- Mr. Isherwood Changes Trains: Christopher Isherwood and the Search for the “Home Self.”
Christopher Isherwood’s conversion to Vedanta, and his decades-long devotion to the cult of Ramakrishna, puzzled his contemporaries; most critics, with a few notable exceptions like Antony Copley’s A Spiritual Bloomsbury, have ignored it. His reputation as the grandfather of gay liberation has overshadowed his religious devotion, despite his translations, essays, and spiritual autobiography, My Guru and His Disciple. Isherwood’s homosexuality and his faith seem incompatible to many critics; some even accused him of hypocrisy, including friends like John Lehmann. Such assumptions suggest how much scholarly work remains to be done on religion and alternative sexualities.
Mr. Isherwood Changes Trains: Christopher Isherwood and the Search for the “Home Self,” by Vincent Marsh, corrects that critical oversight and makes a significant contribution to Isherwood scholarship and to the study of religion and sexuality. Marsh argues that religious practices by gay men are distinctive and significant, and discusses the critical and cultural assumptions that inhibit their critical investigation. Christopher Isherwood’s religious practice provides an opportunity for a larger reconsideration of religion and queer communities. Yet Marsh’s attention to the specificities of Isherwood’s faith is impressive. The first book-length treatment of Vedanta and Isherwood, Mr. Isherwood Changes Trains maintains that Isherwood was not only an ardent devotee but a serious religious thinker.
Marsh’s work as a Buddhist practitioner and meditation teacher gives him insight into Isherwood’s spiritual practice, particularly the guru/disciple relationship; in Marsh’s convincing account, Swami Prabhavananda was providing Isherwood spiritual discipline when he assigned him specific tasks, like writing the biography Ramakrishna and His Disciples and lecturing on behalf [End Page 341] of the Vedanta Society. What seemed to many observers an exploitation of Isherwood’s fame was, within the context of the guru/disciple relationship, an established spiritual practice. “In this tradition,” Marsh explains, “service to the guru is standard practice. . . . By providing a way for the two to interact, service also has the inestimable benefit of exposing the student to the guru’s instruction (and correction)” (190). Marsh also provides an interpretive framework for Isherwood’s devastating confessions of his own failings as a believer. Some critics have taken his self-flagellation at face value instead of understanding it as a common rhetorical trope of confession and redemption. As Marsh explained, Isherwood’s “ability to see himself in a less than flattering light and expose himself this way, even in the public texts . . . was a quality that Isherwood’s guru would later recognize as essential to the writer’s spirituality. That is to say, this self-scrutiny (‘the knife in the wound’), which was part and parcel of his approach to writing and which was deepened by his spiritual practice, would become a strength” (118). It is in these reinterpretations that Marsh’s contribution is most evident.
Marsh’s project is daunting. He is writing a life story grounded in a religious tradition that considers the self to be false, inconsistent, and multiple. His detailed description of the book’s aims highlights the complexity of such an undertaking:
The tenuous division of the “worldly” from the “spiritual” can hardly be sustained in any reading of the life and work of this complex man. . . . So, there is a complex tangle of knots in standard accounts which, if I can unravel them, will lay bare a great deal about the prejudices—informal and institutional—that have clouded evaluations of the life and work of an exceptionally independent writer and thinker. . . . This study is in no way intended as a new biography, but it does aim to review and revise some of the standard readings in the light of his ignored or much misunderstood religious praxis. As it is not a biography, in what follows (chapters 3, 4, and 5, particularly) I will not stick to a chronological account of the life. As I follow certain thematic threads I will often work forward in the life...