When Fez Fell

This is an essay that was to be included in an edited volume on Paul Bowles that regrettably ended up not coming out.


More than five years before Morocco declared its independence, Paul Bowles published an article detailing the singular pleasures awaiting the Western visitor to the walled city of Fez in a July 1950 issue of the travel magazine, Holiday.  Accompanied by eight sumptuous black-and-white photographs depicting its shaded patios, narrow alleyways, mid-day meals, fritter vendors, pottery merchants, public scribes, medina gates, and well-born women (“veiled like sedate ghosts”), Bowles’s “Fez” reels off the pastoral sights, nocturnal sounds, dinner rituals, and complimentary hashish of this “ancient Moroccan city” and important “religious citadel of Islam.”[i]  “Fez,” his article begins, “is a city whose site was chosen purely for esthetic reasons” (13).  In the account that follows one gets the impression that Fez indeed comprises a desirable but tenuous aesthetic experience for Bowles, who strives to capture its specificity through the numerous sensory claims being made on the body of the adventurous traveler by the city’s inhabitants, bare earth, storks, straw, thya wood, latticework, perfumes, mint, textiles, ripe figs, and donkeys before modernity catches up with them and they speed off in the back of a rickety Renault bus.  Thus, he approvingly quotes the remarks of an old resident of Fez, Sidi Driss el Yacoubi, who claims never to have even seen an automobile: “‘What good is it?  The wheels go around fast, yes.  The horn is loud, yes.  You arrive sooner than on a mule, yes.  But why should you want to arrive sooner?  What do you do when you get there that you couldn’t do if you got there later?’” (13).  In reply to his own questions, the old Fassi laughs and goes on to cite the Qur’an, for there is no hope that “Western civilization” can evade “a fate which is predetermined, ‘written’ as they put it in Arabic” (13-14).

However, not everyone in Fez feels as Sidi Driss does about the emergent relationships between modernity and Islam, and throughout the remainder of the article, Bowles obliquely discloses some of the immanent threats to the medieval charms of this stimulating city.  On the one hand, there are the “modern-minded, bourgeois Fassi,” who possessively divvy up ancient homes upon the death of their fathers with unsightly, windowless walls and make a point of presenting their wives, mothers, slave-girls, and daughters to Westerners during house calls, in the interest of conveying the progressiveness of their thinking (17).  On the other, there are the college- and seminary-educated youths, whose “overwhelming obsession is to do away as speedily as possible with whatever is specifically Moroccan.  However, their loyalties remain wholly within the Moslem world; they are not interested in becoming Westerners.  Cairo is their idea of a really civilized place” (20).  Interestingly, according to Bowles’s article, the French colonists do not pose much of a danger to the preservation of Fez because they have decided to quarter themselves many miles from the city in “typical colonial-exposition style,” now gone to seed: “It is a depressing spot, a potpourri of broken windows, peeling paint, cracking concrete, wheezing old automobiles, short-tempered Frenchmen and begging native children—a hideous contrast to the soothing homogeneous beauty of the old city” (20).  If anything, the French Quarter is essential to the aesthetic pleasures of Fez itself, for its slum-like qualities show off the attractive features of that walled city and its residents all the more effectively: unlike the French, the “Fassi have always known how to live—they still do. . . . There is a complete lack of nervous tension in [their] life, an utter ignorance of what it means to be bored, all of which makes for a satisfaction in existence, a thing that very few Westerners are able to attain” (22).

The emblem of such a satisfaction that is still available to the Western traveler and to which Bowles returns more than once in his account of Fez and Fassi life is the experience of being led against one’s will by a servant through the labyrinthine passageways within the old city late at night after a long, drawn-out dinner.  In part, having a guide is necessary for navigating this space after dark because “many of the inner gates across the passageways that serve as streets are regularly closed at night, so that the man who has stayed out late and wants to take short cuts to get home often finds he must go all the way back to where he started and try another route” (14-16).  Even should one want to walk blindly through Fez, “a polite host will never let his guest depart unaccompanied. . . . It may be several miles and one may complain that one prefers to go alone; there is no escape; the other will be adamant.  He remains until the end, and you both go uphill and down in the darkness—through tunnels, across bridges, nearly always accompanied in the nocturnal silence by the faint sound of running water behind the walls, until you reach your door” (16).  Later in the article, Bowles describes another guided trek through Fez at night, this time after he has eaten some hashish:  “The expedition lasts forever, but I do get home somehow, even though it is not before the visions have already begun to project themselves on the moonlit walls around me as I stumble along” (20).  In total darkness and sobriety, it is the barely audible water that lingers with the traveler to Fez, while high on hash in the full moonlight it is the vivid visuality of the ancient Fassi cityscape that stands out “like an early movie, when in order to make a night sequence they printed scenes shot in sunlight on blue film” (20).  Regardless of whatever impression the first sentence of Bowles’s article leaves on the reader, one finishes “Fez” with a clear sense that the city certainly is a site that this accomplished travel writer chooses to visit and describe for purely aesthetic reasons.

