There is a common phrase ‘Time will tell’, which places the rightness of a decision in the future. The idiom’s user admits that decision-making is very much rooted in the present, that one cannot have access to any hindsight. At the same time, the user also believes that an objective answer may exist in the future.
I am not convinced. Decisions may not work out, but this does invalidate them as ‘the right thing to do’. You may have trusted someone, who then betrayed you in the same way another once did. On the one hand, you were ‘wrong’ to trust, and on the other you did not stop the past from preventing anyone from having your trust. Whatever your opinion, what time tells, is far more complex.
In Giovanni’s Room, time is a constant battle of the self. Its protagonist, David, is meandering through external and internal pressures like shame and desire. Back and forth, back and forth, there is never an end goal, like there is in video games. The battle is never ending, and therefore there can never be any certainty, because the self is always changing, always struggling.
The character’s of Giovanni’s Room are convinced of the wisdom of time. Hella leaves for a voyage around Spain, for she is unsure if she should marry David. Its protagonist too, can not (or is unwilling to) address his sexuality. Decisions are placed in the future, where difficult things can remain closeted. That maybe Giovanni is a better match for David than Hella ever was.
The chemistry between Giovanni and David is clear. The two are drawn together; David on a repressed level. But David’s repressed sexuality makes him reserved, cold, and out of touch with himself. He places time as a barrier, a buffer zone, between the object of his desires. Giovanni calling him a friend, “so soon” into their first encounter places him in uncomfortable intimacy with another man. David insisting on time is then dismantled by Giovanni:
“[W]e can wait another hour if you like. We can become friends then. Or we can wait until closing time. We can become friends then. Or we can wait until tomorrow […] what is this thing about time? Why is it better to be late than early? People are always saying, we must wait, we must wait. What are they waiting for”
The repetition exposes the absurdity of waiting for time to tell.
It is true, we can disparage Giovanni’s view as an impulsive personality type compared with David’s more rigorous approach – but it is only rigorous on the surface. It is also true, as I’m also prone to impulsiveness, that I am biassed toward Giovanni’s speech. I believe in people being true to the feeling of the moment because – paraphrasing Sartre – an epoch or a person is always wrong after time elapses.
Why, then, is it better to be late than early?
Being late, one can be sure they have thoroughly assessed the facts. But no amount of facts in the world can certify an action’s success. The real world is famously full of unpredictability and resisting the attempts of many to reduce to formulae.
A very common criticism of bureaucracy or democracy is the time it takes for decision-making, sometimes detrimental when time can be critical (or fatal). So, this is not to villanise considerate decision making, but attacking David’s specific scenario of deference, when people hold back for the sake of time.
What are you waiting for? Why, if you feel like showing affection to someone, would you wait ‘just in case in a week’s time you don’t feel it is the right thing to do’?
In a week’s time you will be a different person, maybe with different needs. Who cares? The person who is living now, is all that matters.
Here the scholarly thing would be to find another novel, and I could name you quite a few. Before I fall into an anecdotal argument, I will first take a quote from Marquez’s Love in a Time of Cholera. An aged Florentino Ariza has been hospitalised, and he pleads to the doctor to reduce the time he will be forced to recover, saying, “Two months for me are like ten years for you.”
Quantifiably, ten years are not equal to two months. That is a fact. But this fact is a bit deprived of the livedness of life. There is another famous phrase ‘the longest minute/hour/day etc. of my life’.
But all times are the same. How can one hour be longer than another? (I am 100% sure there is a famous scientific argument about this, but I am not too concerned about that for now.) I’ve had friends with whom it has taken months, maybe years, to achieve what I have achieved in a few intimate and sleepless nights talking away. The Ariza quotation not only raises the relativity of time to age – time becomes more valuable as it becomes less abundant, perhaps – but in an alternate reading, may signify how much value one range of time may have for different people.
The same variability of time is seen throughout Orlando’s timelessness in Woolf’s novel Orlando. The following succinctly summarises the lack of harmony between mental and physical time:
“[S]ome we know to be dead even though they walk among us […] other are hundreds of years old though they call themselves thirty-six”
I am passing the apparent reference to Orlando’s lack of ageing throughout the novel. I think more about the time spent reflecting beneath the oak tree at Knoles House, where Orlando births a flurry of thoughts. How many lifetimes has he experienced, in reflection, beneath that tree. For example, how many lifetimes worth of experiences do we gain second-hand from books or by reliving the memory of our mistakes?
Perhaps only in this way does time tell something, but nothing too clear.
As Woolf’s narrator goes on to claim: “[t]he true length of a person’s life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography* may say, is always a matter of dispute. For it is difficult business – this time-keeping: nothing more quickly disorders it than contact with any of the arts […]”. This last line both being a bridge back to the present moment of Orlando and also pointing towards the narrative of the arts – which transmits many dizzying experiences in succinct forms. The uncertainty of time in Orlando and Love in a Time of Cholera definitely complicate David’s trust in time.
