Thursday, June 30, 2011

Isherwood & The Mirror of Self

Isherwood as a younger man

I've wanted for a long time to write a piece on Christopher Isherwood. That intention lay dormant for several years, until the publication of his Diaries, three volumes of which have been issued so far--

[Diaries--Volume One: 1939-1960, 1048pp]

[The Sixties. Diaries, Volume Two: 1960-1969, 756pp]

[The Lost Years: A Memoir 1945-1951, 388pp]

The appearance of these voluminous personal records, brimming with personal report, idle chatter and philosophical meditation, should come as no surprise to those previously familiar with Isherwood's aesthetic, which was nothing if not always self-reflective, even to an obsessive degree.

Reading his Christopher and His Kind [1976]--a memoir of Isherwood's years in Berlin (1929-1933, and his relationship with his friend and lover Heinz Neddermeyer, and Heinz's futile attempts to elude conscription into the Nazi war machine)--years ago, I was struck by his extraordinary ability to objectify his own experience, and to address himself almost as an alter-ego. Isherwood's habit of talking about himself in the third person, and his tendency to lift real autobiographical experience (including intimate friendships and love affairs), barely disguised, into fictionalized accounts, was a hallmark of his style for his whole life.

Isherwood's work and life divide fairly neatly into four distinct periods:

>1904-1929 Early upper middle-class life, prep-school, Cambridge, brief period of study in pre-med.

>1929-1939 Lives in Berlin, and other parts of Europe, travels to China with Auden (with whom he does dramatic collaborations as well as a book on China [Journey to a War, 1939]), publication of the Berlin Stories [1939-45], emigrates to America.

>1939-1952 Works as screenwriter in Hollywood, first period of commitment to Vedanta Society, mystic exploration and devotion, becoming an American citizen [1946], beginning of life relationship with Don Bachardy (30 years his junior).

>1953-1986 Final period of progressive coming-out as Gay man, and publication of openly Gay works of fiction [Down There on a Visit, 1962, A Single Man, 1964], growing fame, period of teaching at State college in Southern California.

In some respects, Isherwood may be said to have been ideally placed to be an observer of key events during the 20th Century. He derived all the benefits of a British education, while rejecting all of its trappings; spent time in Berlin of the early Thirties, said to be the most cosmopolitan place on the planet at that time; escaped to America on the eve of World War II, and ended up living in Malibu, among the art and movie colonies, working in Hollywood during the last period of the Studio System, eventually taking his rightful place as one of the progenitors of the Gay Rights movement beginning in the 1960's.

The plaque at Nollendorfstrasse 17, where Isherwood lived during his years in Berlin.

What the Diaries confirm, in telling detail, is the degree to which that self-reflexivity--so evident a tendency in all of his fiction, as well as what we know of his life--was a daily preoccupation of his consciousness, and not only that--it was also the major function of his vision of life. Obsessive diarists famously walk a narrow line between accurate report and artistic augmentation. The diaries and/or letters of the famous--literary or otherwise--constitute one of the important sub-branches of letters, or literature, and for good reason. Diaries, memoirs, journals, daybooks and so on provide windows onto specific times, and insight into the intimate lives of their authors. Boswell, Pepys, Swift, Coleridge, James Lees-Milne, Isherwood. Each has much to tell us about how it felt to be alive at a certain time, in a certain place, and each as well provides important clues to the mystery of self-consciousness, and the changing values placed upon observation, self-revelation, and the moral fabric of society. There was almost no part of Isherwood's life that he did not document or adopt into semi-biographical fiction--he used everything.

Though I have known many Gay men and women, I have never really understood what it could mean to idolize or feel sexually about another man. It's completely outside the realm of my understanding. Camaraderie I comprehend, which strikes me as asexual in its essence--the kind of mutual interest and attachment one feels for another mind, sensibility--a shared appreciation for common concerns, respect and affection--but without any passionate component. Isherwood addresses this mystery in his writing, questioning from time to time just what it is that attracts him to men, instead of women. During his young adulthood, he had physical relationships with some women, but they held no fascination for him. It was almost as if, seeing himself in the predictable role of hetero-sexual partner, he would become separated from himself, divided from himself. This division of self from self is a primary characteristic of all Isherwood's writing.

Isherwood's father, a soldier, was killed in WWI. One of the classic clich├ęs from the psychology of the Gay personality is the loss of a father figure early in life. And in fact, Isherwood's first two novels, All the Conspirators [1928] and The Memorial [1932], address the issue of the archetypical conflict between mother and son. I have no doubt that psychological interpretations of this trope have already been made of both these works, if not of Isherwood's whole oeuvre. But with a man of Isherwood's insight and self-awareness, there is no claim of self-deception that would tend to validate a diagnosis of "Unconscious" motivation.

