James Baldwin (writer) | Critical Essay by Valerie Rohy

This literature criticism consists of approximately 21 pages of analysis & critique of James Baldwin (writer).
This section contains 6,249 words
(approx. 21 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Valerie Rohy

Critical Essay by Valerie Rohy

SOURCE: "Displacing Desire: Passing, Nostalgia, and Giovanni's Room," in Passing and the Fictions of Identity, edited by Elaine K. Ginsberg, Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 218-33.

In the following essay, Rohy analyzes how the questions of origin and identity in Baldwin's Giovanni's Room relate to the concepts of passing and nostalgia.

"America is my country and Paris is my hometown," writes Gertrude Stein in "An American in France" (61). Placing in question the very notion of place, this transatlantic crossing relies on the terms—origin and identity—that it will expose as most unreliable. In the American expatriate tradition, the trope of nationality comes unfixed from its geographical moorings to become an emblem of other, more arbitrary identifications, producing a rhetoric of displacement that extends from national identity to ideology, subjectivity, sexual desire, and, in this case, "home." Stein's "Paris is my hometown" sets the scene for a performance of identity in which trappings of nationality and culture are put on by the expatriate in an act that becomes more "real" than the "real" and in which the fact of the matter—that Gertrude Stein, for example, was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania—itself comes to seem a piece of stage scenery, a pretext for her Parisian "hometown."

Questions of origin and identity are central to James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, a text which not only participates in the tradition of the American expatriate novel exemplified by Stein and, especially, by Henry James but which does so in relation to the African American idiom of passing and the genre of the passing novel. As such, Giovanni's Room poses questions of nationalism, nostalgia, and the constitution of racial and sexual subjects in terms that are especially resonant for contemporary identity politics. After all, the trope of "home" which Stein invokes and which proves central for Baldwin as well can hardly escape political inflection in a culture that, today as in Baldwin's 1950s, champions the white, heterosexual, bourgeois home as icon of a mythical and sentimentalized family whose "values" reflect those of the dominant culture. And at a time when attempts to intervene in the imposition of such values frequently present themselves under the rubric of "identity politics," the intersection of notions of "home" with nationalism, identity, and essentialism has taken on a particular urgency. In addressing the question of identity through the metaphorics of "passing," Giovanni's Room articulates the ways in which identities, including "nationality," "race," and "sexuality," are retrospective, indeed nostalgic, constructions, subject to a pathos of lost origins and demanding, on the part of the dominant culture, the violent disavowal and projection of its own contingent identity. The logics of homophobia and racism, Baldwin suggests, are each rooted in the nostalgia of an impossible essentialism whose desire for coherent identity is barred by an ineluctable passing.

The term passing designates a performance in which one presents oneself as what one is not, a performance commonly imagined along the axis of race, class, gender, or sexuality. Although the American passing novel typically concerns an African American who successfully presents herself or himself as white to escape the virulent effects of racism or to enter into exclusively white social circles, passing means, in addition, the impersonation of one sex by another. In American literature, passing across race and across gender are thoroughly imbricated—most famously, perhaps, in the narrative of William and Ellen Craft (1860), who escaped from slavery, she dressed as a white man and he posing as her servant, and in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), when Eliza, traveling to Canada, disguises herself as a white man and her young son as a girl. In the twentieth century, novels such as Nella Larsen's Passing and James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man add to the discourse of racial passing a third important sense of passing: the appearance of "homosexual" as "heterosexual." Giovanni's Room may be read as a passing novel in both racial and sexual senses: appearing a generation after the Harlem Renaissance, it restages the doubling of disguises performed in earlier African American novels—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and Passing in particular—which allows racial passing to figure (homo)sexual passing.1 Yet how does the vocabulary of passing make it possible to set tropes of racial identity along-side and against those of sexual identity? What would it mean to read Giovanni's Room "as" a passing novel or through the tropology that passing provides? Although race and sexuality by no means function in identical ways, in Baldwin's novel as in other texts, passing names a crucial nexus: a site of the relation between notions of racial and sexual identity whose intersection becomes a productive space in which to interrogate identity itself.

