As I told in What Vedanta Means to Me, the main reason I felt the unknown Vedanta must be all right, when in the 1940's I began searching for a new orientation, was that Aldous Huxley was one of its supporters. I reasoned that Vedanta couldn't be quackery or ignorant idolatry if a man as perceptive as he had become an admirer, as shown by his introduction to the Prabhavananda-Isherwood Bhagavad-Gita (1944), his novel Time Must have a Stop (1944), and his The Perennial Philosophy (1946), all shot through with Vedantic concepts. The latter book, incidentally, was written mostly in the vast library of mystical works which Gerald Heard had collected and installed at Trabuco. (More about Trabuco a little later on.) Isherwood considered The Perennial Philosophy one of Aldous's greatest books. And the Hollywood screen writer, Patrick Foulk, in an appreciation of Huxley published in the May, 1980, issue of "Horizon", says of The Perennial Philosophy: "Certainly to those who would examine aspects of the mystical experience particularly as it affected the spiritual bourgeoning of great religious leaders over the centuries, there is no finer, more enthralling source in which to look."
When I joined the Vedanta Society of Southern California I supposed that Huxley frequently came there and that I'd meet him often. But such was not the case. He had previously appeared regularly to meditate in the shrineroom, but that time had passed. His primitive enthusiasm had cooled and he had taken up other interests. This was his way. As Alan Watts once said of him, Huxley was "always onto something". And usually something new and often obscure. But he continued to maintain a friendly attitude (he was an initiated disciple of Swami Prabhavananda) and once in a while, during my early days in Hollywood, Aldous would come for tea.
His period of contributing regularly to the Center's magazine "Vedanta and the West" had passed before I became its editor. Previously he had sent articles often — usually early drafts of material destined to be part of the book he was currently working on. (I was horrified to find that the editor who had preceded me had sent these precious texts, corrected in Huxley's own hand, directly to the typesetter and had subsequently thrown them away after having read the proofs.)
After I became editor of "Vedanta and the West" we persuaded Aldous, Gerald Heard, John van Druten, and Isherwood to let us use their names as Editorial Advisors, a device meant to attract new readers. This was continued over several years and brought prestige to our little revue. But when Aldous published The Doors of Perception Swami Prabhavananda was embarrassed, as it seemed to tie Vedanta to drug taking. The Editorial Board was discontinued.
When The Doors of Perception was published Aldous sent Swami Prabhavananda an autographed copy. He added a message on the flyleaf explaining that the book contained "his" account of the mystical experience. Swami was not amused. That interesting volume, kept in a bookcase in the reception room of the Center, later disappeared. I regretted that I had not appropriated it for safekeeping, as I had more than once thought of doing. It was a literary document of considerable interest. Through a miraculous coincidence the volume found its way into my hands in Gretz in 1991. Aldous's dedication reads as follows: "For Swami, This account of a glimpse of reality from an unusual angle, in friendship and admiration, Aldous Huxley, 1954."
I did have the joy of putting one or two of Aldous's essays, given to "Vedanta and the West", through the press. It was a pleasure to see at close range how he handled ideas and expressed them. Like others, I was less enthusiastic about Aldous's novels, since they appeared to serve hardly more than creaky vehicles designed to carry Aldous's humanistic messages. In 1950 or so Time Must Have a Stop impressed me hardly at all. In 1987 I read it again. "Good heavens," is my current evaluation, "what a work of genius!" It may not be a perfect work of fiction, but what a literary tour-de-force! The culture it displays, the wit, the elegant use of words, the depiction of the subtle stratagems of maya!
The Huxley teaparties could be interesting if someone of Aldous's milieu were on hand to inspire him to talk, or if his first wife Maria were present, who knew how to bring him out. When it was only Swami Prabhavananda and some of us from the house — although Aldous was supremely kind and well-mannered — things sometimes became awkward. I remember one such effort to get the great man to talk. One of our members was named Pagli, which is a Bengali nickname meaning amiable madcap. Clasping her hands like a society hostess, and turning to him with benevolence, Pagli intoned: "Do tell me, Mr. Huxley, who is your favorite author?"
For a moment Aldous looked perplexed. Then he replied in his soft, well-modulated tones, "Well, I suppose you could say it is Shakespeare."
One of these teaparties was a grand affair which included Alan Watts. Isherwood and the famous English man of letters Stephen Spender also were present. This was in the summer of 1951. Watts was just then gaining prominence as spokesman for Zen. I had extracted an article from him for our anthology just then about to be published, called Vedanta for Modern Man. Swami had not been enthusiastic about the inclusion of Watts, but I had insisted. Watt's philosophy of realization without asceticism struck Swami as a mischievous use of a high principle to condone self-indulgence — like the rationalization offered by the sadhu mentioned in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna who explained that he was committing no offense in indulging in sexual promiscuity since all is Brahman.
Swami showed his disapproval of easy Zen at this teaparty by engaging Watts in a conversation meant to lay bare the error of Watts's doctrine. The scene is related in Watts's In My own Way, published by Pantheon in 1972. Watts has described accurately, although a bit nastily, what happened — up to a point. Swami had maneuvred Watts into declaring that the Atman, supposing one were in samadhi and identified with the Atman (Watts reports the word inaccurately as Brahman), would feel it if the individual were at that moment pinched.
"Atman would feel the pinch!" exclaimed Swami in disgust, demonstrating to all those present that Watts was only talking about religion and had no experience of it.
Swami hated the theory that one could just jump into realization, and often quoted a conversation that he had had with the great Japanese authority, Dr. D. T. Suzuki, in which the later had said, "But of course asceticism is a part of Zen." Suzuki also said, because of such misunderstandings, "Sometimes I wish I could burn all my books."
That Aldous Huxley was an eager, persistent seeker of enlightenment, and may eventually have achieved something of the sort, is documented in a recent book called Huxley in Hollywood by David King Dunaway, Harper & Row, 1989. Seeing metaphysically was as important to Aldous as was overcoming the handicap of his nearly blind physical state, and he applied himself to many techniques to induce light with touching conscientiousness.
In the first years at Hollywood I had a good deal to do with Gerald Heard. It is beneficial to set down what I remember of him. He played a useful part in the development of Ramakrishna's work in Southern California.
I met Gerald for the first time at the ceremony on September 7, 1949, when he turned over Trabuco Collage to the Vedanta Society of Southern California and it became the Ramakrishna Monastery. I had not joined as yet, but this gift made joining possible, as the acquisition of Trabuco provided space for additional novices.
Abandoning Trabuco College must have been as much of a relief to Gerald as obtaining it was a triumph for Swami Prabhavananda. Gerald was the first of the English expatriates to have come to Prabhavananda a dozen or so years before, and his enthusiasm had induced Aldous and Isherwood to follow. Gerald was the first of the three to take initiation from Swami Prabhavananda.
But there was a certain adolescent streak in Gerald: he fell out of love as abruptly as he fell in. Traits in Prabhavananda went against the grain: mainly he found Swami not austere enough. Gerald exposed his loss of faith in a memo posing three questions about how a holy man should live. They dealt with austerity in holy men and non-association with women. Prabhavananda responded to these questions, explaining his position, and published the responses in "Vedanta and the West". Gerald broke with Prabhavananda and decided to create an ideal community of his own, a college of prayer, as he called it, in Trabuco Canyon, halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.
The new institution, handsomely conceived in the style of an Italian monastery, was opened just as the USA was becoming involved in World War II. Male students were few, so that to make the institution work, women had to be admitted. To cap the climax Gerald's leading "monk" and "nun" ran off to get married. Gerald found he was visited with some of the same problems he had criticized Prabhavananda for having handled inadequately.
Faithful Chris was present at the dedication. He spoke, as did Gerald and Prabhavananda. I don't remember what anyone said, but I remember that the occasion reeked of irony. And it was so hot that day in the refectory-auditorium that the candles before the newly-installed photo of Ramakrishna bent, and one bent so much that it fell out of its socket while someone was speaking.
There was after that a period of rapprochement. The Society now consisted of the headquarters in Hollywood, plus the monastery at Trabuco, and the convent at Santa Barbara. Swami felt he had to apportion his time between the three, so he sought a speaker for some Sunday lectures in Hollywood. Since Gerald was renowned as an orator and had not been greatly enriched from sales of his books, he was engaged to speak once or twice a month at fifty dollars a lecture.
