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Written by Emma Morris. Emma Morris is a writer and lyricist. She’s also the managing editor of Jewrotica. Her bawdy comedy-horror musical, “The Hotwife of Hyde Park” is currently in development. This poem is dedicated to Jane Bowles*.
“You asked me to write in youre [sic] book
I scarcely know how to begin
For there’s nothing orriginal [sic] about me
But a little orriginal [sic] Sin” -JB, age 12.
i find myself
staring at my writing materials
from the couch
as though they were nazis
i hate religion in other people
remember, you’re a jew
my mother would say to me
afraid i would forget
the letters were megillahs the nightmare closing in again
my nerves are taut
only women with black hair
go wild, wily and feminine
women spinning webs
painting their lips
around the wound
women who’d rather
have god and no sun
than the sun and no god
but i know what sin is
vision, charm and the slow
burning fire of creation
that mercurial door
to the double heart
be a part of the world, janie
we lie to each other
in different ways
the lies falling over our eyelids
like a veil as we turn
away from a shadowed past
two hearts beating in the same chest
be mindful of omens
nature’s furious smoldering
secret throwing down
with its thunder
thrusting blood against veins
and arteries like it was storming
the collected works of the dead
i will make an exquisite corpse
mother prays we’ll all be written
in the book of life she writes
do you wind your clock everyday?
my second heart
is bound in haunted places
*several phrases (but not all!) contained in this poem borrowed from disparate works by and about Jane Bowles
Jane Bowles, a neglected genius of the 1940s and 1950s literary world, has been lauded by Truman Capote as one of the “really original pure stylists,” by John Ashbery as “one of the finest modern writers of fiction in any language,” by Tennessee Williams as “the most important writer of prose fiction in modern American letters,” – and her novella, Two Serious Ladies made the cut for John Waters’s top-five Must Read Books list in his 2010 narrative self-portrait, Role Models.
However, in spite of this praise, Jane Bowles and her work remain largely unknown.
Born Jane Sydney Auer in 1917 to a middle-class, non-practicing Jewish family, the Auers were like many other Jewish American families at the time – they put the past aside and strove to assimilate into mainstream American culture. In her biography of Jane Bowles, A Little Original Sin – The Life and Work of Jane Bowles, Millicent Dillon questions this: “But how does one put aside a past that permeates life in thousands of small ways, in words and attitudes, recognized or not, in leftover beliefs acted out half consciously?”
Jane broke her leg in a horseback riding accident in her early teens, developing tuberculosis of the knee – she would walk with a limp for the rest of her life. Her father died around the same time – and she then lived as an only child with her overbearing (albeit well-meaning) mother.
Jane was quite the outcast – she walked with a limp, was Jewish, bisexual – and, to top it off, a tortured genius. She met her husband, the writer and composer Paul Bowles, in 1938. Paul’s maternal grandfather was purportedly Jewish – but his staunchly anti-Semitic father was beside himself with rage when his son married. It has been suggested that Paul married Jane partially to shock and anger his father.
Throughout their marriage, they each had affairs (both were bisexual and Jane’s affairs were exclusively with women. Their relationship is chronicled and analyzed in further detail by Jeffrey Meyers in his 2011 article, “The Oddest Couple: Paul and Jane Bowles”). The marriage also allowed Jane and Paul to travel the world together, and Jane found a new home for herself in Morocco. In Tangiers, she fell in love with a “wild girl-woman” named Cherifa, who was allegedly a descendant of the patron saint of Tangier.
Although her works of fiction and plays garnered some critical success, Jane found writing to be difficult and never reached her true potential. Then began her slow disintegration into self-destructive behavior – namely in the form of barbiturates and alcohol. When Jane had a “mini-stroke” in 1957, Cherifa, a known “witch” and practitioner of magic, was suspected of poisoning her – or, by some accounts, casting a spell.
The stroke affected Jane’s eyesight and led to a difficulty with language. Writing and language, that is, the means by which she rendered her inner world, became even more difficult for Jane. She grew severely depressed, and descended into disease and madness.
In 1967, Jane entered a psychiatric sanatorium for women in Malaga, Spain, at the behest of her mother. However, her stepfather – a Holocaust survivor – thought Jane was faking.
