One In One Out

“Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know, but that seems to have made so little difference. Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know, but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the voice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both.”(239)

This passage clearly illustrated Baldwin’s ability to offer insights into biblical stories in his own unique and authentic voice. These thoughts come after Jaques makes the statement that “Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden.” In the case of many of the characters in this story, including James Baldwin’s own life, there is a moment where innocence was lost. Similar to the story of Adam and Eve, the realization and knowledge of their nakedness suggested sin and led to their ejection from the Garden of Eden. This theme was continued in Baldwin’s writing – the realization or knowledge of one’s homosexual nature rids them of innocence. It suggests evil forces are in play and leads to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. By definition, Eden is paradise, free from the devil, and serves as protection for all those who remain in it. Showing any traits of homosexuality, especially for Baldwin and particularly at the time this book was written, meant serious punishment. Baldwin’s religious upbringing taught him that homosexuality was a sin and that he would face God’s banishment for those thoughts. Additionally, the outside world provided a similar condemnation as those who were openly gay faced a violent homophobic society as well.

Whether there is a religious belief in the Garden of Eden or not, it is regarded as a sanctuary where only conformists to the rules are allowed to enter and stay. To declare oneself as gay means to self banish from the Garden. The idea of willingly abandoning that Garden of Eden—the “paradise” that comes from still being able to hide under normative sexuality—takes incredible courage. Baldwin’s struggles are alive and well in our society today.  In his latest music video, the artist Lil Naz X, seems to have put this concept on full display. His ostentatious imagery depicting, in essence, his embrace of his expulsion from the Garden is what has caused an enormous amount of attention of both supporters and critics. This struggle with separation is something that Jacques seems to pick on David about. David’s queer identity leaves him in a state of limbo. Manhood, in traditional society, is directly tied to one’s ability to be straight, manifested through a relationship with a woman. In a scene where Jacques and David are at a bar, and Jacques is trying to get the attention of Giovanni, he says, “I was not suggesting that you jeopardize, even for a moment, that’ – ‘he paused’ – that immaculate manhood which is your pride and joy.”(244) Jacques says this in response to David’s admittance that he is attracted to women. David’s struggle with his sexuality is important because we can see him battle – it is almost as if he has one foot in and one out of the Garden. He is not wholly ex-communicated from the Garden as he can go back home to Hella and be in a normative relationship. However, he is not entirely in because he has an attraction to men, an attraction he does not want to fully admit, as seen by his treatment of Joey and all his second-guessing with Giovanni. The concept of the Garden of Eden usually brings comfort and aspirational behaviors. However, for many who are true to themselves, it can be a place one must demonstrate incredible strength and courage to bypass.

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.

Sin in Shame

         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?