Desert near Merzouga in Morocco image from

Why Does Paul Bowles’ 70-Year-Old Existential Masterpiece Continue to Test Our Limits?

The Sheltering Sky is itself a test of limits: its form is an exploration of how far one can go in novel writing.

“How long can one hang on in Gibraltar, with the tapestries where mustached riders with scimitars hunt tigers, the ivory balls one inside the other, bare seams showing, the long tearoom with mirrors on both sides and the tired fuchsia and rubber plants, the shops selling English marmalade and Fortnum & Mason’s tea… clinging to their Rock like the rock apes, clinging always to less and less.

In Tangier the Parade Bar is closed. Shadows are falling on the Mountain.

Hurry up, please. It’s Time.

— William S. Burroughs, The Western Lands

Where does “the East” begin? In an older concept, now out of fashion save for the phrase “Middle East”, there was a Far, Middle, and Near.

Farthest was China and Japan and Korea, where the people’s skin was pale as moonlight and their hair black as ink. This was the land of pagodas. The French phrase for this region, rather poetically to the Anglophone ear, is “Extrême Orient”.

Then came Southeast and South Asia, where the people were dark-skinned and worshipped blue-skinned gods. This was a region of jungles and tigers, golden Buddhas and ruined temples, monsoon rains and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

Right over the Mediterranean was the Near East, the Maghreb: a land of mosques and Berbers and tented bazars that could be reached with relative ease from Genoa; seemingly very near yet very far. The cities of the coastline were familiar if uncanny: primitive and exciting, with camel markets beside steamship ports and French officials in shako hats slouching with a Gauloises at their lips.

Even in today’s world of package holidays and double-decker passenger planes and Lonely Plant guidebooks, the place retains an aura of the extraterrestrial to the Western mind: Cairo, Tangier, Casablanca… the very names resonate exoticism.

Then, as now, the West ended at Gibraltar. The East, with its minarets and “unreal” people wrapped in burnouses, began just over the blue water. Marseille was part of France: Maroc, a mere 900 miles to the south (the same distance as Lille to the north), was a colony.

The sheer strangeness generated by the proximity of West and East in this region lead American novelist William Burroughs to cast it as “Interzone” in his 1959 masterpiece Naked Lunch, which was begun in Tangier in Morocco in the early ’50s and completed when fellow Beat writers Allan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac traveled there later in the decade to help the drug- and sex-addled Burroughs finish the manuscript.

But Burroughs and his Beat buddies were in Tangier because of an older writer named Paul Bowles, an American whose 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky brought a strain of modernist existentialism to the Near East, and opened to Americans a portal to an Interzone that was as enticing as it was bleak.

Burroughs and his pals didn’t linger long, but Bowles hung on for his entire life.

Gimme Shelter

The plot is simple: three Americans, a married couple named Kit and Port Moresby, and their male travelling companion, Tunner, arrive in Oran.

Rootless cosmopolitans, their plan is to drift. They drift south, into the Sahara, into Africa. Kit and Tunner have a one-night stand. Then Tunner goes his own way. Port contracts typhoid and dies in a far-flung French outpost leaving a half-mad Kit to stumble into a camel caravan where she is quickly taken up as a sex toy by the older caravan driver and a man Belaquassim; they take turns with her each night. Belaquassim decides to keep her as part of his harem, eventually to make her one of his wives. Now completely mad, Kit escapes one night and is sexually brutalized by Amar, a man she meets in the souk. She eventually comes to the attention to French colonial officials who bundle her off to the American consulate in Tangier. Tunner is notified and waits for her at a hotel. Kit disappears from the taxi in front of the hotel and vanishes into the crowd. The end.

The lugubrious plot largely serves as a scaffold on which Bowles can craft a story that investigates a type of modernist existentialism best encapsulated in a quote from F.H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality (1893) that T.S. Eliot included in his original footnotes to The Waste Land (1922):

My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it. In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul.

One of the most famous quotes from the novel captures the despair of this condition:

How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.

Finding the limits of the private soul is what this novel is about. Drifting into sex, into the Sahara, into extreme exoticness: how far can one go from where one starts and remain the person you perceived yourself to be? How long can one endure?

