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Frank Ocean Re-Opens the Door To Giovanni's Room in "Seigfried"

A young James Baldwin

A young James Baldwin

In 1956, James Baldwin introduces us to one of the most narcissistic, yet relatable characters in American literature: David, an American man living abroad in Paris. During his time in Paris, David becomes estranged from the woman of his dreams (Hella) and finds himself falling in love with an Italian bartender named Giovanni.

'Love him,’ said Jacques, with vehemence, ‘love him and let him love you. Do you think anything else under heaven really matters? And how long, at the best, can it last, since you are both men and still have everywhere to go? Only five minutes, I assure you, only five minutes, and most of that, helas! in the dark. And if you think of them as dirty, then they will be dirty— they will be dirty because you will be giving nothing, you will be despising your flesh and his. But you can make your time together anything but dirty, you can give each other something which will make both of you better—forever—if you will not be ashamed, if you will only not play it safe (Baldwin, 83-84.)

David does exactly this and finds himself in the middle of another country, in love with a man for the first time in his life, and Giovanni, poor Giovanni, finds himself on the way to his grave, although he does not know this yet.

Giovanni had awakened an itch, had released a gnaw in me. I realized it one afternoon, when I was taking him to work via the Boulevard Montparnasse. We had bought a kilo of cherries and we were eating them as we walked along. We were both insufferably childish and high-spirited that afternoon and the spectacle we presented, two grown men jostling each other on the wide sidewalk and aiming the cherry pits, as though they were spitballs, into each other's faces, must have been outrageous. And I realized that such childishness was fantastic at my age and the happiness out of which it sprang yet more so; for that moment I really loved Giovanni, who had never seemed more beautiful than he was that afternoon (Baldwin, 78.)
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That was 1956. Today, I sit listening to beautiful harmonies and unmatched lyricism, and I’m feeling that story be re-told all over again, but this time from a vantage point so much bigger than David's. “Siegfried” begins to play and by the end song I’m questioning everything that I thought I knew about life. Frank Ocean says, “I'd rather live outside / I'd rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here” and I’m immediately reminded of David’s self-identified damnation.

This is a familiar story. It's David’s story. It's David believing he was to be trapped in Giovanni’s room forever. This is my story and your story too. This is the story of anyone that ever struggled with being brave. For every night you’ve ever laid face down in a pillow soaked in tears. For every “last time.” For mornings when God ceased to exist and for every demon that won. Frank Ocean intentionally (or unintentionally) re-opens the door to Giovanni’s room.

I remember that life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea, time flowed past indifferently above us, hours and days had no meaning. In the beginning our life held a joy and amazement which was newborn every day. Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues. By then anguish and fear had become the surface on which we slipped and slid, losing balance, dignity, and pride (Baldwin, 109.)

Somewhere from the most tortured and bruised part of his soul, Frank belts, “Maybe I'm a fool / Maybe I should move / And settle, two kids and a swimming pool / I'm not brave!” This speaks almost directly to Baldwin’s David, for it is important to remember that during his entire exploration of self with Giovanni, David has a girlfriend, one who he deeply misses and cares for. In the midst of these new found feelings and the re-discovery of his bisexuality, David struggles with self acceptance.

David loves Paris and thinks it’s the most beautiful place he’s ever seen, but he's ultimately led to believe that he could never actually live happily ever after with Giovanni, that he’s being a fool. David has a father back home in the US that only wants to know that his son is doing well, and wants him to return home, even if that means bringing back the girl he believes his son has run away with in Paris. The problem here: Giovanni isn’t a girl and David is very much so in love. He begins to resent himself and Giovanni for it. David begins to resent Paris.

