Queer times: Christopher Isherwood's modernity

Jamie M Carr, University of Rhode Island


This dissertation maps Christopher Isherwood's intellectual and aesthetic reflections from the late 1930s through the late 1970s. Drawing on the queer theory of Eve Sedgwick and the ethical theory of Michel Foucault, I illuminate Isherwood's post-war development of a queer ethos through his focus on the aesthetic, social, and historical politics of the 1930s in his novels Prater Violet (1945), The World in the Evening (1954), and Down There on a Visit (1962), and in his memoir, Christopher and His Kind: 1929–1939 (1976). Though he was a leftist writer in the 1930s, after this decade Isherwood comes to reflect on and critique leftist art and politics for its reliance on an “other” (the construction of a national self, English or American, that uncritically and unreflexively props its own morality, “respectability,” and “civilization” against a sexual, racial, deviant, immoral, and/or barbaric Other). I argue that Isherwood works toward an ethical art that reflects not only on the politico-aesthetic practices of the 1930s but on the present moments in which he writes as well as on his own thoughts and actions. Throughout his texts on the 1930s, Isherwood analyzes the Nazi persecution of homosexuals, the atmosphere of militancy and conformity in the Cold War and McCarthy eras, psychological constructions of “homosexuality” prevalent in psychiatric discourse both during and after the war, and the elision of homosexual persecution in histories of Nazism. This latter is a consequence of the conflation of homosexuality with fascism. Isherwood not only analyzes homosexual persecution in its institutional and discursive forms, but he composes resistance to this power through queer affiliation. I show how Isherwood turns to aesthetic practices of minored others to forward effective social, cultural, and political critique and resists traditional narrative conventions. In so doing, he performatively constitutes a subjectivity ethos and culture. Isherwood's queer modernity is at once a critique of definitional practices of sexual identity, a rememoration of those oppressed and persecuted within the homophobic epistemology that structures twentieth-century western culture, and an ethics of resistance to such power. ^

Subject Area

Literature, Modern|Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Jamie M Carr, "Queer times: Christopher Isherwood's modernity" (2004). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI3145424.