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On Frustrating Desire
Scenes From A Marriage and Giovanni's Room paint desire as it is — frustrating, ambivalent, contradictory, necessary.
On Friday afternoon, while washing the dishes, I decided to fire up the audiobook of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, streaming for free on YouTube, and like every other compelling book I have heard or read, I decided to ditch the work I had to tie a concluding ribbon over, postponed freelance assignments, and spent the rest of the day on the couch and then, the bed, finishing the book, with my hands, rough from the dish detergent, reaching out to any piece of paper and pen on the verge of inklessness to note a line or a phrase worth preening over later. (“tigerish intensity of affection”, “sardonic thrust”, “what a long way I thought I’ve come, to be destroyed”) It was a reckless decision, but I did not know any other way to go about it. That guilt and joy pair so well together is a such a shame.
The book came into my radar when it was referenced in Swimming in the Dark, a queer novel by the Polish writer Tomasz Jędrowski. Set in the early 1980s before the AIDS crisis inflected queer desire with death, in the conservative, repressive air of the Polish Republic, Swimming in the Dark is a gossamer love story that turns painful. In it, love is established when one of the men, boys really, allows the other to borrow their copy of Giovanni’s Room — about an American in Paris who develops tender and increasingly violent feelings for an Italian man, with both the tenderness and the violence “nourished by the same roots”. Giovanni’s Room was then illegal in Poland, contraband in a homophobic state. They read it, found their homosexual proclivities reflected, and in that reflection they saw the reflection of the other person, and an understanding was immediately struck, like shifty but persistently erotic eyes across a crowded compartment on a train.
When the narrator of Swimming in the Dark first gets his hands on a copy of Giovanni’s Room, devouring it, he notes, “It felt as if the words and the thoughts of the narrator — despite their agony, despite their pain — healed some of my agony and pain, simply by existing.” This is an impulse that while grand, is understandable. To first come across a work of art that addresses the architecture of desire the way you inhabited it with shifty, doubtful eyes. The queer writer Garth Greenwell — whose two books also follow with grotesque sincerity the life of a gay American in Europe — also noted, that when he first came across this book as a teenager, tucked away in the back of his local bookstore in Kentucky, something wild within him rested.
“It’s hard to overstate what those books meant, growing up in the American south, or the solace I took from them and from their vision of queer life as possessed of a measure of human dignity. It didn’t matter that that dignity was so often the dignity of tragedy; it was still a kind of antidote to shame.” — Garth Greenwell
That dignity of tragedy is what drives both Giovanni’s Room and Swimming In The Dark. The narrators of both books want to flee Europe for America, and in doing so, they were leaving behind love.
The narrator of Swimming In The Dark, however, gets increasingly frustrated with Giovanni’s Room. In the throes of desire, he now feels differently about the text, “[S]uddenly the narrator’s pain didn’t soothe my pain anymore. His fear fed my fear.” It is a radical switch of perception towards the same book, from feeling healed by it to having it feed one’s fear. To paraphrase Baldwin’s narrator — no one who has experienced desire can imagine it. And now the narrator is experiencing it. As if desire brings you down a peg, changing not just your relationship to the person you desire, but to the world, to the art you have consumed thus far, to books you used to quote but now find agonizing, to novels you found intimidating but now necessary. (A colleague once told me how the immense Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham, with a spine the width of my closed fist, helped her paper through a hard breakup in college.) That’s a valuable explanation — that desire reorients you to the world. In a skimpy movie, this would be explained by a hero seeing his lover everywhere around him.
Giovanni’s Room, published in 1956, was an odd sophomore book for Baldwin, whose first novel was about black people in Harlem. To now write about gay white men in Paris? His publisher rejected the book “as a favour” to him, for they thought it would tank his literary stardom. The book was published, regardless, and the haze of cultish success clouded the book over the decades.
David, the American narrator of Giovanni’s Room and Giovanni, his Italian paramour, a bartender, have both been with women, but find in their love for one another something so grotesque and necessary, so harmful to their notions of masculinity, and so shocking to their notions of love, that they cannot but pursue it. This is especially true for David, who is wracked with shame, and a longing for America, both feelings often coinciding, mistaking one for the other. About home David says, “You don’t have [one] until you leave it, and when you have left it you can never go back.” This description also explains his relationship to Giovanni — one that is solidified, clarified, and mourned after the parting.
