“I think that having spent my life trying to hide everything from everyone, I’ve ended up by no longer being able to find many things myself. Seriously.”
—Paul Bowles, 1975
“Other people’s indifference is the only horror.”
—Paul Bowles, 1948
The first time I read a word of Paul Bowles, I was sitting on a bench in the zócalo in Oaxaca, Mexico, around twilight. It was 1989. I had moved to Mexico at the age of twenty-two, after a failed relationship had led me to seek the counsel of an astrologer, and the astrologer had recommended the books of Carlos Castaneda. Those books literally changed my life. Before I was halfway through the series, I knew where I was going. I set about learning Spanish (via tapes and textbook and, when I was ready, a private teacher) to prepare for the role of sorcerer’s apprentice in Mexico. Many of the encounters Castaneda describes with man of knowledge don Juan Matus take place on a park bench in the zócalo, in Oaxaca (don Juan had a favorite bench and they always sat there). My plan once I arrived was to sit on every park bench in the square. After that, I wasn’t sure what I’d do.
It was during the preparatory period in England that I first heard about Paul Bowles, while reading an interview with the alternate rock band, The Swans. Their lead singer, Michael Gira, had been reading Bowles and had named a song on their new album after Bowles’ second novel, Let It Come Down (I later found out the title of the book was taken from a line in Macbeth). It had the whiff of kismet. I was a fervent advocate of The End of the World at that time, so the title alone would have piqued my interest. But since The Swans were my favorite band back then, and the song my favorite of their songs, it was foreordained from the start that Bowles and I would “meet”—first psychically, as author and reader, and then eventually, inevitably, in the flesh.
Back to Oaxaca, 1989. Soon after moving into the Hotel Monte Alban, just off the main square, I joined the local ex-pat library and found an old edition of Bowles’ first book, The Sheltering Sky. It was a hardback, pale blue cover, no dust jacket. I can remember sitting under a streetlight and reading the first paragraph. I remember how something moved in me.
Years later, I re-read The Sheltering Sky and it was easy to see why that first page impacted me as it did. It describes the main character, Port, in the liminal state between sleep and waking, observing his identity slowly coming back into existence. The novel begins:
He awoke, opened his eyes. The room meant very little to him; he was too deeply immersed in the non-being from which he had just come. If he had not the energy to ascertain his position in time and space, he also lacked the desire. He was somewhere, he had come back through vast regions from nowhere; there was the certitude of an infinite sadness at the core of his consciousness, but the sadness was reassuring, because it alone was familiar. He needed no further consolation.
Eighty-six words; five lines. The first paragraph of the book wasn’t even over yet, and already I knew everything I needed to know—everything there was to know—about my complete and everlasting affinity with Paul Bowles. Before I had even got to the second paragraph, I wanted to read everything he had ever written. I understood at once: this wasn’t simply writing. It was sorcery.
“I relish the idea that in the night, all around me in my sleep, sorcery is burrowing its invisible tunnels in every direction, from thousands of senders to thousands of unsuspecting recipients. Spells are being cast, poison is running its course; souls are being dispossessed of parasitic pseudo consciousness that lurk in the unguarded recesses of the mind.”
—Paul Bowles, Without Stopping
At that time, I had no idea that Bowles was also fascinated by sorcery and had even moved to Morocco partly out of his interest, or predilection, for the dark arts.
If I remember correctly, what struck me about Bowles’ prose wasn’t what he expressed so much as the effect it had upon me. It made me aware of the power of the written word, not just to describe states of consciousness but to invoke them in the reader. As I sat on that park bench at twilight and my eyes ran over the words, I experienced my consciousness shifting and changing under their influence. Now I’d say that, via those mysterious mirror neurons, my own brain state was tuning into and matching that of Bowles at the time he wrote those words. We were in tele-communicative contact, not only across space (Bowles was alive at the time), but also across time (he wrote the book in 1947-8, twenty years before I was born). I was crossing vast regions to nowhere, and finding it strangely familiar.
Consciously, I recognized Bowles as an unparalleled master of the written word. Castaneda wrote about sorcery, but Bowles’ writing appeared to be sorcery. This was something to go deeper into.
Flash forward to late 1991. The year my life ended. My Mexican sorcery quest had led me to New Mexico, where I’d used part of a large family inheritance to set up a community for the End Times, in cahoots with a young sorcerer I’d met on the Haight-Ashbury end of Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco, in 1990. Long story short. There was a woman and the dream I was dreaming revolved around her. When she refused to play the central role (queen of my dream), I decided to end it all. Not suicide. For a sorcerer who knows that the soul is the basis of all reality, suicide was not an option—only a decision I knew I would instantly regret. So I came up with a faux-suicide: I would relinquish my (still-large) inheritance and disappear. Not literally dematerialize (I wasn’t that good a sorcerer), but remove myself from my life, from everyone who knew me, start over with nothing, somewhere no one would ever find me. I would bail out of my life.