Bowles would return to the city of Fez five years later in his third novel, The Spider’s House (1955), which details not the bodily experiences evoked by this ancient Moroccan city but rather the “dissolution” of the “traditional pattern of life” among the Fassi during the nationalist struggles of the mid-1950s.[ii]  Focalized through a shifting cast of Moroccan and American characters, the third-person narrative focuses a great deal on the relationship between expat writer John Stenham and an illiterate young Fassi boy named Amar, who is a cherif, a descendent of the Prophet Mohammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib.  Stranded outside the walls of the city soon after the French begin their reprisals on local insurrectionary forces opposing the removal of Sultan Mohammed V from the throne, Amar joins up with Stenham and Polly “Lee” Burroughs, a bemused American tourist and supporter of the anti-colonial violence breaking out before her very eyes.  Over the next few days, Stenham and Burroughs carry on their volatile and ideologically-driven debates over the merits of the Istiqlal (Independence) Party and nationalist movements in general as this unlikely trio make their way into the mountains to witness the communal observance of Eid al-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice), a Muslim religious holiday commemorating Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, at Allah’s request.[iii]  Banned by Istiqlal until Sultan Mohammed V returns to the throne, Eid al-Adha and its illicit celebration miles from Fez allow Stenham and Amar to converge in their anti-nationalist opinions as the American is amazed to learn that the young cherif actually comports himself in accordance with Qur’anic law, something which is totally alien to Stenham’s conceptions of Moslems up to this point.[iv]

In particular, Amar’s genuine religious piety leads Stenham to wonder privately whether Moroccans are in the end all that different from Westerners, who themselves are not “inexorably conditioned by the pressure of their own society” but capable of exhibiting “individual variations”: “But in that case the Moroccans were much like anyone else, and very little of value would be lost in the destruction of their present culture, because its design would be worth less than the sum of the individuals who composed it—the same as in any Western country” (336).  What Amar disrupts, in other words, is Stenham’s sense of the representability of such a thing as a “Moslem,” “Moroccan,” or “Fassi,” for what this young native informant comes to constitute for him is a singular difference that his thoughts on regional, national, and religious alterity cannot quite seem to assimilate.  Given money by Burroughs to buy a pistol so he can fight alongside his fellow rebellious Moroccans, Amar later inadvertently aids the escape of a group of nationalists outside of Fez before returning to the Americans’ hotel, where he accepts a reluctantly offered ride from Stenham and Burroughs.  The two Americans have implausibly consummated their contentious relationship and are making a break for it to Casablanca.  Somewhere on the Meknès road, they tell the boy that he cannot accompany them to where they are going.  Forced to leave the car, Amar runs after them:  “Now for a moment he had the exultant feeling of flying along the road behind the car.  It would surely stop.  He could see the two heads in the window’s rectangle, and it seemed to him that they were looking back” (406).  The car passes from view, however, and in a poignant re-staging of Sidi Driss’s comments in the earlier travel article on Fez, the conclusion of The Spider’s House shows Amar arriving sooner, thanks to Polly and Stenham’s automobile, at his seemingly predestined fate:  standing alongside the road in the middle of no place one would want to be alone.

As this speedy and selective précis suggests, the resonances between Bowles’s Fassi article and his Fassi novel are multifaceted.  As the book’s chief exponent of the aesthetic appreciation of Fez, Stenham repeatedly echoes that article’s anxieties concerning the precarity of the city’s particular charms, threatened most of all by the forces of modernity, whether they are to be found among the French or (perhaps even more likely) the Moroccan nationalists themselves: “When this city fell, the past would be finished.  The thousand-year gap would be bridged in a split second, as the first bomb thundered; from that instant until the later date when the transformed metropolis lay shining with its boulevards and garages, everything would have happened mechanically” (167).[v]  Not surprisingly, then, the novel’s opens with Stenham in a suggestively familiar situation; namely, that of failing to convince his Fassi dinner host that he does not need a servant to lead him back to his hotel.  Unable to account for why his Berber guide will not let him talk or turn on a flashlight as they gropingly negotiate the nighttime passageways of Fez, Stenham muses privately over how the alterity of Moslems is merely a product of cultural differences, of “ritual and gesture,” neither of which “give their perceptions any profundity,” just as the rituals and gestures of Fassis make them a “feline, nocturnal people” (6).  Along the way Stenham momentarily loses himself in the heightened sensory environment he both listens and contributes to as he and the guide traverse Fez at night:

There were places where his footfalls were almost silent, places where the sound was strong, single and compact, died straightaway, or where, as he advanced along the deserted galleries, each succeeding step produced a sound of an imperceptibly higher pitch, so that his passage was like a finely graded ascending scale, until all at once a jutting wall or a sudden tunnel dispersed the pattern and began another section in the long nocturne which in turn would slowly disclose its own design.  And the water was the same, following its countless courses behind the partitions of earth and stone.  Seldom visible but nearly always present, it rushed beneath the sloping alleyways, here gurgled, here merely dripped, here beyond the wall of a garden splashed or dribbled in the form of a fountain, here fell with a high hollow noise into an invisible cistern, here all at once was unabashedly a branch of the river roaring over the rocks (so that sometimes the cold vapor rising was carried over the wall by the wind and wet his face), here by the bakery had been dammed and was almost still, a place where the rats swam. (7)

The “faint sound of running water” referred to in “Fez” gets expansively developed by The Spider’s House into an indexical series (“here . . . here . . . here . . . here . . .”) of fussily distinguished and cataloged sounds (gurgle, drip, splash, dribble, hollow fall, roar) that not only notate an ongoing passage through a dark, variegated space but also act as accompaniment on the soundtrack provided by Stenham’s modulating footsteps.  Walking at night in Fez seems to be even more of a stimulating experience than Bowles’s travel article had intimated five years earlier.

Yet Stenham’s nocturne with footsteps and water is not allowed to develop beyond his return to the hotel.  Waiting for him there is news that the Moroccan nationalist movement that he has successfully kept from his mind throughout the night is about to disrupt his Fassi aesthetic reveries once and for all: “The only feeling of which Stenham could be conscious at the moment was a devout wish that he had not knocked on the door, that he could still be standing outside in the dark where he had been five seconds ago” (12).  In turn, his overblown and self-aggrandizing reflections on the general character of Moslems and Fassis during the walk back to the hotel, which were occasioned by his Berber guide’s supposedly perverse refusal to let him talk or turn on his flashlight, now appear bitterly ironic.  Stenham has been too self-absorbed to have noticed that the elaborate efforts of his guide to maintain silence and darkness on the circuitous journey to the hotel were life-preserving.  After all, there is an anti-colonial struggle that is about to get even more violent throughout Morocco and the Maghreb, and to be a Westerner easily mistakable for a Frenchman wandering about the crooked alleys and byways of Fez after midnight at this particular moment in history may be decidedly hazardous to one’s health.  In the prologue to The Spider’s House, Stenham walks through Fez thinking he is in a Paul Bowles travel article and is disappointed to find himself situated instead within the much more complicated Fez of a Paul Bowles novel.

At a surface level, then, what this intrusion of violence and history into the American’s recognizable aestheticization of Fez indicates within the first few pages of The Spider’s House is that Bowles has a canny sense of genre distinctions in his writing.  In the 1958 essay, “The Challenge to Identity,” he asks, “What is a travel book?”, and his answer remains illuminatingly straightforward: “For me it is the story of what happened to one person in a particular place, and nothing more than that; it does not contain hotel and highway information, lists of useful phrases, statistics, or hints as to what kind of clothing is needed by the intending visitor. . . . The subject-matter of the best travel books is the conflict between writer and place.  It is not important which of them carries the day, so long as the struggle is faithfully recorded.”[vi]  What matters in travel writing, in other words, is the individual’s fidelity to the subjective reactions, reflections, and experiences actually evoked by a foreign “place,” not his or her capacity to reflect the objective facets (facts, numbers, barometric pressures) of such a site.  A faithfully reproduced interiority is the measure onto which readers can hold as we assess the confrontations of the traveler with new sights, sounds, people, and experiences: “A reader can get an idea of what a place is really like only if he knows what its effects were upon someone of whose character he has some idea, of whose preferences he is aware” (361).  In this regard, then, the Stenham we encounter in the prologue to The Spider’s House certainly plays by the rules of the Bowlesian travel writing game, exotifying and generalizing in ways that may be spurious or partial but that are no less authentically subjective for all that.

