One is absolutely forced to make perpetual qualifications and one’s ownreactions are always canceling each other out…One is always in the positionof having to decide between amputation and gangrene.James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
To claim that is what I am is to suggest a provisional totalization of this “I”.
Judith Butler, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination”
1In confronting the limiting confines of social construction, James Baldwin’s Another Country offers itself as a touchstone for the re-imagination of gender, sexual identity, and sexual aim. Baldwin tells a story of sexual desire without form and in doing so, subverts socially prescribed notions of sexual desire as concrete, definite, and static. By not “fixing” his characters’ attractions in a singular direction, Baldwin offers alternative, fluid, and flexible potentialities for sexual desire. Baldwin’s rearrangement of the unaccounted-for potential of attraction is a disruption of focused, one-directional sexuality and a challenge to socially constructed identities offered by the cultural discourse. Throughout the novel, Baldwin builds a mosaic of layered stories, allowing him to entertain competing and often contradictory ideas. Rather than exclude models of sexuality and sexual otherness in favor of the hetero-model, Baldwin moves sexual otherness from a position of silenced marginalization to the forefront of canonical literature, illustrating the confines of sexual identity politics and concomitantly revealing the gravity of race relations in America.
2In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault suggests that, “Discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy” (101). The dangers of discourse are welldocumented throughout Another Country, as Baldwin roundly resists categorizing sexual practice and identity. Eric, an expatriate living in France, functions as the voice of resistance to oppressive discourses that silence and marginalize non-hetero sex and desire. Baldwin writes of Eric:
Honor. He knew had had no honor which the world could recognize. His life, passions, trials, loves, were, at worst, filth, and, at best, disease in the eyes of the world, and crimes in the eyes of his countrymen. There were no standards for him except those he could make for himself. There were no standards for him because he could not accept the definitions, the hideously mechanical jargon of the age [...] he had to create his standards and make up his definitions as he went along. (212)
3As the only character in the novel who rather seamlessly moves in and out of sexual relationships (ostensibly without guilt, shame, or embarrassment), Eric has much to teach his friends as well as the reader. The “mechanical jargon” of social construction (undoubtedly what Baldwin addresses in this passage), in its insistence on categorization and fixedness, fails to encompass the totality of sexual experience. While societal discourse suggests that binary oppositions are, in fact, naturally occurring and incontestable, the binarisms come from culture and society, not from nature. A glimpse at Eric’s sexual relations proves illustrative of this point, as his sexual “nature” resists concrete categorization. Baldwin takes this a step further by framing Eric’s sexual encounters as something other than sexual. Baldwin writes, “They surrendered to his hands, the stroking and fondling and kissing […] And yet the need did not seem to be predominantly physical. It could not be said that they were attracted to men […] they were passive […] the need seemed this gift of illicit pleasure, this adoration” (211). What looks, sounds, reads as sexual, is quickly diffused by Baldwin’s suggestion of adoration as impetus – the need for love not sex.
4Though many would like to compartmentalize Eric’s sexuality as decidedly “homo,” such a gesture underscores what Michael Warner suggests is a “rather crude form of heterosexist ideology in which it is supposed that people who have homosexual relations do not also have other kinds” (“Homo-Narcissism” 1508). Equally as plausible as Warner’s suggestion is its opposite: that people who have heterosexual relations also have other kinds. Undoubtedly, Eric and Vivaldo play into these ideas, shifting between subjects of desire. Further complicating this idea in her essay “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” Judith Butler questions:
Is it not possible to maintain and pursue heterosexual identifications and aims within homosexual practice, and homosexual identification within heterosexual practices? If a sexuality is to be disclosed, what will be taken as the true determinant of its meaning: the phantasy structure, the act, the orifice, the gender, the anatomy? (1516)
5Thirty years prior to the writing of both Warner and Butler’s canonical essays, Baldwin speaks directly to their shared point as he takes fantasy, orifice, positioning, gender, and anatomy off-the-table. Baldwin insists that sex is about love and communion rather than the anatomy of the people in the room; desire never takes a fixed trajectory but remains a free-floating abstraction. Precisely because abstraction defies ordered construction, sexual attraction and identity never take a definite shape or aim in the novel.
