“For the American academic, Paul Bowles is still odd man out; he writes as if Moby-Dick had never been written.” Melville apart, Gore Vidal’s remark a decade ago remains true today. The laureate of loneliness and dislocation, of damaged psyches, of lives out of control or slipping through the net, is very different from the present-day practitioners of the literature of delinquency to which Bowles opened the doors, or floodgates, forty years ago. At the same time, an “American academic” biography has appeared, nearly all of the books have been reprinted, and a film of the best-selling novel The Sheltering Sky has been announced. Despite the kicking and screaming author, the mantle, or djellaba, of canonization as a comfy classic of American literature is in the making.
Sawyer-Lauçanno’s life of the uncategorizable artist and social outsider appears less than a year after Bowles published sections of his diary disavowing it. (“Twice or three times a year [L.] arrives from Boston, where he’s busy writing that biography which I rejected before he started.”)1 The book provides more facts than Bowles’s autobiography, Without Stopping (1972), but the same incidents are more skillfully told in the latter. To these two versions must be added the newly published “autobiography” of Mohammed Mrabet,2 the central figure in Bowles’s life for the last quarter of a century, whose tales in Moghrebi Arabic (a spoken tongue), Bowles has been translating since the late Sixties. Here Mrabet reveals above all a propensity to personal violence and a taste for exhibitions of homosexual sadism; Bowles and his wife appear in the latter part of the book.
The descendant of old New England families, Paul Bowles was born in Queens in 1910. A precocious, exceptionally intelligent only child, by the age of nine he was writing poems and stories and at the same time receiving lessons in piano and music theory. Bullied by his dentist father, the boy retreated into himself. Indeed, his whole life can be explained as an épater-le-bourgeoisie rebellion against the values and mores of his parent, and the fatherland he represented. Paul’s abandonment of college and escape to Paris at age seventeen fit this description, as do other gestures of revolt such as his marriage to the flamboyantly lesbian writer Jane Auer, his decision to live in Tangier, his strong opposition to Christianity, and his use and advocacy of drugs: he was ether-sniffing already in his first semester at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Bowles is the last of the “Lost” Generation and the first of the “Beats,” the peer of many of the former, a better artist than any of the latter.
Sawyer-Lauçanno helps to relate the life to the work and events in the fiction to their real-life sources, and he provides useful summaries and critical cribs of Bowles’s four novels. The reader’s obstacles are not here but in the more than half of the book devoted to Bowles’s career as a musician. His music is virtually unknown, and, except for a few recorded piano pieces and a recent release of eleven songs,3 unavailable. Since most of it consists of incidental scores for some twenty-two plays, an appreciation of it is likely to remain next to impossible. If concert suites could be stitched together from his theater-music fragments—185 of them in separate cues for the 1942 Theater Guild production of Twelfth Night—Bowles would doubtless have done so himself.
Sawyer-Lauçanno does not venture to compare Bowles’s strikingly different musical and literary personalities; and since the wry, light-hearted side of his music corresponds to nothing in the morbid world of his fiction, we are left with two apparently unrelated faces rather than a composite visage. Nor does the biographer examine the music close up, telling us instead, unhelpfully, that one of Bowles’s film scores came through “in a finely tuned manner,” and quoting the impressionistic verbiage of reviewers. A New York Times drama critic wrote that Bowles had contributed “spidery and tinkling music of exquisite texture” to Sweet Bird of Youth, and another New York newspaper reported that the score of the opera based on Lorca’s Yerma sounded “haunting,…mystical [and] modern.” Whether or not traditional operatic forms were employed is not vouchsafed, nor is there any discussion of the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, vocal, and orchestral language.
Bowles’s growth as a musician is fully, orally and archivally, chronicled. The teenage composer showed his music to Henry Cowell, who passed him on to Aaron Copland for lessons in composition. At nineteen, Bowles accompanied Copland to Berlin, Paris, and Morocco. The last was love at first sight for Bowles (not for Copland), a love that was consummated in 1947, when Bowles settled there for good, becoming more writer than composer.