What differentiates the novel, however, is the fact that, unlike the travel book, it unavoidably raises the problem of achieving an inter-subjective relationship between text and reader that Bowles doubted was possible in the first place.  As he notes in his 1972 autobiography, Without Stopping, “Long ago [i.e., the mid-1940s] I had decided that the world was too complex for me ever to be able to write fiction; since I failed to understand life, I would not be able to find points of reference which the hypothetical reader might have in common with me.”[vii]  For Brian T. Edwards in Morocco Bound (2005), this denial of shared orientations between himself and readers of his novels was part and parcel of Bowles’s protracted “refusal of the American literary context that was his necessary point of reference in the four books of fiction he published between 1949 and 1955.”[viii]  Focusing on this early period in Bowles’s career as a fiction writer, Edwards compellingly articulates the ways in which such a refusal informs his compositional practices as a novelist, which are simultaneously late modernist and geopolitically engaged.  Exemplary of such Janus-faced practices in The Sheltering Sky (1949) are said to be Bowles’s linguistic and narrative strategies for interrupting and distancing “American reading subjects from the developing political relationship to the Arab world that deeply informed [his] novel and was thickly woven into the political and economic fortunes of the United States.”[ix]  In particular, Edwards singles out the interruptive functions served both by The Sheltering Sky’s use of untranslated Maghrebi Arabic and by its shift in narrative focus to Kit’s relationship with Belqassim following Port’s early death in that book.  According to Edwards, these paired interruptions not only have the potential to break up the coherence of the American national subject but also to bring out the difference of Maghrebi subjects in ways otherwise foreclosed by the frames of nationalist thinking: “As Bowles’s case demonstrates, there are American authors of the 1940s-1970s whose work sits uneasily within the hypernational framework of the period. . . . [the] departure [of their work] from the national episteme helps rethink the relationship between cultural production and foreign relations.”[x]

Consequently, the task for the critic of a Bowles novel (rather than of a Bowles travel article) becomes the explication of how the interruptive techniques of his fiction possibly shape geopolitical subjects and representations that are not at all reducible to a continuum running from anti-imperialism to neocolonialism and back again.  I submit that Fredric Jameson’s controversial remarks on national allegories in “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism” (1986) are in fact crucial for how such disruptive potentialities might be understood to operate in The Spider’s House.  As Jameson notes in the opening pages of that article, even classifying the works he looks at as examples of “third-world literature” is a provocative gesture because the three worlds theory itself seems to presuppose the effacement of important national and regional differences between a variety of non-western countries.  This becomes especially evident when comparing the contexts and texts of China and Senegal, the two “third-world” sites on which Jameson focuses most of his attention.  Nevertheless, what ultimately draws him to the descriptive merits of the three worlds model is that, unlike theories of the “global south,” it does not efface systemic differences between capitalism, real existing socialism, and the heterogeneously mixed social modes of organization to be found in all the countries of the third world, which are said to be “in various distinct ways locked in a life-and-death struggle with first-world cultural imperialism—a cultural struggle that is itself a reflexion of the economic situation of such areas in their penetration by various stages of capital, or as it is sometimes euphemistically termed, of modernization.”[xi]  The impression that this situation leaves on the cultures produced by the third world in the Cold War era necessitates the annulment of the first-world split between “the private and the public, between the poetic and the political,” between “the domain of sexuality and the unconscious and that of the public world of classes, of the economic, and of sexual political power,” between Freud and Marx: “although we may retain for convenience and for analysis such categories as the subjective and the public or political, the relations between them are wholly different in third-world culture.  Third-world texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic—necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society.”[xii]

This is not the place to replay the attacks on and defenses of Jameson’s allegorical linkage of libidinal apparatuses to the public relationships of economics and politics in the third world.[xiii]  However, to the extent that it is possible for one to bracket the prescriptive dimensions of his argument, the case can be made that Jameson’s descriptions of the effects that “third-world literature” has on “first-world readers” are frequently staged and disrupted throughout The Spider’s House.  In fact, the interruptive project that Edwards understands to be informing Bowles’s early fiction manifests itself most clearly in the ways in which the novel establishes, resists, and decomposes the efficacy of all such allegorical frameworks in narrating Morocco’s transition from colony to nation-state.

