Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, contains the line, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking”. As is the case with the rest of the Berlin Stories by Isherwood, this tale is presented in first-person in the swirling events leading up to Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. The narrator, Isherwood himself and based in no small part upon his own experiences, creates a vibrant, living Berlin electric with the movement away from the collective shame of the post-World War I world and close to being united by Hitler. On the surface, this world is filled with possibilities both sexual and romantic. But these things are only appearances. What is really there is a world that has become sick and is decaying. Morally, ethically, and socially, Berlin and the rest of Germany has withered since the last war and has become sick. Isherwood’s narration and characters reflect this decline and, as individuals, are barely able to get themselves out of bed and take care of themselves but are able to engage in all forms of decadence while watching their way of life be slowly destroyed. This is the strength of “Goodbye to Berlin”, that it allows us to witness the decline of a culture and how complacency allowed it to happen. The narrator is a witness to this. Taken out of context, the line above could mean that Isherwood claims to be an absolutely unbiased observer – reporting only the truth of what a camera can show. But, that is truly impossible, no human can genuinely do that. Taken in context, however, we can clearly see that it is the passivity and lack of thought that really encapsulates the focus of his book and the author’s take on that period of time. The author/narrator views Berlin not through the passive lens of a camera, but the passive perception of a man simply floating through his life, unable to change its course or what befalls it.
As the second part of Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, Goodbye represents the “ways in which public and private concerns intersect,” (Summers, 1). He does so by examining the very political, economic, and social rise of Berliners during that time period leading up to Hitler’s rise to power. Indeed, Ishwerwood’s writing leads us to conclude, it was the absolute inability of the people to change course. Like a deeply intoxicated fog that can only be managed with more intoxication, Ishwerwood’s Berlin collapses – and the narrator is focused on nothing and everything all at the same time. He is, in short, overloaded with stimuli and thus reduced to a coma-like state. This disconnection is clearly marked by an absolute inability, or perhaps disinterest, in connecting with other people in a meaningful way (Ferres, 60). The narrator’s intent, particularly when we look at the rest of this primary quote from the book, “Some day all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed,” shows us that, from the very beginning, we are going to be viewing a memory yet to be solidified, a vision that is in flux and that is likely to disappear before it can be printed and fixed. Memory, then, is clearly a fog and can only show what it shows, but never what lies beneath. That, then, is the purpose of this book – to show us what actually lies beneath the pictures that we all want to have people believe about us.
The problem, again, is one of reality. Isherwood the author and the character asserts in the first chapter, and then again in various ways throughout all six parts of the book, that he is the passive observer. Yet, truly, he is not, nor can anyone of us be. That, then, becomes the great and grinding conflict of the book. As we hear his descriptions of the town, in short, simple sentences “The shops are shut…soon the whistling will begin…their signals echo down the deep hollow street, lascivious and private and sad,” (Isherwood, 2) we start to understand that, perhaps, what is actually the case is that Isherwood the narrator is really just trying to insulate himself from the guilt he feels about being part of the fall and collapse of German society, of his own life, and is seeking an excuse so numbing that it renders him entirely neutral. The problem, though, is that he simply isn’t neutral and he isn’t incapable of viewing with bias or through a filter. “All pretense at narrative impersonality has been abandoned. The camera gives way to confession,” (Thomas, 45). What we are left with then, is an understanding of an author who is trying to excuse himself, preemptively, from the horrors he is seeing. For Berlin, in the context of the novel, is the debauched center of a nation that has been neutered, has been left with little reason to live, and continued in the decade after the loss of World War I, as we witness the ordinary lives, the careless or even reckless behavior, and the absolute refusal to really become outraged at all in the face of the growing and constant Nazi brutality.
The first part of the book, “A Berlin Diary”, introduces the characters of the book, the next “Sally Bowles” , presents the epitome of the kind of shallow decadence that so characterizes Isherwood’s Berlin – Sally’s gold digging and her self-absorption is as fascinating to Isherwood as is his own opposing life (or so he thinks). But it is here, with Sally, that we come to understand that the only way for Isherwood to feel engaged with his world is to take this overly shallow approach – because that’s the kind of “effort” that is necessary for living. In “The Nowaks”, Isherwood’s primary interactions are with the bisexual hustler that Isherwood became engaged with in “Sally Bowles”. Again, in this story, Isherwood engages in the kind of simplistic views of the world that a camera can take – physical stereotypes, emotional stereotypes (particularly of eastern European Jews – al la Bernhard) but with a course understanding that, unlike the camera, the film has at least three dimensions – we’re just not allowed to see or talk about them (Summers, 188). Such is the way through the rest of the book. We see him encountering caricatures, snaps of people and places that are seemingly at random, but clearly are all tied together in this underlying current of absolute horror over what is transpiring in Germany.
We have to understand that as the “camera”, Isherwood sets us up to see this story through, is human after all – and is singularly incapable of being truly objective. A real camera is passive and impartial because it is not human. But even then, it is most often wielded with intention – scenes are set, objects manipulated, people posed, and lighting arranged. This book, then, really is a picture – that finally realized event that had to be “printed”, and the author is, indeed, that multi-dimensional camera capable of seeing more than what we are led to expect. The strength of Goodbye to Berlin lies in this juxtaposition of simple imagery and deeply disturbed emotion, which one cannot help but understand represents the absolute nature of Isherwood’s experience.
Isherwood, Christopher. Goodbye to Berlin.
Summers, Claude. “The Berlin Stories: Overview”. Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd Ed D.L. Kirkpatrick, editor. New York: Saint James Press, 1991. 188-190.
Thomas, David P. “Goodbye to Berlin: Refocusing Isherwood’s Camera”. Contemporary Literature. 1972, 13:1, p44-52.
Ferres, Kay. “Many a Civil Monster: Politics and the Narrator in the Berlin Fiction”. Christopher Isherwood: A World in Evening. San Bernardino, CA: The Borgo Press, 1994. p43-65.