The body in the mirror forces me to turn and face it. And I look at my body, which is under sentence of death. It is lean, hard, and cold, the incarnation of a mystery. And I do not know what moves in this body, what this body is searching. It is trapped in my mirror as it is trapped in time and it hurries toward revelation. – James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room
The discovery of my own body might best be characterized as a long string of small traumas that, in some significant ways, runs on even well into my twenties, where, as a full-fledged man (ostensibly, legally, deludedly, etc.), it can be difficult to account for what was not properly understood as a boy.
Cloistered square in the middle of a flock of five children, sequestered by a Third World Evangelicalism pent-up with ideas of physical impurity and its largely punitive opposite in divine nature, it didn’t take long for me to build an antagonistic, even harried, relationship with the mirror and its contents. What the reflection contained was both myself and an Other, an un-asked-for future that kept slipping into my arms and legs and chest in prickly hair and heaps where they hadn’t been before. I was always a chubby child, and I became accustomed to maintaining the weight. I despised exercise and over-ate. I lazed about and constantly read or watched TV and avoided anything that might wrest my body from relaxation towards events that could attract scrutiny to its obvious weaknesses.
The many embarrassments such an approach (or lack thereof) regarding one’s own mortal bag o’ bones engenders barged in at their appointed hours. School, for the most part, was where these experiences pursued me, and it was all touch-and-go, for what I remember most about those years were strategies adopted to avoid those calamities when they verged and circled, slavering to be yet another indelible impression. They flash in me, cinematic: the mocking eyes a pack of young men concentrated on me; a stunning blonde’s turned-away profile, the twisted corner of her lips showing an entire world’s distress; an excruciating day in gym where I realized just how opposed my body was to adolescence’s norms, and how sharp a name you did not choose can turn in your self-conception.
Shame, then, was reduced from corrective into mere reflex – refuge, even. There, in a hutch fabricated from so many deprivations, I could gnaw myself clean. And lust? The distance between them and me outspanned the distance between myself and whoever stared out from within the mirror. If I was so baffled by the puzzle of my own flesh, how could I hope to reach across that greater gap in even the most unassuming overture of intimacy? When I was a child, I spake as a child. I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. But when a man becomes a man, where does the child go? And can that child be truly shoved away – or is it solely the things he frittered over that are forsaken? When I gaze into my glass-copy, selvaged by mere steam (the future’s haze), who is it if not the child peering out of the man?
The epigraph to James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room is a famous line from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: I was the man, I suffered, I was there. It is a fitting choice, and not just due to the fact that Whitman was a homosexual man, and Baldwin’s novel involves the doomed coupling of two men, but because this is less a love story than it is a passion play, the locus of which is David, a young American who cannot reconcile his homoerotic desire with the sort of man his family (and society at large) demands him to be.
If it sounds passé now, it was not so in 1950s America, despite James Baldwin writing from his self-imposed exile in Europe, as his publishers were far more diffident to publish the novel relative to the enthusiasm shown for his debut, Go Tell it On the Mountain. In that book, Baldwin wrote about “Black matters”, with a Black cast, set in a church community in Harlem – which, I’m sure, the Powers That Publish found quite comforting – as opposed to the queerer idea of a Black Writer choosing a rather well-to-do White American expat as his protagonist, with a cast of mostly White characters, set in post-WWII Paris.
James Baldwin’s novel is the best I’ve read of his, in a career most dominated (and rightfully so) by the great essays, with the only things working against it being predictable melodrama to whip up the plot (slightly mitigated by Baldwin telegraphing its entry pretty early into the book) and an on-the-whole lightness that keeps it from the same tier as weightier/greater novels, or his own nonfiction. The Vintage International edition that I own, for instance, doesn’t even crack two-hundred pages. Of course, the novel’s brevity does not immediately disqualify it from occupying the higher tiers of quality, but it does afford less room for missteps/excess, and provides an opportunity for more condensed (i.e. more poetic) material from the author. As it stands, Giovanni’s Room is a rather standard A-B-C narrative progression – or C-A-B-C-A-B and so on, since the narrator shuttles back and forth in time, which gives the book a nice atmosphere of melancholy reminiscence. Despite several passages of keen observation and insight, Giovanni’s Room never expands very far from its own goings-on, which itself too often dips into the clichéd requirements of plot.
