How Isherwood's masterpiece shows up the hollowness of modern, reductive views of what makes us human.
It is a truth universally acknowledged (in the West, in the twenty-first century, among those who consider themselves rationalists, and certainly among the depressed) that a person is a body and a body is a machine. A human being is a calorie-fuelled, blood-pumping vehicle for the advanced computer in the skull. Modernity’s “shock of the new” was to put science front and centre to show that free will is an illusion, God is dead, and your personality is simply the unconscious expression of your genes.
Despite the prevalence of this mechanistic view of life, comedian Jenny Slate opens her Netflix stand-up special (lockdown viewing for me and my wife one bored evening) by addressing her audience with this observation: “Isn’t it weird that there are so many skeletons in here tonight?” There is a beat while the brute though basic fact of this lands like a dead-weight inside the consciousness of each audience member. Then:
“Isn’t is so scary that this is just a room filled with skeletons? Isn’t it so gross if you described us that way – that this is a dark room ... filled with skeletons that are covered in slippery muscles and blood, enrobed in skin?”
This joke works (producing laughter in the audience and an uncomfortable giggle from my wife, whose anxiety about death keeps her up at night) because it reminds us of a basic truth we know deep in our bones and yet rarely look at in such plain terms. But, given that we’re all meant to be modern people with a mature understanding of the impersonal facts of biological life, shouldn’t the truth of her observation be uninteresting? Why does it surprise us to hear facts we already know? That this joke works demonstrates the vast distance between what we know and what we experience.
Slate has performed here an act of what the literary know as defamiliarization. This is an English translation of the Russian ostranenie, which means, literally, “to make strange”. The writer takes the familiar and shows it to us as if for the first time, making it appear as strange as it would on a true first-encounter with it. In lay terms, it makes us say, “Huh, I never thought about it like that.”
This is the magic trick Christopher Isherwood performs in A Single Man, his masterpiece of literary density (meaning the incredible amount of artistry, truth, and beauty packed into the book’s relatively few pages). His central character begins existence on the page as an it, a machine functioning to lift itself out of bed, controlled by “the cortex”, which takes “its place at the central controls”; next, it becomes an animal creature, one that “will struggle on and on until it drops” under the pressures of Darwinian survival; finally, the creature is transmuted into a human, a he, a person called George.
With his description of George in strictly mechanistic terms, Isherwood defamiliarizes the essential truth of existence: that, in some meaningful sense, we don’t have bodies, we are bodies. But I think Isherwood is revealing something deeper, something beneath that which we take to be foundational. I believe there is a more important truth to be found within the fact, a secret hidden in that which is revealed.
In the beginning, so we have been told, was the word. In the beginning of A Single Man, there are two words: “Waking up begins with saying am and now.” Just as the deity in Genesis speaks creation into existence, the subject of Isherwood’s novel is brought into being through words. The next significant step of the morning on which the novel opens is the differentiation between the metaphysical self and the more literal external world. The consciousness that has awoken on the first page begins “staring up at the ceiling and down into itself”, a process of discovering that there is an “out there” and an “in here”, which forms the sense of I and is also the beginning of the perception of mind-body duality.
Let’s skip ahead for a moment to the prestige of the trick, the payoff to all this “making strange”: We are reading about George, bachelor (his partner, Jim, has died), professor of literature (who “misuses [books] quite ruthlessly – despite the respectful way he has to talk about them in public”), and outsider (as an Englishman in California and a gay man in the nineteen-sixties). He is the strange entity Isherwood describes in detached, alien terms at the opening of the novel, who takes his time this morning becoming fully himself, who spends much of the opening pages as little more than a “three-quarters-human thing”.
Why does Isherwood begin with this deconstructed version of a person? Because George has been deconstructed, undone, by the death of Jim. This death has fractured George’s perception of the world. It has broken the mirrors that the magician of consciousness uses to sustain the illusion that life is liveable even with the knowledge of our finite condition. Death has made George acutely aware of mortality and, thus, of physiology, the machine of his being that will eventually break down and never start up again. It will come to him as it came to Jim as it comes to us all: “later or sooner – perhaps – no, not perhaps – quite certainly: It will come”.
This terrible knowledge has made George discover, painfully and confusingly, that he is dual; he is a body and a mind; he is mere matter and something else, something like a soul. Unable to bring these together, he is beginning to suspect that these two selves are in a battle for dominance, and it may be the body – piloted by the unconscious – that will win. “More and more,” Isherwood tells us as George drives to work, “[his body] appears to separate itself, to become a separate entity ...” Thinking of his body as a chauffeur driving his increasingly dislocated consciousness around, George drifts off mentally while driving, then suddenly realises he has not been present. He wonders with some concern, “Is the chauffeur steadily becoming more and more of an individual?”
This strange division of the self has been instigated by death because death is the ultimate – the irreparable – division of the I from the it, the self from the body. At the end of the book, when Isherwood imagines for George a death that might or might not actually have happened in the reality of the story, we are told:
“And if some part of the non-entity we called George has indeed been absent at this moment of terminal shock ... then it will return to find itself homeless. For it can associate no longer with what lies here, unsnoring, on the bed.”
Death is the great destructive force here; it is the tearing of the self and George’s ultimate disconnection from Jim caused by death that renders George unable to feel like a unified whole – that is, like a single man.
