Existentialism in Giovanni’s Room
We do not know what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are — that is the fact. – Jean-Paul Sartre
In the novel Giovanni’s Room, author James Baldwin invites his readers to journey to Paris post-World War II. The San Francisco Chronicle describes this read as, “Violent, excruciating beauty,” highlighting the stark contrast between the 1950’s Paris of American expatriates, to the glittery setting of the first wave of the lost generation. Choosing this a backdrop, Baldwin sets the scene for a highly controversial narrative of death, love, and the complexity of choice. Engulfed in the violence and liaisons of an expatriate society, a young man, David, finds himself, “caught between desire and conventional morality.” Playing upon David’s existential crisis, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room discovers how heavy the responsibility of acting for one’s own freedom truly is.
As defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary (1828), existentialism is, “a chiefly 20th century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.” To understand how Baldwin captured the existential gravity of freedom, we first have to unpack how existentialists believe freedom operates. In the philosophical theory freedom lies in the ability to choose our own values, because our values are isolated from the determination of any outer forces including divinity. Weighing what we value is how we make decisions. Therefore it is key in existentialism to note, it is a personal responsibility to recognize one’s values, and that our decisions are made with autonomy. Decisions are then followed by our actions and further reactions. Therefore we are responsible for our actions, and must learn to see how our actions caused further reactions. This is where as referenced earlier, “the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for acts of free will,” lies. In the following paragraphs, using this structure of freedom as a guide, how Baldwin uses David’s complex situation to highlight “the plight” will become clear.
At the core of Existentialism is that freedom lies in the power to decide what has value. This is why the 1950s Paris expatriate society serves as a genius backdrop for Giovanni’s Room, keeping in mind that “many existentialists identified the 19th and 20th centuries as experiencing a crisis of values.” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2017) We can see that the 20th century was a society undergoing traumatizing changing through, “increasingly secular society, or the rise of scientific or philosophical movements that questioned traditional accounts of value (for example Marxism or Darwinism), or the shattering experience of two world wars and the phenomenon of mass genocide.” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2017) These changes forced humans kind to question the value of everything, from life to tradition. The ingenious factor in terms of Baldwin choosing this time period is that it is defined by a literal existential crisis. He is able to highlight the struggle of value and freedom, that we face on a daily basis, by using a topic as common and relatable as love. David’s story of sexual freedom as a young man whose wealth and power is linked to societal expectations, who is resisting ownership of his sexuality as a gay man by engaging with Hella and Giovanni, and who is living in the midst of 1950 Paris post World War II as an American expatriate, makes the complexity and confusion of love jump off the pages of Baldwin’s book. This exaggerated scenario of liberation drives home the theme of existentialism in relation to freedom not existing without responsibility. In order to understand how Baldwin craftily built up of David’s “plight”, we have to return the previously referenced structure of freedom as found in the Existential Movement.
Now that we understand that freedom lies in our ability to measure value, we can determine that decisions are made by weighing the value of one option and outcome to another. So as previously outlined, “freedom is in part defined by the isolation of my decisions from any determination by a deity, or by previously existent values or knowledge.” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2017) In Giovanni’s Room these external forces are identified as God , and American society. Throughout the novel David almost never uses religious language for guidance. At the end of Part One When asked by his older Italian housekeeper if he prays David stammers, “No, no. Not often.” (pg 69). And when she asked if he’s a believer he manages an odd smiles to which she replies with, “You must pray,” and an entire spiel about how getting married to a good woman and making babies, will make him happy. Not up until the very end of the book does David use religious language to describe himself and Giovanni. He envisions Giovanni kissing the cross in his last moments only for a priest to lift the cross away from him. David then speaks of his own nakedness in the mirror, “under sentence of death,” and hurrying, “toward revelation.” He closes by thinking, “That the heavy grace of God, which has brought me to this place, is all that can carry me out of it.” (Pg 169) The choice for Baldwin to end both sections of the book, with mentionings and reflections of God shows us as readers that although David may not appear devout, he allows his actions to still be lead by the amount of value elders, others, and tradition puts in faith. The second external force David allows to direct his life, is American society. For David he is constantly battling between the white picket fence, a wife and children, or living openly with Giovanni.
