A High Epistemological Price
Is there a more beautiful Paul Bowles story than 'Here to Learn', a lengthy tale that at over forty pages, and with chapter breaks, could almost be a short novel on its own? It does something many short story writers eschew: it covers more than a couple of years, numerous events and several locations as it explores a young woman's life. Writers often avoid anything too elaborate in the short story form. Whether fretting over a perceived failure of technique, or with an awareness that, covering several years in a characters' existence without a unifying moment to hold the story together, such adventurousness is somehow antithetical to the short story form. It goes back to Aristotle and the notion of unity of time and place, but also concerns the problem of transition in the short story. How can the writer know that the passage of time explored can hint at all the time that is inevitably missing? We can think here of one of the greatest of short stories and another piece that could pass for a novella in length, Joyce's 'The Dead'. This has the unity Aristotle so admires, with Gabriel, his wife and various others gathering for a meal in Dublin. It takes place over one day, rather like Ulysses, but while the long novel elongates time to create new possibilities in fiction form, 'The Dead' leaves time in its proper place. It hints by the end very strongly of time past, and even the metaphysics of being in the wonderful final passages where Joyce describes the snow falling on the living and the dead. But if people talk so highly of Joyce's story it rests partly on a feeling that it has perfected the form: that few writers could do more with the unity of time and space than Joyce manages in his Dublin tale.
Of course there are numerous post-Joycean stories that echo the Irishman's and find their own original profundities in staying true to the Aristotelian: a masterful modern story like Raymond Carver's 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love' could be seen as a marvellous, minimalist version of 'The Dead'. But there are others like Doris Lessing's 'The Habit of Loving' and 'To Room Nineteen'. and Andre Dubus' 'The Fat Girl', which case study a period of time in a person's life, and this is what we find in Bowles' story. Here a stunning young woman well aware of her beauty, lives in a small Moroccan town, a place that "was derelict; it smelled of the poverty in which its people were accumstomed to live. Nor was there any indication that in some past era something more exciting had existed." Yet one day as she sells eggs by the side of the highway a long yellow hatchback pulls up. In it sits a Nazarene, a Euro-Christian named Tim, who obviously has access to the good life that can take the fifteen year old girl away from the restricted one she is destined for.
Over the next couple of years Malika finds herself in Tangier, Paris and London, and then carries on to the States, exploiting her beauty and allowing others to exploit it also. Yet exploitation is too strong a word, with Bowles subtly offering a story of one woman's elevation in the world, contained by the vertigo of alienation as she finds herself so far removed from where she has come from. This is not at all a story about an innocent abroad taken advantage of at every turn; it is instead about a young woman who knows her worth but doesn't quite know herself. As the narrator says early on: "one day she would no longer be pretty, but now she was. Thus, when she was able to go by herself to the spring and carry back two full pails of water, it meant nothing to her if the older boys and the young men called to her and tried to speak to her. They would do better, she thought, to say all those flattering things to girls who needed such reassurance."
But being sure of her beauty is not the same thing as being assured in her identity. Bowles explores the life of a young woman whose existence becomes an adventure because she is beautiful, but becomes an anxious one because she doesn't quite know she is, or even really where she is. Bowles very astutely captures not so much place as one's bewilderment in the face of it. This rests partly in the language; the prose of passivity. "Later that afternoon when the black woman had gone, Tim took Malika into her bedroom, pulled the curtains across the windows, and very gently gave her her first lesson in love." "After taking Malika to a photographer's studio and making several lengthy visits to the authorities, Tim returned triumphant one day, waving a passport at her. This is yours, he said." "She walked on beside him without answering and he took her arm." The simple past tense and the past participle of take does a lot of work here in showing how passive Malika happens to be in the face of her social progress. She doesn't go with Tim into the bedroom; or to the photographer, and Tex [a new lover she meets in Cortina in Italy] is someone who takes her arm rather than holds her hand. Bowles registers the quiet gestures of power and authority all the better to acknowledge that while beauty is a powerful currency, it has great use value, but it is also used.
