Issyvoo’s Conversion

My Guru and His Disciple

by Christopher Isherwood
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 338 pp., $12.95

Christopher Isherwood has often been accused of egotism in his work. Yet in the sense in which the word is usually employed this seems to me to miss the point. The self-solidification of the true egotist acts as a wall between him and people. The strident ego sings only its own tune, blocks out the sounds of the others. The Isherwood ego is not of this kind. As he himself describes it in My Guru and His Disciple, it is an acute self-consciousness which makes even his most disinterested actions seem mockery to him. His ego is also an instrument of sensibility through which the people the novelist observes become transformed into characters in his fiction. The special thing about Isherwood is that he seems to find it so difficult to invent situations in which characters behave without that instrument of the self observing—Isherwood, Christopher, Herr Issyvoo—being palpably present. A novel in which he attempted to dispose completely of the ego character at the center of the action, The World in the Evening, he regards as a failure.

Despite his famous remark “I am a camera,” he knows very well that this metaphor is wrong and in a sense he has been withdrawing it ever since he put it forward. It is wrong because Isherwood is not, in himself or in his work, a passive inert observer. He is very much an instrument affecting and affected by the people he observes. Like a scientist who corrects the margin of error introduced into a test by the influence of the instrument upon the object, in his recent autobiographical writings—Christopher and His Kind and My Guru and His Disciple—he is concerned with correcting the error in the observing instrument. From the early Lions and Shadows onward, he has always warned the reader to regard his autobiographical writing as partly fiction. Quite obviously his fiction is overwhelmingly autobiographical.

Thus Christopher and His Kind corrects the Berlin stories by filling in the glaring omission of the fact that the narrator was homosexual. As he sees it now this omission falsifies the account of Isherwood’s relations with the German youth Otto, with whom he was in love, and with Sally Bowles, with whom he did not make love.

At the same time, these corrections are not a way of rewriting the stories. They are complementary to them. By the process of self-criticism, fiction and nonfiction add up to a whole which is closer to the truth than the fiction alone.

The reader may well ask: What is the purpose of this painfully conscientious comparing of fictitious characters with the originals from whom they were drawn? I think one answer is that unlike many novelists who have some real person in mind when they “invent” a character—and who forget the original when the character acquires an independent existence within the fiction—Isherwood imagines a character in a way which intensifies the reality of the person on whom it is based. He imagines the real person within the invented one, and if the character he has created alters the truth of the original, he feels the necessity of explaining why this is so—justifying it perhaps, or perhaps admitting to a sense of inadequacy.

In certain cases his fiction is so successful in intensifying the reality of people that the fictitious character seems more like the person described than that person seems like himself or herself. Having known both Gerald Hamilton and Jean Ross, I simply cannot think of them except as their realer-than-life likenesses, Mr. Norris and Sally Bowles. I doubt even whether Isherwood himself can remember Jean Ross except as Sally Bowles. In Christopher and His Kind he reports a telephone conversation which he had with Jean after she had assumed the completely altered personality of a Communist Party member selling the Daily Worker in a London street:

I have no verbatim record of what she said…. The best I can do is report it in the style of Sally Bowles—which will be anachronistic, for Jean was now beginning to shed her Sally Bowles persona…. “Chris, darling, I’ve just met this marvellous man. He’s simply brilliant. I adore him…. No, you swine—we most certainly do not! He’s old—at least sixty….”

Consciousness of the real person standing behind the fictitious character makes Isherwood feel guilty when in Goodbye to Berlin he puts one of his characters—called Bernhard Landauer—in a far less active relation to the history of his time than was Wilfred Israel, on whom the character was based. Isherwood depicts Bernhard as effete, world-weary, over-subtle, languid, oriental. His profile is “over-civilized, finely drawn, beaky.” He is nearly always “tired, apathetic.” But, the original, the real Wilfred Israel, soon after the events described in Goodbye to Berlin, played a courageous role in fighting for the rights of his employees when the Nazis came to power. Although he had a British passport and was technically a British subject, he remained in Germany for another seven years. Then, when he finally did go to England, he dedicated himself to the cause of refugees. During the war he was killed when the plane in which he was flying from Lisbon, where he had been negotiating a deal to enable young Jewish refugees to emigrate to Palestine, was shot down. All this Isherwood records in Christopher and His Kind. In Israel, the memory of Wilfred Israel is still a legend.

