A Single Man’s Brain

by Jason Tougaw

Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man (1964) is a story of a grieving organism. George, its protagonist, is a professor bereft after the death of partner Jim. His grieving is solitary. The homophobia of his world curtails communal mourning rituals. In response, he narrates himself in ecological terms, as an organism, his brain and body commingling with an environment fundamentally changed by the loss of his most intimate companion. George lives on the margins of social life, but he’s intimate with biological life.

Isherwood (right), with his friends Wystan Auden and Stephen Spender. He was a social creature, not a solitary one like George.

In that sense, A Single Man is a precursor to 21st-century neuronovels like Richard Powers’s The Echo Maker, Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, or Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. Isherwood opens the novel with George waking uneasily into consciousness, his brain almost bullying him into reluctant action:

Waking up begins with saying am and now. That which has awoken lies for a while staring up at the ceiling and down into itself until it has recognized I, and therefrom deducted I am, I am now. Here comes next, and is at least negatively reassuring; because here, this morning, is where it has expected to find itself: what’s called at home.

But now isn’t simply now. Now is also a cold reminder: one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until—later or sooner—no, not perhaps—quite certainly: it will come.

Fear tweaks the vagus nerve. A sickish shrinking from what waits, somewhere out there, dead ahead.

But meanwhile the cortex, the grim disciplinarian, has taken place at the central controls and has been testing them, one after another: the legs stretch, the lower back is arched, the fingers clench and relax. And now, over the entire intercommunication system, is issued the first general order of the day: UP.

The subjectless am and now of the first sentence indicate a fringe state on the cusp of awareness, evolving fairly quickly into a feeling of identity in time (similar to the key scene from Powers’s The Echo Maker, when Mark Schluter wakes from coma). The narrator is reluctant to resume a life, or an identity, whose meaning is so strongly defined by Jim’s death. Like so many more recent neuronovels, Isherwood portrays George’s brain with agency: His fear of living “tweaks the vagus” nerve. His cortex is a “grim disciplinarian” that manipulates his body and issues commands. His body is an “intercommunication system.”

George wrestles with his brain throughout the novel. He worries that his students see him as “a severed head carried into the classroom to lecture to them from a dish.” He laments that they “don’t want to know about my feelings or my glands or anything below the neck.” As he tries to sleep, “the brain inside the skull on the pillow cognizes darkly”—enabling him to consider “decisions not quite made,” decisions “waking George” can’t face. When he sleeps, “All over this quietly pulsating vehicle the skeleton crew make their tiny adjustments. As for what goes on topside, they know nothing of this but danger signals, false alarms mostly: red lights flashed from the panicky brain stem, curtly contradicted by green all clears from the level-headed cortex. But now the controls are on automatic. The cortex is drowsing; the brain stem registers only an occasional nightmare.”

The novel ends with his quiet death, from a stroke: “Cortex and brain stem are murdered in the blackout with the speed of an Indian strangler. Throttled out of its oxygen, the heart clenches and stops. The lungs go dead, their power line cut. All over the body, the arterials contract.” Isherwood narrates George as an organism, using the language of physiology for a double effect, creating both clinical distance and bodily intimacy. George’s thoughts and feelings aren’t enough. We need to get inside his body to understand his grief.

In his essay “Doubtful Arms and Phantom Limbs: Literary Portrayals of Embodied Grief” (2004), James Krasner draws on neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran’s research on phantom limbs and philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theories of embodied identity to make an argument about grief in literary works by Woolf, Tennyson, and Shakespeare, David Wills, and Mark Doty. One of his central observations, that “grieving people also find themselves in an unaccommodating physical environment, in which the absence of the beloved’s body changes their habitual motions through space,” could come straight from a review of Isherwood’s novel (published forty years before Krasner’s essay).

Krasner argues that literary portraits of grief suggest that people who share each other’s lives—spouses, partners, parents, siblings, caretakers—become part of each other’s bodily identities, what Merleau-Ponty calls “body-schema.” He enlists Ramachandran’s research to argue that “phantom limb pain occurs when the limb feels abnormally present although it is abnormally absent. . . . Literary portrayals of grief that emphasize embodiment present the bereaved with compromised bodies, stumbling or contorting as they fail to adjust to the physical postures and environments their losses have left to them.”

Again, Isherwood’s novel seems to anticipate Krasner’s argument. His description of George and Jim’s relationship is thick with descriptions of the two men’s bodies inhabiting each other’s identities:

Think of two people, living together day after day, year after year, in this small place, 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! The doorway into the kitchen has been built too narrow. Two people in a hurry, with plates of food in their hands, are apt to keep colliding here. And it is here, nearly every morning, that George, having reached the bottom of the stairs, has this sensation of suddenly finding himself on an abrupt, brutally broken off, jagged edge—as though the track had disappeared down a landside. It is here that he stops short and knows, with a sick newness, almost as though it were for the first time: Jim is dead. Is dead.