Sawyer-Lauçanno’s picture of New York musical life between the late 1930s and the early 1950s tells us more about promotional finagling than about prevailing currents in musical philosophy. Bowles’s progress is charted from opus to opus until, in the mid-1930s, he was launched as a film, ballet, and theater composer. In a review of his incidental music for the 1937 Orson Welles Mercury Theater production of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, Virgil Thomson welcomed the young composer’s entry into “musical big-time.” Three years later Thomson devoted a column in the Herald Tribune to the Twelfth Night score, an unprecedented step for a music critic, given the lowly status of the genre. But when in the late Forties Bowles switched from music to writing, Thomson’s comment, according to Sawyer-Lauçanno, was that “Bowles’ lack of formal musical education began to hinder his ability to create the more serious classical compositions expected of a composer in middle age”:
Anybody without a musical education copies what’s around, and Paul’s music was always sweet and charming but the most advanced thing he knew or could handle was Ravel.
Yet with the possible exception of the two female voices at the beginning of A Picnic Cantata (1953, set to a poem by James Schuyler) superficially suggesting L’Enfant et les sortilèges, Bowles’s music is remote from Ravel’s, while, in the treatment of the voice and the word-setting in cadences of quotidian speech, close to Thomson’s own. The most conspicuous influence in Bowles’s earliest music is Satie, and, after him, neither Thomson nor Copland, but George Antheil, the composer of Ballet mécanique. What can safely be asserted about Bowles as a composer is that the songs and other music with words are more successful than such “abstract”—his word—instrumental pieces as the Concerto and Sonata for Two Pianos, commissioned and first performed by Robert Fizdale and Arthur Gold.
Bowles, the born exile (“I’m always happy leaving the United States”), attributes his change of professions to an aversion to New York. “I couldn’t make a living as a composer without remaining all the time in New York. I was very much fed up with being in New York.” But if his musical drive had been stronger, surely even “the city” would have been bearable. His friend Ned Rorem points out that the “writing brought him far more accolades” than the music, and Thomson, not seeing that the composer of promise might also be a writer of high accomplishment, said that money was the deciding factor. Yet while the biography shows the young Bowles to be an opportunist in various minor ways, he could not have been one in having seriously committed his talents once he realized that his natural gifts and temperament were more effective in literature than in music. In a 1952 interview in The New York Times Bowles explained that “there were a great many things I wanted to say that were too precise to express in musical terms.” This is revealing, for the hundred-percent composer would start at the opposite end, with Mendelssohn’s “What music says cannot be expressed in words because music is too precise.”
The essays, “The Rif, to Music” and “The Route to Tassemsit,” in the collection of travel essays Their Heads Are Green And Their Hands Are Blue, describe portions of Bowles’s 25,000 miles of Moroccan travel in 1959 on a Rockefeller Foundation grant to record indigenous music for the Library of Congress. He had begun to collect recordings of Moroccan music in 1934 and, in 1956, with modern equipment, portable Ampex, earphones and microphones, to tape it. The 1959 project, a major ethnomusicological undertaking, was abetted by US Embassy support but nearly blocked by the Moroccans. “I detest all folk music and particularly ours here in Morocco,” an official in the Moroccan government told him. “It sounds like noises made by savages. Why should I help you to export a thing which we are trying to destroy?” Bowles nevertheless succeeded in gathering a precious legacy, and in 1972 the Library of Congress finally issued recordings of a (small) part of it.
Music is “the most important single element in Morocco’s folk culture,” Bowles declares at the outset of “The Rif, to Music,” and he observes that Moroccans have a “magnificent and highly evolved sense of rhythm.” But he does not acknowledge that, while the counter-rhythms and syncopations of South Moroccan drum music are fascinating for a time, the music as a whole lacks structure in comparison to that of the highly developed musical cultures of, for example, Bali and India. Bowles is especially struck by the Moroccans’ manner of vocalizing, by the restriction in range to three adjacent pitches, and by the use of such Berber instruments as the double-reed zamar and the low-register reed-flute qsbah. When he invited a qsbah player to record a solo, the response was a corollary to Mendelssohn: “How is anybody going to know what the qsbah is saying all by itself unless there is somebody to sing the words?” But Bowles’s remark that the music of the qsbah, “more than any other I know, most completely expresses the essence of solitude” perhaps best explains its appeal to him.