In America, Baldwin has said, "the sexual question and the racial question have always been intertwined" (qtd. in Goldstein 178), and in Giovanni's Room these questions are most clearly articulated through the discourse of nationality and nationalism. Not only does nationality stand in for race in the novel—as Giovanni's darker coloring and lower-class status contrast with David's blondness and privilege—but perhaps more important, the rhetoric that would equate "race" with "blackness" is suppressed, and the "whiteness" of the stereotypically Anglo-Saxon hero, foregrounded. In this text's extraordinary beginning, David's reflection on his own image signifies "white" with indelible quotation marks and invites, even insists on, a reading of his race in the context of his homosexuality and his homophobia: "My reflection is tall, perhaps rather like an arrow, my blond hair gleams. My face is like a face you have seen many times. My ancestors conquered a continent, pushing across death-laden plains, until they came to an ocean which faced away from Europe into a darker past."2 Producing the narrator as a representative of white American dominant culture—its history of colonial conquest, its arrow-straight posture, even the banality of its familiarity—this meditation on culture and identity takes shape in terms of history and temporality. It is appropriate enough that a novel so committed to a reading of nostalgia and retrospection should present its own narrative as retrospection by beginning at the story's end, with Giovanni condemned to death and David about to leave home once again. But the terms in which the novel first frames race and sexuality—through the introduction of its narrator—themselves perform a kind of metaleptic reversal: in attempting to push back the frontier that emblematizes American futurity, David's ancestors have traveled not back to the future, but forward into the past. And for white America to confront its "darker past" is here, one suspects, to come face to face with the darkness or difference that its own light face—the face of an ideology we have all, in one way or another, "seen many times"—seeks to deny.

"The whole American optic in terms of reality," Baldwin has said, "is based on the necessity of keeping black people out of it. We are nonexistent. Except according to their terms, and their terms are unacceptable" (qtd. in Troupe 210). Yet Baldwin will appropriate passing, a trope that seems to literalize that "nonexistence" or invisibility, as a means of reading and resisting dominant constructions of race, gender, sexuality, and identity as such. Although no figure in Giovanni's Room passes across the color line, David produces himself as heterosexual with Hella and as gay with Giovanni, who is himself passing, for the moment, as a gay man. Even Hella, as Baldwin makes clear, performs the rigorously scripted role of the heterosexual woman, passing as feminine through the gender performance that Joan Riviere has termed "masquerade."3 While Baldwin as author does not attempt to pass for white, he may, outfitted in what some readers have persistently construed as a sort of Henry James drag, pass into the white literary tradition, whose conventions of first-person narrative require that an author always pass as his or her protagonist, as Baldwin does when he speaks in David's voice the "I" that is the novel's first word.4

These displacements of identity, the hallmark of passing, are juxtaposed in Giovanni's Room with a desire for placement seen as the retrograde movement of a nostalgia that remembers and longs for "home." In imagining nostalgia, Baldwin calls on both spatial and temporal metaphors: notions of "going back" to a place of origin on the one hand, and to a historical past on the other. I want to return to the relation between nostalgia and passing to suggest the ways in which spatial and temporal figures describe what amounts to the same logic of return, but let me begin by examining Baldwin's rhetoric of distance and placement and his figures of home, homeland, and nationality. If nationality, in Giovanni's Room, is an allegory of sexual and racial identity, "home" comes to represent sexual orthodoxy: when David finds himself "at home" neither in Paris nor in the United States, neither with his Italian iover nor with his American fiancée, his distance from father and fatherland suggests his venture into a space outside American bourgeois heterosexuality. When his father attempts to return the expatriate to his ideological, if not literal, homeland by recuperating for him the heterosexual masculine roles of wage earner, father, and married man, David has to admit that he "never felt at home" in the place where his father, reading a newspaper, would assume the stereotypical pose of the bourgeois American male. What is at stake in the return to, or resistance to, all things "American" is clear: "Dear Butch," his father writes, "aren't you ever coming home?" Yet only after he is brought "home" to heterosexual masculinity, here phobically opposed to homosexual effeminacy, can David be "Butch" (GR 119-20).

