In an hour or so from the moment I sit here writing these words, the new California gay marriage law will take effect, and I imagine that thousands of couples will be clamoring to exercise that right at secular offices and religious institutions throughout the state. I say, hooray for those who seek to bless their relationship with this name, some of whom have been kept waiting for too many years for the rest of society to catch up with them. And a tentative hooray for California, depending on the result of that absurd petition--is it already on the November ballot--seeking to "define marriage" as solely "between a man and a woman"? What are these people so afraid of? Is marriage, in their eyes, so vulnerable an institution that it needs their intolerance to "defend" it?
These thoughts were inspired in part by an email, received Monday, with a link to the New York Times review of a new movie, "Chris and Don: A Love Story," about the British-born writer Christopher Isherwood and his life-long companion, the artist Don Bachardy. It was sent to me with a friendly reminder of Bachardy's gratitude for a catalogue essay I wrote for an exhibition of his "Portraits of Christopher"
at California State University, Fullerton, a number of years ago--an essay that started out with the words, "I learned to write from Christopher Isherwood." I was much moved by the pictures in the exhibition, in particular by the extraordinary depth of love they manifested between one man and another. Here's a part of what I wrote:
The portraits of Isherwood are exceptional [...] in that the relationship is exceptionally close. From them, we can only guess at his youth, since they cover only the latter half of his life. But we see his maturity, the decline of his body, his battle with illness and, finally, with death. Bachardy records it all for us with that camera-curious eye, sparing us nothing. What could be more honest, more touchingly vulnerable, than that 1985 picture of Christopher as a naked old man, reclining back away from us, his body exposed, with nothing left to hide? Or that haunting, unforgettable series of pictures of Christopher after his death, no more now than a useless, empty body, still strangely beautiful but ineffably sad, the abandoned remnant of a human life. In Bachardy's final tribute, we sense our own futile desire to cling despairingly to our beloved, and our own lives.
The "camera-curious eye" is of course a reference to that famous phrase from Isherwood's "Berlin Stories," recast first as a drama in "I Am a Camera," and later as the movie "Cabaret." It was in Isherwood's early work that I went to school on the serious, sometimes difficult art of exploring the world from that intimate point of view of the "I." He was the master--understated, precise, a little diffident, insistently clear and honest. His prose was the epitome of authenticity and almost transparent clarity. Like myself--though a great deal earlier, and with more scholarly application than I--he turned from an Anglican upbringing to a lasting interest in, and devotion to Buddhist teaching and practice. I was fortunate enough to meet him on a number of occasions much later in life, and treasure those memories with affection and respect. (I had cause to remember him, also, as the subject of one of the great early double portraits by David Hockney, when I was writing the Abbeville Modern Masters book about the work of that fellow Brit-in-exile.)
I re-read my essay on the Bachardy show this afternoon, and felt that it was good enough to share with those readers of The Buddha Diaries who might be interested. It's called, obviously enough, Don Bachardy: Pictures of Christopher, and I think it's worth a read, if only to get a sense of the depth of the relationship between these two men. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to see the movie.
As a footnote, Bachardy invited me once to pose for a portrait. It was an extraordinary and somewhat unnerving experience, to have that unblinking camera-curious eye trained on me for two hours at a time as he worked in silence at his easel. I was so interested in the experience that I actually asked the artist if I could return and pose naked for him, in another session. He happily agreed, and I must say that I learned a great deal about myself, about the difficulty of stillness and silence, and my feelings about my body under his scrutiny. I was immensely grateful for the gift. I will, however, refrain from sharing the results with you!
In the meantime, I'd be happy if you'd join me in celebrating the remarkable moment of 5:01 PM on Monday, June 16, in California--and voting, if and when it comes to that, AGAINST any attempt to reverse this long-overdue and simply humane law.