This is when my close contact, as well as great difficulty, with Gerald began. What Gerald was interested in was traditional Christianity modernized through concepts drawn from the sciences, and the whole made operational by the blending in of techniques borrowed from yoga psychology. Exposition of this interesting system by one who was a fascinating speaker drew enormous audiences. I remember that on one occasion Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, and Gladys Cooper were in the audience. As I was by then church secretary I had to cope with these onslaughts. This was not at all easy, for on the whole these were Gerald's admirers, who came solely for him. They had little interest in us or our temple. Our facilities were far too small. Parking was a disaster. The temple was filled (or people had reserved their places and gone out for a chat) long before the hour of the lecture. We set up loudspeakers in other buildings and even on the lawn. The worst problem was that certain eminent personalities — Iris Tree, daughter of Sir Beerbohm Tree, was one of them — demanded certain privileges such as having good seats reserved for last-minute entrances, which provoked anger in others who had come early only to find the best seats already spoken for; or being paged on the telephone.
Gerald, shabbily dressed, would come in, stand tall in the pulpit, look off into the distance with his already partially blind eyes, and begin. Out of his mouth poured a flow of eloquence, laced with references to obscure but highly significant scientific findings and fascinating hypotheses, the whole decorated with quotations from scripture, poetry, and sayings of world mystics. The audience listened with bated-breath attention, some even uttering muted sighs of appreciation.
As editor of "Vedanta and the West" I had to turn recordings of these orations into publishable articles. Put down in black and white, the material had a tendency to collapse like a cooling soufflé. The quotations were often inacurate, and references could not always be verified.
In my terrible intolerance of that period I found the whole thing ridiculous; that wasn't what I'd left the social sciences for — and the social world — to be mixed up in a carnival like this! And it is true that practically none of Gerald's followers ever became Vedanta devotees. Of course my poor opinion of his effort was brought to Gerald's attention and in due course he gave up speaking in our temple.
A new period of coolness set in. None of us had much contact with Gerald for years. But after taking sannyas, before leaving Southern California to take up my post at Gretz, I went to visit Gerald and his secretary, Michael Barrie. I wanted to reestablish good relations. Unfortunately the interview passed off in an unsatisfactory way.
But Gerald maintained a respectful although impersonal relationship with Swami Prabhavananda. In 1966 he had a stroke which paralyzed his arm. This stroke was followed by others. Eventually he became completely paralyzed and could hardly speak. He bore with this disaster with resignation, and died in 1971. He worked out his salvation according to his own fashion, as we all must. He may not have been a Ramakrishna-ite, but that doesn't matter. He exemplified what Ramakrishna came to teach, that the passionate search for God should be man's overwhelming preoccupation. In Gerald's case, it cannot be doubted that this was the situation.
In the 1940's I read Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge. The scenes of Larry's researches in India and his enlightenment inspired me at that period to test that sharp cutting instrument myself. Maugham's relations with Swami Prabhavananda had occurred before I reached Hollywood, but I heard so many accounts of these matters that I always felt I had been a participant.
In 1951 a series of articles was inaugurated in "Vedanta and the West" entitled "What Vedanta Means to Me". Eventually some thirty contributions to this series were published. All the personal histories were composed by westerners — Americans and Europeans. Looking back through this mass of personal testimony, I was surprised to find how many of the writers had volunteered the information that their interest in Vedanta had been first aroused through reading The Razor's Edge. The office workers at the Hollywood center noticed a similar phenomenon. Many people who sent for information, or who came to pay a first inquiring visit, said that they had written or come as a result of having read the Maugham novel.
In his Somerset Maugham: A Biographical and Critical Study (Indiana University Press, 1961), Richard A. Cordell estimates that The Razor's Edge had sold at least five million copies up to 1961. Cordell says, further:
The Razor's Edge was probably the first novel with literary value, the first "good" novel that many of these servicemen ever read — to judge by the ingenuous and touching letters they wrote. More than fifteen years after its publication Maugham still receives letters with comments on the novel and inquiries about the free-wheeling hero, who finds himself discontented with the very kind of life most of these servicemen were inevitably to lead. They were disturbed to find their concepts of the good life challenged. The Razor's Edge ... answers few or no questions, but leads the reader to ask himself questions about good and evil, justice and injustice, fact and superstition, the good life and the wasted life. Maugham still receives an occasional request for Larry's picture, and a few correspondents have asked for his autograph.
To have attracted such a large and dedicated audience, The Razor's Edge must display qualities besides mere literary excellence, must have more to recommend it than simply good escapist storytelling. What is the reason for the phenomenal appeal of this book? Why should it have been read so widely and have exerted such influence? How is it that the words of its title, taken from a passage in the Katha Upanishad, should now in the West everywhere evoke the idea of religious struggle? How is it that the name of its hero should have almost become a household word, denoting a spiritual seeker, and moreover a seeker following Indian methods? What kind of spiritual ideas does this book communicate? How truly are these ideas set forth? Why has this story of the American Laurence Darrell and his search for God stirred up religious impulses in so many people?
When the Nazis overran France in 1940 Somerset Maugham left his home on the Riviera. (He was evacuated to England from Cannes in a coal barge, along with five hundred other British citizens, many of them celebrated Riviera hostesses, permitted to take hardly any other possessions with them other than their jewel boxes. The trip took twenty days, during which Maugham reported the passengers were never even able to take their clothes off. (I have heard that that rich old lady, Lady Bateman — about whom Swami Prabhavananda used to tell that funny story about being too busy to meditate — was on that rude voyage.) From England Maugham flew to the United States, where he remained until 1946. He wrote The Razor's Edge during his American residence, at a house in South Caroline lent by his American publisher. The book was published in early 1944 when Maugham was just seventy.
In the mid 1940's a rumor became widespread which served to focus attention upon the possible pertinence of Indian mysticism to Westerners. It was known that Christopher Isherwood was living or had lived in a Hindu ashrama in Hollywood as the disciple of an Indian swami; and Maugham, who was a friend of Isherwood's, had just published a novel about a westerner who had become a Vedanta adept. Surely, then, Isherwood must be the prototype of Larry? It is strange that such an idea could take hold, since it is difficult to imagine two individuals more dissimilar than Maugham's Illinois-born hero and the British writer. However the rumor persisted, and it was circulated by "Time" magazine. This called forth an interesting response from Isherwood, printed in "Time's" December 17, 1945, issue:
Late in 1946 the motion picture version of The Razor's Edge was issued. It may not have been a very good picture, and it may not have been very true to the book. But there can be no doubt that this film brought Larry and his search for God to the attention of individuals who had never read or even heard of the Maugham's book.
Looking back to the state of knowledge prevailing in the mid-1940's, one is amazed to contemplate the vast changes which have occurred in such a short time. Sri Ramakrishna was not generally known in the West then. Think of the difference today! Sri Ramakrishna's words have found their way into anthologies of teachings of world religious teachers; he has even been quoted in "The Reader's Digest". Popular dictionaries and encyclopedias give biographical data. The idea that all religions are true and in their essentials are in agreement was a startling idea fifty years ago. Now the notion is discussed freely on campuses and in churches. The declaration adopted by the Vatican Council II on the relation of the Catholic church to non-Christian religions would have been unthinkable a few years before. The sons of the church are exhorted to "recognize, preserve, and promote those spiritual and moral goods" found among non-Christians. Catholics must treat all men in a brotherly way: "The Church thus reproves
Swami Prabhavananda and Somerset Maugham met four times during Maugham's 1940-1946 sojourn in the United States.
The first meeting took place before The Razor's Edge came out. Swami Prabhavananda could not remember exactly when it was, but the year may have been 1941. Maugham was in California in 1941. Maugham had been to India several years before and had had some contact there with the Ramakrishna Mission. He had visited the famous Indian holy man, Sri Ramana Maharshi. Maugham and Swami discussed India. Prabhavananda was not much drawn to Maugham on that first meeting. Maugham's permission to leave England and take sanctuary in the United States carried with it an obligation to produce favorable propaganda for the British, then deeply involved in their war effort. To Swami, Maugham seemed very like the usual British imperialist. He expessed the official attitude of the time, of opposition to independence for India. The other three meetings took place in the summer of 1945, when Maugham was in Southern California writing the screen play for The Razor's Edge. During the three months required to complete this assignment, Maugham lived at the home of film director George Cukor.
The first of the 1945 meetings took place on June 18 at the Player's Restaurant on the Sunset Strip, to which the author invited Prabhavananda for dinner. Chicken curry was on the menu, and the two decided to try this Indian dish. But Prabhavananda found the curry far from what it should be — a poor Western approximation. He proposed to Maugham that when they came together the next time Maugham should have dinner at the Center, where he would be given chicken curry that was the real thing. The second meeting, consequently, occurred on Ivar Avenue. The two met for the third time during that summer of 1945 at the home of George Cukor. Swami recalled that Katherine Hepburn and Ethel Barrymore were present, along with Maugham, Cukor, and Isherwood.
