James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” is a poignant take on self contempt and personal deception. David is a young man who not only attempts to deceive himself, but deceives others along the way. In today’s world of trite pop psychology we tend to focus on the harm we cause ourselves through self-deception, but Baldwin’s story points out the pain and suffering our attempts at self deception can inflict on those around us.
Sometimes we inflict pain upon those unfortunate enough to love us when they reveal or reflect traits we cannot accept in ourselves. David is a young man who cannot accept his own homosexual tendencies. As a teenager he establishes a pattern which will follow him into adulthood. He makes love to a boy, then projects his self contempt onto that boy by bullying and degrading him. Years later, David meets a man named Giovanni but cannot accept the love which develops between them. He leaves Giovanni without explanation, and ignores what they have been to each other until he becomes ridden with guilt over Giovanni’s execution, which might have been avoided if David had been less selfish.
I’ve heard it said shy people are among the most vain; they refuse to come out of their shells because they might do something to reveal an imperfection. The shy person feels superior and is unwilling to risk a situation which might break that image. In Baldwin’s story, David is unwilling to risk what people might think of him if he came out of his shell and was labeled as a homosexual. He refers to the acts he performs with other men as degradation of the body, and we get the idea he also means degradation of the mind and soul. David mocks and calls older gay men “fairies”. He describes them as disgusting, although he is willing to exchange a sexual favor (or the promise of one) for an occasional handout. It seems likely, part of David’s inability to accept his own homosexuality is the threat he will one day appear as “ridiculous” as these old gay men.
Just as David is willing to take advantage of the old gays he calls “friends”, he is also willing to satisfy his own urges at the expense of younger and more beautiful men. Although highly aware of onlookers, and defensive about what this audience might be thinking, he allows himself to be seduced by Giovanni. I suppose if you’re all about image, it would be somewhat easier to be with a handsome man, one you could wear on your arm like a prize, than an aging and effeminate man. But it is just a continuation of the pattern he started with the young boy years before.
It is difficult to find much sympathy for David. Baldwin attempts to gain our empathy for David with deep inner struggle. At one point David admits, if only to himself, that he believes he was truly in love with Giovanni, but his actions don’t back that up. David’s struggles are only about the way things effect him personally. He leaves a trail of bodies in his wake but never goes back to ask forgiveness or to make amends. His affair with a girl named Sue only leaves her feeling used, the relationship with his fiancee Hedda only leaves her disillusioned and hurt, but the relationship with Giovanni ultimately leads to that boy’s downfall and execution.
While it’s true David is dealing with an identity issue steeped in taboo, and one which has been difficult for many men to face, my heart went out more for those he hurt along the way. Nevertheless, Baldwin did paint a convincing picture of a struggle many face or repress when it comes to accepting themselves. David’s disdain for himself caused him to create pain in the lives of all those unfortunate enough to have loved him.