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“Maybe I’m a fool / Maybe I should move / And settle, two kids and a swimming pool / I’m not brave!” in many ways is representative of David’s idea of safety. Frank’s words represent David’s view of security (molded by the society that he finds himself born into) of what is right. David can move with Hella as they are both citizens of the United States. It’s 1956 and David technically can have two kids with Hella, two kids and a swimming pool. David can not, with peace of mind, do either of these things with Giovanni. David in a rant filled with self doubt and helplessness says himself to Giovanni:

What kind of life can we have in this room?–this filthy little room. What kind of life can two men have together, anyway? All this love you talk about–isn’t it just that you want to be made to feel strong? You want to go out and be the big laborer and bring home the money, and you want me to stay here and wash the dishes and cook the food and clean this miserable closet of a room and kiss you when you come in through that door and lie with you at night and be your little girl. That’s what you want. That’s what you mean and that’s all you mean when you say you love me (Baldwin, 142.)

Then Frank butts in through my headphones:

Maybe I'm a fool
To settle for a place with some nice views
Maybe I should move
Settle down, two kids and a swimming pool.
I’M NOT BRAVE!

This is David’s Paris. Paris’ beauty plays a big role in the attachment that David feels to the place. In the same way, Giovanni’s beauty is what draws him in. But when his feelings for Giovanni become inescapable and almost hopeless, David decides he must leave Paris.

“Maybe I should move / settle down, two kids and a swimming pool/ I’M NOT BRAVE!”

David fights for a good portion of the book. He fights his father about coming home. He fights Giovanni. He fights no one harder than he fights himself. He fights himself so hard that he becomes hell-bent on escaping what he begins to call “Giovanni’s room.” He begins to imagine his time with Giovanni as a punishment of sorts, and Giovanni’s room becomes a prison.

As Frank continues, so do the parallels to Baldwin’s classic work.

I'd rather live outside
I'd rather live outside
I'd rather go to jail
I've tried hell
(It's a loop)
What would you recommend I do?
(And the other side of a loop is a loop)

But Baldwin beat him to the punch, etching these words instead:

Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare (Baldwin, 25.)

Giovanni is one of the most underwritten characters of all time. Throughout all of David’s self-doubt, his constant reneging of affection, Giovanni does nothing but love him and love him hard— maybe too hard— definitely too hard. Giovanni too, is brave. Giovanni is blinded by love, a fool, but he is brave. When David tells Giovanni he’s leaving for good and plans to be with Hella, Giovanni self-destructs:

...[You do not] love anyone! You never have loved anyone, I am sure you never will! You love your purity, you love your mirror—  you are just like a little virgin, you walk around with your hands in front of you as though you had some precious metal, gold, silver, rubies, may be diamonds down there between your legs! You will never let anybody touch it-- man or woman. You want to be clean. … You want to leave Giovanni because he makes you stink. You want to despise Giovanni because he is not afraid of the stink of love. You want to kill him in the name of all your lying little moralities. And you— you are immoral. You are, by far, the most immoral man I have ever met in all my life. Look, look what you have done to me. Do you think you think you could have done this if I did not love you? Is that what you should do to love? (Baldwin, 141)

“Seigfried,” already a somber song, begins to take an even darker tone as it fades out:

(In the dark, in the dark)
I'd do anything for you
(In the dark)
I'd do anything for you
(In the dark)
I'd do anything for you
(In the dark)
I'd do anything for you
(In the dark)
I'd do anything for you, anything for you
(In the dark)
I'd do anything for you, anything for…

This is the voice of Frank Ocean. He sings on and on, and ultimately, the heartbreak kills Baldwin’s Giovanni. David does his best to resume a normal life, free from Giovanni, and fully invests his love in Hella. It’s not long before those things he’s done in the dark resurface, and to the detriment of his last romantic relationship: his love with Hella. David and Hella part ways and he is forced to live forever with Giovanni’s death on his hands. David succeeds in destroying Giovanni’s room.

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You don’t have a home until you leave it and then, when you have left it, you never can go back (Baldwin, 109.)

And Frank just keeps on singing. And it sounds more and more like an echo withering out of earshot into a tunnel each time:

I'd rather live outside
I'd rather chip my pride than lose my mind out here
Maybe I'm a fool
Maybe I should move
And settle, two kids and a swimming pool
I'M NOT BRAVE!

