Jack’s Naughty Bits: James Baldwin, Another Country, Part Two

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Jack's Naughty Bits

Every time I read St. Augustine, I want to be a Christian. Every time I read James Baldwin, I want to be gay. Now it’s pretty clear to me that I’ll never be either Christian or gay, but the beauty of each author’s descriptions of their experiences makes me wish I could feel the things that they felt. Not that either of them makes it seem easy; there are passages in which Augustine seems as pained by his faith as Baldwin is by his sexuality. Augustine is impatient in waiting for heaven; he is frustrated that humans have to communicate in fallen language; he is tormented by the ubiquitous injustice and error that he sees around him; but he feels the force of God’s capital-G Good, and he believes. I envy that belief, and sometimes I think there’s nothing that would make a person wish more for a god and a heaven and a better world than an absolute lack of faith that one is, has been or ever will be.

Similarly, at least to my het eye, the homosexuality in James Baldwin’s novels glows and crackles like a burning bush. At a certain point in both Giovanni’s Room and Another Country, the male protagonists are able to slough off their repression and slip themselves into the arms of other men. And there find solace — a solace that had been elusive in their encounters with women. Though it’s clear that Baldwin himself was much more gay than straight (his depictions of women are almost unceasingly demeaning), he nonetheless was in a position to answer a question rather like the one posed to Tiresias: With whom does one get more pleasure, men or women? Baldwin’s answer is men, always men, resoundingly men. And, reading the force of his encounters, it makes you wonder . . .


From Another Country by James Baldwin

And the moment he surrendered to this sweet and overwhelming embrace, his dream, like glass, shattered, he heard the rain at the windows, returned, violently, into his body, became aware of his odor and the odor of Eric, and found that it was Eric to whom he clung, who clung to him. Eric’s lips were against Vivaldo’s neck and chest.