Decision made, I checked into a hotel off Tottenham Court Road with some hash and cigarettes and thought about where I would go. I watched a show on the TV about the Nazi occupation of Europe; after that there was something about Morocco. I remembered that Paul Bowles lived in Tangier. I knew that hash and kif were legal there. I had read a fair bit more of Bowles by then, so I also knew it was a strange and hostile land. Arabs were not friendly to Europeans, North Africa was a place of murder, theft, betrayal, and dark sorceries. It bordered onto the Sahara, and if there was ever a place to go from which I might never return, the Sahara was it. Vast regions to nowhere. I had found my own core of infinite sadness; it was reassuringly familiar. Now all I needed was the right place to disappear into that core, forever.
To Tangier I would go.
No Country for Nomads
“Everyone is isolated from everyone else. The concept of society is like a cushion to protect us from the knowledge of that isolation. A fiction that serves as an anesthetic.”
—Paul Bowles, 1981
I first met Paul Bowles in Tangier, in December 1991, a few weeks after making my decision. I was probably getting close to the end of my money and on the brink of being officially down and out in Africa. A tour guide named Abdul took me to the apartment building where Bowles lived; by a stroke of fortune, Bowles was arriving in the exact moment we got there. Kismet.
I was bearded and wearing a black woolen poncho. I may have smelled. I greeted Bowles and, after a moment’s hesitation, he invited me up for a cup of tea. I was surprised, obviously pleased. I didn’t know at the time that Bowles was renowned for such hospitality. We went up in the elevator together and I had my first audience with him.
I was writing a journal at that time. Every significant detail of my existence went into it. It was probably this above all (along with the kif) that kept me sane during the period. I was a man without a future. I had reduced my existence to sheer survival. I had calculated that, if I placed myself in difficult enough circumstances, my instinct to survive would override the emotional, existential desire to be dead. The body would keep me alive. Writing the journal was a way to contextualize the misery by reframing it, not as fiction (I didn’t invent anything) but as narrative. Years later (just this week in fact, via a dream encounter with my dead brother), I realized, perhaps, how and why this was so effective.
When I wrote down my daily experience, the elements of that narrative were the same elements that I was confronted by the following day, and the day after that. Only now, my experience of those elements (hunger, destitution, heartbreak, loneliness, despair, the hostility of strangers, etc.) was not only direct, living experience but also continuations of a narrative I was composing, a narrative over which I had complete control (I chose what to include, could scratch out or alter any element I wanted at will). Over time, this allowed for a distancing from the elements of my existence, a growing recognition that they could not define me or my own internal experience, that they were only as real as I chose to allow them to be. Or to make them.
Meeting Bowles at that time had a two-fold significance. Suddenly, my journal narrative had an added element—a historical one!—as I got to recount the details of each encounter with one of the century’s greatest living authors. Whenever I felt like it (though I was careful to space my visits apart so as not to wear out my welcome), I could take my semse and kif over to Bowles’ building and spend the evening getting high and talking (Bowles only smoked one kif cigarette a night, at the same time every night). What a feeling that was! It was like a ray of Paradise in the midst of the everyday Inferno I was lost in.
Beyond even that, making contact with a world-recognized author, just as I was discovering my own absolute life-dependency on writing—my vocation—was a kind of leveling up. Until that time, writing had been a pastime, an entertainment. Now it was life and death. Bowles presided over that transition, that initiation. I suspect at some level he knew it, too. One time I left my journals with him for safekeeping; when I picked them up I discovered he had read some of them. He said simply “I can see that you’re serious.” Of course I wrote that down in my journal. I knew that Bowles was a master of understatement, so I took this as being as close to a blessing as I was ever likely to get from him. I was right. (Though he did give me money one time when I needed it; I paid it back.)
Though I later transcribed my journals into what I hoped would be my first novel (“A Fool’s Journal”), all that material was eventually lost (I left it with a family in Spain and then lost touch with them; maybe it’s still out there somewhere?). Now, twenty-four years later, I can’t recall many of the things Bowles and I talked about. I do remember standing in his living room and telling him that he was my favorite author, or words to that effect.
“That’s wonderful,” he said.
I must have given him a slightly puzzled look, because he added, “I mean, it’s wonderful that you think so.” For a moment, I had got the impression he had meant something else: that it was wonderful that I knew so.
During that period, from December 1991 to June 1992, roughly, I visited Bowles probably a dozen times. I met the Guatemalan author Rodrigo Rey Rosa and a host of other people, people who took care of Bowles and people simply passing through to meet him. Paul was never anything but civil and courteous, if mostly cool. I remember going to hug him when I was leaving Tangier and how he looked bewildered and just stood there, as stiff as a cadaver, waiting for me to realize that this was not a good idea. During those months in Tangier, one of his neighbors commented that he must like me because he mentioned my name from time to time and never said anything bad about me. The other person responded that Bowles never said anything bad about anyone. “Well,” said the first person, “If Paul doesn’t like someone, he doesn’t talk about them at all.”
In 1988, when Bowles was asked in an interview what his social life was like, he replied, “I don’t know what a social life is. . . . My social life is restricted to those who serve me and give me meals, and those who want to interview me.”
I did none of those things. Whatever he got from me was something else.
“He still felt coreless—he was no one, and he was standing here in the middle of no country. The place was counterfeit, a waiting room between connections, a transition from one way of being to another, which for the moment was neither way, no way.”
