If our internal dialogues were revealed, what would the world learn? None of us could bear that kind of scrutiny. We are each far more wonderful and far more horrible than anyone could imagine. Thankfully, in A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood supplies us with the internal dialogues of a fictional character. George may not be an actual person, but Isherwood writes him with such brutal honesty that his struggles, fantasies and vicissitudes read as painful and as poignant as our own, perhaps even more so because they have been crystallized on paper.
“Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face-the face of the child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man-all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead. Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us-we have died-what is there to be afraid of?
It answers them: But that happened so gradually, so easily. I’m afraid of being rushed.”
I have to admit that I didn’t take to George, or to this novel, right away. He haunted me for a solid week after I finished the book, winning me over gradually. A fifty-eight year old gay British expatriate and college professor in the 1960s, George is fussy, irritable, repressed and sometimes downright unpleasant. His dislike for many of those around him, especially the neighborhood children, startled me until I acknowledged that I have similar judgemental thoughts, especially at my more vulnerable moments. Cynicism, a valid reaction to disappointment, feels a lot more attractive than it looks. He fantasizes that he is Uncle George, head of a terrorist network that takes down people who ought to be killed. He has inappropriate sexual thoughts about people around him. These things are embarrassing, uncomfortable and part of being a human being. They lie intertwined with better moments: George’s assertion that Jim was not a substitute for anything and that there is no substitute for Jim, his loyalty to his friends, his desire to see the common man educated and liberated, his forward looking racial sensitivity and hope for a better world, his concern for his students, his desire to live. It is scary to do what Isherwood has done, to remove the filters and barriers we rely on in daily life: propriety, compassion, shame, silence, to name just a few, and gaze inside the human being. Sometimes our filters get in the way of living an authentic life; sometimes they make authentic life possible.
“Think of two people, living together day after day, year after year, in this small space, standing elbow to elbow cooking at the same small stove, squeezing past each other on the narrow stairs, shaving in front of the same small bathroom mirror, constantly jogging, jostling, bumping against each other’s bodies by mistake or on purpose, sensually, aggressively, awkwardly, impatiently, in rage or in love – think what deep though invisible tracks they must leave, everywhere, behind them!”
As you read his thoughts, you come to understand that George has lived a life that doesn’t come close to portraying an accurate picture of who he is, a life that has kept him from recognizing the commonalities he shares with the people around him. He’s much sillier and much more tragic. He’s not alone, either. As you think about George, you may come to realize that much about your life doesn’t reflect who you are, even if you do strive for authenticity. Every person that you think you know, even yourself, is, to a large degree, fictional. It reminds me of a line from the film Miller’s Crossing, “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well.” We are all mysteries. And yet are we not more similar, and more connected than we think?