When it comes to studying who perfected the art of expressing repressed homosexuality in a protagonist, one need look no further than Christopher Isherwood. As something of a universal spokesman for gay boys with no voice of their own everywhere, even Isherwood’s first novel, All the Conspirators, addressed the most common adversary of the homosexual male: his mother. Divided into three segments, Isherwood’s 1954 novel, The World in the Evening, is possibly the greatest example of the author’s ability to portray the stifling of one’s sexuality (though many will argue it’s A Single Man). Told from the perspective of Stephen Monk, a member of the U.S.’ version of the jeunesse dorée, the tale opens at the end of Stephen’s second marriage to an actress named Jane, who perhaps pursues him more vehemently than he does her–one of the many telling signs of Stephen’s preference for men. In all his aimlessness post the death of his first wife, a writer named Elizabeth Rydell, it seems marriage is all he’s cut out for, which is why he agrees to marry Jane and go along with her already established life in Los Angeles for lack of any ideas of his own. As he says, “…I had tried, over and over again, to make a start in California, but I was never in the mood to do it. I was paralyzed by the laziness of my misery.”
Jane, in contrast, cannot remain paralyzed forever, ultimately turning to the attention of another man to shake Stephen off of her. Opting to retreat to the only roots he has in Quaker Pennsylvania, an unexpected car accident literally paralyzes Stephen for a brief period so that he is forced to truly ruminate and reflect on the trajectory of his life–all laid out in front of him via letters from Elizabeth that he revisits in his state of physical recuperation. As he reflects on his travels with her, particularly an encounter with a younger fellow traveler named Michael Drummond, Stephen slowly begins to realize that his sexual confusion is not something to be ignored or ashamed of. The very fact that he for so long chose to stay with a much older woman than himself was also an indication of his lack of interest in or obsession with sex–at least with females.
Arguably the gayest thing about The World in the Evening, however, isn’t Stephen himself so much as Isherwood’s establishment of what the true definition of camp is. In modern terms, of course, it’s been taken to connote the likes of RuPaul’s Drag Race. But in its purest form, camp is meant to infer the highest forms of art–from classical music to ballet (maybe that’s why so many “straight” white men seem sexless). In conversation with his openly gay doctor and friend, Charles, Stephen gets the rundown of the true meaning of camp. He asks Stephen, “In any of your voyages au bout de la nuit, did you ever run across the word ‘camp’?” Stephen returns, “I’ve heard people use it in bars, but I thought…” Charles, presumably rolling his eyes, cuts him off with, “You thought it meant a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa, pretending to be Marlene Dietrich? Yes, in queer circles, they call that camping. It’s all very well in its place, but it’s an utterly debased form… What I mean by camp is something much more fundamental. You can call the other Low Camp, if you like; then what I’m talking about is High Camp. High Camp is the whole emotional basis of the ballet, for example, and of course of baroque art. You see, true High Camp always has an underlying seriousness. You can’t camp about something you don’t take seriously. You’re not making fun of it; you’re making fun out of it. You’re expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. Baroque art is largely camp about religion. The ballet is camp about love… Do you see at all what I’m getting at?” Stephen, ever content to play into the role of novice gay man, admits, “I’m not sure. Give me some instances. What about Mozart?” Charles confirms, “Mozart’s definitely a camp. Beethoven, on the other hand, isn’t.” Stephen questions, “Is Flaubert?” Charles refutes, “God, no!” “But El Greco is?” “Certainly.” This extremely detailed explanation provides the crux of what camp means to the gay community, and how transforming tragedy into art of an at least semi-comedic and over-the-top nature is key to survival.
Charles doesn’t necessarily feel attached to his own gay brethren with regard to how uppity they all seem to enjoy being. Speaking of his boyfriend, Bob, and having to hide his relationship, Charles remarks, “I’m sick of belonging to these whining militant minorities. Everybody hates them, and pretends not to. And they hate themselves like poison.” Ah yes, the self-hating gay might be even more pervasive than the self-hating Jew.
Trying to make Charles feel better about the situation and avoid addressing that he himself is a part of said aforementioned “militant minority” (the gays), Stephen deflects by expressing the contempt he so often receives from others. “‘Well, for that matter,’ I said, trying to get Charles out of this mood, ‘I belong to a minority, myself. One of the most unpopular.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘I’m rich.’ Charles gave a sort of scornful grunt. ‘You think that’s nothing?’ I said. ‘Till you’ve had a lot of money, you just don’t know what guilt is.'” And till you’ve had the compounding guilt of being gay at heart while catering to a marriage with a straight older woman, you also just don’t know what guilt is.
Though one of the only people in his life that he truly feels he can be frank and candid with is his Aunt Sarah, the sense of relief Stephen feels when she dies is best encapsulated by the sentiment, “I felt limp and passive and pleasantly relaxed. I had used up all the love in me, for the moment, and was capable only of a cold-hearted, furtive relief. Sarah was gone. All right–that was settled. I would miss her, certainly. But her going had made my life much simpler.” In many regards, this feeling of ease Stephen experiences is a result of not having to continue to keep the secret of his homosexuality (bisexuality, if you want to use a more specific and less decisive moniker) from her.
And while Elizabeth is his closest confidante and best friend (which is what all the greatest marriages ought to be predicated on), her attachment to Alexander Strines, a fellow orbiter of the literati doesn’t make Stephen jealous, in large part, because his true amorousness can never be attached to a woman. Still, Elizabeth articulates her guilt over abandoning him for other people by bewailing, “Why do I bother with all these people, Stephen? Am I so empty and insecure that I need this fuss and noise around me?” Stephen assures, “I quite understand, really. People like–well just for example, Strines–they talk your language. I can’t.” This, of course applies on more than just an intellectual level, but also that unspoken layer through which Stephen can’t penetrate: the one where he truly enjoys straight sex.
His constant compunction over his class status is what he uses as the mask for what’s genuinely shaming him: hiding the emotions he feels for someone like Michael. This is most succinctly summed up in his rehashing of self-loathing while in attendance at various parties. “They weren’t even bored; though their voices had the fashionable, graceful modulations of boredom. No–this was merely their way of relaxing and resting from the serious business of being themselves. Perhaps what actually separated and cut me off from these men and women was just that I had nothing to rest from: no vocation, no responsibility, no job. Being reminded of this made me feel guilty and inferior; and I think that was the chief reason why I hated those parties so much. I would have preferred to be left alone in my corner, but I wasn’t.” And this desire to be “left alone” in public settings with Elizabeth undeniably branches from his own constant insecurity about being “found out” as a phony in more ways than just not having an aspiration in life.
Elizabeth, too, becomes a victim of Stephen’s repression, the lie she must conspiratorially engage in at one point affecting her work as she rues, “At a period like this, it’s hard to believe that art has any value, at all. My pen wavers in the middle of a sentence and I think: Oh, what’s the use? What’s the use of this game with words and shades of meaning and feeling?” Because, it’s true, words are useless when actions always speak so much more glaringly–especially when it comes to intuiting another’s sexuality.