Even though I have not read Madeleine, the similarities outlined by Baldwin between this work and Giovanni’s Room are hard to miss. In my last blog post and in my presentation about Baldwin and queer identity, I alluded to the idea of inauthenticity through David’s inability to accept his attraction and love for Giovanni, and I will expand upon this theme further in this blog post.
In “The Male Prison,” Baldwin writes that “it is not necessary to despise people who are one’s inferiors — whose inferiority, by the way, is amply demonstrated by the fact that they appear to relish, without guilt, their sensuality.” This reminds me of the way David resents Giovanni and how he sees Giovanni as someone who is inferior to him just because Giovanni has accepted who he was and who he loved “without guilt.” This could also be compared to the characters of Jacques and Guillaume, but for them it is not so much “sensuality” as it is power and dominance over others. In fact, for them, “it is impossible to have either a lover or a friend” (The Male Prison) because of the ways in which their wealth is intertwined with their masculinity, and how that affects their sexual and romantic encounters: “the possibility of genuine human involvement has altogether ceased.” Jacques says that his “encounters are shameful… because there is no affection in them, and no joy. It’s like putting an electric plug in a dead socket. Touch, but no contact. All touch, but no contact and no light.” When one does not examine how their masculine identities influence their relationships with other men, therein lies a double edged sword of dehumanising others and being dehumanised themselves.
Men uphold toxic patriarchal values that end up hurting themselves almost as much as it hurts women. Baldwin writes in The Male Prison: “when men can no longer love women they also cease to love or respect or trust each other, which makes their isolation complete. Nothing is more dangerous than this isolation, for men will commit any crimes whatever rather than endure it.” David is unable to fully trust and love Giovanni because being with him reminds him of this prison of heteronormativity that he ensnares himself in, because to leave the prison is to leave the majority and be isolated. To leave the prison is to be “dirty” and live a life of shame. In David and Giovanni’s confrontation, Giovanni phrases this perfectly when he says “You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love.” When David is in the prison he cannot fully love Hella, but when he “endures the isolation” outside the prison to be with Giovanni, he still seeks the comfort and familiarity of the prison in which he grew up.
“But I’m a man,” cries David, “a man! What do you think can happen between us?” to which Giovanni responds “You know very well… what can happen between us. It is for that reason you are leaving me.” In the end, David cannot endure the pain of an authentic life. He cannot see Giovanni as a lover or a friend, and is afraid of him because he embodies the acceptance and authenticity that David views to be impossible for him to achieve.