Sunday, March 20, 2011

Christopher and His Kind

I watched the BBC adaptation of Isherwood's memoir of Berlin in the 1930s.

It is a beautiful production, with all the appropriate values, but I am unsure that it captures Isherwood's depth. He, like many Englishman, was at pains to disguise this and his oft quoted image of being a camera 'simply' recording what was seen helps this image as does the crafted simplicity of his prose.

But if a man is measured by his friends a different image emerges: two stand out in my imagination - E.M. Forster who entrusted to Isherwood the long cherished privacy of Maurice, his novel of homosexual affirmation; and, Aldous Huxley who catalyzed Isherwood's long, paradoxical exploration of Vedanta. Both were men of deep seriousness (though accompanied by a gratifying humour) and recognized in Isherwood one of their own (even as, I suspect, a certain irony about this always clung about him).

What the film did capture, hauntingly, was how does a man committed to the centrality of individual commitments (however tripped up they are by your own egotism) respond to collective events: Germany engulfed by Nazism. To this the film has Isherwood find no satisfactory answer (as his friend, the model for Sally Bowles, plumps for the party, and Communism). In life, he explored spirituality, that offered by Sri Ramakrishna, but failed to fully embrace it. He was left with the answer of an intense humanism - the framing and cultivation of friendships that you feel are an answer but one sadly vulnerable to the collective realities of the world.

A civilization of friendship would require both a context of intimacy (the Italian city state comes to mind, or Athens) and an ability to think out of the textures of your life in colour, living into the uncertainties of the particular. Neither of which are high on our collective priorities. But I realize that it is this kind of vision (expressed not as a vision rather than as a recommended set of habits) that is one I myself am committed to.

When Isherwood was close to death, he was visited by his friend, David Hockney. Hockney found him in tears and on inquiring what was afoot Hockney received the reply that he, Isherwood, was utterly happy. A good note on which to pass into a new landscape.

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