l'octopoe francophone, poe

[Poe] Paul Bowles from the desert

Reflexive cultural expressions stoke the Franco-American flame.

Excerpt from: Paul BOWLES, The Sheltering Sky (1949)

[She was late that noon, and when she arrived she was in a breathless state because Corporal Dupeyrier had stopped her near the Zaouia and given her a very important message for him. It was a matter of a foreigner, an American, who had lost his passport.

“An American?” echoed the lieutenant. “In Bou Noura?” Yes, said Jacqueline. He was here with his wife, they were at Abdelkader’s pension (which was the only place they could have been, since it was the only hostelry of any sort in the region), and they had already been in Bou Noura several days. She had even seen the gentleman: a young man.

“Well,” said the lieutenant, “I’m hungry. How about a little rice today? Have you time to prepare it?”

“Ah, yes, monsieur. But he told me to tell you that it is important you see the American today.”

“What are you talking about? Why should I see him? I can’t find his passport for him. When you go back to the Mission, pass by the Poste and tell Corporal Dupeyrier to tell the American he must go to Algiers, to his consul. If he doesn’t already know it,” he added.

Ah, ce n’est pas pour ça! It’s because he accused Monsieur Abdelkader of stealing the passport.”

“What?” roared the lieutenant, sitting up.

“Yes. He went yesterday to file a complaint. And Monsieur Abdelkader says that you will oblige him to retract it. That’s why you must see him today.” Jacqueline, obviously delighted with the degree of reaction, went into the kitchen and began to rattle the utensils loudly. She was carried away by the idea of her importance.

The lieutenant slumped back into his bed and fell to worrying. It was imperative that the American be induced to withdraw his accusation, not only because Abdelkader was an old friend of his, and was quite incapable of stealing anything whatever, but particularly because he was one of the best known and highly esteemed men of Bou Noura. As proprietor of the inn he maintained close friendships with the chauffeurs of all the buses and trucks that passed through the territory; in the Sahara these are important people. Assuredly there was not one of them who at one time or another had not asked for, and received, credit from Abdelkader on his meals and lodgings; most of them had even borrowed money from him. For an Arab he was amazingly trusting and easy-going about money, both with Europeans and with his compatriots, and everyone liked him for it. Not only was it unthinkable that he should have stolen the passport—it was just as unthinkable that he should be formally accused of such a thing. For that reason the corporal was right. The complaint must be retracted immediately. “Another stroke of bad luck,” he thought. “Why must he be an American?” With a Frenchman he would have known how to go about persuading him to do it without any unpleasantness. But with an American! Already he could see him: a gorilla-like brute with a fierce frown on his face, a cigar in the corner of his mouth, and probably an automatic in his hip pocket. Doubtless no complete sentences would pass between them because neither one would be able to understand enough of the other’s language. He began trying to recall his English: “Sir, I must to you, to pray that you will—” “My dear sir, please I would make to you remark—” Then he remembered having heard that Americans did not speak English in any case, that they had a patois which only they could understand among themselves. The most unpleasant part of the situation to him was the fact that he would be in bed, while the American would be free to roam about the room, would enjoy all the advantages, physical and moral.

He groaned a little as he sat up to eat the soup Jacqueline had brought him. Outside the wind was blowing and the dogs of the nomad encampment up the road were barking; if the sun had not been shining so brightly that the moving palm branches by the window gleamed like glass, for a moment he would have said it was the middle of the night—the sounds of the wind and the dogs would have been exactly the same. He ate his lunch; when Jacqueline was ready to leave he said to her: “You will go to the Poste and tell Corporate Dupeyrier to bring the American here at three o’clock. He himself is to bring him, remember.”

Oui, oui,” she said, still in a state of acute pleasure. If she had missed out on the infanticide, at least she was in on the new scandal at the start.]