The thing about the book that is disturbing was the capacity to hold both immense love and hate, fear and longing, desperation for and self preservation from the same person. When David walks away from Giovanni after dumping him, he notes, “In fleeing from his body I confirmed and perpetuated his body’s power over me.” That to walk away — something that would, in the eyes of an onlooker, feel like he has ‘won’ the breakup — was, to David, an act of cowardice. That you cannot ‘lose’ or ‘win’ when you are in love. That love is a loss in and of itself, “an irrevocable condition”.
Sometimes, like the narrator, we mistake this oscillation between love and hate in desire for indifference, sometimes for disgust. A character in the book notes, “Nobody can stay in the garden of Eden… I wonder why.” David, to whom the character directs this, tells us, “The question is banal. But one of the real troubles with living is that living is banal.” That we all have our Eden’s — moments of pure rapture and innocence — but are banished from it just as we are furnished by its charms, fumbling our nervous fingers around its juicy apple-fragrant possibilities. Then, the narrator notes, we are left with either remembering or forgetting this Eden. Both require madness and strength.
It’s such a grueling conclusion, but one that is as real as it gets. Often in love stories, desire is what we are moving towards. But books like Giovanni’s Room and shows like Scenes From A Marriage show us the aftermath of desire. A confused, inconsistent rambling of affection and agony. I have always considered desire as evolution’s revenge on the human civilization. Why else are we bestowed with this much capacity for getting and giving pain? In the coda to Amia Srinivasan’s Right To Sex essay, she noted how as an undergraduate, her professor told the class that even in a utopia, there will be heartbreak. Because there will be desire.
Scenes From A Marriage spreads and shreds this feeling — by giving it to a married couple. The 5-part HBO show, starring Oscar Isaac as Jonathan and Jessica Chastain as Mira, is a mostly faithful reworking of the 6-part Ingmar Bergman show from 1973 — credited with a rise in divorce rates in Sweden. It is a fierce, honest, and unpretentious look at this inconsistency of desire, and the frustration of being unable to predict how desire will manifest — as disgust or doggy style or both.
Each episode is removed from the others, often taking place a few months or years after the previous one, thus stretching desire over a decade. Unlike One Day which shows how one’s affections can change over time from indifference to love to care, here there is only desire running through the show, just in different incarnations. Mira cheats on him, there is a divorce, they move onto other men, other women, or grow into their solitude, and in a final sleight of hand, cheat on their current partners with each other. Until the last episode we don’t even get to see these other people. It’s only Mira and Jonathan, walking around the house for an hour, angry, desirous, burdened. It suffocates us, but also doesn’t allow our attention to waver. In the last episode we see who Mira cheated on Jonathan with, and I thought how handsome this man is, and realized, if I had known how handsome he is when Mira told Jonathan that she cheated on him, would I have felt differently? Would I have judged Mira less? Does it complicate infidelity if the one you cheat with is erotically irresistible? The show seems to suggest that, since his face is deliberately not shown. As if creating a pure experiment, without allowing external elements in to cloud our judgment, just yet. The night she tells him about this guy, Jonathan wants to see a photo of this man, and Mira shows him a snap on her phone. We don’t get to see it. But we want to see it. We want to see the edge of Mira’s desire for Jonathan. But the thing is, the shape shifting curmudgeon that desire is, we don’t know when the edge becomes the center, and when the center is hollowed out entirely.
In high school a friend — a bit of a casanova, relatively speaking — had confided in me a future he saw. That I will love only once, that I seem like the kind of guy who would love only once and sustain that love, spreading it like those stubborn elastic bedsheets over my life. I was proud of this forecasting, I remember. That yes, of course, how moral it would be, how easy, how proud it would make my then received values. Desire was so sticky in my head. While practicing goalkeeping on the football field — I was the defender though my personality is very much goalkeeper-esque, one that won't act till a spherical mass is hurtling onto my face — I would feel upright answering another friend’s query, that yes, an arranged marriage sounds ideal to me. It seemed so easy, so neat, so inevitable, so practiced. And then, like good literature, great cinema, and a bad lover, I realized it is all bullshit. We are all destined to suffer a bit, and love can never be neat. We will be someone’s David, someone’s Giovanni, and sometimes both to the same person.
I will be moving back to Mumbai after a year in a week’s time. So there might not be essays for two weeks till I settle and figure out my life there. But in the interim do write to me, like this post, share it, fatten my subscriber count.