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Journal of Medical Humanities, Vol. 22, No. 4, Winter 2001 ( C 2001)

A Journey to Madness: Jane Bowles’s Narrative and Schizophrenia

Inmaculada Cobos Fern´andez 1,2

This work is a study of Jane Bowles’s madness as revealed through several of her literary works and her life story. On a parallel plane, it is an epistemological exploration of the points of intersection between humanistic psychoanalysis and deconstructive literary criticism. Here we consider the schizoid traits in Two Seri- ous Ladies (1943) and in “Camp Cataract” (1949), using the theories developed in this area by the psychiatrist R. D. Laing (1927–1989).

KEY WORDS: psychoanalysis; schizophrenia; literary criticism; writing process; Jane Bowles; R. D. Laing.

The only time I wrote well, when I passed through the inner door, I felt guilt, I must find that again.

—Jane Bowles, Letters

It is practically impossible to refer to or study the legendary writer Jane Bowles (1917–1973) without taking into consideration her biography. And while her personal life overshadows her literary output to a large extent, we cannot avoid her biography while reading her work. The focus of this study lies at the intersection of two fields: two of Jane Bowles’s literary texts and R. D. Laing’s theories of schizophrenia. Laing rejected schizophrenia as an organic disease that should be treated by means of surgery, drugs, and electroshock therapy. Instead, he considered schizophrenia as a social process that could be understood as a response to family transactions of the schizophrenic patient to the family. His thinking produced a grand shift in the field of psychiatry comparable to the historical change which

1 Rey Juan Carlos University, Madrid, Spain. 2 Address correspondence to Inmaculada Cobos Fern´andez, Department of English, E.s.c.e.t., Rey Juan Carlos University, C/Tulip´an s/n, 28933 M´ostoles, Madrid, Spain; e-mail:;



C 2001 Human Sciences Press, Inc.



saw schizophrenia move from a state of demon possession to a clinical disease (Showalter, 1985, p. 221). This shift, known as anti-psychiatry, attacked the power held by psychiatric institutions, the hierarchical and authoritarian structure of the doctor/patient rela- tionship, and electroshock therapy. Emphasizing the importance of social context in the development of the disease offered up new perspectives for conceptualiz- ing the atavistic relationship between madness and femininity. Laingian theory interprets schizophrenia for women as a result of female repression and oppres- sion within the family. Madness, then, can be understandable as a strategy, a form of communication in response to the contradictory messages and demands that women in a patriarchal society receive within the family. In his first book, The Divided Self (1959), Laing defines schizophrenia using ideas borrowed from literary criticism and modernist literary theory. In this manner, psychosis results from the intensification of the divisions of the self which are themselves a reflection of the different compartments and fragmentation of modern society. A sense of reality depends, according to Laing, on the unity between mind and body, on temporal continuity, and on relationships to other people (1959, p. 227). Laing was one of the first psychiatrists to observe the similarity between schizophrenia and alienation as it is reflected in existentialist and modernist literary movements. 3 Subsequently, in the 1960s and more in line with his role as spokesperson for intellectuals and radical artists, Laing radicalized his stance in relation to his earlier theories. In accord with the social focus thus initiated, Laing came to regard schizophrenia as a simple social label applied by those who had adapted to society to those who had not conformed to a sick society. Beginning with the constant fear of nuclear disaster during the decade of the 1960s, Laing considered all those who supported the policies of global destruction as the real “lunatics.” In this way, according to Laing, the perfectly normal pilot of a bomber can be a much greater threat for the survival of the species than the hospitalized schizophrenic deceived in having been convinced that the bomb is in his mind. 4 In a first approximation, Laing interpreted schizophrenia as an intelligible and curative response in relation to conflicting social demands in order to understand madness as a form of rebellion, where the schizophrenic person would be the normal one in a demented society. When the dust finally settled, the success of the anti-psychiatry movement also came to an end. Laing himself became anti-Laingian during the 1970s. The discovery of one of the possible determining factors for schizophrenia, namely its strictly chemical and organic origins, was one among many reasons for rejecting his radical theories, which opened up new perspectives in the field of psychiatry. The

3 For a more extensive connection between modernism and schizophrenia, see Sass, L. (1992). Madness and modernism: Insanity in the light of modern art, literature and thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 4 Laing, R.D. (1967). The politics of experience. New York: Ballantine Books, p. 120.

A Journey to Madness: Jane Bowles’s Narrative and Schizophrenia


importance that Laing attributed to the social environment in this field achieved a wide acceptance on the part of an entire generation of women. Within the academic arena his work has been relevant for feminist criticism by incorporating theories that could also be applied to art and literature, such as the notions of the divided self, ontological insecurity, and so on. Finally, anti-psychiatry, as Laing himself realized, did not provide answers nor did it guarantee the reestablishment of the forces of social control. Its value resided in the intent to humanize psychiatry by breaking rigid and stigmatizing models used in the treatment of patients. But the problem it brought to light was still there. For Laing, rationality is not channeled appropriately in a sick society, and the expression of an individual’s interior passions is not allowed to be expressed socially. All this, according to Laing, leads to the acquisition of a false self adapted to fictitious realities (Laing, 1959, p. 12).


