Christopher Isherwood Taught Me to Live Unapologetically
"Maybe I Could Dip In and Out of Life’s Possibilities Without Getting Stuck"
Since age 20, I’ve had a crush on Christopher Isherwood, both his books and his person, or my fantasy of him. I met him—his books—in LA’s A Different Light bookstore. I recognized in his work an outlaw quality I’d encountered in other writers I met on those same shelves: John Rechy, James Baldwin, André Gide, Gore Vidal, Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet. But the worlds these writers built were full of degradation and tragedy. Reading them was giving me panic attacks.
This was the early 1990s, I was in college, and queer literature courses were in sudden vogue in universities. I took three, the first with famous literary historian Lillian Fadermen. I was thrilled, like a new energy was buzzing through me. At the same time, however, friends started to test positive for HIV. I ended up in Faderman’s office, a panicked puddle of queer history. “My friends are having sex without condoms,” I told her. “I love these books, but everybody is broken, ostracized, and dying. I can’t stop picturing my blood.” She made a call, and I got to a therapist’s office that day.
It was at that moment that I met Christopher Isherwood, a writer who did not torture his characters. Over the course of a few weeks, I bought everything I could find by him. In Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood’s third-person autobiography, I found this: “Christopher’s relations with the boys became easy and intimate. Perhaps they recognized and were drawn to the boyishness in him.” I certainly was.
Christopher and His Kind—like A Single Man and A Meeting by the River—felt like an invitation to a life I couldn’t have imagined previously. The books were tender, they were sexually frank, and they were weirdly narrated. Isherwood defied the “Know thyself” edict of capital-A autobiography, treating his self like a mysterious creature he wanted to dissect but not destroy. He wrote about himself in the third person, which seemed like a bold philosophical experiment to me; it allowed him look at his life from the outside, something I was doing constantly at that age.
There was also a sense of uncertainty that resonated with me. Toward the end of Christopher, Isherwood writes, “I believe that what Christopher then experienced was only the natural apprehension one feels before taking any big step: Isn’t this all a terrible mistake?” I was struck by this: He believes. He isn’t even sure about his own experiences. It was reassuring to hear a lauded writer express that kind of uncertainty, given how little I knew of the life I fantasized about living.“He didn’t sanitize queer life; he committed to it, no sacrifice necessary.”
Isherwood’s hesitance certainly had something with recalling a distant memory, but I believe it was also tied to the Vedanta he’d been practicing for years and his inability to conceive of the self as a comprehensive whole. We are all hot messes of feelings, experience, memories, desires, and actions. Even an autobiographer only has access to slivers of himself, and he doesn’t have to make all the slivers align. Isherwood’s self-portrait encompassed multitudes, like Walt Whitman, but without so much bravado. A man who was a mystery to himself without being all dramatic about it appealed to me. I’d date a guy like that. Maybe I could be a guy like that. Maybe I had slivers too. Maybe I could dip in and out of life’s possibilities without getting stuck, like the creatures in the famous tide pools from A Single Man.
My crush wasn’t all highbrow literary fantasy, however. It was also about sex and style and glamor. Isherwood lived rebelliously into old age, writing tons of books, loving freely, fucking philosophically, roving through England, Berlin, India, New York, and L.A. like it was his job as a cosmopolitan man. He didn’t sanitize queer life; he committed to it, no sacrifice necessary. He was photographed frequently. He and Don Bachardy, his boyfriend, were painted by David Hockney. Isherwood had naughty eyes and rakish bangs that fell over them. He wore expensive-looking but worn-in, often wrinkled shirts. He lay shirtless on the beach with Wystan Auden and Stephen Spender. He loved to drink and smoke and fuck and meditate. He and Bachardy were committed but had plenty of trysts with other men. They went to parties. They made things: Christopher wrote, Bachardy painted. People bought what they made.
Although his lifestyle appealed to me, I was drawn to more than the glamor of it. Isherwood was born into luxury and privilege, and I was probably jealous of that. But what I really desired were the “easy and intimate” relations he enjoyed. Many of the men he wrote about were hustlers who worked a Berlin bar called The Cosy Corner. He described these outlaws with tender wryness: “They were greedy but not calculating, temperamentally unable to take thought for the morrow.” He felt a “marvelous freedom” in their company, “a chance to go back into the world of his adolescent sexuality and re-experience it, without the inhibitions that spoiled the pleasure then.” He wanted their sex and their company.
I get the strong feeling he wanted to them to take advantage of him a little, to objectify him. To help in his self-dissection—we’re all objects sometimes. I learned that from Isherwood first: To be fucked by a man is not degradation, it’s exploration. Sex is serious and vital. He helped me come to believe that when culture was telling gay men it was our fault so many of us were dying. Live, his books told me. Fuck them. Be.
So although I respect those other writers I found at A Different Light, I was never going to become them, not as a writer or a person. The tide pools they wrote about were too dank for me. I wanted life to be messy, yes, but not rotting. I wanted vitality, possibility. That’s the kind of mess Isherwood wrote. He didn’t quite believe there was such a thing as a stable or solid self to expose. But he did believe in a sensual life, and he enjoyed giving people little shocks of discomfort. He was selective about the slivers he exposed. He calculated them to provoke, but not so much that he’d lose his audience. Similar tendencies motivate me as a writer. My crush on Isherwood—the writer, the man, the fantasy, the organism—has buzzed in me for nearly three decades. I like to imagine it outliving me, electrifying others to explore, to create, to live.