David’s story is quite similar, I imagine, to the stories of many young men of the time period – and some today, I’m sure. Motherless, and an only child, David’s budding psychology is impacted not only by the fractured relationship between his father and aunt, but an early sexual liaison with a male friend of his, Joey. He hurriedly cuts off contact with him and, some years after, recovering from a car crash, contrives a way to fly to Paris on his father’s dole. David relates his mentality, encapsulating so much of what will dog him across the Atlantic:
For I am—or I was—one of those people who pride themselves on their willpower, on their ability to make a decision and carry it through. This virtue, like most virtues, is ambiguity itself. People who believe that they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only believe this by becoming specialists in self-deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all—a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named—but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not. This is certainly what my decision, made so long ago in Joey’s bed, came to. I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me.
From the onset, David is shown to be a rather pusillanimous personality, for a variety of reasons that cannot necessarily be pinned on just cultural expectations, which works well in fleshing out the narrative so that it does not devolve into a simplistic morality play about how society actively works to destroy any and every gay relationship (although there’s truth here, certainly, especially in the time Baldwin was writing). This inability to reconcile shameful emotions, of course, ends up attracting people/events that elicit such emotions in him, as David quarters with Jacques, an older and wealthy gay Parisian whom David detests but relies upon to get around. Another man he frequents the various cafés and restaurants with is Guillaume, a bar owner from an old aristocratic line who is even more repulsive and boy-hungry than Jacques.
When David meets Giovanni, a young Italian expat who works for Guillaume, his carefully calibrated world (involving a girl, Hella, who at the time of David and Giovanni’s encounter is travelling in Spain) collapses. Theirs is a well-written “meet-cute” that nicely charts the push-and-pull of the pair’s dialogue, with Giovanni compelling out of David a helpless sort of flirtation.
They quickly become lovers, with David able to experience real positivity in same-sex desire through Giovanni’s seemingly unflagging optimism, as well as his humorous befuddlement over David’s odd and uniquely “American” struggle with carnal urges against the ideals of a practical heteronormativity.
But growing alongside David’s love for Giovanni is – inevitably, given David’s prior choices – a real hatred, or distaste, for what Giovanni evokes and represents: a future David finds insufficient, for any number of perfectly practical yet self-loathing reasons. The Italian’s room, then, becomes a disturbing tableau, in David’s despairing view, of a curious destitution:
Before and beside me and all over the room, towering like a wall, were boxes of cardboard and leather, some tied with string, some locked, some bursting, and out of the topmost box before me spilled down sheets of violin music. There was a violin in the room, lying on the table in its warped, cracked case—it was impossible to guess from looking at it whether it had been laid to rest there yesterday or a hundred years before. The table was loaded with yellowing newspapers and empty bottles and it held a single brown and wrinkled potato in which even the sprouting eyes were rotten. Red wine had been spilled on the floor; it had been allowed to dry and it made the air in the room sweet and heavy. But it was not the room’s disorder which was frightening; it was the fact that when one began searching for the key to this disorder, one realized that it was not to be found in the usual places. For this was not a matter of habit or circumstance or temperament; it was a matter of punishment and grief. I do not know how I knew this, but I knew it at once; perhaps I knew it because I wanted to live. And I stared at the room with the same, nervous, calculating extension of the intelligence and of all one’s forces which occurs when gauging a mortal and unavoidable danger: at the silent walls of the room with its distant, archaic lovers trapped in an interminable rose garden, and the staring windows, staring like two great eyes of ice and fire, and the ceiling which lowered like those clouds out of which fiends have sometimes spoken and which obscured but failed to soften its malevolence behind the yellow light which hung like a diseased and undefinable sex in its center. Under this blunted arrow, this smashed flower of light lay the terrors which encompassed Giovanni’s soul. I understood why Giovanni had wanted me and had brought me to his last retreat. I was to destroy this room and give to Giovanni a new and better life. This life could only be my own, which, in order to transform Giovanni’s, must first become a part of Giovanni’s room.