6Though Baldwin offers a poignant treatment of resistance to socially constructed notion of sexual identity and sexual aim, he by no means frees his characters of the inherent challenges of living one’s experience against the grain. A glimpse into his own life suggests that his idealized vision for American sexual and identity politics failed to fully realize in his own life. After fleeing to Europe, Baldwin discovered the social forces he was running from were inescapable and inextricably woven into the fiber of his being. Fleeing to Europe would not stifle the American texture that seeped through his skin. In the development of his narrative, Baldwin instills a similar dilemma in his characters. In an exchange between Eric and Vivaldo, Baldwin details the force of identity that bears down on their lives and poses a marked threat to their conceptions of selfhood and sexuality. Baldwin writes, “‘Hell,’ said Vivaldo, ‘I might just as easily envy you. You can make it with both men and women and sometimes I wish I could do that, I really have.’
7Eric was silent. Vivaldo grinned. ‘We’ve all got our troubles, Buster’” (335). Vivaldo’s confession initiates the tension over sexual identity. He imagines his heterosexuality as a burden, limiting his experience of desire. Moments later, Eric responds to Vivaldo’s statement. He says, “‘I think that I’ve really got to accept – or decide – some very strange things. Right away […] I’ve spent years now, it seems to me thinking that one fine day I’d wake up and all my torment would be over, and all my indecision would end’” (335-6). Instead of listening to Eric’s urgency, hearing, seeing, feeling the impossibility that he faces, Vivaldo responds, “‘I can’t be sure that one fine day, I won’t get all hung up on some boy – like that cat in Death of Venice. So you can’t be sure there isn’t a woman waiting for you, just for you, somewhere up the road’” (336). Eric replies, “Indeed I can’t be sure. And yet I must decide” (336). This exchange illuminates well the tension of identification. In France, Eric’s identity was his lived experience, regardless of what that experience entailed. He could be young, gay, monogamous, take many lovers – his surroundings afforded him the luxury of code switching, of enjoying all sexual, identity, and desired potentials. Eric’s experience of identity in America (as an impossible decision thrust upon him) is suggestive of America’s restrictive confines - one must abide by a singular trajectory asa consequence of identification. To choose otherwise is to be identity-less. In “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin underscores this point:
One is absolutely forced to make perpetual qualifications and one’s own reactions are always canceling each other out […] One is always in the position of having to decide between amputation and gangrene. The idea of going through life as a cripple is more than one can bear, and equally unbearable is the risk of swelling up slowly in agony, with poison. And the trouble, finally, is that the risks are real, even if the choices do not exist. (83)
8Reading Baldwin’s words one must ask: how can sexuality be qualified? What defines sexuality as decidedly “this” or “that”? In his essay, “Homographesis,” Lee Edelman explains the slippery nature of sexual identity politics. Edelman suggests that sexuality suffers in environments such as Eric’s because of “the homophobic insistence upon the social importance of codifying and registering sexual identities” (1487). While in France Eric could simply be but in America he must decide to be, all choices inescapably limiting and inadequate. Any decision he makes reifies the “homophobic insistence” of codes and singular identification. In a sense, either choice forces Eric’s complicity as America affords him no middle ground. Though the degree to which Baldwin enjoyed the freedoms that France afforded Eric remains unclear, his juxtaposition of these freedoms against the confines of America illuminates his larger project – offering a space (however idealized) for the practice of fluid identity and malleable desire.
