Saints and “Sodomites”: Sex and Spirituality in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain
In James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, religion functions not only as form of worship but also as a covert site of sexual expression. In the novel’s opening chapters, Baldwin often characterizes religious worship in language that borders on the erotic. This undermines the popular conception of sexuality as detached from and even antagonistic toward the soul—the site where divinity resides. However, as can be observed in the Bible itself, sexuality and the body are never completely separate from the soul. In both Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians and the Song of Songs, there are passages that compare the relationship between Christ and the Church to the relationship between lovers. This concept, known in theological circles as “embodiment,” informs Baldwin’s understanding of sexuality; for Baldwin, the sublimity of desire is profoundly similar to spiritual transcendence, and the two seemingly disparate forces interact and influence each other in significant ways. John, the protagonist of Go Tell It on the Mountain, begins to understand this when he must reconcile his latent homosexuality, which he perceives as being at odds with his religious upbringing, with his fraught spirituality. He accomplishes this after a lengthy conversion experience, which itself parallels an orgasm in its structure and intensity. Over the course of the conversion, John rejects the body-soul dichotomy of organized Christianity, as represented by his father, Gabriel, and opens himself up to divine love in the form of Elisha, who also represents the object of John’s suppressed same-sex desire.
Comparing spirituality with sexuality is not a new phenomenon. While popular theology claims that the body, with all its attendant yearnings and desires, is completely separate from the soul, which is typically associated with spirituality and the divine, analogies and metaphors that link the spiritual with the sexual can be found in the Bible itself. For example, Ephesians 5:25-30 reads: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her [….] So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body” (New American Standard Bible, Eph. 5:22-30). In this instance, a direct parallel is drawn between Christ’s relationship to the Church and the relationship between a husband and his wife. Though one could argue that the relationship the epistle describes is one of love rather than sexual desire, the fact that Paul, the writer of Ephesians, explicitly characterizes the relationship as one similar to that between a husband and wife rather than one between friends or siblings indicates a relation between the Christ, the Church, and sexual companionship.
One can also observe similar metaphors in the Song of Songs, famous for its flowing, erotically-charged poetry. One particularly titillating passage reads: “O queenly maiden! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand. Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle” (New American Standard Bible, Song 7:1-3). While some of the Song’s figures have lost their arousing luster—it’s hard to imagine comparing a lover’s hair to a flock of goats going over well in a contemporary context—the erotic potential of the lyrics is nevertheless evident. Incensed over the Song of Song’s undoubtedly erotic language and its depiction of a healthy sexual relationship between an unmarried man and woman, many fundamentalist interpretations of the scriptures insist that the song’s erotic figures act as another metaphor for the relationship between Christ and his “bride,” the Church. While intended to dilute the sexual implications of the text, this interpretation, if accurate, incidentally furthers the claim that the Bible often likens the relationship of Christ and the Church to the relationship between a husband and wife, thereby implying a degree of sexual desire.
This analogy complicates the Judeo-Christian narrative, which, as many mainstream religious authorities insist, claims that the body (sex) and the soul (spirituality) are wholly detached from one another. These biblical passages show that the two are often inextricably linked. In theological discourse, this phenomenon is referred to as “embodiment.” Critic Anne-Janine Morey defines embodiment as “the unreconciled relation of body and spirit” (3). In Judeo-Christian theology, God (the Word) and the flesh are conceived as binary oppositions, with the divine operating on a metaphysical plane. Scriptures show, however, that this is not necessarily the case, and the sublime quality of God’s love for the Church can often only be compared to the love between a husband and wife.
Early in Go Tell It on the Mountain, Baldwin draws on this biblical precedent by utilizing language that draws an explicit comparison between sex and the fervent intensity of pentecostal worship. The best example of this can be observed in Baldwin’s description of Elisha, the Sunday school teacher, dancing during a church service. Baldwin writes, “It seemed that [Elisha] could not breathe, that his body could not contain the passion, that he would be, before their eyes, dispersed into the waiting air. His hands, rigid to the very fingertips, moved outward and back against his hips, his sightless eyes looked upward, and he began to dance” (9). Baldwin describes the actual dance in highly sexual language: “[Elijah’s] hands closed into fists, and his head snapped downward, his sweat loosening the grease that slicked down his hair; […] his thighs moved terribly against the cloth of his suit, his heels beat on the floor, and his fists moved beside his body as though he were beating his own drum” (9). The dance culminates in orgasmic intensity, furthering the implicit comparison between worship and sexual expression: “And so, for a while, in the center of the dancers, head down, fists beating, on, on, unbearably, until it seemed the walls of the church would fall for very sound; and then, in a moment, with a cry, head up, arms high in the air, sweat pouring from his forehead, and all his body dancing as though it would never stop. Sometimes he did not stop until he fell—until he dropped like some animal felled by a hammer—moaning, on his face. And then a great moaning filled the church” (9). This almost erotic fervor extends to the other congregation members. During Sunday morning worship, “[s]omething happened to their faces and their voices, the rhythm of their bodies, and to the air they breathed; it was as though wherever they might be became the upper room, and the Holy Ghost were riding on the air.” (8). Here, Baldwin directly links the sexually-charged atmosphere of the church with the presence of the Holy Ghost, thereby connoting a connection between God’s presence and sexual desire. This connection sets the stage for the protagonist John’s sexual and spiritual awakening.
