The Sheltering Sky

Paul Bowles

 

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! This is a discussion amongst participants of ReadLiterature.Com's reading group. Since they have all read the book, they discuss it freely - including its twists, turns, and the ending. If you have also read the book, you might enjoy the comments of other readers. But if you haven't and intend to do so, then the following discussion might ruin it for you.

 

 

Consensus:  Three and a half hearts

 

Posted by Rizwan on 4/11/2002, 23:29:00

 

I've often heard "The Sheltering Sky" mentioned as a kind of literary guide to North Africa. This calls to mind legions of collegiate adventure-seekers, in varying states of cleanliness and intoxication, toting tattered copies of Bowles' first novel with them in their encounters with the desert and her peoples.

 

But still they will be unprepared. For The Sheltering Sky is anything but a guide. Rather, it is a warning, a warning to everyone in the West, a warning especially to the very "traveler" Porter Moresby sees himself to be: "Do not come here. Get rid of your delusional hopes of absorbing the culture of this place, of fitting in, of comprehending the "native" mind. It will never happen. For one thing, you will never understand them; for another, they don't care to understand you."

 

Of course, there are other forces at work here, standing in the way. The title of the book seems a tranquil invitation for further exploration, with the sheltering sky "protecting us from what's behind" (p.94 of hardcover edition). But it provides false comfort. Instead, the sheltering sky works in concert with that equally omnipresent feature of the North African landscape---the desert---to form that most formidable of adversaries: Nature, in many ways personified by the prostitute Marnhia in Book 1---beautiful, alluring, but also incomprehensible, elusive, unpredictable, dangerous, even deadly.

 

The Sheltering Sky is not without its flaws (alluded to in the questions below). And to be honest, I do prefer many of Bowles' short stories to this book. That said, The Sheltering Sky is an exemplary meditation on the often fruitless and self-destructive battle Man wages against himself (shown through Port's own nihilistic yearnings), as well as against Nature, his invincible opponent. Brilliantly written, highly readable, profound and absorbing: Four stars (out of five).

 

In following Anna's lead, I will post below 10 questions to help get the discussion started:

 

1. Gore Vidal has written of Bowles' short stories that they are "emblematic of the helplessness of an over-civilized sensibility when confronted with an alien culture." How apt a summation is this of The Sheltering Sky?

 

2. The book revolves around the figure and spirit of Port. Why, then, does Bowles kill him off in the very middle? Or is Kit the central character, the true conscience of the book?

 

3. Proust once wrote that "the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." Contrast this with Port's conception of what a "real traveler" is (Book 1, Ch.2).

 

4. One of this book's defining characteristics is the style of Bowles' prose: as stark and beautiful as the landscape it describes. How, and how well, does this distinctive style contribute to the overall effect of the narrative?

 

5. Bowles' worldview has sometimes been called "existentialist." Is this a fitting description for The Sheltering Sky? How does this book compare to other so-called existentialist works, such as (oh, I don't know...just a random book comes to mind here Lale...) Camus' "L'Etranger?"

 

6. What is it about the blindness of the prostitute at the end of Book 1 that is so intriguing to Port? What is the significance of this obsession?

 

7. In what sense does Port know, as Kit postulates, that Kit has cheated on him with Tunner? How does this weigh on Kit, and affect the actions of both Kit and Port through the rest of the book?

 

8. Bowles begins Book 3 with an epigraph taken from Kafka: "From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. That is the point that must be reached." Where does Bowles believe this "point" to be in The Sheltering Sky? Is it ever reached? If so, by whom?

 

9. The characterization of the "natives" in Bowles' book is rather flat and one-dimensional. The Arabs, for example, are a people motivated solely by a quest for physical gratification, whether in the form of sex or drugs or food. They are also deceitful people, not to be trusted. Tunner and Eric share this capacity for deceit, to be sure. But there seems an intellectual and emotional component to the Westerners that is completely absent among Bowles' Arabs. Is this 1. a deliberate portrait painted by Bowles for a specific purpose; 2. a failure of his from a literary/craftsmanship point of view; or 3. is there a more profound, if unconscious, condescension at work here?

 

10. Port's quest for meaning in his life leads him eventually to his death. But is it not really Kit who pays the dearer price?

 

 @

 

Posted by Lale on 5/11/2002, 9:35:30 , in reply to "The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

 

Dear Prof. Dr. Rizwan Hassan,

 

Which university is granting a Ph.D. on The Sheltering Sky? I just don't know where I should be mailing my answers to.

 

OK. Just very quickly (until we meet again this evening):

 

I am 42 years old, I lived and worked in 4 culturally very different countries in 3 continents, I have read many books, watched many movies, had many friends, heard many stories. I have never heard of a couple with as bizarre a relationship as Port and Kit's.

 

- they are individually sexually active (they both sleep with other people)

AND

- they seem to love one another, they certainly care for one another and there are moments of tenderness which both cherish

AND

- they are not separated geographically or socially

AND

- they do not have an agreement (verbal, implied or otherwise) for sexual freedom with other parties (they both hide their affairs) (we have heard of couples who choose to stay married for whatever reasons but they have an understanding that allow all sorts of extra-marital activities)

AND

- they do not sleep with one another, they are "sexually estranged" as the blurb on the back cover says

AND

- they embark on "big" voyages together (this is not like a week in Tuscany)

AND

- they invite along a third wheel (haven't these people heard of the saying "two is company, three is crowd"? )

 

This combination is so weird. It might very well be my fault but I simply couldn't get over this strangeness to take their story (their sufferings) seriously. And then when Port died, well, talk about odd behaviour!

 

After Port's death Tunner started to look good. He became the only character in the book who had some decent thoughts and who acted in a pretty "normal" or acceptable way. And I know I might be opening a can of worms with the use of the word "normal" but what the heck.

 

I will have to leave Kit for later.

 

 

: Moresby sees himself to be: "Do not come here. Get

: rid of your delusional hopes of absorbing the

: culture of this place, of fitting in, of

: comprehending the "native" mind. It will never

: happen. For one thing, you will never understand

: them; for another, they don't care to understand

: you."

 

Well, it might have been the wrong lesson to learn from this book but this was certainly what I got out of it. Not necessarily the "do not come here part" but the rest of it. Before reading this book, I had not considered the philosophy "you don't belong to a place unless you belong there". I would have tried to fit in, tried to understand the native mind, expect them to understand me. But now, I have a different view. I think I can go and look at the place, like looking through a window, complete with the feelings of quilt, breaking-in, invading their privacy. I can observe what they allow me to observe and what extras I can get away with. That's all. I am convinced, after reading this book, that I cannot be one of them, even temporarily. I can be a visitor. I can be their guest. I do not belong there. They do.

 

I wonder if Paul Bowles, in his many many years in Africa, suffered from not belonging. He must have. Or did he think that only he belonged and others did not?

 

: Brilliantly written, highly readable, profound and

: absorbing: Four stars (out of five).

 

Same here. I think it is a very well written novel, very fluent, or even mercurial one might say. I will not claim that it was a pleasant read, the oddness of the story disturbed me but I loved the book. I loved the fact that the story never got any hick-ups, just flowed easily and smoothly. Four stars from me as well.

 

 

: 2. The book revolves around the figure and spirit of

: Port. Why, then, does Bowles kill him off in the

: very middle? Or is Kit the central character, the

: true conscience of the book?

 

You know, sometimes we look for deeper reasons than the artist/author might have had. Maybe he thought that the book was too short (shorter than the norm of best sellers) and he simply wanted to prolong it.

 

Let's remember that Paul Bowles only wrote this novel to be able to be able to publish his short stories. From the introduction:

 

"In New York in 1947, he took some stories to the Dial Press, was told that - then as now - no publisher would look at stories without a novel ..."

 

: 3. Proust once wrote that "the real voyage of discovery

: consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in

: having new eyes." Contrast this with Port's

: conception of what a "real traveler" is (Book

 

I like Proust's definition better than Port's. Suits me better.

 

: 5. Bowles' worldview has sometimes been called

: "existentialist." Is this a fitting description for

: The Sheltering Sky? How does this book compare to

: other so-called existentialist works, such as (oh, I

: don't know...just a random book comes to mind here

: Lale...) Camus' "L'Etranger?"

 

I don't know. I don't see any similarity between Meursault and Port that would reveal the connection to me. The problem might be my own personality, which I find close to Meursault's. I have absolutely nothing in common with Port. But enough about me ;-)

 

: 6. What is it about the blindness of the prostitute at

: the end of Book 1 that is so intriguing to Port?

: What is the significance of this obsession?

 

No significance. She was beautiful, she was singing and she was blind. He just wanted to sleep with a pretty girl who was deprived of her most important sense and thus became more attractive in Port's eyes. Protection. Pity.

 

: 7. In what sense does Port know, as Kit postulates,

: that Kit has cheated on him with Tunner?

 

He knows and she knows that he knows. You just know.

 

: 8. Bowles begins Book 3 with an epigraph taken from

: Kafka: "From a certain point onward there is no

: longer any turning back. That is the point that

: must be reached." Where does Bowles believe this

: "point" to be in The Sheltering Sky? Is it ever

: reached? If so, by whom?

 

I will think about this some.

 

: 9. The characterization of the "natives" in Bowles'

[...]

: point of view; or 3. is there a more profound, if

: unconscious, condescension at work here?

 

We also get other versions. In which they are superior. You cannot understand them, you cannot be one of them, they don't care to understand you, they don't allow you into their minds.

 

However, I did get the sense that Bowles, as much as he admired the land, might have been frustrated with the, real or perceived, lack of "intellectual and emotional component" as you put it. On one hand he wants them to be intellectually and emotionally his equals, on the other hand he wants them to be unaltered, pure, just as they are. You can't have it both ways.

 

: 10. Port's quest for meaning in his life leads him

: eventually to his death. But is it not really Kit

: who pays the dearer price?

 

Later.

 

Lale

 

 @

 

Posted by Rizwan on 5/11/2002, 18:53:52 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Dear Lale,

 

Please see me after class. Your performance on "The Sheltering Sky" examination was excellent, and leads me to believe that this course is simply too easy for you. I have spoken with the Dean of Students, and we both agree that your talents are much better suited for the "James Joyce: Finnegans Wake" seminar, so we have decided to place you there instead.

 

Regards,

Professor Rizwan

 

P.S.--Seriously though, I wasn't trying to be overly academic about the book discussion. If I came across too serious, I apologize.

 

For the most part, I agree with what you wrote. But just to answer some of the points you made where we don't see fully eye to eye: I agree with you--the Kit/Port relationship is indeed a strange one. But you know the old adage about truth being stranger than fiction? Apparently, Kit and Port are no different than Jane Bowles and her husband Paul were in real life, with the interesting exception that Jane cheated on her husband with women, and Paul cheated on his wife with men, particularly Arab men.

 

But even if that were not the case, I don't think that the Kit/Port type of relationship is as rare as you think. Myself, I have a decade less experience on this earth than you do, Lale, but even in that shorter time I have seen some real-life relationships even more bizarre than that of Kit and Port. As a result, unlike you, I didn't have to suspend any disbelief in order to take their story/sufferings seriously.

 

As for your comment: "I wonder if Paul Bowles, in his many many years in Africa, suffered from not belonging. He must have. Or did he think that only he belonged and others did not?" I think your last point is the more correct one. I think he's saying that those who "try to fit in" are the ones doomed to failure, and only those, like himself, who accept that they are different (and better?) and will never fully fit in, belong.

 

Regarding your comments to question #2: "You know, sometimes we look for deeper reasons than the artist/author might have had. Maybe he thought that the book was too short (shorter than the norm of best sellers) and he simply wanted to prolong it.

Let's remember that Paul Bowles only wrote this novel to be able to be able to publish his short stories."

 

I think looking at The Sheltering Sky in that way gives it short shrift. For one thing, if we judge the book like that, we should also give the same treatment to writers like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, etc., who were often paid by the word for their novels, which were frequently serialized in newspapers. In other words, they too had incentives to simply prolong their works.

 

Also, maybe Bowles did write this novel to get his stories published. At the same time, The Sheltering Sky is no hack-job; it is a carefully considered work of art. I don't think that Bowles simply pushed Kit onwards, so to speak, just to make the book longer.

 

Finally, you might be right: maybe we do often look deeper into characters than the author intended. But is that a bad thing? I am one of those who believes that once an artist releases his work to the public, it ceases, in a sense, to become his own. It becomes instead public property, open for critique and investigation. And perhaps, in a Freudian sense, it even becomes a conduit for insight into the artist's own psyche, something that the artist himself never intended.

 

Put another way: just yesterday I was reading some of Goethe's essays on Art. In them (and I'm paraphrasing from memory here), he says something to the effect that "the purpose of Art is to ask questions." He goes on to say that "a true work of Art is one in which all the right questions are asked, but not all of the answers are immediately revealed." To me, The Sheltering Sky is a work of Art in the Goethe sense: the questions are posed, but we must dig further to find the answers. As serious an artist (both in music and in literature) as Bowles was, I find it hard to believe that he didn't expect us, even invite us, to look deeper into Port and Kit.

 

On another point: I agree with you that Port and Merseault have little in common, at least on the surface. But when I proposed the Camus--Bowles existentialist comparison, I was thinking more in terms of similarities in their overall messages, not just in similarities between the characters they drew. I think there is something to this.

 

Concerning the blind prostitute, I disagree with you, Lale. I think her blindness is very significant. It is no accident that this episode is the very last one in Book One. I think it marks a turning point in the narrative, and a realization on the part of Port. To me, he is already beginning to feel defeated, like his efforts to "fit in" are failing. Maybe Port is obsessed with the blindness of the prostitute because she is the only one to whom it is not apparent that he is "different?" Just a preliminary observation. But I do think that Bowles intended to say something important here.

 

Finally, Lale, regarding your comment on Bowles'/Port's conception of the Arabs, you said it better than I did when you wrote: "On one hand he wants them to be intellectually and emotionally his equals, on the other hand he wants them to be unaltered, pure, just as they are. You can't have it both ways." I totally agree with you.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 5/11/2002, 20:27:30 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

I was going to wait until I had composed a more or less "complete" essay, but I have to respond to one thing that I believe is central to any discussion of this book.

