The Ride of Passage: The Pursuit of
Danger, Trance, and Failure in Mark Twain, Paul Bowles, and Us
Frederick J. Ruf
he road is before us!" Walt Whitman proclaims in “Song of the Open Road,” asking us to drop everything in an endless journey: "The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.” Whitman’s poem, in fact, all of his work establishes the model for an American attitude toward travel. It is an attitude that is not oriented around an end to be gained, but a never-ending movement, expansive, restless, and difficult. We can see the attitude in Henry Miller, in Paul Bowles, in Mark Twain, and in many contemporary travelers and writers--Alphonso Lingis, Diane Johnson, Mary Morris, Susan Brind Morrow, and Jack Gilbert. They all leave home, often for very extended periods, and go to places which are not mildly but radically different: Morocco, the Philippines, the Middle East, India, Nicaragua. When they go someplace familiar like Greece they search for and discover what is most foreign about it (as Miller relishes being cheated by guides or encountering a man who had been imprisoned for murder). They are all drawn to confusions that make the pulse race and are sometimes dangerous.
- But what do we think? For while we might feel the lure of the highway, the ship, rails, or the airliner, we don’t usually agree with Whitman and relish the going, only the being there. The going is usually the price that we have to pay to get there and what we wish for is to make that passage as painless, as fast, and as convenient as we can. Airlines advertise enormous seats so that we’ll think we never leave the cushy easy chair in our living rooms. They try to convince us that we’re in restaurants by serving us fine wines and meals prepared by outstanding chefs; they try to make us feel we’re in a movie theater by showing first-run films. It’s dinner-theater in the sky, not a ten hour flight to Prague. Luxury automobiles seem to be mobile living rooms, with an atmosphere, sound system, padding, leg room, and communication devices that we can control to maintain the comforts of home. Trains, ships--we could go on and on. We seem to do all we possibly can to make passage pleasurable. Is there an advertisement for passage that does not mention comfort, safety, or convenience? They are our paramount concerns-- when it comes to going. But what is it that we are trying so hard to avoid? What is it that so disturbs us about passage? What is it that we may actually be seeking, behind this screen of comfort-- seeking because it cannot be hidden in spite of the meals, movies, and large seats? It is there and to travel means to encounter it. In fact, if these aspects were not there, it would not be travel. I would suggest danger, trance, and failure are what we seek.
- Mark Twain departs from New York in June of 1867, and immediately confronts both a “full blown tempest” and, as he puts it, the “Outside.” He is the first great American traveler, pursuing and mocking the “grand tour,” in the first of his many journeys. Throughout his passage across the Atlantic, he keeps our attention focused on dangers. Every storm is mentioned, with emphasis not merely on discomfort but on mortal risk: “the sea was still very rough [so] one could not promenade without risking his neck.” Witnessing the dangers of the seas was important to Twain and his fellow passengers: “Some thought the vessel could not live through the night, and it seemed less dreadful to stand out in the midst of the wild tempest and see the peril that threatened than to be shut up in the sepulchral cabins, under dim lamps, and imagine the horrors that were abroad on the ocean.” When the Azores are reached ten days later, there is a palpable sense of relief, even from the usually composed Twain. We might think that Twain is merely describing what must be described when he harps on the dangers, but that is not true; he chooses what he will notice and mention. Mortal danger is part of his journey; without the mortal danger it would not be the same journey. In fact, it would not be a journey, at all.
- Mortal danger-- and it must be mortal danger--is surely an element of our own passages. Am I the only one who thinks about crashing every time I sit on a plane? In fact, the anxiety that we feel about missing our planes or trains might be a displaced anxiety. In India I got up at 5 am to get to a train station to wait for trains that never left on time. Was I really anxious about missing those trains? Or was that a convenient place for anxiety to locate? We all know traffic fatality statistics, know that we’re more likely to die in a car crash within five miles of our homes than to die in a plane crash. But is that really a statement about the relative safety of planes or a fixation on the link between travel and death? Even in our own cars,close to home.... The age of train travel has passed as has the period in which the coast of the United States was lined with rescue stations watching for sinking ships, but the media still report every derailment, every sinking of a freighter in a storm. And we still pay fascinated attention, as though in atavistic trance. A myriad of things takes place on ships, planes, cars, trains--books are read, babies are born, lovers meet, hands are washed, theories are conceived of, curses exchanged-- but of the hundreds of thousands of events, three or four occupy most of our attention, so that to travel comes to mean to encounter and skirt death.
