David’s Fear

David’s guilt is killing him. That guilt bubbles up and out from his “cavern”. David recedes into this “cavern” whenever he thinks about people finding out that he has slept with Joey or that he can possibly sleep with men. It is inside the cavern where everything will be ripped from David, as a means to escape losing everything and disappointing his father, David leaves for Paris. Unfortunately, David is unable to leave the cavern behind. While he no longer fears what would happen if his father found out about his attraction to men (not to say that he is not still afraid but that that fear is no longer the biggest threat in his mind), he has to dance around those that he comes into contact with in Paris as to avoid being found out.

This becomes clear when we see David interacting with Giovanni for the first time. On page 251 it states “And then I was afraid. I knew that they were watching, had been watching both of us. They knew that they had witnessed a beginning and now they would not cease to watch until they saw the end. It had taken some time but the tables had been turned, now I was in the zoo, and they were watching.”. Here, we see that David has attempted to distance himself from the gay men in the bar by watching and categorizing them. By creating that distance, David was allowed to enter into and maneuver through the space as though he was a visitor, in other words, a straight man. The problem this quote outlines is that David is no longer the watcher. He has become a part of the exhibit he created and is now at the mercy of every man he has put into it.

Later on page 254, it states “I could not look at Jacques; which he knew. He stood beside me, smiling at nothing, humming a tune…But I was glad. I was only sorry that Jacques had been a witness. He made me ashamed. I hated him because he had now seen all that he had waited, only scarcely hoping, so many months to see. We had, in effect, been playing a deadly game and he was the winner. He was the winner in spite of the fact that I had cheated to win.”. In this quote we are seeing how David attempted to hide his attraction to men in a singular, close relationship. It is also shown how David thinks about his sexuality. It is something to run from. It is something to be ashamed of.

But, at the same time, David’s sexuality being something to run from and to be ashamed of comes from the way he thinks about others seeing him. When he is enraptured by Giovanni, David finds joy in their conversation and interactions. Yet, it is when he thinks about what other people are thinking of him, he becomes afraid. We see that in both of these quotes. David is afraid of being found out. He is afraid of being seen. He is afraid of being known. Yet, he still follows Jacques to the bar, knowing the risk that one day he might find someone who could put him into motion. While David is afraid, it almost seems like he wants to be known and seen, if only by one person (being Giovanni).

The Reproductive Imperative in Giovanni’s Room

In Giovanni’s Room, there is a constant tug-of-war between David’s desire for Giovanni and David’s desire to “be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned” (Baldwin 305). This “insider status,” which Giovanni’s calls “la vie pratique” (287), is tied up with something that queer theoriests call “the reproductive imperative,” or society’s implicit mandate that individuals enter into a heterosexual marriage and have children. It is children that are the core of David’s tension, a motif which embodies Lee Edelman’s concept of “reproductive futurism.” All of this to say: Giovanni’s Room anticipated important conversations about how queer people fit into a society that holds children to be “the telos of the social order” (Edelman, No Future 11).

First, an explanation of some terms: reproductive futurism describes society’s obsession with procreation, resulting in political orders that hold the Child (or rather, the image of the Child) to be all-important, a moral trump card over everything else. This is why queer people are deemed “unnatural” and are villainized by society: because we (often) do not procreate, we represent “the side of those not ‘fighting for the children’” (No Future 3). Of course, I can talk about this for ages, and Edelman’s theories, deemed the “antisocial thesis” by some, are not universally accepted; still, the point remains that this tension between the queer person and procreation is a critical component of Giovanni’s Room. 

We see a tension between queer men and reproductive futures in multiple chapters. For example, Giovani notes that Guillaume, another gay man, “is a member of one of the best and oldest families in France. But maybe, then, he remembers that his name is going to die with him” (Baldwin 306). Implicit in this passage is the fact that Guillame, due to his sexuality, will never reproduce. He represents the end of his bloodline, a travesty in a society that values children over all-else. David himself sees women only for their value as bearers of children, precisely because he recognizes that society demands that he reproduce. He says things like “I wanted a woman to be for me a steady ground, like the earth itself, where I could always be renewed” (305). This ‘renewal’ is undoubtedly procreation itself, and the woman is nothing more than a field to be plowed. It makes sense, then, that when Hella says “I want to start having babies,” David replies “I’ve always wanted that” (321). It is notable that Giovanni himself respects women “for their inside life,” a phrase which refers both to women as having different emotional lives and as having the ability to bear children (285). In short, Baldwin’s astute eye to society and the queer experience enabled him to anticipate conversations that are ongoing today, about how queer people fit into a global hegemony that not only demands heterosexual, biological reproduction, but literally murders those who do not comply with the reproductive imperative.