—Paul Bowles, Let It Come Down
A few years later, in summer of 1997, I went back with my oldest friend to see Bowles. It was the last time I saw him. I took along a copy of my Conversations with Paul Bowles and he signed it, “To Jake Horsley on his return to Tangier.” When I told him, with a slight smile, that it was my favorite of all his books, he looked flabbergasted. “But it’s not,” he said (one of his books). In fact, Bowles hadn’t even known the book existed until he saw my copy. (The book includes interviews with Bowles ranging from 1952 to 1990, so it ends the year before I met him.)
The last time I saw him, Bowles seemed to be more or less bed-ridden. He had a TV and a video recorder by the bed and a stack of VHS movies. I probably mentioned it, because I came away with the impression that he was spending a lot of his time watching movies, not so much by choice but because he didn’t have the energy for much else.
In early 1999, I had just gotten a publication deal for The Blood Poets (while I was living in Amsterdam). My intention was to move to San Francisco and pursue a film career (my teenage goal, which had taken a backseat when I became sorcery-bound). The only problem was, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get into the US. On my last trip, before I flew to Morocco to seek oblivion, I’d flown to the US to tie up loose ends in New Mexico. I’d never made it. In the airport, an immigrations officer interrogated me; in my lethargy and despair I’d admitted, when asked, to smoking marijuana. I was sent back to the UK on the next plane. In 1999, as I gave my passport to a young Latino at the San Francisco airport, my previous deportation came up on the computer. I was cuffed, finger-printed, and told I would be sent back to the UK. In desperation, I pleaded to be sent to Mexico instead. I had already decided that, if I wasn’t able to enter the US and pursue my non-existent movie career, I would go to Mexico and resume the sorcerer’s path. By a strange miracle, and thanks to the intervention of one Agent Johnson, it was arranged that I be sent to Mexico. I arrived there the day before my thirty-second birthday.
Why all this backstory? I was reading Paul Bowles’ published letters (In Touch) at the time, and re-experiencing a deep affinity with him. Only now, I had the memory of a flesh and blood connection to draw upon. Also, I included the backstory to underscore the parallels with my first encounter with Bowles, my being a traveler in never-ending exile, a liminal being, seemingly forever caught between states, nations, homes, still essentially a nomad after all these years, just as Bowles saw himself. (Bowles only became sedentary in Tangier in later years because he was afraid that if he left, he wouldn’t be allowed back in.)
On my thirty-second birthday, instead of meeting my mother in San Francisco (she was there at the time), I was staying in a cheap hotel in a small Mexican town outside the City, reading the Letters. And naturally I was still compulsively keeping a journal. This is what I wrote.
A Philosophy of Decay
“See where you are? Look around. This is what it’s like. Can you stand seeing it? Touching it, smelling it? . . . . Disgust is what one would feel if one were alive. Instead of that, one knows that it’s artificial, the structure of reality itself.”
—Paul Bowles, 1963
Reading Bowles’ letters has been quite affecting. I mean that his “spirit,” or more correctly his consciousness, seems to have infiltrated my own and I am aware not only of his voice somehow being echoed in my writing but of the contrasts and the parallels between us, as individuals. The main parallel of course is the traveling, and coming to Mexico (where Bowles spent four years) has helped underline this parallel and intensify the already strong sense of affinity which I have with him (whether he ever felt it himself I will never know). On the other hand, the above quotation emphasizes the extreme contrast in our actual outlooks. Although I have always had and will presumably always have a strong sense of agreement regarding his own “philosophy of decay,” it is very clear now that I have been steadily moving away from this perspective, even while Bowles went deeper into it.
Paul Bowles may be the truest and most lucid nihilist who ever lived; he didn’t just talk about it, he embodied the nihilist perspective (he rarely spoke of it, in fact, and certainly not in his books, even though he describes them as being intended “to show the impossibility, even the undesirability, of happiness”). Instead, he lived it. Not merely that he was a recluse, but that his whole life seemed directed towards the negation and eventual eradication of self; and not (I suspect) in the “spiritual” sense of dying to be born again, but merely for its own sake, because possible, or perhaps more to the point, because “impossible.” Judging by my own encounters with Bowles, he did not succeed, nor did he ever expect to or intend to, seeing as to do so would effectively entail enlightenment, release from the decay-perspective, and an acceptance of the philosophy of love and of the Spirit. Of this Bowles was fully aware but, like Lucifer, compelled by his nature to reject, or perhaps to flee. Bowles withdrew further and further from life—and into death—as he grew older, ceasing to write and even to read in the end. Last time I saw him, he had a TV, video, and stack of movies in his bedroom, where presumably he spent most of his time. Yet his acute and searching mind went on working, begging the question: how did it work, exactly, once there was no longer anything it considered worth seeking? What did Paul Bowles think about? None but the gods can say, seeing as he never would, and now cannot.
“I think that having spent my life trying to hide everything from everyone, I’ve ended up by no longer being able to find many things myself. Seriously.”
