- My Guru and his Disciple by Christopher Isherwood
Eyre Methuen, 338 pp, £8.50, July 1980, ISBN 0 413 46930 1
Cleanliness has always been next to godliness: Christopher Isherwood (‘this rebellious son of a British lieutenant-colonel’ – Time Magazine) has found the two things in California, where they have become One. My Guru and his Disciple, an account of Isherwood’s relationship with the Swami Prabhavananda in the gentle climes of the West Coast, is clear-sighted and clean-limbed, a relaxed vision of love and devotion, a diary that records difficulties effortlessly and remembers trials as periods of intense relaxation. The wisdom of the Vedas is now found in the Pacific ocean in the early morning; God inhabits a blank and quiet world, where the sun always shines and all backgrounds have become foregrounds:
Garbo chattered away. She was nice. I liked her better than ever before. Later she drove me back, shooting all the Stoplights. But the afternoon was more memorable than she was.
Isherwood’s books, like the lives within lives of Hindu and Buddhist doctrine, are deposits of the past: residues of karma, past selves that have been transcended, or at least left behind. His extraordinary journey, from Berlin to Bliss, suggests a powerful inner discipline, a private strength at work long before the arrival in California and the meeting with various people interested in the setting up of a Vedanta Society of Southern California. Each of these works, of which A Single Man, where the self changes throughout the course of the day, is perhaps the most impressive, represents a step closer to the great and final goal of the religion of Isherwood’s adoption, the goal of disappearance. My Guru and his Disciple is another move closer to the exit, a diary of events between 1936 and 1976 in and around the Vedanta centre, with the Swami at its heart. It is difficult to review in any useful sense, being a mixture of the divine and the diurnal: dish-washing followed by devotion. It is a world of lust and love, of passing moods and permanent wisdom. Glimpses ‘behind the veil, behind the veil’, and others that Isherwood himself thinks of as only partially understood. The Vedanta centre is where Isherwood began his training – in Richard Alpert’s expression, ‘to become nothing’.
The world is seen as mad, and forces the weary traveller from Europe to subject himself to a difficult regime of retreat and quiet. A ‘homesickness for sanity’ is the one valid reason for putting oneself to this task. Isherwood expressed this with typical simplicity in a letter to John Lehmann in July 1939: ‘I am so sick of being a person.’ The beginnings of his interest in Eastern religion were not easy, and this book starts out by conveying powerfully the Tennysonian quality of ‘honest doubt’ that Isherwood felt towards the whole project. He was encouraged to proceed by his friend Gerald Heard, an eloquent Irishman who had written a modestly titled work, Pain, Sex and Time. But the doubts as to the merits of retreating into religious life never fully departed, and for a period, in 1945, Isherwood left the centre. There remained the perpetual diversions of boys on the beach, of writing screenplays for Hollywood, of journeying to Europe or India and then back to California. One comes to see that, in time, it is exactly the coming and the going that constitutes the discipline: that the paradox is no paradox, that the two-mindedness is the discipline and becomes the faith. Caring and not caring, or as Swami says to Isherwood late on in their time together, ‘it is only when you feel that you are not devoted that you are devoted.’ Not the least of the powers of My Guru and his Disciple is its opposition to the thing that all America now seems to want: rebirth. The dreadful desire to go through it all again is the reverse of the Eastern promise and purpose, which give Isherwood’s books a distinct finality: they exist as points of rest on the journey, or moments of reflection, but they do not long for another birth. In the heart of America’s most affluent state, where transience is all, this old idea of true religion seems to survive.
Flight from Europe: the established way of seeing the Auden and Isherwood story, and flight, too, from fight. As Brian Finney made clear in his biography of Isherwood, published last year, the arrival in California marked the end of any political orientation in Isherwood’s thinking. A friend he had left behind in Germany was conscripted, and Isherwood, unable to negotiate the personal distress he felt, opted instead for pacifism. He worked in Quaker circles in 1941, taking a job at the Co-operative College Workshop in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Politics seemed a European idea: the American world needed a new self. The debate about Auden and Isherwood fleeing the war will never be resolved: for the politically-minded, the view of Hugh MacDiarmid that you can’t strike a match on a crumbling wall, and that none of these people mattered much anyway, is hard to answer. This book, with its twists of karma, brings back the European ghosts:
That same evening, I went with Berthold to visit Bertholt Brecht and his wife, the actress Helene Weigel ... My judges were polite, but beneath their politeness was contempt. To them, ‘religion’ meant ecclesiastical politics – politics of the capitalist front ... Brecht said – I am not quoting his exact words – that a saint needs thousands of sinners to make his career possible; meaning that any attempt to lead a spiritual life is mere self-indulgent individualism. I sat silent, almost sorry that I couldn’t defend Prabhavananda and myself with equally silly dogmatism.
