Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood: Writing the Script for Gay Liberation




Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood: Writing the Script for Gay Liberation by Katherine Bucknell

February 28th, 2014 reset - +

CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD’S MASTERPIECE — his finest, funniest, most subtle, committed and powerful novel — is A Single Man, published in 1964. In this novel, Isherwood gives his friend Aldous Huxley an important cameo role: George, Isherwood’s professor character, teaches Huxley’s 1939 novel After Many a Summer to his American undergraduates. Why did Isherwood choose to include Huxley’s novel? Because he wanted to introduce into A Single Man the Hindu philosophy of non-attachment that he had shared with Huxley since 1939, and to call upon the qualities of dispassionate engagement evident throughout Huxley’s life as a public intellectual in order to establish the tone for a debate about a then taboo and, for many, disgusting and destabilizing subject, the predicament of homosexuals.

In fact, the American edition of Huxley’s novel is titled After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, quoting nearly the whole line from Tennyson’s poem about Tithonus to whom Zeus gave immortality without eternal youth. The novel satirizes, in various strands of its plot, mankind’s futile struggle against aging: there’s the December-May love affair between the William Randolph Hearst character, Jo Stoyte, and his Marion Davies-like chorus girl Virginia Maunciple; the research into longevity by Dr. Obispo who, like his predecessors in literature and life, the 5th Earl of Gonister and Faust, chooses power and knowledge over joy; the scholar Jeremy Pordage who exits time while he contemplates a work of art, architecture, literature, or history. In A Single Man, Isherwood’s character George, a middle-aged Englishman, is immersed in the same struggle, and he is losing. His young lover has been killed in an accident; perhaps George is too old to attract another. Isherwood himself, nearly 58 when he began writing A Single Man, was intensely involved in a December-May relationship with Don Bachardy, 27, and they separated for a time in the first half of 1963, so that Isherwood had to face the possibility of being, in reality, a single man.

In After Many a Summer, Huxley’s philosopher character William Propter points to the possibility of existence or consciousness outside of time, both on the instinctive animal level “below” the human, and on the spiritual level “above.” Propter teaches:

"On the lower level, good exists as the proper functioning of the organism in accordance with the laws of its own being. On the higher level, it exists in the form of a knowledge of the world without desire or aversion; it exists as the experience of eternity, as the transcendence of personality, the extension of consciousness beyond the limits imposed by the ego […] insofar as we’re human beings we prevent ourselves from realizing the physiological and instinctive good that we’re capable of as animals […] Insofar as we’re human beings, we prevent ourselves from realizing the spiritual and timeless good that we’re capable of as potential inhabitants of eternity, as potential enjoyers of the beatific vision. We worry and crave ourselves out of the very possibility of transcending personality and knowing, intellectually at first and then by direct experience, the true nature of the world."

These were lessons Isherwood had himself begun to consider in 1939, when he first arrived in Los Angeles seeking a new way of life. Propter is modelled on Huxley’s friend and colleague Gerald Heard with whom Huxley lectured on behalf of the British pacifist organization the Peace Pledge Union and with whom he shared the view (expressed by Cyril Connolly in “The Condemned Playground”) that as the 1930s came to a close, all European avenues had been exhausted in the search for a way forward — politics, art, science — pitching them both toward the US in 1937. Isherwood later observed that Heard’s book Pain, Sex, and Time, published the same year as After Many a Summer, 1939, first piqued his interest in the ideals of non-attachment (yoga). And it was in July that year that Heard introduced Isherwood to Swami Prabhavananda. Along with Heard and Huxley, Isherwood became Prabhavananda’s disciple, and all three remained devoted for life to the ideal of non-attachment and the search — which Huxley identified as man’s sole purpose on earth — for oneness with the absolute. 

It’s not an easy path. Only one character in After Many a Summer is alert to Propter’s message, and before he can undertake its disciplines or avail himself of any of its promise, he is felled by a misguided bullet, leaving the remaining characters to redouble their folly, trapped in the realm of human time. George’s own students pay no more attention to the lesson he is offering them: “Once again, the diamond has been offered publicly for a nickel, and they have turned from it with a shrug and a grin, thinking the old peddler crazy.” Isherwood, writing A Single Man, was dipping backward into the wellspring of his 1939 conversion in order to address the difficulties of his current life, reminding himself as well as his readers, not to worry, not to crave, not to clutch at a partner. 