In the case of Bernhard Landauer/Wilfred Israel, Isherwood is anxious, I think, to put right what he regarded as an injustice. But the overriding motive for these supplementings of fictions with facts is, surely, to attain the doubleness of historic truth as both the imagined and the literal fact.

Isherwood writes, at the end of My Guru and His Disciple, that at the age of seventy-five he still finds life beautiful, beautiful because of his relationship with his friend Don Bachardy, and

because of the enduring fascination of my efforts to describe my life experience in my writing, because of my interest in the various predicaments of my fellow travelers on this journey.

These are the words of a writer who is looking through the characters in his fiction to the companions he has known, and who feels that the experience he has of them adds up to a sum which is his life.

His extreme consciousness of himself as the observer at the center of his work has imposed limitations on his fiction. One such limitation is that the narrator, although clearly fascinated by evil, refrains from diagnosing it in characters transparent to him as people he likes. The title of his first novel All the Conspirators really describes a great deal of his fiction, in which the characters seem in a conspiratorial relationship with each other and with the narrator. One has the sense of Isherwood gladly suffering the scattiness of Sally Bowles or the criminality of Gerald Hamilton through the humoring imagination. Auden’s sonnet “The Novelist” is about Isherwood. It ends:

For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just

Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can,
Must suffer dully all the wrongs of Man.

The characters in the novels have the air of all belonging to a mutually accepting Isherwood Club. Paradoxically, Isherwood sometimes comes nearer to giving them moral significance in his depiction of their real-life personalities than of their fictitious characters. Mr. Norris in the novel about him is an amusing and loveable old rogue, who never seriously harms anyone. But in his account, in Christopher and His Kind, of Gerald Hamilton—the original of Mr. Norris—we are told in what is a glimpse of a Dostoevskian underground:

He inhabited a world into which Christopher had barely peeped: one might call it “real” because it was without hypocrisy, its ends and means were frankly criminal. It was a world in which appalling things could happen to you as a matter of course; ruin, prison, even murder.

Isherwood writes that he likes Gerald Hamilton but nevertheless suspects him of being instrumental in having handed his friend Heinz over to the Nazis (after obtaining a large sum of money from Isherwood—or from his mother—for the purpose of getting Heinz a Mexican passport); for he knew Hamilton to be “capable of anything.”

Seeing always the person he likes behind the fictitious character, the narrator retreats when he finds himself on the verge of attributing to him or her behavior which is really evil. In the section of Down There on a Visit called “Ambrose,” “Christopher” in his diary records his reaction on learning that one of the boys on the Greek island where the charming and learned but drunken English archaeologist Ambrose is building a house has raped a chicken, a portion of which the diarist-narrator has just eaten:

As for me, I am disgusted, of course. Not so much for reasons of prudery as because it was cruel to the chicken; and yes, to be frank, because I ate some of it and the thought of this kind of indirect contact with Theo makes me want to throw up. Yet—it had, as Ambrose says, been thoroughly cooked. And—I can’t help it—I’m grinning as I write this….

What is this island doing to me?

This has the kind of built-in ambiguity of quotations from Isherwood’s diary which run through many of his writings. Is this diary-writing Christopher a partly fictitious character in his own fiction smiling at the wickedness of the boys on the Greek island where he and his German friend Waldemar are helping Ambrose build a house, or is it Isherwood, standing apart from people and events—including the diarist—on the island that he now sees to be a circle of Hell? So in the fiction Isherwood does not pass judgment on his characters. But in the autobiographies he reconsiders some of them as cases to whom the novelist has done more or less than justice. But the person on whom he passes most severe judgment is himself, and the progression of his work is toward increasingly critical self-knowledge. Sparing his friends, it is in himself that he diagnoses the good and evil world. Toward the end of Christopher and His Kind he discovers in himself the evil and despair which are Goethe’s “the spirit that denies.” This is in effect the starting point of My Guru and His Disciple:

The more I think about myself, the more I am convinced that as a person, I don’t really exist. That is one of the reasons why I can’t believe in any orthodox religion: I cannot believe in my own soul. No, I am a chemical compound, conditioned by environment and education. My “character” is simply a repertoire of acquired tricks, my conversation a repertoire of adaptations and echoes, my “feelings” are dictated by purely physical, external stimuli.

