Christopher Isherwood

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Christopher, like many other writers, was shockingly ignorant of the objective world, except where it touched his own experience. When he had to hide his ignorance beneath a veneer, he simply consulted someone who could supply him with the information he needed.

Christopher Isherwood (1904-08-26 - 1986-01-04) was a British-American writer.


  • I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.
    • "Berlin Diary" (1930) from Goodbye to Berlin (1939)
  • If I fear anything, I fear the atmosphere of the war, the power which it gives to all the things I hate — the newspapers, the politicians, the puritans, the scoutmasters, the middle-aged merciless spinsters. I fear the way I might behave, if I were exposed to this atmosphere. I shrink from the duty of opposition. I am afraid I should be reduced to a chattering enraged monkey, screaming back hate at their hate.
    • Diary entry, 20 January 1940, from The Diaries of Christopher Isherwood, vol I: 1939 - 1960, ed. Katherine Bucknell [ISBN 0-06-11800-9], p.84
  • Horror is always aware of its cause; terror never is. That is precisely what makes terror terrifying.
    • Great English Short Stories [selected and introduced by Isherwood] (1957) [Laurel TM 674623], p. 267
  • California is a tragic country — like Palestine, like every Promised Land. Its short history is a fever-chart of migrations — the land rush, the gold rush, the oil rush, the movie rush, the Okie fruit-picking rush, the wartime rush to the aircraft factories — followed, in each instance, by counter-migrations of the disappointed and unsuccessful, moving sorrowfully homeward.
    • "Los Angeles" from Exhumations (1966) [Methuen & Co., Ltd, London], p. 159
  • The paternalist is a sentimentalist at heart, and the sentimentalist is always potentially cruel.
    • "Los Angeles" from Exhumations (1966) [Methuen & Co., Ltd, London], p. 160
  • To live sanely in Los Angeles (or, I suppose, in any other large American city) you have to cultivate the art of staying awake. You must learn to resist (firmly but not tensely) the unceasing hypnotic suggestions of the radio, the billboards, the movies and the newspapers; those demon voices which are forever whispering in your ear what you should desire, what you should fear, what you should wear and eat and drink and enjoy, what you should think and do and be. They have planned a life for you – from the cradle to the grave and beyond – which it would be easy, fatally easy, to accept. The least wandering of the attention, the least relaxation of your awareness, and already the eyelids begin to droop, the eyes grow vacant, the body starts to move in obedience to the hypnotist’s command. Wake up, wake up – before you sign that seven-year contract, buy that house you don’t really want, marry that girl you secretly despise. Don’t reach for the whisky, that won’t help you. You’ve got to think, to discriminate, to exercise your own free will and judgment. And you must do this, I repeat, without tension, quite rationally and calmly. For if you give way to fury against the hypnotists, if you smash the radio and tear the newspapers to shreds, you will only rush to the other extreme and fossilize into defiant eccentricity.
    • "Los Angeles" from Exhumations (1966) [Methuen & Co., Ltd, London], p. 161
  • An afternoon drive from Los Angeles will take you up into the high mountains, where eagles circle above the forests and the cold blue lakes, or out over the Mojave Desert, with its weird vegetation and immense vistas. Not very far away are Death Valley, and Yosemite, and Sequoia Forest with its giant trees which were growing long before the Parthenon was built; they are the oldest living things in the world. One should visit such places often, and be conscious, in the midst of the city, of their surrounding presence. For this is the real nature of California and the secret of its fascination; this untamed, undomesticated, aloof, prehistoric landscape which relentlessly reminds the traveller of his human condition and the circumstances of his tenure upon the earth. "You are perfectly welcome," it tells him, "during your short visit. Everything is at your disposal. Only, I must warn you, if things go wrong, don't blame me. I accept no responsibility. I am not part of your neurosis. Don't cry to me for safety. There is no home here. There is no security in your mansions or your fortresses, your family vaults or your banks or your double beds. Understand this fact, and you will be free. Accept it, and you will be happy."
    • "Los Angeles" from Exhumations (1966) [Methuen & Co., Ltd, London], p. 162
  • I often feel that worse than the most fiendish Nazis were those Germans who went along with the persecution of the Jews not because they really disliked them but because it was the thing.
    • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 4th series, [ISBN 0-14-00-453-0], p.226, interview with W.I. Scobie (1973)
  • I'll bet Shakespeare compromised himself a lot; anybody who's in the entertainment industry does to some extent.
    • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 4th series, p. 237, interview with W.I. Scobie (1973)
  • I'm horrified to find, as I look at these diaries of twenty-five years ago or more, that I don't remember who the people were. "Bill and Tony were constantly in and out. We went to La Jolla" — or something. I haven't the bluest idea who they were!
    • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 4th series, p. 239, interview with W.I. Scobie (1973)
  • I feel it's so easy to condemn this country [the United States]; but they don't understand that this is where the mistakes are being made — and made first, so that we're going to get the answers first.
    • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, 4th series, p. 242, interview with W.I. Scobie (1973)
  • It seems to me that the real clue to your sex orientation lies in your romantic feelings rather than in your sexual feelings. If you are really gay, you are able to fall in love with a man, not just enjoy having sex with him.
    • Quoted in "Christopher Isherwood Interview" with Winston Leyland (1973), from Conversations with Christopher Isherwood, ed. James J. Berg and Chris Freeman (2001) [ISBN 1-57806-408-2], p. 106
  • At one campus where I was lecturing, I asked a friend, "How many of my colleagues know I'm gay?" He answered, "All of them." I wasn't surprised. But, just the same, it was kind of spooky, because not one of them had ever given me the faintest sign that he or she knew. If I had spoken about it myself, most of them would have felt it was in bad taste.
    • Quoted in "Christopher Isherwood Interview" with Winston Leyland (1973), from Conversations with Christopher Isherwood, ed. James J. Berg and Chris Freeman (2001), p. 108
  • The Nazis hated culture itself, because it is essentially international and therefore subversive of nationalism. What they called Nazi culture was a local, perverted, nationalistic cult, by which a few major artists and many minor ones were honored for their Germanness, not their talent.
    • Christopher and His Kind (1976) [ISBN 374-52036-4/0870], p. 65
  • Christopher, like many other writers, was shockingly ignorant of the objective world, except where it touched his own experience. When he had to hide his ignorance beneath a veneer, he simply consulted someone who could supply him with the information he needed.
    • Christopher and His Kind (1976), p. 192 (In this memoir, Isherwood refers to himself in the third person.)
  • I doubt if one ever accepts a belief until one urgently needs it.
    • Christopher and His Kind (1976), p. 306
  • As a homosexual, he [Christopher] had been wavering between embarrassment and defiance. He became embarrassed when he felt that he was making a selfish demand for his individual rights at a time when only group action mattered. He became defiant when he made the treatment of the homosexual a test by which every political party and government must be judged. His challenge to each one of them was: "All right, we've heard your liberty speech. Does that include us or doesn't it?"