More persistently than his father's nagging letters, David's own homophobia pulls him back toward the America that constitutes his nostalgic ideal of secure gender and sexual identity. Prompted not only by his relocation in Paris but by the possibility of relocation in what he imagines to be a homosexual space, his nostalgia for home and homeland is a desire for an imagined site of heterosexual meaning. It is, after all, while breakfasting with Giovanni that David experiences his first bout of homesickness and "ache[s] abruptly, intolerably" with the desire to go "home across the ocean, to things and people I knew and understood … which I would always, helplessly, and in whatever bitterness of spirit, love above all else" (GR 84). In that moment the strangeness of the city, of Giovanni, and of their love seems to reanimate the promise of epistemological security that "home" holds out. David's knowledge of the knowability of American "things and people," however, depends on a denial of difference, as his admission of "bitterness of spirit" suggests. His "bitterness" toward America marks the difference within the American "homeland"—a difference that is, for David, his own homosexual desire. Homosexuality is understood here, as in Freud, as the unheimlich return of a desire that gives the lie to homesickness and to the hope of a return to American orthodoxy; like the uncanny, that is, homosexuality appears as the return of something familiar that has been repressed—in David's case his adolescent love for Joey, which is all the more unheimlich for being, in fact, so close to home.

The note of "bitterness" in this discussion of differences between American and European "things and people" points to two distinct systems of difference that operate simultaneously in Giovanni's Room. Although the text conspicuously compares David as American with Giovanni as European, the more telling differences are those within "the American," within David himself, and within the always permeable boundaries of identity. Lacan's notion of the split subject bears repeating here: "In any case man cannot aim at being whole … once the play of displacement and condensation to which he is committed in the exercise of his functions, marks his relation as subject to the signifier" (Feminine Sexuality 81-82). Because subjectivity is lacking or divided within the symbolic, the effect of coherence depends on the expulsion of difference, yet efforts to police boundaries can produce only the effect of "inside" and "outside"—an effect that nonetheless makes itself felt as a continual tension between the claustrophobic "inside" of identity and its dangerous "outside." Thus David both hates to be labeled an American and is horrified by the possibility of being anything else. When Giovanni calls him a "vrai américain," David responds, "I resented this: resented being called an American (and resented resenting it) because it seemed to make me nothing more than that, whatever that was; and I resented being called not an American because it seemed to make me nothing" (GR 117). Outside the putative safety of "America" is a territory so phobically overdetermined that it appears wholly evacuated, a "nothing." Producing this cipher as placeholder for a famously unspeakable love, David is as unwilling to imagine being anything other than a heterosexual as he is unwilling to imagine being anything other than an American. Yet "America," of course, is itself "nothing": it emerges as a locus of identification only by distinguishing itself from the foreign—or the perverse. In the narrative of Giovanni's Room, the space of that "nothing," alternately emptied out and filled up by representation, will also become, in the service of defining "America," an all too substantial abjected "something." Even so, being an American, "whatever that was," is never certain; indeed, there is perhaps no better illustration of the difference within, or impossibility of, identity than the way "nothing" haunts the phrase "nothing more than" an American.

Biddy Martin and Chandra Talpade Mohanty read "home" and identity in terms that usefully describe this mapping of culture's "outside" as a "nothing" or "nowhere":

When the alternatives would seem to be either the enclosing, encircling, constraining circle of home, or nowhere to go, the risk is enormous. The assumption of, or desire for, another safe place like "home" is challenged by the realization that "unity"—interpersonal as well as political—is itself necessarily fragmentary, itself that which is struggled for, chosen, and hence unstable by definition; it is not based on "sameness," and there is no perfect fit. (209)

Just so, Baldwin acknowledges the uncertainty of "home"—that is, of identity as such—yet admits its persistent attraction in David's reluctance to "risk" locating himself elsewhere. Of course, risk is not only found outside those encircling walls; home is always as uncanny as the foreign, for it is itself the foreign. For dominant ideology to produce itself as the natural, not the unheimlich, it must repudiate its other as "nothing"; the coherence of "home" is thus purchased at great cost—a cost literalized, in Baldwin's novel, as David's repudiation of Giovanni, Guillaume's murder, Giovanni's flight and execution, and David's own homelessness.