As I have said, two weeks’ worth of discussions with one person can happen across a year, and with another two weeks’ worth in a few nights.
So, what is David waiting for? What is the consequence of allowing Giovanni to call him a friend? The only one I can think of, is it will destroy the distance between the pair. David is scared of intimacy with another man.
As bell hooks says in The Will to Change, to “hide the[ir] chronic shame” of emotions, men are often “running from their own humanity and from closeness to anyone else along with it”.
It is often down to control for David, as Monica Pearl argues in Chagrin d’amour. Not allowing emotional closeness or any intimacy with another man, allows him to maintain his suppression of his emotion and sexuality. For as long as he can keep Giovanni at a distance, he can remain in denial about his homosexuality.
Pearl notes that in all his encounters with men, “the other must always be not only the gay one […] but the one who is punished”. In engaging in human intimacy, a great deal of hidden things can be exchanged between people. By refusing to interact with them, keeping them at a distance, he maintains an illusory distance with his more ‘deplorable’ nature.
He is ashamed of them. Others that are gay, not him. And it is them who shall suffer for it, not him.
Therefore, David is the epitome of emotionally disconnected masculinity. And this masculinity is evidently ill-fitting for him, serving as the basis of struggle in the book. A struggle between him and patriarchal expectations. This ridicules any idea that his remoteness is a passive state.
Though it is common to claim this as a book about homosexuality or queerness – or as Baldwin self-titles it, about love – I believe one of the strongest topics of conversation is the relation between time and feelings.
When Hella returns from Spain, sure to marry David. The chemistry between the pair is almost nonexistent, overtly fabricated. Asking, by the end of the novel, desperately for David to “please let me be a woman. I don’t care what you do to me”.
A last-ditch attempt from Hella.
One last try for them to conform to the normalising force of a patriarchal system – to let her fit the type of the Woman.
But Hella can’t “reach” him and David doesn’t know himself. But this is paradoxical, as the critics claim, as David needs to be aware of what needs to be closeted in order to repress it. It is more that he doesn’t want to allow its liberation than a lack of knowledge. It must be kept confined to that room he shares with Giovanni.
The fabrication is most apparent in David’s attempts to prove his heterosexuality in advance of Hella’s return. He wants to find “a girl, any girl at all” to vanquish his mind of Giovanni. But such a futile struggle is met with repulsion felt for his sexual encounter with Sue and, eventually, Hella.
Giovanni’s Room details the struggle with the normalising current of our society. Time, which has been taken for granted as an objective wise figure, in this novel in fact draws out processes which were plainly clear, and put more distance between feeling and its fulfilment. While a good argument can be posed on Time’s behalf, here David uses it as a means to emotionally mute himself. But as it passes, he doesn’t become more sure, in fact, he doesn’t know what he wants at all.
What are they (David and Hella) waiting for?
By trying to fit within normal models of masculinity (and Hella with femininity), sureness in the novel is not the faithful, well-thought choice. It is a choice (or a lack of choice) towards the least societally burdensome option.
David is unwilling to engage imaginatively with the life he could have with Giovanni. It is easy for him to imagine the societally sanctioned relationship with a woman, but not with a man. Perhaps only the shame of this “filthy” ‘sinful’ room stops him from imagining – he is unwilling to follow this choice: “I can have a life with her.’ I stood up. I was shaking. ‘What kind of life can we have in this room? – this filthy little room. What kind of life can two men have together, anyway? […]”.
What I learned from reading Giovanni’s Room, at a time when this topic was incredibly relevant to me, was: Time does not tell, feelings tell. Giovanni’s Room warns of confusing the panic of the unimaginable or shameful, which are imposed on us by expectation, with Time’s wisdom. That we should not pursue what makes us feel. The only thing that is sure throughout, is David’s feelings for Giovanni, but he never commits to this option.
As bell hooks claims that many boys are raised to only express anger and violence, becoming their only means, this is truly enlightening on an earlier choice that David imagines in the face of this pressure:
“I had thought of suicide when I was much younger […] my way of informing the world how awfully it made me suffer.”
We see the same violence, not directed towards others but as a response to his suffering. Unable to express himself or be faithful, his only viable option is to ease it by killing (himself). As our narrator, he opens up the possibility for us to nod in agreement as “possibly we all have” felt this way at one point. Therefore, we must point ourselves towards liberation.
The only way to escape the emotionally vacant masculinity, to caress self-love and to let it grow, is to be faithful to emotion. It is plainly clear that the object of this solution is not simple. The very title of bell hook’s book (The Will to Change) is just one of the many obstacles in the way.