The highest, most encompassing limit of all is the sky itself, which is where Bowles locates death, perhaps the final limit:

For an endless moment she looked into it. Like a great overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralyzed her. Someone once had said to her that the sky hides the night behind it, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above. Unblinking, she fixed the solid emptiness, and the anguish began to move in her. At any moment the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed.

By now you can tell that this is not a novel for people who crave simple structures and happy endings. It’s the polar opposite of another strain of Western travel writing (and film making) most recently on display in Eat, Pray, Love (book: 2006; film: 2010).

Both strains are interested in an exploration of the Self when pushed into the exotic. The first is subjective, in which the Self either vanishes or is left open to further experience; meaning is sought in a series of experiences that form and inform the private circle of the Self, and those experiences are themselves only limited by mortality. Meaning is imposed from within to without. It’s an endless process of alienation and rediscovery.

The other strain seeks a closing off of the Self once an objective goal has been reached. This “wholeness” thus obtained reforms the private Self and allows it to better function publicly in the home society. Meaning is imposed from without to within. It’s a terminal process of normalization and an end to exploring.

The latter strain fits more comfortably with the value system of Western consumer capitalism and thus is considered as mainstream entertainment. It’s ultimately a reflection of a culture that highly values “self-help” as a form of corporate participation.

There’s significant audience for the former strain, and as pillar of that strain, The Sheltering Sky remains Bowles’ most lasting work. It has influenced not only Burroughs and the Beats, but later generations of novelists and travel writers, as well.

In many ways, the novel itself is a test of limits: its form is an exploration of how far one can go in novel writing. Where does a story lead the reader when the characters reach their limits and are emptied out? (Burroughs would take that experiment even further and in some of his novels even eliminate the coherence provided by Bowels’ external narrator.)

Despite this brilliance of scheme, there are weaknesses in The Sheltering Sky that can be expected in a first novel.

As Paul Theroux (no sloth himself when it comes to wandering and writing), points out in his introduction to the Penguin edition, there are plenty of phrases that seem forced: “The soul is the weariest part of the body,” or “Humanity is everyone but oneself.” (Mid-century existentist writing is given to such direly pithy aphoristic statements, à la Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous line from No Exit [1944], “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” or “Hell is other people.”)

Bowles’ finest novel in terms of plot, pacing, and description, plus his most sympathetic North African characters, is probably The Spider’s House (1955). It’s his later novels, as well as the short stories, upon which rests his reputation as a “writer’s writer”; that is, a writer of such skill and grace that only other writers can truly appreciate the depth of his craft.

However, that genius is also frequently found in The Sheltering Sky. Here is a line that reads so glass-smooth that the incredible precision behind it disappears: “By the road sometimes were high clumps of dead thistle plants, coated with white dust, and from the plants the locusts called, a high, unceasing scream like the sound of the heat itself.”

The image and sound are remarkably vivid and endow the landscape with a lived anima. This anima has the intensity of dreams, maybe nightmares, while the writing has the compactness of poetry. Other than Eliot, perhaps only John Ashberry has the power to utterly transport the reader using so few words.

It’s also fairly well known that Bowels took narcotics — another exploration of limits — and the effect of such experience on the precision of his writing is remarkable. It glimmers with psychedelic energy:

This way, sometimes for a brief moment she saw Amar’s luminous black body near her in the light of the lamp by the door, and sometimes she saw only the soft darkness of the room, but it was an unmoving Amar and a static room; time could not arrive there from the outside to change his posture or split the enveloping silence into fragments.

The drugs in question were a form of local hashish known as kif, and majoun, a cannabis jelly. In Bowles’ work, they serve to distort private perception in fascinating ways, pushing one further into their own closed sphere.

The combination of precision and psychedelic openness come to define the mysterious — the enticement and repulsion — of the desert for the Self:

The desert landscape is always at its best in the half-light of dawn or dusk. The sense of distance lacks: a ridge near by can be a far-off mountain range, each small detail can take on the importance of a major variant on the countryside’s repetitious theme. The coming of day promises a change; it is only when the day has fully arrived that the watcher suspects it is the same day returned once again — the same day he has been living for a long time, over and over, still blindingly bright and untarnished by time.