One thing becomes perfectly clear when reading Isherwood's work: He could be ruthlessly honest about his own feelings and failings, he understood precisely how his own behavior could be judged from multiple perspectives, at all times. It's a powerful anxiety in his nature that drives his curiosity and determination to comprehend human motivation. It occurred to me first, when reading Christopher and His Kind that some form of alienation might be possible as an explanation for Isherwood's homosexuality. Most homosexuals first become aware of their tendency to focus on other men in early adolescence. But by this point in his life, Isherwood had already developed not only a genius for understanding his own motivations and weaknesses, but for seeing through those of others as well. This reflexive quality is one of the classic tenets of Western philosophy: Know thyself. In Isherwood's case, the knowledge that he possessed strong homosexual tendencies did not result in a self-flagelation or self-immolation, because of an equally powerful streak of rebelliousness. He tended to regard English society and habit as constricting milieus, within which his growing sense of his own sexual difference--and his sense of himself as an artistic observer, outside the normal limits of social involvement and responsibility--of himself as, in effect, the outsider--led him further into that division of personality which was both a curse (in the sense of exclusion), and an opportunity (in the ability to make telling analyses and tapestries of the world, which appeared in stark relief to his own enforced separateness and isolation).

This division is nowhere more graphically evident than in Isherwood's acknowledged personality split during the 1950's and '60's, when his nearly total commitment to Vedanta--a spiritual quest for peace and understanding--takes place in the midst of his indulgent life-style of carousing, drinking, and extra-relationship affairs. Isherwood's ability to hold two mutually exclusive and contradictory positions--a monkish devoutness versus a sybaritic dionysian free-for-all--at the same time, is characteristically post-Modern, and the perfect demonstration of his ability to see himself with complete clarity and lack of guilt or embarrassment. The reserved Englishness of his outward manner, pleasant and accommodating, concealed the secret self beneath the settled exterior.

Isherwood and Bachardy in later years

Was this studied division of personality ultimately a form of self-delusion, or was it simply a tool to enable him to create narratives of interaction? It's probably impossible for anyone to be completely self-conscious, because to be so would make life impossible. To live in the present is not the same thing as thinking about one's actions and thoughts through language. Language may be a simulacra of our consciousness, but it is not the conscious self. Is taking full moral responsibility for one's actions nothing more than accepting the contradictions or shortcomings of one's behavior? Does full self-consciousness constitute the ultimate forgiveness of all sins? Is to understand all, to forgive all? Does the division of consciousness permit one to conduct an endless dialectic between the disconnected selves of an eternally un-integrated personality?

By early adulthood, Isherwood had become confirmed and committed to a homosexual identity, even if, at that juncture, he wouldn't have had official permission to have declared that fact publicly. His coming-out would have to wait another three decades, at least. The British class system would have guaranteed Isherwood's familiar subversive existence as a surreptitiously naughty boy--had he not deliberately chosen to live abroad, and eventually in permanent exile in the liberated world of surfer-boys and free-living luxury. But Isherwood was never a fully liberated personality, as these Diaries show. He maintained a double existence, by day (and night), spinning out a parallel existence, the solitary soul conducting its own conversation with itself, himself his own best audience, the witness and judge of the outward man.


Kirby Olson said...

I had a friend who made me read Prater Violet three decades ago and I had no idea what it was about, or why anybody would write such a book. It was about his work in the movie industry. At one point he is asked to write a movie script and pretends he's barely interested, in order to make the buyers raise their prices, I think it was. They did. This was kind of a life tip, but I think most times this wouldn't work.

At the end of his life he became a Hindoo I think.

J said...


Heh. You know little or nothing about philosophy, Curtis, like yr best pal Olson, or Isherwood for that matter (the Compass Rose...maricone du jour---ie, an object for Olson's....phony g*y revulsion-attraction schtick (mo the latter)

Curtis Faville said...

Well, J, I guess it's up to you to enlighten us all with your vast learning.

What, for instance, do you know about Vedanta?

What can you tell me about post-Structuralist linguistics?

How about the Logical Positivists? Wittgenstein?

How much Kant, Nietzsche, Spinoza, Russell, Adorno, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty have you read?

Be careful. I minored in philosophy and sociology at Berkeley. Kirby may know a bit more than you do about religious philosophy.

Your gratuitous hokey swipes at everyone haven't, so far in my estimation, established your cred to criticize anyone on these matters.

I'm willing to be convinced, but you'll have to show a bit more erudition than you have so far. That might take a bit of work. Do you have the time and inclination?