David is reminded of what American society expects of him through letters from his Father, asking that he come home, and Hella saying she’ll marry him. He is also affected by strong beliefs of Homophobia, since being opening gay is far from accepted, and is definitely not the expectation for a young man of his social and economic status. The effects that David allows these expectations to have on his life, are clearly seen in his relationship with Giovanni in which he unsatisfied, hostile, and distant. The truth of his actions, is best seen in Giovanni reaction during their largest fight in which Giovanni accused David of wanting him to be, “a little girl,” in reference to the perfect heterosexual American life David just wouldn’t let go of. In these cases David did not use his freedom to decide the value God and societal expectations in his life, but instead he carelessly and out fear tried to adopt the values other put on these external forces, bringing pain and suffering into his life and the lives of others. Baldwin uses this character flaw as a perfect way to show that we make our decisions independent of determination from a higher power, because it is our personal responsibility to measure value for ourselves. The next part of the structure of freedom in Existential Philosophy, is taking responsibility for our actions directed by our decisions, and accepting that our actions will result in further reactions. Baldwin outlines this struggle perfectly using David as focus point. Under existentialism human existence is not, “to be to be understood as arbitrarily changing moment to moment, this freedom and responsibility must stretch across time,” meaning that , “ freedom, rather than being randomness or arbitrariness, consists in the binding of oneself to a law, but a law that is given by the self in recognition of its responsibilities.” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2017) This is where again David falls short in exercising his freedom purposefully. Throughout the novel he lives and makes decisions carelessly, with no concern for past lessons, or future consequences.
For David, making decisions is all about how he feels in the here and now. For example, after his first sexual experience with Joey, David explains, “I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shames and frightened me. I succeeded very well – by not looking at the universe, by not looking at myself, by remaining, in effect in constant motion.” (Pg 20) In constant motion David never took the time to look at himself and create a personal code of values in which to make a decisions with. Instead he tried to contain the unrespectable gay side of himself, never taking ownership for many drunken nights with other men. On the balcony in reflection of all that had happened, of how close he allowed Giovanni and Hella to get to him, of the tragic ending of Giovanni, David grapples with his guilt, and starts to understand how his sporadic and disorderly use of freedom resulted in his loneliness. It reads, “Now, from this night, this coming morning, no matter how many beds I find myself in between now and my final bed, I shall never be able to have any more of those boyish, zestful affairs – which are, really, when one thinks of it, a kind of higher, or anyway, more pretentions masturbation. People are too various to be treated so lightly, I am too various to be trusted. If this were not so I would not be alone in this house tonight. Hella would not be on the high seas. And Giovanni would not be about to perish, sometimes between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.” (Pg 5) This shows that in reflection of his actions David understood that the result of his love life was not the fault of external forces or anyone but himself. In addition he admits to the idea of having the intention of finding his true self in France by saying, “But again, I think, at the very bottom of my heart, I knew exactly what I was doing when I took the boat for France.” (Pg21). Based on David’s outlook we can tell he will carry the weight of his loneliness and Giovanni’s death for the remainder of his life.
Existentialists believe that, “Freedom can usefully be linked to the concept of anguish.”(Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2017) Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room perfectly captures David’s anguish as he makes the seemingly impossible choice between a falsehood of the American dream, and a great love that may never be recognized with legitimacy. Baldwin makes use of the dramatically changing 20th century in order to evoke the complexities of freedom of choice that we as humans face in situations of love, lust, or expectation: “freedom entails something like responsibility, for myself and for my actions. Given that my situation is one of being on its own – recognised in anxiety – then both my freedom and my responsibility are absolute…there is nothing else that acts through me, or that shoulders my responsibility.”
(Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 May 2017) After examining this structure of freedom in Giovanni’s Room, we can see how the book is easily used as a talking point for Existentialism today.
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