Privately, Isherwood and Bachardy referred to themselves as the Animals. This was partly a gay identification; straight people were the Others. Each had an animal identity — Isherwood a stubborn, bossy workhorse; Bachardy a needy, skittish, rather exciting and irresistible kitten. Underlying these pet identities was a profound and permanent mythological bond, which Isherwood in the early 1960s was only beginning to recognize and which, to his joy as well as consternation, he would never entirely understand. On February 14, 1963, a particularly dark 10th anniversary, he gave Bachardy a copy of his previous novel Down There on a Visit inscribed: “Let’s put our faith in the Animals. They have survived the humans and will survive.” Isherwood’s intuitions about the Animals are reflected in A Single Man in the way that he represents George as a creature; George acts according to the laws of his animal and his homosexual being on Propter’s level “below” human time, even while he aspires toward knowledge and liberation on Propter’s higher level “above” it. Thus, in the opening chapter, Isherwood frames a shared, external view of George that emphasizes the way in which his human persona is a mask that he puts on in order to venture out of his private life into his public, civilized one:

The creature we are watching will struggle on and on until it drops […] It stares and stares. Its lips part. It starts to breathe through its mouth. Until the cortex orders it impatiently to wash, to shave, to brush its hair. Its nakedness has to be covered. It must be dressed up in clothes because it is going outside, into the world of the other people; and these others must be able to identify it. Its behavior must be acceptable to them. It knows what is expected of it.

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In 1959, Isherwood took his first college teaching job at L.A. State (later called Cal State L.A.), and thereafter taught intermittently at a number of the California colleges. Perhaps the last time he had been happy in a classroom was at his public school, Repton, in 1922 when he was in the History Sixth taught by G.B. Smith, portrayed as Holmes in Isherwood’s first autobiography, Lions and Shadows: An Education in the Twenties. There is something of Smith, or Holmes, in George’s teaching style, part vaudeville entertainer, simultaneously seducing and hectoring his easily excited, easily bored students. In Los Angeles, Isherwood became familiar with the necessity and the difficulty of trying to lure beach-loving, physically vital Californian kids towards books and ideas. He was a renegade himself from higher education. He had arrived at Cambridge with a top scholarship to read history and achieved a 2:1 in his Mays exams, but he found his Cambridge history course stultifying, and when he wrote joke answers on his first Tripos exams at the end of his second year, he was asked to withdraw. 

Huxley, by contrast was a brilliant student, with his early foundation in science and his First Class degree in English from Balliol. Even outside the academy his wide reading, his love of arcane knowledge, and his ease with academic minds and their style of discourse, allowed him somehow to embody the learned scholarly figure that Isherwood’s mother Kathleen had hoped Isherwood might become. Kathleen had wanted her son to be a university don. Isherwood rebelled against this — against his mother’s hopes for him and all the conventions for which he felt his mother stood — first by leaving university, then by leaving England for the boy bars of Berlin, and finally by seeking a new way of life in Hollywood, writing for the movies and becoming a Hindu. 

Born in 1894, Huxley was exactly ten years older than Isherwood. This put him a generation ahead, and, for Isherwood, he led the way intellectually. Isherwood liked to put Huxley on a pedestal, reserving the gritty world below for himself and his announced weaknesses. About six months after their first meeting, Isherwood wrote about Huxley in his diary:

How kind, how shy he is — searching painfully through the darkness of this world’s ignorance with his blind, mild, deep-sea eye. He has a pained, bewildered smile of despair at all human activity. “It’s inconceivable,” he repeatedly begins, “how anyone in their senses could possibly imagine —” But they do imagine — and Aldous is very, very sorry […]

He is still very much the prize-winning undergraduate, the nervous, fastidious, super-intellectual boy. Stupidity affects him like a nasty smell — and how eagerly he sucks at the dry teats of books! I see how utterly he must depend on Maria, how blessed must be the relaxation in her thin Belgian arms — and I like them both, much better than before. I think Aldous knows that I like him. This is our only bond. We talk such different languages. Every time I open my mouth he is obscurely pained and distressed. I am such a hopeless ignoramus, such a barbarian. “And yet,” I can imagine Aldous saying, “one supposes there is something….these young men who imagined they understood socialism, when, all the time, of course, one saw perfectly clearly —”