- Not only is it death that we encounter in passage; not only is it death with which we both seek close contact and seek to cover with events that will make the passage seem mundane: a meal and a movie. I drove to Vermont from Washington, DC one summer, a trip that took fourteen hours. During one pause in Massachusetts I realized how deeply I was in a trance-- and how I enter some sort of trance every time I am in passage. Truck drivers are permitted only eight hours of driving a day because even they are subject to the trance of the road, because it is so possessing, so robbing of the most fundamental recognition of surrounding, of judgement, of self. I should have stopped driving myself, I suppose, but in an odd way I enjoyed the trance, and, perhaps, felt I could handle it. I was under its spell.
- I’m tempted to call it a stupor, being not in our full faculties. The line between dream and wakefulness is not distinct, our judgement is impaired, we lose track of where we are, when we are, even who we are. Perhaps that is why literature and legend are so full of travelers who encounter spirits, witches, or demons who bewitch them far from shore or in the depth of the forest. Odysseus’s second landing after leaving Troy is the land of the lotus eaters where those who eat the lotus lose thought of home. Circe, too, makes them forget their origin and destination, and their being is changed entirely, becoming swine. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner comes under the spell of “Life-in-Death” and various spirits during his journey and, like many travelers, must tell his tale. But it isn’t only that we can be snared by the dangers of trance; we also have the benefits of trance. The decks of ships, railway compartments, sitting behind the wheel of a car, and flying above the clouds are places for dreams. Literally they are the places of daydreams. I conceived of the basic ideas that have covered all of my academic research sixteen years ago during a two hour ride on Amtrak. Once on a ferry across the Channel to Hoek van Holland I met a young woman and we were both possessed by romantic visions-- until we landed. As we squirm in our seats and the interminable hours refuse to pass, we dream illicit dreams and sometimes feel them taking shape. Diane Johnson, one of our best querulous travelers, proclaims her “most sacred rule for airplane travel: never talk to the person next to you,” and I nearly always follow her advice, but perhaps one reason why I so often hear the person behind me pouring out their life story, is that they are in a trance, in a mood to see their life as a story, and to hope (perhaps fatuously) that that story will be heard and even understood. Well, we can dream, can’t we?
- Torpor, stupor, listlessness, lethargy--all states of consciousness where all the definite frameworks of the mind lose their distinctness and their ability to orient us. It’s as though the hard edges of the mind are gone and we wander without walls or floor. Or as though what Coleridge called the esemplastic power of the mind-- it’s ability to shape the world around it-- has disappeared. Diane Johnson declares that “for the traveler, time is suspended in an airplane as in a space capsule; one neither ages nor remembers. Life will start again on arrival.” We especially lack the frameworks of time and place when in the stupor of travel, and our minds feel filled with cotton, as though, lacking the solidity of those two fundamental categories of experience, nothing in our minds has a definite shape or a sense of importance at all.
- Mark Twain delights in telling stories of disequilibrium, a variety of stupor. There is the very physical disequilibrium which results in seasickness. “They were [all] seasick,” he says. “And I was glad of it. We all like to see people seasick when we are not, ourselves.” He tells story after story of the distinguished passengers, those who certainly had a very powerful sense of equilibrium on shore-- the doctors, professors, judges, ministers, military men, and ladies-- lurching for the rail as their inner ears declared them lost and emptying their stomachs. Do airlines still provide airsickness bags? I think perhaps they do, but they don’t announce it anymore. There was always something too blatant about those brown bags, as there was when the crew covered the deck with huge cardboard cups when I once took a ferry from Brindisi to Patras. Our vehicles of passage attempt to conceal the disruptions of passage. Those cups and bags stated too clearly that passage may be physically wrenching.
- Temporal dislocation catches Twain’s fine eye, as well. He tells the amusing story of Mr. Blucher who believes that he’s been swindled because his watch won’t keep the correct time: “By George, [the watch] is good on shore, but somehow she don’t keep up her lick here on the water--gets seasick, may be.” Twain needs to send poor Blucher to the captain who “explained to him the mystery of ‘ship-time,’” that is, what happens to time when a ship sails east.
- It is not just that time is different in Egypt than it is in New York. That fact is a marvel of the powerful otherness that travel encounters (and the attempt to explain it to our children can show us just how paradoxical a notion it is). But the stupor is induced because we lose our sense of something as fundamental as time when we travel: time is not changed, it’s lost. When are we as we’re in passage? Time is simply liquid. In fact, we bear the scar of that temporal disequilibrium after we arrive. We all talk about the time changes when we travel. “Jet lag” is not only a widespread modern malady, it’s widespread modern lore, one of the fascinating “realities” that we never tire of talking about or fully acclimate to. Could it be something we seek?
