A friend was asking what I thought the expression "walking the dead" means in David Bowie's surprise (and surprisingly moving) new release, "Where Are We Now?", which seems -- on one level, at least -- to be a song about aging, loss, and the spectre of dementia. I think if you know what it feels like to be "a man lost in time near KaDeWe" *, then you have probably begun walking the dead, yourself. You've been rehearsing all those memories and remembered scenarios that keep missing friends, family, colleagues, comrades and acquaintances alive in your head. It's a routine activity, like walking the dog, that re-invests the familiar world with your ghosts. And "waking the dead" seems to require less noise than it used to; the party wall somehow gets thinner every year. It's easy to get lost with such ghosts for company. Where are we now?
Recently, I learned of the death of someone I was at college with, a comrade and occasional antagonist, who went off to the States to have an interesting career in the world of academic anthropology. His specialist area was, broadly speaking, shamanism and the human uses of violence, and he became known for his work on kanaima, or "assault shamanism", as practised in South America. How far his early death was a result of his field-work is an interesting question.
Neil is one of my ghosts, if only because he and I once had a noisy set-to over the volume of a stereo, resulting in a bloody nose (mine), but rather more mutual cursing and shouting than actual exchanged blows. Violence as ritual exchange, you might say. I remember, back in the days when I was squatting in Hackney, East London, that I had a revelatory encounter with a German fugitive from the military draft. "I ran away," he said, "Because I had decided that war was an out-dated form of communication". I had never thought of it that way, but Neil clearly had.
A lot of people had an interest in shamanism back then: that blend of alternative realities, naturally-sourced hallucinogens, tribal ways, and animistic secrets was a fashionable brew, and any number of amateur "spirit journeys" were taking place in college rooms and remote cottages at that time. Some people never came back; some returned, changed; most of us moved on, having discovered (as Gertrude Stein said of her childhood home, Oakland) that "there is no there there". I imagine the sales graph of the Castaneda books maps the trend pretty well.
Not so many were also interested in aggression, violence, weapons and warfare, not to mention cannibalism. But to those who combined spiritual curiosity with a radical political persuasion (Neil, for example, was a member of the IMG and active in the Troops Out movement), society's polite silence over the delegation of violence to paid professionals in the police and the armed forces was a taboo (that is, a socially-constructed, consensual spell) that had spiritual as well as political consequences. But to combine such interests and to challenge such taboos leads down dark paths. Whether there's any there there, either, I couldn't say.
But Berlin -- once an islanded outpost of the Western Way, a byword for division, and a living illustration of how our realities can be constructed as easily as a wall -- has come to be all about hope. Those 20,000 people crossing the Bösebrücke in Bowie's song were those first 20,000 East Germans to cross the first checkpoint which opened from East to West in 1989.
Things change. Suddenly, irreversibly; sometimes for the good, sometimes not. You won't know how, or when, or why, but you'll know it when it happens, and you will have to change, too, or be left behind with your ghosts. Do ghosts ever change, I wonder?
"The moment you know, you know you know"...
* KaDeWe (i.e. the initials KDW said in the German style) is the big department store in Berlin, Kaufhaus des Westens.