“And now you know life's not like that. Right? It's more like smoking a cigarette. The first few puffs it tastes wonderful, and you don't even think of its ever being used up. Then you begin taking it for granted. Suddenly you realize it's nearly burned down to the end. And then's when you're conscious of the bitter taste.”
-– Port in The Sheltering Sky
American expatriate Paul Bowles helped to spark inspiration for the burgeoning beat generation with his novel, “The Sheltering Sky,” written in 1947 (published in 1949). The novel is considered by many to be an existentialist allegory reflecting Bowles’ issues with his life as an eccentric, somewhat secluded literary figure. Like fellow literary greats such as Burroughs, Ginsberg, Tennessee and Capote, Bowles became known for psychedelic experimentation, and the backdrop of Tangier proved fruitful for Bowles’ writing career. (Tangier would also influence Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch.”) Bowles’ describes the landscape so wonderfully in this novel, making the African desert come alive for the reader. The author manages to show how the desert is incredibly gorgeous and at the same time amazingly dangerous.
Story basics: A married couple from New York, Porter (Port) and Kit Moresby are traveling in North Africa shortly after World War II. Though they are too well-traveled to be considered “tourists,” they still have difficulties living in a culture so alien from their own. Already working rather independently from each other, their time and experiences in North Africa further separate Port and Kit. Midway through the novel Port suddenly dies, and a completely mentally unprepared Kit is left to the unrelenting desert. (I will not expound on what happens to Kit during the second half of the novel in order to prevent complete spoilage.)
They are smart, adventurous people, this couple, and have always longed to experience cultures vastly different than their own. Unfortunately their desire to immerse themselves in a place that is so raw in comparison with the capitalistic Western world isn’t so simple. Bowles’ manages to show how the harsh, merciless North African desert is no match for the American travelers, and this fact combined with the couple’s alienation from each other is ultimately a statement of how humanity can never truly connect.
Central ideas exhibited in this novel: 1. Our connections are not total- in the end people barely know themselves let alone others. 2. The Western world can be viewed as over-civilized, allowing it to be quite vulnerable to the harshness of nature. 3. Travelers beware: Exotic places, too often idealized, are not always welcoming. 4. Nature and all that springs from it-- including humanity-- suffers from the duality of being both beautiful and perilous.
Towards the beginning of the novel, Port wanders through a Tangier city, eventually sitting down to spend time with several natives in a tent. The foreign traveler dismisses many of the dark-skinned natives as simple and flat, never really thinking they were worth any thought. This tendency reinforces the idea of humans being separated by racism and an (unfortunate) proclivity to classify and judge. A man in the tent tells Port a story about three women determined to one day have tea in the Sahara-- and after ages of longing to do this, they finally go to make it happen. One day they are found sitting atop a dune, dead, with sand in their teacups instead of tea.
The story Port hears touches upon another theme in the novel: Finding one’s meaning in life. The women are consumed with their tea goal and once the goal is achieved, they are certainly not fulfilled. Also, the demise of the women shows how insignificant their goal was in the first place. Port travels to find his meaning in life—- although the meanings so often passionately searched for may in the end mean nothing. Certainly a very pessimistic idea. (Incidentally the song “Tea in the Sahara,” by The Police, tells the story of the women in The Sheltering Sky.)
The Sheltering Sky became extremely influential to the Beats, having provided a solid contemporary example of heightened awareness about humanity's flaws, the search for deeper meaning, and the failures of the capitalistic world.
This is one of my favorite novels. One passage (of several) I found particularly lovely:
While he is dying, Kit remembers these words Port once spoke--
“Because we don't know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”