In this charming book, so “normal,” sane, and sensible, the along-the-road anecdotes (“The flies crawl on our faces trying to drink from our eyes”) are as interesting as those in Bowles’s fiction. Here, as in the fiction, this subtle intelligence (“it takes an exceedingly insensitive person today to continue being an artist”) is a no less acute recorder of sensual experience. His descriptions of scenery, sonorities (a tape of “an old-fashioned rubber-bulbed Parisian taxi horn run off at double speed”), palpations, flavors (revolting foods), and nauseating, especially excremental, odors are particularly keen—and frequently off-putting.
Bowles’s description of a civilization that is dying is central to understanding his work. He sees a world where the basic wisdom of the people has been destroyed and cannot be replaced; religion may be superstition, but the sense of the helplessness of life based on beliefs that “‘it is written’ has given way to an even more unfortunate belief that man can alter his destiny.” For
the partially educated young Moroccan material progress has become such an important symbol that he would be willing to sacrifice the religion, culture, happiness, and even the lives of his compatriots in order to achieve even a modicum of it.
“Creativity is an eruption of the unconscious,” Bowles wrote in 1985. In “the light of reason, this subterranean material generally discovers the uses to which it will be put.” As first set forth in the short stories collected in The Delicate Prey (1950), the principal props in his imagined world are landscapes, especially god-forsaken ones. “It seems a practical procedure to let the place determine the characters who will inhabit it,” he wrote in January 1989. The landscapes are more important than the inhabitants, whose interior lives are left unexplained and who undergo practically no development. Sometimes Bowles’s characters emerge only through brief dialogue. In “The Echo,” for instance, the tomboy temperament of Prue, Aileen’s mother’s “peculiar” friend, is established mainly through bits of pugnacious talk: “What the hell d’you think life is, one long coming-out party?”
These early stories are distinguished, too, by their simplicity of plot, their detachment, and a lucid and laconic style free of cumbersome clauses. Occasionally an aphorism slips through: “It is only when one is not fully happy that one is meticulous about time,” aptly in this case (“Pages From Cold Point”), less so, given the inebriation at the origin, in the later story “Tapiama”: “What is freedom…other than the state of being totally, instead of only partially, subject to the tyranny of chance?”
The perspective in these early stories is usually that of the primitive mind observing people from alien cultures and fellow members of its own. Bowles’s most common subject is the tale of the uncomprehending American or European encountering local life in Latin America, Northwest Africa, and, exceptionally, Southeast Asia. He also describes both the allure of the Muslim and the difficulties faced by even the most devoted and intelligent Europeans in trying to understand it, as in the late story “The Time of Friendship,” an account of the bond between a spinster Swiss school-teacher and a young Algerian boy:
Across the seasons of their friendship she had come to think of him as being very nearly like herself…. Now she saw the dangerous vanity at the core of that fantasy: she had assumed that somehow his association with her had automatically been for his ultimate good, that inevitably he had been undergoing a process of improvement as a result of knowing her. In her desire to see him change, she had begun to forget what [he] was really like.
The stories in The Delicate Prey were written during a period of only four years in which Bowles also composed an impressive body of music and translated Sartre’s No Exit (Bowles’s title, suggested by a sign in the subway) for its first New York production, as well as completed The Sheltering Sky. As Bowles described the novel to Ned Rorem:
Really it is an adventure story in which the adventures take place on two planes simultaneously: in the actual desert, and in the inner desert of the spirit…. The occasional oasis provides relief from the natural desert, but the…sexual adventures fail to provide relief. The shade is insufficient, the glare is always brighter as the journey continues. And the journey must continue—there is no oasis in which one can remain.
Tennessee Williams, setting some kind of record for vagueness, describes The Sheltering Sky as an “allegory of the spiritual adventure of the fully conscious person into modern experience,” and he compares the author to Camus, probably because of the North African locale, although the adventures of Bowles’s naive Americans in the Sahara have little in common with L’Etranger. The success of the novel must be attributed to its marvelously sustained suspense and scandalous, for 1949, subject matter, the repeated rape of an American woman, her abduction to a seraglio, and her mental breakdown. But by the measure of its single plot and three-character cast it is more an extended short story than a novel.