Death and drugs and sexual cruelty in a hostile terrain with self-absorbed characters on a subliminally psychedelic trip: a story like this does not lend itself well to a film adaptation, but in 1990, one was made, anyway.

Last Tango in Tangier

There are a couple of directors who would seem perfect candidates for such a project. The Michelangelo Antonioni who made 1960’s L’Avventura and 1975’s The Passenger — the Antonioni who can slow a chase film into an extended exercise in soul searching with leaden pacing and cinematography that seems to consist only of surfaces — would have been an obvious choice. The beginning sequence of The Passenger was filmed on location in eastern Algeria, and gives a glimpse what he could do with desert settings.

Similarly, the Nicholas Roeg who made the bleak yet taught existential thrillers about people out of place, such as 1971’s Walkabout and 1973’s Don’t Look Now would be another brilliant choice. In fact, his blistering anti-romance Bad Timing (1980), with a narrative generated almost entirely by flashbacks and crosscuts, features scenes shot on location in Marrakech.

Either one of these directors could have expanded upon Bowles’ literary vision since it so closely matches their own sensibilities, and either one could have delivered a satisfactory, albeit very different, adaptation.

Instead, the world got Bernardo Bertolucci’s film.

There are some bright spots: The casting is strong. Perhaps of his generation, only John Malkovich could have played the superficial charm that masks the existential emptiness of Port so well (James Spader was too young in 1990 for the part).

Debra Winger turns in a solid performance as Kit, but she seems to have been cast for her physical resemblance to Paul Bowles’ real-life wife Jane (a formidable talent and fascinating figure in her own right) than because of inherent qualities that groove with the novel’s character. There are also plenty of glimpses of her boyish body naked.

The talented Campbell Scott is largely wasted as Tunner. We don’t get to see much of him naked, either.

Beyond the pointless nudity, the cinematography is superlative. Shot on location by Vittorio Storaro, (who also lensed another heart of darkness, 1979’s Apocalypse Now), the camera manages to capture the exoticness of the locations while avoiding a flat documentary-style. Storaro’s camera accentuates the otherwordliness of the location, focusing especially on the strangeness of the architecture, while his images of people often dwell on their relationship with the landscape.

(His famous extended take of Winger gets name checked by Buck Henry in the meta-dialogue about extended takes in the extended opening take of Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player. In the post-modern early ’90s, this sort of thing passed for cleverness in Hollywood.)

However, all this painterly cinematography misses one of the main points of Bowles’ novel, which is that for these three Americans, French North Africa is largely a stage-set through which they move in their own self-absorption. In this regard, the purposefully unreal visuals of Tangier in director David Cronenberg’s 1991 adaption of Burrough’s Naked Lunch are closer to Bowless original vision than Storaro’s sumptuous camera work.

Another major distraction in the film is Bowles himself. He’s given a cameo at the beginning and end of the film. Why? What does this add?

Most egregiously, his appearance at the end includes a voice-over narration of the paragraph about the childhood afternoons and the limits of your private existence quoted above. Whereas the novel ends with Kit vanishing, the film ends with a quote that undermines the original purpose of the novel.

By recontextualizing Bowles’ sentiment, Bertulocci makes the entire trip into the desert less a journey into the limits of Self than a precious memory that has the potential to reaffirm one’s own sense of self, even if one is aware that the Self will end. It’s too bleak for Eat, Pray, Love, but it comes close: maybe one day, Bertulocci forces Bowles to insinuate, Kit will look back on her desert sojourn and find self-actualization after all. It’s an oddly happy ending, certainly happier than the novel; or if not “happy” than “hopeful”.

The comparison may seem too easy, but what Bertlucci fashioned out of Bowles’ expansive vision was a “last tango in Tangier”, a slow-moving romance of temporary sexual fulfillment in the sand. Kit tires of husband Port; she tries Tunner, but is dissatisfied; finally, it’s exotic Belaquassim that provides that memorable afternoon she’ll always remember to remember.

Gone are the scenes of rape: Kit being passed between Belaquassim and the older caravan driver and later brutalized by Amar. Instead, Belaquassim is now a strapping lad with pearly white teeth and high cheekbones and a gym-toned brown body who offers oral pleasure in an exotic yet private setting. (Are we ready to pray and love, people?)

