When sentimentality turns into obscenity: loving to the point of hating oneself.

To love from afar, to love hidden from the face of the world, to love but never say the forbidden words, to love to the point of questioning one’s identity. These are the ideas that emerge from James Baldwin and Fatima Daas’ extraordinary works, Giovanni’s Room and La petite dernière, in which we explore the hidden side of love: the quest for identity through others.

In his quest for love, or more so a sense of identity/meaning in his life, David, the main character in Giovanni’s Room, leaves the United States and moves to Paris. In Baldwin’s work, we follow a character who seems to have run out of life since his lover, Giovanni, was sentenced to death for murder. The plot of the novel revolves around David‘s encounter with Giovanni. The latter, an Italian immigrant who cannot adapt to Parisian life, attaches himself to love with all his might. Giovanni, in the end, is a rather stereotypical character, burning with passion, certainty and prejudice. But this is where David‘s attraction for our Italian comes from, Giovanni is sure of who he is, what he wants and despite his vulnerability he is ready to give himself to love and receive it. We can also add that in this work, space is the real main character rather than our two lovers. Love is born in the unspoken, in that maid’s room in the Nation district, in the reproachful passion that Giovanni has for David. The American, far from home, does not know how to define himself. When he meets Giovanni, he seems awfully uptight about who he is supposed to be, and the Italian leads the courtship ritual; David relies on the image he portrays, without ever really opening up to the young Italian bartender. His secrets, which he himself is unable to bear, will lead him to join and settle down with Giovanni in his room at Nation.

perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.

James Baldwin, « Giovanni’s Room », Penguin Classics, 1956. p.88.

It is, indeed, in this room, in this space, that the obscene, as introduced by Roland Barthes in Fragments, will be combined with sentimentality. Barthes argued that nowadays, in the discourse of love, the obscene is no longer sexual but sentimental. In the sense that sex would be so detached from feelings that it has become trivial. The example Barthes chose was that sexuality is an easy subject to discuss, and sentimentality, on the other hand, makes eardrums tense and vocal cords squeak. Giovanni‘s bedroom is the place for the expression of sentimentality, of passion, but also the place of the obscene for the same reasons mentioned above. When David goes there, he speaks with his body and yet remains rather inexpressive. This room, hidden from the gaze of others, with its shutters drawn all the time and its walls punched in, tells a very different story. This room is the imagined externalisation of David‘s interior. It is his inability to be sentimental, the darkness of his soul, the rottenness of his mind, and his true identity buried deep within himself. David is a man, as society has constructed them, and beyond that, David is unable to love anyone, not himself, not his lover Giovanni nor his fiancée Hella, who has not been mentioned so far to preserve the complexity of Baldwin’s writing. In the confined space of this Parisian room, love is valid, feelings too, and above all passion. Giovanni will be destroyed by the love he knows and accepts. This work, more than a love story, is a story about love and a story about identity. David, beyond his passion for men and women, will continue, in spite of others, to perpetuate this violence towards himself in order to preserve his intimately linked masculinity and identity. The inability to love and conditioning are David‘s burdens, which he drags with him wherever he goes and shares with everyone he meets.

Fatima Daas by Olivier Roller

This idea will also be addressed in the second work presented. Fatima Daas’s very engaging La petite dernière. La petite dernière is a semi-autobiographical monologue in which Fatima tells the reader all about herself. Her name is Fatima. She bears a sacred Islamic name, she is a “clichoise[1], she has Algerian origins, but is the only member of her family to have been born in France, she reaffirms her identity by introducing herself at the beginning of each chapter. Fatima loves women. Fatima is Muslim, Fatima has a name she cannot dishonour. We then follow her journey, which will lead her to date older women more often than not, yet her relationships will systematically end up sabotaged. Fatima, the youngest of her family, is generally on a different wavelength as her family, constantly searching for her identity. She is questioning the nature of her beliefs, which seem immovable. Yet the crux of the plot comes from this problem, this inability to change what one can attribute to cultural heritage. Fatima, she is not at home anywhere, she is constantly on the move in what seems to be a loop. She repeats the same mistakes with every soul she meets. Fatima, at the beginning of each chapter, reaffirms her identity. At the beginning of each chapter, we experience her guilt as if we were going in circles. Her questioning becomes ours, her fears too, as well as her sentimental and identity fragility. And this will be reoccurring until she meets Nina who will push Fatima into the depths of her sentimentality. Nina is a bit like an open window on a winter’s day when the temperature drops to -15 degree. It is pleasant to feel the chill, but it is still threatening, and you want to close that window as soon as possible. But Fatima will fall in love with Nina and will find herself trying to justify her religious guilt to herself, but also to the Divine.

[1] Inhabitant of the city of Clichy-sous-bois

Elle ne doit pas rendre licite l’illicite. Qu’Allah l’enveloppe de Sa grâce divine et lui donne force et courage, crée pour elle un miracle, un homme qui a des qualités féminines.2

Fatima Daas, « La petite dernière », Notabilia, 2020. p.112.

La petite dernière is a monologue in which she participates in a reconquest of herself through divine grace. But this recovery comes from a deep rejection of love for love seems impossible to grasp. In the fragments of this story, we observe the facets of Fatima‘s identity, an identity made obscene, whose sentimentality is obscene, whose love is obscene because this concept undermines the integrity of Fatima. Unable to experience love for others, Fatima takes refuge in her love for God, and it is this guilt-ridden love that makes her more alive and confused than ever.

Parallels can be drawn between these two works in their purpose. In these stories, we seek to understand others, to demystify the obscene in love, and of course to affirm the ability to love. Our two authors aim to destroy this internalized hatred of the self. The hatred which prevents love, whether for oneself or for the being sought to be loved. The hatred in question, with regard to these works, is above all an internalised homophobia, as to reiterate, it attacks the presumed identity of our main characters. What is obscene in the end is not sentimentality, but the inability to be sentimental forced by social and/or cultural constructions. What is obscene is simply shame. In the fear of the self, in what love can engender, in the ease of sexual encounters, the reconstruction of love is implemented in these works in a way which propose an antidote to this unspeakable shame. Nothing remains frozen in time, to use Barthesian discourse, love transcends time once it is experienced. In these pieces of work, time collapses when love appears.

These two affairs of the heart, intertwined with affairs of sex, are very complementary works when it comes to talking about love and the discourse of love. Love is used as a driving force, but also as a problematic in a quest for identity that must be invisible to others. It is a powerful theme in the message transmitted by our authors. We find that the line between love and hate is so thin that these feelings mix and conflict constantly. Two excellent works of queer literature which magnificently transcend the themes of Love, identity, but also space. Both of them I absolutely recommend as they have a lot to offer in terms of both aesthetics and messages. 

Erdem Ozgunay

2 : She should not make the impermissible permissible. May Allah surround her with His divine grace and give her strength and courage, and create for her a miracle, a man with feminine qualities.

Cover picture: « Giovannis Zimmer », Roland Berger, 1981.

James Baldwin, « Giovanni’s Room », 1956.

Fatima Daas, « La petite dernière », 2020.

Roland Barthes, « fragments d’un discours amoureux », 1977.

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