Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 November 2020
THE TITLE OF Jeffrey Miller's edition of Bowles’ letters, In Touch, is particularly apt: it can ironically suggest physical contact, yet at the same time it indicates communication from a distance. Given Bowles’ predilection for travel and for life as an inveterate expatriate, communication from a distance was a necessity, and his attraction to distant and exotic places may also suggest a desire to avoid close proximity, which further suggests that distance and letter writing for Bowles were a means to initiate and maintain contact, yet at the same time to control or even avoid it. This dialectic, this push-pull of self and society, resonates in Bowles’ personal psychology and art, and also reflects the basic Emersonian dialectic of existence and consciousness, self and society, nature and culture that we have been following in our discussions of Bowles’ fiction. On many occasions in his letters Bowles refers to problems of representation, especially in the letters with his equally precocious school friend, Bruce Morrissette, who attended the University of Richmond during Bowles’ brief attendance at the University of Virginia. In addition, from time to time in his letters Bowles discusses his New England roots that were part of the historical backdrop to the intellectual foundations of the Emersonian antinomian tradition that is so consonant with Bowles’ own attitudes toward life. And of course the letters are a rich mine of information about Bowles’ personal life and attitudes. I begin by addressing the tradition of letter writing, which in the electronic age is rapidly going the way of the horseless carriage and the fully-vested pension plan. At the same time, I show how Bowles’ use of letter writing as a trope in his stories and novels gives insight into his own letter-writing practice and reflects his basic attitudes toward existence. Moreover, Bowles’ early letters reflect his attempts to shape an emerging identity based on transcendental and existential attitudes that generally prefer process to stasis, and existence-in-the-moment to a life of routine or habituation.
Paul Bowles spent more than fifty years living in Tangier, Morocco, where he developed a mystique as a cult writer. Because he was conservative in his attitudes toward travel and communication, Bowles generally avoided air travel and tended to communicate through old-fashion letter writing: he usually set aside time each day for his correspondence and wrote many letters a week.