A very dear friend in my teenage years, the late Bill Raeper, wrote an acclaimed biography of the Scottish writer George MacDonald. It was MacDonald who spoke of the scent of unseen roses [fn full quote] a phrase that resonated for me this week reading Ron Rolheiser’s The Shattered Lantern.
Paraphrasing, Rolheiser is arguing that narcissism, pragmatism and unbridled restlessness have eroded our ability to contemplate, to live examined lives - and thereby, as per Nietszche, we’ve wiped away the entire horizon of faith. Instead of wondering at ordinary life, we merely wonder how or whether. And the loss of wonder, of a 'second naivete', means that we are no longer haunted by the scent of unseen roses, because unseen roses are just no longer possible for us.
David Bowie was also very present to me when I was a teenager. Bowie’s too early death, and scale and nature of reactions to it, also took me the scent of unseen roses, to wonder at ordinary life that opens up new vistas. For that, I think, is what Bowie did best, for me at least. The excitement of Starman on Top of the Pops was less about the relative positioning of Bowie and Mick Ronson’s guitar, and more about ordinary teenage life (switch on the TV; don't tell your poppa) as a container for the extraordinary (there’s a starman waiting in the sky). So it is, too, with Space Oddity (take your protein pills), Jean Genie (loves chimney stacks), and Life On Mars (the lawman / Beating up the wrong guy’). Extraordinary stories and songs rooted in the details of ordinary life, approached with wonder.
Perhaps, and maybe only perhaps, this is why Bowie has been on the agenda for the Archbishop of Canterbury and church organists. Perhaps, even, it’s got something to do with why it was Bowie who knelt and prayed the Lord's Prayer during the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert. Perhaps, if we (if I) re-learn to wonder at ordinary life, faith can again become natural and the scent of unseen roses will haunt us afresh.
MacDonald wrote 'haunted with the hovering of unseen wings, with the scent of unseen roses, and the subtle enticements of "melodies unheard,"' in Alec Forbes of Howglen