Paul Bowles gives us a haunting narrative with The Sheltering Sky, and his nimble prose conveys an alluring sense of time and place, one which sort of ends up with misunderstandings and despair.* Aiming for a lighter slice of the novel, we will reflect on the scene above, in which Bowles gives us his representation of the French colonial administrator meeting the American tourist. Inevitably the familiar coals of the long smoldering Franco-American fire are stirred, and we get the American Bowles writing a Frenchman thinking of an American—to amusing affects.

This excerpt comes in the middle of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, when the three American protagonists – Port and Kit Moresby, married, and the so-called third wheel Tunner – are well along their portentous journey into the Sahara. Historically and geographically speaking, the text alludes to Tangier, a city where Port, “heard all three of the town’s tongues: Arabic, Spanish and French,” in what now constitutes the modern state of Morocco. A giant swathe of north, west, and central Africa was certainly politically and militarily administered by France for much of the past two centuries in an imperial context, explaining the presence there of any French people and assorted westerners at all. Tangier itself was technically considered an international zone, administered by France and several other European colonizers, giving the city a very interesting vibe with international émigrés—much like Bowles himself, who lived in Tangier for many years of his life.** The desert, and not to mention Africa, has certainly been a source of mystery, misunderstanding and misplaced romance for much of the Western experience. Interestingly, Bowles wrote The Sheltering Sky on location in Morocco.

Bowles’ Lieutenant d’Armagnac, the character speaking to Jacqueline in the above scene, is the commander of Bou Noura, a small regional post in the desert along traditional transportation routes. He is the typical French colonial, abroad as gendarme, doctor, missionary or teacher. The above excerpt is actually just a portion of the brief eighteenth chapter of The Sheltering Sky, in which we meet this young Frenchman living a comfortable lifestyle, relatively benevolent and ambivalent (at least in his own view) about the indigenous peoples: the Arabs, the Berbers and the many other transitory desert peoples of North Africa. We meet Lieutenant d’Armagnac as the formerly popular, bed-ridden and scandalized big fish in the pond; he is demoralized due to the scandal causing transgressions and their repercussions earlier in the chapter. When American tourists arrive in Bou Noura and subsequently manage to ruffle local feathers of more than one plumage, we have Bowles’ humorous and somewhat conventional French perception on American travelers in response.

Having missed the earlier scandal, Jacqueline is eager to be the bearer of relative misfortune to a calmly dismissive lieutenant. It is not until Jacqueline informs the lieutenant of the Port’s faux pas against Monsieur Abdelkader, and thus the demonstration of his American lack of savoir-vivre as tourist to these parts of the world (as opposed to colonial ruler?), that the sparks truly start to fly. Soon Lieutenant d’Armagnac is considering his confrontation with the American, with that exaggerated gulf between Gallic reason and Anglo-Saxon barbarity a clear sign of ill luck.

The image the lieutenant gives us is comic, but tinges with relevancy on the reference to, “an automatic in his hip pocket,” as the possession of weapons exasperatingly remains in our contemporary American discourse. The most delight comes with his discouragement around being able to communicate at all, and the attempt to recall his own English. The traditional antagonism flares most brightly with the hilarious,

“Then he remembered having heard that Americans did not speak English in any case, that they had a patois which only they could understand among themselves.”

Class distinctions are embedded in the term patois, and the thought around how this weaves into Bowles’ larger narrative of cross cultural ignorance is quite fun. The story has many westerners journeying into the desert looking for a lacking element to their lives, but come across an empty void in their own vapid misunderstanding of place and context. Bowles layers in characters and their corresponding prejudices to enrich the narrative, giving us this familiar Franco-American tinder. Bowles gently stokes this long running fire between cultural cousins to perhaps call out both as joined in their profound otherness in a place so foreign and understandably, if passively, hostile to them as exploiters.

