National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 84: Christopher Isherwood & His Kind

Much is contained in Christopher Isherwood’s classic memoir, “Christopher and His Kind” (1976), which speaks directly to the matters of gay identity and purpose that have been the subject of this series.

His formidable works written in the tumultuous era from the late 1920s to the onset of World War II contain enormously beneficial insights into the dehumanizing horrors of tyrannical extremism in that era taking the form of national regimes, fascists in Germany, Italy and Spain, Stalinists in the U.S.S.R.

Isherwood’s contributions were to the good of humankind as a whole, written in a literary form that was not preachy, not succumbing to parroting the popular political rhetoric of the time, although there is no doubt that his sentiments were, if not entirely pro-Communist, at least fervently anti-fascist.

Many, many years later, after World War II, after the civil rights and anti-war ferment of the 1960s in the U.S. (born in England, Isherwood moved to the U.S. in 1939 and never left), after the rise of the modern gay liberation movement surrounding the Stonewall riots of 1969, Isherwood revealed in “Christopher and His Kind” the indispensable ways in which his homosexuality was at the heart of his efforts at benefiting the wider human community.

Indeed, his affirmation early in life to “live according to my nature, and to find a place where I can be what I am” was fundamental to everything he did. Each of us helps humanity best, he wrote, “by using his own weapons.” For him his best weapon was obviously writing, but it was also the perspective he brought by virtue of being openly and self-assuredly gay.

His alternate perspective explained why he became a pacifist on the eve of World War II, he wrote, even as all the horrors of tyranny and genocide swirled around. It was because, he thought, he had so deeply loved Heinz, a man who’d been forced to join Hitler’s army, that he could not bring himself to destroy a unit that might have his lover in it. Then, by extrapolation, “Because every man in that Army could be somebody’s Heinz…I have no right to play favorites.”

Here, an expression of gay sensibility, of same-sex erotic attraction, arises in society as nature’s indispensable antidote to the insanity of war. Indeed, nature provides for and sets apart gay sensibility for just such purposes.

“How could I have dare suggest,” Isherwood wrote, “that any of these people – or any people anywhere – ought to fight, ought to die in defense of any principles, however excellent? I must honor those who fight of their own free will…and I must try to imitate their courage by following my path as a pacifist, wherever it takes me.”

Here, the same-sex lover seeks to intervene on behalf of the life and happiness of all of his sex.

Nature provides no one else to do this, at least not without the force of such a nudge. Fathers groom their sons for war. Mothers obey their husbands. State leaders give the marching orders. Bands play. Everyone cheers, and the young, rosy cheeked youths of countless nations march off seeking glory, and finding unspeakable pain, fear, the devastation of their souls and inglorious death.

But the gay person is positioned by nature to defy that order from the very core of his nature. He loves those soldiers too much. He hears the echoes in his soul of the Biblical confession, “By the grace of God, I am what I am,” and the affirmation, “Love that to which you are inclined. But really love it, with everything that entails. Don’t exploit it, don’t rape it, don’t devour and abandon it, but love it.”

This is why the paradigmatic straight male and his institutions – the “Others,” in Isherwood’s words – will always hate and seek to inflict harm on us, we, in Isherwood’s words, of “Our Tribe,” we homosexuals.

We are born to stand apart from the herd, a vantage point from which to see that the herd, with its ingrained patterns of brutality and selfish self-interest, is heading to the slaughterhouse. They bully and bruise us because we’re not in step with their march, and because we cause their march to be called into question.

This was William Inge’s point in his film, “Splendor in the Grass” (1962), which spun me as a young student out of the march and headed me, over the course of a few years, toward the gay liberation movement. Inge was, of course, an affiliate of “Our Tribe.”

But as with Isherwood, Tennessee Williams and so many others of our pantheon of heroes of all sexes, our purpose lies not solely in our own liberation, but in the kind of work to the benefit of widows, orphans and lives seeking happiness and productivity, not war, injustice and spiritual death, which will always and forever place us in harms way.

To be continued.