Art Imitating Life

Upon reflection, I realized I am not entirely sure that Baldwin’s message of love and self-acceptance is the answer to all the problems the novel presents. After reading Go Tell It On The Mountain, I concluded that Baldwin’s message was that the perseverance of one’s own faith, despite external judgment, is the path to salvation. At his funeral, Baldwin played Amazing Grace, declaring his own faith and salvation. Giovanni’s Room however, ends tragically, in a way that almost makes it hard to see how love and acceptance could solve the character’s issues in such a heteronormative society. It leaves me wondering if Baldwin’s inability to find love and acceptance in his own life is the reason these issues are not solved by them in the novel.

Baldwin related to his characters in Giovanni’s Room; like David he had difficulty accepting his sexual identity, like Giovanni he felt like an outsider, and a foreigner, and it can be assumed that he interacted with men like Jacques and Guillaume. In the Male Prison, and a variety of other texts Baldwin argues that to be truly happy people must reject the call to conform to heteronormativity, and live their truth. In Giovanni’s Room, David and Giovanni were both doomed due to their inability to leave the room, or “the closet,” symbolizing that self acceptance and the perseverance of love may have saved them. That being said, it is extremely probable that David and Giovanni would have struggled even if they “came out”  because of how heavily sexuality is/was regulated. Though they may have been free from internal dismay, the external difficulties of coming out are not something that love and self acceptance necessarily resolve. The tragic fate of the main characters leaves me questioning whether Baldwin wanted readers to conclude that love and acceptance would solve these issues, or if he was suggesting that there was not a solution because he himself could not find one. 

With Baldwin’s lived experiences heavily influencing the novel, I think he should have personalized the story more. It would have illuminated whether he thought there was a real solution. I think that Baldwin’s inability to find comfort in his own identity due to external factors, led to this fate for his characters. Though he declares that love and acceptance are to be the ultimate answers, I think Baldwin struggled to find these answers himself. I think the tragic fate in the novel and Baldwin’s own struggles speaks to the fact that societal norms must shift for love and self-acceptance to persevere.  My presentation touched on the effect gender norms had on Baldwin’s conception of sexuality and understanding of his own identity.  Ultimately my analysis will explain how Baldwin’s interpretation of the effects of these norms  and the effect they had on him were instrumental in his writing of the novel. I’ll find that the only real solution is a shift in societal perspective and that broader society has to want to promote love and acceptance for it really to prevail and save people like David, Giovanni, and Baldwin, himself.

A Cautionary Tale?

            No question the narrative of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is a tragedy; David falls victim to the cruel hands of time, heartbreak, and isolation as a result of his preservation of his pride and his performance in the Male Prison/Panopticon. On his troubling journey toward self-realization, David has a major hand in the psychological and emotional damaging of both Giovanni and Hella. I found the conclusion of Giovanni’s Room to be incredibly powerful, and I felt that the work could be read as a cautionary tale of sorts.

            I would hope that the text is not misconstrued as a denunciation of Americans’ willing exploration of their true identities, or their breaking from their social performance under the surveillance of the panopticon. I don’t think that Baldwin is suggesting that American’s should live in blissful ignorance lest they die by their own curiosities (a sentiment that Hella would fully endorse, given her “Americans should never come to Europe” monologue). I do, however, think that Baldwin is warning us a slower, but much more final death. Giovanni’s Room, to me, serves as a cautionary tale against one’s reversion into social comfort, ignorance, and complacency at the expense of one’s truth.

The slow destruction of each of David’s close relationships speaks to this slow death about which Baldwin warns us. When David decides to throw himself into her to escape his feelings toward Giovanni (though I do believe that David did also really love Hella), he leaves a vital part of himself to die. David reverts into the comfort of his performance in the panopticon, smothering the side of himself that he found in his life with Giovanni so that he might buy more time for the side of him that stays with Hella. But both sides die, all the same in the end. David is left all alone, the love of his life dead and the woman he loved broken and gone. Baldwin warns us of the silent danger social performance in the panopticon…seems no matter what, we die in jail.