Brecht brought Germany and its past to Isherwood in California, the Germany of political positions and communist struggle. In that unforgiving light, Isherwood must seem an English schoolboy having a soft life in the sunshine state, and no argument can proceed.
A different version of Germany had also been left behind, as Isherwood illustrated in Christopher and his Kind. While in Berlin, Isherwood had been part of a circle who supported (and were supported by) Dr Magnus Hirschfeld and his famous Institut für Sexual-Wissenschaft. Over the entrance to the Institute, as Isherwood recalls, was a motto, ‘Sacred to Love and to Sorrow’. This really was the solemn temple: ‘Christopher giggled nervously when Karl Giese and Francis took him through the Institute’s museum. Here were whips and chains and torture instruments designed for the practitioners of pleasure-pain; high-heeled, intricately decorated boots for the fetishists; lacey female undies which had been worn by ferociously masculine Prussian officers beneath their uniforms.’ The Institute had ‘live exhibits’. André Gide was shown one: ‘a young man who opened his shirt with a modest smile to display two perfectly formed female breasts’. Hirschfeld, with ‘his doggy moustache, thick peering spectacles and clumsy German-Jewish boots’, was a scientific hero for homosexuals. His communist sympathies, combined with his sexological investigations, guaranteed his persecution by the Nazis. Isherwood’s journey to California can usefully be seen as a sex-change operation, not in any physical sense, but an escape from the serious-mindedness of sex science to the gentler sexual guardianship of Swami Prabhavananda. ‘Can I lead a spiritual life as long as I am having a sexual relationship with a young man?’ ‘You must try to see him as the young Lord Krishna.’ Science returns to its roots in religion, unashamedly. When Isherwood drinks with Tennessee Williams, they talk sex all night. Sex in California is peaceful and strange:
And now a man appeared, walking along the tide line. As soon as he saw the trunks around my neck, he began to grin, with pleased amusement. He stripped off his own trunks and came up to me through the water. He handled my body. I made no resistance. We were both sexually aroused and both laughing. I laughed because this wordless encounter seemed odd and dreamlike; I had already realised that he was deaf and dumb. Finding myself on the verge of an orgasm, I stopped him. He didn’t seem disappointed or offended. He let go of me at once. Still laughing, he turned and waded away. It struck me that he was like an apparition which I myself had summoned; perhaps a minor and unalarming demon. Well might he laugh!
The discipline of the centre for Isherwood was produced by a tension between sexuality and austerity, and in the relative ease of the Californian scene lies Isherwood’s real goodbye to Berlin.
Whatever else, the discipline could not be drug-induced. Unlike Aldous Huxley, tripping away nearby, Isherwood doubted drugs. Swami did not approve of them either. Isherwood tripped on mescaline in London and that seemed agreeable enough, ending up (familiar story) with a giggling fit in Westminster Abbey. Huxley’s huge faith in the truth of psychedelics is easy to mock, as a shooting of the vapids. But part of the feeling that comes from My Guru and his Disciple is the feeling that Isherwood extends to anyone who is exploring the mysteries, even when using means that he dislikes. Doubts about Huxley’s drug use do not prevent the clarity of Isherwood’s last look at his dying friend. Huxley had learnt from the Tibetan Book of the Dead about the importance of the state of consciousness at the time of death, and was injected with LSD. Isherwood saw him shortly before this and ‘came away with the picture of a great noble vessel sinking quietly into the deep; many of its delicate, marvellous mechanisms still in perfect order, all its lights still shining’.
Isherwood is known to have found the writing of his study Ramakrishna and his Disciples, published in 1965, an ordeal. It was too much an ‘official’ life, and took him a long time. Other critics have felt that Christopher and his Kind was too aggressive in its study of past forms, too overt in its history and disclosure. My Guru and his Disciple is a personal diary and is free of the necessary lengthy descriptions that went into the account of Ramakrishna. One result of this is a weird characterlessness. Swami is impossible to imagine, despite Don Bachardy’s cover drawing. Is it all a trick, the final emptiness of Hollywood, of meaningless water-bathing and silly cults?
Looked at psychologically, so much of Isherwood’s work can be explained, which roughly means explained away. Swami/Daddy; revenge, or something like it, on the parents, in various parts of the novels; the religions of India as Mother Revisited, in an acceptable version. It may seem odd that writers interested in the elimination of ego should write work that is relentlessly autobiographical. But this misses the point, in the sense that pure autobiography is really about somebody else, about someone who can be looked at in the same way as others are looked at. Swami is hardly there, and that is his achievement. Isherwood is gradually disappearing, and that is his. In a certain naturalistic light, My Guru and his Disciple seems to vanish – but it has most strength where it is most elusive.