Reading Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, Paladin, Grafton Books, Special Overseas Edition, 1990 (c.1949).
All parenthetical citations in bold italics courtesy of The Estate of Paul Bowles.
It was a world where wars were being raged; global moguls trafficked freely across deterritorialised borders and ice shelves floated in Antarctica waters. People threw themselves into black holes, banged into walls and brought down towers. Or else they retreated to the safe haven of home to assuage the helplessness of being flotsam and jetsam on ungrounded shores. It was rarely peaceful, what they found there, but at least it was familiar.
They were different, he and she, they decided to embark on a journey to the innards of intimacy, travelling to a foreign country far from comfort. In a faithless world, where 'the human self, inescapably plural and open-ended, increasingly finds itself in a bewilderingly enlarged and unforgiving arena,'1 they still believed in an elsewhere of the soul, at least he did as long as she was with him. They left home, he and she, so that they might find themselves, amongst others, together.
At their first port of call, he had a dream about being on a speeding train that plunged into a big bed with the sheets all in mountains. In his excitement, he snapped off [his] incisors as if they'd been made of plaster (16). The dream made him cry. She wanted to run away - it seemed like a bad omen to her, a premonition of something terrible waiting on the horizon. He told her she was a silly dame and to stop carrying on so.
To escape from his dream world, he went for a walk in the crowded streets where people jostled shoulder-to-shoulder, the proximity of their odours and guttural gestures canceling images from another realm. He wanted to be amongst them, yet he also wanted to get away from them and be on his own. He continued walking mechanically putting one foot in front of the other despite his fatigue and desire for sleep. [H]e felt himself the protagonist, [she] the spectator. The validity of his existence at that moment was predicated on the assumption that she had not moved, but was still sitting there at the window of their hotel (21). He found solace in the thought that he revolved in her orbit.
One day they took a bicycle trip together. They rode away from the town towards a low mountain ridge. They approached a gap in the ridge beyond which stretched the endless flat desert. The landscape was suffused with the redness of the setting sun, as if on fire.
"Sunset is such a melancholy hour," she said.
"It's the end of everything, the night. But not here where there is no winter."
"We pay for escaping the night and winter," she said.
There was no history, economics, or ideology, in their desert world. They were escaping all that and were ignorant of the beliefs and struggles of the inhabitants of the country they had chosen to run to. To be amongst others, to get away from themselves, to find themselves alone or together amongst others - they weren't sure which anymore or whether they both wanted the same thing. Here where there was little to ground them, the effluvial verges of their personalities disassembled to reveal their interiority.
His interior was darkly glacial; hers was shapelessly defending itself against his silence and emptiness. He was attracted to the infinity that the sky hid from human view. She felt scared as if she might fall off the edge of life. He sat gazing resolutely at the sky, she anchored her gaze on him. Later, they went back to the town jostling with the crowds. That night he returned to the mountain ridge and stared into the blackness of the night. Hard stars glistened in its tenebrous depths. [H]e was alone, abandoned, lost, hopeless, cold. Cold especially - a deep interior cold nothing could change. This glacial deadness, it was the basis of his unhappiness, but he would cling to it always, because it was also the core of his being; he had built the being around it (124). He heard drums beating and he listened intently to the sustained monotonous rhythm. It lulled him, yet he felt curiously removed from all he saw, the rocks, the sky, the stars, they were everywhere, but where he stood apart from them. His detachment sickened him.
He became very ill. The climate did not suit him. Everyday he grew weaker and his pills stopped working. He emitted frenzied groans of pain, while she sat beside him repelled, but duty bound to nurse him. Illness reduces man to his basic state: a cloaca in which the chemical processes continue, she thought guiltily (191). Their destinies had been linked for such a long time; it seemed inconceivable to her to leave him. Although, she longed to flee from the nothingness at the base of her heart that would always be there as long as she was with him.
He thought she was going away and leaving him even more alone than he ever remembered feeling, but he was dying and leaving her. Losing the negative limits he had provided for her, she began to feel a dark sensation of having attained a new depth of solitude (195). She didn't know how she would continue to exist in the face of his disappearance.
When the moment of death came, it came with two centres, one contracting, the other, expanding to infinity. Black dots spiraling in two directions simultaneously, a vanishing point that was making him lose his bearings of up and down, left and right, distant and near. Sometimes it was gigantic, painful, raw and false, it extended from one side of creation to the other, there was no telling where it was; it was everywhere. And sometimes it would disappear, and the other centre, the true one, the tiny burning black point, would be there in its place, unmoving and impossibly sharp, hard and distant (197). Into this vortex, he found himself falling. He could not locate her anywhere.
She had gone out on the ramparts for some air. She stood looking at the vast ocean of sand with its frozen swirling crests, its unmoving silence. [...] Whichever way she looked the night's landscape suggested only one thing to her: negation of movement, suspension of continuity. But as she stood there, momentarily a part of the void she had created [...] the sensation came to her, first faint, then sure, that some part of this landscape was moving even as she looked at it (202). This revelation suggested to her that even the eternal is subject to change. She smiled.
There was a screaming sound in each ear, and the difference between the two pitches was so narrow that the vibration was like running his fingernail along the edge of a new dime. In front of his eyes clusters of round spots were forming. Lighter agglomerations, darker masses, small regions of uninhabited space here and there. [...] The thin distance between the two high screams became narrower, they were almost one; now the difference was the edge of a razor blade, poised against the tips of each finger. The fingers were to be sliced longitudinally (203). He opened his mouth to cry out, not sure if he emitted any sound above the hallucinatory din. He was beside himself with pain, yet he also felt exhilarated at the thought that the secret of the universe was being revealed.