Yet as we have noted, not abused. Earlier we talked about the importance of unity of time and space in much that passes for classical short fiction writing, but we might also note that in the biblical story, the tales of the Arabian Nights, or the fairy stories of Perrault and the folk tales of the Brothers Grimm, great swathes of time and sometimes space are covered. Think of the story of Noah and the Ark, which takes place over a few sheets, or the equally aquatic tale of Sindbad, covering seven voyages over a small number of pages. Stories like Lessings', Dubus' and Bowles' nevertheless are quite different. They take advantage of the transitional pace of the older stories, but for the purposes usually of case studying an individual life. Yet at the same time this not the individual life involved in a series of adventures, but the self somehow excavated of its agency. Whether it is George in 'The Habit of Loving' who feels his life has emotionally collapsed after a woman he assumes he will marrry tells him she wishes not to do so, or Susan in 'To Room Nineteen' who cannot find peace and tranquillity in her large home after her kids have left it, or the title character in Dubus's 'Fat Girl' who wonders who she is is when she loses the excess weight, we use the term case study because it suggests the exemplarily negative. It is as though each of the four stories start with the conclusion. What led to George's fragility, Susan's suicide, the fat girl's depression, Malika's despair?
In 'Here to Learn', Malika gets to travel the world and to make her fortune, but both are accidents of existence in the wake of the genetic lottery she happens to win. She contingently gets picked up by Tim, later gets whisked off to Europe by Tony, which is where she meets Tex, who takes her to the US. Tex is rich and soon dies, which saddens Malika immensely because she was never after his money, but she becomes wealthy nevertheless. She has no idea what to do with this wealth, or even how to look after it. Even before Tex's demise the narrator notes: "being in Los Angeles persuaded Malika that she was right, that she had left behind everything that was comprehensible, and was now in a totally different place whose laws she could not know." This becomes more pronounced with his death. His friend tries to explain to her that she has inherited a fortune. "He saw anxiety flitting across her face, and added hastily: It's your money. You're his sole beneficiary. After taxes and all the rest, you'll still have a substantial capital. And if you're wise you'll leave it all just where it is, in certificates of deposit and treasury notes." She can travel the world all over again if she wishes, but would she be in any more control of her destiny?
Bowles ends the story with Malika returning to Morocco, and to her home town. But arriving back there she sees much has changed. "It looked completely different. There were big new buildings and bright lights. The idea that the town might change during her absence had not occurred to her; she herself would change, but the town would remain an unmoving backdrop which would help her define and measure her transformation." She then goes along the street to her mum's house and finds it no longer there. "Even the land where it had stood was gone...and all the houses bordering on the gully had disappeared." A neighbour informs her that her mother died a year before, and Malika starts to cry. "Then she saw more clearly. It was not for her mother that she felt like weeping; it was for herself. There was no longer any reason to do anything."
Earlier we invoked the fairy tale, and 'Here to Learn' is a rags to riches story underpinned not by the posssibilities of great wealth, but the misery of great poverty. It is a variation of the notion that you can take the man out of the street but can't take the street out of the man. Malika is the daughter of her poverty; in the fairy tale the young woman is usually the wife-to-be of aspiration. Added to which, here Malika doesn't return to the town helping the locals improve their lot; she returns to find that lots have been reallocated and her own house destroyed. It isn't only that you can't take the street out of the man; here the street has been taken out of Malika - she no longer even has her past to return to anymore. Modern short fiction like the stories we have invoked may share with the fairtyale sharp shifts in time and place, but they do so for pessimistic ends, or rather for the process of self-realisation over self-actualisation. When the narrator talks about Malika believing she might change but not the town, this is Malika realising that she hasn't only evolved materially (as so often happens in fairy tales), she has also collapsed psychically. Self-realisation in these stories doesn't come cheap as the writers dig deep into the contours of consciousness. That late line in the story about no longer seeing any reason to do anything is bleak indeed.
