Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky: The Void Meets the Deg

The Sheltering Sky by Paul BowlesThe key to Paul Bowles’ 1949 novel is found in the epigraph by Franz Kafka that introduces “Book Three:  The Sky”:

From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached.

The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles’ first novel and his most well-known work of fiction, is about getting to that point beyond which there is no turning back; it’s about ripping away the illusion of the “sheltering sky” and staring straight into the void.

Americans Port and Kit (husband and wife) are traveling in French North Africa with their friend Tunner shortly after WWII. They’re young, good-looking and independently wealthy, with no set itinerary other than trying to avoid areas of the world affected by the war. Port and Kit have no sex life. They travel with a ton of luggage. They sit around drinking and smoking, complaining about the food, complaining about the flies, making disparaging remarks about the locals. Here’s Bowles’ description of their hotel in Aïn Krorfa (now in Algeria):

The fountain which at one time had risen from the basin in the center of the patio was gone, but the basin remained. In it reposed a small mountain of reeking garbage, and reclining on the sides of the mountain were three screaming, naked infants, their soft, formless bodies troubled with bursting sores. They looked human there in their helpless misery, but somehow not quite so human as the two pink dogs lying on the tiles nearby—pink because long ago they had lost all their hair, and their raw, aged skin lay indecently exposed to the kisses of the flies and sun … In spite of the quantity of garbage in the patio, the predominating odor was of the latrine.

Tunner takes off after a sexual encounter with Kit that is distasteful to her. Port tries to have sex with a blind dancing girl and runs away in fear. This is where the novel gets good.

Bowles has basically spent the first three-quarters of this novel getting Port and Kit to the point where they are on the edge of the void. Port is like Moses—he gets Kit to the promised land, but can’t enter it himself. (The point of the dancing girl’s blindness, I believe, is that he doesn’t want to be seen—specifically, he doesn’t want to see his own nature through her eyes.) Then Port gets typhoid and dies in squalor, and Kit takes the leap.

Kit is alone in an alien world, but rather than get back to civilization as fast as she can, she hitches a ride with some Arabs trekking through the desert on camels. She has no idea where they’re going. She can neither speak nor understand their language. For days on end, as they trek slowly through the desert, she is used sexually by two of the men, an old one she dislikes and a young one she likes. Here’s the description of her first sexual encounter with the handsome, young Belqassim:

He reached out and took hold of her skirt, pulling her quickly down beside him. Before she could attempt to rise again she was caught in his embrace. “No, no, no!” she cried as her head was tilted backward and the stars rushed across the black space above. But he was all around her, more powerful by far; she could make no movement not prompted by his will. At first she was stiff, gasping angrily, grimly trying to fight him, although the battle went on wholly inside her. Then she realized her helplessness and accepted it. Straightway she was conscious only of his lips and the breath coming from between them, sweet and fresh as a spring morning in childhood. There was an animal-like quality in the firmness with which he held her, affectionate, sensuous, wholly irrational—gentle but of a determination that only death could gainsay. She was alone in a vast unrecognizable world, but alone only for a moment; then she understood that this friendly carnal presence was there with her… In his behavior there was a perfect balance between gentleness and violence that gave her particular delight.

Belqassim takes Kit home with him and locks her in a room with no windows, with no connection to the world other than her nightly sexual encounters with him. But she finds herself fulfilled in her life as his sex slave.

In the mid-90s, the writer Paul Theroux met Paul Bowles in Tangier. Theroux described the visit in his book, The Pillars of Hercules. Bowles had moved to Tangier in 1947 and lived there until he died in 1999. At the time Theroux met him, it had been 27 years since Bowles had returned to the U.S. Theroux found Bowles living in an inner room of his apartment, with “blackout curtains” to keep the sunlight out, in a building on a street with no name. Bowles had found the freedom of the void in a room much like the one he’d created for Kit almost fifty years earlier.

In my essay, “The Lost Meat Spear Manuscript,” I described a genre of popular porno novel I wrote in the 1970s called the “deg” (for degradation). The Sheltering Sky, though not pornographic, is a classic deg. In the deg formula, a naïve and innocent female is sexually used and abused until she comes to realize that her true nature—what makes her happiest in life—is to be a total slut. Psychologically, what happens in a deg is that the victim relinquishes her attachment to civilization and reverts to a purely animal and instinctive nature. And that’s exactly what happens to Kit.

Paul Bowles was a gay man from a patrician East Coast family of great wealth. What he found in Morocco during the homophobic late 1940s, when he permanently settled there, was inexpensive access to young men. Like Kit, Bowles had to run away from the civilized world to live according to his true nature. For Bowles, who was wandering the world in the aftermath of World War II, man’s true nature was the void.

Paul Bowles was a nihilist. He uses the sky in this story as a metaphor for the delusion that civilization has conquered the void. Here’s Kit after escaping her captivity:

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, 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. At any moment the rip can occur, the edges fly back, and the giant maw will be revealed.

Despite—or because of—the sex slave story, The Sheltering Sky received wide mainstream acceptance after a few initial negative reviews. Published by New Directions, the book was praised in the New York Times, became a best-seller, and was made into a film in 1990, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger, and narrated by Bowles himself. In 2006, The Sheltering Sky was chosen by Time magazine (one of its initial detractors) as one of the 100 Best Novels of all time by an American author. The deg genre porn novels continue to sell well too.

The Sheltering Sky

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I promise at least one will be a deg.

 

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