They met again and again, at lunches, teas, parties, suppers, overnight at one another’s houses, in religious congregations and on retreats — according to Isherwood’s day-to-day diaries, they met at least 133 times over the next 23 years, at least 41 times alone, including many sessions during which they worked together on movie ideas. Isherwood attended the December 26, 1959, Life magazine lunch at Huxley’s Deronda Drive house appearing alongside Huxley, Heard, Julian Huxley, and Linus Pauling in photographs taken of the occasion by Ralph Crane. Two and a half weeks before Huxley died, Isherwood visited him at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Even after his death, Huxley’s second wife, Laura Archera, consulted Isherwood on literary matters, for example asking by telephone and telegram in May 1967, for his opinion about the title of her memoir on Huxley, This Timeless Moment.

Huxley and Isherwood worked on three screenplays together. The first two, during 1944, were Jacob’s Hands, about a faith healer, and The Miracle, based on a 12th century Spanish legend about a nun who runs away with a knight; both illuminate their fascination with healing and with the religious life. The third, which they worked on during the first half of 1950, was Below the Equator, about a failed Leftist revolution in an unnamed Latin American country; it reflects their disillusionment with the possibility of political solutions in a world in which the appetites of weak-willed individuals eagerly betray ideals and convictions of all kinds. None of their screenplays sold, but something far more important came out of their collaboration, Isherwood’s screenplay-length novel, A Single Man

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Despite his disillusion with politics, Isherwood addresses in A Single Man a subject that he — ahead of many of his contemporaries both gay and straight — had come to see as political: the right of homosexuals to be recognized as a minority. He sent the final draft of the book to his publishers in late October, 1963, a month before Huxley died. In fact, Isherwood finished writing A Single Man July 25, the day before Huxley’s last birthday and the day on which he heard from mutual friends that Huxley’s cancer of the tongue, treated by Max Cutler in 1961, had returned in Huxley’s throat. When he called Huxley to wish him happy birthday, Huxley sounded a little hoarse, but he was setting off the next day for a conference in Stockholm. The brooding on Huxley that informs the novel was made more explicit in the insightful, funny and very moving account of their friendship that Isherwood contributed to the Huxley Memorial Volume the year A Single Man was published. He remarks in the piece:

Aldous was the most “engaged” of writers; he was always getting involved in controversies, from conscientious objection to the Chessman case. He never hesitated to play an active part in them, either; he joined his son Matthew on a picket-line outside a movie studio on one occasion and went up to Sacramento on several others, to bring pressure to bear on the State Legislature. Yet, in the midst of the struggle, he never seemed fanatical or even particularly excited. Courteous in argument and calmly assured, he maintained an air of objectivity which nevertheless wasn’t in the least superior. Only, when confronted by some truly awful instance of stupidity or prejudice, he would sometimes utter a wild little laugh, raising his arms and letting them fall again to his sides in a gesture of amused despair.

This was the posture in which Isherwood himself might have liked to engage with what we now call gay liberation: neither fanatical nor overexcited, but courteous, calmly assured, objective. His character, George, loses his cool, ranting to his class about competition amongst minorities, about what it feels like to be hated, and about how much nicer it is to be loved. But George, like Isherwood and in contrast to Huxley, is also a showman, a comedian, a flirt. And he introduces this political, prickly, dangerous topic — the right of homosexuals to be considered as a minority — indirectly and in a deceptively light tone, employing the trademark jokiness with which Isherwood typically camouflaged his introduction of themes that might alarm or enrage his audience, the jokiness which allowed Isherwood to pull back and say, “But I wasn’t serious; you are meant to laugh; where’s your sense of humor?” Isherwood had been practicing this form of camp in his novels and plays since the 1930s. In his 1959 novel The World in the Evening, his character Charles Kennedy explains, “You can’t camp about something you don’t take seriously. You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it. You’re expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance.” This passage from The World in the Evening inspired Susan Sontag’s 1964 “Notes on ‘Camp.’” “Camp sees everything in quotation marks,” she wrote. Thus, it says and does not say what it means. Isherwood’s camp does two things at once: it edges into the light something marginal or unacceptable and it protects that thing from attack. It is both articulate and secretive.

