Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4233
The elements out of which Jean Genet contrived his vision of that haunting and monstrous “other” world, which lies carefully concealed beneath the controlled and rational surface of everydayness, all belong to previously accredited literary traditions; nevertheless, the balance, and consequently the overall impact, is new. The components can be...
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The elements out of which Jean Genet contrived his vision of that haunting and monstrous “other” world, which lies carefully concealed beneath the controlled and rational surface of everydayness, all belong to previously accredited literary traditions; nevertheless, the balance, and consequently the overall impact, is new. The components can be analyzed as follows.
The confession: Both Our Lady of the Flowers and Miracle of the Rose, at least as much as The Thief’s Journal, are basically autobiographical and, in their original (perhaps subconscious) intention, would seem to have been inspired by a desire to escape—to escape from the intolerable degradations of existence as a petty criminal, convict, and male prostitute by externalizing these experiences through the rigorous and formal disciplines of prose and poetry, by projecting the self through words into the minds of others, thus making acceptable to them that which, without their connivance and acknowledgment, could not be acceptable to him. In one memorable phrase, Genet describes his pilgrimage through literature as “une marche vers l’homme”: a progress toward virility—or, perhaps, simply away from dehumanization.
The “normalization” of homosexuality: To the nineteenth century mind, the homosexual was the ultimate social and moral outlaw, the criminal for whom there could exist no forgiveness. Progressively, the second half of the twentieth century saw the weakening of these strictures: The homosexual, in emotional relationships, could be as “normal” as the heterosexual lover, perhaps even more so; because of previous persecution, the homosexual became almost a “hero of the time.” If this attitude is not the most original feature of Genet’s work, it nevertheless constitutes a powerful motivation: the concern to portray his own emotions as something as intense and as moving as those of “normal” human beings.
The existential of the self: The intellectual relationship between Sartre and Genet is complex and awaits analysis. What is clear is that if Genet was not only influenced by Sartre’s L’Être et le néant, 1943 (Being and Nothingness, 1956) but also, according to his own confession, reduced for years to silence by the devastating accuracy of Sartre’s psychophilosophical analysis of Genet’s creative processes in Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, Sartre, likewise, at least in Le Diable et le Bon Dieu (pr. 1951; The Devil and the Good Lord, 1953), acknowledges his debt to Genet. Genet, in fact, takes the Sartrean ontology toward conclusions that Sartre himself hardly dared to explore. If the essence of the self is a void (un néant), then it can only “be,” either what it thinks itself to be (according to Sartre) or what others think it to be (according to Genet). In either case, it can know itself to be what it is only in terms of the effectiveness of its actions (Sartre) or by looking at itself in the mirror (Genet). Yet, if a man (a negative) looks at himself and sees his reflection (a positive) in the mirror, then that which is perceived (the inanimate-positive image) is more “real” than the perceiver (the animate-negative). The image is thus more “real” than the subject, the fake more “authentic” than the genuine. For Genet, “to be” (this is also a Beckettian theme) is “to be perceived”—especially in the mirror. Hence, Genet’s fiction is pervaded by the image of the mirror and of the double—from the early ballet’Adame miroir to the last of the novels, Querelle of Brest, in which the identical twin brothers, Querelle and Robert, constitute an identity only by their absolute reflection of each other.
The reversal of moral values: If the fake is more authentic than the genuine, then, in moral terms also, the evil is more authentic than the good. Genet, brought up as a Catholic believer and profoundly influenced by another Christian believer, Fyodor Dostoevski, argues as follows: Christ stated that the Kingdom of Heaven is for the humble; no man can will himself to be humble, any more than he can will himself to be a saint, without a degree of hypocrisy that destroys both humility and sanctity (this is, in fact, the theme of the play Deathwatch). Humility, the supreme virtue of the true Christian, can be achieved only involuntarily: One can be truly humble only by being humiliated. Consequently, the most truly meritorious acts are those that result in a total rejection or humiliation by the community—for example, murder or treason. The murderer, therefore, or the traitor (or, on a lesser level, the sneak thief) comes closer to achieving “sanctity” than the parson or the social worker. This argument is well summed up in Lawrence’s vitriolic parody.
