David Bowie died yesterday.
He was never really part of my musical universe. I was aware of him, and heard his music on the radio, but he was not one of my go-to musicians.
And yet his death has got me thinking. I’ve been moved by the tributes given to him by friends who did not fit in when they were young, friends who found strength and support from a musician who defied gender expectations.
Two references from literature have been running through my mind all day, one concerning the very personal influence a person can have, and one the very public.
The first is from James Joyce’s The Dead. Over the course of an evening at a party — the night of Epiphany — Gabriel Conroy discovers that his wife Gretta was courted in her youth by a young man named Michael Furey, who died at 17. And yet through all of the intervening years, Michael Furey has remained with her; the memory of him returns to Gretta when someone at the party sings a song that he used to sing. The fact that someone long dead could remain so important to his wife disturbs Gabriel, and the story ends with the famous, beautiful passage:
Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.
The second reference that has been with me all day is from Chaucer’s The House of Fame. Here the theme is the arbitrariness of fame, how some are remembered and others not. The narrator of Chaucer’s story is taken, in a dream, to see the House of Fame. He finds that it is a palace built upon a hill of ice. As a modern prose translation expresses it:
‘By Saint Thomas of Kent!’ I thought, ‘this is a poor foundation on which to build such a high structure; it should bring little glory to its architect, so save me God!’
Then I saw that half the rock was engraved with the names of people whose lives had been prosperous and their fame widely spread. But the names were difficult to read and one or two letters of each had melted away completely. I began to conjecture whether they might have been melted by heat rather than by the wind. For on the other side of the hill, which faced northwards, were written the names of many famous people from ancient times, yet they were as fresh as the day they had been written, and looked as though they had been engraved in that very hour. But I knew well what the cause was; they were protected by the shade of the palace that stood high above me and were engraved on so cold a place that heat might not deface them.
Some live on because they have touched us personally. Some live on because their names are protected by the shadow of the House of Fame. And some are forgotten.
Rest in peace, David Bowie. May you live on in the lives you have touched.
Image credit: Warwick Goble, from The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (Macmillan, 1912).