Matthew Helm

Oh, hilloo, darling!’: Telephonic Representation in Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin

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Full transcripts appearing online for the duration of Telepoetics (27 May – 5 June 2020) have been reduced to excerpts of approx. 750 words.]

[00:00:05] My name is Matt Helm and I am a PhD candidate in English at the University of Iowa. My presentation is titled “‘Oh Hello Darling’: Telephonic Representation in Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin.” Criticism of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939) often takes on an implicit techno-media studies approach, given the narrator’s famous opening metaphor, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive recording, not thinking. Someday all this will have to be developed carefully printed, fixed.” The novel consists of six loosely connected vignettes, each containing snapshots of characters across the social strata who represent facets of a Weimar Berlin in Decay, the divinely decadent cabaret performer and call girl Sally Bowles, affluent Jewish department store owner Bernhard Landauer, and a dysfunctional gay couple, Peter Wilkinson and Otto Nowak. The relative efficacy and political merit of the novel’s documentary realism is the subject of debate in critical circles because of an issue with the narrator’s self-fashioning as a “passive camera,” purportedly dedicated to capturing an objective slice of life. As Susan Sontag explains in On Photography, “The act of photographing is more than passive observing […] like sexual voyeurism. It is a way of at least tacitly, often explicitly, encouraging whatever is going on to keep happening, including another person’s pain or misfortune.” No doubt, critics are correct to point out the objectification inherent to the primacy of the visual within the photographic medium. But this does not mean that the narrator’s camera-like qualities should only suggest aimlessness, impartiality, political apathy, or, per Sontag’s formulation, exploitative voyeurism on behalf of Isherwood. I situate Goodbye to Berlin within the context of the proliferating media ecology of the 1930s. More specifically, I place the novel’s photographic representations in conversation with its telephonic representations. In doing so, I argue that a more comprehensive understanding of the novel’s intermediary relationships is also an opportunity to re-evaluate Christopher Isherwood as a politically engaged writer, resisting readings that would color Goodbye to Berlin as an apolitical or closeted text. The critical conversation surrounding the novel is so wrapped up in refocusing Isherwood’s camera that it fails to account for the scene of oral communication that immediately follows the camera metaphor: “And soon the whistling will begin. Young men calling their girls.” Photographic language gives way to telephonic language in an erotics of connection. The young men call on their girls and their “signals echo down the deep and hollow street, lascivious and private and sad,” constructing a network of private sociability that Isherwood then plugs into from his apartment window. Far from a passive listener, Isherwood feels compelled to heed their erotic calls, “so piercing, so insistent, so despairingly human that at last I have to get up and peep through the slats of the Venetian blind.” This moment is indicative of a media-technological vein that is underexplored in Isherwood scholarship, telephonics, its relationship to erotic connectivity, as well as the narrator’s impulse to respond to the sonically expressed suffering of others. This initial scene of signaling resonates with the form and content of the vignettes that compose the rest of the novel. At the level of plot device, the short stories in Goodbye to Berlin are predicated on back and forth telephone calls that both network the characters and move the plot forward. And on the level of symbol, telephony thematizes the novel’s political investments by foregrounding the queer sexual possibilities of the medium and by archiving the telecommunications of those whose existence is threatened by the rise of Nazism. In Literature and the First Media Age: Britain Between the Wars, David Trotter argues that the 1930s marked a “widespread awareness of the multiple coexistence of mass media,” an awareness that invariably worked its way into the literary mimesis of the era. Trotter is less interested in the competitive relationship between old and new media and is instead attentive to the tensions between representational media, which attract the -graphy suffix and “involve the storage and deferred release of information” and connective tele- media that emphasize “instantaneous real time and preferably interactive one to one communication at a distance.” Literature provides a space for “reflection upon reflection,” or a means to ponder the “distinction between representational and connective media,” to articulate the ways in which connective media participate in representation and representational media participate in connection. What is at stake when an author represents telephonic ephemera in writing?