Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Students on Isherwood: I Am George, a meditation on life and death in A Single Man.

Today marks the occasion of what would be Christopher Isherwood's 110th birthday (born on August 26th, 1904). To honor this event, Christopher Freeman and James J. Berg, editors of the forthcoming volume The American Isherwood (December 2014), have compiled exemplary essays about Isherwood's craft from their students to share on the Press blog on a monthly basis leading up to the publication of their book.

This essay is printed with permission from the author. It has been edited from the original version.


Student, University of Southern California

This past semester, I had the opportunity to intensely study Christopher Isherwood. Though I had read most of Mr. Norris Changes Trains and the classic Berlin Stories, much of Isherwood was unknown to me, as much of my reading comes from before the twentieth century. Could I learn to identify with or at least appreciate writers of the past 75 or so years? The answer was, resoundingly, yes. Reading Isherwood on Writing introduced me to the public Isherwood—and, more importantly, the storyteller with whom I felt I could connect, full of small stories both historical and simply personal. The Great Novelist Christopher Isherwood seemed far away, yet the lectures were personal and something human I could connect to. True appreciation of Isherwood came in the form of A Single Man. When professor Freeman assigned the novel, I admit I was skeptical that I could relate to a book written about an old, sad man. And I hated it at first. It was not until a class discussion that I had the epiphany that inspired the following essay. I hated this novel because I am George. As a 19-year-old straight female, I am George, a 60-year-old gay man living in a Los Angeles that was still building some of the freeways I now dread. I understood George and could draw from the novel what I believe to be its legacy—and what Isherwood’s legacy should focus on. It is a novel that understands love and loss, life and death, at a human level, stripping away the relevance (if there was any) of George’s sexuality; and stands as a reminder that the true Minority is simply made up of The Living as a single group—a reminder that most every member of today’s society needs.

The Grumpy Old Men and I: An Analysis of A Single Man Through Isherwood’s Diaries
On April 20, 1953, Christopher Isherwood wrote that he felt a “lack on inclination to cope with a constructed, invented plot.” As an author of numerous works of fiction by that time, such a lack of inclination could have sabotaged his career. But Isherwood continued to work instead, and a decade later produced what is arguably his masterpiece, A Single Man. Though A Single Man is, of course, a work of fiction, Isherwood drew from his own life at the time, surrounded by many friends and acquaintances dead and dying, and working through a rough period in his long-term relationship with Don Bachardy. The novel’s main character, George, almost perfectly emblematizes grumpy old men, their outlook on the doldrums of daily life and work, and surely their relationship with death and thoughts on growing old as they watch loved ones die and discover their deaths. Isherwood’s own rejection of fiction and developing fascination with reality clearly contributes to the almost perfect reality and psychological development of George and the interactions he has. This work subtly intertwines motifs of the contrast between minority and majority, living and dead, and pulls it all together through the main character’s often ironic recognition of his lack of inclination to cope with the constructed plot.

Through much of the first half of the book, George takes form into a recognizable human being as he goes through the motions of the morning to first recognize, then groom and feed himself, alone in the house he shared with a longtime lover. Of the little information readers learn about George, one thing is quite clear: he is a homosexual living in an increasingly homogenous and material world, regardless of well-intentioned neighbors reading so-called psychological studies on the subject of a sexuality that is neither their own nor accepted as a result of reading such studies.

Slowly, the reader learns that George is an English professor at a university, the students of which provide contrasts and even counterexamples to George’s worldviews. Though Isherwood provides the readers insight into almost all of George’s thoughts, George himself does not say much out loud until his monologue at the end of his class about minorities and majorities. George originally intended this monologue to be a response to a student question about Aldous Huxley (one of Isherwood’s acquaintances) and then as a lesson to a member of the class he suspects is gay. However, this motif George expresses for the class carries him through the rest of his day, and the reader through the end of the novel. George explains to his class “a minority is only thought of as a minority when it constitutes some kind of threat to the majority, real or imaginary” (70) and after leaving school to pay a hospital visit, realizes that he belongs to another kind of minority—“The Living. [He] knows—for a little while at least—because he is freshly returned from the icy presence of The Majority” (104). The members of The Living threaten the Majority, The Dead, by simply surviving one more day at a time. Though this threat to The Dead is both imaginary and inevitable, death seems to counter-attack every day as each person grows slowly older; ultimately, survival means death, simply at a later date.