Lieutenant d’Armagnac frets over his adversarial disadvantage, and eventually sends Jacqueline – delighted with involvement – to retrieve the American. Overall, the short glimpse we have of the lieutenant’s expressions around American tourists is one of several intertwined cross-cultural misunderstandings that Bowles uses to demonstrate the power and severity of that lack of comprehension while inevitably one is joined with all under the sheltering sky. This single example is a humorous reminder of the similarities and conceptualizations that people in both France and America share, and one American’s play on those ideas to add to his overall affect in writing. There is a fine line between mutual cultural questioning and antagonism, but Bowles certainly gives us a tame example. Nobody is being branded a complete coward, or an uncouth beast; certainly no foods are being renamed.

The entirety of The Sheltering Sky is highly interesting and makes for an intense overall read. It is obviously recommended here, and should be available at your local public library branch.

Camels have nothing to do with this post, but do feature in Bowles’ narrative, so are appropriate.

*Michael Ondaatje also gives us a doomed pair of westerners in the romantic and tragic deserts of North Africa, in The English Patient.

**Christopher Isherwood was a friend of Paul Bowles, and he gives a brief account in Christopher and His Kind (subject of the 11/20/09, [Litpoe]) of visiting Bowles in Tangier with hashish inspired infamy. The incident is elaborated upon in the contemporary film, Chris & Don: A Love Story. Gore Vidal was also a friend of Bowles, and visited him in Tangier, as described in Vidal’s memoir Palimpsest.

A zaouia is the Maghrebi and West African term for an Islamic religious school and/or monastery, roughly corresponding with the word madrassa.


Thanks to the chickens & their sweet delicious eggs

Free range, local, organic and sustainable eggs are best for you, the chickens, and the Earth.

Around Thanksgiving, lots of Americans are thinking of turkey and pumpkin pie… traveling to see family and friends, maybe waking early on Friday morning to initiate the Christmas consumption. Many people also take a brief moment to give thought to what they are thankful for in this life: the family and friends come back into the picture, maybe our health or vitality, something usually registers on this day of pensiveness around our fortunes.

I feel extremely fortunate for eggs! Specifically, the eggs of one of my favorite feathered friends: the chicken. While I am also grateful to Aurore, the other winged friend featured in this year’s bountiful Thanksgiving feast, the eggs really shone through as I was making all of the various dishes for this year’s meal. Eggs are a necessary and ubiquitous component of many of the  side dishes which make their way onto the Thanksgiving table I have had the fortune to share the last few years. The sheer volume of egg consumed this year will be staggering:

  • 2 quiches — 4 eggs each (two whole eggs, two eggs yolks)  — 8 eggs total.
  • 2 pumpkin pies — 4 eggs each — 8 eggs total.
  • 1 casserole of mac n’ cheese — 2 eggs.
  • 1 bread stuffing — 3 eggs.
What a nice bird.

That makes for 21 sweet delicious eggs. The dishes not featuring eggs are only the turkey herself, and vegetable based dishes (raw salad, roasted root veggies, greens, brussel sprouts)—everything else calls for that jack of culinary trades: the egg; for which I am especially grateful this year. Having cracked and opened each one, I am trying to picture them now. Sticky and slimy. The gelatinous whites dusted in nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves before mixing. Being beaten into milk and cream, creating the frothy beginnings of custard like desserts. Mmm, thank you eggs.

To all you seasonal chefs out there, what are you thankful for in the kitchen this year? (Or if the day has passed, of what were you appreciative?)


Steampunk — laptops

Steampunk electronic consumer goods are almost inevitable. One of the most charming things about the narrative is when we get an image of the protagonist using some gizmo or gadget to vanquish the enemies or solve a mysterious puzzle. An idea to be brought up around these parts in general will be the transcendence of the genre as it allows for different themes, time periods, and conceptions of futuristic technologies than just the classical Victorian imagery of the genre. Many narratives and visual art presentations have amusingly blended the antiquarian and the futuristic. As we look at these particular consumer electronic goods, we can see a sort of small step away from the Victorian. It’s no mere cake decorated in a theme: now one is actually taking the technology, in this case a rather advanced piece (the laptop) and forcing it’s visual representation to an anachronistic place, but assuredly using it in the modern way. How retro-futuristic of one. It seems like not too many true steampunk laptops exist out there, but check out some of these crazy things (are they actually pleasant to use, or is the highly designed concept not good for its general interface?):

