What does a 19th-century German philosopher in self-imposed exile have in common with a counterculture street performer of the 1960s? At first blush, not much. What these biographies and memoirs share is a sense of altered states -- of mind and of body.
1888 was a surprisingly good year for Friedrich Nietzsche, just about the last one he had. By year's end, he'd be in the grip of the syphilis-induced dementia that dominated the last decade of his life (he died in 1900). In 1888, though, his mind was still his own, and he set it to work at a feverish pace, writing three significant books before the year was out: Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and The Antichrist.
This outburst of productivity took place in the Italian Piedmontese city of Turin. Early on, Lesley Chamberlain's Nietzsche in Turin (Picador, $13) lays out the "ten years of wandering" that led the peripatetic philosopher from his university post at Basel through Europe and at last to Turin. The travels, Chamberlain argues, point the way to the work. "Becoming a Wanderer, talking to his Shadow, gave him common experience with exiles from Diogenes to Dante. What glory it was to be homeless and how it deepened his sense of being European! His unique, powerful attacks on Western tradition he framed sitting in small boardinghouses in fashionable resorts and cities. Like Nietzsche's life they are truncated, fragmentary and portable. Intellectually, except for their language [Chamberlain comments elsewhere on the difficulties of translating him], they easily cross borders. In that sense the wandering life made him."
Uninterested in standard biography, Chamberlain wants "to befriend Nietzsche," to reclaim him from misunderstanding: "the ideas of the Ubermensch (the Superman, the Over-Man) -- the Will to Power, the exhortation: live dangerously! -- all of them reduced to slogans, must be recovered within the whole Nietzsche corpus if they are to have any meaning in the future . . . In the wretchedly ideological twentieth century, they have been pressed into service where they least deserved to go."
Having spent much time with him in the original German (which allows her to toss off statements like "If I haven't misread Twilight of the Idols . . . "), Chamberlain expresses remarkable sympathy for this "gentle, thwarted soul." His contradictions fascinate her. For instance, the man who required solitude often complained in letters of being tortured by loneliness. "The year-in year-out lack of a really refreshing and healing human love," he wrote, "the absurd loneliness that it brings with it, to the degree that almost every remaining connection with people becomes only a cause of injury; all that is the worst possible business and has only one justification in itself, the justification of being necessary."
Under the Sheltering Sky
Like Nietzsche, American writer and composer Paul Bowles has done some of his best work in self-imposed exile, as Christopher Sawyer-Laucanno makes clear in his excellent and thoughtful An Invisible Spectator: A Biography of Paul Bowles (Grove, $15). Unlike the wandering German, however, Bowles has become inextricably associated with one place: Tangiers. Having had Bowles's complicity if not outright help in putting the biography together, Sawyer-Laucanno hits all the big notes: the famous (possibly untrue) story about Bowles's father trying to kill him as an infant by placing him on a windowsill during a snowstorm; the youthful forays into music; his unusual marriage to writer Jane Bowles (he preferred men, she preferred women); his friendships with Virgil Thomson, Gertrude Stein, William Burroughs and many others; and of course the writing.
Bowles claimed to have had the idea for The Sheltering Sky, his famous existential novel, while riding down Fifth Avenue on a bus. But he wrote the book in North Africa -- fitting, given the North African setting of this tale about a doomed American couple, Kit and Port Moresby, who journey into the desert toward madness for one, death for the other. "Really it's an adventure story," Bowles wrote to a publisher, "in which the adventures take place on two planes simultaneously: in the actual desert, and in the inner desert of the spirit . . . . The occasional oasis provides relief from the desert, but the . . . sexual adventures fail to provide relief. The shade is insufficient, the glare is always brighter as the journey continues. And the journey must continue -- there is no oasis in which to remain."
The Sheltering Sky remains one of the most harrowing reading experiences of my life, probably because I read it while trapped by a snowstorm in Simla, the former British hill station in the lower Himalayas, one New Year's Eve, with anonymous revelers pounding on the door of the room and the electricity sputtering on and off. I thought I knew how Port and Kit felt. I still associate the book with a sort of creeping existential despair, something close to horror. So it was interesting to come across this comment from Bowles: "Writing is, I suppose, a superstitious way of keeping the horror at bay, of keeping the evil outside."
Tuning In, Dropping Out
In writing The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles used majoun, a cannabis derivative, to help kickstart his imagination. Back home, a lot of people were undertaking chemical experiments of their own. Peter Coyote's memoir Sleeping Where I Fall: A Chronicle (Counterpoint, $14) records the highs and the lows of the counterculture life of the '60s and early '70s.
Best known now for his work in such films as "Outrageous Fortune," "E.T." and "Patch Adams," Coyote got his start as an actor in a decidedly noncommercial venture: the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which performed political street theater, and which he joined in 1964, not long out of college. Soon he fell in with the Diggers, "an anarchistic experiment dedicated to creating and clarifying distinctions between society's business-as-usual and our own imaginings of what-it-might-be, in the most potent way we could devise. . . . The Diggers understood that style was infinitely co-optable. What could not be co-opted was doing things for free, without money."
Communal living seemed the natural extension of this free, "improvisational" life. Coyote doesn't gloss over the bad stuff he and his fellow communards experienced -- bodies wrecked by drugs, hearts and relationships broken by free love -- but he doesn't apologize for it either. He attempts "to describe what the pursuit of absolute freedom felt like, what it taught me, and what it cost. It is neither an apologia for nor a romance of the sixties." At the book's end, revisiting the site of the commune, Coyote sounds older, wiser and a bit sadder, but his comments on American politics and culture reveal that the old radical hasn't lost all his teeth -- he still knows how to take a bite out of the Establishment.
For a child's perspective on those days, see Lisa Michaels's Split: A Counterculture Childhood (Mariner, $13). Michaels, a poet, paints a vivid account of her mother, a well-brought-up New York girl who eventually drove across the country in an old mail van with her lover and her young daughter in tow, and her father, a youth organizer who did jail time after he joined the Weathermen in a violent 1969 protest at Harvard.
Sweet Bird of Youth
It's the rare adult who can look back at him- or herself as a child and recreate the experience from within. One's young self can seem like an alien creature. In his exquisite memoir Childhood, translated by Carol Volk (Univ. of Nebraska, $15), Martinican novelist Patrick Chamoiseau reaches back to his early days and finds in them an immediate, sensory poetry lost to many of us. "Can you tell of childhood what is no longer known?" he writes. "Can you not describe but survey it in its magical states, recover its mystery of clay and clouds, of stairway shadows and mad wind, and bear witness to the enclosure constructed while, plucking off petals of mystery and dream, you were taking inventory of the world?"
Under the stairs in the house where his family lives, the boy discovers a kingdom of spiders and "the big dark cockroaches called klaclac"; a box of matches makes him a terrible tyrant over them. "He explored the hazy reality of a flame: an orange impatience filled with transparencies and deep reds, arising from nothing, feeding on the wood of the match and suffocating on its own vitality. . . . The flame devastated everything. A miracle. The spider webs went up like straw. The spiders themselves were deified into shooting sparks. The little boy, master of the fire, made a clean sweep beneath the stairs." This "miracle" of destruction gives way to miracles of beauty; Childhood is astonishingly rich in both.
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.