Anyone’s Mercy

Better late than never. From Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin.

David is alone in Paris while his beloved Hella is off in Spain trying to figure out the depth and nature of her love for him. He meets a gay bartender, Giovanni, in a known gay bar and soon begins living with him in, as the title suggests, Giovanni’s room.

Thus begins David’s journey into the openness of his homosexuality and his eventual break with Hella. The novel is a fascinating story of self-deception coming to light on the part of David, and the brilliance of Baldwin’s explicit writing on homosexuality far in advance of the novel’s time.

Baldwin’s choice of how to present his story is fascinating. Virtually all the men in the story are homosexual, it is as though we are living in a Paris in which there isn’t a single straight male. Hella sort of looms in the background as a female presence, but the males are all within the circle.

At the same time this unanimity of community is belied by the way they have to live, with a sort of hanging gloom of unacceptability and hiddenness which dominates the life style. Virtually no one has a real relationship of any lastingness and that seems to be what Giovanni himself is seeking, with David the chosen partner. David is completely unaware of this and is a troubling character in that he appears to be astonishingly unaware of any of this oddness. Perhaps Baldwin was striving to have David so blown away by his situation that he couldn’t think clearly about it. That explanation would work logically, but if so, Baldwin didn’t write it very well for me, since I was often interrupted in my reading by this uncertainty as what to make of David’s mindset.

The dominant form of relationship we find are purchased and promiscuous sexual relations between aging and wealthy homosexuals and young good looking men like Giovanni and David, though David himself, while completely aware of this behavior has only Giovanni as a partner. Unlike the other young me, including Giovanni, David is to some vague extent, financially independent. He just has trouble getting his father in the U.S. to release David’s own money to him.

Perhaps Baldwin simply reflects the internalization of this form of life in the homosexual community of the time. That would make sense. There weren’t better realistic options, so they had to live as the did; a survival tactic. But reading it in 2004, when gay marriage itself is such a dominant social issue, one sees other forms of homosexual union, unions of intimacy, faithfulness and monogamy and everyday family structures, that I couldn’t help but be struck by the artificiality of the form of homosexual community which Baldwin reveals to us. He is convincing. I sure he got it right and that’s the way it was. Perhaps it is the seeming “naturalness” of it in Baldwin’s treatment that brought me up short.

A minor theme of significance is Hella’s struggles with her budding feminist consciousness, again, a theme and treatment of Baldwin that is far in advance of his time.

There isn’t a huge treatment there, but Hella is a woman, in love with David, and willing to lose him rather than be with him if she’s isn’t fully in love with him. She knows her life must be her own, and that she lives in a world which understands her best as an adjunct to a man.

`You mean, I can’t be at your mercy? But you can be at mine?’ I laughed. `I’d like to see you at anyone’s mercy, Hella.’

`You may laugh,’ she said, humorously, `but there s something in what I say. I began to realize it in Spain — that I wasn’t free, that I couldn’t be free until was attached — no, committed — to someone.’

`To someone? Not something?’

She was silent. `I don’t know,’ she said at last, `but I’m beginning to think that women get attached to something really by default. They’d give it up, if they could, anytime, for a man. Of course they can’t admit this, and neither can most of them let go of what they have. But I think it kills them – perhaps I only mean,’ she added, after a moment, `that it would have killed me.’

`What do you want, Hella? What have you got now that makes such a difference?’

She laughed. `It isn’t what I’ve got. It isn’t even what I want. It’s that you’ve got me. So now I can be — your obedient and most loving servant.’

I felt cold. I shook my head in mock confusion. `I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Why,’ she said, `I’m talking about my life. I’ve got you to take care of and feed and torment and trick and love — I’ve got you to put up with. From now on, I can have a wonderful time complaining about being a woman. But I won’t be terrified that I’m not one.’ She looked at my face, and laughed. `Oh, I’ll be doing other things,’ she cried. `I won’t stop being intelligent. I’ll read and argue and think and all that — and I’ll make a great point of not thinking your thoughts –and you’ll be pleased because I’m sure the resulting confusion will cause you to see that I’ve only got a finite woman’s mind, after all. And, if God is good, you’ll love me more and more and we’ll be quite happy.’ She laughed again. `Don’t bother your head about it, sweetheart. Leave it to me.