 

Rizwan writes:

 

>As for your comment: "I wonder if Paul Bowles, in his many many years in Africa, suffered from not belonging. He must have. Or did he think that only he belonged and others did not?"

 

The thing that struck me about Kit, Port and Tunner was their seeming indifference to belonging to anything. Kit, perhaps, wanted to belong to Port, and sometimes seemed to be trying to define herself by her relationship to Port, or perhaps more truthfully, his relationship to her, but her approach to doing this was almost entirely passive.

 

(One of the things that struck me about Bowles' writing was how effectively he defined these people in some very short but very telling passages. I will provide quotes later.)

 

>I think he's saying that those who "try to fit in" are the ones doomed to failure

 

I don't think Kit, Port or Tunner made any effort at all to "fit in". They were just observers, but a curiously distant and empty sort of observer. Life just went through them without leaving any real trace or having any lasting, if not permanent, effect on them. In particular, the people around them, the natives, were just part of the scenery, which they hardly noticed anyway. Indeed, much of their response to the world and people around them is negative, but they continue with their fruitless "traveling" anyway.

 

>just yesterday I was reading some of Goethe's essays on Art. In them (and I'm paraphrasing from memory here), he says something to the effect that "the purpose of Art is to ask questions." He goes on to say that "a true work of Art is one in which all the right questions are asked, but not all of the answers are immediately revealed." To me, The Sheltering Sky is a work of Art in the Goethe sense: the questions are posed, but we must dig further to find the answers.

 

Bingo! This beautifully written work asks many fundamental questions about life, not explicitly, but implicitly by the way its characters fail to answer these questions.

 

>To me, he [Port] is already beginning to feel defeated, like his efforts to "fit in" are failing.

 

These "efforts" failed because they were not made. Again, the world that Kit and Port (and Tunner to some extent, though he is less fully painted than Kit and Port) "travel" through is one with which they hardly interact at all. This is why this book, as Rizwan noted in his earlier posting", is a poor "tourist guide" to Africa. These characters may be "travelers", but I got a very strong sense that they were not traveling *to* anything. but rather *away* from everything, and in that sense, it really doesn't matter where you go.

 

Much more later.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by Rizwan on 5/11/2002, 22:49:23 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Len,

 

I fully agree with most of your argument, especially when you contrast the notion of their "traveling" with what it really is--"fleeing": "These characters may be "travelers", but I got a very strong sense that they were not traveling *to* anything. but rather *away* from everything, and in that sense, it really doesn't matter where you go." Perhaps you'll agree, Len, that they are fleeing from the emptiness of their own lives?

 

On the other hand, however, I don't think that this fleeing is completely aimless, without a final destination. And I don't believe they felt indifferent about this either...whether they wanted to admit it or not. That is why I think the notion of trying to "fit in" (no matter how simple or childish it sounds) is, in some sense at least, appropriate. Maybe not fully fit in solely with the Arabs, necessarily, but fit in with them in their place, and their environment as a whole, there in North Africa. Port and the gang have already rejected post-war America and Europe because, well, they don't feel comfortable, or quite fully "fit in," with what those places have become. North Africa, apparently, offers an alternative hope for something different, something more fulfilling. Of course, this applies more to Port than the others.

 

Consider the passage in Book 1, Chapter 15, where Port asks Kit if she could ever live in the town they were in. Kit answers that she doesn't know, because "it's impossible to get into their (the Arabs') lives, and know what they're really thinking. Port's eventual response to this is: "I feel that this town, this river, this sky, all belong to me as much as to them."

 

To me, what Port is really expressing here is a profound, if subconscious, desire for himself to belong (as opposed to these things belonging to him, as he says), to "fit in," and believing, maybe, that he has finally found somewhere that this can really happen. This is the aim of all his travels, in fact, whether acknowledged or not. But of course, his belief in the reality of having finally reaching this destination is all illusion, or delusion.

 

Overall, the elusiveness of fulfillment through belonging, no matter where they go, is what made them the mere observers you rightly point out they were, Len: seemingly aimless wanderers in both their travels, and in their lives.

 

 @

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 6/11/2002, 8:28:27 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Here is my first, very brief contribution to this extremely interesting discussion. I noted this down immediately after finishing the book, several weeks ago, but it seems to tie in very nicely with the subject matter at hand.

 

Here is what I jotted down at the time:

Both Port and Kit are driven by despair over the emptiness inside themselves. Port tries to fill the emptiness by restless travel and the pursuit of "interesting" but meaningless experiences. Kit can only stave off her superstitious fear of some indeterminate doom by giving herself up to another being and making her life as confined as possible. She seems closest to happiness (or rather: furthest away from despair) when she is the passive but willing recipient of the Arab trader, who to all intents and purposes keeps her locked up as his sex slave.

 

Unfortunately my notes stop here. More later.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 6/11/2002, 16:13:06 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Rizwan asks me:

 

>Perhaps you'll agree, Len, that they are fleeing from the emptiness of their own lives?

 

Absolutely! That seems to me to be the central theme of this story -- emptiness -- and it occurred to me that the African desert, with its vast open spaces and occasional "cities" and oases, was a perfect metaphor for the characters' personalities.

 

>On the other hand, however, I don't think that this fleeing is completely aimless, without a final destination.

 

It wasn't aimless, but it wasn't directed either. While they may have had a goal, perhaps a place where they could "fit in", their strategy for finding it was to wander about until this place found them. There are numerous passages that convey this sense of uninvolvement.

 

>And I don't believe they felt indifferent about this either...whether they wanted to admit it or not. That is why I think the notion of trying to "fit in" (no matter how simple or childish it sounds) is, in some sense at least, appropriate.

 

Yes it is. The problem was that they were not willing to make any concessions in order to fit in; they were "looking for", in a very passive way, a place that they could fit into without having to change or adapt in any way.

 

>Port and the gang have already rejected post-war America and Europe because, well, they don't feel comfortable, or quite fully "fit in," with what those places have become.

 

I'd argue that it wasn't that these places had "become" unsuitable. They never were suitable, and like all other places, never would be suitable, if you were unwilling to actually do or change anything to "fit in". Port's cultivated unwillingness to have a profession is a perfect example of this passive self-absorption.

 

>...Port asks Kit if she could ever live in the town they were in. Kit answers that she doesn't know, because "it's impossible to get into their (the Arabs') lives, and know what they're really thinking.

 

Of course it's impossible, if you don't make any effort. Their guiding principle seems to be "if it doesn't happen of its own accord, it won't happen, and don't do anything to make it happen". For them to have to change or adapt to fit in would make fitting in "unauthentic". What spectacularly self-serving logic!

 

>Port's eventual response to this is: "I feel that this town, this river, this sky, all belong to me as much as to them."

 

Another perfect expression of the sense of entitlement implicit in this egocentric notion of fitting in.

 

>believing, maybe, that he has finally found somewhere that this ["fitting in"] can really happen.

 

I didn't get any sense that there was anything special about Africa. It was just another place. I think Port could have said the same thing about just about anywhere. What struck me about Port and Kit and Tunner was their stunning indifference to everything. They never express, or even seem to feel, any intense emotion. Except maybe fear.

 

>Overall, the elusiveness of fulfillment through belonging, no matter where they go, is what made them the mere observers you rightly point out they were, Len: seemingly aimless wanderers in both their travels, and in their lives.

 

These are the most superbly depicted empty people, "hollow men", I have ever encountered. Bowles' ability to express this emptiness is a remarkable achievement. One often reads about a writer's "cardboard" or lifeless characters, as a criticism of the writer's expressive skill; here the people being written about are indeed cardboard and lifeless, and the writer's skill is in depicting them in all their depth.

 

 @

 

Posted by Dave on 7/11/2002, 5:44:46 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

This was a great book, as one of us suggested, a work of art. I agree, and I enjoyed reading it.

I'm not sure that The Sheltering Sky hit me with the same level of profundity that it hit everyone else that has commented on it thus far. Everyone's comments are so excellent and well-thought out. Mine will be sort of haphazard in comparison.

But I DO have some questions about the book and perhaps someone may be able to elucidate upon them.

(Please, the following comments are kind of "all-over-the-place" much like the travelers in this book... but indulge me...)

 

Okay, I wondered about Port and Kit's relationship. It's interesting that Bowles does not explain to us why these two seem so estranged from each other. Why is it that Port could not even "find his way back to love" (p.93) when it came to Kit? We read, on that same page "And now for so long there had been no love, no possibility of it." So... what happened in their relationship that made them want separate rooms in their travels (it's not as if they were non-sexual beings, that's for sure)?

Would people that are this mismatched or for lack of a better term, "cold" towards each other... would they have ever even embarked on such a horrendous journey together? In real life, when Port announced this blazing African itinerary, wouldn't Kit have said something like..."Yeah right! Send me a postcard when you get there hon!"

 

I'm not criticising Bowles here though. Quite the opposite. He did something brilliant by throwing these two incompatible married characters into this howling African dustbowl. And the story would not be the same at all if these two were in a mutually healthy, trouble-free relationship.

Because see, the important thing is that SHE WENT with Port. She was TRYING to salvage something, and she knew that in this particular relationship, she would have to be the one to do the moving. They were both stubborn, but Port was more stubborner! (there's a nice word).

Bowles says that "in spite of her willingness to become whatever he wanted her to become, she could not change that much.... It was useless to pretend otherwise."

 

This Herculean effort of hers is a large factor in the severe guilt she felt after her fling with Tunner. (As though she didn't know that Port had done a similar or worse thing just a few nights prior to this). It wasn't that she felt so bad about letting Port down, she felt bad about letting herself down.

 

This leads me to think of one of Rizwan's questions:

2. The book revolves around the figure and spirit of Port. Why, then, does Bowles kill him off in the very middle? Or is Kit the central character, the true conscience of the book?

 

The book DOES revolve around Port, insofar as no-one would have ever ended up out on these bone-shaking bugs-up-your-nose bus tours to Nowhere if it hadn't been for Port. These other two (while they share some of his ideals about renouncing American culture and ideals etc.)... these other two would have never found themselves out here if not for the fact that they were following Port's vision.

And the thing is, all three are SEEKING something, but the thing that Kit and Tunner are seeking involves OTHER PEOPLE, it involves RELATIONSHIP. Port's vision is the experience of "solitude and the proximity to infinite things." It does not need to be shared.

Notice how he is constantly getting AWAY from people, even to the point of deliberately abandoning Tunner.

Some would say that he did this to get closer to Kit.

Perhaps.

But did it work? I don't think so. Port is too far gone in his self-absorption.

Remember when he is dying, and Kit is doing all that she can for him? (p.197-198 in my hardcover version)... Here's Port's generous response as death itself is climbing up the front porch... "You don't have to talk to me as if I were a child" and later, "I don't have to be humored in any way." I remember thinking "Man, you are one hard, ungrateful bastard!"

Here's a woman literally going nuts over you, and still, all you can think of is yourself. We have a word for this in the English language...

 

JERK!

 

So, no wonder Bowles kills him off.

He wants to get to the real point, which is Kit.

To me, she is undoubtedly the central character of the story. Even for the following reason (if for nothing else): Think about it, supposing that Kit and Tunner are really following Port's exaggerated dream of "the great outdoors" (or whatever).... Yet Port actually EXPERIENCES the least amount of Arab or African culture of any of them. Even Tunner gets more out of Africa than Port did. And hell... Kit even becomes the wife of an Arab! Beat that!

 

So, what's the point of it all then? Well, the point of it all is that she loses her marbles in the process. I think she really went downhill from the time when she lay in the back of the truck on the way to Sba (p.189) and she is reciting the brand names of her cosmetics to herself. The poor girl.

Bowles is saying (among other things) that the goal Kit set for herself (to become more like Port, or to pretend that she can enjoy the things he enjoys to the EXTENT that he enjoys them)... this goal, though perhaps worthy, was untenable and unattainable.

 

This main character idea is even more obvious when one watches the Bertolucci movie (as I did recently).... and all I can say is that I hope the decision to put John Malkovich's name before Debra Winger's on the video case was purely based on alphabetical protocol, rather than on starring role!

 

A couple questions I have:

 

1. Would any normal woman have gotten over the death of her husband so quickly, and become so accustomed to this relationship with Belqassim... a relationship, the first "date" of which consisted of a camel ride followed by being raped by two men? I mean...

 

2. Why does Kit want to escape on her own after Port's death? Wouldn't her first thought to be to somehow re-establish herself with some semblence of familiarity and support, ie. Tunner?

 

My favorite comment so far, to which I wholeheartedly agree, is this one, from Len:

 

These are the most superbly depicted empty people, "hollow men", I have ever encountered. Bowles' ability to express this emptiness is a remarkable achievement. One often reads about a writer's "cardboard" or lifeless characters, as a criticism of the writer's expressive skill; here the people being written about are indeed cardboard and lifeless, and the writer's skill is in depicting them in all their depth.

 

 @

 

Posted by Lale on 7/11/2002, 11:01:11 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Dave, I agree with everything you say, except for this:

 

 

: itself is climbing up the front porch... "You don't

: have to talk to me as if I were a child" and later,

: "I don't have to be humored in any way." I remember

: thinking "Man, you are one hard, ungrateful

: bastard!"

: Here's a woman literally going nuts over you, and

: still, all you can think of is yourself. We have a

: word for this in the English language...

: JERK!

: So, no wonder Bowles kills him off.

 

Port might have been a jerk but not in that particular exchange. What he is saying is actually very understandable coming from a man who knows who is dying and who is very very sad for not having achieved "getting back together". In his dying moments he does not wish to be pitied or treated like an idiot. I don't think he was being ungrateful at all. It is just the words of a dying, unhappy man, trying to save his dignity, trying to have one last real conversation with his wife without being pitied.

 

I agree that Kit completely lost it afterwards. She went nuts. Why not stay there and give your husband a proper burial? Even poor Tunner tried, unsuccessfully, to avoid a religious burial. Had Kit stayed around, being the wife she would have more authority and she could have avoided a kind of burial that was not acceptable to Port.