J said...

Erudition, n. "Dust shaken out of a book into an empty skull." via AmbroseBierce, as authentic a philosophaster as about any produced by merican Unis.

My BA's in Philosophy . And Ive done graduate work in Phil., and Linguistics/Education, and computing/networking. Either way, I tend to agree with Ambrose Bierce on erudition.

Just start (or start over) with like...categorical syllogisms, CF. Aristotle. I don't think you're ready for Frege, Bertrand Russell, St. Ludwig, et al. Isherwood was a belle-lettrist. Perhaps had an interest in hinduism, but....not a philosopher. In fact Russell penned his essay "Logic and Mysticism" as a reaction against Huxley's gang (including the lizardy looking Isherwood, who was most likely a nazi sympathizer....and a pedophile).

1000 names of Vishnu? No comment (tho Im sure I don't hate it as much as Rev Olsonwell does)

Curtis Faville said...


I could be upset with your constant badgering, but you'd have to present some kind of pertinent point first.

The subject of the blog post is the personality and aesthetic of an English-American Gay novelist and screenwriter.

If you don't know anything about Isherwood's life or work, and are not interested to know more, why bother to comment on it? Isherwood was not a philosopher, as you point out. And "philosophical" criteria are not very pertinent to a discussion of him or his work. Psychological analysis might be a better starting point.

A nonsense speculation like "Isherwood...was most likely a nazi sympathizer" seems completely off the map. How do you expect people to take you seriously, when you make absurd comments like this?

Fun is fun, but this kind of crap doesn't have any redeeming virtue at all.

In addition, I frankly don't give a damn what you think of Kirby Olson. Your differences with him and his blog have no place here, and I'd expect that in future, you'd refrain from references of this kind about him in this comment stream.

There are sites where you could exchange views with others on subjects better suited to your areas of interest. My site is primarily literary in focus, but of course I address other subjects as well. If I were more interested in philosophy and philosophers, I'd devote more space to that.

In future I'd hope your contributions were more relevant, tolerant of disagreement, and courteous.

Otherwise, as per usual, you're welcome to visit and make CONSTRUCTIVE comments of whatever kind.

J said...

I could be upset with your constant badgering, but you'd have to present some kind of pertinent point first.

Ive made the point repeatedly, CF: you're like, a UC PC-zionist-liberal (not really leftist or progressive either).
But im being polite about it.

Your choice of writers, topics, approach, etc. reflects a certain ..ideology (one might call it..belle-lettrist) At times I agree, actually. Usually I don't. You were the one who said you valued ...dissent (unlike Silliman, or Olson). So, in plain speak, Im a holdin' you to yr word. Isherwood's nauseating.

Curtis Faville said...

"Isherwood's nauseating"



If it isn't worth discussing, don't hang around.

J said...

Post my last comment, and you get an explanation: for one, seducing german youths (including young nazis in their teens)--that's fairly nauseating. He continued that practice in SoCal. Then nausea's sort of endemic for the British (str8, or not).

Curtis Faville said...

If this is your "analysis" of the meaning and significance of Isherwood's work, you're going to have to do a little more.

Isherwood's usual partners weren't underage--at least insofar as I'm given to understand. Don Bachardy, his life-partner, was--reportedly--16 when they met on the beach at Malibu.

I suspect that Bachardy was probably already a confirmed Gay, when that event occurred.

Like you, I share concern about under age exploitation and seduction. What is the age of consent or reason or permission? I think it's different for different people. Isherwood was definitely bending the rules at that point.

I'm not condoning his actions, just trying to understand his psychology. There's no way I could ever get close enough to him (in a manner of speaking) to understand that, though. I believe that Isherwood did undergo some psychotherapy, but the PC position now is that homosexuality isn't an illness.

I'm offended by your "zionist-liberal" rants--actually, they're not rants, they're just name-calling. You don't make arguments.

Maybe, once, you could flesh out your thinking just a bit so one could see the background of your opinions.

Have you ever read anything by CI? If not, maybe you should before passing judgment.

Jacobus 323 said...

Could someone help. I am trying to remember the name of the photographer Isherwood knew in Germany who took many pictures of beautiful youths. Many had river or lakeside locations with sun dancing on the water.

Anonymous said...

Bachardy was 18, though in his words he 'looked 16.'

On the rail said...

Thank you, for your postings and relevant literary information. It’s been a help to learn and read more in my search for Isherwood information. Like Forester, CI has been very important to world literature and both these “gay authors” have found audiences for many decades, as well they have attracted the attention of movie-makers who elaborate upon and prolong the authors cultural significance. Again, thank you for this forum and your own work. David Kenner Boley