Maugham's purpose in seeking these meetings with Swami was to obtain technical assistance. Prabhavananda's advice was required on matters having to do with the Indian mystical sequences of the motion picture. Maugham had been paid a large sum for the screen rights, but he agreed to write the screenplay for nothing. He found this a pleasant and not very taxing job. Prabhavananda offered two or three suggestions for additional scenes not in the book, to add authenticity and atmosphere. "Ah, Swami," murmured Maugham, "you are going to make me work hard."
Cukor tested an almost unknown young actor for the part of Larry. But the test was not satisfactory. Meanwhile the famous actor Tyrone Power was demobilized after more than three years in the Marine Corps, and it was decided that he should play Larry.
In the film Clifton Webb was cast as the worldly Elliott Templeton. Webb and Power came to the Ivar Avenue house so that Power could discuss with Prabhavananda the characterization of Larry. Swami naturally found it difficult to visualize Tyrone Power being able to portray a realized soul. Standing with his back to the fireplace, talking to Swami, Power commenced to discuss his conception of how he planned to convey Maugham's hero. Prabhavananda responded in unconcealed disbelief: "And you think that you can play Larry!" Power sat down with a thump at this candid questioning of his ability to depict a man of illumination. But the two talked the matter over, and as a result Power studied the role and its religious implications with care, in an attempt to give as authentic a portrayal as he was capable of giving.
On more than one of their meetings Maugham discussed Vedanta with Swami Prabhavananda. He told Swami that he really accepted advaita Vedanta; but he felt he was too old to himself commence the practice of religion. That Maugham understood and admired Hindu metaphysics is apparent from his intelligent treatment of the subject in Chapter Six of The Razor's Edge. With characteristic diffidence Maugham announces: "I feel it right to warn the reader that he can very well skip this chapter without losing the thread of such story as I have to tell, since for the most part it is nothing more than the account of a conversation that I had with Larry. I should add, however, that except for this conversation I should perhaps not have thought it worth-while to write this book." And the reader will perhaps agree that without that most important section depicting Larry's spiritual struggle and his ultimate realization of union with the Divine, he might not find it worth the while to read the book.
Ten years or so after The Razor's Edge came out Maugham wrote an essay on Ramana Maharshi called The Saint. Maugham says he heard about the south Indian holy man when he was at Madras and decided to visit him. After a hot, bumpy ride of several hours, Maugham and party reached the Maharshi's ashrama at Tiruvannamalai. He was told that the Maharshi would see him in a little while. Suddenly Maugham fainted dead away. He was carried to a hut and placed on a bed. The Maharshi was told what had happened. Since Maugham was not well enough to go to the hall where the Maharshi generally sat, the Maharshi, accompanied by several disciples, came to see Maugham in the hut.
Maugham describes how the Maharshi greeted him with a few pleasant words, then sat quietly beside him and meditated for a quarter of an hour. After that he asked Maugham if he had any questions. But Maugham, feeling not at all well, said he had none. The Maharshi replied that silence also was conversation. Without further talk he sat with the writer for another fifteen minutes, then left.
Later when Maugham felt better he went to the hall where the Maharshi sat most of the time, receiving visitors, and answering their questions. Maugham watched with fascination the way the Maharshi responded to his callers, and the comings and goings of the devotees, marking the extreme veneration paid the holy man. Eventually the Maharshi went into meditation again; and Maugham tiptoed out of the building.
Maugham reported with considerable humor how he heard later that his fainting had given rise to fantastic rumors. The news of it was carried throughout India. His becoming unconscious was ascribed to the awe which was supposed to have overcome him at the prospect of going into the presence of the holy man. Even before seeing the Maharshi, the Maharshi's influence had caused Maugham to go into samadhi! The plain fact, Maugham informs us, is that he was subject to fainting spells all his life, due to a long-standing physical malfunction. "Since then, however, Indians come to see me now and then as the man who by the special grace of the Maharshi was rapt into the Infinite, as his neighbors went to see Herman Melville as the man who had lived among cannibals."
In The Razor's Edge the Maharshi is called Sri Ganesha. The ashrama where Larry stays resembles the Maharshi's ashrama, as described in The Saint, except that it has been moved from the central part of southern India to the Kerala coast.
During the time when he lived at Ivar Avenue, Isherwood wrote an article called The Problem of the Religious Novel. In this essay he analyzed the difficulties to be overcome in creating a really adequate work of this sort. While he believed that writing about a saint would be a most interesting literary endeavor, Isherwood confessed that the problems to be dealt with would be so enormous he hardly believed it could be done well.
Isherwood explained that the writer would have, first, to show the saint as basically no different from anybody else; he just becomes different as a result of following objectives different from those followed by most other people.
How to make the character's "conversion" — his change of direction — credible would be a second problem. To properly describe the method — perhaps a long struggle — by which the aspirant becomes a saint would be a third difficulty to be surmounted.
Finally, said Isherwood, "We come to the last phase of the story, the portrait of the perfected saint. Here I am sure I should give up in despair. Nothing short of genius could succeed in such a task. For the mystical experience can never be described. It can only be written around, hinted at, dimly reflected in word and deed."
Isherwood concluded with the suggestion that perhaps a really adequate religious novel could only be written by a saint, but "saints, unfortunately, are not in the habit of writing religious novels."
As examples, Isherwood mentioned and evaluated a half-dozen works of fiction giving portraits of persons of spiritual attainment. He repeatedly pointed out The Brothers Karamazov as an example which succeeded, especially in the sections concerning Father Zozimov. (I recently reread The Shoes of the Fisherman by Morris West and would class this book as another successful example.) Isherwood gave Maugham in The Razor's Edge fairly high marks for succeeding as well as almost anyone could in solving each of the four problems confronting the writer of the religious novel.
The hero of The Razor's Edge meets Isherwood's first criterion very well — that the saint-to-be should be portrayed as an ordinary man who, religiously speaking, makes good. Isherwood said in his essay: "Somerset Maugham
To make Larry not only an American but an American from the Chicago area strengthens the book in another way. As one reviewer said, Chicago was chosen as the starting point of the story because it was the Englishman's conception of the "apotheosis of American crassness". Larry knew influential people and could have had their sponsorship had he wanted to enter the world of business. He could have fulfilled the American dream. But Larry rebelled against the promptings of his materialistic environment. With this rebellion the reader identifies, for has not he, the reader, often felt the same misgivings?
Second, Larry's conversion, or change of direction. According to Isherwood, "Maugham is rather vague on this point; he merely suggests that Larry's change of heart is caused by his experiences in the first World War." (He saw a friend of his, a flyer like himself, maimed and killed in a crash, and an overwhelming anxiety about the problem of evil took possession of him.)
It is possible to disagree with Isherwood when he says that Maugham was vague, and to argue that actually Maugham handled the matter of Larry's change of direction in a psychologically sound manner. There was no conversion. In fact, as I have said before, it is open to question whether the instantaneous and lasting change of character implied by the word conversion ever occurs. We can presume that Maugham means for the reader to see that Larrry was born with discrimation, gained slowly and as a result of suffering in previous lives. Because he had gained them all before and understood their inability to satisfy, Larry rejected in advance the advertised objectives of ordinary life.
Of course Larry does not know what he wants at the outset. How could he know, considering the absence of any tradition of mysticism in his Protestant upbringing? But he senses he wants something greater than his natural environment affords him. Thus Larry's conversion is, as it must be for most people, a progressive fumbling, a matter of feeling his way along in accordance with some inner urging, until he finally finds a teacher and a way.
The third problem is to depict the struggle of the saint-to-be, leading up to his perfection. Isherwood says that he would stress this phase. "The greater part of my novel would deal
This is, one must admit, a fault in the book. Yes, Larry's search takes a fairly long time — more than a dozen years altogether. But not much of it could be called intense spiritual practice. He wanders through country after country. He has all kinds of experiences and meets all sorts of people. He studies languages, science, art, and philosophy. He reads a good deal of mystical literature. He spends some time in a Benedictine monastery.
But the period of Larry's actual sadhana is very short and apparently devoid of pain. He arrives at Sri Ganesha's ashrama and takes instruction from the Maharshi, settles down to serious and systematic meditation, and achieves illumination. All this requires but about two years. What a speed record! Regarding this, Larry himself says: "I dared not think that this was illumination that I, Larry Darrell of Marvin, Illinois, had received when others striving for it for years, with austerity and mortification, still waited."
Yes, Larry was a spectacular exception. As a fictional character he perhaps had to be an exception, for dramatic purposes. To have shown Larry struggling year after year for a lifetime would have made boring reading and would have completely upset the structure of the book. As it is, Larry is still young — in his thirties — when he is a finished saint, and his life is ahead of him. He is, in fact, not only a finished saint; he is a glamorous saint.