9Though he desires to be with Eric, Vivaldo suffers from profound sexualized anxiety, believing that the acts he performs will forever define him. Vivaldo, as evidenced in his participation in the abduction and rape of a gay man, is no stranger to the wake of violence and intolerance that follows homophobia. After confessing his participation to Cass, Baldwin writes, “She knew that he was going back over it, looking at it, trying to put it all together, to understand it, to express it. But he had not expressed it. He had left something of himself back there on the streets of Brooklyn which he was afraid to look at again”(111). What of himself did Vivaldo leave behind? What is he afraid to look at? Vivaldo’s description of the abducted man offers some insight. He explains, “‘Poor guy, he was scared green before we got halfway there but he couldn’t jump of the car” (112). This detail of Vivaldo’s story stands out in striking contrast to the rest of his description. As the perpetrator of violence, his empathetic observation of the victim suggests a large degree of identification. In this instant, he reveals the double-sidedness of his homophobia: he sees himself as perpetrator and can imagine himself as victim. To navigate this dissonace, Vivaldo shields himself in hyper-heterosexuality, parading around with prostitutes and any woman he can get his hands on. Even as he and Eric engage in heated foreplay, Vivaldo’s heterocentric bravadodoesn’t wane – he resists any identification or desire, trying to “keep his eyes closed in order to take no responsibility for what was happening” (383). Opening his eyes would result in identification, because to identify is to participate is to become. The mind cannot split from the body in the light. While Vivaldo eventually opens his eyes to find Eric watching him, he cannot shake his initial discomfort – the experience takes on a sudden legibility, a visibility, a tangibility that the absence of sight protected. Baldwin describes Vivaldo’s experience of sex with Eric as, “Strangely and insistently double-edged, it was like making love in the midst of mirrors, or it was death by drowning. But it was also like music, the highest, sweetest, loneliest reeds, and it was like rain” (385). This description proves particularly illuminating in light of Vivaldo’s resistance. As Edelman suggests, “the code that renders homosexuality legible may carry with it, in consequence, the stigma of a suspect relation to the code and its production, potentially situating the too savvy reader of homosexual signs in the context, as Sedgwick puts it, ‘of fearful, projective mirror recognition’” (1489). As Eric and Vivaldo “make love in the midst of mirrors,” Vivaldo must confront the recognition of his homophobia. No longer a “savvy reader”, he must recognize himself as context.
10Can Vivaldo do this? Can he contextualize himself and his experience? Indeed. As Vivaldo surrenders to the “flaming torpor of passivity” he begins to deconstruct his experience. He asks of himself, “How old was this rite, this act of love, how deep? In impersonal time, in the actors?” Vivaldo’s assertion, that he and Eric are, in fact, actors, performers of sex and love, resonates harmoniously with the notion Judith Butler forwards in “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” Speaking of gender performance, Butler writes, “Drag constitutes the mundane way in which genders are appropriated, theatricalized, worn, and done; it implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation. If this is true, it seems, there is no original or primary gender that drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original” (1520). In light of Butler’s assertion, Vivaldo comes to an understanding that their genders are performed rather than fixed, that they are, in fact, at play, not wholly identified by their play, and that this kind of performance is an ancient rite. In surrendering himself to Eric, Vivaldo comes to a sense that their sex does not force identification, rather their performance allows for their sex. Baldwin writes:
[Vivaldo] felt he had stepped off a precipice into an air which held him inexorably up, as the salt sea holds up 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 could not name […] Vivaldo seemed to have fallen through a great hole intime, back to his innocence, he felt clear, washed, empty, waiting to be filled. (386)
11Suddenly, in the moment of penetration, Vivaldo realizes the kaleidoscopic potential of sex, desire, attraction, and love. His heart “contained all the possibilities that he could name,” allowing him to shatter the double-edge, “the midst of mirrors,” that had fueled his resistance, and come in an explosion of exponential possibility. Not until Vivaldo and Eric have sex do we see what Vivaldo was running from and what Baldwin is trying to illuminate – the desire to be penetrated both sexually and by love. The sex shared between Eric and Vivaldo allows Baldwin to take gender out of the equation. Love and sex cease to function as singular, fixed trajectories.
