Jack’s Naughty Bits: Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

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Jack's Naughty Bits

In one of his short stories, Borges writes that the desert is the perfect labyrinth. Nothing is as inescapable and relentless as the vast iteration of its monotony. The desert’s emptiness formed the backdrop for last week’s excerpt from Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky on the attraction of the anonymous, the blank, the tabula rasa onto which one can inscribe one’s own fantasy. The blind prostitute shimmered like an oasis for Port, a promise of something he’d convinced himself he needed. Yet as the book progresses, it becomes clear that the desert is less a metaphor for the desire of Port’s heart as much as for the emptiness of his heart itself.


After his untimely death, his wife Kit is forced to go on the run in the middle of the Sahara, without the benefit of Arabic. Her escape initiates Bowles’ second parable of the erotics of anonymity; she takes up with a travelling caravan, and must trade her body for her passage with the caravan leaders with whom she cannot speak.


Here Bowles does what few male writers are bold enough to do: write a scene of non-consensual sex from the woman’s perspective. Nor does he stop there: he takes the risk of having her enjoy it. Not immediately, as you will see, but eventually Kit is transformed by the hands of the stranger in the strange land. And here again the desert insinuates itself as Bowles’ primary metaphor. Her lover, Belqassim, is himself, like Port’s blind dancer, an analog of the desert. Escaping into it, she escapes into him. But more than that, it becomes clear that Bowles is showing both sides of the same coin; the desert is an enormous amphitheater in which characters can confront the ineluctable mystery of themselves. This is what passes for love in The Sheltering Sky: anonymity and inscrutability as a screen for the dumbshow of the self. Elegant, sexy and serene as the staging is, let us hope not to be caught in such labyrinths ourselves.

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From The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Presently the older man stood at the side of the rug, motioning to her to get up. She obeyed, followed him across the sand a short way to a slight depression behind a clump of young palms. There Belqassim was seated, a dark form in the center of a white rug, facing the side of the sky where it was apparent that the moon would shortly rise. 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 there 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. The 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 and unrecognizable world, but alone only for a moment; then she understood that this friendly carnal presence was there with her. Little by little she found herself considering him with affection: everything he did, all his overpowering little attentions were for her. In his behavior there was a perfect balance between gentleness and violence that gave her particular delight. The moon came up, but she did not see it.

© Paul Bowles