Tangled in Time and Touching Taboos

“For shame! For shame! that I should be so abruptly, so hideously entangled with a boy; what was strange was that this was but one tiny aspect of human tangle occurring everywhere, without end, forever.” (62)

Last week, we discussed the spiraling, almost tangled, style Gertrude Stein usesdto talk about the nature of time and composition. In the Tim Dean article that we recently discussed, “The Erotics of Trangression,” the theorist wrote that Michel Foucault recognized a paradox within in the idea of transgression—“transgression, thanks to its functioning most intensely at the moment a line is crossed, must always seek out new limits, new boundaries to push against.” The connection there, I think, is that the process of creating new ideas—connecting the dots of a historical conversation in new ways, so to say—and pushing the boundaries of both art and life are a never ending processes. They are occurring everywhere, without end, forever.  This is also the case in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, as you see in the quotation above. The interesting thing about the concepts of time and movement in Giovanni’s Room is that that they are tangled in a mess of movement and stagnancy, transgression and guilt.

David is constantly shaming himself for feeling in love with another man. He is burdened with an overwhelming feeling of guilt throughout Baldwin’s novel because he is engaging with a taboo. And that idea is precisely what Tim Dean discusses when defining “transgression” and “taboo,” saying that the idea of taboo does not originate in the law but rather the limit. Dean quoted Freud in saying that “No external threat of punishment is required, for there is an internal certainty, a moral conviction, that any violation will lead to intolerable disaster.” This internal fear of a terrible external threat is exactly what seems to be fundamental struggle for David as he is coming to terms with his homosexuality.

The irony of David’s transgressive love affair is that the idea of transgression involves constantly “crossing the line” to push the boundaries of an internalized limit, but David’s character constantly feels stuck in stagnation. So, there is a tension in the story between the sense of inaction (it is arguable that nothing actually happens to David in the novel), and the idea of a constantly occurring entanglement that David notes goes on “without end, forever.” This tension is beautifully written about in the final few pages of the novel:

I long to crack that mirror and be free. I look at my sex, my troubling sex, and wonder how it can be redeemed, how I can save it from the knife. The journey to the grave has already begun, the journey of corruption is, always, already, half over. Yet, the key to my salvation, which cannot save my body, is hidden in my flesh. (168)

 The journey of corruption is, always, already, half over. The journey of corruption (the act of crossing the line that defines the limit concerning transgression), is always half way over (the paradox of the transgression is that the moment that the line is crossed it moves farther away). That is to say, David is stuck because he shames himself for his never-ending journey towards the taboo. The guilt he feels is always with him because he constantly battling with his own moral conviction that homosexual love is “dirty.” It is as though he is forever caught in the forever-tumble of time. What a mess! Yet, it seems to be the case that what makes this novel transgressive is how much it meditates on David’s attitude towards the taboo (homosexual love), how the protagonist handles his own moral conviction, the burden of self-imposed guilt, and the limits (his sense of space and time). It’s like there is a connection between the sense of “forever” as it associated with time and the sense of “forever” as it connected to the constant movement of the line that defines “the limit.” This idea, I think, is well put in Jacque’s advice to David early on in the novel:

 “Love him,” said Jacques, with vehemence, “love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And how long, at the best, can it last? Since you are both men and still have everywhere to go? Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most that, hèlas! in the dark. And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty—they will be dirty because you will be giving them nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty; you can give each other something which will make both of you better—forever—if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe.” He paused, watching me, and then looked down to his cognac. “You play it safe long enough,” he said, in a different tone, “and you’ll end up trapped in your own dirty body, forever and forever and forever—like me.” And he finished his cognac, ringing his glass slightly on the bar to attract the attention of Madame Clothilde. (57)

 David does end up trapped in his “own dirty body, forever and forever and forever.” Throughout the book he is caught in “the journey of corruption, already, always half way over.” He is always caught in stagnation yet also finds himself in the tangle of time “occurring everywhere, without end, forever.” So, on one hand David is not moving at all. On the other, he is part of a human history that is constantly moving, constantly reestablishing “the limit.” My main point here is Giovanni’s Room beautifully combines so many themes and ideas, and one of the most interesting is the intersection of transgression, guilt, time, and a sense of stagnation. It’s as though the main character’s guilt paralyzes him in the continuous tumble of time. There is also a very interesting religious aspect to this—David continuously wants to be cleansed and seeks salvation. That discussion, however, would be a whole other blog post itself. This one has tangled together enough ideas as it is.




Works Cited:

Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room. New York: Delta, 2000. Print.

Dean, Tim. “The Erotics of Transgression.” Trans. ArrayThe Cambridge Companion to Gay and Lesbian Writing. Hugh Stevens. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 65-80. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.


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Filed under Week 7: Giovanni's Room

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