Monday, July 30, 2012

President Obama is a "Eusocialist"

Romney’s “I Built That” vs. Obama’s Teamwork: 
Modern civilization proves which philosophy works.
 Last week, the newswires crackled with audio of the latest round in an increasingly heated war of words between President Barack Obama and his presumptive challenger in the November general election, Mitt Romney. While the incidentals of their verbal tit-for-tat were (as they so often are) exaggerated for the benefit of political expediency, the root of the exchange reflects two profoundly different versions of the human experience.

You’re probably familiar with the particulars of the brouhaha—which sprouted from comments the President made at a campaign rally in Roanoke, Virginia on July 13th. Speaking off the cuff on the role of government in society, Obama spoon-fed his opponent a nice juicy sound bite to misquote. Here’s a snippet, complete with the offending line (cue gong):
“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen."
The President’s mistake was not in his message but in its delivery. He fumbled the ball. No one would argue with that. But no matter how much the GOP would like us to believe it, Obama was not telling small-business owners that the fruit of their blood, sweat and tears doesn’t merit personal recognition; he was trying to make the point that success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And he was speaking truth.  Click to find out why at The Philly Post.

Friday, July 20, 2012

One From The Stacks: Paul Bowles

Black Sparrow Press 1994
Collected Stories 1939-1976
Without Stopping (Autobiography)

“Security is a false God. Begin to make sacrifices to it and you are lost." -- P.B.

When I was a young writer, naïve with infinite potential and intoxicated with the promise of far-flung adventure, it was through the proxy of a single author -- the American expatriate Paul Bowles -- that my fantasies regarding the writing life usually took shape.

To call Bowles my “hero” would be gratuitous, but not overblown; in a way he was much more than that. The man the Times called the “quintessential outsider of American literature” did, and still does, evoke for me all that is appealing and desirable about the literary path. And that speaks nothing of his work.  As much as I love his writing -- writing that Colm Tóibín once described as "clearly written, coldly imagined, cruel and sensual at the same time" -- it was not Bowles's literary ability I coveted (though I wouldn’t shake a stick at it); it was his life I wanted: every hash-induced vision, every society party, every late dinner with Isherwood, Capote, Williams, Burroughs, all the trips to the Sahara, all the writing-fueled transatlantic passages, all the debauchery, pain, and triumph that comes with being the perpetual outsider. Back then I would have taken it all, for Bowles's very existence, it seemed to  me, was the perfect expression of what it meant to devote one's life to art. (For a while I even took to smoking my cigarettes from a vintage amber holder with a black onyx mouthpiece that I found at an antique store.)

My youthful hero worship has since given way to profound admiration, and the amber cigarette holder to plastic Tar Guards from CVS. But when I'm asked to name my favorite authors, Bowles always makes it in the top three (which typically varies depending upon what mood I am in). 

Born in 1910 on Long Island, Paul Bowles dabbled in writing poetry and fiction beginning in high school, but it was music that became his first vocation and the one he would turn to again and again throughout his life for financial security. An accomplished composer by 25, he began writing fiction full time in the late 1930s at the encouragement of his wife -- the author and playwright Jane Bowles.

In 1931, at the suggestion of Gertrude Stein, he took the trip that would change his life – traveling for the first time to Tangier, where he and Aaron Copland spent the fall composing music.  In Morocco's internationalized conclave of fugitives, spies, artists, pederasts and assorted undesirables, Bowles found what he was looking for; the lure of the ancient city, its unspoiled mystique and its decrepit honesty presented the perfect refuge for a young bi-sexual writer looking to push the limits of his craft and of social convention.  Tangier certainly wasn't for everyone, and Bowles surmised that for every one tourist who falls in love with the place there are nine more who are “frankly repelled by its ugliness and squalor, or simply indifferent to whatever it may have to offer.”

Writing of the city during the early 1940s, Truman Capote -- an early and frequent visitor -- offered this essential to-do list for those thinking of traveling there:
“Before coming here you should do three things: be inoculated for typhoid, withdraw your savings from the bank, say goodbye to your friends—heaven knows you may never see them again. Tangier is a basin that holds you.”
Ecco Press 1985
Paul Bowles fell further than any of his contemporaries into its grip, remaining in North Africa virtually uninterrupted from 1947 until his death in 1999. In his autobiography, "Without Stopping," the author explains his decision to permanently flee his homeland for North Africa:
“Like any Romantic, I had always been vaguely certain that sometime during my life I should come into a magic place which, in disclosing its secrets, would give me wisdom and ecstasy -- perhaps even death.”                                 
Fastened with a colonialist's fruitless desire to “go native,” Bowles embraced primitivism in his work through full immersion and in the process came about as close to becoming a true Tanjawi as any outsider could every hope. He used his writing to dance with death, marveling at the delicate balance between civility and savagery and the brutal consequences of their intersection.

