Jack’s Naughty Bits: Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

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Jack's Naughty Bits

I want to understand how attraction works. I want to understand why, in the Carson McCullers’ excerpt last week, a woman could fall immediately in love with a hunchback, and why, in this week’s excerpt from Paul Bowles, an American philosopher in a Moroccan whorehouse would fall for a blind dancer. In both cases, it’s clear that the protagonists are investing the strangers with a significance that has very little to do with them. Miss Amelia wanted something to love selflessly, a relationship to lose herself in; Bowles’ pensive Port, meanwhile, imagines his attraction as a gift to the blind girl, an act of mercy she couldn’t help but recognize. Both attractions seem motivated by pity, but while good intentions can account for a certain level of kindness, I’m not convinced that it can function as the basis for attraction.


No, attraction is likely to be blind to pity, pulled rather by the weakness of the pitied object and a sense that that weakness can be exploited. It has always surprised me that beautiful people are the most sought after; I would have thought that the human desire to dominate would lead people to partner with those they thought beneath them. And yet this doesn’t often seem to be the case, in my life or any other. Perhaps, then, it’s not beauty that attracts us as much as our wanting to be dominated, our belief, in some locked recess of our selves, that we really are inferior. Love is easier to feel, certainly, if you sense you are unworthy of it; whereas if your partner seems unworthy, you are more likely to respond with malice.


The literary evidence of Port and Miss Amelia goes against this theory. Port sees the blind girl dancing before he realizes that she can’t see. Her lack of emotion is what initially attracts him, and he attributes to her a kind of philosophical detachment from events, imagining her as a void or a tabula rasa. The anonymity of prostitution — the source of much of its appeal — was heightened by what he perceived as her absence. Cousin Lyman the hunchback arrives on Miss Amelia’s porch with no link to the past but a blurred photograph and a tattered suitcase. Asked of his history, he claimed to have been “travelling.” The two strangers are each marked by a lack — one of the present, the other of the past — that allowed the characters to project onto them whatever fantasies they wished. Which leads me to wonder which is stronger, the impulse to know and love another person or the selfish desire to find a canvas on which to paint our own desires and dramas. Is attraction about appreciating or projecting? In the examples today and last week, the latter seems truer than romantics would have us believe.

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From The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

In front of the musicians in the middle of the floor a girl was dancing, if indeed the motions she made could properly be called a dance. She held a cane in her two hands, behind her head, and her movements were confined to her agile neck and shoulders. The motions, graceful and of an impudence verging on the comic, were a perfect translation into visual terms of the strident and wily sounds of the music. What moved him, however, was not the dance itself so much as the strangely detached, somnambulistic expression of the girl. Her smile was fixed, and, one might have added, her mind as well, as if upon some object so remote that only she knew of its existence. There was a supremely impersonal disdain in the unseeing eyes and the curve of the placid lips. The longer he watched, the more fascinating the face became; it was a mask of perfect proportions, whose beauty accrued less from the configuration of features than from the meaning that was implicit in their expression — meaning, or the withholding of it. For what emotion lay behind the face it was impossible to tell. It was if she were saying: “A dance is being done. I do not dance because I am not here. But it is my dance. ” When the piece drew to its conclusion and the music had stopped, she stood still for a moment, then slowly lowered the cane from behind her head, and tapping vaguely on the floor a few times, turned and spoke to one of the musicians. Her remarkable expression had not changed in any respect. The musician rose and made room for her on the floor beside him. The way he helped her to sit down struck Port as peculiar, and all at once the realization came to him that the girl was blind. The knowledge hit him like an electric shock . . .


The girl was gone . . . He was persuaded, not that a bit of enjoyment had been denied him, but that he had lost love itself . . . She would have put her hands up to his coat lapels, touched his face tentatively, run her sensitive fingers slowly along his lips. She would have sniffed the brilliantine in his hair and examined his garments with care. And in bed, without eyes to see beyond the bed, she would have been completely there, a prisoner. He thought of the little games he would have played with her, pretending to have disappeared when he was really still there; he thought of the countless ways he could have made her grateful to him. And always in conjunction with the fantasies he saw the imperturbable, faintly questioning face in its masklike symmetry. He felt a sudden shudder of self pity that was almost pleasurable, it was such a complete expression of his mood. It was a physical shudder; he was alone, abandoned, lost, hopeless, cold. Cold especially — a deep interior cold nothing could change. Although it was the basis of his unhappiness, this glacial deadness, he would cling to it always, because it was also the core of his being, he had built the being around it.

© Paul Bowles