Charles Bowden

is dead. So report my friends Scott Carrier and Alex Caldiero this morning. Bowden died in bed of a flu-like illness. No one in the world wrote like him. His work scorches your eyes, scalds your soul. I have reviewed a couple of his books. HERE my review of his collaboration with artist Alice Leora Briggs and the book designer Kelly Leslie, originally published in The Bloomsbury Review. A drawing of Bowden by Briggs gets at the bookish and irascible and unrelentingly curious nature of the man: Bowdendrawing And, below, my thoughts on a book by Bowden and Michael Berman (published originally in Catalyst Magazine, November 2006):

inferno by Charles Bowden,

photographs by Michael P. Berman,

University of Texas Press, 2006

“Supposing truth to be a woman – ” Nietzsche wrote at the beginning of Beyond Good and Evil; “what did philosophers, at least the dogmatic ones, know about women? Weren’t the ghastly seriousness and the awkward thrusting with which they have always approached truth unimaginative and unseemly tools to win, of all things, a woman?”

inferno, Charles Bowden’s new book (with striking black-and-white photos by Michael Berman, and with an exquisite design that values print as it does image) knows all about truth being a woman. The book’s sometimes hallucinatory, often contradictory, and always white-hot prose is a supple and sensuous organ of seduction. The woman in question is a patch of Arizona desert, and this woman too has had relations with William Jefferson Clinton, who, as one of his last acts as President, in response to lobbying by Bowden and others, established the Sonoran Desert National Monument.

So Bowden now sits “on the ground of a great desert. . . . I’ve come here because this place has always worked for me and has forced me to surrender the buzz of my ideas and taste the limits of my power.” In the hours before dawn, sipping a cup of espresso made on a little camp stove, Bowden chases thoughts and memories with the exquisitely bitter coffee and his fierce, rampant desire to live outside his mind:

Or I should have been a dog. . . the eyes bold, the manner cunning, running up the wash, running for miles, slipping under the barbed wire, dodging the mesquite, the cholla, the prickly pear, snorting down the books written in the air, eyes cocked for danger, nose alive to the noise of scent, the muscles toned and pulsing, lungs gulping air, feet hard and taking the rocks with ease, a blur moving through the tall grass by the washes, weaving in and out of the bottom land, hawks in the sky, idling, noting the passage, coyotes wary but alert to an opportunity, in sync with everything as the sun falls down, wary of snakes, eager for the miles, and then suddenly at the door of a house where I lived edging the great desert.

“Or the snakes,” he writes, “unblinking, watching and ever so good at waiting. I see them as a door into the miasma and the messy smear . . . where I want to go. . . . Inside, I want inside, toss the guidebooks, to hell with the anatomical detail . . . take me inside to the place I cannot find inside myself, at least not often or easily . . . the place where unconscious and conscious cease to have meaning.” He thinks/tastes/smells his way inside badgers and owls, hummingbirds and bighorn sheep, back into dogs: “into that miasma, the same one within me, the place inside the cells, the place hidden inside the word mind, the thing flowing through the nostrils of a dog sucking in the literature of a wet spot and reading millions of years of life in a flash.”

Wine and sex and drugs and the tiny cup of hot espresso keep Bowden’s mind at bay, keep him focused on the woman who is the desert: “I think that is why I hate nature writing. . . . Hate it because it seeks a throb, a big moment, a chamber of time full of meaning and narrative and song and story and fails to know the scraping of the shoes on the bumpy ground. . . . because all it is or ever can be is what flows into my eyes and nostrils and across the blank sheet of the place where my mind once festered.” “I also worry,” he writes, “that people with a deep interest in the natural world seem to lack a deep interest in burlesque, makeup, high heels and the Kamasutra. . . .”

And here the crux of Bowden’s approach to the desert, to the woman: APPETITE. The appetite to possess is killing the world (seen in an amazing, contradictory portrait of a Mexican truck driver preparing lines of cocaine and a 12-pack of Tecate beer for a quick 1000-mile haul of consumer goods). Yet only appetite, animal appetite, is the truth of the desert (and in the Mexican’s appetites Bowden finds his own). “What if,” he asks, “when we get out here on the hot ground in the August night, we discover that this is the way it should be but cannot be for our kind. And that is the very reason we must preserve it – not for beauty, biology or God and country, but so that we can always know the place we dream of being, the place we cannot belong. The place for our yearning.”

“You want to live ‘according to nature’?” Nietzsche asks in Beyond Good and Evil. “You noble Stoics, what a fraudulent use of words! Consider a being like nature, profligate beyond counting, absolutely indifferent, aimless, merciless, without pity and justice, simultaneously fecund and desolate and uncertain, consider indifference itself as power – how could you live according to this indifference? Living – isn’t that simply the desire to be other than this nature? . . . Your pride wants to force your morals, your ideas onto nature; you demand that nature be ‘nature according to the Stoics. . . .’”

Bowden’s nature (and yes, he’s aware that it is “his nature”) is anything but. . . .

Scott Carrier talked with Bowden a couple of weeks ago for a profile he was writing for The High Country News. Watch for it.  Bowden was working on a book with Briggs when he died. He emailed me a year or so ago from Louisiana that it was going to be about red wine and birds. So there will be last new words, wild and scorching words. And the old words can be revisited in an elegiac mood.

No, elegiac is not strong enough. Charles Bowden never spoke an elegiac word in his life. I’ll read now with eyes avid for what Alex calls “the food that fits the hunger.” No one wrote like Charles Bowden. . . .

p.s. Lyn, my partner, a professor of history at UVU, once left Bowden hanging at the Salt Lake airport when she misread the flight plan. Scott Carrier rescued him and we found them drinking happily at a restaurant. Lyn feels the weight of his loss this morning, her memory taking her to an email exchange she had with him about hummingbirds (Bowden knew birds!). She would have, I suspect, left me in an instant to follow that brilliant and handsome man.

About Scott Abbott

Ph.D. in German Literature from Princeton University, 1979. Then I taught at Vanderbilt University, BYU, and Utah Valley State College. At Utah Valley University, I'm Director of the Program in Integrated Studies and former Chair of the Department of Humanities and Philosophy. My publications include a book on Freemasonry and the German Novel, two co-authored books with Zarko Radakovic (published in Serbo-Croatian in Belgrade), and translations of a book by Austrian author Peter Handke and of a catalogue of an exhibit called "The German Army and Genocide." More famously, my children are in the process of creating good lives for themselves: as a model and manager, as a teacher of Chinese language, as a watershed scientist and science writer, as a jazz musician, as a corrections officer, as university students, and as parents. I share my life with UVU historian Lyn Bennett and our yellow dog Blue. Some publications at http://works.bepress.com/scott_abbott/
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2 Responses to Charles Bowden

  1. Eric says:

    I remember reading some of his work on Juarez, Mexico and his belief that NAFTA is a major contributor to violence in Juarez. Bowden surprised me because he had the balls and street smarts to report on drug cartels and because he had a legitimate point regarding NAFTA that I didn’t see coming from anyone but him. In the coming years when there’s a report in the news about the growing trade of dreamcatchers in Santa Fe instead of the drug trade or some other scandal in the southwest because no would or could get the story, I’ll remember Chuck Bowden.

    Like

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