- Mark Twain has a moral aim in seeking his own disequilibrium and inducing it in his readers back home. He feels that they have lost their moral compass, that they are complacent, proceeding on the wrong bearings. His fellow-passengers were to be a “select” group, representing the finest strata of American society and accomplishment, yet, as in his novels, their superiority is mocked: when he considered their honorifics, he “fell under that titular avalanche a torn and blighted thing.” The moral blindness of Gilded Age America requires a travel-induced dizziness. Place all the worthies on a ship and then see what they are worth.
- Spatial disorientation is an aspect of passage as well. Occasionally we hear complaints about the plane, train, or car because we lose touch with the space we’re moving through. In “Walking” Henry David Thoreau urges his readers to seek the wild, even to get lost in a bog, but in order to regain contact with our surroundings, to get in touch with place. Yet passage is a passing, not a staying, not even a touring. The dizzying sight out of the side window of a car is exactly the right image for passage and place: the solidities of towns and homes, gardens, forests, museums, stores, inhabitants, and garages are blurred, warped, distended and thereby destroyed. We are no where. Place is liquid, too.
- Yet as we “pass” from “here” to “there” we engage in activities, too, activities which also seem to be part of the ride of passage. We see them rather clearly in Twain in his ruthless scrutiny and mockery of his fellow passengers (and often of himself). They adopt nautical language (“eight bells”), write in journals, form a discussion club, dance, play musical instruments. Every single activity on board ship is skewered by Twain. What he reveals is the failure involved in all the activities. The movement of the ship makes dancing “full of desperate chances and hairbreadth escapes.” Journal writing is always begun with enthusiasm and ambition and abandoned before very long --“If you wish to inflict a heartless and malignant punishment upon a young person, pledge him to keep a journal for a year,” Twain advises. The passengers hold a mock trial that results in “an absurd decision and a ridiculous sentence.” Twain takes an especially perverse pleasure in the musicians who always play frequently but always the same piece: “It was a very pretty tune--how well I remember it--I wonder when I shall ever get rid of it.” And in revealing the failure involved in all the travelers’ activities, Twain does not exclude himself--it is a tendency that moderates his misanthropy. But we have to wonder why--why focus on failure? If it is true that our view of our fellow passengers is a means of viewing both ourselves and the strangers we will see when we arrive, then the situation is rather rich. Once Twain leaves home and moves “Outside,” no activity succeeds. And each of the activities is a crucial cultural activity: writing, reading, making music, dancing, discussing, debating. Of course, it is true that Twain would skewer each of these activities back in New York, too. But once we begin to travel, there is a “systematic monotony” of failure. To travel is to encounter some significant degree of failure in most of one’s activities, and to witness the mocking of one’s activities through the strangeness of customs. And isn’t this something that most of us have encountered in travel? Once we have left home and left all of the activities that we have mastered and routinized, once we have begun our passage, don’t we encounter an entire texture of failures? Just on the airplane we find ourselves eating in highly confined spaces, likely to shift suddenly and spill liquids in ways they haven’t been since we were children. Our digestion is disrupted--we endlessly complain of airline food-- and so is our sleep, trying to snatch just a couple of hours’ sleep but failing to get any rest. And the activities of the passage--instead of Twain’s discussion groups, choral societies, debating clubs, and journal writing, today they are reading, watching a movie, and talking with the stranger next to us. And could we generally call any of these activities successful? Isn’t each of them worthy of Twain’s mockery? Passage means engaging in activities that are failures.
- We feel that the six hour plane trip is merely a means; I would like to suggest that it is an end, part of what we want, that in a odd way we seek this encounter with danger, discomfort, stupor, and failed activities. I cannot prove that this is true; I cannot cite studies or use conclusive logic. All I can do is appeal to the reader’s own experience. To agree a reader will have to dispel the notion that throughout our lives we seek only what is pleasurable in the most overt and simple sense. Surely we seek much more complex and equivocal “pleasures”--if we did not, films like “Jurassic Park” or the entire horror or slasher genres would not exist. We would not pay good money to scare ourselves out of our wits as a car hurtles seemingly out of control in an “Amusement Park.” We wouldn’t jump out of airplanes for recreation, leap off of cliffs suspended below a few yards of a hang glider’s fabric, breathe from a tank of air beneath the ocean, race down frozen slopes on sticks of plastic. Can I go so far as to suggest that swimming at the beach means leaving a relatively safe (if inhospitably broiling) stretch of sand for the margins of an ocean that is unfathomably deep and dangerous? Hiking in the forest is also a momentary survival in an environment that has been hostile for as far back as human memory stretches. There is nothing unknown about humans seeking encounters with what seems threatening to our comfort, pleasure, and safety. What might be slightly more strange is our refusal to acknowledge that odd--but important--behavior.