David’s “Flight”

David alludes to the idea of his “flight” multiple times before leaving for Paris in the novel. First, when speaking of his life after being with Joey: “I began, perhaps, to be lonely that summer and began, that summer, the flight which has brought me to this darkening window” (EN 227). Second, when he thwarts his father’s attempt to grow closer to him: “Perhaps he had supposed that my growing up would bring us closer together–whereas, now that he was trying to find out something about me, I was in full flight from him. I did not want him to know me” (EN 232). Finally, when describing his plans to leave America: “Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself…I think now that if I had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home” (EN 236). It seems that this attempt at flight from his true self and the disclosure of his queerness was unsuccessful. 

He seems to be torn between the ideas that he ran to Paris to live into queerness or rather ran away from America in order to cure himself of his queerness. I think that whichever reality of his flight is true, he failed at both. Despite his best efforts to be ‘the man’ he wants to be, he cannot quench his sexual desire for men. He repeatedly fails himself when he decides he is going to quit Giovanni and ‘make a wife’ of Hella. At the same time, he never truly experiences what it might be like to embrace his queerness. For this, I feel he can never reciprocate the love Giovanni had for him. He wants to, but his fear disables him from any true flight in one direction. He instead stays stagnant, paralyzed, living trapped between two worlds. This is what causes his ultimate ‘death’ in a sense. For this, I feel the most empathy for David.

I would argue that it is his Foucaultian power that disables him in such a way. David seems to be read as a character with accessibility to immense power that neglects to utilize it. Foucault might disagree, and instead state that David is using his power. If power is seen as diffused, one can even exert power over themselves. David’s fear of retribution for his queerness drives his incapacity to love or fully embrace himself, keeping him ‘stuck.’ It is then not in spite of David’s power that he receives the fate he does but rather because of it. 

Power of Love

Though seemingly completely different characters, Baldwin connects Jesse from Going to Meet The Man with David from Giovani’s Room with precision. Both protagonists fall exceedingly short of Baldwin’s goals in the same way – the inability to love. 

The Latin-derived name Grace means “Gift from God”. This element is important as it connects to Baldwin’s biblical intent. It also exacerbates Jesse’s inability to love. Jesse, consumed by his hatred of Black people, cannot love his wife emotionally or physically. In fact, his hatred for African Americans does not allow him to actually love himself or his own people. He is jailed by his hatred of Black people and it manifests in sick ways. Not only does the abuse and mutilation of Black people bring him joy, it defines who he is. His hatred was taught to him by his father and the society at large. Family gatherings and community events center around the lynchings of Black men. The hate is so ingrained in him that he cannot actually love. His hate consumes even his most intimate acts. He can only have relations with his wife when he taps into hate thoughts—memories of lynchings and the abuse of Black people. Jesse’s fixation on Black male genitalia can be interpreted in multiple ways. It could be argued that it signals his hidden homo erotic nature. It could be viewed as pure fascination with an opposite. It could be viewed as study of the power dynamic that Jesse seeks to make up for his short comings. His desire for power can be found in his jealousy of his “enemy’s” maleness. It speaks directly to his insecurities. 

In Giovanni’s Room, David—like Jesse— has a relationship with a woman where he attempts to tap into the perceived “heterosexual” power. There is a status that derives from David’s ability to revert to his normative relationship whenever he pleases. This allows him the ability to have loveless encounters with Joey and eventually Giovanni. He holds the power in all relationships with gay men because he can simply fade and downgrade the relationship, thus never having to offer his love, affection, vulnerability. However, Baldwin argues that both characters are fatally trapped – Jesse’s all-consuming hatred and David’s lack of emotional commitment—both disabling them from love. Jesse can never truly develop a relationship with God because he lacks the most important key to establishing that relationship. Hate consumes him so much that there is no room for love. David tries to be perceived as being more powerful in his homosexual relationships because he can always run to the other side. In truth, Baldwin demonstrates he’s not. Giovanni holds the power as he expresses his love to David without fear of the outside world. Giovanni is able to remember the time when he was in the Garden of Eden when he had a normative relationship and was happy, and he is able to forget that Garden of Eden as he dives fully into a homosexual relationship where he looks to love as well. He is a true hero, according to Baldwin. Love is priority number one for Baldwin, so one’s ability to be “manly” should be demonstrated in one’s ability to love, not who they love.

