The Existentialist at Rest
By Patricia Perkins

From Gadfly Sep./Oct. 1999


I am the wrong direction, the dead nerve-end, the unfinished scream. One day my words may comfort you, as yours can never comfort me.
Paul Bowles, in Next to Nothing (1976)

Expatriate 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 Mr. Bowles.

A 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.

He 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 stuck.

I 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.

"I 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."

"Sit 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."

His 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.

"It hasn't been translated before?" I asked.

"The French hated the book. It isn't a very flattering portrait," he said. His voice was mellifluous, his accent almost British, cultured.

We 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.

Far 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.

"End 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..."

"Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub?" I guessed. "The Owl and the Pussycat?"

"No, but that is also by Edward Lear, isn't it? 'The Jumblies' is by Edward Lear. The one I was thinking of was... yeah...

Three wise men of Gotham
Went to sea in a boat.
If the boat had been stronger
My story'd be longer."

"That's 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.

"If they'd been stronger..." Bowles repeated softly.

Bowles' characters are never strong enough. They let the menace of the landscape and its people, those who belong to a place, overpower them.

"They didn't know what they were doing or where they were going, of course," says Bowles.

Like his characters, I too have a persistent fear of going out into the unknown and getting lost. For Bowles, it was a delicious anticipation.

"It's 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."

"But 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.

Bowles laughed. "Well, that's just literature. Imagination."

Out 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.

He's 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 song literature.

Bowles 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 the Depression.

He 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."

"There's no point in writing a play for your five hundred goony friends," Jane said. "You have to reach more people."

Paul 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," "putrescent," "brilliant" 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."

Composer 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.

"I've written some books and some music. That's what I've achieved," Bowles says of his work.

Tangier, 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 fragrant marketplace.

When 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."

"What was it like then?" I asked him. "Was Morocco your first place outside of Occidental civilization?"

"Yeah. 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."

Tangier 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:

"There 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 poisonous connection."

Tangier 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.

I 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.

When I told Bowles about the place, he laughed again.

"That's the old Spanish Post Office," he said, and I could picture the bureaucrats leaning over the balcony upstairs and hurrying along its cool marble passageways.

Even now, Tangier is not Western civilization, and that's what appealed to Paul Bowles more than anything else, I suspected.

As 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 most.

He 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?"

On 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.

Like 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.

Bowles 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 lived.

"Who 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."

Just whom did he want to make suffer?

His 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 playing.

He 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.

"I 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."

His 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.

In 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.

He's never stopped erasing himself. Tennessee Williams begged him not to publish "A Delicate Prey," the gruesome story of death and revenge in the desert.

"Everyone is going to think you are some kind of monster when they read it," Williams told Bowles.

"I don't care. I've written it and I'm going to publish it," Bowles retorted.

"You 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.

Gertrude 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.

For 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.

"Everything 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."

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.

A 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.

And 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.

"Where are you going?" he asked. "The States?"

"Yeah. It's my home," I answered.

"Well, it's mine, too," he said, and then hesitated. "It used to be."

"Wouldn't you say Morocco was your home?" I said.

He laughed again. The whole afternoon had been easy like that. Laughter and traveling stories.

"I'm 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?"

"They've adopted you pretty much here, don't you think?"

"Oooh, 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."

He 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.

"You just didn't pack your suitcases and leave," I said.

"Well, 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? Awful."

In 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.

"I'm 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."