"Everyone is isolated from everyone else," Paul Bowles says in the Paris Review. "The concept of society is like a cushion to protect us from the knowledge of that isolation. A fiction that serves as an anesthetic." Many of his stories have a vivid sense of place allied to a private consciousness. One never feels Malika quite connects to other people, and the same is the case for a character who could be Malika's opposite, the professor in 'A Distant Episode'. If Malika is the beautiful yet insecure young woman venturing out of her homeland, the professor is an assured ageing westerner returning to Morocco, doing research on variations of Moghrebi. If Malika is disdainful of the looks she receives from the men in her village, the professor is dismissive of the attention he receives when he arrives off the bus in the one he visits. "The professor folded his dark glasses, put them in his pocket; and as soon as the vehicle had come to a standstill he jumped out, pushing his way through the indignant boys who clutched at his luggage in vain, and walked quickly into the Grand Hotel Saharien." Yet a moment later we discover that given the choice of two rooms, he chooses the smaller, cheaper one. Is he more oblivious than arrogant? Throughout these early stages of the story the world is a potentially menacing one, yet beautiful and ugly too. "Orange blossoms, pepper, sun-baked excrement, burning olive oil, rotten fruit. He closes his eyes happily and lived for an instant in a purely olfactory world." Later, in the village, drinking his tea, he listens "to the growing chorus of dogs that barked and howled as the moon rose higher into the sky."
We could see this as a certain form of foreshadowing, with Bowles generating warning signs like a horror filmmaker utilising the peripherally and potentially menacing all the better to actualise it later in the story. This isn't too far from Sam Jordison's take on the tale in the Guardian. "It's thoroughly unsettling. So too is the experience of watching the professor make the "steady and steep downward climb" into the quarry by moonlight. The feeling that something is going to go wrong is unbearable: so painful that it almost comes as a relief when the professor gets to the "bottom", is attacked by a dog and then: "something cold and metallic was pushed brutally against his spine ... a gun.""
Yet the sort of suspense that interests Bowles is closer to portent than to suspensefulness, with the former existential; the latter mechanical. While numerous horror films and horror tales rely on a set of stock characters and narrative tropes to generate the requisite excitement, Bowles seems to seek something else. As he says in the Paris Review: "The violence served a therapeutic purpose. It's unsettling to think that at any moment life can flare up into senseless violence. But it can and does, and people need to be ready for it. " Bowles adds, "What you make for others is first of all what you make for yourself. If I'm persuaded that our life is predicated upon violence, that the entire structure of what we call civilization, the scaffolding that we've built up over the millennia, can collapse at any moment, then whatever I write is going to be affected by that assumption. The process of life presupposes violence, in the plant world the same as the animal world. But among the animals only man can conceptualize violence. Only man can enjoy the idea of destruction."
In this sense generic horror can seem quite containable, and thus mechanical. People go off to a haunted house in the middle of nowhere; someone skinny dips in the lake, characters take out a jouija board. The generic expectation generates the horrible events. In Bowles's work, in some of the short stories in Midnight Mass, for example, inThe Sheltering Sky, the terror is existentially terrifying partly because it isn't stupidity that leads to the horror, but an inquisitive intelligence. It would be too easy to see Kit and Port as complacent westerners caught in Morocco, ripe for narrative schadenfreude in The Sheltering Sky, or that the professor here is a man who deserves all he gets because of his sometimes haughty tone. What interests Bowles much more is displacement, the sense in which life is often much more troubling, uncanny and strange than we would wish it to be, and that great art explores rather than exploits it. As Bowles says in an interview with Daniel Halpern. "There is no predictabke environment", security is a false concept." (paulbowles.org)
In the Paris Review Bowles talks of having once bought a tiny, two acre island off Sri Lanka, feeling that at last he had found somewhere he could call home. I thought that when I had my two feet planted on it I'd be able to say: "This island is mine." I couldn't; it was meaningless. I felt nothing at all, so I sold it." Unheimlich is German for uncanny, but heim means home, and there is in Bowles' work a sense in which the uncanny is closely connected to being without a proper residence. We see it very clearly in 'Here to Learn', as Malika travels from place to place before returning to Morocco where the family home no longer exists. But what matters for Bowles is to create a violence out of this homelessness, yet because it is not underpinned by a set of assumptions, but instead by their absence, the horror is existential rather than mechanically reproduced.
