A few months before he died, Beat patriarch Paul Bowles gave a rare interview from his home in Tangier, Morocco. To celebrate his birthday on December 30, we’re republishing Ken Krayeske’s interview with the composer and author from the September, 1999 issue of High Times.
Bookshelves line the living room walls of Paul Bowles’ tiny fourth-floor flat in Tangier, Morocco. Hardcovers and softcovers of his masterpiece The Sheltering Sky in six different languages, dozens of other editions of his novels, collections of short fiction, plays, translations of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit and Moroccan folk tales, fiction by his wife, Jane, and inscribed gifts from friends like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Truman Capote. Bowles has lived in this home for more than half of his 60 years in Tangier. It’s a long way from Long Island, NY where he was born 88 years ago. He bolted Manhattan in the ’30s, bored with composing Broadway scores, and traveled to Mexico, Thailand and France, where Gertrude Stein advised him to rewrite his poetry and move to Morocco.
The Sahara captured his imagination, and when Jane fell ill in 1957, he stayed. After she died in 1973, he said it was too late to move. Now, he welcomes visitors and journalists alike, accommodating directors like Jennifer Baichwal, whose documentary Let It Came Dawn: The Life of Paul Bowles [Zeitgeist] was released in May. The Beat patriarch was kind enough to give us the following interview.
High Times: The last time I was here, in December ’93, you were smoking kif cigarettes [granulated cannabis mixed with black tobacco]. Do you still smoke kif?
Paul Bowles: No, I stopped two months ago.
Why is that?
No one told me to stop—no doctor or medicine man. I have emphysema. I decided it was time to stop. I smoked for years.
Did you use it for medicinal purposes, like to help with your glaucoma?
I only smoked for pleasure.
When was the first time you smoked pot?
I was in Curaçao in the West Indies. The first time I smoked, I really didn’t inhale. Then the first time I did inhale, it was extraordinary for me. It was a different world.
How old were you?
I was old enough to know better.
What year was it?
It must have been 1933.
Do you recommend smoking kif?
I can’t answer this, because I don’t know the real effect of kif on the brain and, for that reason, I can neither recommend nor advise against it.
Did kif influence your creative activities, like writing music or books?
I doubt that it had any influence on my writing. People always say it gives you ideas. I disagree with that. It gave me the possibility of concentration, that when I was writing I could go on for very long. I’m very restless. I smoked because it made me less restless and I could concentrate longer on writing. I got more done.
You wrote about smoking kif in 100 Camels in the Courtyard. Is this what moved you to write about the metaphysical?
I was smoking when I was writing that. There are four stories, “A Friend of the World,” “He of the Assembly,” “The Story of Lahcen and Idir” and “The Wind at Beni Midar.”
What about hallucinogens? Did you ever try psychedelics?
Yes. It was mescaline. The first time was in 1961. It was good.
Where did you do it?
It was in the States. Actually, I had to go out and get it for my host. He didn’t want to buy it. So he asked me to go and buy it at the drugstore. You could go out and get it at the drugstore, strangely enough. It was made by Squibb. It didn’t go on long because they had to clamp down on it. You could buy $15 worth and that would supposedly be enough for one day.
What was your impression of it?
I thought it was very strange. It wasn’t my cup of tea. I only took it twice.
What did you dislike about it?
Dislike? I didn’t really dislike it, I just couldn’t make sense with it. My host kept after me.
Who was that?
A man named John Goodwin. I’m afraid he’s dead now. He was a good host. He had bought a large estate of 700 acres in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania. He had fixed it up to make it a surprise when you wandered around it. You could be in the woods and there would be a little pond and coming out of the pond would be an absurd statue, which only he could have put there.
Did you ever try anything harder, like heroin?
No. I never needed it. I’ve known people who were addicted. It is a very powerful addiction. It destroyed them.
How did it affect William Burroughs?
Bill was always trying to disintoxicate himself. I don’t think it destroyed him. He stayed here in Tangier year after year. He might as well have been in Atlantic City or Chicago. He didn’t seem to be aware that he was in Morocco.