  • Intricately designed quintessential steampunk laptop, the clawed feet are sensible (for ventilation) and awesome. (Here’s a video of it in action!) Apparently it was made by someone who goes by Datamancer.
  • This laptop comes with a Morse key.
  • Interesting transition from laptop into portable typewriter.
  • Beyond laptops, we need a steampunk laptop stand.
  • And a laptop skin to go with it. (and look at that clown!)
  • I don’t know enough about whatever this is to be able to identify it, but it looks weird and interesting.

Riding the bus in an age of transparency

Being an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher, I am always trying to engage my students on relative topics in a contextual form, and I have an abundant amount of materials with which to work. Recently we have been discussing the usage of mobile phones based on a chapter of our text book. We discussed in which locations and situations they are either appropriate or not to use. One scenario seems to be a source of mixed opinions not only for international students, but also the citizens of San Francisco: riding the bus. In using MUNI as my main means of transit around this fair city, one will notice that people act in a variety of ways. I personally get off my phone before boarding the bus, or sometimes will chat quietly if the bus is relatively uncrowded. Some people seem to follow a similar, simple method: speak discretely or stick to texting. However, there is also a wide range of people within a spectrum of folks who speak quite loudly and openly on their phones, with some sort of consciousness that the other passengers are then privy to this form of communication, thus engaged on some level. People talking about their family drama, about their favorite TV show, about their day… talking to someone but certainly nobody on the bus. Internationally, we seem to be working with this concept of how much space we are taking up while in each others space. Everyone is privy to details, as long as they are tied to some electronic medium. Some people still keep it wide open without the phone or the blog the social networking page. The other day on the #7 Haight Inbound (soon to be discontinued as of 12/05/09, goodbye busline!) a young woman and her friend were speaking quite animatedly on the bus about a woman, and letting the entire rear end of the bus know intimately how they felt about a third woman, not on the bus but the subject of their loudly spoken conversation. Apparently she had traded down for an apartment on Haight as opposed to Cole Valley, and did not her building look like a tenement—indicated by the purple metal railings and front stairwell design. The rest of the conversation was just as brazenly catty, dotted with lots of self-absorbed consumerist details and inanely odd personal details around cannabis club locations and other subjects maybe not best discussed loudly on public transit, even in San Francisco? That may just be my latent paranoia, but nevertheless, it was a public discourse in that all the other passengers were the unwilling eavesdropping audience to this odious trite. Where is the line when we are riding the bus, or when we are on the train or aeroplane? What boundaries should we strive to create around honoring where we are presently, but respect the desires of those who want to be plugged in to someone else not on the bus with us?


[Poe] Christopher Isherwood on New York

Impressions of New York from a literary émigré.

Excerpt from: Christopher ISHERWOOD, Christopher and His Kind, 1929-1939 (1976)

[At the end of Christopher’s brief visit in 1938, he had felt absolutely confident of one thing, at least. If he did decide to settle in America – and, by America, he meant New York – he would be able to make himself at home there. This, he said to himself, was a setting in which his public personality would function more freely, more successfully than it could ever have functioned in London. Oh, he’d talk faster and louder than any of the natives. He’d pick up their slang and their accent. He’d learn all their tricks. Someone had repeated to him a saying about the city: “Here you’ll find sympathy in the dictionary and everything else at the nearest drugstore.” This delighted him. He had accepted it as a challenge to be tough.

But now New York, on that bitter winter morning, appeared totally, shockingly transformed from the place he had waved goodbye to, the previous July. Christopher experienced a sudden panicky loss of confidence.

There they stood in the driving snow – the made-in-France Giantess with her liberty torch, which now seemed to threaten, not welcome, the newcomer; and the Red Indian island with its appalling towers. There was the Citadel–stark, vertical, gigantic, crammed with the millions who had already managed to struggle ashore and find a foothold. You would have to fight your way inland from your very first step onto the pier. Already, it was threatening you with its tooting tugboats, daring you to combat.