Now when Jordison says that "Bowles steadily, mercilessly, sadistically strips the professor of dignity and humanity and the result is all the more frightening because we always have the feeling that the poor old professor asks for his degradation. He is a wally", is that really the best way to see the protagonist? "I don't write 'about horror'", Bowles says. "But there's a sort of metaphysical malaise in the world today as if people sense that things are going to be bad." (paulbowles.org) It is this horror manifest in the world at large that interests Bowles; not horror shrunken to the exegencies of the thrill and the tingle.
Bowles seems to have more in common with Albert Camus than with horror novelists, despite his insistence, when Halpern wonders if he sees himself as an existential writer, that he is not: "No. Existentialism was never a literary doctrine in any case, even though it did trigger three good novels": Camus's The Outsider and The Pest and Sartre'sNausea. Perhaps Bowles is resistant to the claim partly because he would see existentialism as focused on being, while he is more interested in the presence of the environment. "I think of characters as if they were props in the general scene of any given work." (paulbowles.org) Yet Camus would also indicate the importance of the heat, dust, and wind; the way an environment works on his characters. Most famously of course in The Outsider where the sun influences Mearsault's decision to kill an Arab, but it is evident too in 'The Adulterous Woman' where a woman goes out into the cold desert night and is seduced by some inexplicable dimension of the world she finds herself in. In his essay 'The Desert in Oran' Camus says: "compelled to live in the presence of an admirable landscape, the Oranais have overcome this formidable trial by screening themselves behind extremely ugly buildings. You expect a town opening out on to the sea, washed and refreshed by the evening breeze."
Exisentialism can be as attuned to the sensual nature of being in the world as any mode of thought, but perhaps for Bowles, thinking is always a secondary consideration. What is so wonderful about 'Here to Learn' is the degree to which Malika isn't thinking, yet at the same time it couldn't be regarded as obliviousness on her part either. Her being in the world is caught between thinking and feeling, and manifests itself as unease. When a friend says to her that they have had a wonderful time in Cortina, she feels very unhappy, and talks to Tex about it. "All at once she started sobbing. ..Through her sobs, she repeated what Dinah had told her at lunch...When she felt his arms around her, she knew that the only reason for her unhappiness was that she didn't want to leave him." Bowles conveys her existential dilemma very well, but it isn't at all articulated.
This isn't to make a broader claim for the implicit over the explicit, for an idea to be carried through the absence of thought rather than its presence. Each writer has their own technical means with which to address a creative problem. Malika can't easily articulate her feelings; Bowles achieves a deep feeling of compassion partly through hovering over these emotions, neither quite leaving them unsaid, as Hemingway perhaps might, or explicating them on her behalf, as Kundera would be inclined to do. The story's empathy resides partly in this ability to register a thought beyond Malika, but one not so narratively expressed that we feel the character is left behind. When Tex hugs her Bowles doesn't say that she misses home, knows that she has nobody to rely on and feels caught in a world alien to her that somehow Tex alleviates. Another writer might, and it wouldn't be a problem, but Bowles gently suggests the emotional disarray and makes us feel all the more completely for Malika.
Of course in 'A Distant Episode' Bowles is not looking for the same degree of compassion for his central character. The difference between 'Hard to Learn' and 'A Distant Episode' is pronounced; the problem in some ways inverted. Here we have a character educated and western, going into Morocco rather than escaping from the country; confident in his outlook on the world, rather than fragile in the face of it. He is capable of fear, but feels that he knows where to find it, and where he needs to be wary. Looking at his guide's eyes that were almost closed he thinks: "it was the most obvious registering of concentrated scheming the professor had ever seen." Soon enough he is "in a state of nerves" as he realises that the guide has taken him to a quarry and caught him in a trap: he was being kidnapped. The professor is a 'valuable possession', the narrator notes, as it takes his kidnappers a full year to carry out their intended project: "the idea of taking the professor to Fogara and selling him to the Toureg".
