Watching Sara Driver Reading Paul Bowles: A Postscript to “You Are Not I”

On the typewritten film script of Sara Driver’s 1981 film, under the title “You Are Not I” in large letters at the head of the page, we read:




In itself, perhaps, a trivial textual detail, certainly not intended to be remarked by most viewers of Driver’s extraordinary film.  Yet for me, in thinking about Bowles’s story and Driver’s film, it has rendered visible for me a crucial question of the nature of Bowles’s and Driver’s artistic “collaboration,” the connections that bind together her filmic images and his literary words.

Driver’s film succeeded Bowles’s story by over thirty years, and found its first public in a very different artistic context, during the many-sided ferment of New York in the 1980s.  Bowles’s story “You Are Not I,” also has a New York provenance, but from back in 1948.  Despite its New York origins, and despite its claustrophobic small-town American setting, readers familiar with the Paris avant-garde of the decades following World War II may in fact sense a certain European feel in Bowles story—akin to the “écriture blanc” of Samuel Beckett, Maurice Blanchot, and the soon-to-emerge nouveau roman.  In Bowles’s use of a “mad” narrator, his transfer and / or metamorphosis of one character subjectivity into another, and even in some of his story’s details such as Ethel’s rituals with stones and distorted spatial perceptions and thoughts about disembodied voices telling people what to do, a reader could well be reminded of Samuel Beckett’s major novels of about the same period: above all, his trilogy Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable.  Although more clearly motivated by external plot and character, once we perceive this connection, the hallucinatory peregrinations of Kit and Port in The Sheltering Sky (1949) may not be so fundamentally different from the aimless wanderings of Beckett’s Watt and Molloy as they might first appear.  It is worth recalling, however, that the first of Beckett’s great novels to appear, Molloy and Malone Dies, were not published until 1951.  More important, then, than any question of influence or priority are certain fundamental, shared aspects of their experiences as writers that I think helps make sense of the coincidence in Beckett’s and Bowles’s writing at this moment, and which help illuminate Bowles’s story.


First, both writers were long-term exiles, deeply engaged with translation and the use of other languages than English.  Both knew from direct experience that not even one’s supposedly “native” language is a secure possession; expatriation, historical catastrophe, madness, or even time’s pitiless erosion of the body can alienate from us our temporary property in words.  All languages for Beckett and Bowles were “foreign languages,” and none perhaps so strange as the one we wish to call our “own.”  Both writers also shared a genuine empathy with the dispossessed, coupled with a profound ethos of precision and lack of sentimentality in rendering the full range of human experience in writing, however ungratifying these might prove to humanist pieties.  It is no accident that Beckett’s narrator “Sam” in Watt seems to have trouble keeping his own space separate from other spaces that mirror him exactly, or that Bowles’s character Ethel has the improbable thought about her sister’s house that she had:

the whole thing rebuilt, only backward.  There was always a hall and a living room, except that the hall used to be on the left-hand side of the living room and now it was on the right.  That made me wonder why I had failed to notice that the front door was now at the right end of the porch.  She had even switched the stairs and fireplace around into each other’s places.

Beckett had studied and thought about how schizophrenics experience space, and he gives this experience the respect of taking it, first of all, literally.  So too with Bowles, who tries to capture even extreme experience with the dispassionateness of an anthropologist, whether he was exploring states of madness, extreme subjection, drug-induced states, ecstatic trance, or magic.  It would thus be wrong to see Ethel’s reversal of her perception of her sister’s house as simply “foreshadowing” the eventual mental reversal that occurs at the end of the story, in which—through the inexorable consistency of Bowles’s narrative voice—Ethel takes over her sister’s place whereas it is the “sister” who is taken back to the mental asylum, and compelled to write the story of Ethel’s escape and transformation into the sister who from now on will live at home.  Wrong, not because it does not point towards the insane reversal of the conclusion, but because Ethel’s reversal of perception is not intended by Bowles to be in any way “symbolic” or “abnormal” but rather literal and simply other.  Like Beckett, who writes in Watt, “no symbols where none intended,” Bowles renders Ethel’s experience from within, with surgical precision and unflinching literality.  This is her world, as she experiences it—and Bowles demands our belief in its reality.  As Ethel notes in another context, “It seemed to me that life outside was like life inside.”  Precisely this indiscernibility of the boundary between inside and outside pertains, in Bowles’s story, not just to the life of the asylum and Ethel’s attempt at escape, but in her very experience of herself and her world.  As readers, we are not allowed to “humor” Ethel in her magical beliefs, as her sister and the neighbors and asylum attendants do; Bowles wants us to feel and know what it would be like to hold them and live by them.


