The (Super)man Who Fell To Earth

Long before he starred in Nicolas Roeg's brilliant film, The Man Who Fell To Earth, David Bowie had already introduced us to a superbeing that had "fallen" to an inferior rung of existence. Many might assume this fallen Messiah was Ziggy Stardust, but Bowie's first plummeting God-Man preceded Ziggy by several years.

In The Superman, the closing track to Bowie's foreboding 1971 album, The Man Who Sold The World, he sang of a man who had finally achieved his fall to Earth. This God-Man was part of an early race of Supermen bored and tortured by the burdens of eternal life. He and his Super-brethren inhabited the world when it was "very young" - a time when "mountain magic heavy hung" all around this new creation. But this was no Garden of Eden. It was a "loveless isle" populated by "wondrous beings chained to life," who yearned to break free from the shackles of eternity so that they may fall to a more mortal state. They longed for an end to their "tragic endless lives" - an escape from the "solemn, perverse serenity."

Tormented by their indestructibility, these "sad-eyed mermen" lived recklessly, repeatedly trying (without success) to destroy whatever it was that made them indestructible. The "gloomy browed" Supermen, stricken with "superfear," would engage in a series of "strange games" in hopes that maybe, just maybe, their recklessness might one day be rewarded with the promise of a demise. There was "no death for the perfect men," so they lived wildly, simultaneously secure in and saddened by the knowledge that no matter what they did, they could never die.

Bowie tells us of how "life rolls into one for them," as though they cannot distinguish hours, days, years, or eons. What meaning does the passage of time have to an eternal, timeless being bored and tortured by his endless existence? Deprived of the promise of death's release, Bowie's Uber-race could "heave nor sigh" because liberation was nowhere in sight. "So softly a supergod cries," longing to shed his immortal coil and don a mortal one.

But why did these perfect and all-powerful beings sink into such sorrow over an existence that most mortals would covet? Because these highly perceptive and sensitive God-Men could not escape being plagued and pained by the shortcomings in their supposedly perfect lives. Even Eden is stressful, and the Supermen were acutely aware of Paradise's woeful limitations. They came to understand that their seemingly perfect world came with a price tag.

In order to assure the peace that they eventually came to view as a "perverse serenity," there was no room for dissent in their society. "All were minds in uni-thought" where "powers weird by mystics taught" ruled the day. Moreover, to achieve that "perverse serenity," there was "no pain, no joy, no power too great" for these Supermen with "colossal strength to grasp a fate." Whether it was a higher being who made them, or they themselves that sealed their fate, whoever it was that structured their society had decided that it would be best if they were incapable of experiencing the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows.

"Perverse serenity" for these Gods was achieved by trying to deny them the mortal's frequent vacillations between emotional peaks and valleys. They weren't supposed to dislike their stable existence, these Supermen. But since they had perfect minds - and an endless amount of time to wallow in the thoughts and unfulfilled dreams such minds would invariably conjure - they came to prefer a finite dose of freedom to an infinite tenure in bondage. They were willing to feel perverse levels of pain in order to be capable of experiencing perverse levels of pleasure.

Once they recognized the confines of their prison, the sad-eyed Gods determined that a mortal life, followed by a mortal death, was the only way to escape the infinite and endless tedium of their tempered, structured, fated lives. They needed a permanent escape, for temporary escapes such as sleep and dreams only made matters worse. In their sleep these "sad-eyed mermen tossed in slumbers" and suffered from "nightmare dreams no mortal mind could hold." Only a life that concluded in death could offer them a permanent solution. And in order to be eligible for a mortal death, they had to abolish the God-status that made them eternal. They had to die as Gods in order to be reborn as men, so that as men they could experience the free, uncensored, undirected life denied them as Gods and then finally die. So desperate were they to take the first step toward their funeral march that they turned on one another. "A man would tear his brother's flesh" for "a chance to die, to turn to mold."

And as these beautiful God-men rumble in these "strange, mad celebrations" geared toward achieving their own demise, "far out in the red sky" and "far out from the sad eyes" a solitary Superman-perhaps undetected by the others distracted by the orgiastic din-breaks free. "So softly a Supergod diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiies," Bowie sings, his voice descending from high octaves to low, tracking the Supergod's triumphant fall. As Bowie's voice traces the arc of the Supergod's plunge, I recall the painting by Pieter Bruegel entitled Landscape With The Fall of Icarus, which is used with such great effect in The Man Who Fell To Earth. The painting depicts a pastoral scene of rural life-as-usual. There are people stirring about and tending the land, animals grazing, a quiet body of still water, nothing spectacular - until you notice, in the lower right corner, a small splash in that water. Icarus's legs are all that are still visible, as he falls head first into the water, undetected. Such a grand and tragic fall, yet witnessed by no one. Undocumented. Just as Icarus fell, and just as the alien who called himself Thomas Jerome Newton fell, Bowie's Superman finally fell, too.

But to what avail, this orchestrated and long-anticipated fall? Will Bowie's Supergod find fulfillment as a mere mortal? Will mortal life be what he had hoped? Will he still recall the joy of his emotional peaks when drowning in the mire of his emotional valleys? Will he continue to cry "softly," or will he now learn how to truly wail in anguish? Will his mortal pain - perhaps in some evil overcompensation for its finite duration - actually be of an infinite intensity? Does a God have the moral fortitude to stomach life as a man? And for how long? Will death take him as he clings to life - old, withered, and unfulfilled-longing again for the God-like eternity he once had yet carelessly rejected? Or will he welcome death's release - even when it now approaches him as an unavoidable reality and not just as a theoretical construct symbolizing escape? Or will he fall from life as a man as voluntarily as he fell from life as a God, offering up the Grim Reaper a young, beautiful corpse? The answers are unknown and unknowable. And perhaps this very uncertainty is the dizzy rush that this lovely man who fell to earth wanted to experience in the first place.

April 6th 2004.