CHRISTOPHER ISHERWOOD has lived in Hollywood for more than 40 years. His friends have been Garbo, Aldous Huxley and Tennessee Williams. He has partied with the greatest names of the American movie legend in its heyday. Had we not known this, we would glimpse it casually as the extravagant, at times hilarious, background to a very different story which begins with Isherwood's arrival in Hollywood in 1939. That year, his friend, Gerald Heard, brought him to meet a middle-aged Hindu who had recently come from India to head the local branch of the Ramakrishna Mission. In this newest volume of Isherwood's memoirs, My Guru and His Disciple, he tells of his friendship with Swami Prabhavananda who became a lifelong brother and teacher, an example of single-minded love for "this thing," as Isherwood calls it, meaning God or self, or whatever one names that unnameable center in one's life.
At the time of his meeting with Swami Prabhavananda, Isherwood was a successful young English writer. For him, as for so many of his great contemporaries -- Auden, Orwell -- the '30s had been a decase of passionate moral commitment. But the political faith of the decade was crumbling, and now war loomed hopelessly. In Hollywood, Isherwood had not only been cut loose from Europe and England, he had been morally unmoored. As if to root himself, he began to meditate and found himself drawn to Swami Prabhavananda's center in "a sleepy hillside suburb" overlooking Hollywood Boulevard. It was an attraction which never lapsed, as this anti-religious '30s leftist, for whom God was an "ungentlemanly" word referring to some "capitalist superboss in the sky," this lifelong enemy of pions attitudes and religious jargon, this happily erotic homosexual, found himself remade undefinably by his friendship with Swami Prabhavananda.
For a time, Isherwood lived at the Ramakrishna Center, as a prospective monk, and for more than 30 years, Prabhavananda never ceased to coax to him, half-humorously, toward a life of renunciation. I say half-humorously, because scandalized and probably accurate rumors of Isherwood's life in Hollywood accompanied him upon his visits to the center. Monkhood was not in the cards for Isherwood, nor was he always a frequent visitor to his guru. He didn't meditate on a schedule, and was, for most of these years a busily worldly man. Yet the story he tells is one of unshakable loyalty to the extraordinary man whom he has placed at the center of more than four decades of his life.
Throughout these years, Isherwood kept a diary, and the present book consists of a connective narrative between diary passages. The results is a wonderfully effective braiding of reminiscence and contemporaneous self-reporting. In our day we have tended to equate "honesty" with extravagant confession, and Isherwood is by no means shy about the extravagant side of his past. But his honesty is more profound and quieter in My Guru and His Disciple. I have never read a better account of the struggle toward self-acceptance and self-delight -- that wrestling with the angel! -- which is at the heart of spiritual discipline, when it is not confined by pious blinders and self-righteous moralizing.
In his exacting whimsical prose, Isherwood traces this elusive agon. A few weeks after beginning his experiment as a renunciate, he asks himself what he has to say about the monastic life so far: "Nothing. As a matter of fact, my unconscious hasn't even cocked an eyebrow or twitched an ear, yet. And, for the next two or three weeks, it probably won't. Like a drunk who has been pitched into the lockup, it just lies there snoring, quite unaware that it can't get out. When it begins to wake up, I suppose the trouble will start." In his journal he reflects about the contagiously happy effect the center's shrine room has upon him: "The atmosphere is extraordinarily calming, and yet alive, not sleepy. Someone said to me that it's like being in a wood. This is a very good description. Just as, in a wood, you feel the trees alive all around you, so in the shrine the air seems curiously alert. Sometimes it is as if the whole shrine room becomes your brain and is filled with thought. Of course, the smell of the incense also helps. It induces a special mood by association -- just as the smell of antiseptics induces the passive mood of the hospital patient." Writing of the unsinkable resistances that have turned his life into a bewildering zigzag, veering toward and away from his guru's example, he thinks about the Christian obsession with devilish powers and notes: "What I was struggling with was something quite intimate and unalarming, something that had an animal, not a superhuman nature; something that was partly a monkey, partly a dog; partly a peacock, partly a pig. One must be firm with it, one must keep an eye on it always, but there was no reason to hate it or be afraid of it. Its plans for my future weren't devilish; they weren't even clever. It merely wanted to maintain the usual messy aimless impulse-driven way of life to which it was accustomed." There is not much vague mystical soaring here and a great deal of common sense, and that is the tone imparted by Isherwood's guru. Swami Parbhavananda comes across as an appealing, honestly imperfect man, who loved to laugh. When Isherwood met him, he chainsmoked, and that curiously made him seem more accessible, easier to love.
Ultimately Isherwood's portrait of Prabhavananda is not contained in any single sketch, but in the cumulative impressions of a lifetime's friendship, ending only with Prabhavananda's death in 1976. A few years before that, Isherwood writes in his journal: "Watching Swami huddled in his chadar before the shrine, with the bald patch at the back of his head, I thought: He's been doing this all his life. He isn't kidding." Yes, he isn't kidding, and that, finally, is what grips us about this unpretentious man for whom love of "this thing," was a perfectly ordinary part of life.
It is interesting to compare My Guru and His Disciple with the rather bland book Isherwood wrote to order for the Ramakrishna Mission: Ramakrishna and His Disciples. Uncomfortable with the church-like pleties of the Mission, Isherwood there wrote in Shackles, and produced an "official" biography. Here he writes with the freedom his guru obviously loved in him, and has written a vivid, charming tribute to a man who even W. H. Auden, immured in his Anglican orthodoxy, had to admit was clearly "a saint."