God, what a terrifying place this suddenly seemed! You could feel it vibrating with the tension of the nervous New World, aggressively flaunting its rude steel nudity. We’re Americans here–and we keep at it, twenty-four hours a day, being Americans. We scream, we grab, we jostle. We’ve no time for what’s slow, what’s gracious, what’s nice, quiet, modest. Don’t you come snooting us with your European traditions–we know the mess they’ve got you into. Do things our way or take the next boat back–back to your Europe that’s falling apart at the seams. Well, make up your mind. Are you quitting or staying? It’s no skin off our nose. We promise nothing. Here, you’ll be on your own.

Christopher, trying hard to think positive thoughts, declared that he was staying. But the Giantess wasn’t impressed. The towers didn’t care. Okay, Buster, suit yourself.]


The New Directions first edition paperback.

I came across my first copy of Christopher Isherwood’s combined narrative, The Berlin Stories, in what had been Muddy Waters, on Valencia at Twenty-Fourth. I grabbed it because it was extremely weathered; much of the binding was crumbling apart, the pages were well worn, and mysterious greenish blue splotches had soaked across various surfaces of the book—the New Directions first edition paperback. I was living in the Mission studio at the time, and it sat on my bookshelf for a long time. Many books tend to get picked up, many go on the shelf, and they are slowly read. Isherwood’s name surely appeared on some list somewhere, in the words of some critic elsewhere, or off the lips of some teaching assistant or professor whereby my notion of having him on the long list of works to be read originated in the first place. My friend Laura had occasion to be at the studio, pick up the book, and read enough to tell me about some alternative sex mentioned in the text, bringing an immediate peak in interest. Starting The Berlin Stories, I quickly felt engaged with the first of the composite narratives, Mr. Norris Changes Trains. Isherwood’s self-proclaimed parlour socialism, characters, and charming prose fed this initial enthusiasm. Not long after this, I put the book down in a waiting room and forgot to pick it back up, perhaps appropriately. Upon returning the next week, it was gone. Desperate to press on, I turned to the public library. Finishing The Berlin Stories, I have since read my way down the shelf of Isherwood’s books, and found his works to be delightful to read, well-written, and inspiring ever since.

Having long thought about Isherwood’s writings, and my own journey as a writer, I have noticed clear rousers of this predilection for Christopher Isherwood. He is often noted and celebrated as a prominent gay writer. He was a student of languages; travelling frequently and with relish, Isherwood eventually lived more of his life out of his home country than in it. His political tones tinged perfectly in my aspirant leftist ears. He blends the autobiographical details and moments with fictional storytelling in his prose, creating a sense of intimacy as you grow familiar with him as mere vessel for his cast of misfit characters. I find myself having much affinity for Isherwood himself, and his model as writer. His autobiographies are excellent too, and he had many interesting peers whom I have grown to appreciate as well.

Reading Christopher and His Kind was a great experience, as my love for Isherwood’s work had long since developed. Upon visiting friends in New York and walking through Manhattan, I came upon a $4.55 first edition hardcover copy of Christopher and His Kind at Housing Works. Snatching it up, I burned through it over the course of the long weekend, and came upon the excerpt above en route back to San Francisco. What can I say; I love New York as only one raised in the northern suburban sprawl of Los Angeles can do. New York is noise while the sprawl is silence. I love Isherwood’s quick image of New York: one that begins with confidence, but fades in the face of the city. I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time on the same trip, and felt for the first time that I saw the city, in that grand visual where the city is unfathomably large and seething with action, regardless of you, your thoughts, your intentions or needs. His description becomes cold and alarming, just as the stark wall of the city is cold and alarming in its sheer scale and rigidness. Sometimes I feel similar feelings, to a lesser degree, passing from either the Bay Bridge or Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. But New York feels alive, whereas San Francisco feels quaint once over that bridge. (To qualify, San Francisco does have a very special place in my heart.) I love when Isherwood says,

