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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Edmund White on Paul Bowles and the mysterious pull of the desert

In the July 14 issue of The New York Review of Books (subscription req'd for full article) Edmund White revisits the work of Paul Bowles to explore the peculiar attraction the desert can have for a writer:
Bowles embraced the desert as a Christian saint embraces his martyrdom. His self-abnegation and his love of traditional culture made him one of the keenest observers of other civilizations America has ever had. Unlike some of his countrymen he did not brashly set out to improve the rest of the world. For Bowles, Americanization was the problem, not the solution.
After spending several weeks in the Sahara in 1952, Bowles wrote about what can happen if you go to the desert, alone, at night, and give yourself up to it in his 1953 essay “Baptism of Solitude”:
Presently, you will either shiver and hurry back inside the walls, or you will go on standing there and let something very peculiar happen to you, something that everyone who lives there has undergone and which the French call le baptéme de la solitude. It is a unique sensation, and it has nothing to do with loneliness, for loneliness presupposes memory. Here, in this wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares, even memory disappears; nothing is left but your own breathing and the sound of your heart beating. A strange, and by no means pleasant, process of reintegration begins inside you, and you have the choice of fighting against it, and insisting on remaining the person you have always been, or letting it take its course. For no one who has stayed in the Sahara for a while is quite the same as when he came.
Like Bowles, White found that “the absolute solitude of the desert may exert a strong appeal, but that magnetism is not necessarily salutary.” Bowles dramatized this through the fateful travels of the characters of Port and Kit in his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky. Port is seriously ill but rather than seek help, the couple head farther and farther into the desert. In The Married Man (2000) White writes a story that ends with the same obsessive trek into the desert, but his was inspired not by Bowles’s novel, which he had read, but by White’s own experiences traveling in Africa in the last months of his lover’s life.

White found rereading The Sheltering Sky this year painful: “The feeling of living through a death in an alien world was all too familiar.” Yet there were new discoveries:
I was also struck by how different our books are, not to mention that Bowles’s book is a work of genius. There is lots of humor in my novel and none in The Sheltering Sky . . . Bowles writes in a cool metaphysical dialect whereas mine is all human, circumstantial, psychological. All of which is a way of saying how extreme and unusual Bowles’s book is, which is also what is remarkable about it.
But he closes with the fundamental mystery unresolved:
What is it about the desert that attracts the ill and the dying? Could Bowles be right that it represents a taste for the absolute? And what does that mean?
Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Paul Bowles: The Sheltering Sky, Let It Come Down, The Spider's House; Paul Bowles: Collected Stories and Later Writings (includes “Baptism of Solitude”)

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