Of all the things I thought I might blog about as 2016 gets underway, David Bowie’s death was certainly not one (typing the words still produces a faint shiver of disbelief); still less so, a small point of contact between the great man and one of “my” authors, Gabrielle Wittkop. But there it is: while immersed in the Bowie links filling my Facebook newsfeed (like the Man Who Fell to Earth in front of his bank of TV screens), I was delighted to see his Proust questionnaire for Vanity Fair, and this suitably off-beat answer to the question “What is your most over-used word?”: chthonic.
Not “chthonic” as in “sonic” pronounced by a Starman down a crackly radio link to Ground Control, but “chthonic” as in:
a. Dwelling in or beneath the surface of the earth.
1882 C. F. Keary v. 215 The chthonic divinity was essentially a god of the regions under the earth; at first of the dark home of the seed, later on of the still darker home of the dead.
1885 Dec. 920 The original chthonic character of the wife of Zeus.
1903 29 Dec. 3/3 Two great and contrasted forms of ritual—the Olympian and the Chthonic, the one a ritual of cheerful..character, the other a ritual of gloom, and fostering superstition.
1941 T. S. Eliot v. 15 Driven by dæmonic, chthonic Powers.
1957 V. G. Childe (ed. 6) xviii. 331 The invaders..patronized native cults or gave them a new celestial, rather than chthonic, orientation.
And, by extension:
1928 H. G. Baynes & C. F. Baynes tr. C. G. Jung 118 The chthonic portion of the mind—if we may use this expression—that portion through which the mind is linked to nature, or in which, at least, its relatedness to the earth and the universe seems most comprehensible.
(“chthonic, adj.” OED Online.
Oxford University Press, December 2015.
Web. 14 January 2016.)
I was delighted because Bowie’s “most overused word” actually occurs (in French) somewhere towards the beginning of Gabrielle Wittkop’s dark novella Sérènissime Assassinat, and hence also somewhere towards the beginning of my translation of the same, under the title Murder Most Serene, out now from Wakefield Press in the US. In a palazzo on the Fondamenta Rezzonico, in the dying years of the Serene Republic of Venice, Wittkop offers a chilling portrait of the assembled cast of her wonderfully arch, decadent poison-fest, not least:
“…Reclining deep in a bergère, Ottavia Lanzi, at seventy-one a lofty, still slim figure in her gown of richly woven black atlas. Her once-brown hair is powdered to a silvery shade that offsets her fiery gaze. Widowed at eighteen, just weeks before Alvise’s birth, she has never remarried. She has written burlesque poetry, and a quite remarkable treatise, Il canone principale della poetica venexiana. […] She steers her thinking firmly in the direction of the Enlightenment, but completely counter to that which is darkest within her, chthonic and archaic: her wild, Pythian raptures.”
When I reported this tiny “Bowie and me” connection on Facebook, Wakefield Press‘s pubisher Marc Lowenthal commented: “I’d like to think he would have been a Wittkop fan if he had gotten the chance to engage with her books.”
On Twitter, Bowie’s local NY bookshop, McNally Jackson, confirmed that:
“We were lucky enough to occasionally get to sell books to David Bowie, who, in addition to being, you know, Bowie, was also a great reader. He bought great stuff, read weirdly and widely—across genres, in translation—and he was chatty and curious with staff. So here’s to Bowie, a hero forever and ever. Also, Bowie once said that one of his most overused words was “chthonic.” That alone is enough to earn a place in our hearts forever.”
So this eclectic genius read “weirdly and widely” (and in translation…) and claimed to have overused a small word packed with so many consonants it’s almost Welsh, that stands for the whole vast, dark world of things subterranean and sub-conscious, and pre-conscious, and ineffable. Precisely the things evoked in the Blackstar videos, it seems to me: ideas beyond language, subliminal, communicable “across genres” and across media, in music, images and soundscapes combined. Something far more deeply interfused (as Wordsworth put it). Something understood.
Like Marc, I’d like to think Bowie would have loved Wittkop’s writing, and Murder Most Serene. He certainly seems to have appreciated Venice: one of his last public sightings was on a trip there with his daughter, Lexi. A 2013 video for Louis Vuitton/L’initiation au voyage, featuring Bowie on harpsichord singing I’d rather be high, brings the pages of Wittkop’s book vividly to life.
Venice was also the setting for a truly great, recent celebration of Bowie’s contribution to British national life (one he endorsed more enthusiastically than the offers of a knighthood and a CBE). In 2013, Jeremy Deller’s English Magic transformed the British pavillion at the Venice Biennale into an alternative mini museum complete with its very own tearoom, and a gallery devoted to Bowie’s 1973 UK Ziggy Stardust tour, displaying a map, photographs and an assessment of its importance as a turning point in British culture. Resonating with the installation’s anti-capitalist theme, extracts from the lyrics of Bowie’s song The Man Who Sold the World flanked the entrance, while its melody – in a haunting rendition by the Melodians Steel Orchestra from South London – became part of the soundtrack to the English Magic film. The Melodians themselves – in all their splendid cultural, ethnic and generational diversity – played live at the opening.
In May 2013 I emerged from the pavillion buzzing – actually tearful – with excitement, ideas and happiness. Like Bansky at Weston-super-Mare last summer, Deller gave us some very fine reasons to be proud to be British (though not the ones endorsed by the sort of people who accept their offers of knighthoods and CBEs). As for Bowie, well, even if that viral tweet about the world being 4 billion years old and “you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie” turns out to have been originally intended for Justin Bieber (yes, Justin Bieber…) it still expresses precisely how I felt then and there, on the steps of the British pavillion, with his music ringing in my ears, and images of Ziggy dancing before my eyes.
So Bowie, and Venice, and Wittkop, and me, all connected through one small, allusive word in my latest translation. Apophenia again! (It’s a fascinating condition, I’ve blogged about it before…). A good enough way to kick off 2016.