Sunday, January 3, 2010

Space Oddity

Ah, space! The final frontier. At least, that is how it was perceived in the sixties, in the height of the space race. The conquest of space was seen as proof of human progress, so the two superpowers battled to outdo one another, as a way of showing which one of them represents a truer way. By 1969, this race led Man to the Moon.

Humankind's ability to advance more and more into the depths of its universe fired the imagination of many creative people, who explored the endless possibilities it suggested. In 1964, maverick film director Stanley Kubrick contacted prominent science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, and suggested they write a piece about Man's relation to the universe. They decided to simultaneously create both a book and a movie, and develop their ideas collaboratively. It took them years, but in 1968 they were finally able to present the world with 2001: A Space Odyssey.

What is it about? Well, in Homer's original Odyssey, the hero is trying to return home. In this new Odyssey, it is the entire human race that it trying to go "back home", to discover the origins of its existence. The hero is an astronaut called David Bowman (a name that Kubrick/Clarke conceived around the same time that a certain young Mod changed his name to David Bowie), and he goes on a space mission to follow a clue that might teach us where we came from. In Clarke's novel, we get the answer: humanity was created by an alien race, that millions of years ago generated intelligence in Earth's apes, and started the ball of human civilization rolling. When Bowman reaches his destiny, he finds that the aliens have left a device there that transforms him and takes him to the next step of evolution: he is reborn as a new star in the heavens, with almost infinite abilities.

But Kubrick's movie is different. We get no narration to explain what's going on, and when Bowman reaches his final destination, he enters a world where nothing makes sense, and no answers are given to him or us. Kubrick (as always) is mocking the pretensions of the human race, our belief that we can understand and master our universe. At the end of our Odyssey, we find that we can't comprehend the laws of our existence. When Bowman is reborn, he becomes a baby-star, looking at the world with big uncomprehending eyes.

Kubrick is basically undercutting the belief that stands at the basis of Western philosophy and science, the belief that in order for humankind to be happy, we must first of all learn the truth about our existence. The idea is that if we can explain everything in rational terms, we will have full knowledge and control over our universe, and we'll be able to create a happy human society. By showing that we cannot reach the truth, Kubrick is telling us that this path will not bring happiness. Is there an alternative path? Well, there was always another perception of happiness (let's call it "spiritualistic") that claimed that we are all already part of one united spirit, and our attempt to rationalize our world is actually the thing that separates us from that spirit, and prevents happiness. The belief is that instead of trying to stand opposite our world and explain it, we should open up our spirit and realize that we are part of this world, a realization that will lead to happiness.

These two perceptions of ultimate happiness battled throughout the history of Western civilization. In the Modern age, the rationalistic way is on top, but there are also many movements that go against it. In nineteen-sixties America it was the Hippies, who asserted that the rationalistic way has led to the creation of a cold and evil industrial-militarist-bureaucratic society, which kills the human spirit. The way to release the spirit, they claimed, was through the use of hallucinogenic drugs (or "acid", as they were commonly termed), which break the grip that those rationalistic structures have on our consciousness, and enable it to groove freely with the universe. Once we are released, they further maintained, we realize that we are part of a loving cosmos, at one with the world and with other humans. Their music was known as acid rock, a freeform style of rock music that contained exotic sounds designed to affect the acid-drenched minds of the listeners. In concerts, an acid rock piece could carry on for hours, the musician improvising as the spirit took them, while the zonked crowd danced around them. The attempt was to reach a state where everyone is grooving together, engulfed by the same spirit, feeling at one with the universe and with each other.

One of the godfathers of this new movement was Dr. Timothy Leary, who actually started out as a rationalistic scientist, but had his life turned around when he tried hallucinogens. He decided to devote his scientific research to the exploration of the experience caused by the drugs, termed a "psychedelic" experience. While traditional scientists would maintain an outsider view on the subject of their research, Leary claimed that knowledge of the truth cannot be achieved this way, and the scientist should partake in the experience – in other words, take the drug. And the "truth" that was revealed to him, as he outlined it in his 1964 book The Psychedelic Experience, is that happiness is gained when we release ourselves from our ego, and learn that we are part of the oneness of all being. A psychedelic session lasts for several hours, in which the tripper goes through three main stages: ego loss, hallucinations, and reentry into regular consciousness. Unprepared, the tripper might be frightened by the experience, have a bad reentry and cause permanent damage to their mind. But with good preparation and settings, they would come back with an understanding of how their ego-centered consciousness is preventing them from achieving happiness, and how to transcend it. So preparation and settings are very important, and one requirement is that there would always be a guide present, to lead you through the dangers and direct you towards your desired goal. Leary writes:

A psychedelic session lasts up to twelve hours and produces moments of intense, intense, INTENSE reactivity. The guide must never be bored, talkative, intellectualizing. He must remain calm during long periods of swirling mindlessness. He is ground control in the airport tower. Always there to receive messages and queries from high-flying aircraft. Always ready to help navigate their course, to help them reach their destination... The pilot is reassured to know that an expert who has guided thousands of flights is down there, available for help... It goes without saying, then, that the guide should have had considerable experience in psychedelic sessions himself and in guiding others... Routine procedure is to have one trained person participate in the experience and one staff member present in ground control without psychedelic aid.

So, a psychedelic session should always involve at least two individuals: one is the "pilot", who is flying high on hallucinogens and reports on his experiences, and the other is "ground control", a sober guide who documents what the pilot is reporting, and keeps him from getting lost in his hallucinations. Through this scientific approach, Leary believed, new horizons would be opened to humanity. While NASA was sending people to outer space to find answers about the universe, Leary was sending explorers into the inner space, to find the truth about the human spirit.