Schizophrenia is not a predominantly female disease. Nevertheless, the best known studies and case histories of the inner world of the schizophrenic are based on female patients. 5 Laing selected cases of women who suffered from this disease for the majority of his work, although he did not make explicit the relationship between the oppression of women and its influence on schizophrenia. For ex- ample, in his book Sanity, Madness and the Family (1964), the majority of the schizophrenogenic families 6 Laing describes are not atypical in the manner in which they treat their daughters. All the families in this book converge in the following aspects: sexual and intellectual repression of their daughters; implicit or explicit models of patriarchal tyranny; strong division or gulf between mother and daughter, characterized on the part of the mother by an obsessive supervision and a lack of physical affect for her daughter; a preference by both mother and daughter for the father/husband and of the self-sacrifice of both for the stability and well-being of the family. But if the majority of the families in Laing’s study did not treat female family members “atypically,” one might ask why their daugh- ters were hospitalized or diagnosed as schizophrenic. One conjecture is that the schizophrenogenic family constitutes an extreme case of families considered “nor- mal.” In this sense, the madness would be a little bit more of the same. One could also argue that just as the mothers are “hospitalized” within their marriage, their daughters are interned in the psychiatric ward (Chesler, 1979, pp. 126–128). The schizophrenic woman also plays an important role outside the psychi- atric domain. She has been considered a fundamental cultural icon of the twentieth

5 See also the works of Marguerite Sechaye, Autobiography of a Schizophrenic Girl, Barbara O’Brien, Operators of Things, and Hannah Green’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Cited in Showalter, E. (1985). The female malady: Women, madness and English culture, 1830–1980. London: Virago Press, p. 204. 6 This can lead to or influence the development of schizophrenia.



century, comparable to the hysteric of the nineteenth century. The modernist literary movements have enthroned the model of the schizophrenic woman as symbolic of the break of the linguistic field and of sexual and religious rebellion. The psychotic woman is converted into the artist’s muse and into the spokeswoman for the revolutionary potential repressed in society at large. The relationship be- tween schizophrenia and woman is, therefore, a close one. In this sense, some schizophrenic symptoms such as passiveness and fragmentation reflect the so- cial status of women. Indeed, some feminist critics maintain that schizophrenia constitutes a perfect literary metaphor of the female condition, which expresses a woman’s lack of security in herself; her dependence on external definitions of the self, in many cases masculine; the division between the body as a sexual ob- ject and the mind as subject; and her vulnerability to conflicting social messages concerning femininity and aging. 7


Madness forms a part of the myth of Jane Bowles. Many who knew her feared for her mental health, one calling her a “a fragile writer who was going crazy little by little.” 8 For Bowles, her disease represented something more than a more or less severe psychological difficulty. She considered her attacks as punishment for sins she assumed as her own, at times claiming God was punishing her for not writing. In fact, the mental blocks that prevented her from writing accompanied her for the major part of her life, so that the bulk of her slim output appeared in the 1940s. Her disease began to emerge in 1949, the year her husband Paul Bowles published The Sheltering Sky, and in the 1950s she began to receive psychiatric treatment that would continue until her death in a Malaga hospital in 1973. Even if The Sheltering Sky were not the cause of Jane Bowles’ mental block, it served as the premonition of her destiny. Paul helped her finish Two Serious Ladies (1943) and “Camp Cataract” (1949/1966), and as a result revealed many aspects of his life with her, which came to confirm her worst fears. That is, Paul addresses the themes that most preoccupied Jane, particularly sin and the relationship between spirit and sexuality. But Two Serious Ladies and The Sheltering Sky also speak of sin and the freedom to choose.

7 Abel, E. (1979). Women and schizophrenia: The fiction of Jean Rhys. Contemporary Literature, 20, 155–77; Kegan Gardiner, J. (1983). Good morning, midnight; good night, modernism. Boundary, 2, 233–51; Hill Rigney, B. (1978). Madness and sexual politics in the feminist novel. Madison:

University of Wisconsin Press. 8 Mentioned in Patricia Basworth’s biography of Montgomery Clift. Cited in Dillon, M. (1981). A little original sin: The life and work of Jane Bowles. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 307. 9 In her biography of Jane Bowles, Dillon (1981) underscores the feelings of guilt that Jane experienced in her childhood, a sin she was never able to define. Of this sin, she was only able to say that it was hers and original, and that it separated her from the rest (p. 414).

A Journey to Madness: Jane Bowles’s Narrative and Schizophrenia


That is, Jane and Paul Bowles differ in their notion of what constitutes sin. For Paul, sin is specific. In The Sheltering Sky, Kit deceives Port and eventually abandons him to his illness. Port’s sin consists in his inability to love in a nihilist world in which the sky no longer shelters. It is a world without God and without feelings, where people act by obeying their animal impulses. Paul condemns his characters by denying them any means of escape. The suspense in his work has to do with the constant impulse towards final destruction. In contrast, sin in Jane Bowles’s work is indeterminate and has no specific motive. She does not condemn her characters. The “serious ladies,” Miss Goering and Mrs. Copperfield, end up exactly as they began, and even for Sadie in “Camp Cataract,” the only character of Jane Bowles who dies, death overtakes her as an absolution (Dillon, 1981, pp. 175–177). Sin and guilt are large themes in Jane Bowles’s work, including her letters, and are also reflected in the process of her writing. According to Dillon’s biographic interpretation, Bowles experienced a sense of guilt and sin for her difference from the beginning: first for being a young girl with an uncommon imagination, later on for her lesbian attractions, and finally for being a writer. The guilt she attached to her writing derived from the fact that her subject matter and style arose from her difference, and was a paralyzing two-edged sword: writing made her feel guilty and confirmed her sinful difference, but if she did not write she felt guilty because only by writing could she justify her difference. This difficulty in writing stemmed from her fear of the irrational forces of her psyche, of her fear of the madness she tried to contain in her life by means of fantasy, and from the humor and absorption in the mundane details of everyday life (Dillon, 1981, p. 93). For Bowles, writing stifled her madness by giving free reign to her imagination. Roditi (1992), one of her friends and companions, considers the eccentricities of Jane Bowles as defense mechanisms against her own fear of madness. Her art tended toward the same defensive objective, a conscious path towards the control of her irrational fears. In the same way, he regards her affinity for drink as a barricade against neurosis and depression. Similarly, Brookner’s critique of her work points out that the power in Bowles’s writing owes, perhaps, to her madness (1984). In general, the criticism of Bowles’s work has responded to the irregular ac- ceptance, on the part of the critics, to Dillon’s biography, A Little Original Sin (1981), and to the compilation of her letters, Out in the World (Dillon, 1985). In these works, Bowles’s legendary self-destructiveness provokes repulsion and anx- iety in others. In fact, the negative reaction to her lifestyle led some to devalue her work. Her slim output and her tortured process of writing made it easy for some to condemn her for succumbing to bohemian disorder or for having wasted her talent. Indeed, one can accommodate all kinds of ambivalent positions with regard to her work if one takes into account the features of Jane Bowles’s personality such as they appear in her biography. Aspects such as perfectionism and, consequently,



