Review of Christopher Isherwood’s memoir – by Madhuri.
My Guru and His Disciple
by Christopher Isherwood
1980, Eyre Methuan Ltd, London
Someone who’d read Mistakes on the Path, my own spiritual memoir, compared it with Christopher Isherwood’s book, of which I had never heard. (The person did say mine was funnier!) Curious, I bought the book, rather apprehensively expecting something a bit serious and earnest. I was pleasantly surprised!
First, there was the immediate relaxation of realising I was with someone completely at home in his craft. The writing is superb – clear, confident, flowing – as if you are in a boat piloted by a venerable captain who really knows his ship and the swing and the habits of the sea. He’s not afraid to be candid, frank, conversational.
And we like this writer too because he is both secular and devoted – earthy, cynical, and innocent all at once.
This is the story of the young Mr Isherwood, a rising novelist from London, who in the pre-war years comes to Hollywood and writes for the movies – and unexpectedly enters into an exploration into spirituality. This happens when he is introduced to Sw. Prabhavananda, a Bengali Vedanta monk in the lineage of Ramakrishna. War soon begins its grim wave across Europe, and Christopher has a much-loved ex-partner fighting in the Nazi army. (His gayness is openly laid out for us right from the beginning.) The Hollywood scene is lively, with many gifted refugees arriving to take up jobs as writers, composers, etc.
Sw. Prabhavananda – or Swami, as Chris calls him – is not one of your thrill-seeking gurus, in California for the wealth and fame. He had wanted to spend his career meditating in the foothills of the Himalayas, but his superiors sent him to manage a Vedanta centre on the West Coast instead. Rich devotees donate a house, and Chris lives in a small, bohemian-flavoured commune there for a time. But there is the usual religious nonsense about celibacy – though Swami seems unusually laid-back about all this – and eventually Chris can’t stand it and moves out to pursue his various love affairs, while still being a frequent presence at the centre and helping with publications. And though he’s often riven with self-doubt, there’s a refreshing lack of torment in it.
This is the tale of a sincere person skittering about between the sacred and the profane. (I cannot see that there is any problem – any real struggle – because the person is the same; the sincerity; the centre. The central fact of being. Sacred and profane are just peripheral. Moods, really.)
We meet in these pages, very off-handedly, an illustrious crew – Krishnamurti, movie stars, writers. The gorgeous state of California as it was then – much more spacious, if still urbane.
Throughout the book, Chris’s love for Prabhavananda shines softly, like the light that fills a sunny meadow, so that it looks as if the glow comes up out of the blades of grass themselves. We feel that love in the body of the writer, beaming forth despite anything else that might be going on.
(Perhaps the cynic is just the other side of the devotee. Perhaps all cynics hide this somewhere, and the presence of goodness makes the sun and the shadow very close together.)
The book is partly hindsight and partly diary entries from the time. From the diaries:
“May 9. Swami said that enlightenment is not loss of individuality but enlargement of individuality, because you realize that you’re everything.”
“…Whatever else the religious life is, it isn’t tragic, because every effort and discomfort is purely voluntary; you can stop whenever you wish. And this talk about the world’s pleasures being wretched and tasteless is just silly, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, you have to pay for them, but they’re marvellous while they last. You can’t wish them away and groan and say you never did like them, really. they have extraordinary beauty and significance, and woe to the wetleg who denies it.
“The world at its best isn’t miserable, isn’t hateful – it is mad. The pursuit of worldly pleasures as ends in themselves is madness, because it disregards the real situation, which is that we are living a life that has only one thing to teach us, how to know God in ourselves and in other people. To be sane is to be aware of the real situation, the desire, the homesickness, for sanity is the one valid reason for subjecting oneself to any kind of religious discipline.”
He quotes Vivekananda: “If you are really ready to take up the earth’s burden, take it up by all means – but do not let us hear your groans and curses, do not frighten us with your sufferings. The man who really takes up the burden blesses the world. It is the savior who should go on his way rejoicing – not the saved.”
Then, back to his own experiences: “Down to Santa Monica to have lunch with the Viertels, then went on the beach with Garbo and Tommy Viertel. We walked along the shore, right to the pier. The sun was brilliant, with a strong wind – the palms waving all along the cliff, and the ocean dazzling with light and foam. The air was full of spray and falling light; it was beautiful beyond all words. The afternoon had an edge of extra-keen, almost intolerable sensation on all its sights and sounds and smells. Seeing a human body in the far distance, you wanted to seize it in your arms and devour it – not for itself, but as a palpable fragment of the whole scene, of the wildness of the wind and foam, of the entire unseizable mystery and delight of the moment. I glimpsed something, for an instant, of the reality behind sex. Something which we reach out toward, as we take the human body in our arms. It is what we really want, and it eludes us in the very act of possession.”
He describes a social event at which Prabhavananda was a guest; there were several famous actresses there too: “To me, it seemed that these ladies were aware of something in Swami which they found mysteriously disconcerting. They themselves occupied a good deal of ego space. Admittedly, they did this with charm and skill; if their ego sheaths had been crinolines, they would never once have knocked over the furniture. Swami’s ego, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be occupying nearly enough space. Thus their distance perception was subtly distorted. They weren’t sure where they were with him. Their own egos started making experimental adjustments to the psychic gap. They became extraordinarily sincere, simple, modest. They began to overact.”
“December 11. Swami told me that he’d had a ‘terrible time’ that morning, in the shrine room. ‘I mean, a good terrible time.’ He had been overpowered by the knowledge that ‘there is abundant grace’. He had cried so much that he had had to leave the temple. He said, what was the use of reasoning and philosophy, when all that mattered was love of God. ”
“September 16. Swami is in hospital, with visiting forbidden. The doctor admits that he has had a slight heart attack but doesn’t seem alarmed. As always, it must be very hard to judge how sick swami is, because he relaxes so completely towards any illness. If it wants him to be sick, okay, he’ll be sick.”
In the end I realized I had been reading a long, long love letter – from a man who loves the world and the divine both, quite fluidly and easily, whatever he sometimes might have thought of himself – to a man whose humanity, and divinity, are also both beloved.
I felt this as a touch in my chest, a gentle, upwelling joy.