But while the violence demanded by, and inherent in, the identity formation of the dominant culture may suggest the need for a gay "home" or community, the maid's room that David shares with Giovanni feels like a prison to him for most of the novel and seems an "Eden" only after it is lost. Though Guillaume's bar functions as a kind of gay "household" of which Guillaume is himself the founding father, the possibility of gay community and of essential gay identity is largely foreclosed in the novel. When the men who openly identify as gay, like Guillaume and Jacques, are called "disgusting old fairies" and worse, one hardly wonders why the only "homosexual" relationship validated here takes place between two bisexual men whose masculinity is continually and anxiously affirmed. But if Giovanni's Room implies that the best gay man is, in effect, a straight man—or at least one who mimics "straightness" impeccably—the novel also recognizes that something like gay identity, if not self chosen, can be homophobically imposed. That is, though David is sickened by the barroom queens who legibly signify their desire, he is himself read as gay on the street by a sailor who gives him a look of obscene contempt. "some brutal variation of Look, baby, I know you" (GR 122). This knowing gaze, seeming to recognize in David the identity he has so assiduously denied, engenders in him what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has termed "homosexual panic" at his inability to contain the public signification of his body (Between Men 83-96).5 This fixation of homophobic fantasy and anxiety on the supposed legibility of the gay body recalls the "I know you" of the racial gaze represented in African American passing novels in scenes of recognition and exposure. In Larsen's Passing, for example, when Clare and Irene meet accidentally at Drayton's restaurant, the phantasmatic epistemology of passing is all too clear: to see is to know. This is equally true in Giovanni's Room, where even the object of the gaze is enjoined to "look," as if only by looking at himself being looked at can he fully be interpolated as the other whom this scene labors to produce.

In reading the relation of race and sexuality in Giovanni's Room, it may be useful to consider the somewhat different ways Baldwin frames sexuality and race elsewhere. Although his observation on the blindness of the "American optic"—as a discourse "based on the necessity of keeping black people out" except on "their terms"—remains true if the word "gay" is substituted for "black," Baldwin does not, for the most part, imagine sexual identity as symmetrical with racial identity. Race is essential, communal, and public, whereas sexuality is contingent, individual, and private. Asked in a 1984 interview with Richard Goldstein about the meaning of writing homosexuality "publicly," Baldwin said, "I made a public announcement that we're private, if you see what I mean" (175). The act of publicly announcing one's privacy, something of a contradiction in terms, suits Baldwin's vision of homosexuality as an identity that is not properly an identity, a "we" that cannot be adequately named. Saying of the term gay, that "I was never at home in it," Baldwin echoes David's confession that he was "never at home" in his father's house (qtd. in Goldstein 174). His response construes homosexuality, however "private," as that which can only aspire to the status of "home" and, associating homosexuality with the failure of "home" and the failure of identity, seems to return "gay" to the "unacceptable terms" of dominant representation.

