Christopher Isherwood on the difference between American lifestyle and French lifestyle


«American motels are unreal! Our motels are deliberately designed to be unreal, if you must use that idiotic jargon, for the very simple reason that an American motel room isn’t a room in an hotel, it’s the room, definitively, period.

And it’s a symbol – an advertisement in three dimensions, if you like – for our way of life. And what’s our way of life? A building code which demands certain measurements, certain utilities and the use of certain apt materials; no more and no less. Everything else you’ve got to supply for yourself.

But just try telling that to the Europeans! It scares them to death. The truth is, our way of life is far too austere for them. We’ve reduced the things of the material plane to mere symbolic conveniences. And why? Because that’s the essential first step. Until the material plane has been defined and relegated to its proper place, the mind can’t ever be truly free.

One would think that was obvious. The stupidest American seems to understand it intuitively. But the Europeans call us inhuman — or they prefer to say immature, which sounds ruder — because we’ve renounced their world of individual differences, and romantic inefficiency, and objects-for-the-sake-of-objects. All that dead old cult of cathedrals and first editions and Paris models and vintage wines. Naturally, they never give up, they keep trying to subvert us, every moment, with their loathsome cult-propaganda.

If they ever succeed, we’ll be done for. That’s the kind of subversion the Un-American Activities Committee ought to be investigating. The Europeans hate us because we’ve retired to live inside our advertisements, like hermits going into caves to contemplate. We sleep in symbolic bedrooms, eat symbolic meals, are symbolically entertained — and that terrifies them, that fills them with fury and loathing because they can never understand it. They keep yelling out, “these people are zombies!”. They’ve got to make themselves believe that, because the alternative is to break down and admit that Americans are able to live like this because, actually, they’re a far far more advanced culture — five hundred, maybe a thousand years ahead of Europe, or anyone else on earth, for that matter.

Essentially, we’re creatures of the spirit. Our life is all in the mind. That’s why we’re completely at home with symbols like the American Motel-Room. Whereas the European has a horror of symbols because he’s such a grovelling little materialist.»

Isherwood, Christopher (2001), A Single Man, Minnesota: University Press.

Photo: Hong Kong cage home, by Benny Lam

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