What kind of man was Paul Bowles? A stranger character the world of literature has never known, I’d wager, and “unknown” is the word, all right. Of course, this accounts for a great deal of the fascination which he holds for me: a man of mystery, albeit in the most negative or “enforced” sense of the word. After all, a true man of mystery is not recognizable as such, in that his mystery is not up-front but concealed by an aura or façade of normality. He should never appear to be evasive or coy, much less secretive, but on the contrary to be as open and sociable as your average person. The difference is that the man of mystery is not predisposed to be open but has only learnt to be that way, in order to function in the world and still retain his integrity, his mystery. And it is only when “the world at large,” as such, or society’s members, manage to persuade him—indirectly of course, unaware of what they are doing—to lower his façade ever so slightly and allow them access to his “true character” (another façade, but a much deeper and older one), that they begin to realize they are in the presence of mystery.
This accentuates the contrast between my own path and that of Bowles: his path moved steadily away from life, into death, while mine is (I trust) the reverse, away from isolation towards union, however tentative. Yet the essential mystery of the man, the writer—who knew instinctively that he HAD no actual existence beyond the expression of the Imaginal (the realm beyond death)—remains the same. It is the mystery of the entity or individual not merely content but compelled, perhaps even condemned (as in Bowles’ case?), to remain a cipher, an absence, a hole in space and time, a window onto the world through which the Abyss—be it that of death or Eternity—coldly, darkly, beckons to the living. In both cases—that of someone who takes refuge in mystery and becomes a recluse, and one who assembles or spins a veil with which to mask his non-existence—the primary task is the same: to protect the world at large—the world of ego—from the terrifying presence of the abstract.
The “man of mystery” needs to be removed from society and from ego-structures or thought forms (all decay-based) in order to retain his purity; but he does not need to be protected. On the other hand, the smallest glimpse of the abstract or Imaginal is sufficient to wipe clean the structures of the ego world forever, to drive it insane, to drag its shadow-existence screaming into the light. This is the “revelation,” the apocalypse, and it is what Paul Bowles, like every true man of mystery, agent of the Imaginal, or abstract being, embodies, over and above all other ideas. Once the veil of identity is removed, even just partially or momentarily, it can never again be replaced. The veil serves not merely to cover the emptiness beyond it, but to mask its existence entirely. Once we have glimpsed the emptiness, however, and know that it is there, the veil no longer serves any protective purpose. It has taken on a new and terrifying meaning: that of initiation, or death. Something of this idea seems to be suggested by the way the Grim Reaper always appears hooded, though beyond that I have little to say, having already said more than enough. But let me just add that, more than any other writer since Edgar Allan Poe (whose tales Bowles’ devoured as a small boy), Paul Bowles appears to enjoy the role of human emissary of doom, exactly as the Grim Reaper of fairy tales once did. In his own words:
“Too much importance is given the writer and not enough to his work. What difference does it make who he is and what he feels, since he’s merely a machine for the transmission of ideas. In reality he doesn’t exist—he’s a cipher, a blank. A spy sent into life by the forces of death. His main objective is to get the information across the border, back into death. Then he can be given a mythical personality.”
“If you don’t know why you like a thing, it is usually worth your while to attempt to find out.”
I’m not sure what to respond to that, reading it back sixteen years later. I don’t disagree with any of it, exactly; but nor do I agree with it. It seems both true and untrue; or perhaps just true in a way that is somehow irrelevant to me now. Because if it were true, why write it at all? To contribute to the invention of a mythic personality, perhaps?
What stands out for me now, revisiting this material and these experiences, are those opening lines from The Sheltering Sky. The ones about the core of consciousness being infinite sadness and how that sadness is reassuring—because it is the only thing that’s familiar—to an identity that has emerged, across vast regions, from nowhere.
How could sadness be infinite, I wonder, when what’s infinite can’t be compared to anything else, and when sadness that can’t be compared to something that is not sadness is not sadness, at all.
The last message I sent to Bowles was one I never found out if he received or not. I was in some small town in Costa Rica, a few weeks after my birthday. I was traveling by road from Costa Rica to Guatemala. (I’d been forced to buy a ticket from Mexico to Costa Rica in case Mexico wouldn’t let me enter and I got bounced back to the US.) I don’t remember the name of the town but I do remember that the telephone prefix was 666: everywhere I looked, I saw those three numbers. I made a tape for Bowles, talking to him about what I was doing and no doubt mentioning the affinity I felt between us. I said that, for some reason I didn’t quite understand, I felt a desire to help prepare him for death. I didn’t know why I felt that way, but it didn’t matter; I didn’t need to know in order to act on it. I made a tape rather than writing a letter because I knew he was no longer reading much, if anything, and I wanted to maximize the chances of my message reaching him. I don’t know if it ever did, but if it did it was well timed. He died a few months later, aged 88.
And now that he’s dead and gone, I still feel this strange connection to him. Why am I writing this piece and revisiting the old material? There’s the rub. Apparently I am writing it to find out why I am writing it, that is, there is something unfinished, incomplete, in my relationship with Bowles, something about what drew me to him, and him to me, and how our meeting impacted me that I have yet to recognize or understand.
The Undesirability of Happiness
“I’ve always wanted to get as far as possible from the place where I was born. Far both geographically and spiritually.”
