PRINT October 1990


In the autumn of 1989 a posse of technicians occupied the cliff district of Tangier. Leather-colored tents were erected on the beach. Wiring was dragged through the door of a cavernous house as low and chalky as the others around it. Utilities and trucks collected heat just beyond the arch that crowns the Casbah. The path leading down from it, bordered on one side by the crumbling facades and on the other by a perilous drop to the sea below, was virtually off-limits to the usual straggler.

Instead of fabricating an earthy claustrophobic chamber with milky-green walls in a film studio, and filling it with slow-moving figures in djellabas, the scene was fabricated on location. The intention was to capture the “real” North Africa, and yet (strangely or typically enough), Morocco celebrates an ensemble of suggestions and impressions that ignores the so-called authentic. Always turning itself toward pure environment, the Moroccan terrain, and often its inhabitants, suggest a distance to the world by way of worldly extremes. Its climate and light are delectable. Its paradisiacal aura is prickly with linguistic confusion, poverty, and a tactless sense for trade. “Traveling” creative Western spirits, such as Eugène Delacroix, Henri Matisse, Tennessee Williams, and Jane Bowles, referred to it as a place intrinsically stranded between reality and dream. I would add that any literature that properly reflects the Moroccan presence transmits that quality, as if one were gathering data from end to beginning while moving sideways from actual fact.

Searching for a layer of Morocco’s quintessence, Bernardo Bertolucci’s new film finds an exceptional premise in Paul Bowles’ first novel, The Sheltering Sky. Since 1949 this book has remained a unique achievement in the literature of fear by not using the techniques of crime or horror stories, but rather, more akin to Poe or Jorge Luis Borges, a form of literary vision off-center of the eye’s logic, a vision that generates an ephemeral sense of destiny. It parallels the cinematographic vision Bertolucci alludes to when he says that, in his films, the audience identifies more with the camera than with the characters on the screen. And in a matter-of-fact tone, more philosophical than mystical, Bowles’ novel rightly begins with the desire “to see”: “He awoke, opened his eyes.” Then, as the form dictates, a chain of impressions and events begins to jingle, unravel, and encircle the subject. Simultaneously the reader is vaguely reminded of what will not be seen, namely the aftermath of the Second World War. From that point we find ourselves among a group of confident North American travelers, modern nomads, turning their backs on New York in the late ’40s. They immediately give the impression they belong to a rare race of “privileged” homeless persons. More than that, they give the impression that to travel is to exist.

A voyage is documented. It penetrates the Sahara and it accelerates, shedding vistas of the desert, of a North African imperialism, of real and imagined myth, and, lastly, of its two protagonists, Port and his wife, Kit. The man’s end is death by typhoid and the woman’s a perfectly suggested one of derangement. The tone of the voyage rings calm and indifferent to the slow elimination of its voyagers. If with nothing else, this elimination is in key with the music of nature: the sun is hot. There is an unchecked potential for anguish and cruelty in the human mind. We are alone, and we must die, as surely as the sky that shelters the floor of the desert is an endless advertisement for the inevitable. In controlled station-stops the voyage explains, confuses, and warns. But most of all it proceeds. Approaching The Sheltering Sky as a premise we can see a classical adventure story. A “serious” farce about alienation. Perhaps a surreal translation of The African Queen. Not always likable characters but accessible ones in an unknown. A constellation of nearly beautiful images that become things to be endured instead of admired. And the punitive leitmotiv: life’s beauty is experienced in direct proportion to its superhuman lack of pity. The telling of the story is linear, itself a form that Bertolucci has avidly avoided in his more haunting works, such as Il Conformista (The Conformist, 1970) or La Luna (The Moon, 1979). What applies, as much to Bertolucci as to Bowles, is a mannerism. The “how” of the storytelling always outwits the “what” of the story. And here the “how” is facing an adventure that is an adventure by default: everything that happens during the attempt to create an adventure. The “negative” image of a well-planned intention.

At first the collaboration between Bertolucci and Bowles seems unlikely—one is hot, the other cold. But both men do work in different corners of the same labyrinth. If socially and politically they pass along different tracks, what does bring them together is a mutual affinity for making poetic portraits of a heightened spiritual isolation. Both, so to speak, aspire to being “soul-makers.” Bertolucci completes his portraits using an emotional rage. In quiet opposition to that, but not indifferent to it, Bowles’ portraits are completed using a study of the senses, treating them like a terrible luggage the emotions are condemned to carry.

Bertolucci’s genre of film reverberates with combinations. The emotional, political, and musical elements compete as much on the intimate as on the spectacular level. In the most effective films, illuminating characters fundamentally at odds with their society, a cryptic rawness and beauty exceed the boundaries of the story’s plot, as if these films were going to extremes to detach themselves from traditional cinema in order to promote the greatness of filmmaking.