My Guru and His Disciple is autobiography in which Isherwood draws upon all the devices of fiction. It is the story of his religious conversion to Vedanta, over a period of twenty-five years. Although concentrating on the main theme—the life and character of Swami Prabhavananda and Isherwood’s relationship with him—it also tells much about Isherwood’s relations with Gerald Heard, his work with the Quakers at a camp for refugees, his life as a monastic probationer at the Vedanta Center, his work as a Hollywood script writer, two visits to India, various love affairs: peripheral matters which nevertheless seem relevant to the central one of his religion.

The book demands to be read as a narrative—essentially the story of Isherwood’s spiritual love for the Swami, who was perhaps a man of saintly character, and, toward the end, of the Swami’s love for him—and not as a dissertation on Hindu religion. The narrative begins with Auden and Isherwood arriving in New York at the end of January 1939, and, after several weeks, parting there. Auden stays on in New York where, in Isherwood’s diary, he appears as an instant success, at the top of his form, writing poems and articles and giving readings and lectures. In that mostly atrocious climate in the canyons beneath those cloud-piercing sky-scrapers, Auden finds the setting lonely and yet capable of turning on instant entertainment, for which his youthful genius craves. Isherwood, after a few weeks of bitter, sterile disillusionment, inability to work, and decreasing funds, goes West to California at the suggestion of Gerald Heard.

At this time Isherwood, as becomes clear in conversations with Auden (who is already a rather reticent Christian convert), is apoplectically antireligious, regarding all creeds as variations on themes of authoritarianism. At the same time, like Auden, he has lost his faith in the resounding beliefs of antifascist leftists. All he believes in now is pacifism as an attitude which he knows he will adopt with the outbreak of war.

When Isherwood meets Gerald Heard (whom he has already known in London) he finds that he too is a pacifist—but Heard’s pacifism is inextricably bound up with his religious conviction. Despite his hostility to religion, Isherwood is immensely impressed by Heard largely because he employs an entirely different vocabulary from that which Isherwood associates with the Christianity which he was taught at school: talk of sin, punishment, Hell, and mortification—a brand of Christianity which Gerald, borrowing from Bernard Shaw, calls Crosstianity. Gerald speaks in a hypnotizing, partly comic new vocabulary. He says things such as: “I’m afraid that extremely odd individual, Jesus of Nazareth, deliberately got himself lynched.” Gerald spent six hours daily meditating upon what he called “this thing.” “This thing”—a phrase that caught on with Christopher—was what people would ordinarily call God. As the result of talking with Heard, Christopher himself starts meditating, aware, while he is doing so, of what acquaintances in England will say: “Christopher’s gone to Hollywood to be a yogi.”

Gerald Heard, after some rather coy hesitation, takes Christopher to see Swami Prabhavananda, of whom Gerald was then a disciple. Christopher remembers nothing of this first visit. But he was bowled over on his second one. He quotes from his diary:

He looks slightly Mongolian, with long straight eyebrows and wideset dark eyes. He talks gently and persuasively. His smile is extraordinary. It is somehow so touching, so brilliant with joy that it makes me want to cry.

I felt terribly awkward—like a rich, overdressed woman, in the plumes and bracelets of my vanity. Everything I said sounded artificial and false.

Christopher told the Swami that he was not sure whether he could meditate and continue with the life that he was leading. By this he meant—though he did not say so at the time, but later only—that he was living and making love with “Vernon,” a young man whom he had met on a previous visit to America (when Auden had first met Chester Kallman). When he finally brought himself to tell the Swami this, the Swami’s reply was: “You must try to see him as the young Lord Krishna.” Christopher interpreted this as meaning that he “should try to see Vernon’s beauty—the very aspect of him which attracted me to him sexually—as the beauty of Krishna, which attracts devotees to him spiritually.”