Self-Acceptance, Milton’s Satan, and Lil Nas X

When I first saw Lil Nas X’s shoes on Twitter last Saturday evening (and then watched his music video in class on Monday), the first thing I thought of was John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Famously, William Blake, a Romantic poet, wrote that Milton was “of the Devil’s Party without knowing it.” The Romantics, and, according to Blake, Milton himself, had a particular fascination and even admiration for Milton’s depiction of Satan in PL. In Paradise Lost, Satan, the character first introduced in the epic, is appealing, attractive, and interesting in the opening books of the work. Milton gives the fallen angel some of the best lines in the epic, including the saying “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heav’n.” In this quote, Satan attempts to accept his reality rather than lament his fall from heaven. This attempt resonates with Lil Nas X’s approach to the music video of “Call Me By Your Name.” Seemingly, Lil Nas X accepts his reality and his identity in this music video, coming to terms with the notion that he is not “heaven-bound” from the perspective of many Christian denominations.

In James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin emphasizes this same acceptance of reality and identity as Satan and Lil Nas X. Though Baldwin would never willingly associate homosexuality and sinfulness, he shows through Jacques that the acceptance of identity, even an identity that may be condemned by society, is a necessary step toward self-love and love of others. As David considers what do with his initial attraction to Giovanni, Jacques advises him to “Love him and let him love you” (267). He continues by asking, “Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?” (267). Like Milton’s Satan, Jacques tempts David to eat the apple; he convinces David to commit the “unholy” act. Yet the rest of the text shows that it is not the act that is unholy but David’s unwillingness to love Giovanni fully and allow Giovanni to love him back. In Baldwin’s mind, the sin is trying to maintain a false sense of identity that prohibits loving anyone fully. In other words, David attempts to bite the apple and then put it back on the tree rather than accepting his identity. Baldwin poses the argument that homosexuality cannot be unholy if denying it and trying to hide it causes such destruction as when David denies it. If it is in fact better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven, the worst situation is trying to live in heaven when you can only find love in hell. Just like Baldwin’s critique of religion, his central argument in Giovanni’s Room is love. Even if others view that love as Satanic or worthy of the fires of hell, the love of self and, from that, love of others gained through accepting one’s identity is the only path to heaven anyway. Love is the only thing under heaven that really matters.

Lil Nas X and the Church

We have recently discussed Lil Nas X’s new music video and recent events in class as they correlate closely with Baldwins experiences. Baldwin and Lil Nas X are both gay men who end up leaving the church. Both also question their sexuality and how that fits in with what the Christian church teaches. Lil Nas X posted a tweet towards the Christian church basically saying that he was taught to hate himself in a community that was supposed to stand on love (variety.com/2021/music/news/lil-nas-x-montero-video-twitter-1234939496/). As a Christian who has grown up in the church, I have been asking what can be done better to help everyone know they’re loved.

In “Down at the Cross”, Baldwin writes “When we were told to love everybody, I thought that meant everybody” (pg. 310). That hits hard because it’s true. Jesus certainly teaches us to love everybody, yet we consistently see division in the church. There are so many divisions that it can be hard to keep count. What I believe is important to remember is that the church is not perfect. Yes, people should be able to look at Christians and see the character of God, however there are people who do not represent the love of Christ correctly. 