her writer’s block, increased with time. On the other hand, her fear of failure, her feelings of guilt, her fears of madness, or her addiction to alcohol are fac- tors that could support the idea of Jane Bowles as an eccentric and unclassifiable writer. Moreover, we cannot overlook the cultural and literary environment in which Bowles lived and which directly influenced her work and her conception of writing. The bohemian world in which she lived permitted her to become a writer and to find support and recognition for her work. Her friends and husband accepted and unconditionally admired her talent, which shaped and molded the concept of avant-garde art. The environment in which she lived also fed the legend that in the avant-garde, the artist lives in accord with his conception of art (Shattuck, 1958, p. 39). Bowles lived in a cultural environment that idealized the iconoclastic and subversive art that emerges from the genius’s vision and from an unconventional lifestyle that experiments with radical and political thought, sexual freedom, the search for mind-altering drugs and alcohol, and the immersion in other cultures and societies. In these surroundings, self-destruction was seen as a necessary risk for obtaining an artistic vision. Bowles’s legend explains her success in combining life and art in accord with the demands of the avant-garde, first as an enfant terrible in the parlors of New York and later as a victim of disorder, alcohol, sexual relations, magic and madness (Skerl, 1997, p. 4). Her legend, in fact, is so overwhelming that a large part of her work has been interpreted from the bohemian perspective. Was madness part of the lifestyle model that Jane Bowles adopted? Or was that madness the reason for choosing a bohemian life-style? Cause or effect? How does one combine life, work, and insanity? The approach to her work from a cultural/ environmental perspective provides, perhaps, the best route for demystifying the legend of Bowles. In the final analysis, she had to come to terms with the task of creating with words, just as any other writer does. And we cannot deny that her profession as writer influenced her life while at the same time was a constant source of unrest. The remainder of this paper uses schizophrenia as a lens on Bowles’s work, which is examined in three areas: first, the narrative structure that follows from the formal experimentation; second, the meaning/s of her work (which are not always easy to separate from form); and third, the possible autobiographic and cultural implications. Laing’s theory of schizophrenia developed in The Divided Self (1959), used here to examine various psychotic traits, had such a great im- pact on readers because many of the schizoid feelings, attitudes and experi- ences described therein prevail in contemporary cultures. (Fromm [1955] observed that schizoid processes formed a large part of what he termed as the pathol- ogy of normality, and that these prevailed in contemporary art and literature.) In addition to analyzing schizophrenic processes, Laing also valued those as- pects not included within the concept of “normality” but which are essential for

A Journey to Madness: Jane Bowles’s Narrative and Schizophrenia


being “normal,” such as the ability to doubt or feel uncertainty (Burston, 1996, p. 188).


It’s all so strange and it has no connection with anything. —Bowles, Two Serious Ladies

One literary critic argued that to expose the plot in Two Serious Ladies was to endanger one’s mental health (Dillon, 1981, p. 102). More than a plot, the novel is a series of repetitions or variations on themes. It is also the story of two very distinct women’s reach for freedom—Miss Christina Goering, a rich spinster with mystical leanings ever since childhood and Mrs. Frieda Copperfield, a woman trapped in a conventional marriage. Goering ends up selling off all her worldly possessions to practice her particular concept of salvation, moving to an unpleasant house on Staten Island from which she comes and goes, and hanging out in bars like a courtesan. Copperfield, whom Goering meets coincidentally, accompanies her husband to Panama but leaves him to join a group of eccentric women whom she has met in a neighborhood of Panama. She finally returns to New York with a teenage mestiza prostitute named Pacifica. In the final scene, the Copperfield and Goering meet in a restaurant and compare the results of their existential journeys. The novel ends with a point of union between the two ladies and Christina Goering’s reflection, “But is it possible that a part of me hidden from my sight is piling sin upon sin as fast as Mrs. Copperfield?” (Bowles, 1943, p. 201). Many scenes found in Bowles’s writing are not clearly defined and are char- acterized by their vagueness, similar to medieval dramas or to the landscapes of Beckett and Kafka. They constitute enclosed spaces where salvation is sought by means of experience and feelings of sin and guilt, which most of the time do not arise from any specific cause (Lougy, 1997, p. 120). Goering appears for the first time in the novel baptizing one of her sister’s companions, “If you don’t lie down in the mud and let me pack the mud over you and then wash you in the stream, you’ll be forever condemned” (Bowles, 1943, p. 6). During the course of the novel, Christina Goering conceives a plan for her salvation, seeking to redeem her sins whose origins she herself cannot determine. In pursuit of this goal, she constantly moves about submitting herself to a series of unpleasant and difficult situations. Explaining the development of the psychotic elements of schizophrenia, Laing (1959, p. 153) describes this indefinite feeling of guilt that can lead the individual to her own destruction. One’s feeling of guilt can be so strong and over- whelming that it leaves no room for maneuvering. The feeling of guilt that forms part of Laing’s thesis defines schizophrenia as a symptom of extreme insecurity.