Perhaps the most obvious point of contact between Jameson’s essay and Bowles’s novel is the enactment of the first-world split between private and public that we encounter in the figure of Stenham.  Crucially, given the Cold War context informing Jameson’s remarks, this division in Stenham is no mere datum or neutral experience in itself but rather is the product of a tortuous history of de-radicalization shared by many Americans who came of age politically in the 1930s.  Often understood to be paradigmatic in this regard is the trajectory traced by Partisan Review, the journal in which Bowles first published the short story, “A Distant Episode,” in early 1947.  In fact, according to one of his biographers, it is precisely because Partisan Review accepted this especially grim tale that Bowles was able to feel that “he had achieved literary acceptance sufficient to merit a career as a writer,” which suggests that the magazine was a formative point of reference as he transitioned from music to fiction.[xiv]  As it tried to cope with the Popular Front, the Spanish Civil War, the Great Purge, and the Moscow Show Trials, Partisan Review evolved from a fellow-traveling publication in the mid 1930s to a dissident Communist forum that also influentially defended modernist and avant-garde art in the late 1930s and early 1940s, after which point it became more or less reconciled to a capitalist world order because U.S. hegemony increasingly appeared to be the lesser evil facing democracy in light of the threats posed to it by real existing socialism.[xv]  To be sure, the crude simplicity of this arc is complicated, but by no means belied, by the lives and careers of the writers, critics, and intellectuals associated with the early volumes of Partisan Review.  Thus, the road-to-Damascus-like conversions to conservatism and liberal anti-communism of Sydney Hook and Lionel Trilling, respectively, may stand out sharply against the more protracted and in some cases elusive adjustments in the political commitments of critics as diverse as Philip Rahv, Dwight Macdonald, or Clement Greenberg, though even these finely drawn distinctions still end up telling us the same old story, which is that of the rightward lurch of the heterodox Left from the late 1930s onward in the U.S.[xvi]

Rahv’s essays in particular make comprehensible the disorienting diffusion of political position-taking among the figures connected to Partisan Review in the aftermath of the disenchanting events and revelations of the 1930s.  In fact, the sobering assessments made by Rahv in “Trials of the Mind” (1938) following news of the continuing purge trials help to articulate how the separation of the individual from radical political activity took place among many U.S. intellectuals, fellow-travelers, and (as Stenham and Bowles themselves once were) members of the Communist Party.  Because of the emergence of totalitarian trends within Party itself, Rahv’s essay argues that now the “historic process must be conceived on the plane of tragedy.  To regard it as melodrama is to believe that it yields to accident, cunning, and heroics.  On a provisional scale such yielding may occur; none the less within the final implacable summation the impurities are dissolved and the interventions repulsed.  In acting, man takes liberties; but only in recognizing as he acts the tragic nature of the forces that involve him does he gain freedom.  To endeavor to become the authors of the tragedy of history is utopian—all we can do is identify ourselves as its characters.”[xvii]  Not collective ameliorative change of man’s social conditions of existence but the individualizing recognition of one’s own inconsequence was seemingly the only revolutionary act left to Western fellow-travelers like Rahv, who felt able thereafter to harbor the illusion (at least for a time) that such a recognition itself made a more meaningful difference than that of actually existing socialism.

In other words, the tragedy evoked by Rahv has to do with how the first-world split between public and private noted by Jameson became a painfully lived experience for those intellectuals who were de-radicalized by Stalinism and the new world order that began to take shape following the war.  No longer able as a group to resolve the contradictions of social life, dissident American Leftists instead started to train themselves in the “deep cultural conviction that the lived experience of our private existences is somehow incommensurable with the abstractions of economic science and political dynamics.”[xviii]  The traumatic political content of the gulf opened up here may get elided by Port’s existentialist posturing in The Sheltering Sky, but Stenham’s predicament in The Spider’s House significantly depends upon his inability to think of this split between private and public in any other terms than those determined by Communism, the specter of which he sees everywhere in Morocco, from the Istiqlal Party to Polly Burroughs herself.  In fact, Stenham muses at one point over the possibility that the Communist Party is in fact ultimately responsible for the anti-colonial struggles breaking out throughout the Maghreb, making the Moroccan nationalists and the French colonialists little more than puppets of Moscow:

For the French had basically the same idea as the Nationalists; they quarreled only over externals, and even there he was beginning to wonder if these supposed disagreements were not part of a gigantic Machiavellian act, put on under the combined auspices of the French and Moroccan Communists in governmental positions, who, knowing better than anyone that before there can be change there must be discontent, were willing to drag the country to the verge of civil war in the process of manufacturing that discontent.  The methods and aims of the Istiqlal were fundamentally identical with those of Marxism-Leninism; that much had been made abundantly clear to him by reading their publications and talking with members and friends of the organization.  But wasn’t it possible that any movement toward autonomy in a colonial country, especially one where feudalism had remained intact, must almost inevitably take that road? (155)

Reflections of this sort recur punctually throughout those sections of The Spider’s House that are focalized through Stenham, whose thoughts consistently invoke a three-world system only to reduce it to one totalizing mess: “After all, he reflected, Communism was merely a more virulent form of the same disease that was everywhere in the world.  The world was indivisible and homogeneous; what happened in one place happened in another, political protestations to the contrary” (211).  At most, Stenham is willing to concede that perhaps “the West was humane” while “the East took suffering for granted, plunged ahead toward the grisly future with supreme indifference to pain” (211).

Despite this possible wrinkle in Stenham’s one-world epiphany, both capitalist modernity and socialist modernity are said to eventuate in the same cul-de-sac, to which his only response is a retreat into the private, into those “individual variations” that are singularly his.  Later Stenham reflects on how “[i]t would not help the Moslems or the Hindus or anyone else to go ahead, nor, even if it were possible, would it do them any good to stay as they were.  It did not really matter whether they worshipped Allah or carburetors—they were lost in any case.  In the end, it was his own preferences which concerned him.  He would have liked to prolong the status quo because the décor that went with it suited his personal taste” (286).  In other words, Fez ought to remain medieval because it is aesthetically pleasing to Stenham that way; the mistake, his reflections repetitively insist, would be to re-code his private aesthetic pleasure politically or socially because to do so would merely involve the re-incorporation of his very self into a world order in which he claims to have no part.  As he notes to himself during the forbidden celebration of Eid al-Adha in the mountains, Stenham “did not want the French to keep Morocco, nor did he want to see the Nationalists take it.  He could not choose sides because the part of his consciousness which dealt with the choosing of sides had long ago been paralyzed by having chosen that which was designed to suspend all possibility of choice” (342).

Perhaps most symptomatic of this lack of allegorical resonance between private choices and public side-taking in Stenham are his heated interactions with the American tourist, Polly Burroughs.  For most of the novel, theirs is an agonistic relationship in which they reliably face off against each other over the subjects of Communism, nationalism, anti-colonialism, Orientalism, U.S. foreign policy, and Islam, besides a multitude of other less timely topics as well.  The ideological contradictions of their points of view sharpen seemingly to the point of total irresolvability during Eid al-Adha, when Stenham witheringly interrogates Burroughs over her decision to give money to Amar with which to buy a pistol: “‘What does it feel like to have the power of life or death over another human being?’ he asked her suddenly.  ‘Can you describe it?’” (351).  Burroughs replies, “‘It must be exhausting to see everything in terms of cheap melodrama’” (351), after which point Stenham curses and leaves the tent in which they have been sitting.  Then something irreconcilable with the events of the novel and the development of their relationship up to this point occurs.  Stenham and Burroughs decide to make their peace and then make whoopee: “Almost immediately he came back in, clearly having been debating himself outside the entrance; his expression was determined, a little embarrassed, and he was shaking his head.  He walked over to her.  ‘God damn it,’ he said, sitting down again beside her, ‘why do we have to act like two six-year-olds?  I’m sorry if I’ve behaved badly. . . . After all, we got on all right with our differences of opinion before we saddled ourselves with that kid.  I don’t know why we shouldn’t be able to pick up where we left off.  Nothing’s changed, has it?’” (351).  Burroughs agrees, though she mentally notes that something has indeed changed.  They make arrangements to get back to Fez, have dinner, and then walk up to the top of a hill where “they sat quietly, and when he drew her to him, implanting a kiss first on her forehead, then on each cheek, and finally (so beautifully), on her lips, she knew it was decided, and she realized with some surprise that however eagerly he might be looking forward to the intimacies of love, she herself hoped for that moment with no less impatience” (352-53).