While there are many scriptures in the bible that address homosexuality (Rom. 1:27, 1 Tim. 1:10, etc), I believe that the church often seems to use these scriptures to judge rather than uplift and remind people of grace. However, there is a difference between disagreement and judgment. Often, when Christians disagree with something it is seen as judging rather than providing opinion and biblical evidence. God is the ultimate judge. I find that disagreement and judgment are often considered the same, leaving many, such as John in “Go Tell it on the Mountain”, hating themselves. Referring to John’s naked baby picture, Baldwin writes, “But John could never look at it without feeling shame and anger that his nakedness should be here so unkindly revealed (26)”. Similar to Adam and Eve when they hide their naked bodies from God, John hates when people are able to see him without coverings to hide his secrets. This passage is pertaining to the physical body, however I believe it correlates with the internal body as well. John feels ashamed of himself externally and internally. However, God came searching for Adam and Eve even when Adam and Eve were ashamed of what was exposed in their vulnerability. And God is still the same, searching for us all. The angry God theology needs to be put to rest. The love and desire God has for his children regardless of what is revealed in their nakedness has to be made known.

Country and Identity

At its heart, Giovanni’s Room is a story about the search for one’s identity by going on a journey to another country. David flees America to discover himself in Paris, Hella leaves David in Paris to go to Spain to contemplate her feelings for him, and Giovanni leaves his small village after his newborn child dies to start a new life for himself in Paris. All three main characters believe they will learn about themselves by fleeing from their home to another country, but all three end up worse off than they were in the beginning of the novel. Hella loses David’s love, David cannot bear the feelings of his sexuality, and Giovanni is sentenced to death. The quest to Paris to obtain love or peace, then, is ultimately flawed, and I believe that has something to do with the divide between American identity and European identity.

Throughout the novel, David is referred to as Giovanni’s “American friend” or simply “the American,” but Giovanni is never referred to as “the Italian” by anyone in Paris. Both are outsiders in the city, yet it is only David who is referred to as one because he is distinctly American. There is a disconnect between American and European culture that cannot be resolved despite David’s best efforts and I think that this disconnect also ties to David’s views of his sexuality, and even Hella’s view of hers. Giovanni is very open about loving other men and about his life in general. But David and Hella cannot shake traditional gender roles out of their lives in Paris. Hella wants a family and a house, and for a long time it seems like David wants the same thing; but David is gay, and thus cannot make Hella his wife in good conscience. However, it does seem like David genuinely desires a family life with steady income and some stability, and this also seems to be an Americanized lifestyle to David. Thus, he associates Europe with his queer identity and America with a straight identity that he wishes he could have, but cannot.

This is why when he comes to Paris, David is viewed as such an outsider; he appears to be merely visiting this life where he can be true to his own sexuality. Reality for him is where he is viewed as straight by everyone he knows, mainly his father and Hella. Giovanni sees David for who he actually is, even when David cannot, because he is not blinded by an American sense of purpose. Giovanni is an outsider in Paris, but never feels like one because he is not just visiting Paris to escape his former life. For a while, when he is loving David, Giovanni feels as if he is at home. But when Hella comes to Paris, thus bringing David back into an American mindset, Giovanni is made an outsider again, as he has no place in David’s traditional American future.

The different ideas of sexuality, country, and identity in Giovanni’s Room are very complex, and I do not want to generalize by saying Europe is a place where Giovanni and David can be openly gay and America is not. But Baldwin seems to believe that being an American in Paris exacerbates one’s own sense of their outsider status, thus making his sexual identity even harder to comprehend.

Identity in Giovanni’s Room and “Montero”

“You live in the dark, boy, I cannot pretend,” sings Lil Nas X in “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” a song about a same-sex relationship with someone who has not come out publicly. The content of the song and its accompanying music video center around the rejection of feeling shame about one’s identity, a theme that features prominently in Giovanni’s Room. David struggles with his attraction to men, his love for Giovanni, and the realization that he has to return to his fiancée soon. To escape these feelings and possibly to prove that he is attracted to women, he sleeps with a woman named Sue. As he has sex with her, he goes through the motions and refers to it as a “performance” (302). She asks to see him again afterwards, but he shrugs her off and “could scarcely bear to watch the struggle occurring in her face, it made [him] so ashamed” (303). In this scene, David, unlike Lil Nas X, can and does pretend to be someone he’s not, an experience that leaves him feeling unfulfilled and ashamed. 