Tragedy

As I mentioned in class, I remembered reading a book titled Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran in my Gay and Lesbian America class freshman year. *Spoilers*: The whole novel talks about the way gay men search for love and eventually fail to do so and end up in mainly sexual relationships, addicted to hard drugs (such as poppers and heroin), and stuck hanging around gay clubs.

In Gay and Lesbian America, we also watched movie (the name of which I cannot remember) where the premise was a closeted Catholic gay man struggles with his identity as he has dinner with his friends (who I cannot remember if they were out and gay or not). In both these stories, the men end up unhappy. There is no hope for them. There is no love for them. This reminds me very much of Giovanni’s Room.

Jacques lives a loveless life where he finds no comfort in the arms of young boys that he pays to keep him company and sleep with him. Similar to Jacques, Guillaume pays young boys to keep him company and attempts to add Giovanni to the mix (unsuccessfully) and dies. Giovanni is left behind by David, sexually harassed by Guillaume, and eventually sentenced to death without David even making an attempt to visit him. David, the penultimate character, finds that he can never love another person again and ends up alone.

What is so interesting about all of these stories is the holding on to the staunch idea that gay men cannot find love. That whether they are actively looking for love (like Dancer from the Dance) or are not looking for love (the movie I watched) and stumble upon it (Giovanni’s Room), it is impossible to keep the love that they gain, it is impossible for them to love another man fully or for another man to love them fully, and love does not exist for gay men.

I wonder if these works of art are just works of art of the times. Giovanni’s Room was published in 1956. Dancer from the Dance was published in 1978. The movie I watched was in black and white, suggesting it came out around the same time as Giovanni’s Room. I know that those times were very much different from today, but, I’m left wondering why that even in fiction people could not imagine gay men being happy.

Norms leave no room for love

For my presentation and paper, I have decided to focus on the power gender norms, and roles have on influencing societal interpretations of sexuality and how these interpretations affected James Baldwin. Throughout Baldwin’s writing and his interpretations of other texts, such as the Bible, we have seen that he prioritized love and self-acceptance as the ultimate goal in life. Baldwin’s Biblical interpretations are inclusive, and he embraces Christs’ message of love as the greatest act of faith and fulfillment. Despite this, we have seen the toll gender roles and sexuality norms took on the characters of Giovanni’s Room and how they impacted Baldwin’s understanding of his sexuality. In attempting to understand Baldwin’s perception of gender norms and roles, I reread “The Male Prison,” which beautifully articulates the disastrous nature of hypermasculinity and heteronormativity. Baldwin rejects notions of naturalism associated with sexuality and instead argues that human impulses are far beyond the constraints set by normative behavior. He argues that norms are reinforced to protect people’s conceptions of what is natural and normal, “And one of the reasons for this is that it would rob the nor­mal -who are simply the many – of their very necessary sense of security and order” ( The Male Prison, Collected Essays). Baldwin understands that norms are not inherent and can be abandoned but are not because the majority prefers to protect their sense of order.


Similarly, gender theorist Michel Foucault articulates rejections of norms as inherent and argues that this conception of gender and sexuality as science or fact is a strategy for state observation. Like Baldwin, Foucault acknowledges that human impulses exceed the norms and acknowledges that sexuality is about desire and pleasure and cannot be structured scientifically or generalized. Foucault takes Baldwin’s argument about norms only being in place to establish and protect order a step further by declaring that science was only ever associated with sexuality as a justification to promote heterosexuality which furthered state population reproduction goals. In essence, the state encourages society to perpetuate these gender norms to observe the population better and exert order and force. Baldwin is such a talented writer because of his ability to explain deep theoretical issues in a manner that illuminates the human perspective; he likens these restrictive forces to “The Male Prison” and arguably to “Giovanni’s Room.” In Giovanni’s Room, David and Giovanni are trapped, unable to go out and express their desire or true love for one another. Baldwin wants to show that the perpetuation of gender norms and roles is so pervasive that people struggle to accept themselves and ultimately have miserable fates as a result. It is evident that gender norms are constructed and intentionally restrictive. I believe that Baldwin rejected these norms so heavily not only because they limited his own sexual identity but because his faith calls for a message of love, acceptance, and understanding. Gender norms and roles do not prioritize the love and connection Baldwin repeatedly submits that all humans need.

