Of all the theoretical pieces we’ve read, Tim Dean’s “The Erotics of Transgression” from a couple weeks ago especially intrigued me. The questions it raised about queer style in our discussions of Stein and Barnes rang in my ears as we read Giovanni’s Room: a well-crafted novel that, in my eyes, lacks a noticeably queer style despite its overtly queer content.
I went back and read Dean’s piece this week. This time the notion of queer style seemed absent to me—which says a lot about my own tendency to read a piece of theory differently based on what fictional work I apply it to—and instead the relationship between limits and transgression, an idea borrowed from Foucault’s “Preface to Transgression,” really stuck out.
Reading parts of Foucault’s essay, I found especially pertinent to Baldwin’s novel the argument that “transgression has its entire space in the line it crosses” (34). In Giovanni’s Room the protagonists’ journeys as expatriates—David across the Atlantic, and Giovanni across the French-Italian border—are one such crossing, and their passage into Giovanni’s room is another significant one. Both of these spatial crossings interact with (and further) the metaphorical crossings many of the novel’s characters make into deviant sexual behavior. Baldwin’s emphasis on these limits, and whether they can be crossed, aligns well with Foucault’s (and Dean’s) observations about the nature of limits. Here, I will focus on Baldwin’s description of Giovanni’s room and link it to Foucault’s concept of transgression and limits.
Entering Giovanni’s room indicates an irreversible crossing into new territory for both David and Giovanni. Before the two arrive in the room, Baldwin notes that Giovanni’s room “ended in a small park,” reflecting the restrictions placed on the couple’s relationship (63). On David’s first entry into the room, which is “in the back, on the ground floor of the last building of the street,” the two make many physical crossings, passing “the vestibule and the elevator into a short, dark corridor” (63). These details, by marking Giovanni’s room as difficult to reach, gesture towards its status as taboo. As Dean explains, marking something as taboo, as untouchable, of course suggests that there is a desire to touch it—it is precisely what is off-limits that we want most to come into contact with. That word “vestibule,” calling forth images of grand antechambers in governmental and official buildings, especially serves to evoke the kind of authority that dictates taboos. Once inside, David panics, thinking, “if I do not open the door at once and get out of here, I am lost. But I knew I could not open the door, I knew it was too late” (64). Here he suggests that the transgression he has enacted is somehow irreversible. Once crossed, the threshold of Giovanni’s room cannot be uncrossed.
Intimacy and distance illustrate the oppositional yet dependent relationship between transgression and limitation. Once inside the tiny room, Giovanni “locked the door behind us, and then for a moment, in the gloom, we simply stared at each other—with dismay, with relief, and breathing hard” (64). Once the door is locked, the men fill the space with both intimacy and distance. They limit their focus to each other by staring, a kind of optical narrowing that calls to mind the many times that David stares at his own reflection. This mirrored desire and attention suggests the men’s desire to transgress, but at the same time, their many constraints—the locked door, the gloom, and the heavy breathing within such a tiny room—remind them of the limits they must cross. David’s heightened, ambivalent emotional intensity—”With everything in me screaming No! yet the sum of me sighed Yes“—emerges from this pas de deux of transgression and limitation (64). The initial characterization of Giovanni’s room, emphasizing its cramped and tiny space, and the acts that transform it into the spot of their love affair place transgression within the space of its limits, as Foucault posits in his essay.
Foucault’s assertion also suggests that transgression somehow acts on a different stage from everyday reality, existing only within a limit instead of within the space contained inside a limit. Baldwin’s depiction of the room again serves to illustrate Foucault’s point when David notes that “life in that room seemed to be occurring underneath the sea. Time flowed past indifferently above us; hours and days had no meaning” (75). To be outside time in this way (and, as Giovanni’s room is, to be physically distant from the center of a city) is to be on the limits of humanity and social interaction. This position marks Giovanni and David’s acts as a transgression, in that they constantly hit their limits–limits like financial problems or Hella’s arrival after a certain amount of normal time passes–yet continue to cross and back away from these limits. That so much of Giovanni and David’s shared life occurs very late at night (or early in the morning) before dawn suggests another way that they enact transgression upon their limits, seeing each other mostly at times that function as the limits between day and night.