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Friday, Aug. 18, 2000


A solo journey across terra incognita

Terra incognita is a concept that largely vanished in the 20th century, as maps, air travel and spy satellites all conspired to rob the globe of the unknown. These days the wilderness is a roller-coaster ride for RVs, while the exotic is just another big theme park. But if any one place on this planet has resisted this trend, it's surely Morocco, whose remote deserts and chaotic cities contain the possibility of primeval mystery, and freedom from the known.

Fittingly enough, the author who best shaped Morocco in the Western imagination, Paul Bowles, is himself an enigma that has resisted any understanding. While successive waves of Western bohemians passed through Morocco for a taste of decadence -- everyone from William S. Burroughs to Brian Jones -- Bowles moved there to stay in the '30s, quietly producing a strong and locally colored body of work over the next four decades.

Bowles' reclusive stance and closely guarded privacy is subject to the camera's gaze in the 1998 documentary, "Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles," which succeeds in getting the author to open up somewhat. (This is something he didn't do in the pages of his autobiography, "Without Stopping," summed up by his friend William Burroughs as "Without Telling.") The film also represents an end to an era: Many of the interviewees here -- Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs, David Herbert -- died before the film was completed, and Bowles himself passed away soon after its release.

The author was notoriously oblique about his own life, despite the fact that it was reflected to some extent in his works (particularly "The Sheltering Sky"), and Canadian director Jennifer Baichwal is only partially successful in getting him to discuss formerly taboo subjects -- his relationship with his (possibly lesbian) wife, author Jane Bowles; his own homosexual tendencies; his predilection for kif (Moroccan ganja); and his unhappy childhood. Still, this is more than what's been said before: Bowles seems more at ease with himself, obviously aware (at age 87) that his own life was coming to a close. (Fans will relish the illuminating details, but newcomers will be lost in a sea of names and references, as the filmmakers assume far too much knowledge on the part of the viewer.)

One of the most intriguing questions is what drove Bowles from the U.S. (He was not to return for over six decades, and then only for medical treatment.) Bowles puts it bluntly: "I don't agree with the fundamentals in America. The emphasis on success -- that seems to me a very vicious element in any society."

Although he was a successful composer and poet in Europe in the '30s, adopted by Gertrude Stein and Profokiev, he refused to put down roots; even after settling in Morocco, he was careful to keep some distance from the Beatnik invasion in the '50s. One of the film's most telling moments comes when Bowles cites a line from "1001 Nights": "I can think of no greater delight than to be a foreigner, among those who are not my kind."

Author Mohammed Choukri (whose work Bowles translated into English) cuts to the bone, saying "Bowles has never loved anyone, and I doubt if he has ever loved himself." His expatriate stance was one of distancing himself from all society, even Moroccan, and, as Bowles' own words here make clear, this was no doubt shaped by his own guilty feelings regarding his sexuality.

"Let It Come Down" clearly paints this portrait, while still being respectful of the author's attitude, for it is surely this cool, detached stance that made his prose so incisive. One wonders about the filmmakers' priorities, however: "Let It Come Down" begins on an off note, a piece of text representing the single most shockingly violent passage that Bowles ever wrote (taken from "The Delicate Prey"). It's a powerful moment, but taken out of context it is next to meaningless, and hardly representative of Bowles' work as a whole. In fact, it's downright misleading. The intentions behind this are unfathomable, except perhaps as a misguided attempt to show that Bowles (and the filmmakers) are "edgy," a suspicion reinforced by the gratuitous shots of a goat's head being butchered that follow.

This is the sort of thing Bowles sought to isolate himself from in the first place, and the same goes for the celebrity gossip and name-dropping (albeit about Gertrude Stein and Ginsberg) that takes up too much of the film. When Bowles insists that he had no aesthetic connection to the Beats, as he does here, a filmed reunion with Ginsberg and Burroughs holds little meaning.

Bowles found the freedom to create not only his work but his identity through isolation in Tangiers, away from the strictures of both society and peers. In this media-driven age, where art is increasingly shaped by trends, sales and celebrity, perhaps Bowles' strategy of retreat into a small piece of terra incognita will become his most useful legacy.

"Let It Come Down: The Life of Paul Bowles" is playing at Uplink Factory in Shibuya, (03) 5489-0750.

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