VIP Paul Bowles

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Paul Bowles (December 30, 1910 - November 18, 1999)

An accomplished writer, poet, and photographer, this American-born novelist studied with Aaron Copeland wrote a number of modernist operas, ballets, song cycles, and orchestral and chamber pieces. In 1947 he relocated to Tangier, Morocco and authored several novels and short stories set in the Arab world, the most famous being The Sheltering Sky (1949). He wrote, "[T]he user of cannabis is all too likely to see the truth where it exists, and to fail to see it where it does not. Obviously few things are potentially more dangerous to those interested in prolonging the status quo of organized society."

In Without Stopping, his 1972 autobiography, Bowles describes his colorful and sometimes harsh ancestors, from which he fled and traveled the world "without stopping," because "each day lived through on this side of the Atlantic was one more day spent outside prison." He writes, "Very early I understood that I would always be kept from doing what I enjoyed and forced to do that which I did not. The Bowles family took it for granted that pleasure was destructive. . . .Vaguely I understood that laws were made to keep you from doing what you wanted to do. Furthermore, I understood that for my family the prohibition itself was the supreme good, because it entailed the sublimation of personal desire."

His tyrannical father insisted he chew all his food 40 times before swallowing, and the stress at dinnertime was so extreme Paul welcomed illness, when he would be excused from the dinner table. But he had a housekeeper/Nanny who was a socialist, a grandmother who read Theosophy and a grandfather who learned French so to read Dumas, Hugo and Balzac in the original. His uncle Guy was probably a homosexual who "wore Japanese kimonos and spent a good deal of time keeping incense burning in a variety of bronze dragons and Buddhas."

Bowles began writing books at the age of four, and one childhood story had a character who smoked opium. Prohibition was brand-new, and "people got drunk self-consciously; to show that one had been drunk was an elegant form of bravado." After writing a story wherein anyone who touched alcohol was "Hadeized" (sent to hell immediately), his Uncle Edward gave him a copy of Emerson’s Essays bound in red morocco.

Bowles attended college in Charlottesville Virginia, where he roamed the hills exploring and bringing back jugs of moonshine and also tried sniffing Squibb’s ether. Later he suddenly gave up alcohol, seeing what it did to people who drank it. This caused friction in his marriage when his wife, the writer Jane Auer, continued to drink as well as hang out with people like Henry Miller.

After arriving in Morocco, Bowles writes, "The Moroccans were constantly talking about majoun, which mighty otherwise be described as cannabis jam. Often I had accepted a pipe of kif when it was passed to me, but since I never inhaled the smoke, I had not received the effect and still thought of kif as a bad-tasting sort of tobacco. Thus the idea of majoun interested me, particularly after listening to certain vivid accounts of the wonders seen under its influence." Bowles got the address of a house in the Calle Ibn Khaldoun where "you could go and knock on the door and hand in your money and a few minutes later would be given a small package." Though his first experience "tasted like very old and dusty fudge from which all flavor had long since departed," this "in no way diminished its power." Going to the top of a mountain, he felt himself "being lifted, rising to meet the sun. . . .In another hour my mind was behaving in a fashion I should never have thought possible." He describes beautifully the set and setting that accommodated his experience, and how it helped him imagine and describe the death of the protagonist in his novel, The Sheltering Sky.

In Tangier, he found a barbershop where he could reliably purchase majoun, and writes, "I felt that I had come upon a fantastic secret: to change worlds, I had only to spread a bit of jam on a biscuit and eat it." He meticulously experimented to determine the optimal set of conditions for ingestion: amount consumed, time of day, accompanying diet, and psychological state. He liked it at twilight, taken upon sitting down to dinner of a clear soup, a small steak and salad. "It was imperative to be unmitigatedly content with all the facets of existence beforehand," he wrote. "The most minimal preoccupation, the merest speck of cloud on the emotional horizon, had a way of italicizing itself during the alteration of consciousness and assuming gigantic proportions, thus completely ruining the inner journey."

While in Tanger, Bowles wrote, painter Robert Rauschenberg and his wife were unwittingly dosed with majoun, with unhappy effects. Timothy Leary visited and gave Bowles a bottle of psyllocybin (sic) capsules made by Sandoz, which he "never got around to trying." When Jane arrived she had a traumatic experience with majoun and never tried it again. Although Paul repeatedly warned against taking too much, due to delayed onset, Jane impatiently gobbled a second helping and overdosed. "Illogically enough, from that day on, she remained an implacable enemy of all forms of cannabis. The fact that her experience had been due solely to an overdose seemed to her beside the point," Bowles wrote.

Elsewhere Bowles wrote, "One of the first things you must accept when you join the grown-ups' club [of the 20th century] is that fact that the Judaeo-Christains approve of only one out of all the substances capable of effecting a quick psychic change in the human organism -- and that one is alcohol. . . And so the last strongholds fashioned around the use of substances other than alcohol are being flushed out, to make everything clean and in readiness for the great alcoholic future." In Morocco today, farmers are marching to ask for relief from a government crackdown on their livelihood: cannabis farming for hashish export. Officials cite suspicions that Moroccan hashish was used to partly pay for dynamite that blew up trains in Madrid in 2004, killing 191 people.

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