 

Port died in the desert where he wanted to be. His burial there would have pleased him. If he had not had the ceremony that he didn't believe in, he would have been more pleased. Then Kit, having a sense of closure, even accomplishment that her husband was buried in the place he wanted to be, could have gone back home, could have stayed, whatever.

 

Let's try to chronicle the process of Kit's turning into a sex maniac:

 

Sleeping with Tunner the first time was a slip. She was drunk and afraid, etc. The second time, when her husband lay dying ... Ok, we will forgive her that one too since she was trapped in a room for too long, taking care of a sick person is not easy especially under those circumstances, then she found Tunner, let's just say that it is explainable. It is getting more and more difficult from this point onwards. She met Belqassim, did not object to being raped by him, but one can argue that he was young and handsome and she was ... not very sane at this point. Then the other guy... we can say that she really didn't have a choice, she couldn't do anything to stop it.

 

Then comes her time as Belqassim's sex slave, as Anna so accurately put it. Enjoying her time locked up in a room where she couldn't even stand up... Now that was too much. This is the same woman who in the make-shift hosptital room, was pacing up and down, who was having little excursions just for a little exercise. Is it conceivable that she will be so utterly happy, locked up in a room where she cannot stand straight, where she cannot see anything other than the rooftops from a tiny window, where food is brought in and had to be consumed under the eyes of her guards. No book, no talk, no exercise, no nothing. And she seems to be very content, so much so that one wonders why she escaped.

 

Yes, her escape: it must have been a lapse of her insanity and back to reason. She regretted it almost immediately.

 

And slept with the first guy who helped him.

 

Lale

 

 @

 

Posted by Lale on 7/11/2002, 11:48:44 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

I have a few questions too. Of course mine are not as philosophical as my thesis teacher's, Prof. Rizwan.

 

- Remember that young man who spoke little French and helped Kit and Port to get out of El Ga'a? He found a truck to take them to Sba. the young Arab thought that he was going to accompnay them. he wanted to. But the last minute Kit ditched him. Does anyone have a theory why?

 

"The young Arab helped her up into the back, and she stood there leaning over a stack of wine cases looking down at him. He made as if to jump in with her, but at that instant the truck started to move. The young Arab ran after it, surely expecting Kit to call out to the driver to stop, since he had every intention of accompanying her. Once she had caught her balance, however, she deliberately crouched low and lay down on the floor among the sacks and bundles, near Port. She did not look out until they were miles into the desert. Then she looked with fear, lifting her head and peering quickly as if she expected to see him out there in the cold waste land, running along the trail behind the truck after her."

 

This well intentioned young man had helped Kit and he could have continued to do so. Kit's embarking onto a voyage with an unknown truck driver to an unknown place was her first odd decision. Did she just want to be alone with her dying husband? Later on we saw that she was capable of spending a night with Tunner when Port lay dying, so I am not sure if this was her reasoning. Or was it something she did impulsively, not knowing which way would have been better?

 

- Why did Port want to go with Eric and his mother in their Mercedes when it became apparent that Kit was against it (because she didn't want to leave Tunner alone)? It was kit who was scared of trains, it was Kit who would have prefered to travel by car, but she didn't want to leave Tunner behind, travelling all by himself, so she made a decision to take the train. Port could have taken the train too. Why did he choose to leave Kit and Tunner alone on a night train when he already suspected that Tunner was after Kit. He even suspected that they had slept together the night Port was being chased by bandits. So, why not travel with you wife and take no chances? Did he want them to have an affair?

 

- What will happen to Kit after the end of the book? If you were to write the rest of Kit's life story, how would it go?

 

- Next question is more editorial, I am afraid: Tunner and Kit were on the train. They drank a lot of champagne. Then they made love. Then the next scene is in a hotel, Tunner is in Kit's room and Kit kicks him out to fix things up before Port comes. But Port was there before them, we know that the train takes twice as long as the car, and also, someone asked Port if his wife had arrived yet and he said "no, not yet". How did the train thing ended up in the hotel room and why are they there before Port? I suspect a major editorial mistake there. Unless I was too sleepy while reading that part and it is me who is confused.

 

- Another thing that was curious was the conflicting services they found in the lousy hotels they stayed. For instance the places serve food with fur or insects in them but there is first course and second course. Or, the courtyard is reeking of garbage and urine, but their beds are turned down in the evenings. What kind of hotels are these? Five-star European service combined with filthy food and stinking dining rooms?

 

Lale

 

 @

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 7/11/2002, 13:36:38 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Now I am probably not going to be able to get across what I mean exactly, but I'll just have to take the risk of either being misunderstood or being labeled fuzzy. Also, all the really intelligent things have already been said by the others. Á propos of that: I think this is one of the best discussions we have had in our book club so far and I am very impressed with Rizwan's kick-off.

And by the way, before I forget: four hearts.

 

Here is what I have to add to the discussion.

Most novelists try very hard to recreate human beings of flesh and blood on the page: people we recognize and who might be real for all we know. I think there's something entirely different going on here, for I don't believe that Bowles created Kit and Port as characters for us to identify with or as persons whose actions we could understand if only we tried hard enough to play the amatuer-psychologist. I am not saying that Port and Kit are not credible, just that we should not look at them as ordinary novel characters. In my view Bowles never even wants us to identify with them, he wants to bring across STATES OF MIND, such as alienation, emptiness, despair, insanity - states of mind perfectly reflected by the desert landscape and by the alien culture. This is probably also the reason why we learn practically nothing of the couple's background, their previous life, how exactly their relationship got to this point, etc. For none of these things are important.

 

So what I am trying to postulate is that we should not try to UNDERSTAND Port and Kit, to look for rational explanations for their actions: it is futile. Instead we should look at their behaviour and try to find out what it says about their state of mind. Rizwan's question # 7 is useful in this respect: " What is it about the blindness of the prostitute at the end of Book 1 that is so intriguing to Port? What is the significance of this obsession?" I think Port connects to and recognizes her otherness, her being set apart from the rest because of her blindness. He obviously has a similar feeling about his own relationship to other people. Of course the girl does not have the same sense of connectedness vis à vis Port. To her he is probably just a pervert.

 

I will perhaps write more later on. I am on my lunch break and should get back to work now.

 

 @

 

Re: hotels in The Sheltering Sky

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 7/11/2002, 15:46:44 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: - Another thing that was curious was the conflicting

: services they found in the lousy hotels they

: stayed. For instance the places serve food with fur

: or insects in them but there is first course and

: second course. Or, the courtyard is reeking of

: garbage and urine, but their beds are turned down in

: the evenings. What kind of hotels are these?

: Five-star European service combined with filthy food

: and stinking dining rooms?

: Lale

 

Lale, I could be entirely mistake of course, but somehow it seems to me that you have never been in a zero-star hotel/inn/guesthouse in the middle of nowhere in a third world country. They don't have neat qualifations there; instead anything goes and you are constantly surprised, which can be:

a. infuriating (for nice, civilized, sophisticated people like the Eskicioglus)

b. charming (for those who have just spent two weeks in a tent in the wilderness and whose clothes are so filthy they can stand up on their own).

 

In other words: the hotels in The Sheltering Sky seem entirely plausible to me ;-)

 

 @

 

Re: hotels in The Sheltering Sky

 

Posted by Lale on 7/11/2002, 16:48:38 , in reply to "Re: hotels in The Sheltering Sky "

 

: In other words: the hotels in The Sheltering Sky seem

: entirely plausible to me ;-)

 

Anna, I think you have misunderstood me. I was surprised with the *conflict* in the service/quality. In the urine soaked veranda, where the centre piece is a mountain of garbage, they were getting "first and second course" dinners. At one moment fur comes out of their food and the next moment their beds are turned down for the evening.

 

Lale

 

 @

 

Re: hotels in The Sheltering Sky

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 7/11/2002, 17:41:09 , in reply to "Re: hotels in The Sheltering Sky "

 

No, really, I knew exactly what you meant. Only in those necks of the wood there would not be any conflict, because multiple courses or turning down the bed are not necessarily qualified as fancy. Standards are simply completely different. As I said: anything goes, it all depends on the idiosyncratic preferences and whims of the staff, who have no conception at all of the standards in western hotels.

 

 @

 

Posted by Rizwan on 7/11/2002, 20:11:08 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Anna, I think you are absolutely correct. If we try to identify too closely with the characters, we will lose sight of what Bowles was really trying to say. As you and Len both pointed out, it is the "emptiness" of the characters that is important here (not to be confused with a lack of depth), not necessarily how representative they are of society, or individuals, as a whole.

 

On that note: Barrenness is an image that keeps coming to mind when I think of this book. The barrenness of the landscape. The barrenness of the character and spirit exhibited by the protagonists. The complete absence of hope, the further along in the book you go. Even intellectual barrenness, exemplified by Kit and Port's inability to fully comprehend the alien culture they were surrounded by. The entire book is marked more by what isn't there, rather than what is.

 

To that end, I think Bowles' spare style only enhances this idea of desolation and barrenness. In fact, I will even go so far as to say that this style brings the book closer to poetry, than to a conventional novel. Look through the novel again. Not a superfluous word to be found. Each sentence, each word, carefully considered, to bring about a specific effect. Bowles' use of language is one of the great achievements of this book, in my opinion, indispensable to the images and ideas he is trying to convey.

 

As for your take on the girl's blindness, Anna, I hadn't looked at it fully from the angle you proposed, but I think you are on to something there. He does indeed connect to her "otherness," as you put it. And as you rightly alluded to, this has less to do with her, and more to do with his own evolving perception of himself.

 

You know, the longer I contemplate this book, the more I discover what it has to offer, and the more I admire it.

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 8/11/2002, 8:02:34 , in reply to "The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Professor Rizwan,

 

I must respectfully disagree and give The Sheltering Sky only a 2.5 star rating. I hope this will not affect my final grade. At minimum, I should deserve extra credit for having the courage of my conviction.

 

:1. Gore Vidal has written of Bowles' short stories that

:they are "emblematic of the helplessness of an over-:civilized sensibility when confronted with an

:alien culture." How apt a summation is this of The

:Sheltering Sky?

 

I do not see the aptness of this description, as I cannot extract from the book the "over-civilized sensibility" in the characters. Certainly they are Western, but what is it about them that is "overly" civilized? That they are from New York? That they are used to indoor plumbing? That they are unfaithful, spiritually lost, guilt-complexed? None of their thoughts or behavior betray an "over"-civilized sensibility. If anything, they all exhibit quite a deep sense of selfish and undisciplined neurosis. If this neurosis is what is emblematic of an over-civilized sensibility, then only in that case can I say that Gore Vidal would be correct.

 

I also think that the characters in The Sheltering Sky are not fully dimensioned. As I read it, I find myself repeatedly thinking about The Sun Also Rises. In TSAR, everything comes together: the characters, the reason for their existential wanderings/yearnings, the resignations of the "lost generation" -- all these painted the entirety of the theme of the book. At the end of The Sun Also Rises, I felt that I knew the characters, they are substantiated. Their behaviors, choices, actions are consistent with in the casts of their characters and changes molded by their life's journeys.

 

At the end of The Sheltering Sky, I still have no idea why any of these characters did what they did, other than from a deep personal neurosis, which although interesting, does not carry any more profundity than for their own psychiatrists. Their tragic endings belongs to the category of "personal tragedy" and not of "human tragedy".

 

With each page I search for something that ties everything together, but found none. Why did Kit leave Port to die? Why did Kit leave the young Arab who was helping her? Why did Port seek out the prostitute? At the end of the book, the characters are still as nebulous and flat as at the beginning. Their acts do not appear consistent with their nature (or the evolution of their nature through their journey), because we don't KNOW what their nature/disposition/character is.

 

I do not feel that Bowles gave us all the pieces of the puzzle. We are required to make up those missing pieces to fill in the puzzle for him by making up assumptions about his characters.

 

I'm not saying everything should be spelled out, and that the reader should not inject interpretation. However, if TOO much is missing, the story is simply not complete.

 

The most meaningful sentence I found about Kit occured in the first chapter when she said: "The people of each country get more like the people of every other country. They have no character, no beauty, no ideals, no culture -- nothing, nothing." This is her own omen, which was actually fulfilled at the end, as it exactly describes the condition of her own life.

 

The most meaningful sentense about Port is that he claims that "another important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking." Port rejects elements he finds not to his liking not only in places, but also in relationships.

 

However, apart from these, other expositions which would shed light into the main characters are so sparse that they remain to me quite undeveloped.

 

:4. One of this book's defining characteristics is the

:style of Bowles' prose as stark and beautiful as the

:landscape it describes. How, and how well, does

:this distinctive style contribute to the overall effect of

:the narrative?

 

Again here I am biased by The Sun Also Rises (to which for some reason this book constantly brings me to compare. I find that Hemingway's style is much more stark and beautiful than Bowles', and more descriptive in the things obliquely said between the lines.

 

:5. Bowles' worldview has sometimes been

:called "existentialist." Is this a fitting description

:for The Sheltering Sky? How does this book compare to

:other so-called existentialist works, such as (oh, I don't

:know...just a random book comes to mind here Lale...)

:Camus' "L'Etranger?"

 

I would say this book is more "nihilist" than "existentialist". I think in existentialist writing, there is a sense that although life/living is not the aim, while you do live, you live life the best way you can, against whatever odds. You are what you make of yourself, and there is a certain stoic dignity in the suffering in the face of absurdities, as in L'Etranger.

 

I do not get that impression in The Sheltering Sky. The tragedies of Port and Kit are self-inflicted, and I cannot feel the dignity of their suffering, personally tragic though they may be.

 

:6. What is it about the blindness of the prostitute at the

:end of Book 1 that is so intriguing to Port? What is the

:significance of this obsession?

 

If we are to assume symbolism in this, I would say that he does not want to be identified in his misdeeds, that he would feel more free to sin if the act is not "witnessed". This reveals his feeling of guilt, but also his willingness to proceed as long as he is not found out. This is an illustration of himself as a "traveler", that is one who "compares [his civilzation] with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking". In this case, he compares fidelity (his civilization) with carnal pleasure/exotic experience (Arab civilization), and rejects the one (fidelity) because he finds it not to his liking. However, he still has enough guilt left in him (cannot entirely shed his own civilization) to feel freer to do so only with someone who cannot "witness" his hypocrisy.