12As they move in and out of constructions, superimposing a constructed identity onto either Eric or Vivaldo proves infinitely challenging. Baldwin challenges a categorized reading of the novel in his descriptions of sex as well as its participants. Effectively, having infused his characters with an enabling impermanence (with regards to the symmetry of their sex, desire, or genders), Baldwin challenges what Butler identifies as a heterosexual naturalization of continuity. She writes, “Consider the way heterosexuality naturalizes itself through setting up certain illusions of continuity between sex, gender, and desire” (1524). Throughout the novel, Baldwin ruptures the prescribed continuity forced upon sex, gender, and desire. Baldwin writes of Eric’s lovers and their privatized, secretive affairs: “The dark submission was the shadow of love – if only someone, somewhere, loved them enough to caress them this way, in the light, with joy!” (212). Though writing about sex between men, Baldwin neutralizes the subject of desire by naming it “someone,” offering a pointed asymmetry of desire. The significance of this vacuity cannot be overstated. By not gendering the subject, the potential sources of desire remain boundless and interminable.
13Of the many projects Baldwin advances with this novel, one of the more poignant is his insistence of the redemptive power of love. Cass’ suggestion to Rufus early in the novel speaks to the struggles that all the characters face. Cass insists, “When you’re older you’ll see, I think, that we all commit our crimes. The thing is not to lie about them […] that way, you can begin to forgive yourself. If you don’t forgive yourself you’ll never be able to forgive anybody else and you’ll go on committing the same crimes forever” (79). For Baldwin’s characters, this forgiveness of self comes only after a sexual encounter that shakes the very core of those involved, freeing them from the rigidity of their self-made identities. This shift is significant as many of Baldwin’s characters had used sex as a means to define themselves against their fears of who they might become. Rufus used sex to prove his value and masculinity; Vivaldo needs sex to underscore his heterosexuality and pacify his desire for intimacy; Cass’imagined sexual duty as “wife” stifles her capacity to experience her sexuality as a “woman.” In her essay, “Another Look at Another Country,” Susan Feldman explains, “For Baldwin, love is simultaneously ‘a miracle of release and coherence,’ but for love to be redemptive, individuals must first be willing to risk losing their identity, if only to discover it again from outside their previous frame of reference” (98). Cass, in stepping outside of her self-conceptions makes love to Eric to discover her beauty. She becomes “the mischievous girl she had once been” (73). Vivaldo, by allowing himself to be penetrated, connects not only to his own desire but also to Rufus and ultimately quells his racialized and sexualized anxieties. Baldwin effectively moves sex from its simple physicality to a larger expression of forgiveness and love. Baldwin’s complication of sexuality – both its aim and destination – exposes its kaleidoscopic potential and reveals the fluidity and multiplicity of love and redemption.
14While Baldwin offers a transformative glimpse of sexual identity, love, and redemption, many critics charge Baldwin with narrowly defining the black characters in the novel. As Feldman illustrates:
- 1 In Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver accused Baldwin of “[…] the most grueling, agonizing, total hatred (...)
That Baldwin’s treatment of homosexuality often has led his critics to question his allegiance to and concern for his own race is witnessed not only in Eldridge Cleaver’s strongly homophobic attack on Baldwin […] but also in more subtle comments of literary critics who have criticized Another Country for its focus on sexuality and the novel’s ostensible failure to explore the racist dynamics of American society. (88)1
15Though these early charges have been tempered by a large amount of scholarship rushing to Baldwin’s defense, the issue of race in the novel continues to be hotly debated. What are we to make of race, Rufus, Ida, and their relationships to white people and society? Is their minimal character development indicative of Baldwin’s resistance to race? Does Baldwin’s foregrounding of sexuality overpower his commentary on race and racial politics in America? Isn’t that his intent? In his poignant treatment of white, male sexual identity and identity politics Baldwin illustrates the unwillingness of American society to approach the topic of race. Eric and Vivaldo represent believable white characters and though they participate in (what Baldwin’s American society deemed) behavior of the highest deviance, they remain believable. This believability in light of the homophobic discourse of mid-20th century America, underscores the privileges afforded white society and white men in particular. Eric and Vivaldo can be whomever they choose because they enjoy the luxuryof white skin; neither has any literal marker that could identify him as outside the insulation of privilege and “normalcy.” Eric and Vivaldo can move from both inside and outside the margins as a consequence of their ethnicity. They can move in the world as gay because sexual identity has no definite markers. The text of their skin is read first, allowing them to pass freely through the world. This is not to say that Eric and Vivaldo do not struggle with identity and social construction, rather that they benefit from a mobility that society does not afford Rufus and Ida.