The defense mechanisms that derive from insecurity are designed to maintain the precarious sense of identity. Laing singles out fantasy and the deliberate rupture between the so-called real self and the false self as examples of defensive resources. Fantasy and imagination, elements that shaped the major part of Bowles’s life, are also characteristic features of her work. Her father, Sidney Major Auer, condemned Jane’s imaginative world, considering it an escape from reality and from the established order. As a result, her imagination arose as a challenge tainted with guilt and sin. Furthermore, this resource proves, as Laing might propose, Bowles’s ontological insecurity, which constitutes one of her pertinent features as revealed in her biography and through her letters. Later, Paul Bowles’s success as a writer reinforces Jane’s insecurity. In one of her letters to Paul, for example, Jane considers his isolation as a writer enviable along with the public recognition his work had achieved. Further on in the letter, Jane compares herself to her husband’s success and then rejects her own work, a characteristic which is repeated over again in her other letters. “I realize,” she wrote, “that I have no [career] really whether I work or not and never have had one” (Dillon, 1981, pp. 146–7). In another letter to Paul, Jane admits her lack of independence as a writer, “Would I bother if you didn’t exist? It is awful not to know what one would do if one were utterly alone in the world” (Dillon, 1981, p. 164). Part of Jane’s insecurity, then, is linked to the influence that the reception of Paul’s work had on her. In any event, this insecurity influenced a part of her career that became progressively more acute and which led to a series of writer’s blocks. The majority of writers do suffer different kinds of blocks during their literary career, and occasionally the questions that arise as a consequence are transformed into the very problem causing the block. Jane Bowles considered her block her own fault, without blaming the circumstances surrounding her. “I have to write but I cannot” (Dillon, 1981, p. 277), she would say to her friends, while she would play games and indulge in mundane pleasures. But, as she herself wrote, “there comes a moment when there is no possibility of escape, as if the spirit were a box hitting at the walls of the head” (Dillon, 1981, p. 277). Independent of the periods of Bowles’s great creativity, her writing is characterized by the obstacle of having to construct one sentence after another. The blurred and dissociated tone in her writings at times creates an uncertainty with the settling and flow of the narrative, and even when composed with much more arduous textual complexity, her work produces an unequivocal feeling of instability. But neither the symptoms nor the vocabulary are the source of this instabil- ity. Instead, the problem begins when we try to read smoothly, without mental somersaults. Along the way, we come across gaps in comprehension and a lack of articulation of tone, which the reader must overcome in order to find a certain meaning for the text. As a result, Bowles’s language at times is difficult to digest given that it is not easy to distinguish between what is truly important and what is merely accessory and incidental. Bowles herself considered the fragmentary

A Journey to Madness: Jane Bowles’s Narrative and Schizophrenia


nature of her narrative as a problem for her literary ability. For some critics, her experimentation comprises a mode of expression which tried to express itself in her writing but which Bowles could not accept (Dillon, 1989, p. 140). If it is evident, as Dillon asserts, that her work is the result of a psychic block, then it is also true that if she had considered fragmentation as a valid expression of her own narrative vision, this fragmentation could have led her to further development, and could have explained something about the nature of these blocks. These narrative breakups reflect Bowles’s identity and her search for paths in her work as well as in her private life, reflecting the multiplicity of the self which at times is revealed as schizophrenic. Her aesthetic sense is more the result of her instability than of a clear and well-defined program. It is as if she were destroying herself, abandoning herself to an absence of control (Hibbard, 1997, p. 166). In this sense, an excessive narrative control would be contrary to her characteristic spontaneity. Regarding this aspect of her narrative, she points out, “I never know what is going to happen when I write, this is what gives my work the element of surprise as if the reader and I were uncovering things together” (Howard, 1978). On the other hand, this sense of surprise feeds the sense of instability. In Two Serious Ladies, for example, the principal characters are submitted to significant changes; in one moment a character can intimidate, in the next inspire compassion. In addition to the lack of balance in Bowles’s characters and narrative, other factors feed the schizophrenia present in her work. For Laing there are basically two manifestations of the self. One is the expressed (embodied) and materialized self, which is realized when one feels the body as real and alive. The other is the self separated from its own body, an unembodied self. Depending on one perspective, the personified self could be considered as desirable. But from other perspectives, the individual could try to free himself from his body in order to achieve the desired state of bodiless spirituality (Laing, 1959, p. 66). Indeed, the separation between body and soul leads to the concept of Christian salvation, conceived as the complete separation between body and soul (Bultman, 1956, p. 169). Redemption is the aim sought by the characters in Two Serious Ladies, with salvation arising as one of the options in a world perceived as decrepit and faded. One of the characters remarks, “But you’ve got to admit we’re living in the world, unless we want to behave like crazy kids or escaped lunatics or something like that” (Bowles, 1943, p. 172). Moreover, the divided self is translated, in the real world and in childhood, into insanity or in mysticism, respectively. Christina Goering seeks salvation by expressing an idea that is immediately contradicted. In the novel’s beginning, she talks about what gives her pleasure, which is “property more than most people. It gives me a comfortable feeling of safety” (Bowles, 1943, p. 28). Immediately following this, she contradicts herself and concocts a peculiar sense of salvation:

“I really believe that it is necessary for me to live in some more tawdry place and particularly in some place where I was not born” (p. 28). Once she frees herself from her possessions, she begins her series of relations with decrepit men, and was



“only interested in the course that she was following in order to attain her own

salvation. She was fond of Andy, but during the last two nights she had felt an urge

to leave him” (Bowles, 1943, p. 172).

