Being Lost, Losing Each Other While Trying To Find Themselves, and the Nobility To Be Without Artificial “Surviving”

Paul Bowles, the author of the novel “The Sheltering Sky” as himself in Bertolucci’s film

That’s how Bertolucci introduces Port, Kit and Tunner to the viewers – they are coming to the land as if out of the ocean, as our zoological ancestors, as though New-York, from which they arrived to Tangier, is at the bottom of the Atlantic. We barely see Port behind Kit but we immediately feel that they are together while Tunner is on the side. The specificity of Kit/Port relationships is also revealed by the position of their bodies. Kit is a goal of Port’s life. Port is the power charging the batteries of their love – he is responsible for their love (although it doesn’t mean that he “loves” his wife more than she him). The whole trip is invented by Port to help Kit’s transformation. And Port will achieve it but not exactly as he imagined it. Their three gazes are so different despite their dark sunglasses: Kit looks at the new world as if shocked and even frightened by what can happen with her and Port’s lives; Port is all gaze to what new life will bring; and Tunner is just curious and, may be, only slightly alerted.

Bertolucci uses the characters of Mrs. Lyle and her son as he does the street sweeper, the doped concierge and the old woman in public restroom with her dentures in the beginning of “Last Tango in Paris” – to hint at the destiny of the main characters’ “adventure”. Lyles’ presence functions as an alerting signal that Port and Kit’s dream is in danger. While these two personages have no direct involvement in Port/Kit’s life, they by their very personalities, by how each of them is psychologically hurt by the conditions of the world, become symbolically as if the agents of demonic powers whose task is, as if, to derail Port/Kit’s spiritual dreams.

Eric Lyle doesn’t have any meaningful intentions in life – he, like majority of people (including Tunner) just goes through life from one empirical point to another. He lives just to continue to live. He is busy by being busy, and he is satisfied by being satisfied. The difference between Eric and Tunner is that Eric is transformed (by Bertolucci) into his own essence – he is a human being swallowed by essence (reduced to an archetype, in the same way like today an American financier obsessed with profit is reduced to the archetypal profit-maker and lost his humanity). On the other hand, Tunner’s role in the plot is much more versatile, he has some psychological space to develop as a character. He is still alive while Eric is a ghost.

That’s how “The West” perceives African otherness – mythologically, as a human face with animal body of sphinx (of course, not lion-like and without any wings, but body of some kind of land mammal, a goat or a donkey or even a dog, and with an impenetrable gaze).

Port contemplates his task – to awaken his ability to awaken Kit’s love – for him, for life, for meaning of life.

Tunner has this characteristic grimace of polite positivity which Bertolucci transforms into a caricature of Western civility touched by American soap-opera foolishness.

Port hopes that making love in the midst of nature, far from rude mechanicity of material civilization (activated by the human power-drive) will make their love for each other more real and more alive.

For sensitive people the very atmosphere of orientation on success and of boredom of being entertained is fatal. For survivalist by conquers to be as they are – is also traumatic: they also lose their ability to love. But they can easily switch to other registers/styles of bonding – more impersonally sexual, camaraderie based on a common cause and shared identity, eroticism of acquisition of power and wealth, emotional intercourse with appropriated property, orgasmic sensation of being served, idealized and entertained. But people with existential spirituality, like Port, are doomed in a world of rivalry, competition and fight.

There are situations when the impossibility to make love is a proof of love.

Sexuality cannot be much help to those who don’t belong to the race of creative or dumb predators.

Let’s compare two shots of desert from “The Sheltering Sky” and two from Antonioni’s “The Passenger” (1975)

Bertolucci’s desert is “the thing in itself”. It is real. It exists; it is there, independently from our presence in the world. It engulfs human feelings like a black hole of yellow-orange color. It dissolves our existence.

Does earth here look like a bed or this sky like a blanket? Is it possible to feel sheltered by this dark-blue swamp under a sky occupied with itself?

Antonioni emphasizes the metaphorical nature of the desert in “The Passenger” – it is a projection/externalization of the condition of human soul drying up and becoming indifferent (losing liveliness).

Antonioni achieves this effect of metaphorization of the desert by placing people within the landscape but as independent from it, not engulfed by nature, as an alternative presence. People become as if a subject of the desert while desert their object. In this second shot, we see the attempt at human interaction (although of elementary nature) between David Lock, a British journalist, and the native. In the first shot we see David exhausted and devastated by the impossibility of getting truth in the world interested in lies. In both shots the desert is a space between human beings, an obstacle for their contact, while in “The Sheltering Sky” it is beyond human problems.