And the Dostoyevsky lot:’Let me sin my way to Jesus!’—And so they sinned themselves off the face of the earth.
Divine of Our Lady of the Flowers would agree wholeheartedly.
The attack on the establishment: Genet’s existential-Dostoevskian reversal of accepted moral values is basically a rationalization of his rejection of all values accepted by the French establishment of his time. That does not mean, in any political sense, that he is a “revolutionary,” because “the revolution” (as in The Balcony) implies the acceptance of a code of values as rigid as, and perhaps even more intolerant than, those that it claims to replace. In political terms, Genet is an anarchist in the most literal sense: The conformism of the Left is as repugnant to him as the conformism of the Right. Jews, blacks, criminals, Algerians, pimps, prostitutes—these are “his” people, the social outcasts, the “submerged tenth,” as unwelcome to one regime as to another. From this point of view, Funeral Rites, while one of the weakest of Genet’s novels, is at the same time one of his most significant. Ostensibly, its hero is one Jean Decarnin, a stalwart of the Resistance, Genet’s lover. Yet no sooner is Decarnin dead than Genet embarks on a paean to all that is Nazi, for Adolf Hitler and for the jackbooted SS battalions that had trampled over the fair land of France. If the new establishment is to be the victorious Resistance, then Genet is as emphatic in his rejection of it as he had been in his rejection of the grande bourgeoisie that had preceded it. Michel Leiris once argued that the so-called committed writer can justify his calling only if, like a bullfighter, he genuinely exposes himself to danger. Genet accepted the challenge, in a way that Leiris himself, for all of his intelligence, seems scarcely to have envisaged. If Genet rejected the bourgeoisie, it was not so much by writing as by being that which no establishment can accept. Therefore, with deliberate delight, Genet, even when he was an acknowledged poet, continued to be an inefficient burglar: the last of his protests against a society that stole “in a different way.”
One of the most intriguing features of the Parisian underworld of criminals, pimps, and prostitutes is its tradition of bestowing on this unlovely riffraff the most elaborate and frequently the most haunting of poetic nicknames. It is as though the highest form of human aspiration stood guard over the most debased of its activities. This is the paradox that Genet, with his passion for masks and symbols, for those moments of “mystic” revelation in which an object is perceived simultaneously to be itself and not itself, takes as the starting point of his first and, in the opinion of many critics, his best novel. The “magical” name Our Lady of the Flowers (which is also the designation of Filippo Brunelleschi’s noble Florence cathedral) conceals beneath its high sonorities the sordid reality of a moronic adolescent thug, one Adrien Baillon, a former butcher boy and author of a particularly brutal and senseless murder; “Darling” (Mignon-les-Petits-Pieds) turns out to be a stereotypical muscleman, pimp, and shoplifter; and “Divine,” the hero (or rather, the heroine, for that is how “she” would prefer it), is a cross-dressing male streetwalker, as are “her” companions of the sidewalk, “Mimosa II” (René Hirsch), “First-Communion” (Antoine Berthollet), and “Lady-Apple” (“Pomme d’Api,” or Eugène Marceau), among others: “A host, a long litany of beings who are the bright explosion of their names.” Half or more of these names have religious connotations, notably that of Divine herself, for surely the most beautiful of masks is that of the Son of God, even if it serves to hide a Dantesque inferno.
Our Lady of the Flowers
There is no conventional “plot” to Our Lady of the Flowers, any more than there is to its successor, Miracle of the Rose. Because both of Genet’s first two novels are, in part at least, autobiographical (the actual process of writing them was, for their author, a means of liberation, of escape from anonymous degradation, sexual abjection, and possible madness), their structure is as complex as life itself. How Louis Culafroy became Divine, how Divine became Genet-in-prison, is not told; few things interest Genet less than a coherentnarrative in time. The episodes are superimposed on one another, absorbed into one another, so that the beginning is the funeral of Divine and the end is the death of Divine, and both are interwoven with the voice of Genet, who “is” Divine and who is dead and yet alive. The central figure is always Divine, who, in “her” precious dialect of a painted and decaying transvestite, pursues the unending via dolorosa laid down for her by her quest for the Absolute.