Bowles's writing is at its most brilliant and disturbing when showing what happens when these boundaries are pushed too far. His first published story, “Tea on the Mountain,” follows a female writer in North Africa as she, like Bowles himself, tests the limits of convention and desire. For the travelers Port and Kit Moresby in what is perhaps the author's most well-known work – “The Sheltering Sky” – the outcome is death by fever on the floor of an inhospitable desert hovel for him and sex slavery for her; In “A Distant Episode,” the protagonist – a professor of linguistics – is kidnapped by a band of Reguiba tribesmen and horribly disfigured, a fate Bowles presents in lurid detail:
“The man looked at him dispassionately in the grey morning light. With one hand he pinched together the Professor’s nostrils. When the Professor opened his mouth to breathe, the man swiftly seized his tongue and pulled on it with all his might. The Professor was gagging and catching his breath; he did not see what was happening. He could not distinguish the pain of the brutal yanking from that of the sharp knife. Then there was an endless choking and spitting that went on automatically, as though he were scarcely a part of it. The word ‘operation’ kept going through his mind, it calmed his terror somewhat as he sank back into darkness.”
Bowles's stories both shocked and titillated his readers, none more than those closest to him. Returning from Morocco to New York, Tennessee Williams is reported to have remarked: "It wasn’t the Arabs I was afraid of while I was in Tangier; it was Paul Bowles, whose chilling stories filled me with horror."

"Tea on the Mountain" and "A Distant Episode" are among the 39 Bowles stories presented by Black Sparrow Press in “Collected Stories 1939-1976,” which I picked up in my twenties and read over and over until its beige card stock cover was bent and softened. I sold it, with most of my collection, in the late 1990s in an act of drug-induced financial desperation that I call the Great Purge (followers of this project will already be familiar with the term).  Many years later (my best guess is 2005) I managed to pick up the exact same edition -- and in much better shape.  

Around that time – give or take a year – I learned a collection of Bowles's papers was housed at the University of Delaware, just a short hop down I-95 from Philadelphia. One summer afternoon I took off from work and made the pilgrimage to the campus building that houses the library's Special Collections.

Detail of notebook, 2005
I recall little of the facility itself. There was an air-conditioned reading room furnished with long wooden tables, a few metal filing cabinets and a special stand for photographing documents. Was there art on the walls or were they bare? No idea. I kept a notebook (I favored stenographer pads) which I wrote in feverishly while I perused the treasure before me. In the midst of leafing through old Christmas cards from William Burroughs, shopping lists for cigarettes and cat food, and hand-written post cards I discovered a typewritten draft of “The Spider's House” – Bowles's third novel. It's a brilliant book that traces the political turmoil in Fez in the early 1950s through the eyes of an American writer and an illiterate Arab boy, whose paths converge just as nationalist rebels begin targeting foreigners. It was the first book by Bowles I ever read, and like most all of his work, the theme is the insurmountable barriers that stand between "us" and "them".

The excitement I felt holding that manuscript and knowing that the very ink on the page was laid there by Bowles himself comes through loud and clear on the penciled page of my notebook:
“The paper is thin as onion skin – yellowed pages of typewritten script with here and there a word crossed out and another inserted above. He used a black ball point pen to edit – I pick up a page, smell it – the odor is sweet like an old attic. There is something of cedar here. Each crossed out word is replaced with exactly that which should be there. Yes!”
It's hard to describe the inspiration I felt that day, but the experience made me feel a little closer to a man I'd held in esteem for more than a decade. By the time I held the draft of "The Spider's House" in my hand the author had been dead for six years. I knew I'd never follow in the footsteps of the dozens of young writers who traveled to Tangier in the hopes of gaining an audience with their hero. But I plan to get their at some point anyway if only to sit in the Café Hafa and look down on the Bay of Tangier while sipping sweet mint tea, just as Bowles once did. Maybe I'll even break out that cigarette holder. I know it's around here somewhere. 

Details:

Collected Stories 1939-1976 (paperback)
By Paul Bowles
Published by Black Sparrow Press (1994)
Introduction by Gore Vidal
Purchase place/date: The Title Page (Bryn Mawr, PA)/2005? (replacement book)
Purchase Price: $8.00
Condition: Very Good

Without Stopping (paperback)
By Paul Bowles
(autobiography)
Published by Ecco Press (1985)
Originally Published by Penguin Books (1972)
Purchase place/date: N.A./2006?
Purchase Price: $7.00
Condition: Good


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