By contrast, Frieda Copperfield does not seek to pursue redemption but rather happiness. She is fraught with doubt. For her, God does not exist and the only

answer is to be found in security and instant happiness: “What an angel a happy moment is—and how nice not to have to struggle too much for inner peace! I know that I shall enjoy certain moments of gaiety, willy-nilly” (Bowles, 1943, p. 71). The search for happiness can also arise from the divided and unstable

or unembodied self. In one of his studies on the causes of schizophrenia, Laing

identified the search for happiness as resulting from the desire of the divided self to

become a “real” person (Laing, 1959, pp. 178–9). For Copperfield, happiness is to

be achieved through connection, and without it she “feel[s] so lost and so far away

and so

(Bowles, 1943, p. 60). This isolation, deriving in part from disconnection, also distinguishes Bowles’s career as a writer and is manifested in a countless number of mental

blocks. In one of her letters, she admits her withdrawal in relation to her work, “I am isolated and my experience probably does not interest anybody at this moment” (Dillon, 1985, p. 33). Her art connects with the human condition more than she might have suspected but is tangled up with her own ambiguous style. Her char- acters, by contrast, live in an unbreakable isolation, always searching that from which they escape. Isolation presents an existential condition in Bowles’s work, a metaphysical endowment for those who inhabit a world without myth, without God. Such withdrawal is a further example of the unembodied self that identifies the schizoid individual, according to Laing. The self cannot merge with anyone.

A permanent solitude exists. In addition, this isolation and absence of internal

compromise also brings along self-deception for the schizoid individual. In this way, many schizoid writers and artists who find themselves relatively isolated from others are able to establish a creative relationship with the world, which serves to personify the elements of their fantasies (Laing 1959, pp. 87–89). For the schizophrenic person, the world is subordinated to consciousness. This condition positions “the imagination imagining itself imagining.” 10 In the presence of self-consciousness, whether artistic or individual, external reality loses importance and substance but at the same time, the author’s and characters’ selves dissipate; we end up with a contradiction: subjectivity without a subject, narcis- sism without Narcissus (Sass, 1992, pp. 225–6). In this sense, excessive reflection can, instead of sustaining the thinking self, lead to its destruction in certain cir- cumstances. The tendency to reflect obstructs the sense of self; the formula that requires introspection is not “I think, therefore I am” but rather “the self thinks,

It’s all so strange and it has no connection with anything”

10 William Gass, cited in Hutcheon, L. (1984). Narcissistic narrative: The meta-fictional paradox. New York and London: Methuen, p. 33.

A Journey to Madness: Jane Bowles’s Narrative and Schizophrenia


therefore I do not exist” (Sass, 1992, p. 235). The same mechanisms of introspec- tion that dissolve the will or active compromise can, in fact, impose themselves upon the schizophrenic individual. Likewise, for Laing self-consciousness is a double function in the ontolog- ically insecure person. On the one hand, to be conscious of one’s self and to know that others are conscious of that self constitutes a medium that reinsures a person’s existence as well as that of others. On the other hand, in a dangerous world, to be a potentially observable object means to be continually exposed. Self- consciousness, then, could reside in the apprehensive consciousness opposing the possible exposure to danger caused by the mere visibility of the person (Laing, 1959, pp. 108–9), a theory which can be applied to Bowles’s narrative strategy. When writing, Bowles aspires to achieve a language free from the worrisome im- pulse to expose herself. Paradoxically, the tremendous effort she takes to disappear in her texts makes her personal idiosyncrasies abound in them. Her narratives, far from hiding their author, are transformed into dramas about the impossibility of being adequately concealed in order to not being detected. Many of her characters dream of escaping from their oppressive and bright social surroundings in which they feel unprotected. In fact, Two Serious Ladies is constructed as an escape of its two main char- acters. Christina Goering escapes from her comfort as a single and rich woman to embark on a series of unpleasant relationships with unknown men. The objective in this case is to divest herself of everything that can represent a restriction of possibilities, although her purpose is not clear in doing so. For her part, Frieda Copperfield also escapes from the conventionality of her life and from her mar- riage to pursue her idea of happiness living with a young Panamanian prostitute. Frieda also shares the trait of excessive of self-consciousness with her author, and just when she frees herself from her past, she aspires as well to free herself from her mental torture—“If you could only stop me from thinking, always, Pacifica!” (Bowles, 1943, p. 72). But it is precisely her companion who does value Frieda Copperfield’s capacity for thought: “You don’t want to stop thinking. The more you can think, the more you are better than the other fellow. Thank your God that you can think” (Bowles, 1943, p. 72). In following their existential journey, these characters appear to be asking Bowles for a kind of protection that provides them with a relief from their static and vulnerable social positions. But since Bowles cannot avoid the personal touch of her language, her characters are unable to free themselves from her. The charac- ters are the carriers of the persistent and damaging self-consciousness of Bowles, exuding “the coarse, intimate whiff of rotting meat” (McEwan, 1997, p. 115). In- deed, books free from authority and ostensibly without the presence of the author fascinated Jane Bowles so much that in her work we sense a writer whose constant objective is to go by undetected so that what she considers the “true” narrative can unfold. That is, as a writer dealing with both schizophrenia and perfectionist tendencies, Bowles tried to hide in her narratives. But in spite of her desire to



outshine herself in her texts, Bowles’s inimitable voice and style jump right off the page. If we apply a Laingian theory of schizophrenia (1959, p. 163) to her prose, we can identify incomprehensibility as an essential feature. Similarly, this feature marks the schizophrenic individual as a subject difficult to decode. The nature of her anxieties and experiences, which are ordered in an unusual manner, makes the content of her discourse difficult to follow. In harmony with the desire to eliminate the author’s presence from the story, the deliberate use of opacity and complexity serve as a hiding place. Two Serious Ladies fits this pattern of incomprehensibility, its difficulty ap- preciated in the relationships between and among sentences and paragraphs as well as the contradictory messages surrounding, for example, Frieda Copperfield:

“She was suffering as much as she had ever suffered before, because she was going to do what she wanted to do. But it would not make her happy” (Bowles, 1943, p. 107). Frieda breaks with her past although she knows that impulse will not bring happiness. But on the other hand, “she did not have the courage to stop from doing what she wanted to do. She knew that it would not make her happy, because only the dreams of crazy people come true” (p. 107). In the con- flict that arises between reality and imagination, Frieda, just as Bowles, does not reject the latter, for “she thought that she was only interested in duplicating a dream, but in doing so she necessarily became the complete victim of a nightmare” (p. 107). Toward the end of the novel, everything seems to indicate that Frieda Copper- field has at last found happiness, although she is still “only a step from desperation all the time” (Bowles, 1943, p. 199). She oscillates between fullness and emptiness in her attempt to live in a world of “happy moments” (Lougy, 1997, p. 125). For Bowles, those moments arise from fleeting human contact and, in this respect, are similar to the beauty Frieda Copperfield observed once in the face of an elderly woman who “was no longer beautiful, but in her face I found fragments of beauty which were much more exciting to me than any beauty that I have known at its height” (Bowles, 1943, p. 49). Bowles seems not to offer many moments of rest for her characters. They generally find themselves lost and scared. Miss Gamelon, Christina’s companion, was afraid that “Miss Goering was losing her mind” (Bowles, 1943, p. 114). At times, “her anxiety was so great that she was unable to remain in the house” (p. 116). Although it is not common for the characters to completely abandon their anxieties, Bowles offers some approaches to relief in their childhood. Her characters are able to recreate feelings of well-being and fulfilment, always preliminary to the journey to the world of maturity. These are fragile and at precarious intervals, precisely because they are fantasies (Lougy, 1997, p. 125). And since they depend on forgetting the world, they cannot be maintained for very long. Pacifica, Frieda Copperfield’s lover, is the character who best exemplifies what Bowles probably

A Journey to Madness: Jane Bowles’s Narrative and Schizophrenia


considered as beautiful. Beauty resides in the subconscious, which is experienced upon waking “when you know who you are and what day in your life it is you still think you are sailing in the air like a happy bird—that is beautiful. That is, when you don’t have any worries” (Bowles, 1943, p. 69). It would appear, then, that the use of fantasy establishes a restrictive rejection mechanism more than an expansive force. Following the psychological attention given to the study of Two Serious Ladies, literary criticism followed suit with a modernist reading of this work 11 that focuses on characters’ psychology. For example, such modernist criticism emphasizes Christina Goering’s attempts to follow her own morals by means of unpleasant activities. In this reading of the novel, her masochism determines her behavior. In another reading, however, the entire psychoanalytic perspective is destroyed by the burlesque tone adopted by the story and its characters, which ac- quire the “waning of affect” that Jameson (1983) underscores as a postmodernist category. The tension between these two ways of reading makes up for a large part of the strangeness the novel produces. Thus, to dwell on the psychotic features of Bowles’s narrative is to undertake a modernist reading of her work. From this point of view, it is worthwhile to point out the moral masochism 12 revealed in Christina Goering’s going to progressively harsher positions for the purpose of achieving moral salvation. According to Laing, this strategy is one of the traits characterizing the psychotic individual. In addition, the psychotic trait of the progressive loss of real presence of the other is also relevant for our analysis, as is the “we” concept, whose removal for women is more threatening than it is for men (Laing, 1959, pp. 145–6). Although Laing does not usually distinguish between masculine and feminine psychotic traits, he does connect this aspect with one of the possible causes of homosexual attraction. In fact, Binswanger (1963) suggests that a same-sex relationship may be the last hope for breaking a dual mode of being in the world. Frieda Copperfield’s search for the presence of the other follows this route when she has a romantic relationship with another woman, Pacifica, in order to reinforce her relationship with the world. By embarking on this relationship, she

11 Book Week described it as “a true psychological novel, a continuation of The Well of Loneliness, a small masterpiece in the study of characters.” Saturday Review said it was “a kind of psychotherapy represented in a fable. When these young ladies speak, they do not speak the formal and reserved thoughts that they could claim as their own but, on the contrary, express grand and complex ideas that could only come from the subconscious.” The Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review mentions its “psychological perception and corrosive realism.” Cited in Allen, C. (1997). The narrative erotics of Two Serious Ladies. In Skerl, J. (Ed.), A tawdry place of salvation: The art of Jane Bowles, p. 21. 12 The Freudian term “moral masochism” describes the condition in which the ego experiences a subconscious sense of guilt and seeks the punishment, not of another person, but of the inner superego or of parental substitutes, including destiny. As in other types of masochism, it produces sexual pleasure. In Freud, S. (1924). The economic problem of masochism. Cited in Allen, C. (1997). The narrative erotics of Two Serious Ladies, p. 22.



might achieve happiness. For Christina Goering, moral masochism is transformed into a source of pleasure by the very creation of malaise. In Freud’s terms, the ego seeks punishment from the superego, whereby “moral masochism creates a

temptation to perform sinful acts which must then be expiated by the reproaches of the sadistic conscience or by chastisement from the great parental authority of Destiny” (Allen, 1997, p. 23). Christina Goering follows this tendency in choosing

a version of her fate which at times she disapproves of, feeling “for one desolate

moment that the whole thing had been prearranged and that although she had somehow at the same time been tricked into taking it by the powers above” (Bowles,

1943, p. 144). In conceiving of her salvation, she acts in a masochistic way, although she never explains the reasons for her behavior. What does, however, seem clear is

that she acts out of necessity, for “it is not for fun that I am going,

it is necessary to do so” (Bowles, 1943, p. 124).

