- Christopher Isherwood and the Limits of Camp
What happens when camp collides with anti-camp? Does camp shut down or shut up? While I concur with Allan Pero’s assertion in this forum that “camp is both a dangerous supplement and a needful weapon in a handbag of dazzling accessories,” camp as Christopher Isherwood defined it is an accessory that requires careful deployment. Perhaps camp should carry a warning label: not effective against certain forces.
“Very queer indeed”
Camp flourished in Germany’s Weimar Republic, as we see in Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, which is set in the early 1930s. Chris, the protagonist, is an Englishman in Berlin, living in a boarding house, teaching English by day, exploring the demimonde of the queer city by night. His housemate, nightclub chanteuse Sally Bowles, is a camp goddess. Her story comes early in the novel, before Sally’s comedic role gives way to what Linda Mizejewski terms her “less amusing” racket—and the Nazis’ escalating presence.37 Isherwood’s “goodbye” is hardly a neutral departure. The city is dying fast.
In the haunting final section, “A Berlin Diary, Winter 1932–3,” Chris’s pupil Fritz takes him on a valedictory tour of Berlin’s “dive” bars, including Salomé, which is “very expensive and even more depressing than I had imagined.”38 Isherwood’s wink to Wilde is an inside joke: Oscar was notorious for being camp before he was famous for much else.39 On the way in, an American tourist asks Fritz, “What’s going on here?” “Men dressed as women,” Fritz replies. “Do you mean they’re queer?” He [End Page 14]
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certainly does: “Eventually, we’re all queer.” Asked if that applies to himself, Chris says, “Yes, very queer indeed.”
Inside the bar, Chris, who has dabbled in local politics throughout the story, meets a young communist, Rudi, “dressed in a Russian blouse, leather shorts and dispatch-rider’s boots”—his group’s “Joan of Arc” (Berlin Stories, 396–97). Interested in meeting some of Rudi’s comrades, Chris visits their clubhouse, which is filled with “dozens of photographs of boys, all taken with the camera tilted upwards … so they look like epic giants. … There were half-a-dozen boys … all of them in a state of heroic semi-nudity” (Berlin Stories, 401).40 Picture that, juxtaposed with the horror going on outside. This contrast is starkly depicted in Cabaret, Bob Fosse’s cinematic adaptation of Isherwood’s novel (figs. 3 and 4). The dramatic trajectory of the film puts in sharp relief the shift from the outrageously festive Kit Kat Club—where Sally performs and the emcee implores patrons to “leave your troubles outside”—to the invasion of that world by Nazis demanding donations and, finally, to Nazi infiltration. Tomorrow belongs to them.41
Chris laments this new reality as he prepares to leave for England: “The sun shines, and Hitler is master of the city. … [D]ozens of my friends … are in prison, possibly dead. But it isn’t of them that I’m thinking. … I’m thinking of poor Rudi. … Rudi’s make-believe, story-book game has become earnest; the Nazis will play with him. The Nazis won’t laugh at him; they’ll take him on trust for what he pretended to be. Perhaps at this very moment Rudi is being tortured to death” (Berlin Stories, 409). Rudi’s communism was a game, not a conviction—his camp was “what he pretended to be,” but that pretense runs head-on into the harsh reality, the new world order, of Nazi seriousness. Their play isn’t child’s play. As Peter Thomas has suggested, the novel’s closing is “essentially elegiac” because “the Nazi reality is camp without comedy.”42 The narrator’s somber tones, his disbelief at what has become of the city he once loved, make him wonder whether any of it...