Giovanni's Room and other passing narratives, however, counter Baldwin's published remarks on race and sexuality; they suggest instead that both racial identity and sexual identity always rest on "passing," and they reveal the often brutalizing consequences of attempts by the dominant culture to deny identity's contingency. In the world of the novel, "true" identity is radically inaccessible: one can never not pass, just as one can never go home, for both homeland and identity are revealed as retrospectively constructed fantasies. Like the binary logic of "coming out," passing can suggest an hypostatized opposition, but it also marks "race" and "sexuality" as fictions of identity. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes, "Race has become the trope of ultimate, irreducible difference … because it is so very arbitrary in its application" ("Writing 'Race'" 5). Race is, however, not the only trope of difference: despite the ways in which racial and sexual identities are differently constituted, policed, and performed, both homosexuality and heterosexuality are themselves tropes of difference that, not despite but because of their arbitrariness, wield enormous social power. If difference is a trope and if the distinction that is supposed to exist before comes into being only after the naming of identity, passing is not a false copy of true identity but an imitation of which, to borrow Judith Butler's account of gender, "there is no original" (Gender Trouble 25).

To unfold more fully the relation of identity to passing and nostalgia, I'd like to return to some ways in which the tropes of passing in Giovanni's Room, as in Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Jessie Redmon Fauset's Plum Bun, and Larsen's Passing, speak to identity's essential difference from itself. Such novels, clearly engaged with issues of race, community, and what we would now call identity politics, have to varying degrees been read as denouncing imposture and defending "original" or "true" identity. In Larsen's novel, Mary Helen Washington writes, "'Passing' is an obscene form of salvation" (164). If passing, that is, for Larsen provides no "salvation" at all, it appears "obscene" in threatening the negation of identity and in transgressing the boundaries that constitute "truth" or meaning in opposition to the abject, the meaningless. As a figure, passing insists that the "truth" of racial identity, indeed of identity as such, relies on the presence or possibility of the false. Yet passing is not simply performance or theatricality, the pervasive tropes of recent work on sex and gender identity, nor is it parody or pastiche, for it seeks to erase, rather than expose, its own dissimulation.6 Passing, in other words, is only successful passing: unlike drag, its "performance" so impeccably mimics "reality" that it goes undetected as performance, framing its resistance to essentialism in the very rhetoric of essence and origin.7

To pass for is, according to the OED, "to be taken for, to be accepted, received, or held in repute as. Often with the implication of being something else." This formulation, flat and uninflected as it is, executes a sort of turn in a phrase that sounds like a redundancy: "Often with the implication of being something else." Here "being" or essence, the stuff of "true" identity, is reduced to, or endowed with, the status of "something else." Passing, however, must be understood as double: the gesture that can uncannily make what we think we know of "race" and "sexuality" into "something else" also represents the reversal of "being" and seeming that causes the dominant culture's self-presentation to be "accepted" as the natural. Passing, then, exerts rhetorical or political force not primarily as the betrayal that must be disavowed for an oppressed group to claim its own essential identity but as a betrayal of "identity" that offers one way of reading the production of the dominant culture's own identifications.

In matters of race as well as sexuality, passing both invokes and unravels the logic of primary and secondary, authenticity and inauthenticity, candor and duplicity, by placing in question the priority of what is claimed as "true" identity. The discourse of racial passing reveals the arbitrary foundation of the categories "black" and "white," just as passing across gender and sexuality places in question the meaning of "masculine" and "feminine," "straight" and "gay." Racial passing is thus subject to an epistemological ambiguity; from the beginning, the discourse of passing contains an implicit critique of "identity" precisely because what constitutes "the beginning" of identity remains in question. Born into passing, Frances Harper's mulatto heroine in Iola Leroy is raised as a white child without the knowledge that her mother is black or that she is, in the eyes of the law, a slave of her father, whereas Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man relates the disjunction between the narrator's childhood experience of himself as white and the eventual revelation of his "true" race, whose definition is enforced by white juridical authority.8 Such texts' most salient question is the possibility or impossibility of predicating both identity and "politics" on a racial subject who stands before culture, before community, and before a relation to passing. But they also ask whether the law is not itself passing when it plays the role of authority so effectively that its own dissimulation or contingency is erased.

