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.