Dangerous Intimacy

“…in moments of danger I have always felt the need to have someone close to me” (162)

In the memoir Before Night Falls, by Reinaldo Arenas, the narrator states this quote during his escape to Guantánamo as a fugitive on a train. I think this quote captures an essential aspect of the narrator’s life in regards to his relationship with violence, sexuality, desire, emotions, and literature. A main component of the narrator’s relationship to intimacy, of all kinds, can find its roots in his relationship with his mother.

His relationship with his mother is filled with ambivalence, as he feels sad for her loneliness, as well as being vexed by projecting her own feelings on him. Whenever he thinks of her he envisions her as a forlorn woman yearning for her lover who seduced her and then abandoned her. He being the fruit of such a brief encounter, harbors guilt for her sadness and bitterness, and he mentions early on in the novel how he feels guilty for getting more physical intimacy from the male sex that his mother so desperately craves. His mother seems like a ghostly figure to the narrator throughout the novel, since she seems perpetually haunted by the void created by his absent father. The narrator encapsulates his mother’s ghostliness through a metaphor of sweeping,

“She had a light way of sweeping, as if removing the dirt were not as important as moving the broom over the ground. Her way of sweeping was symbolic; so airy, so fragile, with a broom that swept nothing; it seemed that an ancestral habit forced her to repeat the motion. Perhaps with that broom she tried to sweep away all the horrors, all the loneliness, all the misery that had accompanied her all her life, and me, her only son, now a homosexual in disgrace and persecuted as a writer” (142).

The mother seeming like a fragile shell holding onto deep feelings of sadness and loss and betrayal manifests through her interactions with Reinaldo. She repeatedly asks him to get married supposedly knowing that Reinaldo is homosexual. Reinaldo interprets this as her desire for him to bring her a song to satisfy her loneliness. This reflects his mother’s denial of her son’s sexuality out of shame (“removing the dirt”); furthermore, it reflects her rather hollow connection with her son as simply her last chance at experiencing pure, untainted love redeem her abandonment and disgrace (“a broom that swept nothing”).

As much as he pities and harbors guilt for his mother, he also experiences emotional violence as a result of his mother’s emotional absence as a nurturer. His lack of a true, meaningful, reciprocated connection with the main female figure in his life and the one who gave him life itself, can be seen as an emotional violence of the deepest and stealthiest kind. Even with the person who supposedly would care for and love him the most embodies an almost emotionally dangerous energy; therefore, it would make sense for him to have a more complex relationship to emotional intimacy. Perhaps this relationship would emphasize the significance of the quote, “…in moments of danger I have always felt the need to have someone close to me” (162), for Reinaldo. As danger seems to continuously follow Reinaldo through his life, whether it be tied to political issues or romantic obstacles, his main beacon of hope and nourishment seems to stem from an almost tangible craving for intimacy, which includes physical, emotional, and literary intimacy. Certain repeated moments of danger include Reinaldo being arrested and confined, as well as escaping and hiding, throughout the novel. During those times, he often finds solace in writing. With the lack of a person to become close to in such times of danger and loneliness, writing becomes his way of having some form of a relationship and means of communication, even if it is with himself. However, in consideration of the context and nature of the memoir itself, writing would not be as solitary of an act as it may seem at a glance; since, for Reinaldo, writing about himself would conjure up such lush memories, as his life was so enriched by all the lovers he ever had and his ability to be emotionally saturated by life’s joys.


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