Tag Archives: Christopher Isherwood

TRISHA LOW — SOCIALIST REALISM

Should I go home?

“There is no home here,” wrote the novelist and transplant Christopher Isherwood of his adopted Golden State.* Its horizon split open by the sun, its ground lurching with rolling yellow dunes. California is a strange harmony of desolation and hope, a paradox of signifying garbage and pristine landscape. The streets of Berkeley are lined with hippy-spiritual hookah stores, and across the bay, in San Francisco, are swarms of tech-boom man buns and telecommuting laptops. The soil upon which all this is built: quietly soaked in indigenous genocide, a bloodstained project that continues into the present, gently mutating into gentrification and the forced displacement of black and brown people from their homes.

And yet, because we’re in California, everything remains edged with bursting flora by the wayside and its eternal succulence. From the student protests of the sixties and seventies to antifascism today, the Golden State spans decades of generational hope, even if you can’t tell which way it’s marked. Fading community murals, graffiti deriding cis-hetero-patriarchal capitalism, everything spun into oblivion by the yearlong sunshine—it’s a jumble of radical promise, both emerging and obsolete. “California Dreamin’.”

It’s May Day. We’re hungry. We’re marching because we want just-not-this, or literally-anything-else. José Esteban Muñoz was my teacher, and he liked those extremes. He taught me that it was ok to be a punk and still believe in believing. He taught me that it was ok for my nihilism to be utopic, for my politics to also be a sensibility. “Queerness is not yet here,” he cautioned us at the beginning of Cruising Utopia. “The here and now is a prison house. We must strive, in the face of the here and now’s totalizing rendering of reality, to think and feel a then and there. Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds.” —Trisha Low, Socialist Realism

Winner of The Believer’s 2019 Book Award for non-fiction, Low’s SOCIALIST REALISM is available from Coffee House Press.

*Christopher Isherwood, from Exhumations, 1966:

An afternoon drive from Los Angeles will take you up into the high mountains, where eagles circle above the forests and the cold blue lakes, or out over the Mojave Desert, with its weird vegetation and immense vistas. Not very far away are Death Valley, and Yosemite, and Sequoia Forest with its giant trees which were growing long before the Parthenon was built; they are the oldest living things in the world. One should visit such places often, and be conscious, in the midst of the city, of their surrounding presence. For this is the real nature of California and the secret of its fascination; this untamed, undomesticated, aloof, prehistoric landscape which relentlessly reminds the traveller of his human condition and the circumstances of his tenure upon the earth. “You are perfectly welcome,” it tells him, “during your short visit. Everything is at your disposal. Only, I must warn you, if things go wrong, don’t blame me. I accept no responsibility. I am not part of your neurosis. Don’t cry to me for safety. There is no home here. There is no security in your mansions or your fortresses, your family vaults or your banks or your double beds. Understand this fact, and you will be free. Accept it, and you will be happy. 

Trisha Low, Socialist Realism (2019), photograph and book cover image courtesy and © the author and Coffee House Press.

José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, 10th anniversary edition, image courtesy and © the author’s estate and New York University Press.

THE WORLDS OF STEPHEN SPENDER

The poet, journalist, novelist, and editor Stephen Spender is the subject of an exhibition at Frieze London, presented by Hauser & Wirth and Moretti Fine Art.

The project explores Spender’s progressive ideas and artistic friendships, and features work by artists he personally knew and/or collected, including Michael Andrews, Frank Auerbach, David HockneyLucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, Henry Moore, Giorgio Morandi, Pablo PicassoSerge Poliakoff, and Yannis Tsarouchis.

A beautiful exhibition catalogue—edited by Ben Eastham and formatted in the style of Horizon, the journal Spender, Cyril Connolly, and Peter Watson founded in 1939—includes artwork reproductions, poems by Spender, and essays on his deep affinities with art, literature, and political activism in the 1930s. “On Censorship” by Caroline Moorehead addresses Spender’s connection with its subject through the journal he co-founded, Index on Censorship.

(In the early 1990s, Spender himself prevailed on the court system to prevent the publication of While England Sleeps, David Leavitt’s novel that appropriated stories from Spender’s autobiography World within World and added scenes of gay erotica, which he dismissed as “pornography.” Spender married twice—Natasha Spender was his widow and he was the father of Matthew and Elizabeth—but, as disclosed in his New Selected Journals and letters to Christopher Isherwood and others, Spender’s emotional and sexual life was marked by numerous same-sex relationships.)

THE WORLDS OF STEPHEN SPENDER

Thursday, October 4 through Sunday, October 7.

Frieze London—Hauser & Wirth, Booth D01, Regents Park, London.

The Worlds of Stephen Spender catalogue.

From top: Henry Moore, Portrait of Stephen Spender, 1934. © Henry Moore Foundation. Image credit: Hauser & Wirth.

Exhibition catalogue image credit: Hauser & Wirth. Book design by Fraser Muggeridge studio.

A 1929 photograph of Spender’s German friend Franz Büchner on the cover of the novel The Temple, written in the late 1920s and finally published in 1988. Image credit: Faber and Faber.

Below: W.H. Auden (left), Stephen Spender, and Christopher Isherwood in 1931.