In A Single Man, Isherwood uses a particular kind of showmanship, magic, to heighten the reader’s attention and to make fun of it, and of George, at the same time. Like all magicians, he tells us what he is going to do just before he amazes us with his presto-chango sleight of hand. Here’s George, waiting for his students to settle down so class can begin: “Slowly, deliberately, like a magician, he takes a single book out of his briefcase and places it on the reading desk.” That book, of course, is After Many a Summer, and we are about to see George, before our very eyes, perform the magic trick of switching one minority group for another and then for another so that he can get his own group, “monster homosexuals,” out in the open. He does this without ever mentioning homosexuals out loud. 

Myron Hirsch asks: 

“Mr. Propter says the stupidest text in the Bible is ‘they hated me without a cause.’ Does he mean by that the Nazis were right to hate the Jews? Is Mr. Huxley antisemitic?”

George replies: 

“No — Mr. Huxley is not antisemitic. The Nazis were not right to hate the Jews. But their hating was not without a cause. No one ever hates without a cause...." Look — let’s leave the Jews out of this, shall we? Whatever attitude you take, it’s impossible to discuss Jews objectively nowadays. It probably won’t be possible for the next twenty years. So let’s think about this in terms of some other minority, any one you like, but a small one — one that isn’t organized and doesn’t have any committees to defend it.…” 

Isherwood indicates only with George’s eyes which minority he has in mind “George looks at Wally Bryant with a deep shining look that says, I am with you, little minority-sister.” 

Isherwood, as distinct from George, doesn’t raise the subject of the Jews in order to drop it. He knows that readers will go on thinking about exactly the issues George tells his students not to argue about. Isherwood cannily stocks George’s classroom with members of numerous other minority groups — Estelle Oxford is “a Negro,” Sister Maria a woman and a nun, Mr. Stoessel German still not comfortable speaking English, Alexander Mong Chinese, Myron Hirsch Jewish, Buddy Sorenson Swedish, Mrs. Netta Torres Hispanic, Wally Bryant gay — as it if to say, you are all party to this argument, you all need to take a view. This is America now. All minorities are equally in play. 

In fact, Huxley doesn’t even mention the Jews in After Many a Summer; Myron Hirsch’s question is one of Isherwood’s rabbits out of a hat. In After Many a Summer, the text from Psalms is used with reference to a different minority group, the Okies. Propter takes in and tries to help an impoverished farm family from Kansas, man and wife and three children, travelling from the Dust Bowl in a clapped-out car, and with little hope of finding enough work, food, or shelter among Jo Stoyte’s migrant farm workers. It is to the father of this family, reduced to kicking a dog in his rage and despair, that Propter says “the stupidest text in the Bible” is “they hated me without a cause.” 

For what hope, [Propter] asked himself, what faintest glimmer of hope is there for a man who really believes that ‘they hated me without a cause’ and that he had no part in his own disasters? Obviously, no hope whatever. We see, as a matter of brute fact, that disasters and hatreds are never without causes […] what the experts had been saying for a generation was perfectly true: in a semi-arid country, it is grass that holds down the soil; tear up the grass, the soil will go. In due course, it had gone. 

However much the Okies suffered through poverty, however much prejudice against migrants and the poor increased their misery, it was their own bad farming methods that created the Dust Bowl. Huxley and Gerald Heard shared the cool intellectual discipline informing Propter’s view. Any man must understand his fate if he is to improve it. Propter goes on with harsh, heroic clarity: “it is well even for the most brutally sinned against to be reminded of their own shortcomings […] The nature of things is implacable towards weakness.”

Myron Hirsch’s question, “Is Huxley antisemitic?” has been thoughtfully answered by Claudia Rosenhan in the Aldous Huxley Annual for 2003. Rosenhan shows that, early in his career, Huxley used anti-Semitic stereotypes in some of his novels and that he contributed to sustained public dialogue of anti-Semitic tendency. She also shows that after 1933, he persistently tried to understand how anti-Semitism had led to persecution and murder and, indeed, tried to understand and elucidate for others the nature of all prejudice. This intellectual effort, combined with his various personal actions to help Jews during the Holocaust, in her view, show his integrity. She cites Huxley’s view that rhetorical over-simplification and over-generalization helped allow Hitler to blame all wrongs on one cause, which, Huxley argued in a lecture in Santa Barbara in 1959, “would have been impossible if individual Jews and gypsies had been regarded as what they were — each of them a separate personality.”

