Marveling, Again, At Paul Bowles' "A Distant Episode"
If there’s any culture left in the US, it’s buried under an unprecedented mudslide of Satanism, woke idiocy, snarky loutishness, academic cowardice and just bad English, as in confusing “migrant” with “immigrant,” or calling an “illegal immigrant” an “undocumented worker.” What do you expect, though, from a society that rewards Howard Stern, Jerry Springer, Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump and Joe Biden?
On YouTube, there’s a video of a sneering Biden mocking weapon inspector Scott Ritter in 1998, “I respectfully suggest they [Ritter’s superiors] have a responsibility slightly above your pay grade, slightly above your pay grade, to decide or not to take the nation to war, alone, or to take the nation to war part way, or to take the nation to war half as… half way. That’s a real tough decision. That’s why they get paid the big bucks, and that’s why they get the limos and you don’t. I mean this sincerely, I’m not trying to be flip.”
On and on this petty, classless man spewed in a performance he obviously thought very witty, for there was a constant smirk on his face. Biden the US senator even called Ritter “Scotty boy.” If you don’t understand the language, or just turn off the audio, Biden’s facial expressions alone convey enough about a nation that didn’t just produce such a weasel, but eventually crowned him as its leader and face. With all its contortions, Biden’s mouth fittingly reminds one of Donald Trump’s.
When I was a columnist at Unz, I would encounter strikingly asinine comments whenever I discussed any serious artist. When I praised John Cassavetes, for example, there were remarks about how this dark Greek couldn’t wait to pounce on Gena Rowlands, a blonde who happened to be his wife! When I examined Flannery O’ Connor’s consistently nasty depictions of poor whites, some bright bulb jumped in to ejaculate that I, Linh Dinh, could never be white, as if that had anything to do with my article.
Since reading while taking a shit has long been an American tradition, we’re reaching its natural conclusion, perhaps, with literacy, very loosely defined, engulfed, if not dunk, in a faecal miasma?
With that preamble, let’s revisit Paul Bowles’ 1945 short story, “A Distant Episode.” As with any great work, it doesn’t just yield deeper meanings but pleasures with each rereading. Revisiting a Moroccan village after ten years, a rather smug American linguist loses his tongue, language and thought process, so that’s the horrific plot, but let’s slow down to marvel at how beautifully it’s executed.
The story begins with “the Professor” on a bus. Never named, our protagonist is always “the Professor,” with P capitalized, as if it’s a proper title and not merely a profession. Already, Bowles mocks, but most subtly.
As will become all too evident, each character also treats the Professor with disdain, if not worse, but they’re all created by Bowles, after all.
When the Professor tells the bus driver he’s a linguist who’s “making a survey of variations on Moghrebi,” the latter becomes “scornful,” but why? Bowles gives us a clue by having Moroccans respond to the Professor in bad French or Arabic whenever he addresses them in Moghrebi. His presumptuous cluelessness annoys them.
Perhaps the Professor is just innocent?
Bowles, “Ten years ago he had been in the village for three days; long enough, however, to establish a fairly firm friendship with a café-keeper, who had written him several times during the first year after his visit, if never since.”
No fairly firm friendship can be established over three days via a third language in an alien culture. Plus, a decade is too long to sustain such a weak bond. Again, Bowles subtly mocks.
Comic details abound. Though traveling light, the Professor carries sun lotions and medicines, items he won’t get any chance to use.
At the café, the Professor discovers his firm friend has died, so he tells the waiter he doesn’t understand, a ridiculous response.
Suddenly friendless, the Professor reasserts his familiarity with this alien environment by asking about “little boxes made from camel udders.” This doesn’t impress the waiter, however:
The man looked angry. “Sometimes the Reguiba bring in those things. We do not buy them here.” Then insolently, in Arabic: “And why a camel-udder box?”
“Because I like them,” retorted the Professor. And then because he was feeling a little exalted, he added, “I like them so much I want to make a collection of them, and I will pay you ten francs for every one you can get me.”
Challenged, the Professor “retorted,” and feeling he had gotten the better of this exchange, he was “exalted.” To seal his victory, he would pay his adversary ten francs per udder box, an irresistible offer.