His cry was a separate thing beside him in the desert. Slowly the split would occur, the sky draw back, and he would see what he never had doubted lay behind advance upon him with the speed of a million winds (208). His cry went on through the final image: the spots of raw bright blood on the earth. Blood on excrement. The supreme moment, high above the desert, when the two elements, blood and excrement, long kept apart, merge. A black star appears, a point of darkness in the night sky's clarity. Point of darkness and gateway to repose. Reach out, pierce the fine fabric of the sheltering sky, take repose (210).
'From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.'2
A star fell in the night sky breaking up its lack of distinction. These were the first moments of a new existence, a strange one in which she already glimpsed the element of timelessness that would surround her. Now that he was dead and no longer conscious of her, it seemed as if she had ceased to exist. Yet there was something hopeful about this disappearance. She packed her bags and headed for the oasis. She hoped to attain a state where there was no regret or guilt.
She came across a limpid pool in a garden at the edge of the desert. The calming sound of its rivulets beckoned to her. She pulled off her clothes and waded into the pool. She was seeing things clearly; she was in the moment, not looking through a window at it. The cool water on her skin awakened an impulse to sing. As she immersed herself completely, the thought came to her: "I shall never be hysterical again." That kind of tension, that degree of caring about herself, she felt she would never attain them any more in her life (220). Something had split open and revealed what she always thought lay behind things, the pure joy of being in the moment. After bathing lengthily, she lay down beside a tamarisk tree and fell asleep.
An opaque curtain separates what had gone before from the present. There is only the present and it is serene. White blossom is no longer white blossom, but white thickness of velvety scrunched up thickness. Golden boughs are dazzling arms that straddle the blue sky. Her vision was still, yet floating.
The desert landscape is always at its best in the half-light of dawn or dusk. The sense of distance lacks: a ridge nearby 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 [s]he has been living for a long time, over and over, still blindingly bright and untarnished by time (240). She looked around at the soft line of the little dunes, at the vast pure light rising up from behind the hammada's mineral rime, at the forests of palms behind her still immersed in night, and knew it was not the same day, but a wholly new and separate day (240). Instead of feeling the omens, she would make them, be them, herself.
She joined a camel caravan. [T]hey left the valley and turned across a wide plantless region strewn with stones. The yellow dunes lay ahead. There was the heat of the sun, the slow climbing to the crests and the gentle going down into the hollows, over and over (241). [S]everal times it occurred to her that they were not really moving at all, that the dune along whose sharp rim they now were travelling was the same dune they had left behind much earlier, that there was no question of going anywhere since they were going nowhere (241). There was only the sky, the sun, the sand, and the slow monotonous motion of the mehari's pace (241). She undulated in their folds.
She was conscious of making the gestures of love only after she had discovered herself in the act of making them. They moved southward across the desert. Mornings - the painful journey under the unbearable sun; afternoons - the drugged sleep in the shadows of the camels; evenings - the soft hours beside her caravan lover; and nights - the setting forth under the now waning moon, toward other dunes and other plains (246). [T]he entire sky was like a metal dome grown white with heat. The merciless light pushed down from all directions; the sun was the whole sky (247). If she thought of him at all, it was as if he was being burned out of her. She only did the things she found herself already doing.
But change can become delinked from the eternal. The sand had been left far behind, and so had the great dead stony plains. Now there was a grey, insect-like vegetation everywhere, a tortured scrub of hard shells and stiff hairy spines that covered the earth like an excrescence of hatred. The ashen landscape as they moved through it was flat as a floor. Day by day the plants grew higher, and the thorns that sprouted from them stronger and more cruel. [S]ome reached the stature of trees, flat-topped and wide and always defiant (247).
She sensed that now they were going somewhere and she began to feel afraid. She did not belong here where the whiteness of her skin meshed with the white heat of the sun. They were taking her back to civilisation. She was beside herself at this betrayal. They locked her in a room at a nearby desert town. From her window, she continued to have visions of the landscape.
Sometimes on a far-off roof she could distinguish minute human figures moving in silhouette against the sky, and she would lose herself in imagining what they saw as they looked out over the endless terraces of the city (253).
Before her eyes was the violent blue sky - nothing else. For an endless moment she looked into it. Like a great overpowering sound it destroyed everything in her mind, paralysing 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 it. 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 (280).
She had to escape from this prison where surface of things intimated horrible, fathomless, depths. She had to return to the place where the grey, the blue and the golden formed surfaces that overlapped and hid nothing. Training her shadow to meld with the white washed walls of her prison, she watched and waited, refusing all food. When she had perfected her disappearing movements, she edged her way out by hiding behind her captives like a desert sprite. When they came to feed her, they looked around the empty room. At that moment a crowded street-car was passing by filled largely with native dock workers in blue overalls. Inside it the dim lights flickered, the standees swayed like waves preventing their interior crevices from being seen (283).
She returned to the maelstrom of the desert where her disappearance took on the appearance of the teeming forms of life that are invisible to the naked eye.
'"Each of us has a geography of character to match a physical geography...There was one single way to exist here, to make my way through this land with grace: take it into myself and rediscover it on my own breath"'3
like an insect spinning its cocoon
like lightening against a black sky
like grains of sand amassed on the shore
like pools that reflect the sky where
above is below, up is down, near is far, and the ground rises to the surface...
Pankaj Mishra, 'The End of Innocence', The Guardian, 19 May 2007.
Franz Kafka in Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, Paladin, Grafton Books, Special Overseas Edition, 1990 (c.1949), p.237.
Meloy in Dianne Chisholm, 'Ellen Meloy's Deep Nomadology (How to Map the Heartland of a Nuclear-Age Desert)', Rhizomes, issue 13, Fall 2006, http://www.rhizomes.net/issue13/chisholm/chisholm.html, accessed 7 July 2008.