Christopher Isherwood — Christopher and His Kind

[Note: In this book, written in the 1970s, Christopher Isherwood writes about his life in late 20s/30s Germany and Europe in the third person. It seems like an affectation at first but by the end I think it makes sense: Who you were almost 50 years earlier might as well be another person.]

Christopher and Wystan [Auden] stayed on an extra day in Amsterdam, before Christopher went back to England. They were both in the highest spirits. It was such a relief and happiness to be alone with each other. They took a trip through the canals and the harbor in a tourist launch, deep in an exchange of private jargon and jokes, barely conscious of their surroundings. On disembarking, all the passengers were asked to sign a guest book. Beside their two signatures, Wystan wrote a quotation from Ilya Ehrenburg's poem about the Russian Revolution:

Read about us and marvel!
You did not live in our time—be sorry!

Christopher saw Viertel as the kind of intellectual who takes his intellectualism too seriously and thus becomes the captive of his own opinions. He could be dazzlingly witty, grotesquely comic, but never silly, never frivolous... Christopher said to himself that only those who are capable of silliness can be called truly intelligent.

In his two novels about Berlin, Christopher tried to make not only the bizarre seem humdrum but the humdrum seem bizarre—that is, exciting. He wanted his readers to find excitement in Berlin's drab streets and shabby crowds, in the poverty and dullness of the overgrown Prussian provincial town which had become Germany's pseudo-capital. Forty years later, I can claim that that excitement has been created—largely by all those others who have reinterpreted Christopher's material: actresses and actors, directors and writers. Christopher was saying, in effect: "Read about us and marvel! You did not live in our time—be sorry!" And now there are young people who agree with him. "How I wish I could have been with you there!" they write. This is flattering but also ironic; for most of them could no more have shared Christopher's life in Berlin than they could have lived with a hermit in the desert. Not because of any austerities Christopher endured. Because of the boredom.

The change in Christopher's attitude was also related to Heinz [Isherwood's long-term German boyfriend who had been forcibly drafted] and the Nazis. As long as Heinz had been outside their power but menaced by them, Christopher's attitude to them had been one of uncomplicated hatred. But now Heinz was about to become an unwilling part of the Nazi military machine. Soon he would be wearing Hitler's uniform. Christopher didn't for one moment wish him to do otherwise. Heinz had plenty of courage but he wasn't the type who could be expected to disappear and join the underground, or to take a stand as a pacifist in a country where pacifists would probably be executed.

Suppose, Christopher now said to himself, I have a Nazi Army at my mercy. I can blow it up by pressing a button. The men in that Army are notorious for torturing and murdering civilians—all except for one of them, Heinz. Will I press the button? No—wait: Suppose I know that Heinz himself, out of cowardice or moral infection, has become as bad as they are and takes part in all their crimes? Will I press that button, even so? Christopher's answer, given without the slightest hesitation, was: Of course not.

That was a purely emotional reaction. But it helped Christopher think his way through to the next proposition. Suppose that Army goes into action and has just one casualty, Heinz himself.  Will I press the button now and destroy his fellow criminals? No emotional reaction this time, but a clear answer, not to be evaded: Once I have refused to press that button because of Heinz, I can never press it. Because every man in that Army could be somebody's Heinz and I have no right to play favorites. Thus Christopher was forced to recognize himself as a pacifist—although by an argument which he could only admit to with the greatest reluctance.


The above description of Christopher's reactions is far too lucid, however. What had actually begun to surface in his muddled mind was a conflict of emotions. He felt obliged to become a pacifist, he refused to deny his homosexuality, he wanted to keep as much of his leftism as he could. All he could do for the present was to pick up his ideas one after another and reexamine them ring them like coins saying: This one's counterfeit; this one's genuine, but I can't use it; this one I can keep, I think.

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