To recognize the masquerade of "natural" identity is also to reveal the unnaturalness of what the dominant culture would have us most take for granted: the ontological status of heterosexuality and whiteness. The rhetoric of passing brings into relief the inauthenticity of "authentic" identity by bringing to the fore the passing of heterosexuality and of whiteness as themselves—which is to say, the contingency at the heart of identity that engenders, in the dominant culture, endless attempts to naturalize its own position by positing the inauthenticity or secondariness of what it will construe as its others.9 As Baldwin himself has suggested in a published conversation, the constitution of the deviant or marginal subject is the paradigmatic gesture through which the subject position of the dominant culture is defined: "People invent categories in order to feel safe: White people invented black people to give white people identity…. Straight cats invented faggots so they could sleep with them without becoming faggots themselves" (Baldwin and Giovanni 88-89). That is, the white or straight world invents its other in order to recognize itself, making the "inauthentic" define the authentic. The instability of heterosexuality and whiteness is projected onto, and reified in, the passing subject, people of color, and gay men and lesbians, all of whom constitute what Judith Butler, in her reading of homosexuality and miscegenation in Larsen's Passing, calls the "constitutive outside" of regimes of sexual and racial purity (Bodies That Matter 167).

If passing, then, invokes origins only to displace origins, the passing of the law itself is manifest in its nostalgia for a point of origin that, in fact, it has never known. This nostalgia takes shape, both in Giovanni's Room and in other discourses of race and sexuality, not only in terms of home and displacement but in terms of retrospection and the past. Like David's nationalistic fantasy of his American homeland, subjectivity—and the various identificatory mechanisms by which we recognize ourselves as subjects—is always a story told from the vantage point of the present and projected into the past, where it gains the status of an origin. In order to think further about nostalgia, I'd like to return to some ways in which metalepsis, the displacement of the secondary into the site of the primary, has been imagined in recent criticism. While the deconstructive logic of these readings is no doubt familiar, they make it possible to trace more clearly the politics of a certain cultural nostalgia in relation to the retroactive construction of individual subjectivity.

Judith Butler has persuasively described the construction of the subject "before the law" by the very agency of the law, whose part in that history is retroactively erased: "the law produces and then conceals the notion of a 'subject before the law' in order to invoke that discursive formation as a naturalized foundational premise that subsequently legitimates the law's own regulatory hegemony" (Gender Trouble 2).10 As in Kafka's story of the same name, Butler's "before the law" at once suggests a space prior to juridical discipline and the very space organized under that discipline. To recognize such retrospective projections of the dominant culture, Butler cautions, is not enough if oppositional projects will also subscribe to a politics of representation that assumes a priori an essential sameness among its constituents; nor is it productive for coalitional or "representational" politics to decide in advance what the contours of their coalitions will be and thus to invent, through "description," the constituency they come to represent.11 Metalepsis is thus centrally a part of the ways we imagine politics as such and the ways that both hegemonic and oppositional institutions take shape; but no less "political" is the nostalgia of the subject within the symbolic—indeed, nostalgia articulates the relationship of social law to psychological subject.

Insofar as it is anchored by proleptic and retrospective projections, political "identity" comes to resemble subjectivity as Lacan understands it. Having suffered a splitting of self or loss of a presence-to-himself as a result of his entrance into the symbolic order, the subject confronts a "radical fissure, and a subjective impasse, because the subject is called on to face in it the lack through which he is constituted" (Feminine Sexuality 116). Unable ever to face its own constitutive lack, culture itself, not unlike the Lacanian subject, attempts to "cover over" or deny lack by positing an origin, a "before." Thus the pre-Oedipal state is produced as a site of wholeness, multiplicity, or indifferentiation-as the outside of the symbolic—only within the symbolic order, by whose agency we are able retrospectively to posit the pre-Oedipal as the prediscursive realm. And yet, for Lacan, the subject owes as much to anticipation as to retrospection: the mirror stage depends on the projected image in which the child misrecognizes himself in a proleptic fantasy of his future bodily wholeness and assumes, as "the armour of an alienating identity," the template or "rigid structure" that determines subjectivity ever after (Écrits 4).

