Cleaning out the closet

To cast some light on Giovanni’s Room this week, I’d like to take another look at The Well of Loneliness and its configuration (and thematization) of disordered spaces. Both GR and WoL suggest that disorderliness is not strictly aligned with sexual identity; it isn’t simply the case that the psychologically “disordered” queer is represented or comforted by a disorderly space. In fact, both novels include partners who evince meaningfully opposite stances toward messiness, and this very heterogeneity seems to prod the reader to rethink how and what spaces do and demonstrate.

There does seem to be a correlation between nonconformity and disorderliness. When Stephen is left to her own devices as a child, she favors extreme messiness; and when she eventually meets a peer invert, Valérie, ”[t]he first thing that struck Stephen about Valérie’s flat was its large and rather splendid disorder. There was something blissfully unkempt about it, as though its mistress were too much engrossed in other affairs to control its behaviour. Nothing was quite where it ought to have been, and much was where it ought not to have been, while over the whole lay a faint layer of dust–even over the spacious salon. […] [Valerie] had masses of thick fair hair, which was busily ridding itself of its hairpins; one could see at a glance that it hated restraint, like the flat it was in rather splendid disorder.” The disorderliness of the room leads inexorably (at least textually) to the disorderliness of Valérie’s appearance, of her body. Her hair seems to be struggling with norms as valiantly as is her mind. There’s a certain order to the consistency of Valérie’s nonconformity; she seems to embrace and even celebrate deviance, dissent, and individualism on multiple levels of her life.

Others of Stephen’s queer allies, however, break the disorderly mold by favoring spatial order. Miss Puddleton (a.k.a. Puddle) is a frustrated invert herself who defends Stephen and her sexuality, but when she arrives at Morton she aggressively organizes Stephen’s hitherto chaotic workspace: “It was truly amazing, the change in the schoolroom, not a book out of place, not a shelf in disorder; even the box lounge had had to be opened and its dumb-bells and clubs paired off nicely together–Miss Puddleton always liked things to be paired, perhaps an unrecognized matrimonial instinct.” This instinct takes us somewhat off guard; Puddle’s orderliness is aligned with sexual normativity, here, but it isn’t reflective of her own sexual normativity. Her matrimonial instinct does not connote a heterosexual one. Indeed, this deliberate mismatch seems key to Puddle’s survival: she aligns her surroundings with her instincts, and the result is order. That is, Puddle creates an environment in which she thrives, and that environment honors her desires—normative and otherwise. As we learn, Puddle thinks of disorderly spaces as not reflecting a disorganized mind, but indeed helping to create it. “’Because,’ said Miss Puddleton as she pinned the thing up, ‘even my brain won’t stand your complete lack of method, it’s infectious; this time-sheet is my anti-toxin, so please don’t tear it to pieces!’” By creating an ordered space, Puddle creates her sanity—even though that ordered space reflects a diagnostically “disordered” desire for queer union. By managing the frame of reference, Puddle manages internal order.

Stephen eventually follows Puddle’s lead, not Valérie’s, even as she refuses to repress her sexuality as Puddle does. As Stephen blossoms sexually and socially, and as she becomes more comfortable with her painful separation from her mother, Stephen becomes more orderly, not less. Stephen makes a nest for herself; she takes great pleasure in choosing furniture and curtains, and, renovating her home, “gradually chaos gave place to order, and on the morning of her twenty-seventh birthday, on Christmas Eve, Stephen moved into her home in the Rue Jacob on the old Rive Gauche, there to start her new life in Paris.” This “new life” is directly connected to Stephen’s ordering of her own space.

