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.
James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room
The Romantics may have claimed the usage of the literary sublime, but that very sense of severe grotesqueness to the point of an inability to look away supplants itself into almost everyone’s day to day life. Most often, it manifests in an internal distaste—a degradation of inner self and pollution of self-esteem. We bury whatever we don’t like about ourselves deep, deep within us in futile hopes of never seeing or recognizing it ever again. It is in that journey of running away from what we don’t like about ourselves and society we learn truly who we are.
The impetus for James Baldwin to leave America for Paris was the overwhelming racism and sexual identity inequality. It’s noted that in 1948 he entered a restaurant he knew he wouldn’t be served in. When the waitress told him the restaurant didn’t accommodate black people, he threw a glass at her head, shattered the mirror behind her, and subsequently left. He left America for a more welcoming—or so he thought—Paris.
In much the same manner, David recounts his times in Paris before Giovanni’s imminent “perish, sometime between this night and this morning” (5). Before Giovanni and David met, David glosses over the men he’s been with, notably Jacques. He used them for their money, or at least that is how he validated it to himself. To look at his relationship with men as something laid on a foundation of materialism is easier to digest than one subsisting on emotions. To want a man for his wallet is easier than wanting him for his penis. Jacques comments on David’s substantial feelings of attraction toward Giovanni with: “I was not suggesting that you jeopardize…that immaculate manhood that is your pride and joy” (27). David is unable to fully process his romantic feelings because he’s not willing to recognize that that very homosexual attraction is equally as valid as the romantic attraction to his fiancee. His idea of masculinity is too tied to it’s societally constructed antithesis: femininity. For David, one cannot exist without the other.
Questions to ponder:
- Are David’s feelings towards men considered to be sublime? Do they qualify in anyway as disturbing and disgusting yet oddly invigorating and shocking? If yes, does society or David himself find the feelings sublime?
- Do you think the Baldwin is projecting what he wished his life could’ve been into Giovanni’s Room? What character seems to represent Baldwin? How does their life seems to be different than what Baldwin’s is?