 

:9. The characterization of the "natives" in Bowles' book

:is rather flat and one-dimensional. The Arabs, for

:example, are a people motivated solely by a quest for

:physical gratification, whether in the form of sex or

:drugs or food. They are also deceitful people, not to be

:trusted. Tunner and Eric share this capacity for deceit,

:to be sure. But there seems an intellectual and emotional

:component to the Westerners that is completely absent

:among Bowles' Arabs. Is this 1. a deliberate portrait

:painted by Bowles for a specific purpose; 2. a failure of

:his from a literary/craftsmanship point of view; or 3. is

:there a more profound, if unconscious, condescension at

:work here?

 

I think the main characters are only slightly less flat, and therefore tend to think that this is due to a failure of Bowles' from a craftsmanship point of view.

 

Even though Bowles exposed more of their intellectual and emotional component, they are not developed enough to build a cohesive picture of the characters. Their acts seem almost random, like kids jumping around in an rumpus room.

 

In addition, it is not only the Arabs who are one-dimensional, the whites in the "background" (officials, inn keepers, etc.) are also stereo-typically arrogant, self-centered, condescending to natives. I think all the characters suffer from some degree of flatness.

 

I guess if this in indeed a "nihilist" novel, then actually things WOULD make more sense, now that I've written all that and just thought about it. But, IS it a "nihilist" novel?

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 8/11/2002, 8:29:13 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: As you and Len both pointed out, it is the

: "emptiness" of the characters that is

: important here (not to be confused with a lack of

: depth), not necessarily how representative they are

: of society, or individuals, as a whole.

 

I also agree with the theme of "emptiness" (the characters are aimless, looking for something they cannot define).

 

However, there is wandering looking for meaning and purpose, and then there is letting yourself be repeatedly violated. There is not caring that you stay in a bug-infested inn, and then there is not caring that your husband (whom you stated that you love and followed even to places you don't like) to die alone in the dark.

 

There is such a huge degree of difference between these 2 levels of "uncaringness", that I think the part that actually deserves most attention is not just the "emptiness" theme, but WHAT IS IT about one person that makes them the second kind of uncaring person? Not all people who have empty lives go that far.

 

Where I think the author failed is in making us see what it is in his characters that make them go beyond the norm that most people with empty lives would undergo. The Sun Also Rises (and I have noted this before in a previous note, sorry to repeatedly bring this up), is also about emptiness and loneliness, but the characters' behaviors are not so far-fetched that it requires extra exposition by the author to justify why they would be the kind of people who would act like that.

 

There is always a point of not caring about yourself and the world that most people do not pass, especially when it involves bodily harm. Bowles' characters, especially Kit, pass beyond that point. So what is it so tragic, empty, unretrievably horrifying about her life that propels her to go that far, to leave her dying husband, to obsess herself with her own rapist? That's where I think the character portraits fail, because I don't see a satisfactory exposition to explain all this.

 

 @

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 8/11/2002, 13:54:35 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Hi Hanh, a hearty welcome to our bookclub. It is always great to have an original new voice, even of especially if it is a dissenting voice. That said, I am now going to disagree with you (!) especially on your assessment of the characters of Kit and Port. You probably have not read my posting of yesterday, but my take there is that it is futile to judge them as characters in a conventional novel. They are something different and I am sure Bowles did this intentionally. I won't repeat what I wrote yesterday (it is still there to be read), but what it boils down to is that they are not meant to convey a couple you could get acquainted with, but states of mind. However, that is of course my interpretation and you are perfectly free to differ.

 

I am going to be slightly more strident on your condemnation of them as flat characters, for they are nowhere near that. A flat character, at least that is what I have been taught, is a character who has just a few defining personality traits and who always acts predictably according to these. Port and Kit are the opposite of that: they are highly complex and quite unpredictable. That they are as much an enigma to you at the end as they were in the beginning of the novel does not make them flat characters. On the contrary, I would say. It shows how complex they are. I don't think literary creations such as these necessarily exist to be fathomed. The more easily they are, the flatter.

 

For me, too, Kit and Port, were really hard to understand. I also found it hard to identify with them. I have travelled in North-Africa, the Syrian Desert and the Gobi Desert, but their experience and their outlook never resembled mine. Their was little recognition. Nevertheless, or maybe even because of this, I was absolutely fascinated by the book. I thought it was wonderful to be given a glimpse into the minds of people who are so different from myself. It was like a window on somebody else's soul.

 

 @

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 8/11/2002, 14:12:34 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Well, Kit only leaves her husband to set out into the desert when he is already dead and she can do nothing for him anymore. So it is not as bad as that. Apart from that I don't think she is harsh and uncaring, in the sense that she says to herself something like "Oh what the heck. Just let him rot." It is just that she is so self-absorbed,so taken up with how to survive (and I don't mean physically), so completely preoccuped with how to stave off the everpresent sense of doom, that she is simply unable to show care for her dead husband or anybody else. All normal feelings towards other people are pushed out of the way by this neurotic self-absorption.

 

Actually, this aspect of her reminded me very forcefully of someone I know and with whom it is impossible to have anything but the shallowest interaction. Persons like that come across as cold, but it is really despair that dictates their behaviour (which does not make it any easier to like them, unfortunately).

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 8/11/2002, 16:24:19 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Anna writes:

 

>They [Port, Kit, Tunner] are something different and I am sure Bowles did this intentionally.

 

I agree emphatically with Anna. These characters aren't "flat"; they are empty. That's an important difference, and Bowles depicted their emptiness, vacuity, superbly.

 

>Port and Kit are the opposite of that: they are highly complex and quite unpredictable. That they are as much an enigma to you at the end as they were in the beginning of the novel does not make them flat characters. On the contrary, I would say. It shows how complex they are.

 

I don't think they're complex in the sense of rich with subtlety and depth. They are complex (and unpredictable) in the same sense that the motion of a leaf on the wind is complex and unpredictable. They are completely passive, in that they are always looking for the easy way to "fit in", and the easiest way to fit in is to simply submit.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 8/11/2002, 19:22:08 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: complex and quite unpredictable. That they are as

: much an enigma to you at the end as they were in the

: beginning of the novel does not make them flat

: characters. On the contrary, I would say. It shows

: how complex they are. I don't think literary

: creations such as these necessarily exist to be

: fathomed. The more easily they are, the flatter.

 

Perhaps I should have used the phrase "under-developed" instead of flat, as I do agree with your definition of flat characters.

 

However, the characters and their behavior must be consistent (although not predictable or fathomable), else what is the difference between a truly under-developed character (someone what the reader must give all benefit of the doubt to as to depth) and one who is truly complex?

 

I think it is inconsistent that Kit (who doesn't care about anything anymore in deep despair ) would have the passion to be obsessed with Belqassim, or has she gone mad?

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 8/11/2002, 19:39:33 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: rot." It is just that she is so

: self-absorbed,so taken up with how to survive (and I

: don't mean physically), so completely preoccuped

: with how to stave off the everpresent sense of doom,

: that she is simply unable to show care for her dead

: husband or anybody else. All normal feelings towards

: other people are pushed out of the way by this

: neurotic self-absorption.

 

Well, may be I've been too harsh. But I just don't know what to feel about the characters at the end of the book. Pity? Sympathy? Horror?

 

Before meeting Belqassim, Kit as a character was for me completely shadowy, someone who just floated along, perhaps too lazy to push her own path. Her professed love for Port seems almost an excuse. Nothing she did, thought indicate this great passion she has for him, one that drives her into maddening despair after his death.

 

After meeting Belqassim, Kit (unless she has gone mad) became inconsistent with the ones in previous chapters.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 8/11/2002, 19:43:16 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Hanh writes:

 

>I think it is inconsistent that Kit (who doesn't care about anything anymore in deep despair ) would have the passion to be obsessed with Belqassim, or has she gone mad?

 

I didn't get the impression that Kit was "obsessed" with Belqassim. Can you cite a passage that implies such an obsession? She certainly tolerated him, and that is consistent with my "diagnosis" of her passivity. She might have fantasized about their relationship, but again, that would be consistent with her attempt to reconcile her passivity with her illusions about controlling her destiny by attending to the right signs, portents and omens.

 

And while it might not be appropriate to call her "mad", Kit's psychology was certainly aberrant to some degree.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 8/11/2002, 19:51:34 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Hanh writes:

 

>But I just don't know what to feel about the characters at the end of the book. Pity? Sympathy? Horror?

 

Relief that you're not like them. Really, though, there's not much you can feel for them. They are like tissue or gossamer.

 

>Before meeting Belqassim, Kit as a character was for me completely shadowy, someone who just floated along, perhaps too lazy to push her own path.

 

This is more than laziness. This is psychopathology.

 

>Her professed love for Port seems almost an excuse.

 

True.

 

>Nothing she did, thought indicate this great passion she has for him, one that drives her into maddening despair after his death.

 

I didn't interpret her reaction as "maddening despair". I'd say it was more like terror at having lost her compass. Before, Kit could let her life be guided by Port's "decisions", such as they were. Now, alone, she would have to make these decisions herself.

 

>After meeting Belqassim, Kit (unless she has gone mad) became inconsistent with the ones in previous chapters.

 

Not at all. She took the first opportunity she found to let someone else make her decisions for her -- Belqassim. This wasn't about passion at all.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by Lale on 8/11/2002, 19:54:50 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: I didn't get the impression that Kit was

: "obsessed" with Belqassim. Can you cite a

: passage that implies such an obsession? She

: certainly tolerated him, and that is consistent with

: my "diagnosis" of her passivity. She

: might have fantasized about their relationship, but

: again, that would be consistent with her attempt to

: reconcile her passivity with her illusions about

 

Len, she did not simply tolerate him. Of course she was obsessed, or, something very close to it. She waited for him to come every night and then when he was away, she considered recruiting one of the other young Arabs in his family.

 

Her happiness was ruined when she was discovered by the other wives. Her sole purpose of existence became Belqassim.

 

Lale

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 8/11/2002, 20:33:41 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: I didn't interpret her reaction as "maddening

: despair". I'd say it was more like terror at

: having lost her compass. Before, Kit could let her

: life be guided by Port's "decisions", such

: as they were. Now, alone, she would have to make

: these decisions herself.

 

Why would not Kit turn then to Tunner to make decisions for her, or to one of her own people (the official at the garrison where Port died)? Why focus on Belqassim? Also why not choose the other Arab that Belqassim was with, especially since he was evidently the more senior one (if she is looking for someone to make decisions for her).

 

"The younger one (Belqassim) promptly seized her and held her in a fierce embrace. She cried out and attempted to sit up, but he would not let her go. The other man spoke to him sharply and pointed to the camel drivers, who were seated learning against the wall around the well, attempting to hide their mirth.

 

'Luh, Belqassim! Essbar!' he whispered, shaking his head in disapproval, running his hand lovingly over his black beard. Belqassim was none to pleased, but having as yet no beard of his own, he felt obliged to subscribe to the other's sage advice."

 

At the end, she also lost all complete interest in Tunner. Why? And why the sexual interest only in Arab men? "she realized that any creature even remotely resembling Belqassim would please her as much as Belqassim himself." If she needs someone to make decisions for her, why not Tunner? Or has she become masochistic, wanting only painful decisions inflicted on her?

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 8/11/2002, 22:07:07 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Lale offers, as proof of Kit's obsession with Belqassim:

 

>She waited for him to come every night and then when he was away, she considered recruiting one of the other young Arabs in his family.

 

If she was so obsessed with *Belqassim*, why would one of the other young Arabs in his family have sufficed in his absence? And looking forward to *any* kind of attention is not obsession.

 

>Her happiness was ruined when she was discovered by the other wives.

 

That didn't require obsession with Belqassim. It disturbed her current arrangement. Now she was going to have to *do* something.

 

>Her sole purpose of existence became Belqassim.

 

She never had any purpose of existence. Belqassim was just the current gust of wind she was being carried on.

 

You keep trying to interpret Kit's "actions" in terms that make sense to *you*, in ways that *you* might act. That's the whole point of the book. You can't. You can't imagine Kit's utter indifference to anything but being free of responsibility for any aspect of her life, so you interpret it as "obsession", because you understand obsession.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by Rizwan on 8/11/2002, 22:31:57 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Hanh,

 

Finally you show up for class! ;-) I originally decided to grant you a passing mark for your well-thought out contribution, but in the end I have decided to fail you for comparing "The Sheltering Sky" unfavorably to "The Sun Also Rises!" More on that later.

 

In reference to your comment that you "cannot extract from the book the "over-civilized sensibility" in the characters," I will say that this characterization probably has more to do with the snobbishness of Gore Vidal than with the characters themselves. Nevertheless, I can see the point he was trying to draw out.

 

The Americans, Port especially, are evidently hyper-educated individuals, with little to do, it seems, but ponder their own existence. Bowles doesn't explicitly say this, but you can deduce it pretty easily, I think, from what he does provide. Port, for example, "had only to see a map to begin studying it passionately, and then, often as not, he would begin to plan some new, impossible trip which sometimes eventually became a reality." (Book 1, Ch.2). Furthermore, Port has enough time on his hands--and enough philosophy in him--to define travelers and tourists, draw the distinction between them, and then place himself firmly in the camp of one over the other. Finally, Port is a well traveled individual, including, even, earlier visits to North Africa "made during his student days in Paris and Madrid" (Book 1, Ch. 2).

 

Even Tunner and Kit play into this. In the episode where the three Americans are sitting in the café, listening to an aria (of course! What else does one listen to in the middle of the North African desert!), Kit complains over the fact that what they are drinking is not "real Pernod" (Which Tunner pursues further with the waiter: "Ce n'est pas du vrai Pernod?" Book 1, Ch. 2). Not exactly wanting to "rough it" or adapt, are they?