    The Soviet Union had passed this test with honors when it recognized the private sexual rights of the individual, in 1917. But, in 1934, Stalin's government had withdrawn this recognition and made all homosexual acts punishable by heavy prison sentences. It had agreed with the Nazis in denouncing homosexuality as a form of treason to the state. The only difference was that the Nazis called it "sexual Bolshevism" and the Communists "Fascist perversion."

    Christopher — like many of his friends, homosexual and heterosexual — had done his best to minimize the Soviet betrayal of its own principles. After all, he had said to himself, anti-homosexual laws exist in most capitalist countries, including England and the United States. Yes — but if Communists claim that their system is juster than capitalism, doesn't that make their injustice to homosexuals less excusable and their hypocrisy even viler? He now realized that he must dissociate himself from the Communists, even as a fellow traveler. He might, in certain situations, accept them as allies but he could never regard them as comrades. He must never again give way to embarrassment, never deny the rights of his tribe, never apologize for its existence, never think of sacrificing himself masochistically on the altar of that false god of the totalitarians, the Greatest Good of the Greatest Number — whose priests are alone empowered to decide what "good" is.

    • Christopher and His Kind (1976), pp. 334-335
  • Suppose, Christopher now said to himself, I have a Nazi Army at my mercy. I can blow it up by pressing a button. The men in that Army are notorious for torturing and murdering civilians — all except for one of them, Heinz. Will I press the button? No — wait: Suppose I know that Heinz himself, out of cowardice or moral infection, has become as bad as they are and takes part in all their crimes? Will I press that button, even so? Christopher's answer, given without the slightest hesitation, was: Of course not.

    That was a purely emotional reaction. But it helped Christopher think his way through to the next proposition. Suppose that Army goes into action and has just one casualty, Heinz himself. Will I press the button now and destroy his fellow criminals? No emotional reaction this time, but a clear answer, not to be evaded: Once I have refused to press that button because of Heinz, I can never press it. Because every man in that Army could be someone's Heinz and I have no right to play favorites. Thus Christopher was forced to recognize himself as a pacifist — although by an argument which he could only admit to with the greatest reluctance.

    • Christopher and His Kind (1976), p. 335
  • I must honor those who fight of their own free will, he said to himself. And I must try to imitate their courage by following my path as a pacifist, wherever it takes me.
    • Christopher and His Kind (1976), p. 336

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