At least two essential things are worth noting here.  First of all, whatever allegorical significance credibly assignable to the ideological positions staked out by Stenham and Burroughs becomes thoroughly undermined by their erotic union at the end of The Spider’s House, where the decision to patch things up and start a romantic relationship together does not at all resolve the contradictions of their world-views.  Instead, these contradictions are revealed to be irrelevant to the singular and unaccountable choices that people make as private individuals.  As noted by Jameson, these two first-world subjectivities may be understood thereby to annul the allegorical referentiality between the “domain of sexuality and the unconscious and that of the public world of classes, of the economic, and of sexual-political power.”  The Spider’s House tantalizingly raises the possibility of the socio-political referentiality of Stenham and Burroughs’ interactions only to foreclose it by the narrative’s end.  The other thing worth holding on to from this passage is Stenham’s claim that it is Amar who is responsible for their delayed recognition of the primacy of the interpersonal over the social in the couple’s relationship together.  Implicit in this claim is a sense within Stenham that Amar somehow comprises a means of bridging this split between public and private, and tellingly what causes him to jump to this conclusion is his belief earlier in the novel that the young Fassi boy is indeed representative of the country as a whole.  He says to Burroughs at one point, “‘This kid is split right down the middle . . . You’ve got all Morocco right here in him.  He says one thing one minute and the opposite the next, and doesn’t even realize he’s contradicted himself.  He can’t even tell you where his sympathies are’” (285).  Thus, Stenham and Burroughs get hung up on their ideological differences because Amar fools Stenham into thinking that what they say and do has an allegorical significance opening out onto political and social levels of meaning.  In Jameson’s terms, as the necessarily allegorical subject of third-world literature, Amar reminds Stenham and Burroughs that the private need not be split off from the public ever and always.

As I indicated earlier in my summary of The Spider’s House, however, Stenham comes to reverse this interpretation of Amar after he discovers that the young cherif is not so riven with contradictory or hypocritical impulses as he had first assumed: “in that case the Moroccans were much like anyone else, and very little of value would be lost in the destruction of their present culture, because its design would be worth less than the sum of the individuals who composed it—the same as in any Western country.”  In other words, Amar eventually is the occasion for Stenham’s disorienting realization that not all Moroccans are equally representative of Morocco, that not all third-world subjects are inevitably allegorical figurations.  Remarkably, given the subtlety with which Bowles’s narrative distances itself from Stenham’s point of view, The Spider’s House climaxes by enacting this realization for the reader through the interruption of whatever connection Amar might have had to a national allegorical framework itself.  After he ends up outside Fez with some nationalists whom he met earlier in the novel, Amar is asked to play on a flute while the group listens from a gallery outside the room.  His music produces an almost ecstatic bodily experience that lead him beyond Allah to a vision of “the Nazarene man [Stenham], a puzzling smile on his lips, the way he had looked in the hotel room the first evening” (394).  All Amar can think of as he finishes playing is “the Nazarene.  He had been a friend; perhaps with time they could even have understood one another’s hearts.  And Amar had left him, sneaked away from Sidi Bout Chta without even saying good-bye” (394).

While he broods over the unresolved state of his personal relationship to Stenham, however, Amar finds himself embroiled in a more dangerous situation because the nationalists have all escaped into the night while he played on the flute, the music of which was actually intended to hold off the French colonial forces waiting outside from immediately raiding the house.  Amar is thus captured by a representational system when he falls for the nationalists’ ruse:  he thinks he is playing music, but he is really performing theater.  Having gotten to the roof on which he hides for the rest of the night while the house is overrun with Frenchmen, Amar listens to the noise of breaking glass and shouting voices, and after these noises cease and the French colonial forces leave, he has a disquieting epiphany, one that effectively cuts him off from all representation, allegorical or nationalist:

The world was something different from what he had thought it.  It had come nearer, but in coming nearer it had grown smaller.  As if an enormous piece of the great puzzle had fallen unexpectedly into place, blocking the view of distant, beautiful countrysides which had been there until now, dimly he was aware that when everything had been understood, there would be only the solved puzzle before him, a black wall of certainty.  He would know, but nothing would have meaning, because the knowing was itself the meaning; beyond that there was nothing to know. (399)

This passage is crucial for interpreting the book’s ending, which offers a staggering image of what this new knowledge of nothing but knowing itself might look like.  For what this “solved puzzle” and “black wall of certainty” inaugurate within Amar is the awareness that he has become a singularly unrepresentable political subject, which disrupts any allegorical interpretations of him or his significance for the Moroccan nation in The Spider’s House.