 

I think Vidal's use of the term is also an acknowledgement of how those "over-civilized" characters view themselves, at least in relation to the supposedly "uncivilized natives" they are going to visit (and even to study, in a sense, for how else would the "traveler" in Port know what of Arab civilization to discard, and what to adopt as his own?). In this regard, the Americans, Port especially, strike me more as academic anthropologists in their approach, than mere visitors.

 

Maybe "bookish egocentricity" or some other related term might have been a more appropriate term than "over-civilized sensibility." But then, I think maybe Vidal relates to Port in some way (like Bowles and Port, the American Vidal has for decades found refuge outside the US), so using such a term would be an indictment of himself!

 

Both Anna and Len have commented on your belief that the characters are not fully dimensioned, and I agree with them, so I won't belabor that point. However, as to your specific question as to why Kit left Port to die, arguing that this act is not consistent with her nature in part because Bowles hasn't given us all the pieces to know what her nature is, I would say that Kit's "nature" at that point is simply human nature. It is human nature to seek immediate relief from pain and suffering, and staying with Port as he dies---and as a major part of her dies along with him---would simply prolong the suffering. The death of Port marked the death of her as she had come to know herself, and she couldn't bear to face that. So she saw an opportunity not only not to face that, but to create a new beginning for herself in the process, and she took it. The following excerpt helps to illustrate this last point:

 

As she is standing in the garden soon after the death of Port, Bowles writes that Kit , now free of having to live for and through her husband, "had the impression that for the first time since her childhood she was seeing objects clearly. Life was suddenly there, she was in it, not looking through the window at it. The dignity that came from feeling a part of its power and grandeur..."(Book 2, Ch.24).

 

To me, it is evident that Kit has lived her whole life defining her existence based on other people, most recently, and perhaps most profoundly, based on Port. The "window" she has been looking through as she lived her life, it can be argued, was Port's own eyes. He helped shape the way she saw the world. His desires became hers too, at least overtly (how else did she end up traipsing through North Africa?) She left Port because she finally had the opportunity to "see" without looking through someone else's window, to finally feel "the dignity" that comes with living your own life, on your own terms. This isn't a justification for leaving, merely a possible, and I think probable, explanation.

 

On another note, Hanh, I will have to strongly disagree with you when you talk about The Sun Also Rises. You wrote: "Again here I am biased by The Sun Also Rises (to which for some reason this book constantly brings me to compare. I find that Hemingway's style is much more stark and beautiful than Bowles', and more descriptive in the things obliquely said between the lines."

 

I can see why you compared this book to TSAR, for I did the same thing, especially in relation to both books depicting a sort of "lost generation" after a world war. And I don't deny that Hemingway's style is stark as well, although I don't believe it is nearly so beautiful as Bowles'. But where I really disagree with you, and prefer Bowles over Hemingway, is in this sense: with Hemingway, you are always noticing his distinctive style, such that, in my opinion, it often distracts from the story itself. With Bowles, on the other hand, his style is very much the landscape upon which the story is built, though you don't really recognize this until you deliberately pay attention to it. At the very least, this style is woven extremely well into the fabric of the story, such that you never notice how much it really is a propelling force for the narrative itself.

 

To me, Hemingway's style is just another, maybe even replaceable (blasphemy, I know), part of TSAR; Bowles' style, on the other hand, is absolutely essential to the effect he trying to create: The Sheltering Sky would not be nearly the book it is without this distinctive style. Its starkness goes hand in hand with the barrenness of the desert, and also with the "emptiness" of the characters that Len and Anna have both commented on.

 

Regarding question #5, you wrote that "this book is more "nihilist" than "existentialist". I think in existentialist writing, there is a sense that although life/living is not the aim, while you do live, you live life the best way you can, against whatever odds. You are what you make of yourself, and there is a certain stoic dignity in the suffering in the face of absurdities, as in L'Etranger."

 

I won't really argue with you on this point. I myself have a problem with reducing Art to arbitrary categorization like this anyway. That said, I do think that in many ways, Kit exhibits the same sort of "stoic dignity in the face of absurdities" that Merseault does in "L'Etranger," something that Len touched on somewhat in his "diagnosis of her passivity." Kit just happens to lose her mind in the process. ;-)

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 8/11/2002, 23:52:12 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: Finally you show up for class! ;-) I originally

: decided to grant you a passing mark for your

: well-thought out contribution, but in the end I have

: decided to fail you for comparing "The Sheltering

: Sky" unfavorably to "The Sun Also Rises!" More on

: that later.

 

Ik! No! I must humbly appeal (further down). :)

 

: hyper-educated individuals, with little to do, it

: seems, but ponder their own existence. Bowles

 

Although they may be intelligent people, there is not enough indication that they are hyper-educated. Port's interest in travel and maps does not lend direct evidence to a hyper level of education, although it would appear true that he is literary and somewhat philosophical in nature (there is reference to his being a writer or journalist). We don't know how educated Kit and Tunner are.

 

: are drinking is not "real Pernod" (Which Tunner

: pursues further with the waiter: "Ce n'est pas du

: vrai Pernod?" Book 1, Ch. 2). Not exactly wanting to

: "rough it" or adapt, are they?

 

But the "Pernod" could be SO bad that it could be obvious it's not Pernod, in which case, it may be just a statement on a bad drink. In which case, it's just a statement on the shabbiness of things in Africa.

 

: own?). In this regard, the Americans, Port

: especially, strike me more as academic

: anthropologists in their approach, than mere

: visitors.

 

But doesn't the view that Port is an academic anthropologist clash with the idea that is his life/spirit is "empty", and he is wandering the world looking for a place to feel at home? Or is he not seeking anything personal and is only traveling for the sheer joy of travel?

 

Academic anthropology implies a certain level of objectivity, but Port seems to want to immerse himself to much (although what he tries to immerse in ultimately rejects him). Is he studying the culture (objective study)? or is he trying to fit into it in native-mode because he rejects his own (flight).

 

: of Port, Bowles writes that Kit , now free of having

: to live for and through her husband, "had the

: impression that for the first time since her

: childhood she was seeing objects clearly. Life was

: suddenly there, she was in it, not looking through

: the window at it. The dignity that came from

: feeling a part of its power and grandeur..."(Book 2,

: Ch.24).

 

However, what she did immediately after that completely negates this new-found sense of freedom and dignity that she is noted to feel. It would have made more sense to "rise from the ashes" in a different way. How does degrading herself sexually liberate her and bring her this sense of dignity? if she is seeing objects clearly, why did her life spiral completely out of control and she became almost a zombie afterwards, even more so than when her life was "shackled" under Port's shadow.

 

: She left Port because she finally had the

: opportunity to "see" without looking

: through someone else's window, to finally feel "the

: dignity" that comes with living your own life, on

: your own terms. This isn't a justification for

: leaving, merely a possible, and I think probable,

: explanation.

 

I still don't see how section 3 of the book support this dignity that comes with living her own life on her own terms? She became much worse off after leaving Port. Len shouldn't interpret the characters based on our own view and experiences. I agree with that, and I don't think I am demanding that it fits my mold of what should happen. However, I do think that there must be supporting evidence that is consistent to the story and the characters. For example, if the person says she now sees the light, but doesn't act like consistent with that message, what's to explain that arbitrariness?

 

: On another note, Hanh, I will have to strongly disagree

: with you when you talk about The Sun Also Rises.

: You wrote: "Again here I am biased by The Sun Also

: Rises (to which for some reason this book constantly

: brings me to compare. I find that Hemingway's style

: is much more stark and beautiful than Bowles', and

: more descriptive in the things obliquely said

: between the lines."

 

: Hemingway's style is stark as well, although I don't

: believe it is nearly so beautiful as Bowles'.

 

This one is another case of I say po-tay-to you say po-tah-to, a matter of taste. In which case, I must appeal my failing grade simply for referencing The Sun Also Rises. :)

 

: where I really disagree with you, and prefer Bowles

: over Hemingway, is in this sense: with Hemingway,

: you are always noticing his distinctive style, such

: that, in my opinion, it often distracts from the

: story itself. With Bowles, on the other hand, his

: style is very much the landscape upon which the

: story is built, though you don't really recognize

: this until you deliberately pay attention to it. At

 

As is already made clear, I prefer Hemingway over Bowles. :) I think Hemingway's style carries the theme rather than distract from it. The story in The Sun Also Rises actually is vacuous without the dialogs weaving the theme and exposing the characters into it. The story/plot is basically a bunch of people partying around Europe. To weave that into a theme of yearning and loneliness and making do with life does not distract from the story but rather breathe life into it.

 

If the style of Hemingway is taken out of The Sun Also Rises, it would be near impossible to expound the theme. However, I think that (and here I'm not only risking a failing grade, but ALSO getting kicked out of class!! As I mentioned before, at least some extra credit for courage of conviction, twisted though it may be) The Shelting Sky could be written with a different style and retain its story elements. (Warning, the following is a pathetic attempt to retrieve myself from a failing grade). Jose Saramago would have done this story better justice.

 

Having said all my gripe and being the voice that stirred up this hornet's nest, I must say that I'm actually warming up to the book more now after discuss it with you wonderful people than when I read it by myself tucked in my little corner. :)

 

 @

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 9/11/2002, 0:46:24 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: You keep trying to interpret Kit's "actions"

: in terms that make sense to *you*, in ways that

: *you* might act. That's the whole point of the

: book. You can't. You can't imagine Kit's utter

: indifference to anything but being free of

: responsibility for any aspect of her life, so you

: interpret it as "obsession", because you

: understand obsession.

: len.

:

There you hit the nail right on the head, Len. Kit is not obsessed with Belqassim, she is not obsessed with sex, all she wants is to relinquish responsibility for her life. The more forcefully anyone takes over, the safer she feels. Maybe this IS a form of madness.

Anna

(Just back from a night on the town, a couple of Belgian beers and a deep conversation with the mayor of Rotterdam - don't ask)

 

 @

 

Posted by Rizwan on 9/11/2002, 0:51:00 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Hanh,

 

Ok, we'll put you on academic probation and see what happens. Your Saramago reference saved you...this time. But be careful, my friend! This business of Hemingway over Bowles...I just don't know!

 

: Port's interest in travel and maps does not lend

: direct evidence to a hyper level of education,

: although it would appear true that he is literary

: and somewhat philosophical in nature (there is

: reference to his being a writer or journalist).

 

I agree with you. His interest in maps alone does nothing to prove his education. But that, combined with his education in Paris and Madrid, his philosophical nature, his rejection of Europe and America, distinguishing between tourists and travelers, his knowledge of French, despite being American (Americans generally have little regard for foreign languages. As one US Congressman once said: "if English is good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me!"), listening to arias in the desert, complaining about the Pernod...all these things together give evidence to the level of their education and "over-civilized sensibilities."

 

: : own?). In this regard, the Americans, Port

: especially, strike me more as academic

: anthropologists in their approach, than mere

: visitors.

 

I said this more tongue-in-cheek than anything else. In using that analogy, I was commenting more on his underlying attitude of condescension toward the "natives," than on any supposed objective approach he may have had towards travel or study. I guess I let my own bias against the approaches of certain anthropologists get in the way of my argument.

 

: Kit , now free of having

: to live for and through her husband, "had the

: impression that for the first time since her

: childhood she was seeing objects clearly. Life was

: suddenly there, she was in it, not looking through

: the window at it. The dignity that came from

: feeling a part of its power and grandeur..."(Book 2,

: Ch.24).

: However, what she did immediately after that completely

: negates this new-found sense of freedom and dignity

: that she is noted to feel.

 

I agree with you. However, I was commenting here specifically on why she left Port at that moment. I don't think she knew, or was conscious of the fact then, that this "new-found sense of freedom" would lead her into the deepest abyss of her life.

 

: I still don't see how section 3 of the book support

: this dignity that comes with living her own life on

: her own terms? She became much worse off after

: leaving Port.

 

Again, she didn't know what lay in store for her when she decided to leave Port. All she sought was freedom from the moment, and everything else that was reflected in that moment (reliance on Port, giving herself totally to Port with so little in return, etc).

 

Len shouldn't interpret the

: characters based on our own view and experiences. I

: agree with that, and I don't think I am demanding

: that it fits my mold of what should happen.

: However, I do think that there must be supporting

: evidence that is consistent to the story and the

: characters. For example, if the person says she now

: sees the light, but doesn't act like consistent with

: that message, what's to explain that arbitrariness?

 

Maybe she realized that the freedom she felt on leaving Port was an illusion, and that, having defined her existence for so long based on what he saw and wanted and felt, she was incapable of fending for herself properly afterwards.

 

: As is already made clear, I prefer Hemingway over

: Bowles. :) I think Hemingway's style carries the

: theme rather than distract from it. The story in

: The Sun Also Rises actually is vacuous without the

: dialogs weaving the theme and exposing the

: characters into it. The story/plot is basically a

: bunch of people partying around Europe. To weave

: that into a theme of yearning and loneliness and

: making do with life does not distract from the story

: but rather breathe life into it.

 

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that TSAR is not a good book, or Hemingway a good writer (especially with his short stories, though overrated as a novelist). I'm simply saying that he suffers in comparison to Bowles, maybe even in his short stories, where both are at their best.

 

: If the style of Hemingway is taken out of The Sun Also

: Rises, it would be near impossible to expound the

: theme.

 

I admit, I may have gone overboard in making the comment that TSAR could still be what it is without Hemingway.

 

: However, I think that (and here I'm not only

: risking a failing grade, but ALSO getting kicked out

: of class!! As I mentioned before, at least some

: extra credit for courage of conviction, twisted

: though it may be) The Shelting Sky could be written

: with a different style and retain its story

: elements.

 

The elements might still be there, but it would then become a matter of the parts being better than the whole. It is Bowles' style, I would argue, that ties everything together and makes it all work.

 

: (Warning, the following is a pathetic

: attempt to retrieve myself from a failing grade).

: Jose Saramago would have done this story better

: justice.

 

Ok, good try. "A" for effort.

 

: Having said all my gripe and being the voice that

: stirred up this hornet's nest, I must say that I'm

: actually warming up to the book more now after

: discuss it with you wonderful people than when I

: read it by myself tucked in my little corner. :)

 

I agree with you there!