In the end David decides he’d rather live outside. He decides that brave for him means escaping Giovanni’s room, even it kills Giovanni. Selfish? Brave? To each his own. At the end of the novel there's a scene where David imagines Giovanni being taken to his death, a death many would say he caused. It’s an almost hallucinatory scene in my memory, but in my ears Frank sings:

Dreaming a thought that could dream about a thought
That could think of the dreamer that thought
That could think of dreaming and getting a glimmer of God
I be dreaming a dream in a thought
That could dream about a thought
That could think about dreaming a dream (Ocean)

It becomes more and more like a eerie dual of words, a dual of words from the present and past. Baldwin and Ocean are battling to the death, with pens.

It should be now that gates are opening before Giovanni and clanging shut behind him, never, for him, to be opened or shut anymore. Or perhaps it is already over. Perhaps it is only beginning (Baldwin, 166.)

As Baldwin's words just begin to recant the story of Giovanni's death, Frank slashes his pen across the page.

Where I can not, where I can not
Less morose and more present
Dwell on my gifts for a second
A moment one solar flare would consume, so I nod
Spin this flammable paper on the film's that my life
High flights, inhale the vapor, exhale once and think twice
Eat some shrooms, maybe have a good cry, about you
See some colors, light hang-glide off the moon (Ocean)

Baldwin strikes back, and even though I'm fully entranced by the sounds being emitted from my headphones, his words still pack a mighty punch.

Then the door is before him. There is darkness all around him, there is silence in him. Then the door opens and he stands alone, the whole world falling away from him. And the brief corner of the sky seems to be shrieking, though he does not hear a sound. Then the earth tilts, he is thrown forward on his face in the darkness, and his journey begins (Baldwin, 168.)

In the end, there is no winner or loser, it is only I, the reader and listener, who is left destroyed. 

I'd do anything for you
(In the dark) 
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This is the beauty of words.  One minute you’re riding in the back seat of an Uber, book in tow, and the next you’re in Les Halles having a drink with David and Giovanni. You’ve never been to Paris a day in your life. You may not even know what it feels like to love a man. But literature is human in the sense that if you just flip the page, you can get to know it better. So is music. Music is human and in that exact way, so is the song “Seigfried.” Both Giovanni's Room and "Seigfried" ask us to question what the hell it even means to be brave. And when we’re done grappling with that, we have to reconcile the answer with the way we see ourselves. I'm not brave! Or am I?

The question manifests itself in many ways. It’s being a hungry and struggling writer in New York City with no family around, battling returning home to a place like South Carolina where stability and security await you, but your dreams would be miles behind you. If I stay and love this city, I’m not brave. If I run from this dream, I’m not brave.

It’s getting drunk at a Friday night pre-game with your friends and tweeting “fuck that nigga, I’m doing me,” then finding yourself sweating, naked and vulnerable at 2 AM, staring at the ceiling, underneath a man that has no intention to ever love you. I’m doing these things in the dark. These are the things that I never want anyone to find out about. These are the decisions I hide from my friends. I deserve so much better, but these are my intimate things. I’m not brave.

It’s reaching out to hold your girlfriend’s hand one day and realizing she doesn’t look at you the same anymore; in fact, she hasn’t in months. If I stay and keep trying to love her, I’m not brave. If I give up on this love, If I abandon this relationship, I’m not brave.

“Seigfried” and Giovanni’s Room are both beautiful reminders that bravery as a concept is subjective. Whatever it is that you do in the dark, whether it be for that city, or that girl or that nigga, they remind us that agency counts for something in our attempts to classify what is brave and what is not. We all have our own personal Giovanni’s Room. Who gets to define brave? Is brave wanting to move, feeling suffocated, but deciding to stay? Or is brave embracing life outside of that room? What am I willing to sacrifice in an act of bravery? A life? My own?  At some point we’ll have to decide what we’re willing to give up to escape— or to maybe not escape at all. Here’s to being brave anyway, whether it’s out in the open or in the dark.