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Christopher and His Quest.

Mr. Isherwood Changes Trains: Christopher Isherwood and the Search for the Home Self

by Victor Marsh

Clouds of Magellan

299 pages (paper), $27.

IN 1965 AT UCLA, I took a class from Christopher Isherwood, and I recall him saying, "All I can do is to tell stories about my life." He noted that he found support for this idea in Carl Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections, which had been translated recently into English. And he pointed to Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," in which "every flower ... dreamed its own fairy tale, or its story." Victor Marsh begins Mr. Isherwood Changes Trains with a discussion of the postmodern concept that the self doesn't really exist until one tells stories and constructs an identity. He points out that Isherwood, on the surface the most transparent of 20th-century writers, presaged postmodern theory by creating a "narrative self and integrating his homosexual and spiritual lives.

The crux of Marsh's work is the idea that gay men have long neglected their spiritual lives, since most organized religions continue to ostracize homosexuals. He gives some horrific examples, recording quotes from the current pope and from an influential rabbi ("an abomination despised by all the world"). This condemnation has been codified into secular law as well as into the prejudices of the early followers of Freud, many of whom emigrated to the U.S. and consolidated their homophobic theories. Isherwood was able to find a welcoming religion in Advaita Vedanta, which is based on ancient Hindu texts. Vedanta sees no distinction between the soul and the body. In Isherwood's words: "There is no crude distinction between Matter and Spirit." Vedanta is not organized around a separate god who exercises power over his domain; rather, each person is a part of a humanity that includes even the gods, and the way to achieve this consciousness and to overcome obstacles is through study, prayer, and meditation.

Isherwood's later, spiritual writings have generally been neglected or even attacked by critics. Alan Hollinghurst, for example, called Isherwood's involvement in Vedanta "an extended dim comedy of misapplied energy." How these distortions and omissions occurred and how they must be corrected take up a great deal of Marsh's book. Marsh does a valuable service by pointing out the ignored strengths of Isherwood's work and by exposing the ways many gay writers can be attacked obliquely with no acknowledgment of homophobia.

In January 1939, at the age of 34, Isherwood began major life changes that his detractors never cease to find an easy target. With poet W. H. Auden, he left England to pursue his pacifist leanings, thereby "deserting" his country in its hour of need. Anthony Powell called Auden a "treacherous shit." Coming to America, Isherwood did not stay on the East Coast, as did Auden, but moved on to Los Angeles to join the southern California "crank belt." He wrote screenplays and admitted to learning from them. He began to seek further knowledge about and integration of his gay life, having "relapsed into homosexuality," in his words. And he embraced a religion from Britain's soon-to-be-former colony of India, one that even Auden termed "heathen mumbo-jumbo." Others complained of its "weird rites" and "strange names."

Isherwood explored pacifism in New York with playwright John Van Druten but went to L.A. to consult further with Aldous Huxley and philosopher Gerald Heard. They in turn introduced Isherwood, then an atheist, to Swami Prabhavananda, head of the Vedanta Society of Southern California and a swami in the Ramakrishna Order. He began meditation with the swami, who would become his guru, and with him translated three major Hindu texts. He wrote and edited many other texts for the Vedanta Society, as did Heard, Huxley, and Van Druten, among others.

For all the criticism of his spiritual work, Isherwood did much to introduce American readers to Hindu thought. Even the Bhagavad Gita was not really known in the U.S. until the 1944 Isherwood / Prabhavananda translation. It's difficult to imagine any of the crusty, canonical American writers (Hemingway? Faulkner?) doing such diligent research to inform their writings. And Vedanta does inform all of Isherwood's writing after 1939. Its presence in his fiction is unobtrusive and probably missed by most readers, which only sweetens the message. Alan Wilde and Claude J. Summers long ago pointed out Isherwood's Vedanta subtexts. Marsh picks three of the best novels, Prater Violet (1945), Down There on a Visit (1962), and A Single Man (1964), offering many passages to illustrate the presence of Vedanta principles The most compelling subtext might simply be the idea that a gay man can be a part of all beings and need not be an outlaw or a pariah. The final pages of A Single Man demonstrate the Vedanta principle that the Atman (soul within the self) and Brahman (soul of god and all) are one and the same, not a binary as in Christianity. Isherwood's image is that of separate rock pools that, when the tide covers them, disappear into the larger undifferentiated mass, illustrating a "consciousness that is no one in particular but which contains everyone and everything, past, present, and future, and extends unbroken beyond the uttermost stars."

Marsh concludes with a chapter urging GLBT people to seek to integrate their physical and spiritual selves, as did Isherwood. Marsh thinks it's not enough just to gather in the world's gay ghettos and live a separatist life, although he certainly does not devalue the accomplishments that banding together can produce. But why live a life or create an identity just of the body or--to extend Marsh's idea--as a social or political activist for the body politic? Each reader must judge whether this call to change strikes a chord, but Marsh's work ought to compel readers to weigh the evidence.

Marsh admits that some established religions have made strides in accepting gay people, but he does not believe in "banging at the doors of cathedrals" for condescending treatment. He has studied with a guru (not Vedantist) for about 38 years and is an instructor in meditation. I have known Victor casually for about fifteen years; we met--to speak of creating narrative selves--in one of L.A.'s many queer writing workshops. Mr. Isherwood Changes Trains uses a great deal of academic apparatus and vocabulary, but it displays a gusto that Marsh exudes in person.

Marsh calls My Guru and His Disciple (1980), which Isherwood thought was his best book, a "modest spiritual classic." The memoir does display modesty, but the characterization also brings to mind the familiar idea of Isherwood as a "major minor" writer. Whatever his stature as a novelist, Isherwood's spiritual works are a major accomplishment, and it is of major importance that a queer writer, working long before Stonewall and the modern gay rights movement, was able to embrace all aspects of his being and record that synthesis in dazzling works that continue to inspire readers old and new.

Dan Luckenbill is retired from the UCLA Library, rare books and manuscripts department.
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Title Annotation:Mr. Isherwood Changes Trains: Christopher Isherwood and the Search for the Home Self
Author:Luckenbill, Dan
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 1, 2010
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