Their faces are masks (From Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky)

He walked through the streets, unthinkingly seeking the darker ones, glad to be alone and to feel the night air against his face. The streets were crowded. People pushed against him as they passed, stared from doorways and windows, made comments openly to each other about him-whether with sympathy or not he was unable to tell from their faces-and they sometimes ceased to walk merely in order to watch him.

“How friendly are they? Their faces are masks. They all look a thousand years old. What little energy they have is only the blind, mass desire to live, since no one of them eats enough to give him his own personal force. But what do they think of me? Probably nothing. Would one of them help me if I were to have an accident? Or would I lie here in the street until the police found me? What motive could any one of them have for helping me? They have no religion left. Are they Moslems or Christians? They don’t know. They know money, and when they get it, all they want is to eat. But what’s wrong with that? Why do I feel this way about them? Guilt at being well fed and healthy among them? But suffering is equally divided among all men; each has the same amount to undergo Emotionally he felt that this last idea was untrue, but at the moment it was a necessary belief. it is not always easy to support the stares of hungry people. Thinking that way he could walk on through the streets. It was as if either he or they did not exist. Both suppositions were possible. The Spanish maid at the hotel had said to him that noon: “La vida es pena.”

“Of course,” he had replied, feeling false even as he spoke, asking himself if any American can truthfully accept a definition of life which makes it synonymous with suffering. But at the moment he had approved her sentiment because she was old, withered, so clearly of the people. For years it had been one of his superstitions that reality and true perception were to be found in the conversation of the laboring classes. Even though now he saw clearly that their formulas of thought and speech are as strict and as patterned, and thus as far removed from any profound expression of truth as those of any other class, often he found himself still in the act of waiting, with the unreasoning belief that gems of wisdom might yet issue from their mouths.

From Paul Bowles’ 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky. The protagonist Port’s thoughts here remind me of Jarvis Cocker’s line in Pulp’s song “Common People”: “Everybody hates a tourist.”

 

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