After reading Part One of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, I was left haunted by the wisdom and counsel that the character Jacques offers to David at the bar David, clearly eaten alive by self-loathing and internalized homophobia, deplores Jacques “lifestyle,” seeing his encounters with men as shameful and loveless acts that only come and go in five dark minutes. Jacques returns with a condemning warning to David about the mask that he is putting up to preserve what he thinks is it dignity, safety, and cleanliness. He pushes David to open himself up to Giovanni, in hopes that David can find love and take one more step toward defeating his own shame.
Jacques warns David, “… ‘you can make you time together [with Giovanni] anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better—forever—if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe’… ‘You play it safe long enough…and you’ll be trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever—like me.’” (Baldwin 267).
Ultimately what Jacques fears is that David will delay his own reckoning with his sexuality until much later in his adult life, when he has much less time and spirit to make the most of his experiences as an openly queer man in the world. He fears that David will surrender to his shame, going on to consider his own natural desires and urges as “shameful” for years and years in order to preserve a pride that can really only be observed from the outside.
But what I find most compelling is the way that Jacques empowers David with the agency to decide for himself what is dirty and what is clean. David sees his own queerness (and the queerness of others) as something dirty because of the shame that he attaches to it. Tt is unclean, perhaps, because it is hidden; it is that “love that cannot be named” that Baldwin writes of in his Go Tell it On the Mountain. What he sees as clean is a long relationship with a woman, likely Hella. He sees it as clean because it is not hidden; it is named and publicly admired. Jacques pushes David to recognize that he has the power to redirect and reject his shame. David has the power to name his love. He has the power to decide what is dirty, and thus worthy of shame, and what is clean.
I wonder if Baldwin, in Paris, believed these words himself. Did he see dirtiness and cleanliness as relative classifications as it came to sexuality, or did he believe something more objective depending on the queer identity?