Existentialist at Rest
By Patricia Perkins
Gadfly Sep./Oct. 1999
am the wrong direction, the dead nerve-end, the
unfinished scream. One day my words may comfort
you, as yours can never comfort me.
Bowles, in Next to Nothing (1976)
author Paul Bowles keeps his old suitcases beside
the door in his dim hallway, as if he were forever
ready for the next trip. I was surprised they
didn't reach the ceiling. I'd expected more of
them, bigger trunks. I always imagined him debarking
from an ocean liner or a sooty train with his
huge pile of suitcases, a porter's dream, counting
them, opening them for customs. In one story about
the suitcases, a customs officer cannot believe
that shirt after shirt after shirt is for Bowles
and not for sale on the black market. The dapper
blonde woman let me into the apartment. She didn't
introduce herself. I was just another pilgrim,
come to pay homage to the man I'd been reading
voraciously for four years. I had discovered Bowles
through one of his short stories, "You Have
Left Your Lotus Pods on the Bus," a bewildering
comedy of errors set in Thailand. I watched The
Sheltering Sky on video, the film that
Bernardo Bertolucci made in 1990 of Bowles' bestseller.
Bowles is in the movie, a thin, handsome spectator.
After that, I read everything by and about Paul
Bowles that I could get my hands on.
wasn't so dapper now. He was sitting up in a single
bed in his pajamas eating Toblerone, his favorite
chocolates. He lives in Tangier, Morocco, in a
concrete blockhouse apartment building in the
kind of neighborhood that was supposed to be fashionable
and manicured but turned to scant grass and blowing
food wrappers. Bowles ended up here, a traveler
who went so far out into the world that he got
knew he'd see me. He sees everybody. He saw Christopher
Sawyer-Laucanno, who wrote a biography Bowles
hated. The book painted him as a parsimonious
user of his friends. He received Michelle Green,
a People magazine writer who wrote
a gossipy book about the literati and glitterati
who spent time in the 1940s, '50s and '60s in
Tangier with Paul Bowles at their center. But
Green's book frightened me a little; she said
she sat in his living room while Bowles and his
friends discussed her derisively in Maghrebi-Arabic.
am terrible at name-dropping and I just want to
avoid being humiliated," I wrote to Paul
Bowles a few weeks before the ferry from Algesiras,
Spain, docked in the Tangier harbor. "You
can still write to tell me not to come."
down," he said, waving long fingers at a
stool across from his perch on the bed. "I've
got a bad leg. Tripped over a tape recorder. I'm
not going anywhere."
room, no bigger than a retirement-home cubicle,
was cluttered with books and papers, letters,
musical scores, candy wrappers, little bottles
and tissues. Beside the bed, on the floor, was
the French translation of The Spider's House
that Bowles was working on.
hasn't been translated before?" I asked.
French hated the book. It isn't a very flattering
portrait," he said. His voice was mellifluous,
his accent almost British, cultured.
talked easily and laughed a lot. He was gracious,
warm, engaging. He told travel stories, stories
about buying marijuana in Thailand, about a horrible
boat trip with clicking cockroaches and sick babies
on deck, about his car breaking down in the desert
with no water at Jackal Corners. We talked about
nursery rhymes. I reminded him of the Jumblies,
whose heads and hands inspired the title of his
book of travel essays, Their Heads Are Green
and Their Hands Are Blue.
and few, far and few
Are the lands where the Jumblies live
Their heads are green and their hands are blue
And they went to sea in a sieve.
of 'The Jumblies,'" he said simply and we
both laughed. "When I was a small child,
three... four... I had an enormous Mother Goose
book, nursery rhymes. There's one..."
three men in a tub?" I guessed. "The
Owl and the Pussycat?"
but that is also by Edward Lear, isn't it? 'The
Jumblies' is by Edward Lear. The one I was thinking
of was... yeah...
wise men of Gotham
Went to sea in a boat.
If the boat had been stronger
My story'd be longer."
the theme of a lot of your stories," I said.
Time and time again in Bowles' stories, naive
Westerners travel into exotic lands, countries
where Bowles has lived or traveled, and are destroyed.
they'd been stronger..." Bowles repeated
characters are never strong enough. They let the
menace of the landscape and its people, those
who belong to a place, overpower
didn't know what they were doing or where they
were going, of course," says Bowles.
his characters, I too have a persistent fear of
going out into the unknown and getting lost. For
Bowles, it was a delicious anticipation.
always possible. To get lost. And it's nice to
think that, anyway, when you start out."