This tension between ordered and disordered spaces meaningfully coincides with the terminology of psychology; the name of “disorder” presupposes an order from which the invert diverges, just as “invert” does. “Invert” and “disorder” are negatively defined terms, and as such they require a certain degree of self-consciousness about the norms they eschew. The quantification and documentation of disorders is, itself, an ordering process. The Well of Loneliness makes this subtle point via Sir Philip and the meticulous, scholarly marginalia he leaves behind in his collection of sexology texts; he masters disorders intellectually, and makes sense of Stephen through medical diagnosis. “Disorder” only makes sense in the context of an orderly framework, so “order” may seem a natural enemy to someone deemed disordered; but, in fact, owning the framework can reconstitute the nature of “disorder.”

One mode of constituting a framework is constituting narrative, and as such the narratological strategies seem ideologically important in both novels. In Giovanni’s Room, David is the ordering mind, but he does not embrace narrative order. The paratactic structure of the novel reflects repression and mimics the free-associative narrative construction of the therapeutic session. This symptomatic disorderliness contrasts with the doggedly, conventionally linear Well of Loneliness. Hall was a modernist and as such was perfectly familiar with alternative, more artful narrative patterns and structures; thus, the regularity of her pacing and conventionality of her prose (a conventionality that many critics take to be a fault) seems deliberate. In this light, we can read WoL as an insistent (if ham-fisted) demonstration that mental orderliness is not the exclusive domain of “orderly” sexual expression. The Baldwin, on the other hand, is all about David’s oppressive shame, the disorderliness that has arisen from his self-consciousness about his own disorder. As “er” articulately points out in his post, this disordered self-loathing is not necessarily the universal queer condition, but it’s certainly the product of an inhospitable environment. David sees himself as disordered, and it’s for that reason that he produces a disordered texts and so desperately flees from the disorderliness of Giovanni’s room, which he insists on reading as a symptom.

Indeed, it isn’t clear that Giovanni’s messiness actually is neurotic; but it’s clear that it’s important to David to read it that way. It is David, after all, who insists on the inevitability and stagnation of Giovanni’s room as well as the dirtiness of his sexuality. Giovanni, for his part, is perfectly logical and practical about the matter: when David asks why he has “buried” himself in the room, Giovanni responds, “Buried myself? Forgive me, mon cher Américain, but Paris is not like New York; it is not full of palaces for boys like me […] What kind of room do you think Giovanni should be living in How long do you think it took me to find the room I have? And since when […] have you so hated the room?” It seems apparent that Giovanni isn’t wedded to his room—it’s David that seems bent on keeping him there. Giovanni announces simply, “We can move. Tomorrow! Let us go to a hotel. Is that what you want?” but David responds only by sighing, “speechless.” It seems unconsciously important to David to keep Giovanni there, to maintain the narrative of filth. In fact, David’s own place is rather untidy, as we learn when he takes the “caretaker” through his room—he embarrassedly promises again and again that he’ll clean the place up by the next day.  If he thinks of messiness as a symptom, he announces his own disease. In other words, David seems bent on the frame that reads Giovanni as disordered; but in reality Giovanni’s messiness is a symptom not of Giovanni’s self-loathing, but of a society in which it is difficult for “boys like” Giovanni to find a decent place to live, and where it is socially important to keep him in a condition of physical squalor to match his supposed sexual depravity.

Perhaps The Well of Loneliness can offer us an optimistic view of our ability to create order from disorder, a home from the wreckage:

Stephen bought the house in the Rue Jacob, because as she walked through the dim, grey archway that led from the street to the cobbled courtyard, and saw the deserted house standing before her, she knew at once that there she would live. This will happen sometimes, we instinctively feel in sympathy with certain dwellings.

The courtyard was sunny and surrounded by walls. On the right of this courtyard some iron gates led into the spacious, untidy garden, and woefully neglected though this garden had been, the trees that it still possessed were fine ones. A marble fountain long since choked with weeds, stood in the centre of what had been a lawn. In the farthest corner of the garden some hand had erected a semicircular temple, but that had been a long time ago, and now the temple was all but ruined.

Old temples—forms so old that we embrace them as ruins and feel empowered to rebuild them—might be where we feel most at home.

-H.D.

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