This takes me to the threshold of a point I wish to underscore about Sara Driver’s adaptation of Bowles’s story.  In contrast to the inevitable conceptuality of words, and hence their capacity to render inner experience and thought—making communicable even the delirious thought of Ethel—film, for all of its vast expressive means, retains an ineluctable connection with photography and the registration of external light, objects, bodies, movements, and spaces.  Throughout the history of their medium, filmmakers have grappled with the relation between this photographic exteriority and the need to explore inner states of thought and feeling.  Adaptation raises this question poignantly, especially when it is a matter of the consciousness-rich world of modernist fiction.  In reading Bowles’s story and viewing Driver’s film, one might be led to conclude that they have adopted antithetical, but antithetically complementary approaches to a common set of narrative materials.  Bowles’s narrative style chills everything in the story, no matter how banal or how violently insane, to the same flat, dry, icy plane of consistency.  In contrast, Sara Driver’s camera shatters space to shards—sometimes reflecting Ethel’s subjectivity, sometimes revealing in panorama-like views her lack of any real position in “the world of men.”  If Bowles’s text is an expressionless surface that will absorb any content and integrate it, Driver’s film is a Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-like world of jagged edges, strange discontinuities, and dangerous fissures.


In speaking about the antithetical complementarity of Bowles and Driver, however, I want to go a step further, and note that we might say that in Bowles’s story, the sisters are, in whatever mental cosmos we take his text to occupy, artistic collaborators who share an analogous relation of opposition and complementarity.  I am, in a sense, venturing the speculative hypothesis that Bowles wrote his story about its own future adaptation—that for thirty years, he was waiting for his “sister,” Sara Driver, to come back and transfer minds to get their story jointly told.  Obviously, this idea is not to be taken at face value; but it does reveal a dimension of the story that is latent in its central tale of consciousness taken over: such a process is what it means to a writer to be read, and to a filmmaker to have her works viewed, and Bowles gives us to understand that this is not a benign process, but something akin to madness.


Accordingly I want to suggest that Driver’s effectiveness in capturing the disquieting nature of Bowles’s text is not solely due to the beautiful, brooding black and white imagery of the film, her ravishing Dreyer-esque and expressionistic translation of states of mind and mood into photographic icons that etch themselves in your memory, and Suzanne Fletcher’s moving performance as the young mental patient Ethel, as if she had stepped right out of a German silent film of the 1920s into 1970s New Jersey.  It is also that in taking on this text of Bowles for adaptation—the first film adaptation from this author, as Francis Poole reminds us—she penetrated to the darkest core of the story’s matter itself: what it means to take up the “I” of another, at the same time scripting that “I” and being scripted by it, which for Bowles is what it means to be an writer.  In Driver’s brave or foolhardy choice, as a young filmmaker, to tackle precisely this impossible story by Bowles, this deranging tale of mental travel and this reflection on writing as dictation from an unspecifiable other space, she embraced something of the escapee Ethel’s mad risk that, as artist,  “for once I would decide what was right, and do it.”  “I is an other,” however, as Rimbaud already noted: here something that exists exclusively in the relations of encounter between “a film by Sara Driver” and “a story by Paul Bowles,” and which is identifiable with both and neither.


Paul Bowles greatly appreciated Sara Driver’s film—she has noted the warmth and generosity of his letters—and there are, of course, many good reasons to understand his approval of her work.  But I like to believe that perhaps he glimpsed this more risky reflection of his story in this situation of author and filmmaker as well.  All of Bowles’s life and work suggests that if he did see this, he would not shy away from facing that risk, but would explore the dispossessing exchange of minds with composed fascination.

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