His tone drops to a conspiratorial inner voice.
"Maybe I'll get lost."
your characters get lost so horribly!" I
protest. And they do. In The Sheltering Sky,
Port Moresby and his wife, Kit, travel into the
Sahara Desert, where Port dies of typhoid fever
and Kit is taken by a nomad as a sex slave and
eventually loses her mind. In the story "A
Distant Episode," a professor of linguistics
blithely wanders into an encampment of nomads
who cut out his tongue, attach tin cans to him
and make him into an object of amusement. He goes
mad. In Up at the Top of the World,
a couple from New York are taken in by a local
who is afraid they know he killed his mother,
kept on LSD and other drugs and eventually killed.
In "A Delicate Prey," the boy Driss
is castrated alive, his penis is stuffed into
a slit in his belly, and then his torturer sodomizes
him. In revenge, his torturer is buried up to
his neck in the desert and left to the elements.
Horrible deaths, told in crystal-precise prose,
one tinkling syllable after another, one clean,
clear sentence following the next.
laughed. "Well, that's just literature. Imagination."
of that some say warped imagination, Paul Bowles
has produced four novels, numerous short stories,
travel essays, poetry, a lyrical history of Morocco
and translations of Moroccan writers and storytellers.
The Sheltering Sky was on the New
York Times bestseller list for eleven
weeks in 1950.
also a composer—music for two Tennessee
Williams plays, a Salvador Dali ballet and two
Orson Welles films; chamber music, three ballets,
three operas, two cantatas and a large body of
traveled continuously through the 1930s and '40s
and into the '50s, never staying anywhere more
than a few months. He went everywhere: Europe,
North Africa, Cuba, Mexico, Central America, India,
Thailand and Sri Lanka. He knew everybody who
was anybody in music and literature. Gertrude
Stein told him he wasn't a poet, so he stopped
writing for fourteen years and devoted himself
to music, becoming such a successful composer
that he supported himself with his music through
got back to writing fiction in 1946, when he helped
his wife Jane revise her novel. He decided it
would be good to be a writer, less anxiety-producing
than being a composer. She got discouraged when
her play, In the Summer House, closed
after less than two months in New York to reviews
calling it "useless" and "deranged."
no point in writing a play for your five hundred
goony friends," Jane said. "You have
to reach more people."
had thicker skin. In his long life, he's been
in and out of vogue several times, called "boring,"
"a master of the infernal landscape,"
"a total pessimist," "loathsome,"
and "evil." Norman Mailer said Bowles
"opened the world of Hip. He let in the murder,
the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square...
the call of the orgy, the end of civilization."
in the 1930s and '40s, existential novelist and
darling of the beats in the '50s, pothead guru
of the '70s with an interview in Rolling Stone,
Bowles has been reinvented by each succeeding
generation in its own image. In 1995, at a concert
series and symposium at New York's Lincoln Center
and the New School for Social Research, he was
rediscovered as a composer.
written some books and some music. That's what
I've achieved," Bowles says of his work.
Paul Bowles' home, more or less, since 1947, is
a whitewashed town on a steep cliff overlooking
the sea in two directions, toward the Atlantic
and the Mediterranean. In the old marketplace
town, the Medina, there are cigarette scams and
watch scams and tourists accompanied by their
touts. They are Bowles' people, these tourists
too timid to go it alone, too afraid of the dim,
twisting alleyways, too out of their element.
Men in long, hooded brown and white robes and
women in scarves and brightly colored polyester
overcoats crowd the streets. People from the Riff
Mountains in terrycloth towel shawls and conical
hats with red braid thread their way through the
Paul Bowles saw Tangier for the first time, he
wrote, "It was as if some interior mechanism
had been set in motion by the sight of the approaching
land. I based my sense of being in the world on
an unreasoned conviction that certain areas of
the earth's surface contained more magic than
others, a secret connection between the world
of nature and the consciousness of man, a hidden
but direct passage which bypassed the mind. Like
any Romantic, I had always been vaguely certain
that during my life I should come to a magic place,
which in disclosing its secrets, would give me
wisdom and ecstasy, perhaps even death."
was it like then?" I asked him. "Was
Morocco your first place outside of Occidental
And the longer I stayed, the better I liked it.