Fourth, as to the portrait of the finished saint. Isherwood stresses how difficult it is to describe a Knower of God: "Maugham is greatly to be admired for his
How has Maugham depicted Larry on his return from India? He describes him as unusually young looking for his age. There is a great sweetness in his smile. He strikes one as modest and sincere. He possesses "goodness". He manifests much composure. There is about him something like an "inner listening". Maugham has Larry give up sex and alcohol and his income. He has his hero express self-abandonment to Divine Providence by declaring he will probably go back to the United States and earn his living working as a mechanic or by driving a taxicab (presumably the American equivalent of living in the East by the mendicant's staff and begging bowl).
But all these are only surface indications. They really mean nothing, or next to nothing. The affair is not so easy. For the essential fact about a saint is not observable. It is hidden inside him. Many Indian scriptures take up the matter. All agree that there is no tangible external criterion of inner Knowledge. For example, in Sri Shankara's The Crest Jewel of Discrimination it is stated that the knower of the Atman "bears no outward mark of a holy man". Further, "Sometimes he appears to be a fool, sometimes a wise man. Sometimes he seems splendid as a king, sometimes feeble-minded. Sometimes he is calm and silent. Sometimes he draws men to him. Sometimes people honor him greatly, sometimes they insult him. Sometimes they ignore him." Sri Shankara goes on: "The ignorant see the body of a knower of Brahman and identify him with it. Actually he is free from the body and every other kind of bondage. To him the body is merely a shadow."
Thus it is not a sound procedure to try to give a portrait of a man of God by providing descriptions of his appearance, his actions, his words. So-called saintly qualities can be assumed by anyone with a little acting talent. If, then, everything important about a saint is subjective, how is an author to describe him? It probably cannot be done, as Isherwood has said, or a least not directly. The writer must instead produce a picture of the saint in a roundabout way, "with the utmost persuasiveness, deftness, and cunning. It can only be written around, hinted at."
Swami Vivekananda said that if a person should think one really great thought, even if he were in a cave, that thought would infiltrate the world and benefit all humanity. What Swamiji meant is that the significant attribute of the knower of God — as far as the outside is concerned — is that he exerts (whether visibly or not) an elevating effect upon other people. Having become magnetized, he magnetizes others. Having had "good vibrations" broadcast to him, he automatically broadcasts "good vibrations" to others. The social utility of mysticism consists in the saint's capacity to balance the world's negative proclivities with his positive proclivities.
If this is true, then it follows that the only way we can hope to describe a saint is by depicting his effect for good upon others. Not by looking directly at him, but by calculating his influence can we obtain a sense of his quality. As seekers, as the ignorant, we cannot know how the perfected man feels, but we can gain an indication by watching how he makes other people feel. We can get his measure in terms of his effect upon those his life — his "really great thought" — touches.
Maugham understood this very well. For he had Larry say, at the end of the all-important Chapter Six: "If you throw a stone in a pond the universe isn't quite the same as it was before. It's a mistake to think that these holy men in India lead useless lives. They are a shining light in the darkness. They represent an ideal that is a refreshment to their fellows; the common run may never attain it, but they respect it and it affects their lives for good. When a man becomes pure and perfect the influence of his character spreads so that they who seek truth are naturally drawn to him."
However, if the only way an author can portray a saint is by picturing his effect upon others, we have to admit that Maugham has failed to solve this aspect of the problems of the religious novel. For Larry, after his return from India, is not shown as having any beneficial effect upon others at all.
Larry's youthful sweetheart, Isabel, remains impatient with Larry, still in love with him although married to Gray, right up to the end of the book. Nothing about Larry impresses her, confounds her set opinions, or makes her give thought to the deeper concerns of life. Despite years of knowing Larry, Isabel remains what she has always been, a self-centered society woman.
In the story of Sophie Macdonald we see what is perhaps an attempt on Maugham's part to display Larry's saintly qualities through his effect upon another individual. Beneath Sophie's promiscuity, drunkenness, and dope addition Larry finds an essential purity. He offers to marry her. But the necessity of her having to change her way of life only antagonizes Sophie. She reforms briefly, then becomes worse than before, until she is found in the waters of the Toulon harbor, murdered.
It may be claimed that Larry helps Gray; for he removes his headaches and restores his confidence in himself. But this he does through a psychic trick, which Larry himself disclaims, as having no spiritual significance.
We have to admit that the "Book Review Digest" for 1944 summarized Larry truly when it said of him that he "finds a certain measure of personal peace, but succeeds in making life even more difficult for those who have tried to make him lead a conventional life."
Are we to conclude hence that The Razor's Edge is a failure, or at best only a partial success as a religious novel? Shall we say that Somerset Maugham s book, despite its phenomenal popularity and its known effect for good upon many, does not measure up to Isherwood's criteria?
Surely not. I believe that Maugham has succeeded wonderfully well, but in a wholly unexpected manner. He may not have been successful in depicting Larry's sainthood through showing us Larry's effect upon the other characters in the book. But he has accomplished his end well, in a different way. Larry's sainthood is visible through the effect of his life and achievement upon the thousands and millions of readers who have been inspired by it. We see that Larry was a Knower of God because he makes us, as readers, want to remold our lives, makes us feel that we can remold our lives, as he did.
Larry is not just a character is a book. He seems to live independently, as a live person. Whatever Maugham's failues may have been, of omission or commission, he has not presented us with a creature of fantasy. People have attained God. People do attain God. Larry appeals to us because he is self-certifying. We see intuitively that he is real. We feel like the servicemen did, when they wrote to Maugham requesting photographs of Larry, or Larry's autograph. We know perfectly well — because of what the account of his accomplishment inspires in us — that Larry Darrell is true.
I knew him as a friend for more than thirty-five years, read all his books, kept up with most of the critical material that appeared appraising his writing, worked with him on Ramakrishna and his Disciples, A Meeting by the River, and other literary productions, am his brother in religion in that we both are disciples of Swami Prabhavananda. And yet, undertaking to set down my souvenirs of Christopher Isherwood thrusts me into a mood of uncertainty.
Chris died on January 4, 1986, at the age of eighty-one. I miss him more than I can say.
From the first moment we met, I reacted agreeably to Chris's charm. He gave me the immediate sensation that he liked me. He had the ability to make everyone he came in contact with feel easy in his presence, that you held a privileged position in his estimation, that he found you interesting as a person. I believe he did sincerely find almost everyone interesting, and not merely as material for future books. Chris was intensely curious as to how human nature manifested itself in its multifarious fashions. I eventually came to see this as a sort of spiritual quality. Sri Ramakrishna said that the greatest manifestation of God is in man. Contemplating man, in all his diversity, with wonder and affection, is thus akin to divine worship. Chris surely worshipped at this shrine.
But then again, when I first knew him I sometimes wondered if Chris were not as much a performer as a writer. He had learned how to gain and maintain a place as a literary celebrity. He was audacious and something of an exhibitionist. He himself spoke of himself as an actor. He had figured out human beings well enough to know that, although they might protest, they rather liked being shocked. He held the public's attention for some sixty years and holds it still — perhaps more than ever — and not so much for what he wrote as for the image of himself he conveyed. How much of this was a useful pose and how much a genuine personality trait I never knew — and I don't think he knew either.
On the other hand, that audaciousness permitted Chris to be a courageous defender of truth as he saw it, who often used the celebrity he enjoyed to promote the rights of the then discriminated against minority, the homosexual. He was candid about himself as belonging to that minority and fiercely championed equal rights for its members.
Whatever else he was, there was in Chris the devoted disciple, who maintained an intense loyalty to his guru, and a readiness, during the guru's life and after his death, to further his guru's objectives. Through books, articles, and speeches Chris did much to inform the public about Vedanta.
At times I felt envious of Chris, and resented his superstar appearances at the Center. I thought of myself as dogging my life away there seven days a week with not much recompense and very little appreciation; then Chris would make his weekly appearance of an hour or so and all would turn gala. Prabhavananda would become joyous and there would be an atmosphere of fête. In these moments I resented him as someone who would eat his cake and have it too, for he seemed to manage to be sincerely devotional and happily worldly at the same time. This stance puzzled me and confused some of his other admirers.
Then there was the revealer and the self-revealer, who in telling so much about himself, made us understand much about ourselves. In revealing so openly his weaknesses, his moods, the troubles he had with his ego and his sensual nature, his occasional feelings of slothfulness and discouragement, we were permitted to see deep into another human being. We, all of us, had those same feelings too, but wouldn't face them. It was refreshing to find someone who did. Chris's candor drew us close to him, and taught us to deal gently with the same tendencies in ourselves.