Isherwood’s private writings, his diaries and letters, reveal that he shared some of Huxley’s anti-Semitic prejudices. As in Huxley’s case, these might be weighed against his authentic concern for Jews, both among his many close personal friends and among Jews he had never met. Isherwood feared unintelligent, undiscriminating power, and he hated injustice and persecution of any kind, both subtle and violent. In Goodbye to Berlin he portrays the mistreatment of Jews in public settings in the city, the Jewish boycott, the mounting arrests, as well as exploring the psychologically complex relationship between the Isherwood character and several members of the Jewish Landauer family. We learn of Bernhard Laundauer’s fate through the unforgettable overheard conversation — terrifying and brutish — between two businessmen in Prague: 

 “Concentration camps,” said the fat man, lighting a cigar. “They get them in there, make them sign things…Then their hearts fail.”

“I don’t like it,” said the Austrian. “It’s bad for trade.”

Isherwood’s portrait of Berthold Viertel as the Jewish film director Friedrich Bergmann in his 1945 novel Prater Violet is as complex and subtle as his portrait of the Landauers. He introduces us to Bergmann as a “type”: “I knew that face. It was the face of a political situation, an epoch. The face of Central Europe.” Then he gradually reveals Bergmann’s character in all its unique detail. Isherwood had a gift for navigating the fine line between the apt, symbolic generalization and the unacceptable stereotype, and it is one of the things for which we most value his work. He shared Huxley’s conviction that individuals, be they Jews, gypsies, or homosexuals, should be regarded as separate personalities. The concluding theme of Prater Violet is that no matter how strongly the Isherwood character wishes to follow a high spiritual path, he cannot give up his personal name with which he intensely identifies, “I should no longer be a person. I should no longer be Christopher Isherwood.” (He is referring to the fact that taking vows in Vedanta calls for accepting a new name chosen by the guru, one monastic name for the first vows and a different monastic name for the final vows.) Moreover, his interest in the personalities of others was ecumenical and without snobbery. The British theater critic Kenneth Tynan remarked in his diary on “the classlessness that [Isherwood] shares with almost no other British writer of his generation. (I’ve seen him in cabmen’s pull-ups and grand mansions, with no change of manner or accent.)” Isherwood preferred to meet his fellow man on equal footing, for example, wearing as few clothes as possible on the beach in California, and using the simplest of nicknames without titles of any kind because this was his best chance for plumbing the mystery of personality. As far as minority groups were concerned, he felt they should all have the same legal and political rights and the same protection from persecution. This is why, in A Single Man, he presents minorities as being interchangeable with one another. 

Homosexuals were also hated by the Nazis and exterminated in the Holocaust. Isherwood himself had to flee Berlin in 1933; he and his German boyfriend, Heinz Neddermeyer, wandered through Europe for four years, seeking a country which would allow them to settle down together; Heinz was arrested by the Gestapo in 1937 and sent to prison and then labor camp followed by forced army service for reciprocal onanism and draft evasion. They didn’t meet again until 1952. Many friends suffered similar or worse fates. Yet, like his character, George, Isherwood believed that nobody ever hates without a cause. In November 1977, he spoke at a garden party hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union; in his diary, he lamented an attitude he encountered there, “Oh, those liberals who think it indecent to mention and show interest in somebody’s racial background”: 

when it came my turn to be asked about my attitude to antigays, I said firmly that I was far more interested in justice than in being loved, that I could very well understand that some people just naturally feel a distaste for being with gays, that we are just another minority, a part of nature with a right to existence — “We don’t think we’re the chosen people,” I nastily added. I had a feeling that I left a faint stink behind me, though I was profusely thanked by many.

His character, George, argues that members of minorities are: “people, not angels,” that it’s, “liberal hysteria […] to kid yourself that you honestly cannot see any difference between a Negro and a Swede….”