On her deathbed at the Clinica de Los Angeles in Malaga, Jane converted to Catholicism after going blind (it has been suggested that she was forced into conversion by the nuns at the clinic). Although a rabbi came in to try to convince her to have a Jewish burial, she refused.
In regards to her Jewish identity, Millicent Dillon writes the following:
“She does not seem to have identified more with the Jews suffering in the Holocaust than with others suffering in the world. Her sense of what it was to be a Jew was established early and seems never to have changed. Her Jewishness manifested itself overtly in the daily use of Yiddish words – like yenta, schmoozing, and schlepping. Associated with her mother’s family, they were used humorously and self-mockingly — in the way that she had worn the “Spirit of Purim” costume to the masquerade party in Taxco. She rejected the Jewish God. She said that she didn’t believe in Him because He was a vengeful God. To Paul she said, ‘I always hated the idea of God because He said He was a jealous God, because He’d smite you down if you didn’t believe in this or that.’
In the prewar salon world of New York many Jews tried to leave their Jewishness behind. That was part of the heritage they were seeking to escape in their world within a world. Their abandonment was, in some cases, a response to the anti-Semitism of the times. Some Jews never mentioned publicly that they were Jews… Jane never denied that she was Jewish, but perhaps she proclaimed it more openly after the war. Then in her most bitter self-derision, which was at the same time self-mocking humor, she called herself, ‘Crippie, the Kike Dyke.’”
Friends speculated that she “never seemed to know she was a Jew,” that she had a “Hebraic morality,” that “Jewishness was very important to her,” and that her primary interest in Judaism was as a source of self-deprecating humor. Although “everything was a gontzeh megillah to her,” her force of spirit and life, in spite of the suicidal impulses, Jane could see humor in everything.
She was forever obsessed by the idea of sin, and per Dillon: “The puzzle is what that sense of sin meant to her; certainly it was not as in the original sin of Christianity: the sin shared by all human beings as a consequence of the Fall. Nor was it the fundamental sin in Judaism: the transgression against fellow human beings and the Law. It was a separating sin; separateness itself becoming sin.”
There is an insidious undercurrent of Jewish self-hatred in her work and life, revealing itself in fear of memory and denial, and, of course, her willful, compulsive self-destruction. However, the theme of her writing revolves around a sympathy for outsiders, for the alienated, those who feel there is no place for them. Her heroines are often strangers in a strange land, and travellers, foreigners – people (mostly women) who don’t belong – in one way or another – populate her stories and plays.
Alienation and displacement – the impossibility of finding one’s place in the world – seem to be perpetuated by cultural/sexual/racial imperialism toward the Other. Although her self-hatred is not as bleakly explicit as the poem “The New Jewish Hospital at Hamburg” written by Heinrich Heine, another Jewish literary figure with characteristics of self-hatred, Jane Bowles’s ambivalence and humor reveals her anxiety (to say the least) regarding her religious and cultural heritage – but it is precisely this anxiety that fuels her creative fire.
Her writing confronts psychological crises (including the suppression of sexual urges), outsiders, social rejects, and self-imposed exile – people facing their fears by testing their limits. Themes of salvation coalesce with escape – escape from industrialization and the modern world, and escape from The Mother – who is terrified of the daughter’s perversity. The sexual relationships Jane describes are hesitantly bisexual, dreamily lesbian, and/or centered on the romanticized figure of the female prostitute. Sexual and gender boundaries fuse and come apart at the seams simultaneously, surreality and anxiety always lurking just beneath the surface.
Again quoting Dillon: “There is something mysterious in her work, unsettling in its originality, separating her odd sense of sin – preoccupation with sin and salvation have a curious resemblance to the paradoxical and disturbing thought of the medieval Jewish mystics, the Kabbalists.”
In her lifetime – and to this day – there has been an oppressive silence surrounding Jane Bowles’s work. In spite of the high esteem of her peers, Jane Bowles has been marginalized with labels such as “eccentric” and “madwoman.” Her work, according to Dillon, has been “overshadowed by her legend”: a victim of disorder, an alcoholic , an effusive woman who engaged in dangerous sexual liaisons and dallied on the outskirts of so-called primitive magic.
She is remembered via the online literary magazine, Two Serious Ladies, which promotes writing and art by women.