One of the reasons Burroughs came here was because drugs were cheaper and easier to buy than in the States. Should kif and heroin remain illegal?
No. I don’t think you should stop people from doing what they please. It’s like suicide being illegal. The government should not be involved. Allen Ginsberg did a lot for that cause. It’s too bad he’s gone now.
How did you feel when he died?
I felt cheated because I wouldn’t see him anymore. He came here a few years ago for Christmas. But I couldn’t go out. I stayed in bed while he was at Christmas dinner with Virginia Spencer Carr, who is writing my biography. I couldn’t go out, it was too difficult. There would have been a lot of wheelchairs and more. So I stayed right here. I saw him in New York about two months before he died in 1995. They gave concerts of my music in New York at Lincoln Center. These were pieces I have never heard before. Some of them were 60 years old.
What did you think of the performance?
It sounded good to me. Of course, I wrote them. I wired Bill to come to lunch and come see them. He came all the way in from Lawrence, Kansas. He picked up Allen along the way.
How was lunch?
We talked about old times and the present day, what had changed and what was still continuing.
What were the old times like, with Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac visiting Tangier?
Everyone would gather in Bill Burroughs’ room. We would sit in his garden and talk. Allen used to read sections of Naked Lunch aloud. He sort of put it together, as I remember. Bill didn’t know where the beginning was, or the end. He said, ‘Begin anywhere you want.’ Well, you can’t make a book that way. There had to be a beginning. There was a definite beginning scene on the subway. But I don’t remember really how it ended. I thought Naked Lunch was very comic, very funny.
You’ve said you love the absurd. Did you write any comedies yourself?
No. The absurd is fantastic. I can appreciate when other people write absurdities, but to invent them myself—I don’t think I could do very well. I don’t think it would be very funny. Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is an extraordinary story. It’s funny only as long as she means it to be funny, and then suddenly it becomes very serious. But when it is funny, it is funny because it is absurd.
What other absurdities amuse you?
I love Through the Looking Glass. It’s wonderful. I love the interrogation of the Red Queen and the White Queen of Alice. They begin asking what does she know. Does she know addition? What’s one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one? And Alice says, “I don’t know. I lost count.” She can’t do addition. Then the queen says, “Maybe she can do subtraction. Take nine from eight.” Alice says I can’t do that. The queen says, “Here’s another problem: Take a bone from a dog. What remains?” Alice thinks about it and says, “The bone wouldn’t remain, the dog wouldn’t remain, it would come to bite me. I’m sure I shouldn’t remain.” The queen says, “You give up?” Alice says, “Yes.” The queen says, “She can’t do subtraction either.” Well, the dog ran away because it lost its temper, so the dog’s temper remains.
Where do you think absurdity comes from?
It comes from the disregard of logic.
How important was absurdity to your writing?
I didn’t think of it.
Did any writers, absurd or not, influence you?
I don’t know what influenced me. I don’t understand the word “influence.” It’s a word like “inspiration” or “inspired.”
Then who are some of your favorite authors?
Kafka is completely original, although he is preoccupied by religious beliefs. I like Camus. He wrote two very good novels. One was The Stranger and the other was The Plague.
What about Marcel Proust?
I read his complete works in Tangiers in English. Then I decided to read him in his original tongue, French. It was difficult. I moved to the desert in Algeria so I could concentrate better. It took me a long time to read it.
Did Proust influence you to write The Sheltering Sky?
I don’t see any connection. I’m not very analytical. It would take a critic to tell me.
But isn’t it true that you started writing The Sheltering Sky right after you finished reading Proust?
Yes. Well, I hoped to write a book when I left Broadway. A novel. And I did write it—The Sheltering Sky. It’s based on a short story called “A Distant Episode.” The story is about a linguistics professor who walks around Algeria and is kidnapped. He is transported around the desert, where he is made to be their jester, improvising plays and skits. Then one day he escapes and he runs back into the town frantic. A French soldier mistakes him for a native and shoots him. Then I said, “Why don’t I write a novel about it?” I started writing it in Fez and finished it in Fez. I was in the Algerian desert in the middle. It took about nine months in 1947 and ’48.