Just as the image of the fragmented body that precedes the mirror stage can be only metaleptically imagined, even beyond the mirror stage, as Jane Gallop notes, individual subjectivity is thoroughly indebted to projections into the past and future: it is "a succession of future perfects, pasts of a future, moments twice removed from 'present reality' by the combined action of an anticipation and a retroaction" (82). That is, the effect of identity's coherence is generated in part by endless reference to an irrecoverable origin, an elsewhere. If nostalgia, like passing, gestures toward an absent "something else," it does so not to displace but to locate and confirm individual or institutional "identity." Thus what Susan Stewart has called "the social disease of nostalgia" designates not an aberration in society but the disease of the social as such, the enabling "disease" or condition that, by looking backward, allows culture to progress or persist (23).

The nostalgia of the social works to vivify, and is in turn represented by, the particular desires of individuals: in Giovanni's Room, David's longed-for home in American heterosexual ideology is, like identity itself, revealed to be deeply nostalgic, retroactively produced as an origin from a position of belatedness and lack. The object of David's desire exists only in fantasy, as Giovanni recognizes: "you will go home and then you will find that home is not home anymore. Then you will really be in trouble. As long as you stay here, you can always think: One day I will go home" (GR 154-55). "Home" becomes possible only after identity and the possibility of meaning are recognized as lost, when the contingency of the origin is erased by nostalgia and "home" is naturalized as an object of desire. As a condition of desire that, as Gallop says of the image of "the body in bits and pieces," the corps morcelé "comes after … so as to represent what came before" (80), the nostalgia designated in Baldwin's novel by "homesickness" does not so much represent a disturbance of desire as the fate of all subjects within the symbolic order. Nostalgia, "a desire constitutively unsatisfied and unsatisfiable because its 'object' simply cannot ever be defined," becomes a fundamental condition of subjectivity—and of culture (Gallop 151). More than a retroactive effect, nostalgia is an effect which, unable to name what it experiences as lost, can only misrecognize the object it desires, for although its etymology refers back to nostos, or return, Gallop notes, nostalgia is a "transgression of return: a desire ungrounded in a past, desire for an object that has never been 'known'" (151). In racist and homophobic discourse, the "desire for an object that has never been known" is the desire for the coherence of whiteness or heterosexuality, an impossible ideal that nevertheless must be sustained if dominant culture is to "reproduce" itself, as Butler recognizes, as distinct from its "constitutive outside."

To name this effect "nostalgia" is to suggest as well the pathos that colors its backward glance—a pathos that may mean the masking or misrecognition of the more coercive aspects of the ideology "home" represents. It means, too, the misrecognition of identity as such figured not only in Lacan's mirror stage but in Baldwin's: when David examines his reflection in the first page of Giovanni's Room, his misrecognition of himself as self, however problematic his whiteness and straightness have and will become, seems the precondition of speech, even the precondition of narrative. David's desire to return to America is insistent and deeply felt, but as the novel's brutal conclusion suggests, nostalgia and violence go hand in hand as inseparable aspects of the positing and policing of identity. That is, nostalgia's inevitability in no way means its effects are symmetrical, for it is precisely the nonidentity of the white, bourgeois, heterosexual culture that David represents in Giovanni's Room that must be phobically projected onto an other who, like Giovanni, will bear the burden of that nostalgia even to his death.

