I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “I’m not schizophrenic, and neither am I.” While clever, this joke is horribly inaccurate. Schizophrenia is a wildly misunderstood thing, being more of an umbrella term than an actual diagnosis. Saying “he’s schizophrenic” is kinda like saying “this book has a red cover.” It doesn’t actually tell you very much about the book. Psychologists must be beating their heads against boards every time they hear this joke.
It should actually go, “I don’t have dissociative identity disorder, and neither do I.” Just doesn’t roll off the tongue in the same way, does it? The DSM defines DID as “the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of behavior.” There’s usually memory loss; one personality doesn’t remember what the other one did.
A semi-famous example is the movie Primal Fear, where Edward Norton plays a young guy on trial for a murder that his other personality committed. He’s a mild-mannered and scared boy on the stand, but in the climax, his lawyer goads his killer personality into revealing himself. The switch is very sudden and startling.
Bowie didn’t exactly have DID, but he did have a sense of their being multiple shades of himself, with different Bowie-shades having more of the forefront at different times. The seeds for his Ziggy Stardust persona, the Thin White Duke, and all his shifting public faces first get planted on The Man Who Sold the World, but particularly on the title song.
The key to interpreting “The Man Who Sold the World” lies with a poem by Hughes Mearns. Here’s the last stanza:
Last night I saw upon the stair / A little man who wasn’t there / He wasn’t there again today / Oh, how I wish he’d go away
Mearns speaks of a splitting of the self, an evil twin you know intimately but have no control over. People sometimes say “I’m not myself today.” That‘s a glib and miniature version of this phenomenon.
While not even close to diagnosable, Bowie is having a dual-personality moment on “The Man Who Sold the World.” Like the one/two guys in the poem, each Bowie is aware of the other, which cancels out the “dissociative” part. The journey he’s been on for the almost-rest of the album (it’s track #8) has lead him through disconnect after disconnect with society and normalcy, eventually ending here where he truly meets himself. He thought he had killed his evil twin long ago, but it was there all the time. Eventually it stopped mattering where one Bowie ended and the next began. This disintegration of the self can only result in rebuilding it, which is what the rest of Bowie’s career is all about.
The cap is a rather epic and gothic piece of metal-pop crunch, “The Supermen.” The prodigious use of the timpani recalls Also Sprach Zarathustra, Richard Strauss’ musical interpretation of the Nietzsche book of the same name. To quote Bowie himself:
“I was still going through the thing when I was pretending that I understood Nietzsche… And I had tried to translate it into my own terms to understand it so ‘Supermen’ came out of that.”
This gives me a little chuckle. “Pretending that I understood Nietzsche” seems a lot like what every early 20s college graduate does with any philosopher. A cardinal rule: when it comes to philosophy, you don’t have to know what you’re talking about; you just have to know more that the people you’re talking to.
The Man Who Sold the World, like every David Bowie albums, exists outside of time. You really can’t hear the time period intruding into the music, and there’s almost no indication of what era it belongs to. His 40+ year-long career has taken him to all sorts of weird places in the musical world (German sythpop and drum-and-bass and new wave and “plastic soul”), and few of them have been where there were a lot of footprints before his. There are only a handful of musical acts that have been around as long as he has, and none of them have aged as well. Age doesn’t seem to have any meaning for Bowie, nor does time. He’ll probably be around when history catches up to his visions.