I page through Paul Bowles by His Friends. In some ways it’s an insignificant book. It’s one those books only a true fan would read for the most fetishistic of biographical pleasure. I bought it at the Harvard Book Store on a recent vacation, just to have a souvenir, and also because I knew it would fill those haphazard spaces of life when I needed to touch something reassuring.
A favorite author reassures when nothing else can. I love reading about Bowles ensconced in his strange little apartment in Tangiers, his isolation paradoxically full of social life. He turned into an artistic magnet, even as he sought the solitude of a desert monk, with visits from many of the notable artists of the second half of the 20th century, including William Burroughs, Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal, and John Cage. They dropped by to experience the allure of “the invisible spectator” and breathe in the wafts of his kief.
Bowles is interesting in so many respects, but one thing that fascinates me is that he never seemed to doubt his life much. Not his chaotic marriage to Jane Bowles, not his decision to live in Tangiers. He’s always at ease, smoking a cigarette, elegantly dressed. As Gregory Corso put it, “he carried lightly the whole Romantic age in his graceful stroll.”
Or, as Charles Henri Ford said:
Is half the satisfaction
He derives from art
For reasons which he
Cannot fathom he opens
Poetry’s locked door
Bowles practiced viewing his life as an observer rather than participating in it as a child. He was always a bit absent, even sexually. Neither his homosexual loves nor his marriage to Jane Bowles were driven by any overwhelming carnal desire. He preferred to watch the chaos of others’ lives.
Philip Ramey described Bowles as a passive spectator, watching Morocco’s “continuous peep show of the chaotic.” On his initial visit to Morocco, Bowles wrote of his love for its theatricality, “the impression of confusion of insanity.” “I knew I would never tire of watching Moroccans play their parts,” Bowles concludes.
When the streets of Tangiers flooded, the frogs became vocal under his window, so he recorded them. He seems very much like John Cage in this respect. He recorded 60 children in Tangiers praying for rain. He recorded people’s stories, the music of Morocco. Sounds led him throughout life
I tend to like artists who value the irrational over the rational. The outsider can never truly trust logic. I envy the reckless disregard of Bowles’s friends, one who aimed to start a literary journal whose contributors would be limited to dipsomaniacs, dope fiends, schizophrenics, and Hindu mystics.
Bowles lived as a transient, an expat, a traveler, all of which was determined by chance. When he was a student at the University of Virginia, he flipped a coin to decide whether he should commit suicide or leave for Europe. Such travel isn’t an affirmation of life, but in leaving home, he found his home in the vast elsewhere of other somewheres.
There will never be such an outsider to American literature as Paul Bowles. Theodore Soltafoff described his work with the apt phrase, “the algebra of nihilism.” He was always in pursuit of the furies of the abyss.