—Paul Bowles, 1975
Looking for an answer to this riddle, I culled the following fragments from my original essay about Bowles, hoping a pattern would emerge.
his “spirit,” or more correctly his consciousness, seems to have infiltrated my own . . . his voice somehow being echoed in my writing . . . the traveling . . . “philosophy of decay” . . . “the impossibility, even the undesirability, of happiness” . . . . the negation and eventual eradication of self . . . like Lucifer, compelled by his nature to reject, or perhaps to flee. . . . a TV, video, and stack of movies in his bedroom. . . “having spent my life trying to hide everything from everyone, I’ve ended up by no longer being able to find . . . myself” . . . the man of mystery is not predisposed to be open . . . to function . . . retain his integrity . . . a cipher, an absence . . . takes refuge in mystery and becomes a recluse . . . to protect the . . . ego . . . removed from society . . . (all decay-based) . . . to retain his purity . . . insane . . . shadow-existence screaming into the light . . . the veil of identity is removed . . . emptiness . . . protective purpose . . . a machine for the transmission of ideas . . . a cipher, a blank.
Still puzzling, I went where all seekers go: to Wikipedia. Within fifteen seconds, I found this detail:
Bowles’ father was a cold and domineering parent, opposed to any form of play or entertainment, feared by both his son and wife. According to family legend, Bowles’ father tried to kill his newborn son by leaving him exposed on a window-ledge during a snowstorm. The story may not be true, but Bowles believed it was, and that it encapsulated his relationship with his father. Warmth in his childhood was provided by his mother, who read Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe to him.
The passage struck deep, maybe all the way to my core. I got chills. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I fled to Morocco I wasn’t seeking oblivion so much as salvation: the father’s blessing. The same was true when I went to Mexico and sat on every park bench in the square, seeking a man of knowledge. My mother met my father—or picked him up—while he was reading on a park bench, in Jackson Square in New Orleans. When I moved to Oaxaca, when I sat on that park bench and read that opening passage of The Sheltering Sky, and later when I fled to Tangier, I too was looking for my father. I just didn’t know it. Not until the moment of writing these words.
The money which made possible my sorcerer’s quest, and which I disinherited before hurling myself into the Tangerine abyss, was the closest I had ever got to a paternal blessing. My rejection of it was not only a rejection of a way of life, it was specifically a rejection of him. The father who had, emotionally if not financially, left me out in the cold to die. By seeking annihilation, I was trying to complete the rejection, to finish the job that my father started. My father wanted to be a writer when he met my mother on that park bench in New Orleans (was he reading a book—or was he writing a post-card?). One thing led to another: he married her and went back to England to join the family business (later the source of my own wealth). He abandoned his dream of writing forever, left it out in the cold to die. My mother would probably have respected him more if he had been a poor writer and not a rich entrepreneur. I suspect she secretly—maybe even unconsciously—despised him for his choice; certainly he despised himself. But she also liked the luxuries money could buy—big houses, fancy clothes, an endless supply of alcohol—and having a daughter quickly sealed them into the bargain. I was the third and last-born child; by the time I came along, my father was as good as embalmed.
In April 1929 (aged 18), Paul Bowles dropped out of the University of Virginia without informing his parents and bought a one-way ticket to Paris with no intention of ever returning. (He did return at his parent’s insistence, but only for a year before running off to Paris again.) Later he claimed he was not running away, but “running toward something, although I didn’t know what at the time.” Before making his decision, Bowles “Flipped a coin one night to decide whether I should take poison or go to Europe. It came out heads, which meant going to Europe. I was very happy. I don’t know what would have happened if it had come out tails.” This wasn’t the beginning of Bowles’ attempts to escape the conditions he was born into, only the first time he’d been fully successful. “Even as a small child,” he told an interviewer in 1981, “I was always eager to get away. . . . I didn’t want to see my parents again. I didn’t want to go back into all that.”
Apparently Bowles had pursued his own suicide mission at a similar time in his life as I had. When I first met Bowles, I told him I had left family and friends and come to Morocco “to seek adversity, before it came looking for me.” He didn’t seem in the least bit surprised by this admission. He looked at me and, with perhaps the faintest of smiles, said, “Oh, if adversity comes looking for you, you’re sunk.”
In retrospect, what drove young Bowles to flip that coin was the same force that had compelled me to travel to Tangier, to keep an appointment with him, the man of knowledge I had spent my whole life seeking.
The Spider’s House
“Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?”
In the few weeks leading up to writing this piece, I had been exploring a personal mystery relating to the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick—why did his films fascinate people so much when they left me cold and indifferent? The one exception was The Shining. I had revisited the film at the start of my exploration, and for the first time ever been profoundly moved by a Kubrick film. The reason it moved me so much was because I was struck by how the movie addressed a theme that had haunted me throughout my life: that of a son who doesn’t receive his father’s blessing (to put it mildly).
The Shining is about a father who tries to kill his son and ends up freezing to death in the snow (the same fate Bowles senior planned for baby Paul, if the legend is true). In the simplest possible terms—let’s call them mythical terms to avoid controversy—what happens when a male child doesn’t receive the father’s blessing? He cannot grow into a man. He remains, like young Danny at the end of the film, immersed in the warm embrace of the mother’s psyche.