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 9/11/2002, 2:54:04 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: Ok, we'll put you on academic probation and see what

 

Phew! SUCKED back from the edge of the abyss!

 

: Hemingway over Bowles...I just don't know!

 

Yeah, we Amuricans, we stick up for our writers.

 

: foreign languages. As one US Congressman once said:

: "if English is good enough for Jesus, it's good

: enough for me!")

 

I love this quote! So true.

 

: don't think she knew, or was conscious of the fact

: then, that this "new-found sense of

: freedom" would lead her into the deepest abyss

: of her life.

 

I guess when I think about it, this is the most inconsistent part of the book to me, what happened to Kit and what she did/thought after Port's death.

 

What do you think Bowles meant to say there? I mean, is there a point to creating a story line where she becomes conscious of this new freedom that she does not have to be dependent and has to take care of herself, and then having it (the freedom) go nowhere? Why have her be conscious of this freedom at all then? why not just skip straight through to wandering the desert from the despair of Port's death? But there is that tantalizing thought of a Phoenix rising, then SPLAT!

 

Which emotion is stronger: despair over Port's death? or the new sense of freedom and choice?

 

If despair is stronger, then I can understand the aimless wandering into the desert, but then what is the significance of her consciousness of the new freedom she finds from being no longer dependent? How does that tie in? If it doesn't tie in or has no real significance, why is it there as if it SHOULD have significance?

 

If the feeling of freedom is stronger, why not take a bus back to where Tunner waits for her to exercise this new freedom? Why go into the desert -- a place where she hates?

 

My point is that unless the character is insane, her behavior and thought must be consistent with what is already known of her and her journey. There must be a thread. May be I'm too Spock-like, but I never liked the Deux Ex Machina approach where no explanation is required for something inconsistent to occur, against what's known so far in the story.

 

: The elements might still be there, but it would then

: become a matter of the parts being better than the

 

The parts that are there are good, definitely. But I have a sneaking feeling that more parts are needed! I don't feel that the whole is there. After the last page I should sigh a "wow", but instead I think "huh?"

 

 @

 

Posted by Dave on 9/11/2002, 6:14:23 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

 

Hanh, I wondered the same thing about Kit. As you put it:

"Why would not Kit turn then to Tunner to make decisions for her, or to one of her own people (the official at the garrison where Port died)? Why focus on Belqassim?"

What I found difficult to comprehend was why she would not have made some attempt to re-establish contact with Tunner (whom she obviously knew could not be too far behind).... why launch yourself into the unforgiving dessert? (unless to resign yourself to further separation from the familiar and to embrace death).

"If she needs someone to make decisions for her, why not Tunner?"

 

Exactly!

I'm still trying to figure it.

 

 @

 

Posted by Lale on 9/11/2002, 10:49:31 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: Kit is

: not obsessed with Belqassim, she is not obsessed

: with sex, all she wants is to relinquish

: responsibility for her life.

 

Oh, she comes across just a tad obsessed with sex:

 

"And among these men surely there were some as wonderful as Belqassim, who would be quite as capable and as desirous of giving her delight. The thought that one of his brothers might be lying only a few feet from her behind the wall at the head of her bed, filled her with a tremulous anguish."

 

When she finally removes herself from that setting, she finds Amar and sleeps with him.

 

Lale

 

 @

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 9/11/2002, 11:19:19 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

But this is just part of her much larger and much more overwhelming desire to lose herself to somebody else - not an object in itself. What better way to lose herself than in passive, physical rapture? It saves her from having to think about herself or her life. It is a way of obliterating the despair and the void inside her, just as going along with Port was - although it seems that giving herself up completely to sex is much more efective than crisscrossing the desert with Port, or Tunner for that matter.

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 9/11/2002, 17:40:25 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: But this is just part of her much larger and much more

: overwhelming desire to lose herself to somebody else

: - not an object in itself. What better way to lose

: herself than in passive, physical rapture? It saves

: her from having to think about herself or her life.

: It is a way of obliterating the despair and the void

: inside her, just as going along with Port was -

: although it seems that giving herself up completely

: to sex is much more efective than crisscrossing the

: desert with Port, or Tunner for that matter.

 

But why was not her first impulse to return home? or to Tunner (he was right there at the garrison with her). Why go into the desert, where sex is not necessarily the first thing one CAN find. Couldn't she have sex with Tunner? He had clearly expressed interest and was actively seeking to find her.

 

Was she suicidal (evidence against that further below in excerpt)?

 

If she accepted (almost embraced) the humiliation under Belqassim so openly purely out of despair, when she decides to leave Belqassim, that means her despair is over? that she no longer needs to lose herself to somebody else? Was she only temporarily insane and suddenly snapped out of it and decides to go home?

 

Even in despair, her actions negate many things we know about her: she disliked the desert, she had a sense of guilt she contended with (where is it now), she had a sense of omens (no longer noted), she was not overly sexual eventhough (before Belqassim), she did not care to mix with the natives. And most conflicting of all, just before she walked out into the desert, she left Daoud Zozeph's house in the middle of night to a pool garden and had an "epiphany" that does not support this feeling of overwhelming and consuming despair that would drive her to self-destruction.

 

"she had the impression that for the first time since her childhood she was seeing objects clearly. Life was suddenly there, she was in it, not looking through the window at it. The dignity that came from feeling a part of its power and grandeur, that was a familiar sensation, but it was years ago that she had last known it."

 

Then she stepped into the pool (a symbolism of baptism?)

 

"As she immersed herself completely, the thought came to her: "I shall never be hysterical again." That kind of tension, that degree of caring about herself, she felt she would never attain them any more in her life."

 

"She finished her bath in silence, her excess of high spirits gone; but life did not recede from her. "It's here to stay," she murmured aloud, as she walked toward the bank.

 

But then she walks into the desert. That doesn't seem to be consistent, even if we attribute a high degree of complexity to her character.

 

 @

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 9/11/2002, 20:04:56 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: But why was not her first impulse to return home? or to

: Tunner (he was right there at the garrison with

: her). Why go into the desert, where sex is not

: necessarily the first thing one CAN find. Couldn't

: she have sex with Tunner? He had clearly expressed

: interest and was actively seeking to find her.

: Was she suicidal (evidence against that further below

: in excerpt)?

 

Hanh, you appear to think that Kit knows what she is doing, that she has a goal in turning to the desert ("must get me a sexy arab"). As I have been trying to explain before, but not apparently very clearly, she is NOT after sex. She just takes it as it comes, because it fills the void for a while, that's all. She is not really after anything. Like Port she has never had an aim in her life; that's exactly this couple's problem.

 

After her husband's death Kit acts mainly on sudden impulses, she is not driven by some well-defined goal. She has not got the faintest idea what it that she wants, what it is that she needs. Being even more rudderless that before she now just jumps into all kinds of direction to try if any of them might work for her.

 

: If she accepted (almost embraced) the humiliation under

: Belqassim so openly purely out of despair, when she

: decides to leave Belqassim, that means her despair

: is over? that she no longer needs to lose herself to

: somebody else? Was she only temporarily insane and

: suddenly snapped out of it and decides to go home?

 

Of course not. Her situation had simply become impossible because Belqassim's wives had found out about her. If things had not come to a head like that she would not have left. Why should she? She was doing fine ;-)

 

: Even in despair, her actions negate many things we know

: about her: she disliked the desert, she had a sense

: of guilt she contended with (where is it now), she

: had a sense of omens (no longer noted), she was not

: overly sexual eventhough (before Belqassim), she did

: not care to mix with the natives. And most

: conflicting of all, just before she walked out into

: the desert, she left Daoud Zozeph's house in the

: middle of night to a pool garden and had an

: "epiphany" that does not support this

: feeling of overwhelming and consuming despair that

: would drive her to self-destruction.

: "she had the impression that for the first time

: since her childhood she was seeing objects clearly.

: Life was suddenly there, she was in it, not looking

: through the window at it. The dignity that came

: from feeling a part of its power and grandeur, that

: was a familiar sensation, but it was years ago that

: she had last known it."

: Then she stepped into the pool (a symbolism of

: baptism?)

: "As she immersed herself completely, the thought

: came to her: "I shall never be hysterical

: again." That kind of tension, that degree of

: caring about herself, she felt she would never

: attain them any more in her life."

: "She finished her bath in silence, her excess of

: high spirits gone; but life did not recede from her.

: "It's here to stay," she murmured aloud,

: as she walked toward the bank.

: But then she walks into the desert. That doesn't seem

: to be consistent, even if we attribute a high degree

: of complexity to her character.

 

But does not this makes her all the more poignant and tragic? She really tries to act like a rational being, only she does not know how, does not have a clue. Her behaviour is a lot like that of a junkie who is aware that the dope is probably going to kill her, that she should kick the habit, and who therefore desperately WANTS to kick the habit, but simply does not possess the strength to do so. Kit's flashes of consciousness and conscience make me feel all the more sorry for her.

 

 @

 

Posted by Lale on 10/11/2002, 12:38:10 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: "As she immersed herself completely, the thought

: came to her: "I shall never be hysterical

: again." That kind of tension, that degree of

: caring about herself, she felt she would never

: attain them any more in her life."

: "She finished her bath in silence, her excess of

: high spirits gone; but life did not recede from her.

: "It's here to stay," she murmured aloud,

 

Hanh, thank you for reminding me that passage. I had made a mental note of it while reading it but since it has been a month since I finished the book, I forgot to bring it up in these discussions. Yes, the worst has happened, so she doesn't feel doomed anymore. That's why her actions from this point onwards are more of her choice than anything else before.

 

The other thing that is very remarkable about Kit is how meticulously she plans her escapes. She turns into agent 007 once she puts it in her mind to get away.

 

Port is lying dead in the little military hospital room, she locks the door, empties all the suitcases and chooses a few most necessary things. Gathers up all the cash. Packs a little bag and then sends it to town to Daoud Zozeph with an errand boy. In their home, she even thinks of asking for some bread "in case she gets hungry in during the night".

 

Then think of her escape from Belqassim's house. Again, very cunning, very crafty.

 

Remember, at the beginning of the book, when one night Port doesn't come back (prostitute, bandits etc.), Kit goes to his room and disturbs his bed so that Tunner would not understand that Port had spent the entire night out. She can be very quick thinking and shrewd, that Kit.

 

If she abandons herself to Belqassim as his sex slave, locked up in a room with no walking space, no view, no nothing, she does so willingly.

 

Lale

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 10/11/2002, 18:55:10 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

:As I have been trying to explain before, but not apparently very clearly, she is

:NOT after sex. She just takes it as it comes, because it fills the void for a while,

:that's all. She is not really after anything. Like Port she has never had an aim in

:her life; that's exactly this couple's problem.

 

There are passages that indicate that her character changed after Port's death, toward a growth of personal independence, away from an all consuming despair that renders her mad.

 

I guess I have difficulty reconciling the passages indicating that she had an "awakening", with her walking into the desert. She no longer feels the Western (human) sense of shame and degradation in the face of sexual violation. Why/How did that come about? What is known about her so far that would support this change in her? Other than the maddening despair, which was negated earlier on by her sense of freedom experienced in the pool garden.

 

:Of course not. Her situation had simply become impossible because Belqassim's

:wives had found out about her. If things had not come to a head like that she

:would not have left. Why should she? She was doing fine ;-)

 

After she was beaten up, she still wanted to stay with Belqassim.

 

"Always she remained inside the windowless room, and ususally in the bed itsefl, lying among the disordered piles of white pillows, her mind empty of everything save the memory of anticipation of Belqassim's presence. When he climbed the steps of the bed, parted the curtains, entered and reclined beside her to begin the slow ritual of removing her garments, the hours she had spent doing nothing took on their full meaning. And when he went away the delicious state of exhaustion and fulfilment persisted for a long time afterward; she lay half awake, bathing in an aura of mindless contentment, a state which she quickly grew to take for granted, and then, like a drug, to find indispensable."

 

I think she left him not because of the threat from his wives, but because

 

"she realized that any creature even remotely resembling Belqassim would please her quite as much as Belqassim himself. For the first time, it occured to her that beyond the walls of the room, somewhere nearby, in the streets if not in the very house, there were plenty of such creatures. And among these men surely there were some as wonderful as Belqassim, who would be quite as capable and as desirous of giving her delight."

 

One paragraph later, she thought "I must get out".

 

However, I still have problem finding any thread in the novel to reconcile the inconsistency in Kit's abrupt change of viewpoint, from the person she was to the person she became (nymphomaniac?).

 

Or perhaps, as some people escape pain through food, she escapes through sex? Hmmm .... But then, at the end, when she leaves Belqassim, is she STILL sexually dependent?

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 10/11/2002, 18:58:14 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Lale, a beautiful summary with excellent supporting texts.

 

On one hand, Kit is portrayed as becoming purposeful, in possession of herself mentally. On the other, her following actions completely negates that, and indicate despair bordering on insanity. Although her actions may be a circumstance of fate, how she feels about what is happening to her is her own.

 

On one hand, she does not want pain (as in seen after she was beaten up by the wives) so that indicates she's not masochistic.

 

"Sitting quietly seemed to be the best way to avoid more pain. If there was to be pain in any case, the only way of living was to find the means of keeping it away as long as possible."

 

On the other hand, she willingly submits herself to repeated sexual violations. By willingly, I don't mean that she had a choice physically, however mentally she far from believe it is unpleasant, and looks forward to it (with Belqassim).

 

I have difficulty reconciling this in Kit, and this so boggles me that it detracts from the rest of the book for me. Port becomes nebulous as the gravity of the whole novel seems to be sucked into Kit's story (ending), leaving the first 4/5 of the book somewhat unbalanced. Tunner most of all, is completely on the side-line and I'm not sure contributes much to story. Kit may as well have had an affair with an anonymous person in New York and the story would not lose much by way of development.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 11/11/2002, 16:37:00 , in reply to "The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Dave and Hahn are puzzled why Kit didn't just turn to Tunner at the end of the story.

 

I find this inconceivable, for all the reasons I have already spelled out or implied.