He stands quite still, silent, or at most uttering a brief animal grunt, as he waits for the spasm to pass. Then he walks into the kitchen. These morning spasms are too painful to be treated sentimentally. After them, he feels relief, merely. It is like getting over a bad attack of cramp.

Isherwood directs readers, quite explicitly—“Think of two people”—to imagine the physicality of daily intimacy, but also that physicality’s capacity to crawl through the explanatory gap between the biology of cells and the experiences of sensation, emotion, feeling, and thought. Jostling and colliding become conduits of identity. Isherwood’s narrator adopts something like what sociologist Victoria Pitts-Taylor calls an “intercorporeal perspective.” George’s problem is not simply his loss, but also his internalization of homophobia, which prevents him from sharing the pain of his physical and emotional loss with others.

Technically—socially—George is single. George is single because he can’t marry, can’t be widowed. But his life with Jim, the marriage of their identities, trumps social strictures. In a chapter of The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics (2016), Pitts-Taylor examines biological research on kinship through the lens of queer theory. Much of the kinship research focuses on hormones as mechanisms of attachment, but Pitts-Taylor argues that the evidence in this research warrants reconsideration: Prairie voles are not as monogamous as the research once suggested; hormones may be involved in human attachments, but they don’t create or define them.

Instead, she concludes, like Isherwood, that “Being biologically related does not have to mean genetically related; it can mean having a biological investment in another, in the form of an intercorporeal tie to another, that is the product of interaction, intimacy, or companionship. The transformation of bodies as they live with and toward others is a kind of relatedness that ought to be recognized. For humans, at least, such relatedness is also discursive, historical, and political.” Throughout the book, Pitts-Taylor re-examines neuroscience research and theory, teasing out its cultural and political implications, looking for what she calls “chances for life that are at stake in our attempts to frame and understand” human bodies in neurobiological terms. When it comes to kinship, strictly reductionist theories suggest limited possibilities for life when they assume heterosexual drives define what counts as kinship. They restrict “chances for life” for a character like George.

Isherwood’s novel ends with George’s death, but it’s not a gloomy tale about a man dying of grief. George finds chances for life while he grieves—and Isherwood is careful not to portray this as a contradiction, but as a nuance, or in Pitts-Taylor’s terms, a “queerer possibility” for what it means to be a human organism. During one scene, George drives around Los Angeles, observing Christmas shoppers “crowd the stores and sidewalks,” noting how these same crowds “were cramming the markets, buying the shelves bare of beans” during the Cuban missile crisis. George sees himself both apart from and a part of these people he calls “The Majority.” As Isherwood writes, “George is very far, right now, from sneering at any of these fellow creatures.” Instead, he responds to their creaturely behavior with philosophical ebullience: “I am alive, he says to himself, I am alive! And life-energy surges hotly through him, and delight, and appetite. How good to be in a body—even this old beat-up carcass—that still has warm blood and live semen and rich marrow and wholesome flesh!”

Later, he revels bodysurfing at night with Kenny, one of his students. Just before the final scene in which he goes to sleep, not realizing he’ll die before he wakes, he masturbates, “thinking of Kenny: The blood throbs deep down in George’s groin. The flesh stirs and swells up, suddenly hard hot. The pajamas are pulled off, tossed out of bed.” As a character, George struggles with homophobia and grief, but his narrator, with his “intercorporeal perspective,” represents his body’s ability both to merge with and defy the social structures that curtail his chances for life.

If the merging of bodies is central to Isherwood’s novel, it’s not limited strictly to human bodies, or even biological ones. The novel’s most famous scene features George contemplating tide pools at the beach on the night he will die:

Just as George and the others are thought of, for convenience, as individual entities, so you may think of a rock pool as an entity; though, of course, it is not. The waters of its consciousness—so to speak—are swarming with hunted anxieties, grim-jawed greeds, dartingly vivid intuitions, old crusty-shelled obstinacies, deep-down sparkling undiscovered secrets, ominous protean organisms motioning mysteriously, perhaps warningly, toward the surface light. How can such a variety of creatures co-exist at all? Because they have to. The rocks of the pool hold their world together. And throughout the day the ebb tide, they know no other.

The tide pools are an explicit metaphor for consciousness. George’s body—with its “skeleton crew”—is akin to the rocks, holding his identity together. The pools, sloshing over with life forms, are akin to physical, phenomenological, and social components of his identity. They splash into others; the sea splashes into them; the tide goes out, and they evaporate. If A Single Man is a proto-neuronovel, it’s one that suggests that one man’s physical body, like the pools, is alive with “queerer possibilities” than his world recognizes. By implication, the same must be true for The Majority. Isherwood’s sly move, in 1964, was to cast George as an allegorical figure, a representative of the variety of humans, queer creatures like him, intercorporeal and sparkling with undiscovered secrets.

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