Vivaldo hoped that he was dreaming still. A terrible sorrow entered him, because he was dreaming and because he was awake. Immediately, he felt that he had created his dream in order to create this opportunity; he had brought about something that he had long desired. He was frightened and then he was angry — at Eric or at himself? He did not know — and started to pull away. But he could not pull away, he did not want to, it was too late. He thought to keep his eyes closed in order to take no responsibility for what was happening. This thought made him ashamed. He tried to reconstruct the way in which this monstrous endeavor must have begun. They must have gone to sleep, spoon-fashion. Eric curled against him — oh, what did this cause him, nearly, to remember? He had curled his legs, himself, around Eric, since Eric’s body was there; and desire had entered this monastic, this boyish bed. Now it was too late, thank God it was too late; it was necessary for them to disentangle themselves from the drag and torment of their undershorts, their trousers and the sheets. He opened his eyes. Eric was watching him with a small half-smile, a troubled smile, and this smile caused Vivaldo to realize that Eric loved him. Eric really loved him and would be proud to give Vivaldo anything Vivaldo needed. With a groan and a sigh, with an indescribable relief, Vivaldo came full awake and pulled Eric closer. It had been a dream and not a dream, how long could such dreams last? This one could not last long. Instantaneously, then, they each seemed to become intent on carrying this moment, which belonged to them, as far as it would go. They kicked their trousers to the floor, saying nothing — what was there to say? — and not daring to let go of one another. Then, as in a waking dream, helpless and trustful, he felt Eric remove his shirt and caress him with his parted lips. Eric bowed and kissed Vivaldo on the belly button, half-hidden in the violent, gypsy hair. This was in honor of Vivaldo, of Vivaldo’s body and Vivaldo’s need, and Vivaldo trembled as he had never trembled before. And this caress was not entirely pleasant. Vivaldo felt terribly ill at ease, not knowing what was expected of him, or what he could expect from Eric. He pulled Eric up and kissed him on the mouth, kneading Eric’s buttocks and stroking his sex. How strange it felt, this violent muscle, stretching and throbbing, so like his own, but belonging to another! And this chest, this belly, these legs, were like his, and the tremor of Eric’s breath echoed his own earthquake. Oh, what was it that he could not remember? It was his first sexual encounter with a male in many years, and his very first sexual encounter with a friend. He associated the act with the humiliation and the debasement of one male by another, the inferior male of less importance than the crumpled, cast-off handkerchief; but he did not feel this way toward Eric; and therefore he did not know what he felt. This tormented self-consciousness caused Vivaldo to fear that their moment might, after all, come to nothing. He did not want this to happen, he knew his need to be too great, and they had come too far, and Eric had risked too much. He was afraid of what might happen if they failed. Yet, his lust remained, and rose, chafing within and battering against the labyrinth of his bewilderment; his lust was unaccustomedly arrogant and cruel and irresponsible and yet there was mingled in it a deep and incomprehensible tenderness: he did not want to cause Eric pain. Th physical pain he had sometimes brought to vanished, phantom girls had been necessary for them, he had been unlocking, for them, the door to life, but he was now involved in another mystery, at once blacker and more pure. He tried to will himself back into his adolescence, grasping Eric’s strange body and stroking that strange sex. At the same time he tried to think of a woman. (But he did not want to think of Ida.) And they lay together in this antique attitude, the hand of each on the sex of the other, and with their limbs entangled, and Eric’s breath trembling against Vivaldo’s chest. This childish and trustful tremor returned to Vivaldo a sense of his own power. He held Eric very tightly and covered Eric’s body with his own, as though he were shielding him from the falling heavens. But it was also as though he were, at the same instant, being shielded — by Eric’s love. It was strangely and insistently double-edged, it was like making love in the midst of mirrors, or it was like death by drowning. But it was also like music, the highest, sweetest, loneliest reeds, and it was like the rain. He kissed Eric again and again, wondering how they would finally come together. The male body was not mysterious, he had never thought about it at all, but it was the most impenetrable of mysteries now; and this wonder made him think of his own body, of its possibilities and its imminent and absolute decay, in a way that he had never thought of it before. Eric moved against him, and beneath him, as thirsty as the sand. He wondered what moved in Eric’s body which drove him, like a bird or a leaf in a storm, against the wall of Vivaldo’s flesh; and he wondered what moved in his own body: what virtue were they seeking, now, to share? What was he doing here? This was as far removed as anything could be from the necessary war one underwent with women. He would have entered her by now, this woman who was not here, her sighs would be different and her surrender would never be total. Her sex, which afforded him his entry, would nevertheless remain strange to him, an incitement and an anguish, and an everlasting mystery. And even now, in this bright, laboring and doubting moment, with only the rain as their witness, he knew that he was condemned to women: What was it like to be a man, condemned to men? He could not imagine it and he felt a quick revulsion, quickly banished, for it threatened his ease. But at the very same moment his excitement increased: he felt that he could do with Eric whatever he liked. Now, Vivaldo, who was accustomed himself to labor, to be the giver of the gift, and enter into his satisfaction by means of the satisfaction of a woman, surrendered to the luxury, the flaming torpor of passivity, and whispered in Eric’s ear a muffled, urgent plea.

The dream teetered on the edge of nightmare: how old was this rite, this act of love, how deep? In impersonal time, in the actors? He felt that he had stepped off a precipice into an air which held him inexorably up, as the salt sea holds the swimmer: and seemed to see, vastly and horribly down, into the bottom of his heart, that heart which contained all the possibilities that he could name and yet others that he could not name. Their moment was coming to its end. He moaned and his thighs, like the thighs of a woman, loosened; he thrust upward as Eric thrust down. How strange, how strange! Was Eric, now, silently sobbing and praying, as he, over Ida, silently sobbed and prayed? . . . He felt himself falling, as though the weary sea had failed, had wrapped him about, and he were plunging down — plunging down as he desperately thrust and struggled upward. He heard his own harsh breath, coming from far away; he heard the drumming rain; he was being overtaken. He remembered how Ida, at the unbearable moment, threw back her head and thrashed and bared her teeth. And she called his name. And Rufus? Had he murmured at last, in a strange voice, as he now heard himself murmur. Oh, Eric. Eric. What was that fury like? Eric. He pulled Eric to him through the ruined sheets and held him tight. And, Thank you, Vivaldo whispered, thank you, Eric, thank you. Eric curled against him like a child and salt from his forehead dripped onto Vivaldo’s chest.

© James Baldwin