The obscure soul of the world, a darkness shining

January 17, 2016

The title is a direct quotation from the ‘Nestor’ episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, when Stephen Dedalus employs the ‘ethics of the chiaroscuro perspective’ (Mahaffey 2009: 206) to challenge the  dualism of Deasy, who equates darkness with evil and the foreign ‘Other’ sinning ‘against the light’. The ‘darkness that shines’ that Joyce wishes to claim for a humankind made whole in its diversity, in ‘a triumph of heterodoxy’ (ibid.), is illustrated in a sixteenth-century alchemical text by Salomon Trismosin, Splendor Solis, in the image of the Black Sun (Sol Niger).

black sun

This image came to mind on viewing for the first time, this week, the video of the title song of David Bowie’s last album, Blackstar, released on his 69th birthday, on January 8th, just two days before his sad passing on January 10th. I apologise for the apparent opportunism of focusing upon Bowie’s last work in the week that he died, but the coincidence of his passing – a shocking event which I absolutely had not anticipated – with my last post, itself on the theme of dream darkness and mortality, I wish to explore by the obscure light of some alchemical allusions in Blackstar.

Bowie Blackstar

This still from the beginning of the video shows the body of an astronaut lying in the light of a darkened sun. Perhaps the viewer familiar with the earlier work of David Bowie is led to surmise that this is the last resting place of Major Tom after his helpless drift through space. A woman is shown approaching the body; she appears to have a tail protruding from her dress. She opens up the visor on the astronaut’s helmet to reveal a jewel encrusted skull, which she detaches from the rest of the body before being shown bearing it in a glass casket towards a mysterious city.

skull bowie.png

A circle of women is shown preparing to receive the skull – with all the reverence due to a holy relic – while the skeletal remains of the astronaut are shown drifting across space, twisting and receding towards the darkened sun, evoking for me the image I had dreamt last October of a winding sheet or swaddling clothes metamorphosing into ‘the Lamb of God’. The whole video shines with a light similar to that of the dream.

The whole song and the imagery of the video is rich in symbolic associations and possible meanings but I shall discuss only the image of black sun (‘black star’) and skull for the sake of brevity. In Emblem no. 9 from the Philosophia Reformata of Johann Daniel Mylius (Frankfurt 1622), a skeleton is shown standing on a flaming black globe, holding a black crow in its right hand, symbolising the alchemical stage of putrefactio. Perhaps the drifting of the headless skeleton towards the black star in Bowie’s video is intended to evoke that image. Which ‘blackness of Nature’, according to a text attributed to Marsilio Ficino, ‘the ancient philosophers called the crows head or the black sun’ (Marsilius Ficinus, ‘Liber de Arte Chemica’. Theatrum Chemicum, Vol 2, Geneva, 1702, p172-183. Transcribed by Justin von Budjoss, from here).


One section of the Blackstar video shows three crucified scarecrows appearing to twitch and gyrate in ecstasy. This is an obvious reference to the Crucifixion of Christ and the two thieves crucified on either side of him at the place known as Golgotha, ‘the place of the skull’. Their identification as scarecrows is a deliberate allusion, I believe, to the crow as the black sun, while Golgotha plays a central role likewise in the alchemical phase of putrefactio or nigredo, the blackening of matter as the first step in the pathway to the Philosophers’ Stone, a starting-point understood as the caput mortuum (death’s head), the substance remaining after putrefaction, symbolised by a skull (Magee 2001: 145-146). The reconstitution of the Philosophers’ Stone in the alchemical process partakes of the theme of the Resurrection, symbolised by the image of the Phoenix and the risen Christ. Bowie’s song, Lazarus, from the Blackstar album, also partakes of this theme.

Aware of his looming departure, David Bowie seems to have drawn on and played with a wealth of occult sources and imagery to convey the idea that death is not the end but a beginning…


Mahaffey, V. 2009. Love, Race and Exiles: The Bleak Side of Ulysses, in Harold Bloom (ed.), James Joyce. New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, Infobase Publishing, pp.205-220.

Magee, G.A. 2001. Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.



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