The necessity of a father who is both physically and emotionally present—supportive—for the healthy psychic development of the child, especially the male child, is a controversial topic. It is an idea that is both poorly understood and—no doubt connected—emotionally resisted in today’s culture. You can’t explain to fish what water is; in a culture in which fathers have been turned into wage slaves—forced to become “absentee landlords”—the whole context for the natural role of the father in the child’s life gets so eroded that, in the end, it’s easy to believe that the father has no natural role besides that of the breadwinner. In my own case this was certainly true: all we really received from our father was “our daily bread.”
If the death of God is only a poetical, philosophical, socio-religious reading of the removal of the father from a position of meaning and value in the formation of the child’s psyche, we are now several generations into the age of fatherlessness. God’s irrelevancy is now a given. You can’t miss what you never had.
When I started this piece, I had no idea I would discover the theme of the absent, indifferent, or hostile father and the resulting psychic enmeshment with the mother. Once I did, I saw it as a key to unlocking the mystery of Paul Bowles and our shared affinity. As I reach the end of it, I realize that the reverse is closer to the truth: by exploring my affinity with Bowles and understanding Bowles’ psychology, I am unlocking the mystery of mysteries: that of fatherlessness and mother-bondage.
Paul Bowles was “abandoned” by his father, left in the cold to die. The only warmth, the only life, he received came from his mother. Bowles’ mother kept young Paul enveloped in her psyche, which became literally a nightmare world when she began to read her seven-year-old son the works of Edgar Allan Poe. As Bowles recalled it in 1971: “What she was always trying to do—unconsciously, I think—was make me feel exactly as she’d felt when she was sixteen, and I was only seven or eight. And [the stories] had a different effect, naturally.” In 1975 he added, “It wasn’t very good for sleeping—they gave me nightmares. Maybe that’s what she wanted, who knows?”
My own memories begin around the age of seven, and it’s possible that Bowles’ psychic formation (the first stage of which is said to be complete around this age) was being “rounded off” by this strange maternal initiation. Bowles would grow up to become a writer of nightmare fiction, not so much Gothic but existential horror, the horror of isolation and meaninglessness, of an existence in which, in the absence of the leavening presence of a loving God, there is only the indifference and senseless brutality of Nature, the mother. His fiction clearly depicts the horror of fatherlessness.
In The Sheltering Sky, Port, the male protagonist, dies halfway through the story. The reader is left adrift in the desert with only Kit (loosely based on Bowles’ wife, Jane) to identify with. Distraught by the unexpected loss of her husband, Kit wanders aimlessly through the hostile land of Northern Africa, losing all sense of herself and eventually becoming the sex slave of an Arab, debased, stripped of identity, insane. The novel is like the unconscious fantasy of an abandoned child, taking revenge both upon the father’s indifference and the mother’s wantonness, her insatiable possession of the child’s unformed psyche. It’s also a semi-conscious description of Bowles’ psychic formation, and the “philosophy” which he inevitably adopted as a result of it, that of the vast regions of Nature (desert and sky) leading nowhere. In the absence of any God to contain or contextualize his consciousness, the only identifiable core Port/Bowles can find is infinite sadness, the sadness of a mother unloved/abandoned by her husband. This is the primary, defining experience of both mother and child, equally abandoned in the snow together, with nothing for warmth but the blood-curdling tales of Edgar Allan Poe.
Nowhere, with Boundaries
“One’s parents often plot one’s life for one, negatively.”
—Paul Bowles, 1984
In my well-worn, pencil-marked, signed-by-the-“author” copy of Conversations with Paul Bowles, on page 179, at the end of a 1984 interview for the Canadian publication Gargoyle, there’s statement by Bowles which I have underlined: “Why one has to have a body I don’t know. A necessary appendage to the head, I suppose. I always wished I didn’t have a body. I suppose everybody does.” Underneath the words, I have drawn a key symbol, followed by “to P.B”: i.e., the key to Paul Bowles is disembodiment.
A child first becomes aware of itself via the mother’s gaze. The child is like a mirror receptacle of the feminine presence. Rudimentary self-awareness begins with being the passive object of the mother’s love (in a healthy bonding, that is; more often the object of her desire, emotional neediness, and rage). This is supposed to develop into autonomy—an acting self—which requires moving away from the mother’s gaze, away from being a merely passive receptacle, towards being an independent agent, an outgoing, creative self. From being to doing—the child of woe becomes a man of action. For this to happen, there needs to be an intervention, a “divine” or fatherly presence. Why? Probably because it is in neither mother nor child’s emotional interest for the child to separate from the mother’s psyche. And unlike the emergence from the womb, there is no physical determinant as to when the right moment to separate arrives.
A male child who remains psychically bonded to the mother never develops a self independent of her influence. Instead of being fully autonomous, he carries with him into his life a feeling of loss—a core of infinite sadness. This is the loss of being “prematurely” torn from the mother’s body, the lost object. Without a clear sense of being an individuated self, the man remains abstract to himself, depersonalized, a man of mystery. He is unable to connect to others, to be emotionally or physically present, and can only be intellectually engaged. Being psychically unborn, he is more aligned with death than life. His whole life is a seeking after the lost object—that blissful land of nowhere—while at the same time, he is pulling in the opposite direction, questing for an identity, for the father he never knew, for God. He is split down the middle.
