With few exceptions, Gertrude Stein's "Lost Generation" of Americans was little influenced by direct contact with European culture. Both Paul Bowles and Brion Gysin were among the exceptions. As a teenager, Bowles published poems in Eugene Jolas's avant-garde magazine transition, and later composed music for Cocteau. The Canadian painter Gysin was briefly part of André Breton's circle. Each would contribute significantly to the development of postwar experimental literature and to the pop culture that took off during the Sixties.
It was Bowles's 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky, a story of drifting souls and lost identities, that attracted a new generation of American rebels to the shores of North Africa. His picture of Tangier as a city of licentiousness, cheap booze, kif and available boys lured drug-enamoured homosexuals such as Gysin, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg to what became a Mecca of alternative culture.
In 1954, the unstable Burroughs, attempting to kick his habit and on the run from the law, arrived in Tangier (his "Interzone") with a novel to write. Although he became friendly with Gysin and acquainted with Bowles, it was Jack Kerouac and Ginsberg who "discovered" Burroughs and his much-torn, rat-eaten manuscripts and removed them to Paris - where The Naked Lunch was tidied up and later published.
There Gysin demonstrated his cut-up technique of rearranging texts, which completely enthralled Burroughs. To him, the results were mystical messages rich with hidden meaning, and offered a way of freeing the mind from the tyranny of the "word and image locks". Later, other gurus - Timothy Leary, Andy Warhol and Marshall McLuhan - adapted the method to their own theories of perception and language. So both Bowles the lure, and Gysin the methodologist, were largely responsible for the Burroughs phenomenon, helping transform his subversive vision into literature and contributing to the culture of the Swinging Sixties and beyond.
Their pursuit of the irrational led to Gysin's "Dream Machine": a simple stroboscope inducing out-of-body experiences. Burroughs concluded that Gysin possessed hallucinatory powers. Both were increasingly drawn to psychic and psychedelic experimentation, Scientology, and Reichian theories of sex, attracting disciples from other art forms.
Their aim was to disturb and deconstruct the social order by breaking the shackles of formal language, and questioning the nature of perception. All consciousness could be reduced to a dream. This led to sound and visual experiments, including a multimedia presentation of Gysin's performance-painting at the ICA in London. It drew, thanks to Bowles, on the primitive musical forms of the Moroccan Berbers.
A New Yorker in flight from his family since his teens, Bowles enjoyed a successful career as a composer in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1937, he married the lesbian novelist Jane Auer, and travelled widely. In 1945, he himself turned to fiction. Following the success of The Sheltering Sky, he produced three further novels with Moroccan settings, and a wealth of short stories conveying the haunting limitlessness of the Sahara and the amorality of expatriate society. Many found Bowles's fiction strangely un-American, Gore Vidal observing that he wrote "as if Moby-Dick had never existed"
Bowles's fascination with aboriginal Moroccan musical forms was passed to Gysin, and through him to Burroughs and Ginsberg. Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones also followed the trail to Tangier, and Paul McCartney recognised Burroughs's influence by adding his face to the cover of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper. Others acknowledging the same sources included Soft Machine and David Bowie. J G Ballard saw the cut-up method as linking everything in our lives. Aspects of performance art, e-mailing and texting also owe something to Gysin's technique. Even cyberpunks acclaim Burroughs as their godfather. The engagement of artists with irrational inspirations and primitive musical forms, and their absorption into an electronic culture, owe much to those who made Morocco their spiritual home.
What is most engaging about Virginia Spencer Carr's new biography of Bowles, however, is how she portrays the procession of his lovers - Aaron Copland, Tennessee Williams, Virgil Thompson, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal - and captures the ebb and flow of relationships. She is good on his strange, sad relationship with Auer, and on how he saw the connection between music and fiction. However, having enjoyed Bowles's cooperation for 10 years until his death in 1999, she was barred from quoting from his publications. She therefore skates over his work rather than analysing it, and uses Bowles alone as her major source. With no voices to challenge the subject's version, the book reads more like autobiography with Carr as an uncritical amanuensis.
There is little attempt to get beyond the mask of her inscrutable subject, so his interior world remains, perhaps significantly, a virtual desert. Characters leave their names and depart, so personalities lack features. Nor does history interest her much. Artistic movements are ignored, the Second World War passes unnoticed, and an anti-colonial struggle engulfing Morocco is barely mentioned.
Bertolucci filmed The Sheltering Sky in 1989, yet all we learn from Carr is that Bowles felt cheated at receiving a mere $1,000 for his own appearance. But Bertolucci's camera angle on Bowles, and Bowles's on Bertolucci, would have been intriguing and possibly illuminating.
Bowles's underlying philosophy is also left unexplored. He translated Sartre's Huis Clos, and debated with the playwright, but Carr never fully explores the existentialist thrust of his fiction. The arrival of the Beat poets is noted, but there is little sense of how Bowles related to them.
John Geiger's book, by contrast, is a veritable kaleidoscope, capturing the mysterious Gysin in both flattering and unflattering lights. There are more alternative voices, more spicy gossip, wider reference to the passage of history and to Gysin's involvement with movements of ideas.
Geiger captures well the drama of Gysin's life: the passing moments of triumph, the frequent disasters (from being thrown out of the Surrealist movement to frustrating attempts at novel-writing), the lingering influence of his psychedelic and word experiments, and his noble if wretched death in 1986. This layered approach enables him to deal more fully with the Gysin-Bowles symbiosis, which seems key to understanding the influence of these inspired drop-outs.
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