The current members of The Living are clearly a numeric minority to the billions of dead, and the members of The Minority slowly become members of The Majority over time. Perhaps it is this slow acceptance by long-term members of The Living that resists death and threatens The Majority the closer the person gets to death while retaining membership in The Minority. This survival, then, is what George tells his students is The Minority’s “own kind of aggression [that] dares the majority to attack it” (72). The older one becomes, the more of a survivor one is, and the closer one comes to “enemy lines,” creating a mentality similar to any sport played on a field—the further into enemy territory one goes, the more one adopts both an anxious and a daring attitude. One does not wish to be caught, yet simultaneously, one knows it is a distinct possibility that one wishes would happen, to either get it all over with or to prove one’s worth. Either way, though the player must accept death, as all mortals must, he or she maintains a vitality against the constructed plot of growing old and accepting one’s fate tiredly by settling down with retirement activities.

Isherwood further demonstrates this choice to either “deal with the constructed plot” or not through George’s observations of the students, the young generation, juxtaposed with the portrait of George through his own thoughts as representative of the older generation. As George observes the students, he notes that “somewhere, in the midst of their servitude to the must-be, the mad might-be whispers to them to live, know, experience—what? … Will any of them make it? Oh, sure. One, at least. Two or three at most, all in these searching thousands” (47-48). Of all the students that surround him, George knows that maybe two at most will understand the conflict between the Minority and the Majority, and fewer still will combat the idea of death with the vitality of life, of breaking from the mold provided for them and entertaining the possibilities of the might-be.

George, on the other hand, understands the importance of “fighting back” for oneself, but only after George wallows in his loss of Jim and settles into pointless despair. After leaving the hospital, George asks himself, “who says I have to be brave? … Who depends on me now? Who cares?” (113). Each time, George’s own implied answer of “I do” resonates with the reader. 

George, unlike the students, understands and encounters the death of loved ones every day; George knows the pain of losing one’s partner in life. His life, knowledge, and experience have brought him to the end of his life—fittingly, alone as the “one” to make it through having embraced the might-be and rejected the mold society supplied to him. As George notes in the hospital, nothing can be brought, even oneself as a member of the Living, into the realm of the Majority. It is this knowledge and understanding that allows George to feel so strongly about death, that give him the insight into the game.

Here, George wishes that the game be over with, and in reaction thrusts himself back into the world, dangerously close to the Majority yet welcoming its attack, daring it to make a move. George notices two boys playing tennis at the university as he walks through campus, one of whom was clearly built to play a sport like tennis, the other clearly not and about to lose the game. What George notices, however, is that the blonde boy about to lose could easily tackle the other, an action he was clearly more built for, and win the game. Rather than do so, however, “the blonde boy accepts the rules, binds himself by them … Won’t he keep getting himself involved in the wrong kind of game, the kind of game he was never born to play, against an opponent who is quick and clever and merciless?” (53). This boy, a member of the generation after George’s, accepts all the rules of tennis, and by implication of life, as strict rules that must be observed and will cause him to lose. These rules of life compose the mold of how to become successful: earn a degree, get a job, get married, follow the traditional paths to be safe; but it is exactly this attitude that causes the boy to lose in the larger battle between the Minority of the Living and the Majority. However, George’s path that involves more choice ultimately leads him to the same place as the blonde boy’s path. This only lends more significance to the suggestion to break free from the approved dialogue, because nobody can bring anything with them to the Majority, concluding that one should live for the present, and live a life he or she considers worth living. 

Isherwood leaves his readers at the university with a paradoxical thought: “the very few who are simply beautiful, just cause they aren’t anxious or aggressive about anything; they’re taking life as it comes” (78). These people, the few who are simply beautiful, are part of the Minority because they are alive; yet they are not part of the minority in the sense that the members of the Minority dare the Majority to attack them. So, the simply beautiful do not figure into the discussion of the Minority and Majority, because they offer no threat to the Majority and do not live as members of the Minority of the Living. They are so far beyond the constructed plot they do not even perceive its effects. Though the discussion of this group is minimal, it seems to be the most beneficial group to be in, neither here nor there and therefore in no way a target for the Majority. Yet George is not one of the simply beautiful. He worries, he’s aggressive, and he is supposed to be the protagonist the reader looks to for guidance. George is also an older man. Perhaps he was once one of the truly beautiful, which gave him the perspective he has now through comparison between his former actions and the actions of today. If so, this novel gives younger readers as well as older readers a guideline for how Isherwood believes death should be confronted. In both cases, this is through non-conformity, breaking with the pre-constructed molds, and accepting life and death as they come.

Isherwood, then, sets out to demonstrate through his characters exactly how to deal with the most human problem of all: mortality. As a fiction writer tired of fiction, he turns to the reality of life and death to create a universal work of fiction that slowly builds on ideas he fostered for almost a decade before he wrote them down. In a decade like the 1950s, obsessed with conformity, it became clear that the answer was to break from the pre-constructed plot of life to understand one’s own art and through that, one’s own mortality—a concept that resonates even today in a material and conformity-driven society.


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