- Why do we seek the confusions of passage, the prolonged encounter with danger, discomfort, disequilibrium, stupor, and failed activities? Religious theory offers two possibilities. The more traditional way would be to look at the ride of passage (sorry for the corny pun) as actually a rite of passage. Standard theory states that moving from one state or status to another--from childhood to adulthood, being outside the social group to a member of it, being alive to being dead--requires a ritual passage. In that ritual one’s previous state must be erased and a kind of gestation period must take place (the liminal or threshold period) before one is “reborn” in the new state. So, to take a contemporary example, a college graduation ceremony moves a person from one level of schooling or one level of maturation to another, first by eliminating all signs of the prior schooling and maturation (dressing everyone in a uniform gown) subjecting them to a gestation process (the educative ordeal of speeches by their elders) and then releasing them into their new world and as their new selves (they leave the auditorium, rejoin their families, begin life in the “real world”). The rite of passage is the transformation of identity; one will be a different person as a college graduate than one was as a college student, and one will be seen differently, see oneself differently, be expected to act differently--to earn a living, find one’s own home, have a career, perhaps launch a family. It is a profoundly difficult process, being a different person. It does not happen automatically, but requires the efficacy of the rite of passage.
- There are numerous similarities between the ride and the rite of passage. We leave something when we travel. It is crucial, isn’t it, that it is left and there is a distinct discontinuity with home? Henry Miller’s vast distaste and disdain for America make necessary a strong break. When he is in passage from France to Greece, he meets a Turk, a Syrian, and some Lebanese who antagonize him by having absorbed “the American spirit at its worst. Progress was their obsession. More machines, more efficiency, more capital, more comforts.” Nothing is as likely to rouse deep antipathy in Miller as finding the aspects of home abroad. Paul Bowles seems often on a crusade against the Americanization of the people he meets in Morocco, Sri Lanka, Latin America and India. He calls it “the Twentieth Century gangrene”:
- My own belief is that the people of the alien cultures are being ravaged not so much by the by-products of our civilization, as by the irrational longing on the part of members of their own educated minorities to cease being themselves and become Westerners.
- When Miller and Bowles travel-- which they do, of course, for years, even decades (and, in fact, it often seems as though their travel is nothing but an extended passage)-- what they want is, as Bowles says, for a place “to be as different as possible from the places I already know”-- especially from home.
- As we enter the liminal state in passage, it is crucial not only that we not be where we’ve been, but that we not be who we’ve been. This is the trance-like aspect of passage, its blurring of our frames of reference, and of our sense of self. Like Odysseus’ men, we are caught by a spell and become other. And it’s an especially indistinct other that we become--sleepy, in a stupor, ensnared in an “in between” existence. It’s no wonder that our activities fail, that they must fail: just like the judges and generals on Twain’s Quaker City, we lose our equilibrium, our sense of what we do well, and vomit out our competence. It was the self we left behind that was the professional, with poise and self-assurance. On the plane, train, or boat, we read trash, prattle on, in a “holiday spirit” in which the old seriousness--the old competence--is lost. When we’re in passage, we become fools.
- But in this ride of passage, what’s the place of danger? Rites of passage always involve symbolic deaths. Before one can become a new self, the old self must ... disappear. The old self has to die. It isn’t only that we lost our competence, grow sleepy and disoriented. The threat that is involved in leaving is much larger than that. Any transformation of self involves the rupturing of who we once were, and that ripping of the self is a very violent act, indeed. William James argues that we have multiple selves and that they are social and material: we have as many selves as we have others who acknowledge us; and our selves are defined by our belongings. A few years ago I wrecked my car, and while it may seem trivial to say that a part of me died as that VW was hauled away, I believe that it is true. When we leave, when we disembark, when--as my son used to say--we “blast off” on an airplane, and leave behind all those others and all those things, we leave those selves behind, too. Those selves die--temporarily. We seek the danger, the discomfort, the disequilibrium, the failures because we seek a passage, and not just a vacation. Certainly we don’t go “Outside,” as Twain put it, in order to remain just who we are.
- A more interesting and contemporary religious theory that can account for the peculiarities of the ride of passage is that which deals with ruptures. According to this interpretation, we seek a break with home, a bumpy ride, bad food, pathetic conversations, nausea, terror, and blurs out the window not because of the outcome, not because they take us to a new and better state after the passage. A rite of passage is a means to an end, but a rupture is not evaluated according to its conclusion. It is what has value. The passage doesn’t conclude with arrival at Charles de Gaulle or Ben Gurion. There is no arrival and no conclusion. The passage continues in France, India, Israel, Morocco, the Czech Republic, Indonesia, Senegal. Of course, the travel does come to an end; one returns home. But as the postmodernists enjoy pointing out, that isn’t an end. One’s life continues, and life at home is influenced-- made-- by the passage and travel. Our homes are disrupted--by the clutter of souvenirs, by the odd stories, by the importation of microbes, by the self that refuses to be domesticated.