One is reminded of Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omnia, with its violin and music in disarray as the beatific cherub upends all semblance of order. Giovanni is David’s cherub, whilst Giovanni seeks in David something to recompose his inner dissolution, stemming from a great trauma in his mother country that has driven him into the clutches of the lecherous Guillaume. Standing as a bulwark against the passion he feels for Giovanni is everything that could set up a decent and “proper” life back in the States, most of all a marriage with Hella, whose return to Paris is an unspoken source of tension in David and Giovanni’s bliss.
When Hella does return, David detaches from Giovanni, who is understandably agonized. The scenes where the parties meet (David and Hella, Giovanni as the spurned lover, and Jacques and Guillaume as the smirking audience to the deception) are well-rendered in how deftly all involved politely steer around the truth of what occurred and is occurring. But David cannot join two opposing forces, and Hella is not stupid, despite her desiring in David what she knows, at heart, he cannot provide.
Giovanni, in his downward spiral, murders Guillaume in what may or may not be a moment of criminal passion. He goes on the run, but is quickly caught, and David is unable to hide his fears and wants from Hella. He stonewalls her at every turn, no longer capable of arousal, and after she finds him in the company of a sailor he’s grabbed from the street, they break up and she heads back to America. The book ends with David contemplating Giovanni’s final hours before his execution by the state, on a somewhat hopeful brink, off of which he might find a way to come to terms with himself through “the heavy grace of God.”
It is not a strong ending, although the very last paragraph is good and poetic. The religiosity is heavy-handed, and seems to reveal Baldwin’s authorial voice rather than David’s, as the character has shown himself to be quite worldly, and not the type to mull over/be inspired by Biblical verse. As stated before, Giovanni’s murder of Guillaume is classic melodrama, which distorts the rest of the novel’s precise realism. His subsequent execution might be a queer twist on Dickens’s Sydney Carton, from A Tale of Two Cities, a book that Baldwin treasured, but Baldwin wisely keeps that event off-stage, so to speak, letting David’s imagination work its anxieties into his life until he cannot cope, and dissolves.
No less entranced by the mystery of his self and its discomfiture, but unbounded now by lies, David ends his tale with an opportunity to address it in full, horizon-ward and touched by a giving wind.
Purity, like the world’s gods, exists only in the abstract, and is just as useful an illusion as the shrines we might imagine to be divinely occupied. They call out of aether and demand satiation from the shrinking wicks, constantly re-lit; purity, as ethereal, similarly demands from us comportment, but the body is not pliable as air. It has its own demands, and to deny them, to appease them with inadequate substitutes, would be to wish upon oneself retribution as austere, perhaps, as those the deities of disembodied glory visit upon us in a dream-struggle.
Michelangelo’s David, serenely proportioned, is not a man, but an outline, lending to marble the shape of a high exemplar. Frozen in ideality, the slanted hips suggest a sense of supernal ease, and the unreal blood supporting limb and sinew support, as well, a virile command as natural to this species of rock as the one gouged from Sinai. The sling, stiff in repose, awaits a giant who is forever yet to come. Michelangelo posits a David whose oncoming victory is always-already present, and a manhood around which all surrounds conform and assent to, and whose solid whiteness must be protected from the grime of elements and time. If David, here, is a reflection, then it is necessarily one in which man can never realize himself, lest David wake and find himself unclothed and small before a gaping crowd, his flesh now riddled with too-real openings, suddenly unfit for pedestals.
There are Davids, and there are Davids. And Giovannis, too, who tumble through squalor and diaspora, possessed of unprejudiced attraction, drawing to them predator and prey alike, as if the combined total could vanquish the voids created in them by circumstance and/or bigotry. The Davids and Giovannis (and Jacques and Guillaumes and Hellas, for that matter) persist under the weight of their desires, on pain of complete suppression, while the world of norms veers around, ever-peripheral. Their reflections contain more dream than actuality. Their way in the world is only as firm as their masks.
The scraps of Giovanni’s death, discarded by David in a breeze wafting in from the future, are blown back to him on the final page. They account for the book’s last words and seem to also say: we cannot put aside the things that make us. Damage, too, plays a part in self-creation. What the child denies does not have to be what the man denies, and the body, which is the house of memory, grows not away but up.
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