The most disturbing pieces in The Delicate Prey are mostly concerned with cultural collision and the world of drug fantasies. The United States is the setting of only one, but perhaps the best, even though Bowles did not reprint it in the Selected Stories, “You Are Not I,” in which the author enters the locked-in mind of a psychopath to decipher its suspicions of other people’s motives. All seventeen stories are remarkable, but now, at a forty-year distance, the most memorable are still the two most shocking, the title pieces of this and the later volume, A Distant Episode, both of them considered unpublishable in Britain until 1968 and still not advisable for the squeamish.
Sexual stimulation from hashish triggers the atrocities in “The Delicate Prey,” a grisly tale of an encounter in the Sahara between members of enemy tribes:
The [Mongari] moved and surveyed the young body lying on the stones. He ran his finger along the razor’s blade; a pleasant excitement took possession of him. He stepped over, looked down, and saw the sex that sprouted from the base of the belly. Not entirely conscious of what he was doing, he took it in one hand and brought his other arm down with the motion of a reaper wielding a sickle. It was swiftly severed…. [After cutting a pouch in the boy’s entrails and stuffing the organ there, a] new idea came to him. It would be pleasant to inflict an ultimate indignity upon the young Filali. He threw himself down; this time he was vociferous and leisurely in his enjoyment…. [Later] the Mongari turned him over and pushed the blade back and forth with a sawing motion into his neck until he was certain he had severed the windpipe.
The sexual mutilation and humiliation, the pathology of seduction and cruelty, the linking of sex and death, remind us of Robert Mapplethorpe’s “X Portfolio,” except that in Bowles’s art, unlike the photographer’s, sexual fantasies are rare.
In the less lethal and marginally less horrifying “A Distant Episode” (1945), a French professor comes to North Africa to study Moghrebi Arabic4 and is captured by nomads, who cut out his tongue (linguistics is his subject), tie tin cans to the rags they have exchanged for his clothes, and force him to dance clownishly for their amusement. He finally escapes but by that time, crazed, he has assumed the identity the nomads have given him, and instead of going to the police returns to the desert. Sawyer-Lauçanno does not mention the story’s striking resemblance to The Blue Angel, in which the professor becomes a geek.
Spirits and ghosts appear frequently, as in “The Circular Valley.” In this tale of Poe-like weirdness and intensity, a derelict monastery in Mexico is haunted by an invisible djinn, who “possesses” some gringo visitors there, directing their actions in mysterious ways. But Bowles’s most original stories are about drug-induced transferences, as in “Allal,” in which a Moroccan boy becomes infatuated with a poisonous snake and, after a whiff of kif too many (kif is a mixture of cannabis and tobacco that exalts and sexually excites), boundaries blurred and traversed, exchanges personalities and corporealities with it. The ending is ferally frightening:
It was beautiful to caress the earth with the length of his belly…. On catching sight of a man ahead, he left the road and hid behind a rock…. [A boy] was so close that Allal went straight up to him and bit him in the leg…. Swiftly [Allal] glided through into the alcove. The brown body [Allal in his human incarnation] still lay near the door…. Allal needed time to get back to it, to lie close to its head and say: “Come here.” As he stared…at the body, there was a great pounding on the door. The boy was on his feet at the first blow, as if a spring had been released, and Allal saw with despair the expression of total terror in his face, and the eyes with no mind behind them…. [He would] be sent one day soon to the hospital at Berrechid…. Allal lay in the alcove dozing…. The men nearest him were on their hands and knees, and Allal had the joy of pushing his fangs into two of them before a third severed his head with an axe.
The mordant exchanges in “Call at Corazón” (1946) bare the raw hatred between a newlywed couple on a tramp-steamer calling along the Central American coast. When the husband remarks that one doesn’t “take a honeymoon alone,” his sexually unsatisfied, solitary-drinking bride replies: “You might.” Though appalled by his wish to purchase a monkey, when he agrees not to she promptly about-faces: “I’ll be more miserable if you don’t, so please go and buy it…. I’d love to have it…. I think it’s sweet.” After the animal has made a shambles of their cabin, she pretends not to mind him. “What I mind is you. He can’t help being a little horror, but he keeps reminding me that you could if you wanted.” When the husband offers to get rid of it, she suggests that “you drop him overboard.” The unspoken thoughts are no less bitchy: “She knew he would wait to be angry until she was unprepared for his attack.” At night, discovering that she and the whiskey bottles she keeps in the cabin are missing, he goes in search, finds her and a member of the crew half-dressed and sprawled on the floor in an alcoholic stupor, and packs his bags. In the morning, he debarks and boards a train alone.