- The difference lies in a shift in imagery. We’ve been looking at passage as a continuity, a movement that passes from place to place. It’s the mountain pass that allows access from one valley to the next; the forward pass that carries the ball (and the team) further up the field. But a passage is also a break in a surface: we discover a hidden passage where there appeared to be a sheer rock face or stumble across a secret passage in an old house where there seemed to be solid wall. There are other broken passings: someone passes out-- or passes away. As Whitman says of the “Open Road,” “I believe that much unseen is also here”: to stumble across the “unseen”-- the strange, the exotic, the disturbing-- is not just a smooth passage but a fall. A passage can also be abrupt and disturbing.
- Passage and disruption are combined especially well in the writings of Paul Bowles, one of the most extraordinary novelists of the past fifty years and one of its most aggressive travelers, as well. His 1949 novel, The Sheltering Sky, is considered one of the great accomplishments in fiction of the postwar period. It is a novel that transfixes readers with its presentation of a bleak landscape and the gradual swallowing of its characters into death and a cultural strangeness that does not give them back. In uncompromising fashion Bowles shows us danger, trance, and failure and their disruptions of our ability to act, our sense of identity, and our very vitality. In Bowles those ruptures are valued not as a means to a ritual transformation or a greater good, but for their own sakes.
- Paul Bowles selects the wonderful title, Without Stopping, for his autobiography. It’s a title that indicates that he never arrives and never returns, that he engages in a continuous passage. He seems to echo his maternal grandfather who “never slept twice in the same town” during his own years of travel. Bowles scarcely seems to pause, though those pauses can be months, even years long. In fact, he is still in passage as I write, living in Tangier. That continuous passage--a characteristic he largely shares with Henry Miller--allows us to see the three characteristics of passage--danger, trance, and failure--in all of his travel: incessant movement through incessant dangers, in a dream-like trance, and lost to the activities of home are the themes of much of Bowles’ writing.
- In early 1929 Paul Bowles returned to his room at the University of Virginia late one afternoon, and knew that he “was about to do something explosive and irrevocable.” He tossed a quarter in the air, realizing as he did it that tails meant suicide and heads meant he would leave for Europe. It’s a more dramatic version of the disruption of travel than we saw in Mark Twain, and it makes that disruption more blatant. On the more immediate level, travel is the alternative to the death of the self: Bowles spent his childhood terrified of his father. When he was four years old, he was told by his father, “Your mother is a very sick woman, and it’s all because of you, young man. Remember that.” Bowles remembered, and so did his father. Their hostility is continuous in Bowles’s autobiography. The terror made it reasonable for him to believe his grandmother when she said, “your father wanted to kill you.” Departure, then, meant life.
- On the other hand, however, flipping that coin--“suicide or Europe”--meant death in either case. Travel is the synonym for death--death of the life at home and death of the home self. In Bowles’ case, it was the death of the victimized self, and since it was a death, his departure was not joyful or merely liberating. As he took the ferry to Hoboken and the ship, Rijndam, he half hoped to be stopped by his parents. Departure was a rupturing of the predominant self he had known and been, and that is never easy. “I was not the I I thought I was,” he states, as he recounts the flip of that coin. And in a sense Bowles does kill himself, fulfilling his father’s desire. Bowles dies when he departs and when he travels, seeking the most intensely strange environs and experiences in the desire, as he writes, “of getting as far away as possible from New York,” where his father lived.
- Writing of his first passage by boat from France to North Africa, he declares that “I had always been vaguely certain that sometime during my life I should come into a magic place which in disclosing its secrets would give me wisdom and ecstasy--perhaps even death.” Getting “as far as possible from New York” meant distinctly difficult realms, places that were “beautiful and terrible,” as he wrote of his first landing in Algeria. He seems to have enjoyed coming quite close to death. Traveling with the composer Aaron Copeland during that first trip, he is challenged by an Algerian soldier and forced to walk with a gun trained on him, an event that makes Copeland express relief that they’ll be leaving. Not Bowles. “Morocco’s much wilder,” he declares with seeming satisfaction. After some months in Tangier--“a madhouse, a madhouse,” according to Copeland--the two move on to Fez, and Bowles finds it “ten times stranger... I felt that at last I had left the world behind, and the resulting excitement was well-nigh unbearable.”
