Invention and Sorrow: the role of literature in times of disconnection.

By Nora Cornell • 8 November 2020

“What I was seeing was but a part of the truth and perhaps not even the most important part; beneath these faces, … was power and sorrow, both unadmitted, unrealized, the power of inventors, the sorrow of the disconnected” (90).

This line, a near-throwaway about some American tourists, encapsulates the exact reason that Giovanni’s Room resonates so deeply right now. James Baldwin’s beautiful novel provides an all-encompassing sense of escape with an emphasis on relationships that still provokes thought and discomfort. As readers, we get to wrestle with troubling or unfamiliar ideologies and situations that feel increasingly relevant, even as we are transported halfway across the world and a half-century ago. I have never heard a more appealing idea.

At the end of a hectic and emotional week, characterized but not even fully defined by an abrupt transition to online learning and the conclusion of the most important election of our lifetimes, I want nothing more than to step out of my own problems for just a little bit (say, 118 pages?). Baldwin’s exquisite prose and David’s inner obstacles and Giovanni’s rollercoaster drama are so intriguingly well-crafted that an afternoon of literary analysis becomes a joy. I have recently been finding myself reading much more slowly than I typically would for a piece of homework, wondering about the use of syntax to create a unique voice, or what it means when we seem to have insight into David that even he doesn’t quite realize, or even simply worrying about what on Earth is going to befall Giovanni somewhere in the next 51 pages.

This, for me, is the true gift of literature, and proves the crucial role that it plays in our lives right now. On the surface, my life as a teenage girl in the American midwest has very little to do with that of a twenty-something young man living in Paris, contemplating homosexuality and suicide. But on a deeper level, the level that English teachers everywhere are begging us to consider, all of that fades away, and what’s left are truly universal questions of love, loss, and loneliness – questions that I believe could define our lives in this strange era.

I opened this post with a quote about “the power of inventors” and “the sorrow of the disconnected” and claimed that Giovanni’s Room epitomizes both. I stand by that assertion. In such a novel, James Baldwin himself wields the power of invention, and his creation demands that even the saddest of us, even the most lonely, the most disconnected, must contemplate connection. As adolescents expected to complete high school via Zoom, we are the disconnected audience he’s speaking to. But instead of retreating into ourselves, or letting all creativity pass us by, Baldwin urges us to reach out, to build relationships, to learn more from the world that preceded us. This is an invaluable call to action. Let’s listen up – the writers have something to teach us.

Header photo from the New York Times.

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