Baldwin's ambivalent revision of the passing novel both exposes, through David, the operations of nostalgia and trades on a pathos of lost origins. As Baldwin observes in Giovanni's Room, agency and self-consciousness are never fully ours: the effect of identity continually and repetitively produced by the subject to recognize itself as a subject is imbued with the pathos of David's misrecognition of his own agency and subjectivity. "Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden," Jacques says, after the news of Giovanni's sentencing, "I wonder why." David thinks: "Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don't know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life offers only 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" (35-36). The allusion to prelapsarian bliss appropriately represents the subject prior to the imposition of the law and the symbolic order; indeed, as Gallop has noted, Lacan's account of the mirror stage is the story of a "paradise lost" (85).12 Just as we can understand Eden only in the language of exile, we can imagine pre-Oedipal presence only in the Oedipalized language of lack. If Eden, in this particular myth of origin, is a paradigmatic home, whether the original heterosexual household or the short-lived pleasures of Giovanni's room, it is, Baldwin suggests, always already lost. The "either, or"—to remember Eden or to forget—is, as Giovanni's Room makes clear, no choice at all, for to remember is to engage in a nostalgic gesture that, to posit home as the originary site of identity, must simultaneously erase its retrospective construction, and to forget is to accept the nonexistence of this Eden—or, if you will, identity—a renunciation the subject can never wholly make. Thus each decision, and each performance of identity, is necessarily a double bind: David is condemned never to remember or forget Giovanni, never to get "home" or give it up.

It is easy enough, perhaps all too easy, to say that the answer to the question of identity politics is a politics of identity that insists on the contingency of identity. Such a politics, taking its cue from the discourse of passing, might seek to de-essentialize "identity" so as not to impose, through anticipation or retrospection, an illusionary and exclusionary coherence on those it "represents" and in order not to accede in its own right to the logic of the dominant culture. Yet what Baldwin's novel brings home to us most forcefully and most poignantly is the danger not only of the exercise of nostalgia but also of the fantasy that one can ever escape it. No less than the desire for an impossible return, the denial of nostalgia is itself nostalgic, for the ending of nostalgia and the accomplishment of placement is precisely the impossible object that nostalgia forever pursues. No politics, then, can ever fully overcome the passing or impersonation of its own identity or disavow the nostalgia that sustains subjectivity in the imaginary. Instead, a "politics"—which is to say, a reading—of "race" and "sexuality" might work to uncover the constitutive nostalgia of the dominant culture, for about the notions of passing, nostalgia, and desire whose effects Giovanni's Room traces, there is still a great deal to be said.

Notes

1. For a reading of racial and sexual passing in Larsen, see the essay by Cutter in this collection. See also Deborah McDowell's "Introduction" to Quicksand and Passing and Blackmore, "'That Unreasonable Restless Feeling': The Homosexual Subtexts of Nella Larsen's Passing." Cheryl Wall discusses passing in relation to gender in "Passing for What? Aspects of Identity in Nella Larsen's Novels."

2. Baldwin, Giovanni's Room 7. All further quotations from this novel will be from the Dell edition (1988) and will be cited in the text as GR.

3. See Riviere, "Womanliness as Masquerade," and Judith Butler's discussion of Riviere and the performance of gender in Gender Trouble 24-25, 50-57.

4. On Baldwin and Henry James, see Newman, "The Lesson of the Master: Henry James and James Baldwin."

5. See also Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet. For further discussion of the legibility of the gay male body, see Edelman, Homographesis 5-6.

6. In addition to Butler's work on performativity in Gender Trouble, see also Sedgwick's "Queer Performativity: Henry James's The Art of the Novel."

7. Marjorie Garber describes gender passing as "a social and sartorial inscription which encodes (as treason does) its own erasure" (234). For a concise formulation of the relation of drag to passing, see also Robinson, "It Takes One to Know One" 727.

8. The title of The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man suggests that the man in question is originally "coloured," although the narrative begins with his perception of himself as a white child. See the discussion of this novel by Kawash in this collection.

9. For a useful discussion of the construction of racial hegemony, in which passing figures as "a model for the cultural production of whiteness," see Mullen, "Optic White" 72-74.

10. Whether the "nonhistorical 'before'" is invoked by the dominant culture or by feminists, Butler argues, its effect is conservative.

11. See Butler, Gender Trouble, on the contingency of gender (38) and the anticipatory logic of political coalitions (14).

12. On nostalgia and the prelapsarian, see also Stewart, On Longing 23. Lee Edelman offers an incisive reading of identity, narcissism, and Paradise Lost in Homographesis 101-04.

(read more)

This section contains 6,249 words
(approx. 21 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Valerie Rohy
Follow Us on Facebook