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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]

Fig 3. Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972).
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Fig 3.

Liza Minnelli as Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972).

Fig 4. The final shot, a freeze frame, in Fosse’s Cabaret, with swastikas in clear view.
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Fig 4.

The final shot, a freeze frame, in Fosse’s Cabaret, with swastikas in clear view.

[End Page 15]

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 was real at all. Is camp ephemeral in the wake of fascism?

In this unforgettable portrait of a moribund culture, Isherwood dramatizes the rise of Nazism and the fall of nearly everything else; his famous “I am a camera” perspective transmogrifies into a photographic negative. Sally’s nightclub act has given way to the theatrics of Rudi’s persecution, necessitating Chris’s departure. The camp of the nightclub underworld has been blunted by enemy forces, which will begin, very soon, to transport many from this world to labor or concentration camps.

Destruction and death are the future for the world of the novel. In a discussion of Billy Budd in his book How to Be Gay, David Halperin notes, “Murder is precisely where a total absence of camp will lead you.”43 As early as 1933, Isherwood’s narrator perceives the Final Solution, which underscores the significance of camp in his haunting stories. According to Philip Core, “Camp is always in the future; that is why the present needs it so badly.”44 Isherwood’s foresight in using camp is prescient here in the prewar context. His sense of the futurity of camp is even clearer a decade later, when he anticipates the rhetoric and attitudes of the gay liberation movement, a combination of anger and activism, around both military antigay discrimination and an emergent sense of gay pride and self-assertion. [End Page 16]

“Making Fun Out of It”

Despite his farewell to Berlin, Isherwood was not yet finished with the Second World War. Part of his American novel The World in the Evening (1954) takes place in a Quaker refugee resettlement community in Pennsylvania. That novel features one of the earliest, most often-cited comments on camp. An openly gay character, Charles, explains the finer points of camp to the protagonist, Stephen Monk: “True High Camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can’t camp about something you don’t take seriously. You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it. You’re expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance” (110). The “high seriousness” of camp is significant here; it suggests an inherent gravitas around camp—camp-adjacent, one might say. In Goodbye to Berlin, there was almost too much seriousness. Here, there is anger and pride. But, even so, camp proves elusive: “You have to meditate on it and feel it intuitively. … I can never understand how critics manage to do without it” (111). Or novelists, for that matter. Most critics, unfortunately, saw the novel as Isherwood’s least successful effort to date; the author agreed, perhaps because it is, finally, not high camp enough.45

Regardless, the novel is daring for its time, due not only to its camp disquisition but also to its character Bob (Charles’s lover). This bona fide queer renegade speaks with palpable fury: “Maybe we [homosexuals] are too damned tactful. People just ignore us. … So this whole business never gets discussed, and the laws never get changed.… I’d like to take them and rub their noses in it” (105). Later, Bob goes on the offensive regarding the military’s ban on homosexuals and on the Quaker question of being a conscientious objector (which was Isherwood’s status during the war): “I can’t be a C.O. because, if they declared war on the queers … I’d fight. … I could have told the psychiatrist when I had my medical examination. All you have to do is tell them you’re queer, and you’re out” (280).

The military treatment of homosexuals in this era has been thoroughly explored in Allan Bérubé’s Coming Out under Fire. Bérubé tells the story of Woodie Wilson, who surreptitiously published a newsletter called the Myrtle Beach Bitch. After he was found out, Wilson was court-martialed. He was incarcerated in “a whole wing” of a prison filled with “declared homosexuals and convicted homosexuals. They were all isolated and they all wore ‘A’ on the back of their uniform and it was called the ‘A’ block.… They were ostracized like crazy.”46 Woodie and his friends made serious fun out of army life, but in the end, their camp was checkmated by the anti-camp of military fiat.

In Goodbye to Berlin and The World in the Evening, we have trademark Isherwood, the intersection of history and fiction, and we have the intersection of camp and overwhelming enemy forces. There is a sobering lesson here: camp is a fabulous and powerful tool, but against some adversaries, it is ineffectual at best. Camp is oppositional, but its opposite, anti-camp, can be deadly. [End Page 17]

Chris Freeman

Chris Freeman holds a PhD from Vanderbilt University. He is Professor of English and gender studies at Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the University of Southern California. He is coeditor (with James Berg) of the Lambda Award-winning The Isherwood Century, Conversations with Christopher Isherwood and, most recently, The American Isherwood.