- Danger is an essential aspect of that unbearable excitement. Traveling to Ouarzazate, on the southern side of the High Atlas mountains, Bowles and Copeland ride on top of the truck: “The trail over the Atlas was so hair-raising that the most sensible place to sit seemed the top of the truck, where at least we could see down over each precipice as we swayed over its edge.” We might be reminded of Twain and his fellow-passengers, coming up on deck to watch a storm, “prisoners,” Twain declares “to a fierce fascination.” On the way to Ouerzazate, because of a muddy road “above the cloud line” the truck carrying Bowles “skidded to within inches of the abyss.” Not many months afterwards, he is traveling in Mexico with friends and his future wife, Jane Auer, and he is “delighted with the hairpin curves, the sheer drops, and the unfamiliar, savage landscape.” In contrast, Jane “crouched, frightened and sick, on the floor of the back of the bus,” as many of us might. I ask, did Bowles really think that he had escaped suicide that day in 1929?
- In many ways, Without Stopping is a chronicle of Bowles’ illnesses, from typhoid [typhus/typhoid?] contracted on his first trip to Morocco (the disease, by the way, that kills Port in The Sheltering Sky) to sunstroke soon after he recovers to multiple intestinal disorders from drinking bad water or eating tainted food. “The following day I felt like death,” he writes of Mexico, but it could have been dozens of occasions in dozens of places. His account of collecting indigenous music in Morocco has the constant backdrop of illness, usually fevers. He reminds us, perhaps, of how prominent sickness is in our own accounts of traveling. I have had friends whose letters from India consisted primarily of commentaries on their bowel movements, commentaries more detailed, in addition, than those of temple sites. I have been regaled with descriptions of Dinge Fever-- there is the proverbial “First you think you’re going to die, then you hope you do die, then you think you have died.” I once sat on a bunk in a Government Rest House in Sanchi, a village in India that contains some ancient Buddhist stupas, and listened for an hour or more as a traveler inventoried his traveling apothecary, one that might have exceeded the stores of a small drugstore in a rural American town. Again, is all of this illness and the preoccupation with illness merely the risk of travel? My friends boasted of their diseases. I’ve done it myself. I was once in an earthquake in Kathmandu-- it’s a story I love to tell. I woke in the night and the room was shaking (as I always put it) “like a small tree in a strong breeze.” I knew I ought to get out of the building-- it was just the sort of cement-block structure that the newspapers say collapses in an earthquake-- but I was just too sick. Too sick to escape from an earthquake?! Yes, that’s how sick I was! Paul Bowles might be hard put to admit it, but he traveled (in part) in order to be sick, in order to be that far from New York. I do, also, and so do you.
- Danger, risk, and illness aren’t just a means to an end for Bowles. We could view them that way: they take him away from a life in fear of his father and from subservience. They break with that old life and make autonomy possible. But on the other hand, where does Bowles get to? Does he ever stop? There is a pathology to this continuous passage; if he were my child I’d want him to settle down, to take fewer risks. I find myself sympathizing with Jane Auer, cowering in the back seat. He seems to want the rupture to be as strong as he can manage, to be on the very edge of the tumbling abyss, infected with the more threatening bacillus. He is half in love with a death that is not Keats’s easeful one but wild, more unbearably exciting.
- The second characteristic of passage is its trance, I argued. We can see this in Bowles in his linking of travel with dreaming. When he arrives in France in his first passage, he writes “I sat for a long time [in the hotel room] looking out at the empty port, trying to persuade myself of the reality of the situation. I touched the curtains and said to myself: ‘They are France. This is France. I am in France.’” The sense of irreality is more powerful in North Africa where he encounters the “magic place” he had always sought, the place of “wisdom and ecstasy--perhaps even death.” Tangier, most explicitly, is “a dream city.” Bowles especially is struck by its dreamscapes,
covered streets like corridors with doors opening into rooms on each
side, hidden terraces high above the sea, streets consisting only of steps,
dark impasses, small squares built on sloping terrain so that they looked like
ballet sets designed in false perspective, with alleys off in several
- But it isn’t just the mysterious and intriguing that make Morocco dream-like. There is also the man who became a goat in Marrakech. He is traveling with John Widdicomb, “an excellent traveling companion [because] he was well educated, highly adaptable ... and,” best of all, I suspect, “blessed with a sharp sense of the ridiculous.” In the Djemaa el Fna, the great square marveled at by all who see it, Bowles saw a deformed man transform himself into a goat. The transformation “made it possible for him to move like a goat, to sound like one, and, in an indescribable and faintly horrible fashion, even to have eyes and a mouth that looked like those of a goat.” Apparently, the dream of travel has nightmares, too.