But I liked it immediately of course. I thought
the Moroccans were insane and I liked that. The
more insane the better, as far as I was concerned."
He smiled, creasing his timeless old face. "And
everything happened differently than it would
had I been in Europe or America. So there was
an element of mystery in everything. I loved the
Medina in Tangier then. Of course, nothing is
the same now. Everything's gone."
was an "International Zone" when Bowles
got there, the city divided up by the European
powers, each section administered by a different
country. Bowles described the Tangier he knew:
was plenty of food. Plenty of everything for everyone.
No one was in a hurry. No one really had to work
much. Now it's become rather like Europe or America.
Now they consider that time is money, and sixty-two
years ago when I first came, time didn't exist.
Money was money and time was time, but they had
no connection. Now, unfortunately, they have that
was not my first exotic city, though, even in
its "ruined" state, it was still teeming
and sinister. Its touts followed me, shouting
imprecations when I shrugged them off, threatening
me when I offered to show "their" tourists
a cheap restaurant I'd found.
stayed at The Palace hotel on the Rue des Postes,
just off the Medina. It had blue mosaics on the
floors and walls and an atrium with a stone fountain
surrounded by palms and flowers. It was cheap
and clean. When the hotel guy followed me into
my room, I got huffy with him, and, backing out,
he pretended there wasn't anything wrong with
following a woman alone into her room.
I told Bowles about the place, he laughed again.
the old Spanish Post Office," he said, and
I could picture the bureaucrats leaning over the
balcony upstairs and hurrying along its cool marble
now, Tangier is not Western civilization, and
that's what appealed to Paul Bowles more than
anything else, I suspected.
a writer, Bowles is a kind of tabula rasa:
because both love and religion were considered
unmentionable and obscene in his family, because
he is an isolated person who was never at ease
in his own culture, because of his existentialism,
a clean slate on which is written both "alien"
cultures and the reactions of Westerners to encounters
with them. Bowles does not pretend that other
cultures are "just like us under the skin."
On one level, he simply presents the stories,
the logic, the untranslated reasoning of the Other.
He doesn't mediate. He doesn't explain. Nobody
can explain, finally, and so he gives us the bizarre,
the cruel, the absurd as unvarnished construct,
matter-of-factly. Bowles doesn't pretend to understand
the logic, though as a long-term resident in Morocco
and a veteran traveler, he understands more than
quotes without comment a Moroccan saying, "You
tell me you are going to Fez. Now, if you say
you are going to Fez, that means you are not going.
But I happen to know that you are going to Fez.
Why have you lied to me, you who are my friend?"
another level, Bowles gives us the Western point
of view: dissociation of meaning from context,
time distortion, questions about the nature of
perception, head-on collision.
the sound of one hand clapping, the encounter
between one mindset and another is a koan,
a Zen puzzle that defies rational analysis. Bowles
gives us the koan in a hundred different
ways, in a hundred different stories, stories
within stories. His particular point of view,
his own disgust with our way of life here in the
West is there for all to see.
had so much to say about the decline of Western
civilization that his wife Jane once exclaimed
that she was so sick and tired of hearing about
its evils that she never wanted to hear the word
civilization again as long as she
wouldn't want to destroy it?" he asked. "Just
look at it." It is his disgust, his sure
conviction that we Westerners are doomed, rudderless,
decadent and commercialized and blind that allows
him to turn toward the field of encounter, to
collide with the Other and to record the fallout.
In his early stories, he took revenge on Western
civilization in a particularly nasty way. "It
was therapy," he said. "Afterward I
felt better. Made someone else suffer."
whom did he want to make suffer?
childhood was filled with the fury of Claude,
his frustrated father, an aspiring concert violinist
who was forced to become a dentist. Claude had
a nervous breakdown and then spent his son's boyhood
relentlessly crushing every sign of creativity
Paul let slip into the light. When Claude caught
Paul making up his own songs on the grand piano
instead of practicing, he had the piano hauled
away. When he found Paul drawing in his room before
breakfast, he spanked him and confiscated all
his notebooks. At five years old, Bowles had never
played with another child or even watched children
wrote elaborate stories that he read to his elementary
school classmates. He created an intricate alternative
universe, complete with train stops and station
names. His mother taught him to erase all thought
from his mind. He hid in the blank, erased himself,
imagined that he didn't exist. He still clings
to that metaphor.
don't want anyone to know about me," he says.