Both 'Hard to Learn' and 'A Distant Episode' are stories of people caught in circumstances over which they have little control, with Malika 'making good' in the west, and the professor finding hell in North Africa. One is a quietly tragic tale of a woman who doesn't quite know who she is by the end of the story; the other a horribly ironic account of a figure of authority and intellectual confidence reduced to a mumbling, wailing wreck: "a holy maniac" is how a passing French soldier sees him. Malika comes from nothing and becomes endowed with wealth and still collapses; the professor is a comfortable westerner who is deprived of everything and ends in a state of despair also. The Paris Review interviewer suggests Bowles is a pessimist and the writer is happy to concur. Bowles manages often to extract from the human condition the despair inherent within it. While in the Paris Review the interviewer sees the possibility of a cure for cancer; Bowles sees in the human condition the likelihood of nuclear annihilation. Neither have yet come to pass, but they remain the further reaches of optimism and pessimism as the possibilities available in technological development. The interviewer sees hope for the human race; Bowles sees its potential destruction.
We have noted that near the end of 'A Distant Episode' a soldier refers to the professor as a holy maniac; a term in another writer's work that could hint at the metaphysically hopeful, evident in the notion of the holy fool we find most famously in Dostoevsky. Bowles' 'Mejdoub' seems to start where 'A Distant Episode' finishes: the central character watches an old mejdoub "dressed in rags [who] cavorted before the populace screaming prophecies into the air." The title comes from the sufi word meaning the chosen one, yet in Bowles' hands it becomes something else. "He stood watching until the old man had finished and gathered up the money the people offered him. It astonished him to see how much the madman had collected..."
Yet just because Bowles is a pessimist, this doesn't make him a cynic. In 'Mejdoub' the story would nevertheless apear to entertain the cynical. The central character who as the tale begins spends his night sleeping in cafes or under trees, decides he could also make money as a religious maniac, so buys himself a long sceptre and a tattered djellaba, and starts begging in another city. He starts making money straightaway, and in time buys a house in his home town. Yet he has no interest in living the high life that his newfound wealth gives him, preferring the low life that offers some vague freedom and spritual relief. Always travelling lightly, one day a policeman taps him on the shoulder and asks him for his papers. He doesn't have any, and when asked for his identiry offers his 'stage name' Sidi Rahal. After being taken to the police station "they tied his hands and pushed him into the back of a truck. Later in the hospital they led him to a damp cell where the men stared and shivered and shrieked." Now, trying to give his real name, the central character is met with laughter by the authorities. The story ends with the months going by and our hero surrounded by madmen; no doubt soon becoming one himself.
Yet, as we've insisted, Bowles' story does not seem cynical; neither in the way in which the character accumulates wealth out of faking spirituality, nor in the irony that shows him becoming the very figure he was merely pretending to be. This eschewal of cynicism rests partly on the idea that he does enjoy the role. When the government brings in a policy banning beggars from the street, he doesn't miss the money, he misses the experience. "As the hot weather came on he grew increasingly restless. He was bored and lost his appetite." He wanted to be out begging. Equally, by the end of the story he becomes locked up as if he were a madman, and yet did something in him desire this? Did he push for it when giving his false name? An ironic and cynical tale would have shown the character enjoying his wealth and being taken by the generous and gullible for a holy figure, only for the authorities to see him likewise; but, instead of giving him money, take his freedom. Yet this isn't quite the story Bowles tells. There is an underlying sincere pessimism that leaves us wondering what spirituality happens to be, and whether the character has achieved in some manner his purpose, or simply lost his mind.
We have offered a very small selection of Bowles' work here, but it would appear to sum up well his attitude to the world; one found in the interviews in meditative form, and evident in the writing in a low key dramatic one. In an article in the New York Timeson Bowles, Halpern says "Paul seemed to me, there at the end of the 60's, the true existentialist, or at least what I imagined an existentialist to be back then. In one of his stories, a character says, "the eye wants to sleep, but the head is no mattress.' "I was aware that I had a grudge [with the world]" Bowles says in the Halpern interview. "My grudge was writing words, attacking in words. The way to attack, of course, is to seem not to be attacking. Get people's confidence and then, surprise!" It is the opposite of entertainment. Bowles doesn't want to make us feel better about the world we live in, but that little bit worse. He gives us out of such experiences nevertheless a belief in the world but in a manner, and on a level, that cannot easily be comprehended. After all, what Malika, the professor and the beggar have lost in happiness they have gained in comprehension. They all understand something about the world they didn't know before. They pay a high epistemological price. Bowles gives it to the reader at the 'lower' rate of vicariousness, but contained within the precious gift of art.
© Tony McKibbin