As I have begun to research Christopher Isherwood’s life and novels, I have come to realize just how central temporality is to his work. The myriads of ways that time shows up have really cemented my interest in Isherwood for this project. The relationship between temporality and modernity is much more complex and layered than my previous proposal illustrated, especially for queer writers. Like many queer modern writers, Isherwood was combatting time in a multitude of ways. Of course there were the temporal changes inherent to modernity—imperialism, industrialization, technology, scientific advancement, etc.—but also the emphasis on linearity imposed by fascism and their subsequent targeting of homosexuals, contemporary notions about homosexuality as a failed maturation from childhood to adulthood and thus an affront to human evolution, and even Isherwood’s own fraught relationship with technological modernity through his work with Hollywood cinema.
Isherwood also constructs his own queer relationship to time through his continual return to his experiences in the 1930’s. It is clear that this period of time haunts him, and his persistent revisiting of memory leads to the construction of a kind of queer present, in which he re-inhabits the past, both disrupting history and also producing an open-ended relationship between present and past. My further research into this topic has also made it clear that one could probably spend years writing a dissertation on this topic, so I am working on ways to make the scope of my project clear and relevant to our course, while also making it manageable for myself.
For the moment, I am examining the type of writing Isherwood does in his novel Goodbye to Berlin, published in 1939, as compared to his memoir Christopher and His Kind, which was published in 1976 but recounts the events of his life that took place from 1929-1939. Particularly of interest to me is the kind of posture Isherwood takes up in Goodbye to Berlin, distancing himself from the narrator—a character by the name of Christopher Isherwood who tells the story through a series of diary entries. He writes in the Preface:
“Because I have given my own name to the “I” of this narrative, readers are certainly not entitled to assume that its pages are purely autobiographical, or that its characters are libelously exact portraits of living persons. “Christopher Isherwood” is a convenient ventriloquist’s dummy, nothing more” (xiii)
This careful distancing while also invoking the most personal of forms of writing—a diary—seems worth exploring, especially with the knowledge that he later published his own autobiography recounting similar events in Christopher and His Kind. I am working on developing some connections between this phenomenon and the theory we have read thus far in this class, especially Flusser’s notion of history being that it simply cannot exist without writing. What happens when histories are put into writing, but they are fictionalized as a mode of self-preservation as with Isherwood’s narrator in Goodbye to Berlin?
I am still mulling over the large questions I posted in my initial proposal, but am working to refine them further in light of what I have learned so far. How does the revisiting, reconstructing, and revising of the same memories over and over again work to disrupt linear time, but also what effect does that have on history? How does the mask of artifice (a character named Christopher Isherwood as the narrator in a supposedly fictional story) undermine our notion of history and ability to trust in its authorial power?
One thought on “Updated Project Proposal”
This is a great refinement of your original set of questions. The issue of how our notion of history might be undermined by the kinds of disruption Isherwood works in his text makes me wonder about the extent to which pre-existing historical disruption — a moment in which the events by which one is surrounded seem utterly without logic or sense — results in authorial desire to capture their impossibility. It’s a sort of chicken-and-egg question, perhaps, but it does raise some important questions about Flusser’s assumptions: textual linearity produces our sense of historical linearity, but what happens when we recognize that history has gone utterly non-linear?
I’ll look forward to seeing how your thoughts continue to develop — come talk to me if questions come up as you’re working.