It was as though the writer and the writing were one inseparable entity — with the writer perhaps more interesting than the writing. It has been noted by Chris's critics that practically all the characters he created were facets of his own personality; and in some of his books he wrote about himself by name, in the third person, as one of the characters.
As I struggle here to describe Chris as I knew him, I feel less and less sure of what to say. I despair of being able to write a just appraisal of Chris. He was a very big person. Swami Prabhavananda said of him that he was the most intelligent of all his disciples. The subject is rather too big and my powers are rather too small. "Tis so much to be a king," said Montaigne, "that he is so only by being so. The strange luster that surrounds him conceals and shrouds him from us; our sight is there broken and dissipated, being stopped and filled by the prevailing light."
But let me try.
Knowing Chris made my life far more interesting than it would have been if I had not known him. The subject of eminence is a fascinating one. How to account for special talent, for greatness? Take as illustration the case of film personalities. What essential ingredient made Greta Garbo a world figure, whereas any number of other strikingly beautiful women gained no prominence at all — and makes Garbo, whose presence has been lost to us for fifty or more years, a deathless icon still? Those who knew Garbo said that she was rather dull personally. Or public personalities such as John Kennedy. Now that the hypnotic effect of his physical presence has faded, we see that his qualities were not outstanding. And yet he remains a luminary. Curious, that. We use the word "talent". Yes, but that's no answer. Concentration, application, hard work. Perhaps, but they explain little; some celebrities are quite devoid of enterprise. We use, of course, the catchword genius, but that doesn't explain anything. It is just a way of describing the result and pigeonholing the question.
Sri Ramakrishna said, "The lead cow is the one which wears the biggest bell." He didn't say, "They give the biggest bell to the leader of the troupe." Nor did he say: "The cow on which they hang the biggest bell becomes the leader." He said: "The lead cow is the one which wears the biggest bell." What this means is that eminence itself, as Montague remarked, makes for eminence. It is self-certifying.
Vedanta philosophy pictures Brahman as immutable, associated with an active principle called power or Shakti. Shakti manifests itself to a greater or lesser extent in all life. But some individuals are granted a rather larger portion, and when power is present it makes those individuals exceptional. "Know," said Ramakrishna, in another affirmation of the same principle, "that wherever is found the manifestation of any exceptional power, a portion of Shakti is there." Or as Sri Krishna says in the Tenth Chapter of the Bhagavad-Gita: "Whatever in this world is powerful, beautiful, or glorious, that you may know to have come forth from a fraction of my power and glory."
Consider beauty, charm, charisma. Shakti manifesting itself as beauty sweeps all before it, to inspire the composition of poems, romances, and dramas in their millions, some of the most profound reflections of philosophers, and any number of imprudent or desperate actions on the part of those at whom it has shot its arrows. La Dame aux Camélias is the moral tale of a man so captured by the power of beauty as to commit every folly, regaining sanity only when he has had the body of his beloved disinterred, to contemplate the skeleton beneath the putrefying flesh.
Mere youth, too, confers upon its possessor unusual power, which those who have lost it evaluate ever so much more highly than those who possess it. I remember an aging professor at the University of Southern California who had the habit of remarking, as he looked across the campus at the beautiful boys and girls: "There they go. They have it but don't know what to do with it; I know what to do with it but I don't have it."
Shakti can manifest itself in ugliness and deviant action also. (Thus the great symbolism of the goddess Kali. If one would understand the working of the divine scheme of things, one should study Kali.) The successful confidence man may be seen as the counterpart, equally valid, of a Nobel Prize winner in science, Adolf Hitler of St. Francis, debilitating cancer cells of those cells producing bounding health. Swami Vivekananda wrote to Mary Hale on 28 March, 1900: " You silly girl, I was Jesus and I was Judas Iscariot. Both my play, my fun."
Let me cite a neat case history of the naked working of Shakti which I myself witnessed. Chris had arranged a teaparty for Paulette Goddard and Erich Maria Remarque, to which he invited Swami Prabhavananda, Swami Satprakashananda, Swami Krishnananda, and me. Swami Satprakashananda, the doyen of the Indian swamis in America, was very austere and had little idea, I suspect, as to who the chief guests were. Swami Prabhavananda was interested, as he found celebrities stimulating. I, of course, was beside myself with excitement. Imagine having tea with the author of All Quiet on the Western Front , which had so moved me as a young man of twenty or so; and the star of such movie classics as Modern Times and The Great Dictator!
Of course Chris knew what he was doing, and he watched the working out of the chemistry of the encounters with hardly disguised satisfaction. Remarque said little; he sat in his place looking apoplectic, fending off remarks Paulette Goddard flung at him about his flushed face and consumption of brandy. It was she who shone. Then over fifty, never really beautiful (an earlier husband, Charles Chaplin, spoke of her as a "gamine" type), saying nothing memorable, Paulette Goddard had us all hugely pleased in no time. Swami Prabhavananda always found women sympathetic, so it is not surprising that he responded to the film personality with charm and urbanity. He was his most charismatic. It was the response of the ascetic, usually silent older swami which was so amazing. Swami Satprakashananda became gallant, witty, gay beyond anyone's imagination. A girl of no special background or education, born Marion Levy, emerging from the tenements of Brooklyn to find a place at sixteen as a dancer in a chorus line, going on to become a star, and the wife of two major creative personalities of the century, Chaplin and Remarque; and of a well-known actor, Burgess Meredith — and now entrancing an elderly, stern sadhu! How can one account for this? One can't. One can simply ascribe it to the manifestation of Power, of Shakti, and salute.
Once Sri Ramakrishna mused in wonder: "Ah, the capacity to attract others! What a miracle!" Thus he recognized the power of Shakti and paid it his homage.
The possession of Shakti in some special form or quality is the source of what we call the exceptional. Its possession and expression are what make an artist, for example, or a writer, outstanding. Such successes cannot be explained by the rules of aesthetics. The artist may not himself know how he does what he does. Consider the French writer Georges Simenon, author of a hundred detective novels, many of them renowned for their literary excellence. Simenon stated that the whole book simply formed in his mind, and in a space of several days, shut away from everybody, he simply committed what was already 'there' to paper. Some talented persons know their possession to be a great gift, are awed by it, reverent towards it, and feel they don't deserve it, but are thankful for the goods it brings. Most are apprehensive that the power may decline or vanish; and we know that sometimes it does.
What is the explanation? God plays in this way, that is all. It's his game, his lila. Shakti stirs up the world; Shakti brings movement, contrast, excitement, difference. As Swami Vivekananda once said, if it weren't for Shakti, we'd all be like Egyptian mummies in a museum sightlessly staring at one another. Shakti gives flavor to life, yet also engineers life's tragedies and despairs — which make us sick at last of the play and, all passion spent, seek out Shakti's consort Shiva, Brahman's inactive aspect; and eventually Brahman himself. This is the scheme of things. It is graphically laid out for all to see in the icon of Kali.
I am writing this in an effort to explain Chris and why I found him so interesting. He was simply a great and grateful incorporation of Shakti. Chris was genuinely somebody, hence inspiring, quickening, to me, as to so many others. But I know that the fascination I feel centers on the Power of which he was but a vessel. My delight in him is thus indirectly delight in the Divine, my admiration is admiration for the Divine. I know this. And so, I think, did he, not only with respect to me but with respect to all who offered him their esteem.
I first met Chris in the spring of 1949 at the Vedanta Temple in Hollywood. Swami Prabavananda gave weekly readings in the so-called Green House, which contained the church parlor. On this particular evening Chris was present. Swami asked Chris and me to fetch a few folding chairs from the Temple just across the walkway. My first impression was that he looked boyish, clean, and bright. He was very approachable, and as a reader of his writings I was his long-time admirer, so we became friends quickly.
I have related in my book What Vedanta Means to Me how the Prabhavananda-Isherwood Bhagavad-Gita affected my thinking in the mid-1940's, inspiring me to begin the experiment which led to my joining the Center in Southern California; so Chris was to me a sort of religious mentor. He also represented the best in British-American writing. I'd been a fan of Auden-Isherwood-Spender since college days. (In 1977 I saw the exhibition at the London Portrait Gallery "Writers of the Thirties". This displayed a collection of memorabilia concerning Stephen Spencer, W.C. Auden, John Day Lewis, Robert MacNeice, and Isherwood.) A known figure and an admired writer had become my friend.
Chris usuallly came to see Swami Prabhavananda about once a week — usually for dinner and the evening. He drove a Sunshine Talbot roadster in those days, and later a different make of small British car which never seemed to work properly. I believe he was rather poor at that time. He was always a welcome guest, as he was full of good humor and told amusing stories about personalities he knew in the film colony or encountered in the world of writers. His relationship with Swami Prabhavananda was respectful but very intimate. Whereas we were all rather standoffish with our guru, Chris was quite daring toward him, and Swami liked this.