Bowles’ extremes are of a different sort, inasmuch as the majority of his writing locates a will or desire at odds with its existence. Meeting him in Tangier reminded me of the distraught narrator in his short story “Pages from Coldpoint,” and of the finality of this character’s opening monologue: “Our civilization is doomed to a short life: its component parts are too heterogeneous.” This almost godlike complaint hides in itself not only a repugnance for contemporary civilization but the celebration of the free and unspoiled as well. Tragically, or dramatically, speaking, it also hides the “no longer possible.” For Bowles, the throes of “creative exile” have long been eradicated. After more than two decades his residency “to the side of civilization” is wisely fixed. In retrospect, he says he never chose to live in Tangier. But after incessant travel in France, Spain, Africa, and India, after the urge to travel faded, and after the pull of his American citizenship had worn off, he “awoke” to this situation: he was already in Morocco and familiar with it when he suddenly realized that everywhere else seemed horrifically changed, less beautiful, less accommodating, and less inclined to repel the contamination of contemporary civilization. Whereas here, in Tangier, despite or because of its adherence to spells and folklore, there was something left of a direct way to converse with life about life—and with life about death.

The Tangier that surrounds Bertolucci’s camera is an intricate relic: an abrasive husk of the previous Tangier. From its notorious International Zone status after World War I, the chic of smuggling, the tradition of adroit and dutiful servants, on to the perennial cocktails under the palms of the Villa de France, the (true and not true) “Casablanca” mystique has noticeably faded. In its place, as a lasting lucrative point of contact with a legendary past, is a pronounced dedication to tourism. Likewise, Bowles, no longer in his Moroccan-style Amrah quarters overlooking the city, lives outside the old center in a modest complex serviced by an interminably slow Otis elevator. Nearby, to the left and right, is a noisy school yard and the American consulate. In general the Tangerine delicacies of an Oriental life-style have degenerated to a growing hunger to become more European.

But I also visited the oldest of the four imperial cities, Fez, admittedly one of Bowles’ preferred cities, as well as the place where he completed his draft of The Sheltering Sky. Unlike the intoxicating atmosphere of Tangier, Fez, the “blue” city, purrs with commotion. Its customary Medina—the old quartier looking unchanged since the reign of the previous dynasty—boasts of being so complex a labyrinth of alleys and roofed passageways that strangers are advised not to enter it without a hired guide. According to my guide I looked so much like an inhabitant, no one would stop me from entering a single holy chamber. I would have no problem wandering or writing in peace, if that was what I had come here for. That much was true. I went the length of the main avenues forming a thoroughfare from the pyramid to the old fortress, feeling seen but unnoticed. Aside from my false sameness I came to the conclusion that anyone could chart some portion of peace here.

The Western traveler meets a duality in the social climate of Fez. Seduction and resistance greet him at the same time. He’s allotted his space for living and admiring in exchange for feeling slightly transparent or overlooked. But the law of this duality is simple: once the traveler lends himself to the strangeness of Fez, the strangeness lends itself to him. From a noisy terrace I saw people greet each other with swift touches to the forehead, mouth, and chest, or the daily spectacle of aloof tattooed Berber women ignoring the traffic and pedestrians. And I saw in such tasteful bedlam a precise absence of intrusion. Blissful, disgruntled, or purely mechanical, this complicated peace is laden with more than satisfaction. There is also some trancelike pleasure that comes from knowing that the simplest act is superior to the most perfectly considered thought. Its warm tension between sound, gesture, and the unspoken is more than mysterious. It functions as a bridge (not only as a place) between the present and antiquity, rather as the infiltrating sands link the city of the dead, the cemetery, with the everyday city of life.

Although Tangier is clearly considered “of” Morocco, the experienced traveler knows it better as the raw doorway to Morocco proper, behind which lie the prodigious paths leading to the interior, winding from one to the other amazingly intact imperial city. Fictionalized, these paths conglomerate neatly—not geographically or physically but sensually and universally. For the novel as for the film, the path that penetrates the point-blank of the desert has a multiple function. It implies direction where there is none and becomes the borderline where, when crossed, voyage unwillingly becomes a search for sanctuary and normalcy. This desert is relentlessly the desert, a place immune to all other places in the same way the soul is immune to being any other soul but itself. All that seems real here is the need to protect oneself and to proceed from here to there. And the words “El Ga’a” or “Bou Noura” only fix the travelers on an Islamic map that loses its function anyway. The “other” signs are indication enough for a destination: it suffices that the climate, the epidemic, and the insect world are omnipotent. It suffices that Nature has that devilish ability to turn any one of its characteristics into its whole. Be it the sun’s strength or the virus carried by an insect, it can make anywhere and anything its volatile center. Closing, The Sheltering Sky eliminates the characters of husband and wife, not by thrusting them toward true death but toward a true nonexistence. Lying on the floor in a military outpost, Port’s dying thoughts are of the typhoid-induced geometric shapes he sees. Then the aftertaste of a dead love, hysteria, and fear send Kit, after plundering her husband’s belongings, into the desert alone, only to become the sexual hostage of a caravan.