Acid rock was born in late 1965, and within one year, it already had a strong impact on the world of pop music, youth's true religion in the sixties. The elusive and exotic sound of acid rock was combined with studio effects and condensed into three minute pop records, and the songs expressed the psychedelic maxims: turn off your rationalizing mind, lose yourself in the experience, feel yourself at one with the world, gain a better vision of your existence, and understand that you are part of a loving universe. Some of these songs had lyrics that described the experience as traveling in outer-space, seeing the world from above for what it is, and coming back to it with a better knowledge of how to live in it. That was the sound of Hippie consciousness taking over youth culture, claiming that through the heightened awareness of psychedelia, it would bring about a better world.

But by 1969, it became obvious that psychedelia led nowhere. Not only that, but the damages of massive hallucinogen intake were already apparent, and the toll on that generation was harrowing. It was now time for someone to come and put the final cap on the era, to bring together the space race, acid rock, Space Odyssey and Timothy Leary, and fuse them all to create the ultimate space record, and the final verdict on psychedelia. And thankfully, there was someone around who was just perfect for the job.

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on
Ground Control to Major Tom
Commencing countdown, engines on
Check ignition and may God's love be with you

The opening of the record puts us at the beginning of a space exploration mission. But the term "ground control" and the rank "Major" do not belong to astronaut lingo, hinting that the song also exists within Timothy Leary's settings, and Major Tom is actually preparing to take an LSD trip, being helped by a guide. He takes his pill, and puts his helmet on – the psychedelic experience exists in your head alone, detached from the rest of the world. The music here is in a singer/songwriter acoustic style, but in the background, a psychedelic symphony is already brewing, preparing us for the trip. Finally, the countdown (which can also be the anticipation for the effects of the pill to hit) ends, and we take off.

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You've really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it's time to leave the capsule if you dare

Bowie is taking the opportunity to take a jab at the media's obsession with celebrities, at a time when astronauts were the biggest celebrities, and the media went bananas for the story of the Moon landing. Then he turns more serious: it is now time for Major Tom to "leave the capsule", to step out of his own mind. That's the aim of a psychedelic trip – to take you out of your everyday mind, and enable you to see things in a different way.

This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I'm stepping through the door
And I'm floating in a most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today
For here
Am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there's nothing I can do

Stepping out of his mind, Tom finds himself floating. That is the feeling we find in all psychedelic records: the protagonist is passively being carried away by external forces, giving in to them, but still feels like he's in control of his destiny. It is a joyful feeling, and it also makes you feel like you gain a top-down view of our world, being able to see it for what it is. We find the same impressions in Major Tom's reports, but the vision he gets of the world doesn't amount to much. All he can tell us is that "planet Earth is blue", and that things look different. This is not the illumination we expected.

After that, there comes a beautiful psychedelic passage, in which our astronaut loses himself to the joyful experience of swirling mindlessness. But then we come back to the main musical structure, and he continues to report:

Though I'm past one hundred thousand miles
I'm feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much (she knows)
Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit's dead, there's something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you....
Here am I floating round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there's nothing I can do.

Immersed in the experience, Major Tom lets go. It feels so good to be passively carried away, that he doesn't want it to end. His spaceship was the thing that took him into this bliss, so he believes that it will keep on doing the same if he lets it go where it wants. Ground control is trying to snap him out of it, to stop him from slipping away, but to no avail. When he finally comes back to his senses, he realizes he is stranded in outer-space, and can't return to Earth.

'Space Oddity', like the Kubrick movie that inspired it, mocks the human pretense to understand and master our universe. Just when the space race reached its peak, and Apollo 11 was circling the Moon, Bowie releases a record about a space mission that leads nowhere. And the same goes for the inner space explorations of Timothy Leary: they don't lead to any new answers about our world, but rather destroy our mind to such an extent that we can't even see our world anymore - at first, Major Tom was still looking at Earth, but in the end he finds himself gazing at the barren Moon. And it doesn't lead to a better mastery of our life, either, but rather to the opposite: at first, when Major Tom relinquishes control and gives himself up to the experience, he is still sitting in his space pod (the "tin can"), and feels he can take back control whenever he wants; but when he finally wants to do so, he finds that by now he is floating out of his pod, unable to do anything, devoid of any control. Leary claimed that a monitored setting would ensure the safety of the drug tripper, but we find that even the presence of "ground control" does not save him.

What about the Hippie claim that a drug trip will open us up to the understanding that we are part of a loving cosmos? Here, too, Bowie shows that it does the exact opposite. Major Tom donned his helmet and went on a solitary mission in order to find the essence of love, but ended up lost forever within his helmet, more alienated than before. Even the love he already knows, the love he shares with his wife, is severed, and all he can do is send a sad goodbye to her before losing contact. Planet Earth did not become happier and more loving due to the Hippie drug trips – it became even bluer.

So we find that both paths - the rationalistic and the spiritualistic – do not lead to the happiness they promised. 'Space Oddity' is the first in a long line of Bowie creations that show a hero starting out in an alienated state and creating a device that takes him out of it and into a temporary state of happiness, but ends up taking over him and leading him to a state even more alienated than before. How can one maintain this happiness that is found initially, in that moment when you leave your old world? That, I contend, is one of the main questions that drive Bowie's art. This record is the beginning of Bowie's own Odyssey, an Odyssey that will take him to curiouser and curiouser places, and end up in the formation of a whole new perception of how to achieve happiness.

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