Despite it’s high craftsmanship, Storaro’s cinematography often abets this romantic sensibility. Not only did he lens Apocalypse Now, but also the director’s 1972 Last Tango in Paris, and more than one scene is framed and lit like it was a soft-core romp, albeit without much “core”.

(The omission of rough sex is odd from a director who once made the middle-aged Marlon Brando butter-up a teenaged Maria Schneider’s rectum on camera for Last Tango in Paris, but maybe he was mellowing as he aged.)

This softer-core sensibility reaches its nadir in an embarrassing scene not present in the novel: Kit and Port make love on a hill overlooking a majestic view of the desert (we get more of the actors’ bare legs here, drenched in honeyed light), burbling at each other like precocious teenagers about how they can’t connect because they’re “too afraid to love”. Over this dismal exchange is poured the histrionics of Ryûichi Sakamoto’s syrupy soundtrack, each phrase a high-keyed manqué of Samuel Barber’s over-wrought (and over-used) Adagio for Strings.

I guess most people would rather watch this pretentious schmaltz than a brutal rape scene, but in this type of “variation” from the original text, why make an adaptation at all?

Gone also is Bowles’ very dry sense of humor: or for that matter, any sense of humor. The novel actually does have some very witty moments: “Port Moresby” is the capital of Papua New Guinea. One of the French officials, not present in the film, is named Lieutenant d’Armagnac. Then there’s this view of both French colonial administration and American mores:

He regretted not having met the wife. Only an American could do anything so unheard-of as to lock her sick husband into a room and run off into the desert, leaving him behind to die alone. It was inexcusable, of course, but he could not be really horrified at the idea, as it seemed Broussard was. But Broussard was a Puritan. He was easily scandalized […]

Above all, he prayed that the wife would not turn up in his territory, now that she was practically a cause célèbre. There was the likelihood that she, too, would be ill, and the curiosity he felt in seeing her was outweighed by the dreaded prospect of complications in his work and reports to be made out. ‘Pourvu qu’ils la trouvent là-bas!‘ he thought ardently.

Not a single character in the film betrays even a modicum of as much verve and depth as this minor character does in this one funny scene in the novel.

As Bowles himself supposedly proclaimed, “the less said about the film, the better.”

The public wasn’t fooled either: the film was a box-office flop.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Could this story still happen?

Whereas in the first half of the century, three jaded Americans could bumble their way deep into French North Africa and get themselves killed and worse — to the amusement of the French — such a trip would be impossible today. To begin with, there are no longer any French in this region to be amused. The relative safety of the Western colonial net that the characters all assumed in the novel is no longer there.

It’s difficult to mourn the passing of the French colonial machine, which was particularly brutal in North Africa. However, once the West went, the East took over. The equation is out of balance from the western point of view; the Interzone that Bowles discovered and passed on to the Beats is closing, if not closed.

No doubt literary-types and culture vultures still travel to Tangier, and into the desert, seeking the Zone; or, like Port and Kit, they come to drift, only now they drift in a sort of homage; they drift with purpose… surely an oxymoron.

They probably smoke some kif, probably listen to the local musicians and try their best to be Beat. As far as I know, there’s no “Port Moresby Café” in Oran or “Interzone Bar” in Tangier. It hasn’t gotten that bad, yet the literary tourists come, just the same.

But why?

Can you get lost in the desert in the age of smart phones, GPS and Selfies? Can backpackers updating their blogs really find the ineffable in the same way people could in an era when manual telephone exchange was the fastest form of communication? At that time, when the wires were cut, information was relayed via automobile, or camel.

The greatest danger now isn’t typhoid or nomads but unemployed and disaffected young men who admire Islamic State ideology via social media. They might chop off your head and post the video to Youtube. You’ve seen it before: the locals wear camo fatigues and balaclavas while haranguing the camera; a black flag with white lettering is pinned to the wall behind them while the Westerner in an orange jumpsuit at their feet whimpers.

That’s not the ending the literary tourists are seeking.

As Tennessee Williams wrote in his review in The New York Times in December, 1949, “I suspect that a good many people will read this book and be enthralled by it without once suspecting that it contains a mirror of what is most terrifying and cryptic within the Sahara of moral nihilism, into which the race of man now seems to be wandering blindly.”