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1. The Ordinary World in "Giovanni's Room"

May 11, 2019

 

In the beginning...

 

The universe begins, in the Genesis myth, with division. The first thing we read is that “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. The cosmic architect begins by creating here and there. Out of divine unity, from the wholeness of transcendence, comes the world; division is woven into its fabric, duality a feature of its construction. God’s work is divided over six days, and it constitutes the separating out of the world’s elements – light from dark, water from land, creatures of the sea from beasts of the earth, and male from female.

 

The origin story we get from science bears out the idea that creation necessitates division: Out of the singularity came the rapid separation of forces and multiplication of elements. Within the first fraction of measurable time, the four fundamental forces were divided; seconds later, various kinds of subatomic particles asserted their existence and independence from each other. Over billions of years, matter would collect into distinct entities standing apart: galaxies from galaxies, stars from planets, water from land, humans from other animals, your mother from your father, and you from them.

 

Genesis goes on to show that within this new world of exponential division, the humans are demigods, with the corporeality of created beings yet retaining some of the spiritual oneness from which they emerged – they do not see any differences between each other, they are the same. But this oceanic wholeness is short-lived, as is our own infancy, and with the knowledge gained of eating the forbidden fruit comes separation: Adam and Eve see the other’s nakedness and all the difference between them it implies. Humanity as we know it is born, thrust out of paradise and into our divided reality.

“Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword.” James Baldwin’s internally-torn David, of the 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room, has glimpsed here the sundering that defines the human condition. His own spiritual separations are the thematic subject of the novel, explored through the more literal separations that permeate the story: His girlfriend has left him in France for America, the young man with whom he had his first sexual encounter is separated from him by time, and his lover Giovanni is apart from him now, waiting in a prison cell (if you’ll excuse the glibness) for the separation of the guillotine.

 

As David drinks away the night before the execution, he temporarily unites the past with the present using the fleeting magic of memory. He acknowledges that this is no easy task, especially in relation to our lost Edenic gardens:

 

“Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: It takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare.”

 

Heroes are those, in David’s estimation, who can unite the disparate, warring elements of our mnemonic character. It is an easy step to extrapolate this to a more general principle, which is that heroes reconcile division. And as the ordinary world is a place of seemingly infinite division, this leads to two simultaneous conclusions: that the hero seeks to repair the world, and that the hero’s work is never finished.

 

But we are still within the relative safety (or at least familiarity, which is often conflated with safety) of ordinary worlds, so let’s look at David’s. His divisions are largely centred on his sexuality and gender, each yanking in opposite directions and pulling the narrative thread taught to guide us through his story, like Ariadne’s thread in the minotaur’s labyrinth. David is a young American desperate to flee the restrictive atmosphere of his native country and all reminders of who he is, what he has done, and the painful estrangement between him and his father. David travels to Paris and meets Hella, a young woman also struggling to find a place in contemporary life and a sense of self that balances social expectation with personal liberty. While Hella is off in Spain, considering David’s unexpected proposal, he meets and falls in love with Giovanni, a handsome Italian bartender, with whom he lives in Giovanni’s room.

 

Even as the two men fall more deeply in love with each other, David’s sense of self crumbles, and he is increasingly crippled with uncertainty and indecision. That which is his source of joy is at the same time a source of shame. David is as torn about his masculinity as he is over his sexuality, linking them in the same way homophobes always have; deep down he assumes that to be gay is to be effeminate. During his last encounter with Giovanni in his room, he yells:

 

“You want to go out and be the laborer and bring home the money and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you come in through that door and lie with you at night and be your little girl.”

 

Giovanni responds that if he wanted to be with a woman, he would be with a woman, and that while David is fixated on what he wants, Giovanni is only interested in who he wants. This is the trap David cannot get out of, the mistake of seeing the concept – gay, straight, male, female – instead of the individual. It is hard to blame him or Hella for finally sacrificing their individuality to a collectivising label, out of sheer exhaustion at struggling with personal freedom, which requires so much courage and fortitude, against the ready-made formula of society that requires only giving in. It is painful to assert yourself against the group voice of your family, community, or society; it is painful to lose yourself to those same forces. It takes a hero to do both.

In his epistle to the Romans, Paul the Apostle prefigures David in describing the principle he finds at work in his soul: “Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” He, like David, is deeply divided by the rationalisations of his mind and the motivations of his body, writing, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” The battle between the law of God and the “law of sin which is in [his] members” has pitched its battle in the hearts of countless people over the centuries. Some have responded with monastic celibacy, others by throwing out religion to discover there is nothing sinful about their nature, and Augustine of Hippo took an approach familiar to anyone hoping to give up a vice after the next fix: As a young man, he prayed, “Lord, grant me chastity ... but not yet.”

 

While the common view is that Western civilisation is the product of and in constant tension between the values of Athens and Jerusalem (“... between these two points,” Matthew Arnold wrote, “moves our world”), for David the choice is between Athens and Plymouth Rock. He can negate the body and take his place as man at the head of a family with his woman, Hella, in America; or he can live more openly as a homosexual with Giovanni and indulge in the liberations of Europe (where, in Greece, as we learn from the questionable wisdom of Basil Fawlty, “they invented it”).

 

The bifurcation of David’s romantic and sexual options between straight and gay makes his actual experience of attraction (to both men and women – what we would today, though the novel does not, call bisexual) all the more salient. This dualistic sexuality is perhaps not the source of his confusion, which comes more from being attracted to men at all in a society that condemns it, but it is what keeps him locked in indecision. It is endlessly more difficult to choose between two desires than to choose between a desire and an obligation. This is the central struggle for David, trying to pick between two sides of a dichotomy, not understanding (nor could he given the values of his time) that there is an excluded middle in all of this. Of course, it would be some decades before this “third way” of bisexuality would be a viable option for a man like David. In the meantime, he must spend the novel trying “to say Yes to life”. But his indecision rules him, and he is ultimately unable to grow.

