Then the door is before him. There is darkness all around him, there is silence in him. Then the door opens and he stands alone, the whole world falling away from him. And the brief corner of the sky seems to be shrieking, though he does not hear a sound. Then the earth tilts, he is thrown forward on his face in darkness, and his journey begins…
I was reminded of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room when it appeared on my favorite independent bookseller’s list of 25 Books to Read Before You Die. I’d read Giovanni’s Room years ago, along with just about every word written by James Baldwin to find it’s way to publication. I picked it up again, wondering how it would read now, in the post-Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and DOMA.
From the opening line, I found it to be all that I loved the first time through and more – truly a bucket-list novel if you haven’t already read it, and a must re-read if you have.
On the back cover of my current copy (Vintage International Trade Paperback Edition, September 2013), Michael Ondaatje summed up James Baldwin’s influence on contemporary culture, writing, “If Van Gogh was our 19th-century artist-saint, James Baldwin is our 20th-century one.”
Indeed, James Baldwin is, in many ways, to the 20th-century, what Van Gogh was to the 19th. Van Gogh was an artist who changed the way we see art in the western world, addressing the mind’s eye (and thereby glorifying the individual over rank and class) by offering impressions rather than pure representations of his subjects which were, in turn, humble – the people, places, and objects that populated the lives of the ordinary working people who were just then stepping into the limelight of western art in the modern, post-feudal world.
Like Van Gogh, Baldwin drew our attentions to lives lived on the margins of the known world in the 20th century just as we margin-dwellers were beginning to push toward the cultural center, contributing, in the process, to its continuing disintegration. In Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin broke new ground, telling a story of queer love and the destructive force of conformity to alienating norms and its twin, internalized self-hatred. Baldwin challenged us to embrace the specificity of experience as a form of rebellion against the singularizing, totalizing world view of the modern age, an era bookended by colonialism and revolution. James Baldwin’s literary voice is not just the epitome of writing as social criticism and art in the 20th century, it is prophetic.
In the post-Stonewall era, Giovanni’s Room has taken on new meaning. It reads as historical fiction, a reminder of who we once were and how much progress we have (and have not) made toward a cohesive and compassionate conception of humanity; a journey that the whole of Baldwin’s oeuvre suggests is never-ending. I may be imposing too much of myself between the lines, but to me Baldwin seems suggest that to embrace this journey, we must begin by accepting ourselves as inseparable from the “other.” In Giovanni’s Room, he exposes the flip side of the invitation by creating a character who has made enemies of indivisible aspects of his identity, inciting a war with himself the collateral damage of which is suffered by everyone he touches.
Giovanni’s Room is still relevant after all these years. It calls us to ponder questions of individual and collective identity – of who we are and what we might be in the post-modern world – just as it helps us to remember who once were before Stonewall, Freedom Summer, and the feminist second wave.