Kit learns some “sexual techniques” from the ancient human tradition. But neither the American “know how” approach to human intimacy, nor the lessons from nature’s naturalness are able to “satisfy” her: to help her yearning for meaning inside love (meaning which Port while alive wanted them to discover together).

After Port’s death Kit doesn’t think about returning to US (it could be a defeat of Port’s dream). She is looking to join another American who voluntary left for exile (banished himself from the country of pushing passions, pompous contemplations, muscles as brains and brains like muscles) – the author of the novel Bertolucci based his film on: Paul Bowles in person.

”Because we don’t know when we will die we get to think of life as inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon so deeply a part of your being that you cannot even conceive your life without it? Perhaps, four or five times more. Perhaps, not even that. How many more times you watch full moon rise? – Perhaps, twenty. And yet it all seems limitless”. PaulBowles


The cult of nature created by the environmentalists of all kinds, who try to find a more wholesome existential alternative to the money-power monarchy, is shattered by Bertolucci in “The Sheltering Sky” as a regressive utopia. It is not that the conservative utopia of survival through power is less utopian – it is much more destructive and strangulating. But after the artificial blanket (artificial womb) of material civilization, Kit and Port (runners from New-York crispy prosperity and crow crowdedness) imagined a sky-blanket (womb of nature) where they hoped (Port insisted and Kit followed) to rejuvenate their love.

Port knows that the world is dangerous and he cares about Kit. So, they took along a fried friend – Tunner, as a company, a support and distraction. Civilization of artifacts (including the humans) is a giant mechanism that reflects and multiplies itself. But nature is full of silent and enigmatic otherness that hides dangers and treasures. Port and Kit are dedicated to one another. But this mutual dedication is a rather conscious position on their part. The unconscious of their love is stuck in crude “individualism” – it deserves appreciation that they have lost the primordial human proclivity for fusing their personalities through mutual identification based on similarity/identity (the psychological mechanism by which totalitarian people live). They are people of democratic mentality respectful of human difference/dissimilarity. But their very individualism is naturalistic and incapable of a mature – psychologically democratic mutuality, when individualism is just the first step, the unique way toward togetherness of love. While Port and Kit are more developed than the primitive spontaneity of mutuality based on psychological non-differentiation, they didn’t discover a higher level of mutuality of two different individualities coming together not to assert their uniqueness but to celebrate its transformation in the liturgy of love.

Sexual intercourse between Port and Kit cannot be completed – they cannot reach spiritual orgasm – the creation of a unique organism of their love. And they both suffer because of it. But intercourse between Kit and Tunner is easily completed by itself – by the low law of triviality. And it can’t do or mean much. They agree with this emptiness of love filled with empty sex because of the superficial comfort it provides – the illusion that something is happening in their life, and something is better than nothing. Kit enjoys the easy affair with Tunner because it covers up her inability for love. Affair with him is like mass culture or consumer society in relation to human existential problem. He is a suitcase filled with the country Port and Kit have left.

Port’s death helps Kit’s awakening, even though it took a detour through the desert, the discovery of the ancient sexual manipulation of orgasmic response, the discovery of people’s organic hate for strangers and the reality of elementary fight for a position in the community. Kit discovers that trauma of keeping spiritual bonds with (the dead) Port intact is a preferable alternative to the life of everyday survival. She found herself in a psychiatric ward of a Christian mission in far off outskirts of Tangier. She recovers. But she is already someone else. Eventually Tunner full of pious feelings and sentiments over Port’s death and Kit’s life finds her to help.

But what will be her response now? She seems dedicated to the life of spiritual solitude. She “joins the club” of Paul Bowles, who as an observer of human reality is part of the film. His final monologue is a motto of those who have failed to create an enlightened mutuality of love, but who have managed to keep their intelligence above the level of conformist collapse into a life of mechanical existence.

Is our travelers’ trip toward the sheltering sky a mistake, one of those missteps we human beings, repeat again and again and very often pay for this the ultimate price? Kit lost Port, but she understood something she couldn’t before despite all Port’s efforts. According to the last scene, she symbolically joins Paul Bowles’ “club of the contemplative solitude”. “Will she marry Tunner or not?” Marriage is like politics – as in politics you can never say never to the next adventure, so you can never say never to marriage. But even if Kit will marry Tunner it will not be anything like marriage people dream about. It will be something outside “civilization” and outside “nature”, outside earth and outside sky – in the name of Port Moresby fallen in his everlasting search for love, no, while fighting for love, no, while trying to learn how to love, as we all are.

Paul Bowles as an “ideologist” of contemplative solitude

Posted on Sep 3. 2014 –   “The Sheltering Sky” (1990) by Bernardo Bertolucci  by Acting-Out Politics