“You could feel it vibrating with the tension of the nervous New World…”

as I enjoy the pulse and energy of the denser urban center, and identify with these words in particular.  The subways of New York, while sometimes decrepit and rotting, convey a time and usage to me that speaks to its value as space and art in itself. When you are walking the tunnels (so delightfully reminiscent of the passages in subway systems like the Parisian Métro) or waiting at the platform, you can sense the city humming, feel the heat from the metropolis radiating over you in the yellowish subterranean electric light.

In the end, it turns out Isherwood ended up choosing the coast of southern California, and not New York, as his home in this country. He lived, taught writing, and wrote many of his later works while living in that Los Angeles sprawl mentioned above—including most notably the poetic representations of mid-century Los Angeles in A Single Man.* I have thought myself confident and bold enough to pick my life up and continue it in New York. I too would throw myself into the throng, elbow into the stream of the city’s life, and be present for all that the city could throw me. However, against the reality of moving to a new place that possesses much harsher weather and a frightful cost of living, my own confidence ebbs as well. At this point, I certainly hope that I myself do not live out my days in Los Angeles, merely because I have already spent eighteen years worth of them in that one place. As Isherwood was born and lived his early life in England but moved west to finish it in Los Angeles, maybe I can do the opposite and work my way gradually eastward from a childhood spent in outer Los Angeles, through San Francisco and onto New York, and eventually to London?

*A novel dedicated to the spectacular Gore Vidal, another writer whose work I admire highly. Vidal is also the author of a particularly good essay on Christopher and His Kind, in his collection: Sexually Speaking: Collected Sex Writings.


Steampunk — wedding cakes

Pop culture representations around the genre of steampunk (and often where it can fuse with cyberpunk, sci-fi/fantasy) will come up in this journal, as it’s a fun aesthetic with which to work. Octopoe Webonaut’s exploration of steampunk will merely try to record some images and comments around how the idea of steampunk gets carried out in our media, art and consumer lifestyle.

Which presents us with some images of steampunk wedding cakes! I wonder how they tasted? They could easily be any old sort of cake, not specifically a wedding cake, which is something I appreciate about them as well. (A non-wedding cake could have two little robots on top doing something… which is up to our imaginations!)

  • Tall, ubiquitous steampunk cake featured on many blogs/sites.
  • A delightful, smaller cake.
  • Another lovely little cake.
  • Same cake as #1, but scroll down for the bridge/groom robots.
  • Handsome robot groom & blushing robot bride on elegant cake.
  • Gear cakes!, from this lady’s wedding.
  • Another robot topper.
  • And the one that takes the cakes, Cake Wrecks’ compilation. (Scroll down for the amazing cephalopod shaped caked!)

Porkflu inspired common sense

What a nice pig.

Whilst riding BART today, I saw an advertisement that was trying to inform citizens about a few best practices around the avoidance of getting sick, of spreading it to other citizens. This advertisement suggested coughing into the crook of your arm as opposed to coughing into the faces of other BART passengers, coworkers, friends, you get the drift. Maybe we could stay at home when we’re sick!

Should simple best practices in harm reduction such as these be learned through advertising? When did a significant number of people lose these common sense practices, creating the perceived need in some organizations to engage in advertising (the 6th circle of capitalist hell) to (re?)teach them. Clearly we could be discussing the need to inform people they should not be coming to work, and the further complication around working out a system where people are forced to choose between earning money/infesting coworkers and not earning money/recovering, as there are major discrepancies with notions around “sick time”.

As we gear up for more porkflu hysteria, we may see more and more resources poured into such areas as advertising and marketing. I think the best thing we can do as conscious citizens is to take care of ourselves, and each other the best we can. Discuss harm reduction best practices with your friends, and where possible, shoot for the execution of sustainable, holistic, balanced and mind-body wellness informed tactics for staying healthy this season.