In the Christian myth, Lucifer was likewise split from God. He was a quasi-feminine identity (the Morning Star, Venus) who often assumed an overly masculine, pathological guise (like John Wayne, an archetypal, All-American mother’s boy). Lucifer turned away from God, so legend has it, when God created Humanity, i.e., organic existence as a vessel for His Love. Lucifer was “jealous”—wounded by God-the-father’s indifference. He rebelled and was cast down (“fell”) into Matter, into Nature, into the Mother’s body. Lucifer’s rejection of God, the father presence, lead to his immersion in the feminine realm of Matter, or Hell, where he could rule forever. The imagination of the Mother is where the infant boy child gets to reign, to be husband and King, never to grow old. It is Neverland, a Peter Pan limbo for the puer aeternus.
Bowles recalled a similar story in interview, when he wondered aloud about his father’s strange antipathy towards him: “my maternal grandmother told me it was simply because he was jealous. She said he couldn’t bear to have my mother pay attention to this third person. It’s probably true.”
“I’ve always thought about love as something prohibited by society, by the world. . . . Religion and love were obscene topics that didn’t come up at home. . . . I’ve always hung on to that idea; that idea has a hold on me. In what I did and what I thought, I knew it was coloring my perceptions. . . . One remains as one was as a child, on into adolescence. One becomes a man and still preserves the rules that one’s parents taught.”
—Paul Bowles, 1990
Bowles’ most famous story is probably “A Distant Episode.” In it, a professor doing academic work studying the regional dialects of “the warm country” (North Africa) wanders into an unfamiliar part of town late at night for no good reason. There he is beaten, bound, has his tongue torn out and his body decorated with tin cans. He is turned into a freak, a trained clown to amuse children and impress visitors, a plaything. The story reflects the fear of a child who wanders too far away from the mother’s gaze—or perhaps more accurately, it echoes the fear of a mother for her child. It is the sort of story mothers tell their sons to frighten them into staying close to home. As Bowles’ mother used Poe, perhaps—to give her child nightmares?
Yet there is an inversion. The professor’s rationalism—the faux masculinity of his intellectual development—makes him clueless. His instincts are not even wrong—they are non-existent.
It occurred to him that he ought to ask himself why he was doing this irrational thing, but he was intelligent enough to know that since he was doing it, it was not so important to probe for explanations at that moment.
The same is true of Port in Sheltering Sky, and of most if not all of Bowles’ male protagonists who go compulsively to their doom, just as if death is the only thing worth a man’s while to seek. The professor in the story becomes prey to the forces of the irrational, represented in Bowles’ work by Nature and/or by primitive, uncivilized, aberrational human behavior. The story seems to point towards the false individuation of a purely intellectual identity-self, to an illusory autonomy that, being driven by unconscious desires, can only act irrationally, self-destructively. Its allegiance to the unconscious (to the mother-psyche, to death) is total, so all its attempts to break free are compulsory, pathological, driven by fear more than by any actual desire. (“[I]f it comes from the unconscious,” Bowles said in 1986, “how can it be wrong?”)They are an unconscious attempt to return to unconsciousness, to escape the unbearable tension of being caught in the liminal space between the unconsciousness of the mother’s body and the full, searing self-awareness of being a man.
In The Sheltering Sky, the sky that shelters is an image of the wall of the womb from the inside. Let It Come Down’s title is a line taken from Macbeth, the story of a weak man possessed by his wife’s desire for him to become king: the plaything of the mother’s imagination. The Spider’s House: the title immediately invokes the idea of psychic enmeshment with the feminine. Up Above the World is partially about a man who murders his mother; as in Sheltering Sky, the male protagonist (not the murderer) disappears, leaving his wife to fend for herself, alone.
The pigment is clear, consistent, unmistakable. And Bowles’ story is also my own. This is why I have returned, over and over again, to this same narrative, whether writing about movies, matrices, mythic narratives, or madness. Whether exploring autism or schizophrenia, Whitley Strieber, Carlos Castaneda, Stanley Kubrick, or Paul Bowles, the circle returneth ever in to the self-same spot, with much of madness, and more of sin, and horror the soul of the plot.
Yet there is a twinkle of gold in the dirt, a butterfly inside the worm. Paul Bowles did give me his blessing in whatever small way he was able. And he received the blessing I brought to him, in my own, lost and confused way. Dim, barely conscious, neither of us understood that it was a blessing I had come for, and a blessing I had come to give. I had traveled across vast regions from nowhere for this exchange: to look him in the eye and, in that moment, for us both to know we were seen, seen and loved. Father, meet son.
Knowing this now, through the seemingly random choice of revisiting this old material with new eyes that are only now beginning to see, what I also see is that the sadness which seemed to both of us so infinite, beyond even words to describe, is finite after all.
Nowhere also has its boundaries. The father and child reunion is only a motion away.
