw material from Bowie's warped perception of outer extravagence, Low derived its material from within his own damaged soul. For the Romantic artist, "more emphasis is placed on the work of art coming from within, on the internal being made external and upon the 'wondrous exchange'—to use Wordsworth's phrase—between poetic selfhood and the external world."[12] Low is best understood then as a "wondrous exchange" between Bowie's artistic selfhood and Berlin. Bowie's subject, like Wordsworth's subject for The Prelude, is the growth of the artist's own mind; on Low, particular melodies suit certain emotions and particular shifts in cadences map the pathway of Bowie's ever-shifting emotional journey. The path to universal feeling becomes for Bowie, like Wordsworth before him, blazed through the expression of his personal feelings; much like Coleridge believed possible, each song "assimilates disparate elements" to the purpose of reconciling them into a higher third element with curative potential.[13] Famously, Utilitarian thinker John Stuart Mill acknowledged the healing power of Romantic poetry, claiming he found in Wordsworth's poems the very culture of feelings.[14] The discovery of Wordsworth's self-expressive poetry helped Mill recover from his mental breakdown at the age of twenty much like Bowie's own collaborative output with Eno in Berlin helped him overcome his own mental crisis and reconcile disparate elements of modern life through an expressive musical language.

"Speed of Life", a virtuosic mixture of Eno's synthetic electronic sounds with organic R&B beats, opens Low in the spirit of nostalgic yearning. Although lyrics were originally planned for the song, Bowie abandoned them after several unsuccessful attempts, thus heralding the album's trend of unfinished Romantic fragmentation in pursuit of art's redemptive power. Much like the motorik of Kraftwerk's Autobahn (1974), an album that deeply captivated Bowie, the track "conjures up a largely pre-war world of futuristic optimism."[15] Listeners get the sense they are marching alongside Visconti's heavily treated Dennis Davis drumbeat towards a brighter, stranger day. For listeners, this futuristic optimism blending the world-changing idealism of Shelley with retro-modernist aesthetics, seems to blur their perception of an acknowledged past with the yearning for a better future. Tellingly, Hugo Wilcken notes that

This nostalgia for a future that never happened was something that Bowie… picked up on; it's a sadness that informs the second sides of Low and… "Heroes." At heart, it's very much a form of Romanticism.[16]

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