Though the waiter never delivers anything, he’s paid 50 francs for leading the Professor towards the Reguiba, a fearful tribe even the Professor has been warned about:
“The Reguiba is a cloud across the face of the sun.” “When the Reguiba appears the righteous man turns away.” In how many shops and market-places he had heard these maxims uttered banteringly among friends.
Why, then, does the Professor walk alone into the quarry or abyss in the dark, towards the dreaded Reguiba? He does it simply because he has decided to do so. As an American, he’s in charge of his destiny. With plenty of francs in his wallet, the Professor will buy many camel-udder boxes, to show off to friends and colleagues back home.
From the Reguiba’s perspective, there’s no reason to sell anything to this stranger, when they can take all his money, and him, too, a most valuable freak.
Even after he’s been attacked by the Reguiba’s dogs, and has a gun pressed against his spine, the Professor still fails to understand he’s in the deepest shit:
He did not doubt for a moment that the adventure would prove to be a kind of warning against such foolishness on his part—a warning which in retrospect would be half sinister, half farcical.
Many Americans feel entitled to their extreme adventures overseas, so they can relate, in retrospect, their experience in Laos, Iraq or Afghanistan, say, that’s half sinister, half farcical, except there’s no looking back for the Professor, for he won’t even be able to think at all, soon enough.
Appropriate for a culture where “cool” is used to mean anything positive, Americans excel at the coolest depictions of horror. This passage by Bowles is a masterpiece:
The man looked at him dispassionately in the gray 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.
Subjected to even more outrages, the Professor is reduced to the least sensate being:
Even when all his wounds had healed and he felt no more pain, the Professor did not begin to think again; he ate and defecated, and he danced when he was bidden, a senseless hopping up and down that delighted the children, principally because of the wonderful jangling racket it made. And he generally slept through the heat of the day, in among the camels.
After a year of this, the Professor has become used to his new normal:
He easily fell in with their sense of ritual, and evolved an elementary sort of “program” to present when he was called for: dancing, rolling on the ground, imitating certain animals, and finally rushing toward the group in feigned anger, to see the resultant confusion and hilarity.
At the end, the Professor is dismissed as “a holy maniac” by a French soldier as he runs into the desert. Amused, this fellow white even takes “a potshot at him for good luck”:
The bullet whistled dangerously near the Professor’s head, and his yelling rose into an indignant lament as he waved his arms more wildly, and hopped high into the air at every few steps, in an access of terror.
For voluntarily marching to his doom, the Professor is a maniac, though not so holy. Just before descending into the abyss, he thinks, “These people are not primitives.”
An ambivalent word, it denotes both savagery and innocence, head hunters and childlike, brown bodies to be fucked, saved or robbed blind, perhaps all at once, by the same people.
So he thought Moroccans were primitives, but with intimations of being tricked or sent into a trap, the Professor changes his mind.
The waiter’s last words to him are also thought-provoking:
“Good,” said the qaouaji, rising slowly. “Keep your money. Fifty francs is enough. It is an honor.” Then he went back into French: “Ti n’as qu’à discendre, to’ droit.” He spat, chuckled (or was the Professor hysterical?), and strode away quickly.
An honor to do what? Deliver a fool to his death? And what does he mean by “You just have to go down, you’re right,” in bad French?
From the depths of the abyss come faint, intermitten sounds of a flute, that is, of civilization, but music doesn’t negate violence or barbarity.
On the way to the abyss, they have walked on a path between mud walls, with the “odor of human excrement” nearly constant. That, too, is a sure sign of civilization. We make much more shit than music.
Though one must pay for any misreading, the penalty is usually trivial, so there’s no lesson learnt, really, but isn’t that how it is for everyone, until that fatal misreading?
Subjective, we can’t help but misread constantly, but that’s our individuality and free will, damn it! Right at the beginning, Bowles has the Professor thinking even shit is sweet:
Now facing the flaming sky in the west, and now facing the sharp mountains, the car followed the dusty trail down the canyons into air which began to smell of other things besides the endless ozone of the heights: orange blossoms, pepper, sun-baked excrement, burning olive oil, rotten fruit. He closed his eyes happily and lived for an instant in a purely olfactory world. The distant past returned—what part of it, he could not decide.
Wading into the primitive, the Professor seeks a distant past, without knowing it’s never that distant. The most primitive is always around. Discovering it most starkly, the Professor also loses his tongue, and with it, his mind, so there’s no articulation of this hard-earned wisdom.
Violence always outteaches.
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