Monday, January 28, 2013

Love is Liberation

Volume Three of Christopher Isherwood’s Diaries

Courtesy Random House

The writer Christopher Isherwood was born in 1904 into an upper class British family. Like many boys of the period he lost his father in World War I. And like most men of this time and place he sought a long-term relationship, someone to mentor, father, and follow. And he identified with a religion that offered comfort and guidance. It’s just that the script that was laid out for him didn’t fit. So he ventured to Berlin before the Second World War to explore his sexuality and afterwards, moved to the US and became a Conscientious Objector. He settled in Los Angeles to write for the studios, fell under the sway of Vedanta and became lovers with a man 30 years his junior, a relationship that would last over three decades. And he wrote and wrote.

In an earlier post I said that Christopher Isherwood helped save my life. I think it was because he tried to be as honest as possible about his life and that he sought all those unusual avenues for fulfillment. Of course that would get him in trouble with whoever appeared to be in “authority.” The central fact of his life was his homosexuality and the rebellion that resulted. This led him to escape his homeland, and also led him to his guru, Swami Prabhavananda. Swami did not judge him for being queer or anything else for that matter. And for the most part, neither did Los Angeles. He would end up in a house overlooking the vast Pacific. This was a man who moved to the youngest big city in the youngest big country. He didn’t want to be hemmed in.

Most of Isherwood’s literary work grew out of his life. Sometimes he took on a character, even a character named Chris. But as he got older he wrote more directly about his life and loves. By the time he was in his mid-sixties both he and the society had liberalized enough that he was out of the closet in every aspect of his life. This is one reason the third volume of his diaries is entitled “Liberation.” For much of the volume he copes with his own impending demise, writing and worrying about a variety of health issues, some significant. But when he enters his final illness he doesn’t appear so obsessive. Soon enough eventually he stops keeping the diary altogether. During years of worrying and resisting death he works at accepting death, the final liberation. Isherwood trusted the long arc of his life. He must have known that the narrative would eventually coalesce.

Bachardy paints Isherwood in the 1980s
Courtesy Syndey Morning Herald

Katherine Bucknell did a fine job editing the book even though so much of that work is unseen. The introduction provides a good context whether one is new to Isherwood or a scholar. Her footnotes are instructive, but not pedantic. She relegates much information to the glossary of terms and people at the rear, which is like a who’s who of the literary, entertainment, and gay worlds of the 20th century.

As Edmund White notes in the preface a lot of gay men have wanted to place Isherwood in the role of saint. It is easy to forget that this isn’t possible for any human. In his public appearances he was gentle, kind, witty. But in his diaries he could be dismissive and bitchy and, as has been noted in most reviews of the diaries, anti-Semitic. He even insults guests at dinner parties if he perceives them as lording their background over him. Some reviewers have dismissed him because of these lapses that are hard to reconcile with an otherwise sweet person – or at least someone who cultivated a sweet persona.

Isherwood personally witnessed the rise of Nazism and he had no sympathy. His boyfriend, Heinz, was arrested and made to serve in the Germany army. When Isherwood arrives in Los Angeles he falls in with the Jewish film community, most of them émigrés from a devolving Europe, and they became close lifelong friends.

White tries to tackle the unsaintly aspects of Isherwood’s personality directly in his essay. He doesn’t forgive Isherwood because anti-Semitism was typical of a man of his time and social standing. Nor does he suggest that Isherwood thought that these diaries would be private. And he brings up his sexist remarks, and excessive drinking, and other failings.

Don Bachardy
Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

Don Bachardy
Courtesy Cheim & Read, New Yorkn

Don Bachardy
Courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

It is possible that Isherwood knew these private musing would be made public because his literary writing was so deeply personal and he was so ambitious. Over his life he felt that he had been judged harshly for being gay, for his Hindu faith, for moving to the States during the war, and for taking up with someone so much younger. In these diaries he is rebelling and experimenting. I think that likelier explanation for his prejudices is that they are those of a child being told what to do by an authoritarian figure, be it England or his mother. For Isherwood the diary was the tool to be mined for fiction or memoir. What is so amazing is that Bachardy, his executor, did not censor the editor, but agreed to let the whole man, not a myth, be revealed in the pages. It takes a while to resolve the charming with the cranky, the champion of pacifism with the anti-Semitic and sexist asides. The diaries may help us admit to our own contradictions and prejudices although thankfully most of ours will not be shared in public.

What comes through so clearly in 688 pages is Isherwood’s devotion to Don Bachardy and Swami Prabhavananda. Isherwood’s love for them is the true liberation. And ultimately, inseparable.

In April 1982 towards the end of his diary he writes, “Religion is about nothing but love---I know this more and more.”

Don Bachardy; Christopher Isherwood
by David Hockney