- Experimenting with Islam:Nietzschean Reflections on Bowles’s Araplaina
In a letter to his friend Köselitz dated March 13 1881, Nietzsche wrote: "Ask my old comrade Gersdorff whether he'd like to go with me to Tunisia for one or two years. . . . I want to live for a while amongst Muslims, in the places moreover where their faith is at its most devout; this way my eye and judgement for all things European will be sharpened."1 Various motifs in the work of Paul Bowles—a fascination with cruelty, an obsession with destruction, a predilection for abysses (metaphorical and literal) in the landscapes of his stories—invite some kind of reference to Nietzsche, however brief. Nietzsche's desire to live in the most intense pocket of Islam he could find had, one suspects, less to do with Islam than with his desire for a "trans-European eye"2 —four years after his remarks on Tunisia, Nietzsche would say the same thing about Japan in a letter to his sister.3 Nietzsche's proposed trip to Tunisia would lead to a better understanding of Europe, not Islam, and would provide him with an outside perspective on the European disease of modernity—a different set of lenses for his Kantian spectacles. This conception of Islam was, therefore, a means to self-knowledge, a handy instrument for diagnosing one's own illness, and a useful mirror to observe with greater clarity the more unattractive elements in one's own features. Most of Nietzsche's references to Islam and Islamic culture—and there are well over a hundred and fifty of them in the Gesamtausgabe—become clearer when one keeps this functional, almost anthropological, approach to the Islamic Other in mind.
Although there is nothing new about this idea of the Orient as a tool of European self-awareness—as early as the 1780s, Sir William Jones was [End Page 309] already hoping the study of Sanskrit and Arabic would offer a "more extensive insight into the human [read "European"] mind"4 —an awareness of the genealogy of such Western interest in Arabs and Mohammedaner certainly helps us better understand Bowles's own eerie fascination with the faith. The parodies of missionaries, academics, and policemen which we find in stories such as "The Time of Friendship" and "A Distant Episode" confirm the distance Bowles attempted to put between his own texts and those Orientalist traditions of both Christian (i.e., Islam as a pool of potential believers) and Imperialist (Muslims as potential human resources) provenance. In attempting to escape such vocabularies and textual traditions, Bowles ultimately replicates and reshapes their original representations, producing an irony of delicate complexities, which is the object of this article.
Near the beginning of Bowles's witty, though somewhat caustic autobiography Without Stopping, a moment takes place that gives an insight into the way, in later years, the narrator would approach different cultures with the intention of constructing new worlds. At age five, Bowles relates how he often found himself alone in his parents large upstate New York house. Abandoned to his own devices, the young narrator began to entertain himself by fabricating and mapping out new countries with his own imagination: "Soon I invented a planet with landmasses and seas. The continents were Ferncowland, Lanton, Zaganokworld and Araplaina. I drew maps of each and gave them mountain ranges, rivers, cities and railways."5 The image is captivating not only for its visual appeal, of a five-year-old Bowles, future author of Sheltering Sky, sitting on the carpet, crayoning out his map of Araplaina. It also suggests the presence, very early on, of what will always be a central motivation in Bowles's fascination with the world of Islam: a desire for novelty, for the really new, as an escape from boredom. Bowles's Tangiers would later provide the very Araplaina he had been seeking all along.
In the world of Bowles's North African short stories, a number of common features seem to unite the otherwise disparate collection of tales found in The Time of Friendship and The Delicate Prey. Probably the foremost of these is cruelty. In "The Delicate Prey," the Moungari traveler...