Sawyer-Lauçanno contends that the account of “marital tension” is “not pure invention” and that “the fictional rendering” by both Bowles and his wife, the talented but deeply neurotic and incorrigible Jane Auer, confirm Virgil Thomson’s testimony that the version of the marriage in Jane Bowles’s own novel Two Serious Ladies5 is, like “Call at Corazón,” a “thinly disguised story of their honeymoon.” Both the similarities (the alcoholism) and the disguises (she is depicted as a heterosexual) are apparent in Bowles’s story; moreover, he told Gertrude Stein that Jane hated monkeys. Yet the acerbic wife does not sound like the Jane Bowles in her published letters to her husband,6 some of them running on to thousands of words, many of which, in the tradition of drinker’s ink, are repetitious. But, then, Bowles’s own terse style could not accommodate garrulity.
While acknowledging Bowles’s homosexual temperament—he is “quite drawn toward homosexuals and homosexuality”—and allowing Thomson and Tennessee Williams to name male lovers, Sawyer-Lauçanno professes to believe that, apart from an early seduction in Paris by an older man, Bowles “stopped short of physical involvement.” Granted that Bowles can put himself into other people’s shoes, that he and his characters are sometimes perfectly fungible, and that he is much given to fantasizing, one doubts that the nuances of feeling in “Pages from Cold Point” could have been so convincingly conveyed by a writer who had not directly experienced them himself. The boy lay “asleep on his side, and naked,” his homoerotic father writes in a memoir:
I stood looking at him for a long time…my eyes followed the curve of his arm, shoulder, back, thigh, leg…. I shall never know whether or not he was really asleep all that time. Of course he couldn’t have been, and yet he lay so still…warm and firm, but still as death.
In this story, Vidal says, incidentally reminding us that in the pre-permissive society we had to read such things more closely, “nothing and everything happens.” Sawyer-Lauçanno states the case for Ned Rorem as the model for the sixteen-year-old and Bowles himself for the parent, although Bowles has denied this:
There is more than a bit of Bowles [in the father]. His response, for instance, to [his son’s] homosexual promiscuity—feigning ignorance or indifference—is very much the response that Bowles was making to [his wife’s lesbian] liaisons.
But the story as a whole is less than entirely successful; the pretense of gradually revealing the true nature of the son’s adventures and of the father’s incestuous desires is belied from the beginning, where both are obvious to the reader.
Some of the autobiographical correspondences in the stories are wholly transparent. The first-person voice of the writer wrestling with himself in “If I Should Open My Mouth” (1952) is identical to that of the author of Without Stopping:
[When] sound asleep…often the best things come to light and are recognized as such by a critical part of my mind which is there watching, quite capable of judging but utterly unable to command an awakening and a recording.
So, too, the six-year-old Donald (read Paul) and his tyrannical father at a family Christmas in Vermont in “The Frozen Fields” (1957), though the story is more engaging than either Bowles’s own nonfictional account of the relationship in Without Stopping or the one by Sawyer-Lauçanno, with his theory that all of Bowles’s anti-middle-class acts and attitudes are part of the pattern of rebellion against his father.
A precocious listener, Donald is aware that the grown-ups, in their conversation, “were being mysterious because of him,” and an abrupt silence convinces him that “if he had not been there…they would all have begun to talk at that point.” Bowles exploits the potent clichés of memory inspired by the opening of Christmas presents: “How lovely! But it’s too much,” and, to Donald, both before—“You just hold your horses”—and after he unwraps the inevitable sweater: “I got it big purposely so you could grow into it.” One scene between Donald and his mother is an American period piece in itself:
“Why does Mr. Gordon live at Uncle Ivor’s?” “What was that?,” she demanded sharply…. “Dear, don’t you know that Uncle Ivor’s what they call a male nurse?”…. “Is Mr. Gordon sick?” “Yes he is…but we don’t talk about it.” “What’s he got?” “I don’t know, dear.”