As editor of the revue "Vedanta and the West" I had many occasions to talk to Chris. Swami Prabhavananda always had some co-authorship project going on with Chris, who methodically turned out a translation of Patanjali's Yoga Aphorisms, called How to Know God, and Shankara's The Crest Jewel of Discrimination. He wrote the introduction for a book I edited of Vivekananda's writings condensed: What Religion Is: In the Words of Swami Vivekananda. He contributed to our revue and did ever so many other literary chores, always with promptness and good humor, and always without compensation.
The Prabhavananda-Isherwood Bhagavad-Gita is now an established classic. It is included in Everyman's Library and in the Mentor Religious Classics series. Hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold. An unusual tribute to the merit of the work comes annually from French members of the Centre V?dantique Ramakrichna at Gretz. I have a practice of reading aloud in English the eighteenth chapter during the annual birthday celebration for Sri Krishna. And it always happens that two or three of the French members say afterwards: "Although I don't know English and didn't understand exactly what you were reading, the text sounded beautiful and right."
Chris had lived at the Vedanta Society in Hollywood as a preprobationer for a couple of years in the early 1940's. He made things very lively there, as one will gather by reading his souvenirs of that period in My Guru and his Disciple. Here is the complete text of a ditty he composed, to make life merry while he and the other disciples did the dishes. It is sung to the tune of "Bye, Bye, Blackbird".
There lived a man in Bengal:
He had no ego, none at all,
Never wore a derby hat,
Taught his devotees "Thou art That".
Krishna, jai, jai!
For he prayed and prayed and prayed so hard he
Kept on going right into samadhi.
You could yell in his ear and tickle his toe
And pull his beard, for he'd never know.
Krishna, jai, jai!
G. C. Ghosh he was no monk,
Showed up one evening rolling drunk,
Said, "Why waste dough on liquor, you fool,
When the bliss of God's got a kick like a mule?"
Krishna, jai, jai!
In came Naren as fresh as paint,
Said, "My, your old superstitions are quaint!"
Put his foot on his chest and began to press
Till the kid didn't know his home address.
Krishna, jai, jai!
Keshab said, "I wish you'd been
With me in London when I met the Queen."
Said, "Listen, old boy, and don't get cross,
I don't have to meet her 'cause I know her boss."
Krishna, jai, jai!
M. wrote down his words for publication;
Now they're read throughout the Hindu nation.
And in fifty more years, we are such dopes,
We'll have made him a church with priests and popes.
Krishna, jai jai!
Chris's experiment as Vedanta novice didn't work out very well. The Vedanta Society was particularly boisterous at that time due to the expressed temperaments of several residents, to Swami Prabhavananda's suit against the U.S. Government to keep his Bengali nephew from being drafted into the American Army, and because the ashrama was run on the lines of a Bengali joint family, as described in the previous chapter. "Oh Prema," Chris often said to me years later, during his visits to 1946 Vedanta Place, "I do so admire you for sticking it out. How thankful I am to have exchanged the excitement of the religious life for the peace and tranquility of the world!"
Celebrities and celebrity hunters sometimes came to call on him when Chris lived at the Vedanta Society, including Greta Garbo. She was intrigued by Chris's entrance into monastic life and proposed to Swami Prabhavananda that she should come to live at the Center too.
"But our monastery is for men," Swami replied, agreeably amused by the great star, "and you are a girl."
"Doesn't matter; I'll put on trousers," was her response.
She played up to Swami: "Oh how I love to look into those deep, dark, mysterious eyes." Swami was pleased. I have heard him recount this story dozens of times, always pronouncing what Garbo proposed to put on as "trowshers".
I regretted having joined too late to have been present on that occasion. I often told Chris, "The only thing I ever want from you is for you to introduce me to Garbo." But this never worked out. He, however, did invite me to a big Hollywood party. It must have been in about 1961 or 1962. I treasure this experience, even though I concluded that once was enough. It was exactly as one pictures this sort of occasion, held in a big house looking down over Beverly Hills — Glenn Ford's house, which Chris had borrowed for the affair, as his own was too small. Celebrities galore.
I was asked to drive Aldous Huxley, who lived at that time in the Hollywood Hills near our center. The Center's car was a Volkswagen minibus, in the high front seat of which I gently installed the very nearly blind, compliant Aldous. During the trip to Beverly Hills he told me all about his current writing project, the novel Island. Dear Aldous! Swami always referred to him as "Such a good man" and regretted that the death of his first wife Maria had deprived him of a guiding hand. His Utopia in Island was an isolated spot in the Pacific where everyone is good and children are given sex training at an early age so as not to suffer psychological hang-ups later. Aldous was enthusiastic and seemingly believed it all.
Glenn Ford was there, and his wife Eleanor Powell. So were Igor Stravinsky and his secretary, Robert Craft, then a callow looking young man, who later was to rise to such fame as biographer of Stravinsky and authority on music.
I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor with Alec Guinness, recalling with him scenes from The Lavender Hill Mob in which he wore a laughably long scarf, and Kind Hearts and Coronets. There were ever so many other guests. One was a starlet, or would-be starlet, of exceptional beauty who questioned me very seriously indeed about Vedanta. I answered willingly enough, although much at the same time regretting that she should waste her charm and evening's possibilities on someone who could advance her career not at all. The memory I treasure most from that evening was the sight of Huxley and Stravinsky sitting side by side on a sofa conversing animatedly in French. "Now I've really seen the great world," I said to myself, hugely content.
I used to discuss with Chris the many incredible incidents which spiced our days at the Vedanta Society; he was amused by these recitals, having himself years before been present for similar happenings. One of these incidents concerned a devotee couple whom I shall call Lila and Joe Leland. They earned their livelihood as movie extras, bit players, film dialogue writers, and so on. They lived near the Temple. Both were alcoholic and were said when drinking to engage in vicious quarrels. They were exceptionally nice when sober and for some reason they both liked and even admired me. The door to my room opened directly onto the Temple garden. Every once in a while in the middle of the night I would be awakened by someone pounding on my door and there would stand Lila, terribly drunk. "Oh Johnny," she would cry (she never shifted to my brahmachari name), "save me. I'm drunk and I had a terrible row with Joe; I hate myself so. Why are we like this? Johnny, you're so good. You were worldly once but you reformed. How did you do it? Oh tell me, so I can do it too!" I would quiet her and send her home.
One afternoon the telephone rang and it was Lila. "Johnny, come quick; I've just killed Joe." I raced to the Leland apartment two or three blocks away. Lila met me at the door, crying wildly. "Oh Johnny, look." Sure enough, there was Joe lying on the floor in the middle of the room, his face covered with a cloth. A policeman stood nearby. I felt relieved to think, given the circumstances, that the incident would be put down to self-defense and Lila would be exonerated.
Lila pulled me to the bedroom and sat me down on the bed beside her. "Oh Johnny, how could I have done it? We were both drunk and he said something I didn't like and so I circled my arm around his neck like this and pulled." (Her demonstration was a bit more realistic than I cared for.)
"Lila, for heaven's sake, speak more softly; there's a policeman out there."
"You know I'm big, have a lot of strength, and I just pulled and suddenly, Oh Johnny, suddenly Joe fell down. And I knew he was dead."
"Sh-h-h-h," I kept cautioning.
"I'm no good, Johnny. I want to be good like you, Johnny, but I don't know how." Then she lay down and went to sleep, which gave me a chance to slip out, half-paralyzed with shock.
The end of the story is that Lila was hospitalized as a psychotic alcoholic and died a few weeks later.
This was Chris's response, when I related the frightful incident: "Oh Prema, how lucky you are! You are fortunate! No one has ever confessed to me that he's murdered somebody!"
Swami Prabhavananda had always hoped to inspire Chris to write the life of Sri Ramakrishna. Swami said that realizing this project was to be the culminating accomplishment of his life. There existed at that time in English only the official life, published in India, and the English translation of Romain Rolland's biography Prophets of the New India. Chris began at last around 1957 and finished the book in 1964. As usual he wrote neatly, systematically, turning out chapter after chapter, which he brought to the Green House living room on his weekly visits, to read to the devotees. He invited and accepted their criticisms graciously. The entire text was submitted chapter by chapter to the then General Secretary in India, Swami Madhavananda, who often made corrections of fact and even of language. The latter type of correction sometimes made Chris smart, but generally he accepted suggested changes humbly or occasionally worked out compromises.
