The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, is an incredible story of two people wrestling with (and running from) their freedom, as they rush about between desert towns, chasing a specter as ephemeral as the sand djinn, themselves – their love for each other.
Port and Kit are an American couple who moor themselves in North Africa to get “as far as possible from the places that had been touched by the war.” Or so they say. Though each is hoping is that a plunge into an unfamiliar culture in an unforgiving climate will rekindle their love. But, after 12 years of marriage, they’re a cosmopolitan pair; and in the tens of thousands of miles they’ve traveled together, criss-crossing the world, they’ve yet to find the way back to each other.
In fact, all this travel has made them tiresome, self-righteous in their ethnological insight. They’re travelers, not tourists, and Port is fond of noting: “[The tourist] accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveller, who compares it with the others and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.”
Oh, how fashionably intellectual. And, this being 1945, you know Port and Kit have a library full of Jean-Paul Sartre at home. They are that couple, so complacent in their off-the-beaten-path lives, they can indulge (and suffer) their third-wheel travel companion, Tunner, and all the “acting and formula-following in his behavior.”
As a traveling troupe, they’re hardly the consummate trio; so I was hardly surprised that before long (but not before Tunner and Kit have knocked boots), Port is scheming to lose Tunner.
With Tunner as a stand-in for conventionality, this self-consciously existentialist pair spend the novel circling the desert to avoid him: Port, consciously; Kit, unwittingly, later in the book. And in their differing escapes from Tunner, Bowles explores opposing responses to the question: How will I handle my freedom?
Both Port and Kit have peeked behind the sheltering sky of morality and convention, and both were met by the “absolute night” beyond: they’re nihilists. But, while Kit is terrified by anything that so much as whispers of that infinite void, Port is exhilarated by the possibilities inherent in a meaningless world.
Thrown into life without explanatory blueprints, purpose is our own to carve. While there are plenty of people (and institutions) content to hijack our lives, relinquishing our freedom to create our own lives is to reject the one thing that makes us human – our ability to choose.
Port understands this, roaming the world as he pleases, never beholden to family, profession or homeland. When he discovers his passport is gone, he is thrilled by the idea of circling the shifting, featureless desert, a no-man without name or home. Kit, on the other hand, does everything she can to keep herself yoked. She reads omens, sifts the quotidian for portent. Problem is, she knows the universe takes no interest in what she does. It’s just wishful thinking; nothing out there can relieve her of her freedom to choose.
But that doesn’t stop her from surrendering her freedom. She lives her life for Port, touring the world with him, without input or complaint. Her overwhelming desire to forsake her freedom means that, even in Port’s absence, she can’t help but succumb. Although not desirous of him, she lets Tunner seduce her on the train; and after Port dies she completely surrenders her body to Belqassim, an Arab she meets in a desert caravan. It is this desperate need to have her existence determined for her that accounts for the bliss she finds locked away in an attic as Belqassim’s concubine and, later, as his fourth wife. Life with Belqassim is easy; nothing but obedience is required of her.
However, such utter surrender to the will of another is in itself a choice. Perhaps, the bravest and most incomprehensible of choices – the voluntary annihilation of self. And so, when a rescued Kit walks away from the American embassy agent dispatched to return her to Tunner, I realize I’ve been too hard on her. Because, isn’t doing exactly what you want, however incomprehensible to others, the ultimate embrace of freedom?