The (Fe)Male Prison

I know it seems counterproductive to think about the role of women in a book all about men, but Hella’s been on my mind a lot this past week. I commented on Faith’s last post about the ways in which Hella constitutes an “easy way out” for David. Even though he does not love her, he values all that she represents as a woman: a socially acceptable heterosexual relationship, a couple of kids and white picket fence, and the promises of the American Dream™. 

What I find especially remarkable about Hella is just how incredibly unremarkable she is. Hella is hardly featured in the novel; aside from a brief appearance in the final chapters, she exists primarily as a vague, nebulous concept to which David periodically alludes but who never fully develops as a character. In fact, for all the many times she’s mentioned by other characters, all we really know about her is that she really submits to the patriarchy: her self-proclaimed purpose in life seems to be nothing more than to marry a man and to raise his children–to exist as someone’s “obedient and most loving servant,” which she professes is “all [she’s] good for” (EN&S 323-324)

Despite an initial reactionary distaste, it now occurs to me that Baldwin never intended to develop Hella because she’s not really a person at all: she’s a doorstop! Hella’s function is analogous to Madeleine’s in “The Male Prison.” As Baldwin describes it, “Madeleine kept open for [Gide] a kind of door of hope, of possibility, the possibility of entering into communion with another sex. This door, which is the door to life and air and freedom from the tyranny of one’s own personality, must be kept open, and none feel this more keenly than those on whom the door is perpetually threatening or has already seemed to close” (CE 233).

In exactly the same way that Madeleine appeals to Gide, so, too, does Hella appeal to David: not as an autonomous human being with her own thoughts and feelings, but as a representation of the nuclear family and the traditional gender roles into which David so damnably wants to fit. Hella is nothing more than a solution to David’s problems–a “steady ground, like the earth itself, where [he] could always be renewed” (EN&S 302).

Women in Giovanni’s Room

As I read Giovanni’s Room, I could not quite put my finger on what Baldwin’s intentions were regarding Hella or his portrayal of women generally. In Go Tell It on the Mountain, he constructed well-rounded female characters and seemed to demonstrate an understanding of the difficulties women face regarding sexual relationships, childbirth, and motherhood. As a result, I had high expectations for his treatment of Hella in Giovanni’s Room, and I was puzzled to read Giovanni’s speech about women to David at the beginning of Part Two. Giovanni, probably due to jealousy, inquires about Hella and makes a number of broad generalizations about womenー what they want, who they are, and so on. 

“Nobody likes to travel, especially not women” (283).

“Women are just a little more trouble than I can afford right now” (284). 

“There is no need, thank heaven, to have an opinion about women. Women are like water. They are tempting like that, and they can be that treacherous, and they can seem to be that bottomless, you know?ーand they can be that shallow. And that dirty” (285). He goes on to say he possibly doesn’t really like women, but he still asserts he respects them… and that he used to beat them. All the while, he refers to Hella, a grown woman, as a “silly little girl” (285). When David defends Hella and her intelligence and complexity, Giovanni, who has never met her, describes her as a flighty busybody. Giovanni displayed absolutely no respect for women or for Hella during that entire interaction. Perhaps Baldwin wanted to display his jealousy, but the point of this scene still nags at me. I found it difficult to continue sympathizing with Giovanni after this part of the story. 

Finally, we meet Hella, and she gives her own speech about women. She explains to David how humiliating it is to be a single woman and having “to be at the mercy of some gross, unshaven stranger before you can begin to be yourself” (322). Here, Baldwin seems to understand that unmarried women during this time were sized up constantly by those around them, only being free once married, though that kind of freedom pales in comparison to that of a man. While Hella dislikes these constraints, she works within their confines to carve out a life for herself. Baldwin restores dignity to Hella’s character after Giovanni’s diatribe about her. 

I tend toward the conclusion that Baldwin is showing us all the complexities of Giovanni’s dynamic with David. His jealousy and the tension between the normative relationship of Hella and David and the same-sex one between David and Giovanni. I also recognize that this is a story of what it’s like to be a man, not a woman. 