This remark had the effect on Christopher—like Heard’s reference to Crosstianity—of setting up in his mind an alternative to the Christian puritan precepts of his youth:

From that moment on, I began to understand that the Swami did not think in terms of sins, as most Christians do. Certainly, he regarded my lust for Vernon as an obstacle to my spiritual progress—but no more and no less of an obstacle than lust for a woman, even for a lawfully wedded wife, would have been.

Conversation with the Swami (and with Gerald Heard) released in Isherwood the concept of chastity repressed by his puritan upbringing just as it released the religious nature repressed by official Christianity. Regarded from the Hindu standpoint, “Chastity isn’t even a virtue; it is a practical necessity. By being chaste, you conserve the kundalini power which is absolutely necessary for your spiritual progress.”

Having separated from Vernon, Isherwood later shared an apartment with Denham Fouts, a young American of extraordinary beauty and rather demonic character—capable of great good and great ill—(he is “Paul” in Down There on a Visit). They experimented in what Gerald called “intentional living.” In agreeing to refrain from all sexual activity, they had the advantage of not being attracted by one another. They spent hours, morning and evening, meditating. But the experiment broke down mainly perhaps because each was acting out a role before the other, and both knew this. Asceticism was undermined by laughter. They discussed sex entertainingly.

Nevertheless, Christopher struggled against sex, the climax of the struggle being the six months he spent, from February 6, 1943, as a probationer at the Vedanta Center, Brahmananda Cottage. He describes this period of his life with transparent candor and in detail. His three fellow monks (for everyone called them that) were George, Webster, and Richard. Webster and Richard were seventeen years old, both of them combining being “monks” with being schoolboys at Hollywood High School. George was Christopher’s own age, but withdrawn and difficult to approach. Richard soon left the Center and became a soldier. Other members of what was more like a family than a monastery were Sister Lalita, “an intelligent and active old lady who read radical magazines and loved gardening”; a “big blond Englishwoman,” cook and housekeeper; Sarada, in her twenties; Yogini, thirty-ish, frizzy-haired, much-laughing; Sudhira, a nurse whose husband having been killed in a crash three days after their marriage was obsessed with death. There was also Swami’s nephew, the twenty-five-year-old Asit, who exploited his lively charm to obtain the best room in the house, whereas Christopher had to sleep in “a dark little anteroom.”

This family atmosphere was claustrophobic, but one has to see Christopher’s life at this time against the background of the war. This, and his service in the Quaker hostel for refugees at Haverford, was war work, corresponding to that which pacifists were doing in England. His religion, one might say, was partly the prayerful aspect of this work—praying against the war, and for his friends in Europe, just as Auden, in his different way, was doing in New York.

To make up for claustrophobic discomfort, the Vedanta Center meant for Isherwood the shrine and the Swami:

This shrine really was a shrine, in the primary meaning of the word. It contained relics of Ramakrishna, Holy Mother, and some of their disciples, including fragments of bone which had been preserved after their bodies had been cremated.

The extraordinary fascination that this shrine had for him can be explained by the influence of the Swami, for it was the scene of his rituals. He had as a boy of fourteen, when his name was Abanindra Nath Ghosh, read about Ramakrishna, who had been born in a village not far from his own home village in Bengal. One day he met Ramakrishna’s widow, known to Ramakrishna’s disciples as “Holy Mother.” “When he approached and bowed down to touch her feet in reverence, she said, ‘Son, haven’t I seen you before?’ ” A similar meeting occurred when, at the age of eighteen, Abanindra, then a student in Calcutta, found himself face to face with Ramakrishna’s disciple Brahmananda. “And Brahmananda said to him, ‘Haven’t I seen you before?’ ”

Thus the closest associates of Ramakrishna recognized in Abanindra, who was to become the Swami Prabhavananda, his vocation. And one might say that the central theme of Isherwood’s book is the recognition of him by Prabhavananda. The Swami wished Isherwood to become a monk—and indeed wished many other things onto him, such as his helping the Swami translate the Bhagavad-Gita, and his writing a biography, Ramakrishna and His Disciples. But Isherwood’s true vocation was to be a novelist—an activity which the Swami could not approve of since he considered all literature which was not dedicated to forwarding religion trash. Nevertheless there was a real meeting between Isherwood and the Swami, the spiritual love within a father and son relationship (it may be relevant to recall that Christopher’s father, a professional soldier who painted exquisite watercolors of gardens and woods, was killed in the First World War.)