Earlier, I reiterated the popular and scientifically sound idea that we, as humans, are our bodies. We are our biology, as many of the rationalists have insisted for several decades, adding correctly and often smugly (and naively, without understanding what weight this truth carries) that however we might feel about our material ontology and our lowly origins, these feelings do not affect the facts.
Yes, we are our bodies. But this is not all that we are. We are also our minds. We are animals and we are human. We are many things, from physical creatures to abstract identities; we are fathers, mothers, friends, teachers, sinners and saints, painters and people who pay taxes. We are these things at different times and sometimes we are several of them all at once.
The truth of this Whitmanian multiplicity (we all “contain” multitudes) is expressed in the opening pages of A Single Man. The dehumanised, depersonalised body described is not all that exists; even as the description continues of the biological machine and its functions, the subjective creeps in with value judgements. Look closely at the moment in which the body, standing on the bathroom scales, is weighed in at “still a bit over 150 pounds, in spite of all that toiling at the gym!” That exclamation mark is anything but impassive, and it betrays the personality within, the human observing itself. The exclamation point reveals shock, even mild outrage, at the seemingly unfair disparity between the fact of the weight and the effort expended in exercise.
Later in the morning, after stretching, emptying his bladder, looking in the mirror, washing, shaving, brushing his hair, and getting dressed, “it has become he; has become already more or less George”. To rephrase Simone de Beauvoir’s oft-quoted maxim, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a person.” The body that wakes in the bed must wait for the addition of the intangible, unquantifiable, essential layers of personhood to turn it into George. There are values that can be derived from nature but do not exist axiomatically in it; they are part of what the body becomes. Then, of course, there is the aesthetic, a subset of value. The body on its own knows and is none of this.
“The creature we are watching,” writes Isherwood, still in his detached-deity mode, “will struggle on and on until it drops. Not because it is heroic. It can imagine no alternative.” There is no bravery in the absence of understanding danger and valuing something above self-preservation, and there is no heroism without the Romantic imagination – there is only biological determinism. There is a line of dialogue given to George in Tom Ford’s movie adaptation of A Single Man that expresses, with suitably English coolness and Colin Firth’s ironic manner, what any humane person should think of such a red-in-tooth-and-claw situation. To the colleague who tells him there is no time for sentiment when it comes to a world after Russian nukes have rained down, George responds, “If it’s going to be a world with no time for sentiment, then it’s not a world I want to live in.”
There is a scene in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 in which the dark comedy of the novel becomes simply dark, and laughter and irony make respectful space for a terse moment of levity. Yossarian and Snowden are on a routine bombing mission when Snowden takes a direct hit in his gut from an anti-aircraft gun. The wound is violent – “It was impossible to tell where the shreds of his saturated coveralls ended and the ragged flesh began” – and despite Yossarian’s desperate efforts to keep him alive, to keep Snowden’s innards from spilling out, Snowden dies.
“[Yossarian] gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret ... Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage.”
While some of our best writers have seen through to what matters, our culture generally has spent most of the last century grappling with the wrong problem. We have wondered how to make peace with the finitude and ultimate earthliness of our corporeal forms, as if to resolve this is to resolve the human predicament. We have been misled by sloppy conceptions of our situation to believe that because we are animals, we are merely animals – that who we are is ultimately the same kind of matter that becomes mulch. This is to forget the stipulation included in Snowden’s secret that man is garbage only with “the spirit gone”.
At the end of A Single Man, we are granted a look at what it might be like if George were to die that night. George’s hypothetical lifeless body on his bed “is now cousin to the garbage in the container on the back porch. Both will have to be carried away and disposed of, before too long”. Of course, the body becomes waste, is relegated to mere matter, only after that which we call George – his name, his history, his personality, his everything that is what we truly think of when we think of George – has vacated the physical being.
The corpse will be “disposed of”, but we readers – as is the case with each of us regarding real people who now belong to the past tense – don’t really care about the body. We don’t think of the human waste in the ground as being George. George is the story that brings the machine to life on page one. George is the personification of the experience of all the pages between the first and last. George is something that was never truly “here” in the way his body was, which is why he never truly leaves, though his body does. This un-objective, intangible state of being is, paradoxically, more absolutely George than his physical body ever could be.
Since hearing that line in Jenny Slate’s show about the room full of skeletons, I have thought about it repeatedly. Occasionally, I look at someone I’m talking to and become fleetingly though disturbingly aware that they are a skeleton “covered in slippery muscles and blood”. But that is only ever a brief twinge of unease, a glimpse into the Twilight Zone of reality.
What stays with me and affects me more is the fact that immediately following Slate’s statement of biological fact, she launches into telling her life story. “I am a human, adult woman from planet Earth,” she says, “which is where we are right now ...”
It is this that her show is made out of; it is this story that more profoundly influences me and shapes what I think of Jenny Slate, far more than the fact of her skeleton. She is her body, her skeleton, her biological facts – but she is also her story. This, in the end, is what we all are: our stories.
• A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood (1964)
• Jenny Slate: Stage Fright, dir. Gillian Robespierre, written by Jenny Slate (2019)
• The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
• A Single Man, dir. Tom Ford screenplay Tom Ford, David Scearce (2009)
• Catch-22, Joseph Heller (1961)