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.


Morsels of Intimacy

“If no one came in, I sat quietly in the back room and watched him eat. He was meticulously neat, placing his bones in even rows on the paper towel beside his plate. Sometimes my father looked up and saw me watching him, and he reached out and gave me a morsel of meat or a taste of rice and gravy from his plate.

Other times I sat with my book, quietly reading, but secretly waiting and hoping for this special treat. Even if I had already just eaten the same food, or even if it was some dish I did not particularly like, these tastes of my father’s food from his plate in the back room of his office had an enchantment to them that was delicious and magical, and precious. They form the fondest and closest memories I have of warm moments shared with my father. There were not many” (Lorde 67).


In this particular scene in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde illustrates memories of moments shared with her father that were unusually intimate. She explains how her father was rather aloof and secretive because he didn’t like to place himself in rather vulnerable situations and circumstances, especially in front of his children. As a child, Lorde would often view her father in the context of being behind closed doors and eating in the absence of strangers. This particular passage exudes a sense of pride from the narrator, as Lorde is aware of being given access and literal sight to her father having a meal, which is denied to virtually everyone else except his immediate family. The relationship shared between Lorde and her father mimics one of silent reverence, almost worship. Lorde silently, with respect, attentively observes her father’s almost ritualistic eating habits. There is a kind of unspoken communication going on in the tension of the somewhat awkward father-daughter relationship. While the daughter struggles to contain herself from exposing her deep desire to connect with her father, the father feels the uncomfortable need to step out of his comfort zone to pay attention to and care for his daughter.

The moments in which her father offers Lorde some of his food signifies much more to Lorde than the literal act of a father feeding his daughter. For Lorde, this offering and tasting encapsulates the highest extent of intimacy she ever had with her father. Considering the rarity of such a level of intimacy, Lorde can only describe these moments as enchanting, magical, and precious. What makes these memories so beloved to Lorde, she emphasizes, is everything but the literal, physical nature of eating the morsels of food itself. However, it is because of the basic, and necessity-driven nature of the instinct of a father to feed his daughter itself that even allowed the possibility of such a connection to occur, since her father is not one to be bothered with frivolity or open affection. While the act may (or may not) be a trivial one for Lorde’s father, the experience sparks Lorde with a kind of inward, effervescent energy that heightens and intensifies her emotions, which consequently bonds her closer to her father and makes her saturate the most mundane experiences with him with rich meaning. This can be an example of what Lorde would describe as “the erotic” in the essay, “The Uses of the Erotic.” Through such an experience that allows Lorde to find the knowledge of the erotic within herself, it empowers her to have control over a lens through which she filter her reactions and feelings to certain situations or circumstances. With explosions of deep inner feeling and joy that are unlocked from intimate experiences of all kinds, she regains her inner power and control of the erotic that allows her to saturate her life with the intensity of a broad spectrum of feelings. Perhaps this experience in particular helps her find the erotic within herself because of the extent to which she yearns for intimacy with her rather detached father.



“‘Why don’t you just marry him?’ ‘Because you don’t marry someone to escape something that’s inside your head'” (192).

When it is revealed that Sophie’s mother is pregnant for the second time with Marc, the mother-daughter dynamic is reversed. Sophie ends up taking the role of a mother figure for her own mother by comforting her as well as questioning her rather impulsive behavior. Because of the sensitivity and irony of the issue, Sophie is exposed to a lot of information regarding her mother’s relationship to sexuality and other deep-seated aspects of her psyche that she would not have otherwise had the opportunity of knowing. This quote is particularly telling of the mother’s psychological state, and also creates a strong parallel between Sophie and her mother’s struggles with sexuality and desire. For both Sophie and her mother, it seems that physical desire is often blocked or muddled by their respective desires of coming to terms with and overcoming distortions of sexuality dominated by haunting memories. Because of traumatic experiences with sexuality in their youth, Sophie and her mother have unconsciously woven since then a more abstract and distorted association with sexuality and desire, as the two are highly connected for them.