When Lil Nas X sings, “Call me by your name,” he is encouraging his lover to feel comfortable around him in his identity, something that Giovanni wants from David as well. In class, Lan Ahn brought up the fact that every person in the music video, from Satan to the serpent, was portrayed by Lil Nas X. She asked if we think that has any connection to the theme of identity. I think it absolutely does. The “Other(ed) Americans in Paris” article describes the tension between the true self and the historically-determined self present in Baldwin’s work. In “Montero,” Lil Nas X is taking the version of himself society has createdーthe sinner who is going to Hellーand uses it to show them who is really is: a black queer artist who is not ashamed of who he is. David, in his relationships with Hella, Sue, and even his father, is attempting to be who society wants him to be: a straight, white, engaged man. His love for Giovanni interferes with that performance by revealing his true identity. 

Outside the Garden

This week, I’m struck by imagery of the Garden of Eden in our class texts. In Part I of Giovanni’s Room, as David is worrying about Giovanni’s sentence, Jacques comments to David, “Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden.” David reflects that people “have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword,” a reference to Adam and Eve being banished from the garden (239). I’m trying to think through a couple different ways of interpreting this motif, so I’d love to hear any of your insights if you’ve noticed this theme as well. 

On one level, it’s easy to connect this Bible story of being banished from the garden simply to Baldwin’s religious upbringing and/or David’s internalized homophobia, in which homosexuality is a sin. In particular, the Fall is associated with shame about the naked body, and especially queer shame in this context, so it would make sense that references to Eden in Giovanni’s Room are meant to evoke a backdrop of religious homophobia.

I also wonder if this idea of leaving the garden could connect to the literal geography of David’s and Baldwin’s lives. Both Baldwin and his character are in exile in France. For Baldwin, a Black, queer man, America has never been an Eden; and David is running from his identity. Leaving America for France is a sort of journey out of the garden. David reflects that “life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it” (239). He connects leaving the garden to losing innocence—a pain he must either remember or deny. Both he and Baldwin are faced with living “outside the garden,” working out how to move through a world that does not protect those with non-normative identities. In this light, Paris seems to be a neutral space outside the garden for both Baldwin and David to negotiate their identities.

Of course, I’d be remiss not to mention Lil Nas X’s reclamation of Garden of Eden imagery in “Call Me By Your Name.” Lil Nas X gives us an unapologetically queer reread of the Eden myth in the imagery and lyrics. I’m curious if the rest of Giovanni’s Room will offer any hints of David and/or Baldwin similarly reclaiming the Garden of Eden in some way. 

Baptismal Ocean

I was really struck by the motif of the ocean in Giovanni’s Room. Some version of the sea or the ocean or water is often used to describe David’s relationship to America and David’s relationship to Giovanni. I couldn’t help but track this repetition, considering how pervasive the way in which Baldwin uses it is. 

David’s internalized homophobia makes him believe his sexuality is his original sin. It seems as if David, in escaping across the sea to another land, is escaping a proposed cleansing of his homosexuality. He is jumping from one land to the next, crossing the sea to get there. The water that separates the two countries is cleansing and baptismal. Geographically, David’s sexuality differs. In America, David’s home is his ideal of heterosexuality and conventionality. In France, where David (and James) flees, is where David can practice homosexuality. Despite avoiding the water, David can’t forget his home and the shame that discolors his self-concept. Home is not specific enough for David, it is relational to the sea: “across the ocean” (271). The ocean transcends the different sexualities, he wades deeper into the water as he experiments more with Giovanni. It is an alternate baptism; instead of washing away the original sin, he is submerged in it. In this way, Baldwin is subverting our Christianized ideal of baptism. David is “being led by Giovanni into deep and dangerous water” (250); his life with Giovanni occurs “beneath the sea” (281); life “occurs underwater,” David undergoes a “sea-change” (289); Giovanni drags David with him to “the bottom of the sea” (314). Baldwin exploits the qualities of water: its cleansing ability and its potential for depth and danger. The “dirt” of his sin is not washed away, despite Giovanni’s assurance that the “dirty water” the older gay men swim in will be easily washed away by him and David (256). He is being baptized by Giovanni, but the act is incomplete. He is submerged in the water, yet does not come up for air. This motif comes to exclusively symbolize suicide. David says, “I thought of the people before me who looked down at the river and gone to sleep beneath it” (304). All those who committed suicide by drowning exist in the between, an incomplete act of baptism, in which they are submerged in sin (as David acutely feels). Yet this is a shame that is not shared by the others. Specifically, Jacques encourages David not to get trapped within this perception of his dirty body because he will end up despising every inch of his flesh (267). 