This book is biography conveyed by the techniques of fiction. In this, it is the coming together of Isherwood the novelist with Christopher the autobiographer and biographer. It is probably his best book. The problem solved by the novelist and challenging the biographer is to portray a good man. Isherwood succeeds in doing this by conveying the whole man. We are told about the Swami’s chain-smoking, his harshness on occasions with his disciples, his sending back a chicken which had been served him because it was not properly cooked, his comic mispronunciation of vowels (so that he referred to Gerald Heard as Gerald Hard), his uninhibited belching, his philistine views on literature. There seems nothing irritating which Isherwood does not see in his guru, but he sees far more of the good. Yet he sees worse things in himself—his self-will and his self-mirroring play-acting. He gives an example of this from a diary entry which describes his visiting Charles Laughton on his deathbed. It is an extremely moving description but ends:

All mixed up with the praying, which moved me and caused me to shed tears, were the caperings of the ego, whispering, “Look, look at me. I’m praying for Charles Laughton!” And then the ego said, “How wonderful if he would die, quite peacefully, right now at this moment.”

According to his character as Isherwood describes him, what the Swami preeminently lacked was this kind of egotism. When Isherwood first went to worship, he was embarrassed by the Swami repeatedly saying: “This house belongs to Maharaj, Maharaj is watching over it, over all of you. I can do nothing of my own. I am only his servant.” Later he came to understand that the Swami in being the servant of his guru was filled with love. In an illuminating passage he writes:

It was very important to me that Prabhavananda described himself as a servant; that made me feel closer to him. It meant that I needn’t expect him to be perfect and try to explain away his weaknesses. From this standpoint, his major addiction, chain-smoking, seemed sympathetic, even reassuring. The humility expressed by his attitude to Brahmananda must surely protect him from spiritual pride. Instead of claiming the greatness of a spiritual teacher, he was showing us an example of a great disciple—which was what we most needed, being disciples ourselves.

Christopher shows the same humility in his attitude to his guru, Prabhavananda. The reader may read much of this book with skepticism. He may feel that Vedanta as taught by the Swami is a rather watered-down version of Hinduism which in its extreme manifestations recommends the most life-denying asceticism. However, as I have pointed out, this is not a dissertation on Vedanta. Isherwood is no proselytizer or apologist for his religion. What he does here is to describe his meeting—extending over twenty-five years—with a man of saintly qualities. As one reads on, to the description of the Swami’s death, one gets more and more the feeling of a man who is absorbed into a love greater than himself which nevertheless he becomes.

In 1951, Isherwood went to New York where he met Auden. He showed him entries in his diary,

describing my life at the Vedanta Center. He shook his head over them, regretfully: “All this heathen mumbo-jumbo—I’m sorry, my dear, but it just won’t do.” Then, in the abrupt, dismissive tone which he used when making an unwilling admission, he added: “Your Swami’s quite obviously a saint, of course.”

If Auden had lived to read this book, I doubt whether he would have dismissed the religion quite so finally, though he might have diagnosed in Vedanta traces of Christian heresy. It strikes me that in a way Auden’s and Isherwood’s attitudes toward religion had a good deal in common. They both used religion as an external discipline modifying their behavior in their lives—though not altering it decisively; they both give the feeling of having a “special relationship” with God, strongly resembling the special relationship—so different from that of the Swami with his other disciples—of Christopher with his guru. If someone who does not take part in religious services himself may say so, they both seemed to learn seriously the meaning of prayer, even if neither of them went to places of worship—unless to read lessons and give sermons—so very often.