"In the first place, 'I' don't exist. I disapprove
very much of the tendency in America to make an
individual out of the writer to such an extent
that the writer's life and his choices and his
taste are more important than what he writes.
If he's a writer, the only thing that counts is
what he writes."
early stories are about the indifference of the
Other to our ideas about civilized behavior, our
rules of fair play, what we'd call human decency.
The desert doesn't care. The sheltering sky doesn't
care. The tribesmen don't care. We are foolhardy
to venture out into their world. Scratch the veneer
of our touted civilization and we bleed, great
copious clots that Bowles can gather in a big
bowl and offer up to the ceremony of beating drums
and stamping feet.
his later work, Bowles is less bitter and has
less need to show us how weak and stupid we are.
Points in Time (1982), his lyrical
history of Morocco, includes history, popular
songs, legends and stories, in what amounts to
a literary collage. His later work has been called
"cool" and "remarkable." He
lays out the koan, stories about
encounter, about misunderstanding, about miscues
and missed signals. He translates stories his
illiterate Moroccan friends tell to his tape recorder.
never stopped erasing himself. Tennessee Williams
begged him not to publish "A Delicate Prey,"
the gruesome story of death and revenge in the
is going to think you are some kind of monster
when they read it," Williams told Bowles.
don't care. I've written it and I'm going to publish
it," Bowles retorted.
have always been a truly isolated person so that
whatever you write will be good because it will
be true . . ." his wife Jane wrote to him.
When they met, Jane told a friend, "He's
my enemy." But she married him, partly to
horrify both their parents.
Stein, who befriended him in 1930, called him
"a manufactured savage." She thought
he was spoiled, insensitive and self-indulgent.
"If you were typical," he quotes her
as saying, "it would be the end of our civilization."
He took that as a compliment.
the isolated being on the road, in traveling mode,
the world is not a very different place from home.
Most of us can't take the culture shock for very
long, the disorientation, the values that don't
gibe with our own. But Bowles was freed from much
of that angst, that assault to the identity, because,
as he says himself, he had no identity.
I do I do obsessively... I know that I have to
write and write, and afterward, if someone asks
me what I wanted to say, then I tell them I don't
know... I don't answer a question that starts
with a why."
at nineteen and on the dean's list after his first
semester at the University of Virginia, did Paul
Bowles flip a coin to decide whether he should
commit suicide or leave immediately for Europe?
Sudden compulsion. Heads, Europe won. He sold
all his furniture and booked passage on an ocean
liner. He didn't tell his parents or the college.
He arrived with twenty-four dollars in his pocket,
stayed six months and hiked the Black Forest and
the French Alps. Every night he washed out his
only shirt and tacked it to the hotel room door.
year later, after another semester at college
dictated by his parents, he realized he'd just
thrown a meat knife at his father and missed.
He decided to leave home forever.
now he has no home. I was standing in his little
bedroom, careful not to step on any of the manuscript
pages on the floor, saying goodbye. Bowles was
spooning fruit cocktail into his mouth, having
a late afternoon snack.
are you going?" he asked. "The States?"
It's my home," I answered.
it's mine, too," he said, and then hesitated.
"It used to be."
you say Morocco was your home?" I said.
laughed again. The whole afternoon had been easy
like that. Laughter and traveling stories.
afraid so, after all these years," he said,
with regret in his voice. "After so many
years, how can I claim that New York is my home?"
adopted you pretty much here, don't you think?"
I don't know," he said. "They know I
live here, I don't know if they like the idea
or not. You can't tell with Moroccans."
doesn't try to understand the Moroccans or any
of us pilgrims who make our way to his door. While
I sat at the foot of his narrow bed, the place
he eats and sleeps and works, his house smelling
of kif, he was stuck because of
his bum leg and the broken elevator in his apartment
building. But he was stuck in Tangier, too.
just didn't pack your suitcases and leave,"
after awhile you couldn't. Because there were
no porters. And you'd have to fly. No ships. So
naturally I couldn't travel any more. That was
the end of it. I've taken planes, but to go out
on a particular voyage and plan only to take planes?
truth, I realized, Paul Bowles has found the meaning
of his life. His Moroccan friends, kif,
the landscape of the desert, the music and the
magic, the sheltering sky, the palpable danger
at the edge—these became the structure of
a meaningful life.
going to die eventually," he said. "The
main thing is to get your life behind you and
be ready for the end. You do whatever you can
while you're alive, and then it's finished."