Recent Bowles stories depict an America of violence, cupidity, and shallowness: “Unwelcome Words” and “In Absentia,” both of them in the form of letters (“Every work suggests its own method”), “Massachusetts, 1932” (about shotgun uxoricides), and “Julian Vredon” (a parricide).
In the longest of these fabulations, “Here to Learn,” Malika, a fetching fifteen-year-old from the Rif, owes her worldly ascent/descent to her elementary level education at a Spanish-speaking nunnery. One day while she is sitting with a group of women in a roadside market, a “Nazarene” in a yellow convertible stops to photograph them. They ask Malika to make use of her Spanish and tell him to leave. Meanwhile, a swarm of baksheesh-demanding urchins has besieged him; he asks Malika to get into the car, then drives off with her. Having been alone with him, however briefly, she cannot rejoin the women. He takes her to his house in Tangier where she is astonished by its modern equipment and turns the hot and cold taps on and off during the first night in her new home, “to see if sooner or later one of them would make a mistake.” She becomes his mistress, though, like most of Bowles’s stories, this one is devoid of erotic content.
On the eve of a quick trip to London, the Nazarene invites his friends Bobby and Peter to stay with her in his absence, assuring her that “they don’t make love with girls.” She concludes that they must be eunuchs and, when their friends visit, realized that “there were a good many more eunuchs in Tangier than she had suspected.” Soon Tony, not a eunuch, brings her to Paris, depositing her there with his sister, who, in turn, passes her along to an Italian girlfriend with whom she goes to Cortina d’Ampezzo. There she meets a rich Texan, who marries her and carries her off to Los Angeles. After “Tex” is killed in an automobile accident, Malika, now a wealthy widow, returns to Tangier, where, on a visit to her native Riffian village, she learns that her mother is dead and that her former home and neighborhood have been bulldozed to make way for a new city. Like Malika, the reader is left to ponder the effects of her cultural disruption on her future. Sawyer-Lauçanno finds the story “wonderfully ironic” in its reversal of the situation of the Westerner in North Africa. But the ironies are freighted with moral lessons avoided in Bowles’s best work.
In Sawyer-Lauçanno’s judgment, Bowles’s “greatest achievement” is the short “novel” Points in Time (1981), which the author describes as “lyrical history.” Based on historical events in Morocco from the Roman period to 1980, expanded and presented in story and dialogue form, the eleven self-contained episodes are recounted with an economy literally cut-to-the-bone: “The Spaniard in the garrison starts from sleep to find his throat already slashed.” Barbarous as much Moroccan history must have been—and still is (Bowles’s journal of May 3, 1988 describes an incident of Ramadan violence: “[a seller in the market] whipped out a long knife and slashed the other with a downward motion, severing his jugular”) the blood-thirstiness in this book provokes more wincing and flinching than any other. The brief sections end with, respectively, decapitation, impaling on a spear (twice), evisceration by a stag’s antlers (“his intestines coiling out of him into the dirt”), the slow amputation by dagger of a man’s ten toes, which are flung one by one into his face. In one scene, pieces of a leper’s flesh are caught on “thorns and remained hanging there.” In another, one of the tortures rejected as “insufficiently drastic” is a proposal to flay the victim, then cut the skin at his waist and pull it upward over his head to twist it around his neck to strangle him.
Responding to a question about the choice of such material, Bowles said that
The awakening of the sensation of horror through reading can result in a temporary smearing of the lens of consciousness. All perception is distorted by it. It’s a dislocation. A good jolt of vicarious horror can cause a certain amount of questioning of values.
A large amount, one hopes, but the explanation seems incomplete without raising the question of sadism and Bowles’s apparent imperviousness to the macabre.
The sensations and experiences of drug users on their journeys out of the phenomenological world and into les paradis artificiels are a preoccupation. The consumer’s reports found throughout Bowles’s work tell us that majoun, derived from cannabis, induces a sense of physical and mental upward propulsion, enhances pleasant and italicizes unpleasant experience, and synergizes the artistic imagination: “The majoun provided a solution [for The Sheltering Sky] totally unlike whatever I should have found without it.” In “Under The Sky,” an early story set in Mexico, he describes the effects of marijuana, the staple of his own drug diet in Thailand in 1966:
[He held] the smoke in his lungs until he felt it burning the edges of his soul. From the back of his head it moved down to his shoulders. It was as if he were wearing a tight metal garment…. He continued to smoke, going deeper and deeper into delight.