16In their attempts to negotiate the narrow confines of racialized identity, Rufus and Ida find that even the well-intended people in their lives fail to acknowledge the totality of racial oppression. By illustrating Rufus’s relationship to Leona and Ida’s sexual relationship to Ellis as disastrous failures, Baldwin exposes the fact that though black and white America need each other, white America fails to listen and authenticate black experience. Leona’s well-intended attempts to assure Rufus that he was more than his blackness only underscored the reality of his skin color and his marginalized place in America. Vivaldo participates in this same kind of marginalization. In trying to impart knowledge, to remind Rufus of the necessity of foresight, Vivaldo mocks the color of his skin. On a visit to their apartment, Vivaldo discovers Rufus beating Leona. He says, “‘You could be killed for this. All she has to do is yell. All I have to do is walk down to the corner and get a cop’” (55). Though Vivaldo tries to be a good friend, he leans hard on his place of privilege implying that because Rufus is black he can’t push Leona around. Taking refuge in his whiteness, Vivaldo further fuels Rufus’ anxieties. In a similar vein, Ellis views Ida as purely sexual. He sexualized her to such a degree that he could only pursue her as a conquest, reifying her racialized anxiety.
17Vivaldo consistently reminds Ida that he’s somehow different and that he can get to the bottom of race. His insistence proves largely detrimental to their relationship as he fails to recognize her plight. Towards the end of the novel Vivaldo tells Ida, “Nothing you’ve said so far seems to have much to do with being black […] sweetheart, suffering doesn’t have a color. Does it? Can’t we step out of this nightmare? […] Whatever has to be done, to set us free – let’s do that’” (417). Vivaldo’s failure to listen to Ida, to feel her reality comes to a haunting halt as Ida, eyes full of tears says, “Let me finish my story” (417). Ida’s statement captures the essence of Baldwin’s illumination of race, identity, and understanding - to attend authentically to black experience, white America needs to listen.
18In her introduction to The Resisting Reader, Judith Fetterley suggests, “Power is the issue in the politics of literature, as it is in the politics of anything else. To be excluded from a literature that claims to define one’s identity is to experience a peculiar form of powerlessness […] the powerlessness which results from the endless division of self against self”(xiii). Though her book deals more directly with feminist approaches to literature, her assertion about powerlessness further illustrates the culturally produced powerlessness that Baldwin chose to illuminate - the endless division of self, the bifurcation of identity and decision, the naturalization of gendered symmetry, and the confines of race. Left with a largely unresolved plot, what are we to make of Another Country? What does it have to offer? How does it survive today? While many have tried to extricate Baldwin’s plan for America from the text, all efforts fall-short. This novel does not offer instruction, it simply reports on the state of American identity politics, unflagging in its representation and honesty. In his essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Baldwin insists, “Our passion for categorization, life neatly fitted into pegs, has led to an unforeseen, paradoxical distress; confusion, a breakdown of meaning. These categories which were meant to define and control the world for us have boomeranged us into chaos; in which limbo we whirl, clutching the straws of our definitions” (15). In exposing the dangers of social construction and illuminating its paradoxes, Baldwin destabilizes the very foundation on which American society depends. It is this generosity, this pacification of our chaos, this grounding which asks readers and scholars to return to Another Country.