Even at the novel’s conclusion we don’t lose track of either character’s symbolic identity: whether or not he or she, in a landscape of violence and blankness, is a saint, a ghost, or a simple victim; whether or not they are experts in controlling their fears or being controlled by them. By now the domination of fear (with all the atrocities fear attracts) is the mission or destination. Only the math of pure existence, subtracting mere human life when and where it sees fit, sees the end of the voyage. As an invention, the voyage becomes believable before the reader is allowed the time to ask why. Moving northward from the Sahara through an antique Fez, continuing through known and lesser-known points along the coast, then returning to Tangier, Bowles’ eye for Morocco’s “localness” seems irreproachable. Brute craftsmanship is the first virtue. The second is the mask of believable vagueness calmly covering the craftsmanship. The mannered calmness gives equal shelter to justice and to injustice. It suggests in one stroke two invisible frameworks, one for philosophy and another for subversion. In that sense, assaults of all kinds are “natural” occurrences. Yet true to Morocco’s indigenous ambiguity (for a Western eye), Bowles’ writing is never about violence. It frames the radiation of it.

Seen as a blow of the unconscious against the conscious or as an authentic deathblow dealt by an enemy, the outbreak of violence is a meaningful hieroglyph. In both Bowles’ and Bertolucci’s works, these darker chords are like magnets. With Bowles they attract the surface of a reality that nullifies the human realm as we know it; with Bertolucci there is a similar surface, but it offers secondary information—not only the intensity of any nullification, but its exact shape and weight, even its heritage. Bowles’ use of hostility mirrors a fiendish painting by Le Douanier Rousseau. By comparison, Bertolucci’s hostility is photographic and so theatricalized that the assault could only be the work of modernized man. This latter conflict is almost exclusively external. On the screen it seems orchestrated: instead of signaling a coup de grace, it repeats itself, in fact or in mood, like breaths or embraces. It is rarely a single outbreak but a process, or display, made of many outbreaks. In Il Conformista the fascist gunman, when he finally organizes the execution of the professor and his wife, has them not only murdered but devoured by the way they are murdered. Rhythmically, henchmen appear from behind the trees in a lush forest, plunging and shooting in turn (under a levitating camera). In identical “respectable” overcoats they swirl about the victims in a wintry landscape snowing knives and bullets. This secluded corner of the forest is not a death scene. It becomes a white and red theater for modern warfare. Bertolucci’s manner of looking through and out of hostility is an inheritance passed down from (and filtered through) his deep affection for Pier Paolo Pasolini. But how it contains itself in The Sheltering Sky may reveal either a deeper synonym for “demise” or an arduous struggle with concept: how can a human killing force possibly equal the subtlety of a poisonous desert plant?

A different question seems to me more valid: where and how will the intensities of Bertolucci and Bowles actually meet? At best, what each artist can offer the collaboration is a submission to the Moroccan materials— collectively, a place where religion, loneliness, and love really do have an incomprehensible clarity. In this region one can recognize if no longer the historic creative elements, then certainly the universal ones. Art is not nature, but it has nature’s intensity. The “primitive” is not the intense, but intensity is classically primitive. (In 1912, when Matisse went there to paint, he was said to have submitted altogether to Morocco. He accepted color’s rampant doing of nothing but being color, and he allowed this environment to take the place of his style.) In this region, too, where Bertolucci’s mission is to wed the organic to the fictitious and where Bowles, as if through an archaic eyepiece, has knowledgeably assessed the incongruities in common beliefs but uncommon societies, both artists justify the quote by the Argentinean Eduardo Mallea that serves as an epigraph to Book One of The Sheltering Sky:

Each man’s destiny is personal only insofar as it may happen to resemble what is already in his memory.

Facing the pier during the pause, John Malkovich seems to be practicing an oblivious state of mind. Standing on the precipice, he mumbles something toward the water his Walkman keeps him from hearing anyway. What he also misses is the imposing hiss of the Atlantic. Boys fish from lonely rocks standing far out in the tide. These brownish spots finally make one wonder if the distance is worth the pleasure. From here there is no sign they have caught anything or really want to. Along the path women come to their doors. Hardly awed, they go inside again. But in a small mechanical voice, the one obviously Moroccan crew member continues to say, “Please, keep back!” He says this in Arabic, French, Spanish, or English depending on the nationality of the intruder.

Karl Johnson is a writer who lives in Berlin.