Sawyer-Lauçanno publishes a brilliant letter to Ned Rorem written under the influence of mescaline, which helps to explain, or at least reveal, Bowles’s fascination with horror and suggests the degree to which drugs are the catalyst for his imaginative ideas:
Whatever mescaline does, it doesn’t seem to make one coherent. But neither does it supply any feeling of there being an interior, unreachable cosmos. It says: See where you are? Look around. This is what it’s like. Can you stand seeing it? Touching it, smelling it? Fortunately one draws no conclusions, since everything is far too real to be able to mean anything. As I say, you examine horror very closely, without even any interest. Disgust is what one would feel if one were alive. Instead of that, one knows that it’s all artificial, the structure of reality itself. Disgust is something that ought to be felt for one by someone. But of course there is not even anyone to experience the disgust, so it remains there, unfelt, but all around one, unregistered loathing, unattainable nausea, as wide as the smile of the sea while it belches up corruption.
Bowles writes in the preface to the four stories in A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard, his “Kif Quartet”:
Moroccan kif-smokers like to speak of “two worlds”, the one ruled by inexorable natural laws, and the other, the kif world, in which each person perceives “reality” according to the projections of his own essence, the state of consciousness in which the elements of the physical universe are automatically rearranged by cannabis to suit the requirements of the individual…. I believed that through the intermediary of kif the barriers separating the unrelated elements might be destroyed, and the disconnected episodes forced into a symbiotic relationship.7
Kif has benign effects on the body politic. “A population of satisfied smokers…offers no foothold to an ambitious demagogue…. You can’t even get together a crowd of smokers: each man is alone and happy to stay that way.” Not much support here for Bush’s drug war! Bowles, the preux chevalier preserver of the arts and traditions of the third world, including, besides narcotics, the superstitions of animists and medicine men, is at least consistent. Reading about an outbreak of bubonic plague in India, he wonders whether
the almost certain eventual victory over such diseases will prove to have been worth its price: the extinction of the beliefs and rituals which gave a satisfactory meaning to the period of consciousness that goes between birth and death.
Indeed, these attitudes are also in line with the only comments that Sawyer-Lauçanno manages to make about the Bowleses during a certain 1940s war: “[It] seemed to touch them little. Bowles felt no guilt, only relief at being 4F; and Jane, although Jewish, did not…express strong sentiments about the annihilation of European Jews.”
Bowles’s condemnation of the modernizing and politicizing West has willy-nilly made him an opponent of “progress” as well as a renegade non grata in the eyes of the Moroccan government, which harasses him to the extent of censoring his mail, confiscating not only a copy of The Satanic Verses from abroad but even the galleys of his own book. Interpreting his Aesopian parable about a hyena luring a stork into a cave with promises of friendship, then killing it, Bowles openly identifies the beast with “progress,” the bird with tradition. Yet his eloquent address to the question of the relation of Africa to the West helps, in its depth of feeling, to adjust the received view of him as entirely narcissistic and indifferent:
How greatly the West needs to study the religions, the music, and the dances of the doomed African cultures. How much we could learn from them about man’s relationship to the cosmos, about his conscious connection with his own soul. Instead of which we talk about raising their standard of living! Where we could learn why, we try to teach them our all-important how, so that they may become as rootless and futile and materialistic as we are.
November 23, 1989
Antaeus, Autumn 1988. ↩
Mohammed Mrabet, Look and Move On: An Autobiography as Told to Paul Bowles (Peter Owen, 1989). ↩
American Songs: Works by Paul Bowles, Lee Hoiby, Richard Hudley, Eric Klein, John Misto and Virgil Thomson (New World, NW369), CD and LP. ↩
The dialect language of the more than twenty books, most of them credited to Mohammed Mrabet, that Bowles tape-recorded and transcribed into English. ↩
Jane Bowles, Two Serious Ladies (Knopf, 1943; Dutton/Obelisk, 1984). ↩
Millicent Dillon, ed., Out in the World: Selected Letters of Jane Bowles, 1935–1970 (Black Sparrow, 1985). ↩
A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard (City Lights, 1986). ↩