 

First, there's Kit's opinion of Tunner, articulated quite early in the story:

 

"Tunner annoyed her because although his presence and his interest in her provided a classical situation which, if exploited, actually might give results where nothing else could, she was for some reason incapable of playing up to him. He bored her; she involuntarily compared him to Port, and always to Port's advantage. As she had been lying thinking in the night she had tried again and again to direct her fantasies in such a way as to make Tunner an object of excitement. Naturally this had been a failure. Nevertheless she had resolved to attempt the building of a more intimate relationship with him, despite the fact that even as she had made the decision she was quite aware that not only would it be a thoroughly unsavory chore for her, but also that she would be doing it, as she always did everything that required a conscious effort, for Port."

 

And, I think Kit may have sensed the "emptiness" of Tunner's "feelings" for her, also articulated early in the story:

 

"Surely he was not in love with the girl. His overtures to her had been made out of pity (because she was a woman) and out of vanity (because he was a man), and the two feelings together had awakened the acquisitive desire of the trophy collector, nothing more."

 

I don't think Tunner's feelings for Kit changed with Port's death. Perhaps he might have embellished them with some illusions about nobly coming to her aid after her husband's death. But the simple fact is that Tunner is what is classically referred to as a "cad".

 

Secondly, and more importantly, turning to Tunner would have meant returning to something she had already rejected. Recall that the essential theme of this story is flight from responsibility, a futile search for a home where nothing is expected of one and one's life can be lived as a leaf on the wind. This utter vacuity was what bound Port and Kit to one another; they were perfect soulmates in this respect. Tunner, on the other hand is just a cad. If I recall correctly, there's a passage in the book where Kit berates Tunner for "trying to be interesting". If it isn't from the book and I'm remembering it from the movie, then it should have been in the book, because it perfectly captures the difference between Port and Kit on one hand, and Tunner on the other. Port and Kit could not care less about being "interesting"; they don't seem to care what anyone thinks about them at all, and they have no interest in other people either. Recall Port's boredom with Eric's attempted story-telling (recollections of past adventures, again something Port seems to see no point in) in the car (while Kit and Tunner are on the train).

 

Tunner has become part of the "tried and found wanting" existence that Kit flees when she can muster the energy to actually do something. And that flight is *never* toward something, it's always away from anything where she might have to actually play an active, responsible part.

 

It occurred to me this weekend that this is why Bowles chose the title he did. Port says he's afraid of what's on the other side of the sky, and that the sky protects him from that malevolent void. But that void is a reflection of Port's inner vacuity, which like the "other side of the sky", is ever present. Hence his never ending flight.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 11/11/2002, 16:43:58 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Hanh writes:

 

>There are passages that indicate that her character changed after Port's death, toward a growth of personal independence, away from an all consuming despair that renders her mad.

 

No, absolutely not. She hasn't changed at all, if anything she's become more what she is at her core. Nothing. Her passive flight into the desert is her attempt to avoid whatever reponsibility she might be forced to accept, for dealing with Port's death, returning to "civilization", etc.. She only acts as much as she has to to defer making any decisions, and especially to avoid taking responsibility for her life. There is no growth, no change, just more of the same.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 11/11/2002, 16:51:34 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Lale writes:

 

>If she abandons herself to Belqassim as his sex slave, locked up in a room with no walking space, no view, no nothing, she does so willingly.

 

No, she let it happen. That's different from doing so willingly. She lets it happen because it's well defined and doesn't require her to do anything.

 

And then when she is discovered by the wives, her situation is going to change. She will no longer be locked up in her little room, with a nicely structured existence that consists solely of waiting for and submitting to Belqassim. So what does she do -- what she always does when things change: she flees. That she does so cleverly says nothing about her motives. If anything, it makes her emptiness that much more tragic -- here's this resourceful woman who has let her life become meaningless, who uses that resourcefulness solely to flee responsibility and individuation.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 11/11/2002, 17:01:52 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Hanh writes:

 

>On one hand, Kit is portrayed as becoming purposeful, in possession of herself mentally.

 

I just don't see this at all. There is no purpose to her "actions", other than the minimum she has to do to avoid taking responsibility for anything.

 

>On the other, her following actions completely negates that, and indicate despair bordering on insanity.

 

No, her "actions" perfectly support the hypothesis that her entire being is about fleeing personal responsibility. There's no contradiction or negation. There's no despair. There's just avoidance.

 

>"Sitting quietly seemed to be the best way to avoid more pain. If there was to be pain in any case, the only way of living was to find the means of keeping it away as long as possible."

 

Bingo!

 

>I have difficulty reconciling this in Kit, and this so boggles me that it detracts from the rest of the book for me.

 

Because you have the wrong model of Kit's psychology. You insist on having her think the way you would think. Instead of getting into the minds of the characters (admittedly, a disturbing experience), you try to make the characters take on your values and logic.

 

>Port becomes nebulous as the gravity of the whole novel seems to be sucked into Kit's story (ending), leaving the first 4/5 of the book somewhat unbalanced.

 

Not at all. Port's death makes it possible for us to now see how perfectly matched Kit and Port were for one another.

 

>Tunner most of all, is completely on the side-line and I'm not sure contributes much to story.

 

He's not supposed to. He's just a foil. Like Eric and his mother. They're all just part of the scenery. This is not Bowles' failing as a writer, it's his deliberate depiction of Port's and Kit's utter indifference to the world around them.

 

>Kit may as well have had an affair with an anonymous person in New York and the story would not lose much by way of development.

 

Indeed, except that Port and Kit fled New York because they could not live there the kind of aimless existence they could in Africa.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 11/11/2002, 17:09:15 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Rizwan cites the following passage as evidence of Kit attaining some degree of independence and self awareness:

 

>As she is standing in the garden soon after the death of Port, Bowles writes that Kit , now free of having to live for and through her husband, "had the impression that for the first time since her childhood she was seeing objects clearly. Life was suddenly there, she was in it, not looking through the window at it. The dignity that came from feeling a part of its power and grandeur..."

 

This is a perfect example of the self serving delusions that Port and Kit had about themselves. In truth, this was not a beginning, it was Kit's justification to herself for more of the same.

 

>She left Port because she finally had the opportunity to "see" without looking through someone else's window, to finally feel "the dignity" that comes with living your own life, on your own terms.

 

Which life consisted of letting herself be taken over by Belqassim.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 11/11/2002, 17:13:41 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Hanh writes of Port:

 

>Or is he not seeking anything personal and is only traveling for the sheer joy of travel?

 

Port and Kit are two of the most joyless people I have ever encountered. I have traveled a great deal and I think I know what it feels like to experience the joy of discovery and experience of the new and unfamiliar. I found none of this joy anywhere in this story.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 11/11/2002, 17:19:41 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Hanh writes:

 

>Academic anthropology implies a certain level of objectivity, but Port seems to want to immerse himself to much (although what he tries to immerse in ultimately rejects him).

 

Port doesn't immerse himself in anything. And he rejects everything; nothing rejects him. Granted, he is not exactly embraced by the cultures he so arrogantly disses.

 

>Is he studying the culture (objective study)? or is he trying to fit into it in native-mode because he rejects his own (flight).

 

He is not fleeing his own culture; he is fleeing his own emptiness, an impossible task. From this perspective, everything in the story makes sense, fits together. There are no contradictions, nothing important is missing, nothing irrelevant is present.

 

But, I have to wonder, did we read the same story?

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 11/11/2002, 17:23:17 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Hanh asks:

 

>For example, if the person says she now sees the light, but doesn't act like consistent with that message, what's to explain that arbitrariness?

 

Self-delusion. Port and Kit sustain themselves with an elaborate web of self delusions. Of course, their apparently limitless financial resources also help.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 11/11/2002, 17:26:18 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Hanh writes:

 

>My point is that unless the character is insane, her behavior and thought must be consistent with what is already known of her and her journey. There must be a thread. May be I'm too Spock-like, but I never liked the Deux Ex Machina approach where no explanation is required for something inconsistent to occur, against what's known so far in the story.

 

You just have to find the right thread.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 11/11/2002, 18:51:25 , in reply to "The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

The keys to The Sheltering Sky lie in plain view:

 

"Because neither she nor Port had ever lived a life of any kind of regularity, they both had made the fatal error of coming hazily to regard time as nonexistent. One year was like another year. Eventually everything would happen."

 

"What rot!" he snapped. "You're never humanity, you're only your own poor hopelessly isolated self."

 

"We've never managed, either one of us, to get all the way into life. We're hanging on to the outside for all we're worth, convinced we're going to fall off at the next bump."

 

"And it occurred to him that a walk through the countryside was a sort of epitome of the passage through life itself. One never took the time to savor the details; one said: another day, but always with the hidden knowledge that each day was unique and final, that there never would be a return, another time."

 

"And even if what he might have written had been good, how many people would have known it? It was all right to speed ahead into the desert leaving no trace."

 

"The mistake you make is in being afraid. That is the great mistake. The signs are given us for our good, not for our harm. But when you are afraid you read them wrong and make bad things where good ones were meant to be."

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 11/11/2002, 19:28:42 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

:But, I have to wonder, did we read the same story?

 

I wonder that too! :) I'm glad you see much more in the story than I do. Perhaps I'm not as intuitive a reader. Unfortunately, I still can't find the point of reconciliation. I don't think I'm demanding that the characters act the way I want, but I do expect that the story supports the development and actions of its characters, and in that I see certain inconsistencies.

 

So, let's agree to disagree. At the risk of getting a poor grade from Professor Rizwan, I'm going to stick to my 2.5 star rating (we're talking out of five, right?).

 

Certainly, as I'm the only person who has this low an opinion of the book, I'm definitely not seeing something which is obvious to everyone else. My only explanation for that is that my mind is like a steel trap. Unfortunately, sometimes it snaps shut before anything useful has a chance to get in. <heh heh>

 

 @

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 11/11/2002, 20:05:47 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: :But, I have to wonder, did we read the same story?

: I wonder that too! :) I'm glad you see much more in

: the story than I do. Perhaps I'm not as intuitive a

: reader.

 

Hanh and Len, I have just read your most recent contributions and find that Hanh's last message touches exactly on the contribution I was composing in my head on the way home from work while listening to Bach (the Bach has some relevance, so please bear with me).

 

My guess is that why some people find this book so baffling is that it has to be grasped partly on an intuitive level, not on a analytical level. The same goes for a lot of classical music and for most modern dance.

 

I saw a dance performance recently that was very abstract, in that there was no story or recognizable theme, just movement. The people behind us left in frustration after half an hour and I was puzzled too at first, even somewhat exasperated. I kept trying to make sense of what they were doing on the stage, trying to find out what they were wanting to tell me. Then, when I realized that they were not trying to tell anything I could suddenly let go and simply immerse myself in the dance and enjoy. From that moment on I forgot everything else, temporarily existing only in the dance and the music, which then all of a sudden did make sense, but not in a way that you could put into words or explain to somebody else. The same has often happened to me with classical music, especially with baroque or twentieth century music.

 

Now I wouldn't want anyone to take this parallel too literally, but I do think there is something in this book that defies too much analysis and that has to be "understood" intuitively. Apparently this either works for you or it doesn't. It certainly does not have anything to do with intelligence - or the lack of it!

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 11/11/2002, 21:11:26 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Anna writes, and then further elaborates:

 

>My guess is that why some people find this book so baffling is that it has to be grasped partly on an intuitive level, not on a analytical level. The same goes for a lot of classical music and for most modern dance.

 

As I read the book, I too was baffled. I kept asking myself, "what is it with these people?" Nothing they did made any sense. I kept writing down questions. But I kept reading, partly because of the sheer beauty of the writing, partly because I sensed there was something here worth trying to understand. After I had finished it, the "meaning" of the story (at least to me) emerged as if from a dissipating fog, and these exchanges here clarified it to me, as I found myself "explaining" it without thinking. And those questions I had written down no longer seem relevant.

 

The musical connection had not occurred to me, but Bowles is also a composer, and I listen to much more music than I read literature.

 

>Then, when I realized that they were not trying to tell anything I could suddenly let go and simply immerse myself in the dance and enjoy. From that moment on I forgot everything else, temporarily existing only in the dance and the music, which then all of a sudden did make sense, but not in a way that you could put into words or explain to somebody else. The same has often happened to me with classical music, especially with baroque or twentieth century music.

 

Yes, thank you for saying this Anna. I would probably not have made the connection otherwise.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 11/11/2002, 21:23:43 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Hanh writes:

 

>I'm glad you see much more in the story than I do.

 

Curiously, I think it's what I *don't* see that made this story that much more meaningful to me. It, by negation, resoundingly confirms my value system.

 

>I don't think I'm demanding that the characters act the way I want

 

Nor do I. I think you're trying to understand them by putting yourself in their place.

 

>but I do expect that the story supports the development and actions of its characters, and in that I see certain inconsistencies.

 

As do we all. I once had a friend who was involved with a sociopath. She would tell me things about him, and I would offer explanations or make predictions. Later she would marvel that I had been right, and wondered how I could do this without being a sociopath myself, which she knew I was not. I explained that no matter how bizarre someone's behaviour appears, even a "crazy" person's, underneath it lies a simple principle that explains everything, that makes everything make sense, that resolves the contradictions and non sequiturs. You just have to find that principle.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 12/11/2002, 1:32:55 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Well, I have been following closely this very interesting discussion on "The Sheltering Sky". It's been long, so I don't recall everyone's position to the detail. A few years ago, I posted a review of this book in Amazon. The title of the review was "The desert of the soul", precisely because I side with those who say that the main subject of the book is the consequences of total indifference to life, to protrait a group of persons with absolutely nothing inside. Yes, they're empty and that emptiness leads to death and insanity.

 

When you care about nothing at all, you end up not caring even about yourself, which is basically what happens to Kit, even if she has "momentary lapses of reason", as Pink Floyd would say. They don't care, see:

Both of them sleep with other people and nothing much happens.

They never take an interest in understanding where they are and what kind of people they are surrounded by (nor their language, habots, food, etc,)

The novel could have taken place in any other setting, but the huge Sahara desert is a great symbol of emptiness.

