You are a camera

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Christopher Isherwood’s most-quoted line must surely be this one:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

He’s speaking as the narrator of Goodbye to Berlin, a novel published in 1930. But the line is actually part of a paragraph, and the second line enriches the first:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair.

So evocative, so haunting, the notion of the narrator—the writer—simply watching as all unfolds before him. Yet what an odd idea for a writer to assert. We understand the point he’s making, but it’s a set-up: the narrator is not as passive as Isherwood would like us to believe at first. At the very least, he’s chosen to be standing at his own window to observe what happens.

In fact, there’s a third line to that paragraph:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

The third line is often left off when the quote is invoked, and I suspect it’s because the line changes the meaning of the previous two sentences. With that third line Isherwood admits, rather with a sigh, that the first two lines are wishful, romantic. In the third line he backs away from his viewing post, backs away from the charming but disingenuous misdirection he’s tried to sell us in the first two lines—and heads for the darkroom.

Now the narrator accepts the writer’s role: you are not, if you write, simply a passive camera taking in information as it comes. You are taking it in with the purpose of transforming it into something carefully considered and made permanent.

Isherwood hedges his assertion by setting it in the passive voice: Some day all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed. As if it will happen by magic, without agency. But doesn’t he have his tongue firmly in his cheek when he suggests such a thing? Nothing happens in a writer’s writing without agency. Even the most stream-of-consciousness poet is the producer of his work.

A writer must sometimes be an outsider, and that can’t be ignored in Isherwood’s three lines: they are about the narrator being alone and separate, and yet being tasked with preserving his solitary observations carefully, responsibly, and permanently. Who assigns him this job? No one. No one has to. He will do it because he is it: he is the job. He’s not only the job, but he’s never not the job.

“Camera” is part of a metaphor about vision: internal, external, real, remembered, imagined, invented, constructed, appropriated. If you write, you are a camera because you have vision or you have vision, but you are not only the first line of Isherwood’s paragraph: “passive, recording, not thinking.” You are also the third line, taking on the rest of the job too.

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 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Bank Square Books, Mystic, CT

Off the Beaten Path, Steamboat Springs, CO

Seattle Mystery Bookshop, Seattle, WA

 

 

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