The death of Bowie was a punch straight in the childhood. My first encounter with Bowie was the film Labyrinth which I still watch semi-regularly and still find unnervingly creepy:
Sarah frames this exploration of Jareth, oddly enough, in terms of two fantasies. The first is the childish fantasy of the labyrinth: it’s filled with fairytale creatures and monsters and magic. The second is the adult fantasy of the masquerade ball: a place where the same fairytale creatures and monsters and magic are represented instead by the perverse behaviour of lords and ladies and waitresses in gold body paint. The two fantasies allow Sarah to get a better understanding of the man who torments her. He’s an extremely damaged bully whose outward presentation is a facade.
There’s an outpouring of grief on social media. There’s dozens of obituaries being written, and people sharing memories. The think pieces have already started tumbling in about how Bowie was actually terrible (although nobody was as clever as the author so they didn’t notice), or how Bowie was a flawless man whose tragic mistake was having cancer.
I’m not terribly interested in covering the same ground. Instead, I want to play in an adjacent space: why do we grieve celebrities?
Let’s start with an easier question: why do we grieve other people? This should have an obvious answer. We grieve because we are experiencing loss. We had something that we wanted, that we loved, and now it is gone and we realise how fleeting our relationships are when we exist in a mortal realm. But do we actually grieve others? A friend tells a fabulous story about when his uncle died. Everybody knew him as a superhero of integrity. He was honest. Reliable. Unfalteringly ethical. The funeral was all about what an upstanding, amazing guy he was. When he snuffed it, they found out that he was a spectacular crook and had been involved with outstandingly shady deals that were only uncovered when the accounts were cracked open. Whom were they mourning if it wasn’t the man of upstanding virtue that they had known all these years?
There’s an unknowability about other people. In a very real sense, they exist beyond the wall of language and perception. They’ve got internal worlds of experience, thoughts, beliefs, intuitions, personality to which they have first-person access, but nobody else has any access. This isn’t an uncontroversial point, by the way. There are some people who argue (convincingly) that actually that’s not who people really are. Instead, the person is the one who is knowable to others by way of their actions, signs, and interactions. I’m okay with a bit of dualism on this point: that the me who is in performance is a different me to the one that I have first-person access. This is how I can be (and struggle with being) many Marks to different people in different contexts.
But this means that the people I know carry around a little version of me in their mental world. And that little me will have different significance to different people.
This also means that there doesn’t have to be a ‘real’ me. As far as some people are concerned, I might be merely a very sophisticated algorithm that has been simulating (for them) the experience of interacting with a real person. But they still have a little version of that person as part of their mental content. Something to whom the name ‘Mark’ refers when they make otherwise sensible statements: ‘Mark told a funny joke. Mark has garbage opinions. Mark claimed that satire is dead.’
I think this approach opens up why we grieve celebrities and fictional characters. We don’t mourn the actual person – whose reality is entirely unknowable to us – but we mourn the loss of something within our world. I mourn the loss of a person who made things that I enjoy. I regret that I will not have the opportunity to be an audience to more of his work. I am genuinely upset that what there is is all that there will be.
That to which I referred when I uttered the words ‘David Bowie’ was no doubt a tiny part, a fictionalised part, a carefully marketed and artificial part, of the real man. And now that has died and I am experiencing loss.