Right after Port dies, she goes away. It's hard to care for a dead person when you didn't care for him when he was alive (OK, some could say she cared so much that she followed him to the desert, but I agree with the idea that she had absolutely no self-esteem and depended on someone, her husband in this case).

 

Now, do you know what I liked the most about the book? The beautiful depiction Bowles makes of the desert. Oh, man, the infinite cerulean blue sky, the feeeling of immensity and freedom, the endless sea of sand, the transparency of the air, etc. I cared much more for that than for the fate of these unlikable, sometimes despicable people. I agree with Anna: they are not intended to be real humans, but symbols of what happens when you just carry along in life.

 

By the way, this book reminds of two other books: "Nausea" by Jean Paul Sartre, about a guy who does absolutely nothing all day, has no friends nor family, and surprisingly arrives at the conclusion that life is meaningless. The other is "The Guiltless", by German (or Austrian?) author Hermann Broch, about people who refuse to assume responsbility for anything and one day the Nazis are in charge. The title refers to this supposed innocence of those who refuse to act and pay the price, and then have to pay a higher, disastrous price.

 

 @

 

Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 12/11/2002, 1:36:33 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

I wanted to interveene in the thread at this point, but I made a mistake and my comment was posted several answers above this (in case anyone cares to read it)

 

 @

 

Posted by Lale on 12/11/2002, 11:18:41 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

 

: I wanted to interveene in the thread at this point, but I

: made a mistake and my comment was posted several

: answers above this (in case anyone cares to read it)

 

I read it :-)

 

Actually, the comparison to Sartre's Nausea is more apt than the comparison to L'Etranger which I do not agree with at all. (We can discuss The Outsider in another thread if you like. It is more about the society's condemnation of the "different" than about life's meaning.)

 

Nobody commented on the story "Tea in the Sahara", wasn't that the saddest story you've ever heard?

 

In response to these words from Hanh:

 

"I'm going to stick to my 2.5 star rating (we're talking out of five, right?). Certainly, as I'm the only person who has this low an opinion of the book, I'm definitely not seeing ..."

 

I would like to, if I am allowed, change my rating. I want to switch to 3 stars (from my previous, rash 4 stars). No, no, no, it has got nothing to do with the over-analysis in this thread and the upcoming nightmare of a task of formatting all the postings in chronological order for proper presentation in the "book club" page ;-)

 

No. My reason for lowering my rating is this: I realized that I had given 4 stars to Saramago's Blindness which is a book of great merit and one that I had appreciated more. It is apples and oranges of course, but still, it made me think that I have read better books than The Sheltering Sky. I still like it as much as I said I liked it. Captivating writing, fluid and interesting, etc. but it has to have a bigger difference in rating compared to some of my favourite books (L'etranger, 5 stars, for instance).

 

Lale

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 12/11/2002, 16:28:55 , in reply to "The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

One thing that hasn't been commented on that I didn't want to be overlooked: Bowles' depiction of Port's "fever dream" state, his drifting in and out of lucidity, was, I thought, superb.

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by len on 12/11/2002, 16:33:47 , in reply to "The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Another piece of random trivia: did anybody else recognize that "Port Moresby" is the name of a place, in Papua?

 

And that almost none of the places mentioned in the story are real?

 

len.

 

 @

 

Posted by Rizwan on 12/11/2002, 18:20:33 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: My guess is that why some people find this book so

: baffling is that it has to be grasped partly on an

: intuitive level, not on a analytical level...not in a way

: that you could put into words or explain to somebody

: else...

 

Along the same lines as what Anna said above, Goethe wrote in one of his essays that a true work of Art can never be reduced to a satisfactory explanation of its essence...

 

 @

 

Posted by Rizwan on 12/11/2002, 18:37:19 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

As you all know, I place myself firmly in the camp that finds The Sheltering Sky an impressive, rewarding work of Art. But for those of you (and you know who you are; we won't mention any names...ehem...Hahn and Lale)...for those of you who do not appreciate this book to the same extent as the rest, it may be interesting for you to know that Paul Bowles himself claimed to never understand what the big fuss over it was all about. He believed his short stories, and even his later novels, were much better, and as Lale alluded to earlier, he might have seen The Sheltering Sky, especially after it was written, as a sort of "practice" for those greater achievements.

 

Personally, I think he was being deliberately disingenuous in saying this, trying to direct the enormous attention The Sheltering Sky got to his other, relatively lesser known (though no less accomplished) work. But I could be wrong...

 

--Rizwan

 

 @

 

Posted by Guillermo Maynez on 12/11/2002, 18:49:39 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Len, I did recognize that Port Moresby is a place in Papua New Guinea, I even think it is the capital, at least of a province. Hmm. very different landscape to the Sahara. Perhaps that morning Bowles saw the name in a map and decided to call his character like that. Let's write a novel in which the main character is called "Rio de Janeiro".

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 13/11/2002, 5:33:09 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: Along the same lines as what Anna said above, Goethe

: wrote in one of his essays that a true work of Art

: can never be reduced to a satisfactory explanation

: of its essence...

 

Even with Theater of the Absurd, there is ultimately be some meaning behind the theme. The absurdity is the meaning. But without that "satisfactory explanation" understanding, can the work be considered "great"? That is, without the "satisfactory explanation" of Absurdity itself, would Theater of the Absurd be Art? Wouldn't it just be a guy waiting for something (the bus, his wife, etc.), things people do every day? In other words, Absurdity is the "satisfactory explanation" that makes this Art. Without it, it would not be Art.

 

I once got an A- on a play I "wrote" for school. I dallied till the last minute and ran out of time for the assignment, so I tape recorded a dinner conversation of a group of friends and transcribed it into a play. I got that grade only because more was attributed to the work by my teacher than what is actually there. Yes, it was a sham, but it was a good thought exercise for me in other ways.

 

Disclaimer: Disrespect for the Greats coming up. I disagree with Goethe in that statement (can the cheekiness be worse?! I must be getting the local reputation of either the village idiot or the local heretic! <smile>).

 

Ultimately at the end, there must be some "satisfactory explanation" to true art, even if that explanation is absurdity itself, or meaningless itself.

 

Without some satisfactory explanation, what is the different between art (especially the modern kind) and garbage, or something anyone just tossed together?

 

If we take "satisfactory explanation" out of the equation, how do we differentiate between true art and faux art? How far to we go in imbuing "greatness" to a work if there is not enough evidence for it? simply because the artist has achieved certain fame?

 

How do we know if we are putting more into the work, giving it more credit, than it warrants? If there are conflicting indications in a book, do we ignore them and chalk them up to the "unfathomable essense" of the work? If we don't demand consistent evidence in the story to expound a view or story line, how can we tell between sloppy work and 'deep' work?

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 13/11/2002, 5:43:07 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: interesting for you to know that Paul Bowles himself

: claimed to never understand what the big fuss over

: it was all about. He believed his short stories,

: and even his later novels, were much better, and as

: Lale alluded to earlier, he might have seen The

: Sheltering Sky, especially after it was written, as

: a sort of "practice" for those greater

: achievements.

 

Rizwan, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for this note. Because of this and also from everyone's clear appreciation of this book, I'm going to read his short stories and latest book to render the final verdict. :)

 

I do not think that Bowles is a bad writer, far from it. But I do think exactly as he thought of "The Sheltering Sky", that it is an earlier work. It felt to me that it was still in draft, that the final touches have not been applied to craft it to final form, that it could have been MUCH better. It's like having a teeny teeny fruit fly in an otherwise exquisite bowl of soup.

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 13/11/2002, 6:33:12 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: because I side with those who say that the main

: subject of the book is the consequences of total

: indifference to life, to protrait a group of persons

: with absolutely nothing inside. Yes, they're empty

: and that emptiness leads to death and insanity.

 

I do not mean to comment on the theme of emptiness itself, as that is quite clear, but rather on the lack of sufficient exposition in the characters to adequately illustrate and support this theme.

 

There is nothing wrong with the way the story ends, but the exposition of the empty lives of the characters in the previous chapters are not full enough, vivid enough, inclusive enough to bring about the Kit character at the end.

 

Her character had to be expounded to be MUCH MUCH more empty than is done to warrant the last section of the book. Many people have empty lives, float through remote corners of the world, visit prostitutes, have extra-marital affairs. But they don't all end up like Kit in the end. What is it about Kit (as different from all the other people with empty lives) that makes the horror of humiliation and rape not only something she is indifferent about, but something that gives her pleasure? The "emptiness" of character is not developed enough to warrant that.

 

How does the way Port die (typhoid) illustrate the theme of the emptiness of his life? If he died by falling down in the bathtub in a run down hotel in the Bronx it would be the same thing--non-illustrative of anything but the simple fact that he died.

 

How is the supposedly inexpressibly profound emptiness in Kit's life ILLUSTRATED so as to bring us to her ending persona without a giant leap of faith? Why is her life SO MUCH more empty than other people with empty lives (people identifiable from the first 2 sections of the book)? Are ALL people with empty lives capable/doomed to that ending?

 

Yes, I know Professor Rizwan docked my grade for this <tee hee>, but I will say this again anyway: in The Sun Also Rises, the people there are empty too, they float around aimlessly too, but the exposition of their character is in keeping with the theme of the book and does not detract from it. We (Readers) don't have to make a giant leap of faith to "buy" the characters, and so the theme simply falls into place. The requirement for that leap can detract from what the real point is, and hence diminish the impact of the novel.

 

 @

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 13/11/2002, 8:37:24 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

It seems to me that we are more and more repeating ourselves (myself included), but as someone else said somewhere else in this discussion (I believe it was Len): the right questions are much more interesting/valuable than the right answers (or something along those lines, I am paraphrasing).

A work of art need not "explain" things to me. I want to be made to look at things from different angles, be made to question things that I took for granted. Paul Bowles has done an excellent job for me in that respect.

 

And as for Kit and Port not being consistent: they make perfect sense to many readers. I am sure it is something personal: some of us are simply not able to see what to others is quite plain, not because of some defect but just because of an other way of seeing. It is no use to keep on pointing out things that seem inconsistent; they are not so to other readers. And it is not a question of right or wrong either. It's more like those stereograms, those pictures made up of coloured dots, that a picture suddenly leaps out of if you stare at it the right way: I can't do it, no matter how hard I try, nothing happens, just dots. So I have given up trying; they are not for me; they have nothing to show me unfortunately.

 

 @

 

Posted by Rizwan on 13/11/2002, 16:38:28 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Hanh, I don't think Goethe meant to say that a "satisfactory explanation" of the essence doesn't exist, only that the "explanation" of a true work of Art cannot be put into words "satisfactorily," which I believe is what Anna was getting at in her previous message regarding The Sheltering Sky.

 

 @

 

Posted by Rizwan on 13/11/2002, 17:06:07 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Actually, Anna, not that it matters much, but it was Goethe who was cited originally as saying that the mark of great Art is that it asks the right questions, without immediately revealing the answers. Though I'm sure Len has said the same thing with regards to The Sheltering Sky, and I concur with you and him as well.

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 13/11/2002, 17:17:35 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: Hanh, I don't think Goethe meant to say that a

: "satisfactory explanation" of the essence

: doesn't exist, only that the "explanation"

: of a true work of Art cannot be put into words

: "satisfactorily," which I believe is what

: Anna was getting at in her previous message

: regarding The Sheltering Sky.

 

Yes, that is fair. I agree with that.

 

 @

 

Posted by Hanh on 13/11/2002, 17:20:35 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: readers. And it is not a question of right or wrong

: either. It's more like those stereograms, those

: pictures made up of coloured dots, that a picture

: suddenly leaps out of if you stare at it the right

: way: I can't do it, no matter how hard I try,

: nothing happens, just dots. So I have given up

: trying; they are not for me; they have nothing to

: show me unfortunately.

 

True. I can't see those stereograms either. :)

 

 @

 

Posted by Rizwan on 13/11/2002, 17:38:55 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

Who among us is not conflicted at some point in our everyday lives, let alone after your spouse dies and you are left to fend for yourself in the middle of a foreign country where you don't speak the language well...in the desert, no less!!

 

 @

 

Posted by Lale on 13/11/2002, 18:05:22 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: True. I can't see those stereograms either. :)

 

It is just a skill that can be learned. When you see one, you can see all of them.

 

Lale

 

 @

 

Those frustrating stereograms

 

Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 13/11/2002, 19:11:58 , in reply to "Re: The Sheltering Sky (discussion)"

 

: It is just a skill that can be learned. When you see

: one, you can see all of them.

: Lale

:

 

Not if one of your eyes is not functioning properly. Try it with one eye closed and see what happens. Nada, niente, nichts, niks!

 

 @

 

Reviewed by: Doug Harris  zapotec49@yahoo.com      Date: 7 September 2004

   Four Hearts

 

I have been carrying this book for a couple of years intending to read and enjoy, maybe have that feeling of discovery. I expected to.It just didn't quite quite transcend attraction to achieve LOVE. The "SKY" is home to the Lord of all existence the sun. Everything moves to the beat of the sun. The night sky is full of stars distant enough to be safely communed with and this is when the world comes to life-in the darkness. Light is the arid world of dust. Only in the darkness are the machinations of life and love able to flourish. Then there is the land broad swaths of aridity-a stony no man's land between the oasis a symbol of the distance between these people.

 

Port looks for the untouched place, where the europeans and the War had not derailed some privately held native grasp of life which he still hopes will lift him out of the collapse and failures of effort that have marked his life. He still hopes to succeed in his quest for meaning-which we as civilized humans had to abandon collectively for the bitter drink we are given instead of LOVE and acceptance on any level that seems to work for the moment. Kit, who uses Port as a prop, a support, a fulcram, for her existence, is pushed to actually participate in life. No casually observed adventure with a beginning and end but a descent into the madness that is always felt when the conventions of life are stripped away but she chooses not to return to the safe side. She has made a terrible break not just with 'sanity', not just with civilization and its modest safety, she has seen the monster behind the 'SKY' and she has embraced it. I might go for four hearts after this review.

 

 @

 

 

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