The major source of facts concerning Ramakrishna is a huge Bengali book called "Sri Sri Ramakrishna Lila Prasagna" or Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master. Written by a direct disciple of Ramakrishna, Swami Saradananda, who was himself a realized soul, the book is a storehouse of fascinating detail about a divine incarnation. But, being a compilation of souvenirs and comments set down at different times, devoid of any all-over scheme, Sri Ramakrishna the Great Master contains much overlapping and backtracking. In addition, the English translation remains so reminiscent of the Bengali original in structure and language that whole passages, while made up of English words, produce hardly any meaning. Chris took the pains to make a précis of the whole book, so as to put the material in usable chronological order. During this period he frequently expostulated, when arriving for our Wednesday nights, "Swami Saradananda was no doubt a saint, but what a mess his book is!"
Ramakrishna and his Disciples was publishjed in 1965, in an American, an English, and an Indian edition. I had the pleasure, while in India, of researching and assembling the illustrations. The book was at first not a major success and even went out of print for some time except for the Indian edition. But by the mid-1980's it began to gain popularity. It is now available through the Vedanta Press in paperback, and in England has come out in a new edition by Shepheard-Walwyn. Once I asked Chris if he had discussed frankly with Swami Prabhavananda his own opinion of the book. Chris replied, "No, I haven't, for I feel it is not a great book. Certainly not the book I would have written if left alone. It is only a pious biography. I might get drunk in a bar and recount more vividly in a few sentences the greatness of Ramakrishna than I did in that whole volume."
Chris disliked India. He had stopped there hurriedly in 1957 to see Dakshineswar and Kamarpukur while he was preparing to start the Ramakrishna book, and found India "all a big muddle". But he went obediently as special guest for the closing of the Vivekananda Centenary celebration in late 1963 and early 1964 because his guru wanted that so much. Here is what he wrote me on October 22, 1963, as he prepared for the voyage. I was already in India preparing to take sannyas.
I guess you can imagine how I feel about coming to India; almost unmixed horror.
. . .However, Swami begged, and I couldn't or didn't refuse and now I must make the best of it. On top of all this, it has occurred to me quite often that maybe you are "getting into the mood" to take sannyas; and here comes this disturbing reminder of the beef-eating outside world, a visitor from the City of Night!
I later saw here the first intimation of what was to develop into Chris's last and perhaps best novel, A Meeting By the River.
. . .Well, anyhow, I believe that is how I might feel, were I in such an improbable situation. So if I find you rather shunning me, I shall perfectly understand, believe me! Or am I being stupid? In any case, I shall either be out of India by January 10, or too sick to be moved, or already dead! That much I promise. And, of course, speaking selfishly, from my point of view, you would be my only support during the horrors of the conference, or whatever they call it.
During sessions of the Parliament Chris gave several lively talks. One on Swami Vivekananda, another on his conception of and reverence for the guru. He was treated with the greatest respect, which meant, considering the circumstances, rendered adulation as a religious spokesman. All that the audiences knew about him was that he was a literary celebrity who was Prabhavananda's disciple and co-translator, and had come from America to speak on relgious topics at the Parliament. It is unlikely that many of his auditors were familiar with much of Chris's work at first hand, certainly not with what Chris termed his "secular works". To be treated as a religious leader was a situation intolerable to Chris's hatred of sham. What happened is recounted in the following entry from my journal:
Friday, January 3, 1964. Belur Math. Chris was given a round-the-world air ticket to come here and speak at the Parliament of Religions. Yesterday he appeared, returned ahead of time from an excursion to Maharaj's village, which he had abandoned with the excuse that he was not feeling good. Privately he told me what had happened. Being on display, written up by newspapers, giving lectures, being supposedly a religious celebrity, he grew nauseated with the role — actually blew off at Swami. Said he'd never be placed in such a false position again. "I feel like an absolute whore. It is as though my serious work must be considered to be done by a secret Mr. Hyde. I don't feel like that at all. Within my lights the novels I write are serious, expressing a kind of truth as I see it. Speaking on religion — which means being considered religious — puts me in a false position. I'll never do it again. I told Swami and he didn't understand one word. 'I don't want to lose you, Chris,' is what he said."
Chris left India the same day we completed our vows, feeling, I think, that the experience had been a fiasco. But a few months later things turned out otherwise. The idea for a new novel was born out of those few trying days at Belur Math. He told me that he felt this to be one of Sri Ramakrishna's little jokes, or perhaps his reward for having acceeded to his guru's demand despite his own disinclination.
A Meeting by the River concerns two brothers. The elder, Patrick, is a successful man of the world and a devoted hedonist; the younger, Oliver, a monastic novice and candidate for sannyas. The two meet after a long separation at a Hindu monastery on the Ganges just as Oliver is about to pronounce his vows. As they meet, each is prepared to reject the point of view of the other, attitudes made more intense by the remnants of old sibling rivalries. This is how Chris expressed the work's inception in a letter he wrote me on March 15, 1964, as he was about to begin work:
The "idea" for a (very short) novel based on the experience of my visit to India is very slight at present and hard to present to you in a manner which will even sound interesting. But, for many years I have been playing with the problem of a confrontation — two people who are like two halves of a larger person, and who represent diametrically opposite ways of life. So I said to myself, how about two brothers — they haven't seen each other in a long while — one is in the world, the other has been rather mysteriously absent in India for some years — and suddenly out of the blue this brother writes to the other in America and says, I am taking sannyas on such and such a date — it would be nice to see you — and the American brother anyhow has a business trip which will take him to Asia and he thinks well why not — and they meet — and they are very polite — but then the American brother bursts out how can you do this unnatural mad thing? And the other brother says, quite sweetly, well you see, I think your way of life is just as unnatural and mad. And they have a long talk and get absolutely nowhere and the brother goes back to America and the new Swami goes off someplace to take up his duties, and that is that
. . . .No, I know I am not making it sound exactly thrilling, but I do smell something . . . .
As we now know, the novel, as developed, did turn out to be thrilling, and in addition psychologically very interesting. The incipient Oliver whom Patrick discovers in himself, and the inquieting dose of Patrick which Oliver has to face in his own character, are dealt with by each brother's acceptance of the other, and in turn of himself as well. Each becomes reconciled with, each learns to deal with, inquieting factors of his own personality, these perceptions mysteriously fostered by the spiritual atmosphere of the monastery. The book is far subtler than a parable of bad versus good which it appears to be at first glance. Gore Vidal in a review written for "The New York Review of Books" classed A Meeting by the River as one of Chris's best.
In writing this book Chris produced a work which met not badly his criteria of the religious novel. As argued earlier in this chapter, to produce a true religious novel, the author must demonstrate the validity of spirituality through showing its redemptive effects on the non-religious — something technically difficult to accomplish. A Meeting by the River succeeds as a religious novel in that its two protagonists experience a broadening and deepening of their character, produced by their contact with the spiritual atmosphere of the monastery and the monastic personnel encountered there, the confrontation with each other, the mystery of sannyas, and something like a gratuitous movement of grace.
I supplied technical assistance useful to Chris's description of the sannyas ordination ceremony and read, and humbly offered appraisals of, various drafts of the developing novel. This was delightful work.
But now it would be wise to show the manuscript to Swami Prabhavananda. Much in it, while fictionalized, was based on people and events linked to the Ramakrishna Order and would be recognized as such. There was only one impediment: Swami might object to the realistic depiction of the homosexual affair between Patrick and a boy in Los Angeles named Tom, who is, it might be said, Patrick's emotional counterpart of Oliver's guru. Perhaps Swami would reject the book on the basis of this. Chris was prepared to abandon the whole project if he did. But the contrary occurred. This is how Chris reported the matter in a letter dated June 13, 1966, addressed to me in Gretz, where I had just taken up my new post:
Wonder of wonders, Swami liked the novel! He said, "When I finished the last chapter I found there were two tears running down my cheeks!" The funny and sweet thing was, he was just as relieved as I was, because he didn't have to condemn it in any way! He even said it should be sold in the [Hollywood Temple] bookshop, but I think he was just being carried away by the emotion of the moment! I shall shudder to think how terribly some of the Family are going to disapprove, but there isn't a thing they can do about it!
The letter continued as follows:
. . .there is the question of the dedication. The book "belongs" naturally to you, if you will accept it — but you may very well decide that this would be unsuitable, compromising, or otherwise imprudent. (I should dedicate it "To John Yale", of course.)