Sex and Power

I have been thinking a lot about our discussion during Wednesday’s class regarding how Jesse in “Going to Meet the Man” thinks of sex as being about power and domination rather than love. In reading this story, we can all recognize what a horrible, distorted sense of love and affection Jesse has for his wife, if he has any sense of this at all. He does not seem to think of Grace as more than an object to fulfill his sexual needs, and since she does not even really have the ability to do that, she probably means very little to him. However, I feel like David in Giovanni’s Room also falls into this trap of associating sex with the power that one can have over another. David demonstrates his concern with this part of his relationship with Giovanni during their fight when David accuses Giovanni of wanting to feel strong in their relationship and wanting David to be his “little girl” (337). Giovanni says that he does not think about their relationship in this same way, but David does not seem to be able to separate sex from the power he feels he needs to demonstrate to prove his masculinity. Because of this, I have a difficult time trying to decide if I think David actually loves Giovanni. On the one hand, I do not think that David would have been able to have a relationship with just any man because it takes a lot for him to allow another person to see his true self. For him to be able to do this with Giovanni, I think that he must have had to love him at least a little bit. However, I also think that David did not even let Giovanni see his full true self, as he remained guarded, deceptive, and concerned with the power dynamic of their relationship even as he was saying that he loved Giovanni. Regardless of the extent to which David loved Giovanni, though, it is clear that any relationship that cannot consider sex as separated from power is going to be problematic.

Queerness & the Roles We Play

As I finished reading Giovanni’s Room, I reflected on David’s fixation on how homosexuality is perceived by the general public and by himself. There are moments in the narrative where David does not seem to be experiencing his own life, but rather observing it passively, as if watching a play. It is also obvious that there is a disconnect between what he thinks and what he feels, which leads him to lead a life devoid of authenticity. I wanted to look deeper into how Baldwin portrays this dissonance in David’s character, and to examine how David’s inability to “act out,” as it were, the role he wants to play, leads him further into isolation. David’s first sexual encounter with someone of the same sex happened when he was in America, and when he was still very young. In the description of the night he and Joey shared, it is described as a night of purity and joy, perhaps the only moment in the novel to do so: “we gave each other joy that night. It seemed, then, that a lifetime would not be long enough for me to act with Joey the act of love” (225). This was short-lived, however, since the moment that snapped David back to reality is when he remembered that “Joey is a boy,” and that filled him with fear. He immediately thinks of how others would perceive what had happened, (“I wondered what Joey’s mother would say when she saw the sheets. Then I thought of my father…) rather than how he had felt. In the shame that others might have placed on him, he made his decision to do what he thought was right, even though it did not feel right.

Additionally, I also feel like David’s identity is inextricably tied to the fact that he is an American living in France. His American identity is brought up often by the people with whom he keeps company, and is also a large part of any conversation he has with Giovanni. I think this is the reason why he observes the fluidity of gender and sexuality in Paris as something abnormal, since he was not exposed to it back in America, where he formed the majority of his identity as a man and his perceptions on masculinity. David is still holding on to what he considers to be “normal” in a society where he is the one with ‘abnormal’ (“queer for women”) preferences. When Giovanni asks why David won’t tell Hella about them, David reminds Giovanni that “people have very dirty words for — for this situation… Besides, it is a crime — in my country and, after all, I didn’t grow up here, I grew up there” (286), as if the laws of another country would reach him here across the ocean.

David often feels like he is being observed like a “zoo animal,” but at the same time he engages in the same act of judging others based on his own prejudices and stereotypes. When he, Giovanni, Jacques, and Guillaume leave for breakfast one morning, he observes how “everybody, without seeming to, is looking at us and [he] is beginning to feel like a part of a travelling circus” (262). The quote that made me want to write a blog post about this is on page 263: Guillame’s suggestion had the effect — but subtly, as though a wind had blown over everything or a light been imperceptibly intensified — of creating among the people at the bar, a troupe, who would no play various roles in a play they knew very well.” I could not help but think that this motion — of people settling into roles which they knew very well, roles that they knew they could (and to some extent, should) play — highlighted the inner turmoil that David feels throughout the novel, since it is his inability to do so that leads to Giovanni’s death and to his despair.