David soon develops a fear of water, because it is a reminder of his incomplete and subverted baptism. After sleeping with another woman in order to distract himself from the pull of Giovanni, David “hear[s] the water running” and becomes afraid to “go out into that night which had seemed to be calling [him] only a few moments before” (303). Giovanni tries to complicate David’s notion of water when he describes women as “like water…tempting…treacherous…bottomless…shallow…dirty” (285), yet it is Giovanni who represents all of these things for David. He is the possibility of simultaneous fulfillment and paralyzing shame, freedom and imprisonment, salvation and damnation. 

Father and Mother figures

David has a strained relationship with his dad, although his dad does not seem to know this. They are as close as acquaintances, and although David wishes for a deeper tie, he continues to hide himself from his father. After a car accident, David and his father share a tender moment, but David notes that it is fleeting and shallow: “For I understood, at the bottom of my heart, that we had never talked, that now we never would” (235). David puts significant weight into the activity of talking. He cannot “talk” to his father because he cannot communicate his true feelings, thoughts and desires to him. This is why, I will argue, Giovanni and Jacques step in as father figures. 

The joy of reading sections of the text with Giovanni and David is the dialogue. They are intellectual equals—they spar and joke and question each other. Giovanni is able to push David to question his mindset. During a rather philosophical conversation about time, David tries to suggest that people need time to make good decisions: “‘I guess people wait in order to make sure of what they feel'” (250). This sentiment, of course, mirrors David’s own choices thus far in his life. He has waited to learn to accept himself or be truthful of his identity. Giovanni responds in a way that prods this exact fear: “‘And when you have waited—has it made you sure?’ For this I could simply summon no answer” (250). David reaches a point with Giovanni where he feels stumped and finally begins to wonder if he might be wrong (at least his silence implies this). Because David defined a strong relationship between father and son as one where they can actually talk, I think that Giovanni fills in as a father in this moment. Their conversations digs deep immediately and pushes the other to see a new worldview. This is the intimacy David craved from his father and even acts as a sort of tough love. 

On the line of tough love, I want to briefly mention Jacques, who I think exemplifies this even more. Jacques is an advice giver. He takes David under his wing and, at least in some moments, tries to guide him along a better path than his own. He understands David’s shame and asks him to shed it for the sake of love: “‘Love him,’ said Jacques, with vehemence, ‘love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters?'” (267). Jacques, too, is taking on a role that David’s own father never did. For one, he knows that David is homosexual, but he also actively guides David towards a better life. He does so often by bluntly pointing out David’s shame, but also suggests a new path going forward. This protective attitude and tough love resembles that of a father figure. 

Finally, David explicitly connects the caretaker to his mother, who passed when he was young. The caretaker is an older Italian woman who checks up on David and attends to his needs in a way that a mother would, or at least a very friendly neighbor. Before she leaves, David thinks to himself,  “I feel that I want to be forgiven, I want her to forgive me. But I do not know how to state my crime. My crime, in some odd way, is in being a man and she knows all about this already. It is terrible how naked she makes me feel, like a half grown boy, naked before his mother” (278). It seems that part of the reason David cannot forgive himself for his homosexuality is because he needs his mother, or a mother figure, to do so for him. He wants desperately to be forgiven, to no longer feel like a little boy, naked and scared and guilty. 

The inclusion of these pseudo-parental figures illuminates something larger about David. He lacks these strong relationships with his own parents, and this contributes to the shame and fear he has surrounding his sexuality. In many ways he resembles a child in the text, lashing out easily at those who make him scared and hiding everything he feels ashamed about. This childlike attitude might illuminate his character traits and actions more going forward and stunt his ability to fully accept himself.