Baldwin indicates John’s latent homosexuality early in the novel. When John wakes up on the morning of his birthday, he discovers, to his horror, that he has had a wet dream. John awakes on this morning “with the feeling that there was menace in the air around him—that something irrevocable had occurred in him” (Baldwin 11-12). He then recalls a scene in the boy’s bathroom at school, where “he had sinned with his hands a sin that was hard to forgive. [… A]lone, thinking of the boys, older, bigger, braver, who made bets with each other as to whose urine could arch higher, he had watched in himself a transformation of which he would never dare speak” (13). Baldwin clearly implies that John has masturbated while thinking of these boys. John is obviously disturbed by his “sin,” the darkness of which calls to mind, “the darkness of the church on Saturday evenings [….] It was like his thoughts as he moved about the tabernacle in which his life had been spent; the tabernacle that he hated, yet loved and feared” (13). As can be observed from this passage, John’s mediated relationship with his sexuality is very similar to his relationship with religion: He “love[s] and fear[s]” both (13), and both will form the crux of his “conversion” experience at the end of the novel.
It becomes increasingly apparent later in the novel that Elisha is the object of John’s desire. Baldwin describes a wrestling scene between the two fraught with sexual tension: “[John] kicked, pounded, twisted, pushed, using his lack of size to confound and exasperate Elisha, whose damp fists, joined at the small of John’s back, soon slipped. It was a deadlock; he could not tighten his hold, John could not break it. And so they turned, battling in the narrow room, and the odor of Elisha’s sweat was heavy in John’s nostrils” (55). Like Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord in Genesis, John wrestles with the object and reminder of his stymied homosexuality. As John begins to overpower Elisha, he is “filled with a wild delight” at “watching [the] manifestations of his power” (55). John’s joy is twofold: on one hand, he is elated at the opportunity to have physical contact with his beloved; on the other, he takes satisfaction in knowing that he is capable of overpowering Elisha, who also forces John to grapple with the existence of his same-sex desire. Similar to his feelings toward religion, which he both “love[s] and “fear[s],” John is locked in a love-hate relationship with his beloved and the reminder of his sexual desire, which he views as incompatible with his spiritual upbringing (13).
John’s fear and apprehension regarding religion stems largely from his relationship with his father. Gabriel, with his hypocrisy and faux saintliness, represents traditional, fundamentalist Christianity. He is adulterer and abuser, yet he is regarded by the other members of the congregation as a pillar of the church. Sarah, John’s sister, sums up the public perception of Gabriel perfectly: “‘Looks to me like he’s a mighty good man,’ she says. ‘He sure is praying all the time.’” (19). Gabriel has perfected the appearance of outer piety, but his behavior throughout the novel shows otherwise. Not only has he committed adultery with a young woman during his first marriage, but he regularly abuses his current wife, Elizabeth, and his children. Through Gabriel, Baldwin shows the hypocrisy of traditional Christianity. In order to distance himself from his sexual sin, Gabriel has forced a distinction between his soul, which he views as flawless and divine, and the carnal desire of his body. Gabriel embodies the body-soul dichotomy so prevalent in Judeo-Christian thought; in order for John to embrace the concept of religious embodiment, he must first reject his father.
In a sense, John’s conversion experience at the end of the novel initiates his recognition of the divinity of his desire. In his vision, John witnesses Elisha lying on the floor while Gabriel stands menacingly behind him. John experiences “a sudden yearning tenderness for holy Elisha; desire, sharp and awful as a reflecting knife, to usurp the body of Elisha, and lie where Elisha lay [….] As he cursed his father, [so] he loved Elisha [….]” (229). John refers to a memory in which he has to bathe his father: “Sometimes,” writes Baldwin, “leaning over the cracked, “tattle-tale gray” bathtub, [John] scrubbed his father’s back; and looked, as the accursed son of Noah had looked, on his father’s hideous nakedness. It was secret, like sin, and slimy like the serpent, and heavy, like the rod. Then he hated his father, and longed for the power to cut his father down” (233). John observing his father’s nakedness becomes a metaphor for the uncovering of Gabriel’s sexual sin and thus his hypocrisy, and John’s subsequent rejection of traditional, phallocentric, heterocentric Christianity, with its assumption that the spirit will forever be separate from the body, is symbolized by his rejection of his father: “And I hate you. I hate you. I don’t care about your golden crown. I don’t care about your long white robe. I seen you under the robe, I seen you!” (235). It is this rejection that finally allows John to embrace Elisha as a symbol of true spirituality, infused with the sublimity of erotic desire. John’s conversion culminates with orgasmic intensity when he is finally reunited with Elisha after spending a sweat-soaked night on the Church’s threshing-floor. Once John accepts God in his heart and calls on Jesus to “[t]ake [him] through,” he hears the voice of Elijah (241). At that moment, “a sweetness filled John as he heard this voice, and heard the sound of singing: the sound was him. For his drifting soul was anchored in the love of God; in the rock that endured forever. The light and darkness had kissed each other, and were married now, forever, in the life and vision of John’s soul. (241). The novel ends with the image of Elisha giving John a “spiritual kiss”: “The sun had come full awake. It was waking the streets, and the houses, and crying at the windows. It fell over Elisha like a golden robe, and struck John’s forehead, where Elisha had kissed him, like a seal ineffaceable forever” (263).
Baldwin’s portrayal of a young man making peace between his same-sex desire and his religious upbringing is by no means an entirely optimistic one. While John has achieved a kind of spiritual union with Elisha, John’s sexuality must, for a time, remain hidden, unable to be articulated: “John staring at Elisha, struggled to tell him something more—struggled to say—all that could never be said” (261). However, through a religious connection, John can finally enjoy a relationship with Elisha that, while not sexual, is at least fulfilling in its spiritual completeness and transcendence.Works Cited
Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006. Print.Morey, Ann-Janine. Religion and Sexuality in American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009. Print.New American Standard Bible. BibleHub, n.d. Web. 5 May 2017.
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