Abandoned by the nationalists, cut off from his family, doubtful of Islam’s role in a modernized Moroccan nation-state, Amar is forced to fall back on the unlikely interpersonal ties he has developed with Stenham over the course of the novel, though even this amity is insufficient to provide him a secure place in the world.  On the one hand, the Americans get to travel on to parts unknown where they will be able to hone their atomized subjectivities in confrontation with new sights, sounds, people, and experiences; on the other, Amar ends up in a place that no longer seems to connect with any encompassing social, religious, or political order, and decisively he gets stuck in this place that is no place for personal reasons, not political ones.  The distance between Amar and the unseen car carrying away Stenham and Burroughs thus adumbrates the rift that has grown up between this young Fassi boy and that national allegorical system from which he has gotten himself excluded because he wanted a friend at a time when he was told he should be on the lookout for an enemy.

[i] Paul Bowles, “Fez,” Holiday 8, no. 1 (July 1950): 13-22, here 13.  Further references provided parenthetically.

[ii] Paul Bowles, The Spider’s House (New York: Harper, 2003), ix.  Further references provided parenthetically.

[iii] Of course, in the mid-1950s, the resonance of this holiday in Morocco would have been as political and timely as it was religious because Sultan Mohammed V had been deposed by the French on August 20, 1953, the day before Eid al-Adha that year.

[iv] According to Stenham’s conceptions of their behavior in The Spider’s House, Moslems cannot help but lie: “Stenham had always taken it for granted that the dichotomy of belief and behavior was the cornerstone of the Moslem world.  It was too deep to be called hypocrisy; it was merely custom.  They said one thing and they did something else” (336).  Cf. Bowles, “Fez,” 17:  after waiting three-and-a-half hours for a bus to Karia that a restaurant manager had told him about the previous day, Bowles “somewhat peevishly” confronts the manager, “who looked startled.  ‘You’ve been waiting since half past six?  But there’s no bus to Karia, monsieur.’  It took a certain amount of self-control for me to point out to him that this information was not completely in accordance with what he had told me the day before.  ‘Oh, yesterday,’ he smiled.  ‘I just said that to please you’.”

[v] As with an awful lot of what Stenham says or thinks about Fez, an evocative misprision informs this piteous glimpse of the end of the past because, as it happens, the first bomb already fell on Fez forty years earlier, during the French military action taken against a mutiny in that city in April 1911.  See C.R. Pennell, Morocco since 1830: A History (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 155-56.

[vi] Paul Bowles, “The Challenge to Identity,” The Nation, 26 April 1958: 360-62, here 360.  Further references provided parenthetically.

[vii] Paul Bowles, Without Stopping (New York: Putnam , 1972), 262.

[viii] Brian T. Edwards, Morocco Bound: Disorienting America’s Maghreb, from Casablanca to the Marrakech Express (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 117.

[ix] Ibid., 103.

[x] Ibid., 80.

[xi] Fredric Jameson, “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Social Text, No. 15 (Autumn 1986): 65-88, here 68.

[xii] Ibid., 69.

[xiii] The responses to Jameson’s essay have been as varied as they have been contentious.  I point to only two notable examples here: Aijaz Ahmad, “Jameson’s Rhetorical of Otherness and “National Allegory,” Social Text, No. 17 (Autumn 1987): 3-25; and Mohamed Salah Omri, Nationalism, Islam and World Literature: Sites of Confluence in the Writings of Maḥmūd al-Masʻadī (London: Routledge, 2006).

[xiv] Gena Dagel Caponi, Paul Bowles: Romantic Savage (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994), 104.

[xv] The most useful institutional histories of Partisan Review remain James Burkhart Gilbert, Writers and Partisans: A History of Literary Radicalism in America (New York: Wiley, 1968); Terry A. Cooney, The Rise of the New York Intellectuals: Partisan Review and Its Circle, 1934-1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986); and Hugh Wilford, The New York Intellectuals: From Vanguard to Institution (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).

[xvi] Given the various forking pathways by which U.S. fellow travelers and Party members abandoned Left political organizations in the late 1930s and early 1940s, it is worth noting that Stenham’s own account of what drove him from the Party claims that it had to do with the alliance between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during World War II, which made Communism not an alternative so much as a harsher supplement to capitalist modernity in his eyes.  See Bowles, The Spider’s House, 194.

[xvii] Philip Rahv, “Trials of the Mind,” Partisan Review 4, no. 5 (April 1938): 3-11, here 11.

[xviii] Jameson, 69.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s