 Conversations with Paul Bowles, University Press of Mississippi, 1993, p. 40.
 Ibid, p. 117-8.
 Ibid, p. 43.
 Ibid, p. 88.
 As a footnote (in order to prevent this piece from expanding indefinitely), there’s a central incident in Bowles’ life that directly conjures up the nightmare image of the possessive female psyche, that of a Moroccan maid named Cherifa. As Bowles recounts it, Cherifa was originally hired by Jane Bowles and over time came to have almost complete control over Jane. Cherifa whispered in Jane’s ear while she slept in order to get Jane to give her money. She loathed Bowles and repeatedly threatened him with a knife; she bragged about the men whose throats she had slit. Mohammed Mrabet and other Moroccan friends were convinced Cherifa had put a spell on Jane and was slowly poisoning her to death. They believed she was using witchcraft as well as poison, and that she had given Jane a potted plant which was really a sorceress’ “ally” to spy on Jane when Cherifa wasn’t around. With Mrabet’s help they uprooted the plant and found a Moroccan witchcraft bundle—hair, fingernails, menstrual blood—which Bowles flushed down the toilet. Even with this proof, Jane still refused to fire Cherifa, who remained in the Bowles’ employ for twenty years, during which time Jane deteriorated and eventually died. Whenever he spoke about it in interviews (as late as 1990), Bowles seemed mystified by the strange hold Cherifa had on Jane. When an interviewer suggested that it was a form of possession, he didn’t argue. To add intrigue on top of intrigue, in David Cronenberg’s weird mishmash of fiction, history, and fictionalized fact, Naked Lunch, he has the Paul Bowles character (Ian Holme) admit to “unconsciously” poisoning Jane. And in the 2012 documentary The Cage Door is Always Open, it’s mentioned that Mohammed Mrabet claimed Bowles was behind the poisoning—though it is well known that Mrabet was always “talking crazy talk.”
 Conversations with Paul Bowles, p. 117.
 Ibid, p. 199.
sc vandiver says
This is a wonderful piece, Jasun. I’ve heard you speak about your traveling to Morocco before, but it was nice to hear the full story; relevant for me as I just returned from India and Nepal, similarly seeking adversity, isolation, a father…land? After an earthquake, snow blindness, and rabies, it’s true: we find what we seek.
I’ve never read Bowles before, but now I must. For me, that author/sorceror is Don Dellilo…have you read him?
Thanks for sharing. It gives me perspective and acts as a mirror, shedding light on the processing of my own journey. It’s strange how (as in your case) it takes years, decades even to discover the reasons why we choose to undergo these strange initiations and aimless wanderings.
I find the difficulty is not in answering why I left—that I don’t care to answer—it is in answering why I came back.
Thanks. Weird how you commented on this today as I just sent the link to JH Kunstler (after reading his Witch of Hebron, which involves a father-son estrangement and reunion) and got his response on it this morning too.
I havent read DeLillo; i did try once, but not very hard. (I am quite lazy fiction reader sad to say)
I’m glad the piece provided perspective…
I find it interesting, in light of your article, that it was a strong maternal figure — Gertrude Stein — who first convinced Bowles to go to Tangier. Bowles’ account of his initial visit to Stein’s apartment in Paris, in 1931, also sounds like a fore-echo to your own pilgrimage to his house in Tangier, in 1991. Fantastic.
“I went and rang her bell at 27 rue de Fleurus. And the maid came and opened the door, and I heard voices at the top of a flight of steps in the house. And then someone called and asked, ‘Who is it?’ And the maid said ‘It’s a man who wants to see you.’ I do not remember, I think I gave my name. Anyway, she came down. And there she was.”
Yes, distant echo… Hmm there was a Bowles story called the echo…
Paul Bowles’s “The Echo” is about a Smith undergraduate who’s thrown out of her mother’s house when she comes between her mother and her mother’s lesbian lover.
All this goes to show how synchromysticism comes alive when the researcher’s own personal history is incorporated into/juxtaposed with the narratives being deconstructed ~ and not a moment before!
Synchromysticism? The personal narrative leaks into all writing, intended or not.
Guy Duperreault says
I enjoyed this travelogue of mind, body and soul very very much. My life has echoes of this. But differences, too. I had the absent father, but not a coldly indifferent one. His efforts at teaching his children music, for example, were warm. Funny, I hadn’t thought about that until the Jasun pointed out that parallel in his and Bowles’ experiences. But with my paternal absence I was stuck with the numinous but terrifying mother. And my leaving that terror was to be ensconced in another mother figure, with whom I could comfortably walk like the terrified child my heart identified my Self with for 30+ years of marriage. And now I see that his failure to teach me music, despite my heart always moving towards wanting play, was that his masculine energy was not strong enough to withstand the onslaught of terror his wife brought to him and us. And now I wonder if his father absent, too?
This is likely an inappropriate reply to this exploration, but it sure has stimulated in me a renewed exploration of thought, memory and feeling.
Thank you Jasun.
Not inappropriate at all. The piece is an attempt to bridge the personal and the universal, so the extent to which it invokes personal correspondences/insights in the reader would be very much the measure of its success