It was published a year later, in 1949.
When I finished the book, I sent it to my agent, and she couldn’t place it. Everyone refused it. And they had actually fronted my commission on it, so I had to return the money, which is not fair. I should have kept it after I wrote it. They were unpleasant about it. They said to my agent, “We asked for a novel and he didn’t give us a novel.” What is it? I don’t know. They didn’t think it was a novel. And finally after a year of being sent around from one publisher to another, I suggested that my agent send it to James Lockland at New Directions. He had the best list anyway. He purposely didn’t publish with the idea of making any money. On the contrary, he expected to lose, because he had a lot of money from Lockland Steel in Pittsburgh. He did publish it, but he decided he would only publish 3,500 copies. That was not nearly enough. It was just before Christmas, so it lost a lot of sales. Those books were exhausted very quickly from the shelves.
Had you sketched an outline of your characters beforehand?
I never planned anything. I never planned my characters. They came out. They did what they wanted. I never planned my life. You have to accept what life brings you.
What did you think of Bernardo Bertolucci’s filmed adaptation of The Sheltering Sky in 1990?
I didn’t like it at all.
Lately there have been several documentaries made about your life, like the 1996 documentary, The Complete Outsider. Did you see the movie?
Yes. I didn’t like it very much.
What do you think they meant by the title?
I don’t know. I don’t feel like an outsider.
Are you a religious person?
Were you raised Christian?
No. My parents didn’t have any religious affiliation at all. I was told as a child that although people might believe in God, that I mustn’t. I’ve never been a deist. My grandparents were not. They were all atheists. Religion was a subject which was forbidden to be discussed in the house. Religion and sex were out.
What do you think of Christianity now?
Christianity is a mix of paganism and Judaism, but the one good thing Christ did was to evoke empathy, like with the Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.’’ However, I can’t understand the idea of the virgin birth and life after death. How can Christ claim he was the son of man, as if God had a son? Jesus had to be insane to say that.
What about Islam? Living in a Moorish country, did you ever consider it?
The cannibalism of Christianity repulses the Moors. Although I sympathize with them, I don’t think Islam is all that great either. I would never join an organized religion.
Sartre recanted and accepted God on his deathbed. As you grow older, do you think about God?
No, I can’t do that. You can’t suddenly decide to be a deist.
You’ve done your part to preserve Moroccan culture, such as recording Moroccan music and documenting it.
In the 1960s, I had a Rockefeller grant to do that, but I had to give everything I recorded to the Library of Congress in Washington. And after many years—13 years later—they decided they could issue two records of that music. They didn’t do it earlier because of the Vietnam War. They had no money. At least they said they had no money. That I don’t believe.
Were there political motivations?
No. I don’t know why it would be. They didn’t want to allocate the funds necessary. It would have meant giving the funds to the Library of Congress for archives and they weren’t prepared to do that. Now Rounder Records in the States are making them into CDs.
Have you heard the Police’s song, “Tea in the Sahara” on Synchronicity (named after the first section of The Sheltering Sky)?
Yes. The words are silly—“Tea in the Sahara with you.” I didn’t think it was a bit of genius, but that’s a popular song, I suppose.
You’ve said you’re a composer first and a novelist second. Why?
Writing music is more difficult than writing words. There is so much more to writing one score.
What do you think about the idea that people are moved by your work?
It’s satisfying. It doesn’t change my opinion of the work, however. I don’t think the work is better because of that.
What is your opinion of your work?
I don’t have much—I mean, not very high. You can’t admire yourself very well.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
Do you have any advice for budding writers?
If you write a novel, don’t go back and reread it, because you’ll tear it apart and you’ll never, ever get anywhere. Just write straight through, get a body, get an end and then go back.