For Sophie’s mother, she is not even in a state of mind to be able to desire her unborn child or Marc as both of them are more like byproducts of her desire to escape her nightmares, which are tied to the rape that gave birth to Sophie. Because of the power of the memory of her rape, the mother’s perception of desire is controlled by a specter in her own unconscious. Even her relationship with Marc in its essence stems from her desire to have someone to wake her up from her nightmares. She regards it almost like a transaction in which she sleeps with him in return for him watching over her in her sleep. Once she realizes she is pregnant, she cannot help associating the baby in her stomach with the baby in her nightmares about the rape. She cannot possibly desire the baby when the nightmares resurface the unpleasant associations she has with pregnancy and sexuality. She knows she can’t desire marrying Marc when what she truly desires is to escape her own psyche and past. Ultimately, her desire to run away from the grip of her own unconscious mind overwhelms her to the point of her taking her own life.

Sophie also has a similar relationship with sexuality and desire as her mother. The idea of running away or escaping is a strong motif as well in Sophie’s story. She also has a relationship with Joseph that resembles more of a dutiful transaction than one of raw desire and passion. She considers sleeping with him as an act of bravery and duty that is what fundamentally keeps him by her side. She escapes to Haiti because she has the strong belief that she is undesirable due to her inability to physically enjoy sex. Her mental block regarding desire and sexuality manifests through her bulimia and her fear of abandonment. She has the added burden of desire being associated with her being a child born of rape, her detestation of having been tested, knowing that her mother tried to poison her before she was born, and at the end of the novel, her mother having committed suicide and homicide of her own child. Her relation with desire and sexuality is heavily abstracted because of all the layers of experiences in her life that makes her simultaneously want to run away from her own psyche and desperately want to desire and be desired.

The Other

“As for the happiness I gave her, that was worse than nothing. I did not love her. I was thirsty for her, but that is not love. I felt very little tenderness for her, she was a stranger to me, a stranger who did not think or feel as I did” (Rhys 55).


There are several instances in Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, in which the Englishman who will soon marry Antoinette, the white Creole protagonist, is in cognitive dissonance regarding her displaced identity as a white European raised in the Carribean. He describes how he merely plays a part in the romancing of Antoinette. He has a firm understanding of his role as well as Antoinette’s empty relation to him, but all his thoughts are self-contained and deeply internalized:

She never had anything to do with me at all. Every movement I made was an effort of will and sometimes I wondered that no one noticed this. I would listen to my own voice and marvel at it, calm, correct but toneless, surely. But I must have given a faultless performance. If I saw an expression of doubt or curiosity it was on a black face not a white one.” (45)

He clearly has made a representation of Antoinette outside of his own inner reality and from that forceful rupture, is merely going through the motions of a lover. He “understands” her mere traces of human affectations only through her “black face.” He has internally displaced her out of his realm of “love” and finds it perfectly apt to merely treat her as a character in his performance of a self-created and false reality. He merely sees Antoinette as an accessory and means of sorts for the sake of his own “thirst.” In his mind, he is allowed to do this because of the fact of her identity and all the social connotations associated with it. Antoinette can intuitively sense this robbing of her “self” by her lack of trust in him and even pointing out directly to him that he doesn’t know anything about her. She can sense the distance and artificiality of her relation to him even when he reassures her with loving words.

In his essay, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” Stuart Hall explains the traumatic nature of “the colonial experience” (225) as the way in which black experiences were under the dominant powers of representation not only in an explicit manner but by their ability to make black people see and experience themselves as “Other.” He explains that they subjected them to specific categories of knowledge, but even worse by an internal rather than external manner. He explains, “It is quite another thing to subject them to that ‘knowledge’, not only as a matter of imposed will and domination, by the power of inner compulsion and subjective con-formation to the norm” (226). The Englishman clearly subjects Antoinette to this internalized power dynamic, without caring at all what that truly is doing to her and the consequences of his actions.