Although the Ordinary World is one of juxtaposed differences, it is not a place of change. While new dualities come into being (housewife or career woman has not always been a dichotomy on offer), these are the result of arduous labour and deliberate effort. Otherwise, the Ordinary World seeks to maintain itself roughly as it is. As David ponders his journey into Paris the next day, he knows that as he travels within his Ordinary World, “the train will be the same, the people, struggling for comfort and, even, dignity on the straight-backed, wooden, third-class seats will be the same, and I will be the same”. All will remain as it is while David slides apathetically through it, and unless he acts to bring about change, all will still be the same by the end of his story.

 

Why is it seemingly so easy to remain static in this divided world? Paradox tends to create a sense of existential unease, and dualities create uncertainties as they threaten to misbalance. In spite of this, many of us drift blithely through life as if we wouldn’t have it any different. Perhaps we are able to do so only by engaging in the “madness of the denial of pain” – we pretend things are unary and easily categorised by picking our preferred side of a polarity and ignoring the other. We even do this with other people, pretending they are simplistically singular beings who can be unambiguously defined. But as David notes, “People are too various to be treated so lightly.”

 

David’s first lover, Joey, was both his best friend and (as a gay teenager) the embodiment of that which David hates most in himself – indeed, the fact that “such a person could have been [David’s] best friend was proof of some horrifying taint in [David]”. Joey’s own duality contributes to the fractures in David, so that division begets division. Part of the brilliance of Baldwin’s novel is that it shows to the author’s Ordinary World the ambiguities of people like himself, undermining the common reduction of humans to simplistic concepts like “gay” or even “evil”. Cheap ideas and words such as these, which mask complexity and disregard ambiguity, are (as David thinks while reflecting on people who deceive themselves), “elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the world are not”. Humans are not reducible in this way; all people contain multitudes and contradictions. As Alberto Manguel has written, comparing erotic desires with literary tastes, “Our sexual affinities need only declare allegiance and define themselves under duress. In the moment of pleasure, we are as indefinable as the moment itself.”

 

Today, we see this kind of abasement of the other in our socio-political discourse. The Left tends to view the Right as a mausoleum for backwards thinking and an incubator of prejudice; the Right tends to see the Left as emotional despots, captive to their own excessive feelings and determined to lock everyone else in their cage. Each see their side as Good and the other as Evil. This has gone so far now that both the extreme Left and extreme Right regard themselves as the only true manifestation of their side of the divide and insist there is no centre; the political spectrum has become a political binary between us and them.

 

Historically, when two tribes went to battle over territory, there were a limited number of outcomes: genocide, so that one side remains, and truce, so that each concedes some space to the other in order to preserve their way of life. But both of these outcomes merely perpetuate the status quo, keeping the tribes as distinct as they began. The third option is assimilation, and this is the approach of all successful groups – reconciliation and growth, learning from the other to become something new.

 

It is worth being on our guard – as we navigate the Ordinary World and attempt to see and give visibility to the dualities on which it is based – against efforts to pretend divisions don’t exist or to fight to leave one side standing. Certainly, our political landscape might look very different if, instead of the attempted genocide of ideas we see daily, we encouraged the assimilation of viewpoints, the dialectical synthesis of what is good and rejection of what is bad from both sides to find reconciliation. This is no easy feat. It will be the task of heroes.

All adventures begin with division: The hero is snatched away from or voluntarily departs the Ordinary World, which is itself a realm of duality. Dichotomies are a fundamental part of its nature, as they are of our own reality in which we sit and read or watch or hear about the beginning of our hero, “once upon a time, in a faraway land” (or “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ...”). Our hero exists within the tension between polarities, a land made up of me and you, good and bad, pleasure and pain, life and death. From here, all adventures are inspired by the exploration of one of these dualities: The explorer leaves here for theresafety for danger, the known for the unknown; or the hero rejects a sudden disorder and seeks to reinstate order.

 

Think of Bilbo Baggins sitting comfortably in his hobbit-hole, his home being the primary thing of value in his life and leaving it being a disquieting proposition that, in his usual mind, he would roundly reject. He lives with a dichotomy between home and strange lands, or routine and the unexpected, or (most fundamentally) order and chaos. When he finally sprints out of his front door, “running as fast as his furry feet could carry him down the lane, past the great Mill, across The Water, and then on for a mile or more”, he is pursuing the half of his dual nature that surprises and scares him. He has set off – whether he yet realises it or not – to conquer evil, the second stage of our three-act journey.

 

If our hero is successful, she will not see the Ordinary World as it is again. Her purpose in going out into the unknown, descending into the underworld, travelling the road of trials, and ultimately returning, is to transform the ordinary world into something extraordinary. The journey our hero will take is one that leads to what Joseph Campbell describes as the “destruction of the world that we have built and in which we live, and of ourselves within it; but then a wonderful reconstruction, of the bolder, cleaner, more spacious, and fully human life ...”

 

But how do we get from one to the other, from the Ordinary World as it is to this as-yet-unknown version of normality changed by our heroic intervention? After all, our hero has been living with his divisions for so long, and there are many reasons to stay put, to avoid the trials and put off the journey. What is it that calls our hero to adventure?

 

 

 

 

Next: The Call to Adventure >

 

 

 

 

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References:

• The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (1949)

• Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin (1956)

• Culture & Anarchy, Matthew Arnold (1869)

• Into the Looking-Glass Wood, Alberto Manguel (1998)

• The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien (1937)

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