Eventually the book was dedicated to Gerald Heard, and I lost, perhaps forever, a chance to achieve literary immortality! This is how it happened. Since I had taken a new birth at Belur Math on January 7, 1964, and a new name, it seemed a form of backsliding to be mentioned on the dedication page in terms of my abandoned name. I told Chris that. He was enthusiastic about the idea of dedicating the book to Swami Vidyatmananda in that it would add an element of intrigue. However (letter of August 15, 1966):
When Swami P found that the novel was dedicated to you as Swami Vidyatmananda I could see that he was dubious about it — that's to say that he would have preferred me to dedicate it to John Yale. However, he didn't make any positive objection and so I just let it ride. Well, yesterday he called me from Laguna Beach and told me that he had told Pavitrananda, who is staying with him there [a senior disciple of Swami Brahmananda and member of the Board of Trustees of the Order, who was leader of the Vedanta Society of New York] about the dedication, and that Pavitrananda had reacted much more strongly — saying that he felt Belur Math wouldn't like it at all, to have a novel dedicated to a Swami by his monastic name!
I was disappointed, but there seemed no course other than to reject the honor Chris was ready to pay me.
But in a typical gesture of doing just the right thing, Chris eventually expressed his thanks and assuaged my disappointment by making Oliver's brahmachari name Prema in the dramatized version of A Meeting by the River. This play was staged successfully in Los Angeles and in some other cities, but ran only for a few performances following its opening on Broadway on March 28, 1979.
During the years following 1967, when A Meeting by the River was published, I had little direct contact with Chris. These were the years when my relations with Swami Prabhavananda were so poor, as described in Chapter Four. Although Chris saw our guru regularly and surely must have heard from him many accounts of my supposed apostacy, he remained as cordial as ever toward me (April 27, 1970):
I have said this once and I'll say it again — as far as I am concerned, our personal friendship, my deep affection for you and the memory of all we have been through together — can't possibly be affected by our respective relations to Vedanta Place.
As to what he was doing, Chris said that he was working on Volume II of his autobiography, which was to follow the recently published Kathleen and Frank. This volume was published in 1976 as Christopher and his Kind.
Now I come to an issue concerning Chris which I find very difficult to deal with: why in this second volume of his autobiography did Chris at seventy deem it necessary to emphasize so explicitly his longtime and continuing interest in homosexual sex? Is the composition of a book in which an erotic element dominates right livelihood for a devotee? This conundrum was puzzled over by many who loved Chris and appreciated all he has done for the cause of Vedanta. Is there a logical answer? That Chris was a devotee there can be no doubt. He was in many ways an ideal devotee. He outlines his growing interest in Vedanta in the booklet Approach to Vedanta: he even stated it a little belligerently in the Introduction to Ramakrishna and his Disciples. He opened his heart in his contribution to my book What Vedanta Means to Me when he said:
. . .I only know that, as far as I am concerned, the guru-disciple relationship is at the centre of everything that religion means to me. It is the one reality of which I am never in doubt, the one guarantee that I shall ultimately surmount my own weakness and find knowledge of eternal peace and joy. If, having known this relationship, I could in some terrible way be deprived of it again, then my life would become a nightmare of guilt, boredom and self-disgust.
In his Presidential Address at the Parliament of Religions in Calcutta Chris identified himself not as a Hindu or a Vedantist but as a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna; and made the point that one of the attributes that attracted him to Ramakrishna was Ramakrishna's capacity to fully accept an artist and bohemian such as Girish Chandra Ghosh — the implication of this statement being that if Ramakrishna could accept and reform Girish, then Chris himself had a chance.
Besides these declarations, Chris's actions proclaimed him to be a devotee. It is hard to imagine anyone more willing to do chores for his guru and his "church" than he.
He maintained his own particular form of householder life with fidelity. In his last letter to me dated, March 12, 1985, he said:
My life is much as usual. Don and I continue to live in a state of harmonious occupation — he paints and draws people; I write
. . . .Meanwhile we continue to live as devotees, making japam, etc.
Chris sometimes even assumed an almost devotional attitude toward me. He delighted in the "success" I had attained in being able to take sannyas. He often proclaimed that I, as a formerly worldly American who had become a Ramakrishna swami, would become an inspiring example to others. Such was Chris's generous heart. Here is how he expressed himself on October 22, 1963:
Well bless you, Prema dear — or rather, bless me. You will be one of the few Swamis I could take the dust of the feet of [which he actually did two months later and which he has Patrick do before Oliver in A Meeting by the River] and "mean" it, because you have really been through something which I can appreciate and measure the tremendousness of. It wasn't easy, I know!
It has been a problem to me how anybody could be as close a devotee as Chris was and at the same time concern himself so much in his work with sex. Once I voiced this puzzlement to Swami Prabhavananda. He stared at me as though I had uttered a blasphemy, then pronounced these words with incredible power: "Prema, remember this: always love Chris." (Swami often spoke of Chris's faith in his guru — Prabhavananda himself — as so utter that he himself envied faith of that magnitude.) On another occasion Swami said, "Chris is practically a saint, except for that one small weakness."
I suppose it can be claimed that the subject matter of Christopher and his Kind is of legitimate artistic interest. He traced the events of his life and times from 1929 to 1939. And in the book Chris said what he had to say on the topic of the homosexual preference, using his own life's experiences to describe predilections which are common to many human beings. In his novels and then in his autobiography, Chris laid bare the human psyche as related to the homosexual preference as few others have done and so, it may be said, gave a picture of God's incredible diversity. Isn't that a kind of worship? And it is certain that many homosexuals all over the world revere Chris as a kind of patron saint, and have been guided toward religious faith because of him.
I just don't know. I can only leave the question open. Who am I to try to evaluate anyone Shakti has favored as much as him?
Ramakrishna once said, "Maya doesn't follow rules or conform to man's order of logic. There's no lawfulness in maya." This is something literal people like me have a hard time learning. Truth reveals itself sometimes in very surprising fashions, even through contradictions. We may apply this to the case of the artist, one Shakti has singularly favored. It is illogical to apply everyday rules to non-everyday situations.
I learned from my guru: "You may be in for some surprises. Don't ever judge a human situation until you know the end of the story." Were we, I asked myself, just being set up to be knocked over by another of Ramakrishna's little jokes?
Yes, it seems that we were. For as I was mulling over these mysteries the third volume of Chris's autobiography came out: My Guru and his Disciple. Thus Shakti exhibited her capacity to confound and delight. My Guru and his Disciple is a book which is even more devotional than A Meeting by the River, a book which could be offered to our guru (if he were still alive) without anxiety and placed before devotees, Indian as well as Western, without hesitation — an Isherwood "secular work" which actually was put on sale in the Vedanta bookshop.
Who but Chris would have been capable of revealing to a large public the intimate life of a mystic, rendering spiritual attainment convincing and beautiful? Who else but he, among all those who knew Swami Prabhavananda, took the pains to record, year in and year out, those revelations he heard from his guru which would show us, after he had departed, what was going on inside a man of God? Comparable in its different field to Alfred Kinsey's reports of his investigations of the erotic impulse, Chris's memorial to Prabhavananda is a scientifically valid account of the religious impulse, the spiritual preference. And at the same time, so artistically done, in the tradition of great devotional literature. One critic called it the best book of devotion of this century.
Surely, Chris was somebody. He was a King, a "lead cow". And if the writing of this autobiography of mine has no value other than to show him as he was — Shakti's special creation, one of Shakti's most engaging vehicles for displaying herself to the world and to me — then I shall consider that writing these memoirs will have been worth the effort.
As Chris implied, and as the circumstances themselves suggested, A Meeting by the River was an artistic rendering of the actual events which occurred in India during the days of my sannyas ordination, Chris being loosely Patrick and me Oliver. But only now, five years after Chris has gone, it dawns on me that the two halves of the same person Chris had mentioned in his letter to me perhaps in his own way referred to Chris himself. While undoubtedly identifying with Patrick, didn't Chris in his own mind think of himself to be Oliver also — the other brother who takes sannyas (see my description of the ceremony in Chapter Eight) and devotes himself to spiritual life? A nostalgia for the life he had tried as a monastic probationer at Hollywood bubbled away, as it were, on a back burner. Despite his vigorous efforts to throw off Victorian attitudes about "right and wrong", Chris was, I often felt, not quite easy in the role of Christopher Isherwood. True to his practice of making all his characters facets of himself, he wrote himself into the script of A Meeting by the River not only as the worldly brother but also as the swami he might have become. He would have disclaimed this, of course — and now it is too late to find out.
Several of those who knew him well have spoken of the incredible change of character which occurred in Chris's last days; and Chris himself wrote in his journal a month or two before he died that he often woke up "in a state of inexplicable happiness." As Prabhavananda had said so often: "It works, my child; it really does work."
Chris surely stands a good chance of being looked back to in years to come as an Early Church Father of the new sangha, on the basis of certain of his literary contributions produced under the direction of or concerning Swami Prabhavananda. Yes, he and I used to speculate about this and laugh hilariously! Ah, what history doesn't know! But I would that Christopher Isherwood should be remembered also for the grandeur of his nature and the inspiring ardor of his devotion.