Goering’s attempts to expose herself to risky situations for the purpose of salvation contain elements of parody. In this sense, a tension between the two interpretations of the novel—on the one hand, the modernist insistence in the maturing process, and on the other, a postmodernist rejection of all motivation.

The ironic ending of the novel parodies Christina’s projects for salvation as she is abandoned by the most sullen man she chooses and is unable to relate her rhetoric of moral correctness to her sadness. In addition, her blindness at the end of the novel brings the ridiculous and parody into the narrative. The unraveling of the novel could be read with postmodern playfulness, one that contains self-irony and even schizophrenia, a reaction against the austere autonomy of modernism. Such

a position toward traditional culture is an irreverent imitation, and its lack of depth undermines all metaphysical solemnities, at times with a brutal aesthetic of artifice and somersault (Harvey, 1989, pp. 7–8). Moreover, the tension between the objective pursuits of a modernist reading and the lack of consistency in motives inherent to a postmodern reading explains

a good part of the divided self in Two Serious Ladies. If the postmodern object

contains qualities such as schizophrenia, ingenuity and indeterminacy, the work of Bowles fits that classification (Hibbard, 1997, p. 153). A postmodern reading of her narratives does not find a cohesive, satisfactory story; rather, we see characters who live in postmodern world by virtue of their characteristic multiplicity and fragmentation. In fact, the “two serious ladies” express the rupture of the self in the schizophrenic individual, the “true” self of Frieda Copperfield contrasting with the “false” self of Christina Goering. The genuine self is able to experience in a real and live way what one might describe as a creative relationship with the other, in which there is a mutual enrichment of the self and of the other (Laing, 1959, p. 82). Frieda Copperfield abandons her husband and seeks out various relationships with prostitutes in Panama, discovering at last what she was looking for in the erotic relationship with Pacifica—“a nest in this outlandish place” (Bowles, 1943, p. 40).

but because

A Journey to Madness: Jane Bowles’s Narrative and Schizophrenia


For her part, Christina Goering represents the false self, a turn from the authentic self as the internal self divides to have a sadomasochistic relationship. The substitution of one interaction with the other forces the individual to live in a fearful world where fear is not mitigated by love (Laing, 1959, p. 83). She does not connect with any of her relationships because she is convinced that finding pleasure is through her singular sacrifice. The end of the novel reinforces the isolation and incomprehensibility of Goering’s schizophrenic self. But, she asks, “is it possible that a part of me hidden from my sight is piling sin upon sin as fast as Mrs. Copperfield?” (Bowles, 1943, p. 201).


Let’s you and me go out in the world

just the two of us.

—Jane Bowles, “Camp Cataract”

Jane Bowles believed “Camp Cataract” (1949/1966) to be her best work, al- though she confessed, given her permanent insecurity as a writer, that she would not have been able to finish it without the help of her husband. “Camp Cataract” is important for this inquiry because of its depth and strangeness, which provide grounds for a study of its psychotic elements. The story continues with the unbal- anced and uneven tone of Two Serious Ladies, resulting in a tragicomic mixture,

although with an innovative ending. “Camp Cataract” tells the story of two middle- aged single sisters, Harriet and Sadie. The two women, their sister Evelyn and her husband Bert, all live in an apartment in the city. Harriet suddenly decides to escape from her family and heads off for Camp Cataract, a tourist resort located near a waterfall. Her plan is to establish roots there and from there, go out into the world unnoticed. Sadie remains in the apartment with Bert and Evelyn while her sister carries out her plan. For Sadie, the passionate love she feels for Harriet drives her to go to Camp Cataract to beg Harriet to return home. Although Harriet had requested that nobody visit her, Sadie shows up without prior warning. Harriet is frightened when she sees her and maintains her distance but concedes to see her on the following day. The story has two endings. In the first, we find the two sisters near the waterfall and Sadie reveals the true purpose of her journey—“let’s you

just the two of us” (Bowles, 1966, p. 396), followed

and me go out in the world

by Sadie leaving Harriet behind. In the second and “true” ending, this encounter between the two sisters only takes place in Sadie’s imagination, and the story ends with Sadie’s suicide in the waterfall without having revealed her secret. Sadie’s trip is all in her mind, but her purpose is quite rational.

“Camp Cataract” is strongly linked to Bowles’s own life. Sadie dies in a campground. Bowles was thirteen when she learned of her father’s death in a campground. The waterfall is inspired by the landscape surrounding Watkin’s Glen, near Holden Hall, where Bowles tried to commit suicide in 1942 after an



argument with her lover Helvetia Perkins (Dillon, 1981, pp. 169–70). In fact, the relationship between Harriet and Sadie can be interpreted as an ambiguous relationship ranging from one of love to one of a divided self, as in Two Serious

Ladies. In addition, the journey towards the world in “Camp Cataract” carried out by the characters is traumatic and violent. Sadie has spent her whole life playing the adult, “yearning to live in the grown-up world that her parents had established for

them when they were children, but

1966, p. 368). Shortly before committing suicide, she comes to have a perception of herself as filled with pain, knowing “that this agony she was suffering was itself the dreaded voyage into the world, the very voyage she had always feared Harriet would make” (p. 396). In leaving behind her innocence and the day-to-day life with her sister in the apartment, Sadie is thrown into the world, and she responds with suicide. In contrast, Harriet does not share her sister Sadie’s values. Harriet has more

in common with Frieda Copperfield and Christina Goering, because they escape from all that might represent refuge or comfort. Harriet’s wandering spirit contrasts with Sadie’s domesticity, Harriet being a “great admirer of the nomad, vagabonds,

and most of the visionaries” (Bowles, 1966, p. 361).