“[…] minorities are people who probably look and act and think differently from us and have faults we don’t have. We may dislike the way they look and act, and we may hate their faults. And it’s better if we admit to disliking and hating them than if we try to smear our feelings over with pseudo-liberal sentimentality. If we’re frank about our feelings, we have a safety valve; and if we have a safety valve, we’re actually less likely to start persecuting.”

George goes on to say: 

 “[...] persecution itself is always wrong […] Because the persecuting majority is vile, says the liberal, therefore the persecuted minority must be stainlessly pure. Can’t you see what nonsense that is? What’s to prevent the bad from being persecuted by the worse? Did all the Christian victims in the arena have to be saints? 

“And I’ll tell you something else. A minority has its own kind of aggression. It absolutely dares the majority to attack it. It hates the majority — not without a cause, I grant you. It even hates the other minorities, because all minorities are in competition: each one proclaims that its sufferings are the worst and its wrongs are the blackest. And the more they all hate, and the more they’re all persecuted, the nastier they become! […] While you’re being persecuted, you hate what’s happening to you, you hate the people who are making it happen; you’re in a world of hate.”

George’s opinions, including the implication that his minority group is in competition with the Jews, are animated by Isherwood’s own experiences of hatred and prejudice — not only as he fled Germany with his boyfriend in 1933, but also in Hollywood in 1953 when he was turned out of his house for inviting 18-year-old Don Bachardy to live there with him and was dropped by “friends” for insisting on introducing Bachardy to them, and on many other occasions. Yet even as he voices George’s intensely held personal views, he deflates them with humorous anti-climax, drawing attention to George’s monologue as a performance, a camp: “George no longer knows what he has proved or disproved, whose side, if any, he is arguing on, or indeed just exactly what he is talking about.” Isherwood himself aspired to the ideal of non-attachment that he associated with Huxley and which he invoked with After Many a Summer

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In an encyclopaedia article on Vedanta that Isherwood began working on in 1968, he wrote: 

To know yourself, according to Vedanta, is to know the Atman [inner-self] within you, not the ego-personality, labelled Mr. Smith or Mrs. Brown, with which you ordinarily identify yourself. Indeed, this ego-personality can never be fully known, since it is subject to continual change and since it is like an onion: when you have removed all of its skins there is nothing left. The process of knowing the Atman is therefore a process of ceasing to identify yourself with the ego-personality. The ego’s fundamental claim is that it is separate from and other than its neighbors and surroundings. But the seer who knows the Atman within him knows in the same instant that he is essentially one with his neighbors and surroundings, since their true nature is also Brahman-Atman.

This describes Isherwood’s life project, from the time he met Prabhavananda. Each of his books is a further step in peeling away the skin of the onion. He wanted to expose everything, until there was nothing left, until the ego-personality was gone. A writer like Isherwood who made it his work to delve into his unconscious world, to bring its workings to the surface, should be admired for his bravery in admitting to prejudices and analyzing them. As he grew older, he increasingly relished difference and accepted the friction that came with it. He would sacrifice any claim to moral perfection for the sake of a claim to honesty. 

Huxley died on the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, five months after the address, broadcasted nationally on radio and television, in which Kennedy proposed the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Neither of them lived to see the rippling liberation movements that would follow, in turbulent, mortal fits and starts, over the next half-century. Isherwood himself, having called upon Huxley and the lessons of their friendship to help him bring on stage his first complete homosexual character, was to participate in the gay liberation movement with increasing commitment, after years of political reticence. If we refer again to the three levels of time introduced by Propter in After Many a Summer, we will be reminded that nothing struggled over or won or lost in the human realm really matters anyway, it is not real, it is only symbolic, maya. Perhaps that’s the ultimate bit of magic, of presto-chango, that Isherwood or Huxley can work for us. 

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[1] Caryl Chessman was an alleged child molester and murderer whose conviction was surrounded by doubt. Despite appeals for clemency from the likes of Huxley, Isherwood, and Marlon Brando, he went to the gas chamber in May 1960. 

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Katherine Bucknell is the author of four novels including Canarino and +1. She is writing a new biography of Christopher Isherwood. www.katherinebucknell.com

image: Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood. Courtesy of the Vedanta Society of Southern California Archives 

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