- I argued earlier that the line between dream and wakefulness is not distinct while we are in transit: our judgement is impaired, we lose track of where we are, when we are, even who we are. Passage is a blur. A man became a goat? Not in Ohio. Not even in New York. But in the Djemaa el Fna we are apt to see miraculous transformations, or when we’re in Fez to say, as Bowles does, that the place was “full of monsters” when a more sober and awake assessment might be that there were many people deformed by disease. Our usual frames of reference are gone--time and space, those essential landmarks that seem to situate us in reality itself, are fluid and so strange.
- Those landmarks are artificial, we discover where the places are strange, and we ourselves become strange, not only to the locals but, more importantly, to ourselves. Philosophers have long had a fascination with dreams--“how do we know we’re not dreaming?” is a staple of philosophical speculation in nearly every philosophy classroom today, and not just in Pascal’s Pensees. More especially the postmodern thinkers want to disengage us from the anchors of the real, from our sense that the things we deal with are things. They love to point out that those things are names--signs--and with no anchor in reality at all. We live “betwixt and between,” using names of names of names, and don’t stand on solid ground, at all. The trance of passage is this “middle ground.” The onanistic games of philosophers, as it turns out, are not so solitary and fit for the classroom alone. Paul Bowles sought those trances and so do we. Why do we travel? In part it’s in hope that we’ll see a man change into a goat in the Djemaa el Fna. What’s more, we always do. It may not be a goat and maybe not in Marrakesh. It may be a statue of a dead man for Mark Twain or an epiphany of the blood of ancient Greece for Henry Miller. On the roof of the YMCA in Lahore, I was once shocked to notice that the city was populated by hawks--kites, the British called them--and not by the pigeons that we’re more accustomed to in American or European cities. I sat transfixed one afternoon and watched hawks soaring, fighting, even copulating in the midst of the city of nine million. Was I in a dream? Where was my ground, or my landmarks? Like Miller, Twain, and Bowles, I had passed out. I’d lost my consciousness. And I was both alarmed--terrified--and very pleased.
- Again, though, I can hear the objection: Paul Bowles may seek those dislocations. He might relish driving along a sheer cliff or witnessing a disturbing transformation in a square near the end of the earth, but we don’t! But don’t we? Why do we take all those photos, for example? Why is our own inseparable traveling companion not the “highly adaptable” John Widdicomb, but the highly reliable Nikon or Cannon? Why do we carry it everywhere, point it at objects and people, and capture them? The usual explanation--the one drawn out of the Victorian vision of educative travel--is that we want momentos of the great cultural sites, ‘bits’ of them to take home with us. Religiously, these photos and cards are relics, images of the sacred that are much like holy cards with pictures of the saints. We are “ennobled” by these images; they are of our “best self,” the self that can appreciate and even commune with the likes of Michelangelo, Christopher Wren, Gerard Ter Borch, Velasquez. We bring tangible evidence of our cultivation home with us; we bring home riches.
- But is that all that’s going on? While he is in France, Bowles composes a piece of music that he hears in a dream, transcribing it directly onto paper, note for note, as soon as he wakes. He’s fascinated and pleased by this phenomenon, for he’d always wished (he writes) to be able to drag some bit of the dream world right into the waking world. Couldn’t that be why we take those photographs, too? Don’t we want to hold onto some part of the amazing things that we see and experience? We aren’t only among Titians, but in France. In France! The traffic is different, odd. The language is confusing. The customs are strange, enticing. The entire world is just ‘off’-- and that’s a very considerable ‘off’ when it isn’t just France but Bulgaria, not to mention Indonesia. If we were transported suddenly to Mars, wouldn’t we wish to snap a few photos before we were whisked back, just to show our friends how it really is? Just to hold onto a piece of that impossible place? And wouldn’t we most surely take a photo of a dream if only we could? Well, we do, and just as our dreams bore everyone but our analysts, our travel photos fascinate only ourselves.
- The final aspect of passage is the failure of our activities-- Twain’s pointless shipboard debating societies, and orchestras that can play only one tune (“It was a very pretty tune-- how well I remember it-- I wonder when I shall ever get rid of it”). In Paul Bowles’ endless passage, there might seem to be no failures. He writes [most] of his novels and stories abroad, and is, after all, one of the finest writers of the century. Without Stopping is not only a chronicle of his illnesses, it’s a catalogue of an impressive number of his remarkable writings and musical compositions.