Nevertheless, Harriet does not seek a kind of errant lifestyle. Quite the contrary. Her plan is rather complex, and at the end of the story she is still to be found in Camp Cataract, the place to which she had escaped “to imitate the natural family roots of childhood” (Bowles, 1966, p. 361). This fact makes it clear that she was not searching for instability but rather for a kind of protection similar to that provided by infancy. Harriet, as most of Bowles’s characters, is trapped by her memory and cannot overcome her fixation on paralyzing images. An example of this childhood symbol is the tree house, a central icon in Bowles’s theater production of In the Summer House (1951): “I will clarify my statement by calling Camp Cataract my tree house” (Bowles, 1966, p. 362). Similarly, Harriet’s attempts to imitate infancy’s natural roots fail and toward the end of the story, Harriet must face her sister’s suicide. Each sister’s journey is in an opposite direction. Sadie tries to live in the world of adults; Harriet, by contrast, evokes infancy and childhood and seeks to recover these through isolation and contact with nature. By escaping from the apartment’s comfort and Sadie’s necessities, Harriet clearly demonstrates her psychotic need to be in control, which is manifested in her new isolation. In the midst of her illness, Jane Bowles also experienced the seclusion of schizophrenia. In a letter written in 1957, Paul writes that Jane would murmur, “total isolation, total isolation” (Dillon, 1981, p. 292) from time to time. “Camp Cataract” shows the impossibility of finding a home in the world (Shloss, 1997, p. 104). Harriet’s journey is calculated to transgress family limits with the contradiction represented by the evocation of the tree house from child- hood. The affective link provides a blessing of security for Sadie, while for her sister

gypsies, seafaring men

she did not understand it properly” (Bowles,

A Journey to Madness: Jane Bowles’s Narrative and Schizophrenia


Harriet it is converted into a psychic prison. Sadie’s unexpected visit to Harriet in the campground reintroduces the family in Harriet’s escape and increases her sense of suffocation. It is as if the boundary between the self and its abominable origin suddenly blows up, provoking a psychic catastrophe. The campground together with its rides and tourist stands allows Harriet her own game, that is, to try out a system foreign to her emotional inheritance and to explore the nature of her own desire “by means of a detour through otherness” (Porter, 1991, p. 288). Bowles’s characters do not withdraw or take refuge. They throw themselves into a cold and impenetrable world in an attempt to be surrounded with a perception of themselves that forms part of a greater community, making it possible for them to retain or recover what they have lost, forgotten, or are not afraid of finding (Lougy, 1997, pp. 126–7). For Sadie, the campground does not provide a promise of freedom. On the contrary, in Camp Cataract Sadie breaks free from her emotional habits and domesticity to confront Harriet’s rejection. But Sadie, at last going against her desires, realizes her own personal interior journey. While she awaits Harriet, Sadie foreshadows her own uprooting in the image of “a felled tree whose length blocked the clearing. Its torn roots were shockingly exposed” (Bowles, 1949, p. 395). “Camp Cataract,” then, revolves around the struggle between the two sisters. Similar to Two Serious Ladies, its interior dimension can be read as the repre- sentation of a single, unique conscience. The story’s landscape helps to configure and exteriorize the conflicts, with fallen trees, cliffs or waterfalls translated to human choices, transitions, and transformations. In this way, the story expresses the counterpoint of the characters’ anxieties. Psychoanalytic theory recognizes this ambivalent representation of the self and of the breakdown of personality in extreme situations. The dynamism of the pair Sadie/Harriet reflects the common mother/child dynamism when mothers require their children’s submission in or- der to defend themselves from their own separation anxieties (Masterson, 1981). Sadie finally realizes that following Harriet’s steps to Camp Cataract is a response to her own inner emptiness and does not see her sister as another person but as an extension of her own fragmented self. Likewise, for Laing the mother/child relationship can bring with it the sub- terfuge of the self in another instead of taking the risk of experiencing the unavoid- able helplessness and perplexity of becoming oneself (1959, p. 104). The system of the false self progressively tends to be more inert. From this perspective, the Sadie/Harriet relation denotes great ambiguity. Harriet’s efforts to grow and to become independent are translated into the breaking of her link with Sadie and with going to Camp Cataract. To remain with Sadie is to perpetuate her bondage. Without a true alternative, ambivalence is converted in a model of existence. At the end of “Camp Cataract” we do not find how this dilemma between dependence and independence is resolved as both Sadie’s suicide and Harriet’s flight leave the conflicts surrounding the fragmentation of the self in suspense.



The problem of the self is essential in Bowles’s narrative. The main characters of Two Serious Ladies and “Camp Cataract” reflect the divided self and the am- bivalence of schizophrenia. Many of the psychotic traits that characterize schizoid individuals are found in Bowles’s characters. Moreover, the formal structure of her work contains a large amount of surprise and incomprehensibility. Both the fiction and the persons who give it life are characterized by their fragmentation, and as soon as these personality fragments find a new but temporary home, they again take up familiar relationships of childhood. All who could become independent are destroyed when they are obliged to become integrated. Each point of union is converted into the house of Usher (Toles, 1998, p. 104), where individuals have two choices—to see themselves as they are or to disintegrate in fission. Bowles’s narrative contains the effects of madness in the sense that everything disintegrates towards perplexity, and no possibilities appear to restore a sense of balance.


This study is part of a research project partially funded by The Ministry of Education and Culture of Spain, grant number PB97-0320 and a version of which has been deposited with the Registry of Intellectual Property of Madrid, Spain (no. 97, 898).


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