- Yet Bowles’ writings belong to the “other world,” the world of dreams, drugs, and the unconscious. They are not “failures” in the same sense that Twain’s are, by being worthy of scorn. They are, rather, part of the more general trance of passage. As a teenager, he contributed to a surrealist magazine, Transition, published in Paris: “I sat at the typewriter practicing the invention of poetry, ‘without conscious intervention.’ At length I could type an entire page literally without any knowledge of what I put there.” As he presents his method of composition in Without Stopping-- which is to say, as he presents writing in the context of his life of continuous passage-- a similar absence of “points of reference” is essential. He spends years composing music that is largely in support of others’ poetry, choreography, plays, and films and that is a world that he needs to leave, a world from which he must depart. The break comes when he has been back in America and one night dreams of Tangier. There was no content, he says, but “a changing succession of streets,” and when he awoke and realized that it was a real city, the Tangier of 1931, his “heart accelerated.” In entering the world of dreams (and adrenaline)-- and leaving the world of consciousness-- he enters the world of fiction.
- He had already resurrected the surrealist technique “of abandoning conscious control and writing whatever words came from the pen.” Writing The Sheltering Sky when he returned to Morocco seems to have used a related method. Once he conceived of the title and basic plan (on a bus riding up Fifth Avenue in New York, that is in passage, interestingly enough), he “resolved to give it no more thought until [he] started the actual writing.” The unconscious, alone, would do the planning--that and Morocco itself. Bowles’ account of the actual writing gives strong creative credit both to accidental incidents during each day’s writing and to a derivative of cannabis called majoun. Details from the day would be incorporated into his writing, “regardless of whether the resulting juxtaposition was apposite or not. I never knew what I was going to write on the following day because I had not yet lived through the day.” The state induced by the majoun, a state, of course, quite close to trance, enables Bowles to imagine the death of Port, The Sheltering Sky’s protagonist. “Very consciously I had always avoided writing about death because I saw it as a difficult subject to treat with anything approaching the proper style; it seemed reasonable, therefore, to hand the job over to the subconscious.”
- Bowles’ actual method of composing is one that the literary historians can better discuss. Like any autobiographer Bowles himself is uninterested in the factual; rather, his autobiography is a an autobiogony, a creation of the self. And what he creates is a self who writes in a manner essentially connected to passage, to without stopping. He must write without reference points, without the conscious, either by allowing random events to hold the pen or cannabis to open the doors of the unconscious. Only the unconscious can write about death, he says; in fact, in passage, even a passage lasting decades, any activity must be a death, a rupturing of the usual, the accomplished, a rupturing of home. The unconscious can write about death because the unconscious is death.
* * *
- I am told of a mental patient who compulsively cut her skin with a knife, rupturing the integrity of her own skin. "I need to see if I am still alive," was her explanation. I do not intend to search for balance in the love of ruptures, but to proclaim my fascination with those who literally and figuratively cut their skin in travel. I simply seem to observe a lot of people-- virtually all of us-- in such pursuit, and I want to bring it to our attention. We like to think of ourselves as leading balanced and stable lives, seeking order and avoiding disorder. We often lead such lives, but we often don’t. We value ruptures, even severe ones, to the point of actively seeking them. I could choose any number of areas to explore in support of my notion: music, film, the use of drugs and alcohol, our emotional lives, our pursuit of love, our "leisure" pursuits (hurtling down frozen slopes on skis or running far past the point where our bodies have beseeched us to halt), our involvements in violence or in religion. Vice alone would be an apt topic, the shadowy realm of our often quite delighted entanglement with rupture. And in none of these cases are we in the realm of the clearly or solely harmful. In all, we seem as surrounded by ruptures as we are by the spaces between objects; they are as common, as important, and as desirable as our meanings themselves.
- But of this large realm of ruptures, it's travel that most attracts my attention. It's there-- going "there" and being "there," in fact-- that we quite strongly show our need for, our craving for experiences that break our notions of ourselves, our fellow humans, and our world that function quite well for us "at home." More of us than we might suspect would agree with Paul Bowles when he declared “Each time I go to a place I have not seen before, I hope it will be as different as possible from the places I already know.” We love the surfaces of the familiar but we love our ruptures, too, and need them. We all do.
Frederick Ruf is associate professor of religion in the theology department of Georgetown University. His research interest is "implicit religion." His first book, The Creation of Chaos: William James and the Stylistic Making of a Disorderly World (SUNY 1991), examined the religious orientation performed by William James's writing. His second, Entangled Voices: Genre and the Religious Construction of the Self (Oxford 1997) looked more narrowly at the genres of lyric, narrative, and drama and how they offer modeling voices for the self. He is currently working on a study of travel, Bewildered: Travel and the Quest for Confusion. It examines a strain of American writing about travel (in Mark Twain, Paul Bowles, Susan Brind Morrow, Henry Miller, Mary Oliver, and others) which urges the disruptions of travel as a crucial form of dis-orientating orientation.
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