Divine’s most terrifying characteristic is her purity, for hers is a demoniac chastity, born where good and evil meet, the purity of that hell that lies beyond Hell and that consequently drags all those who cannot follow her as far down into the depths as she herself has plunged, toward death and perdition. Her lovers are caught, one by one, in the toils of her “sanctity” and annihilated. Even Our Lady, the “sublime” adolescent strangler, becomes possessed (almost in the biblical sense) with the spirit, or rather with the gestures, of Divine, and confesses to his crime, gratuitously and needlessly—needlessly, in terms of everyday values, but necessarily in the context of Divine’s world, where the figure has no reality without the image, nor the criminal without his punishment, and where damnation is essential to justify the ways of God to man. Confession is not repentance but defiance without repentance. If God is infinitely high above man exactly to the extent that man is infinitely far below God, then the supreme exaltation and glorification of God lies in willing the opposite of God, which is evil, and, with evil, its punishment. Then, and then only, are the two halves joined and the cycle completed.
In place of plot, then, Our Lady of the Flowers interweaves variations on a theme; this theme is the relationship between God and his most ignominious creation, man. The vision of God, for that contemporary mystic Genet, owes much to Dostoevski, something to village-church Catholicism, and most of all to post-Freudian anthropology. From Dostoevski comes Genet’s obsession with the figure of the humiliated Christ—the Christ who, through His humiliation, bears away the sins of the world—and of the saint who achieves his sanctity through his very degradation. From village Catholicism (albeit oddly distorted) come the cherubim and the archangels, the crude plaster statuettes of the Blessèd Virgin working fake miracles. From the anthropologists comes the notion of transgression: the sophisticated equivalent of the taboo. What transforms Genet’s antiheroes from subjects of psychiatric case histories, or instances in a criminologist’s notebook, into symbols of a metaphysical reality is the fact that they violate not laws, but taboos.
Hence, in Our Lady of the Flowers, Genet is interested in crime and in criminals only insofar as they perpetrate a sacrilege, that is, insofar as they violate the laws, not of society, but of that “Other Dimension,” which is God. In one of his allegories, or “parables,” Genet sees himself thwarting God. Here lies the key to Genet’s attitudes and, furthermore, to the significance of Divine and Darling and Our Lady. They are at death grips with God, because God offers them sanctity and salvation on his terms. They are tempted, but they will not be bullied. They are human beings, and they have one inalienable right: to be what they are. God would take away from them this right, so they defy God. If they are destined for sanctity, they are resolved to achieve it in their own way, not God’s. They will plunge headfirst into the mire; their abjection is their dignity; their degradation is their ultimate authenticity. God has sided with society; therefore, God has betrayed them. Not for that, however, will they renounce God’s kingdom, but they will get there by diving headforemost into the ditch, which reflects the stars—the mirror image of Heaven.
Miracle of the Rose
Genet’s second novel, Miracle of the Rose, contains at least as much, if not more, autobiographical material than the first. In Our Lady of the Flowers, both Divine and the child, Culafroy, are semimythical figures, all immediate reality being concealed beneath a golden mask of signs and symbols. In Miracle of the Rose, by contrast, Genet speaks in his own name. The “I” who endures (and endows with “magic”) the sordid and stultifying brutality of the great prison-fortress of Fontevrault—now redeemed from that function and restored to its former status as a minor château of the Loire Valley—is the same “I” who earlier had been subjected to the vicious cruelty of the reformatory at Mettray, a few miles to the northeast. In neither novel is the material, in any usual sense, “romanticized.” The misery and horror, the nightmarish ugliness of the life that Genet describes, is never glossed over. On the contrary, it is portrayed lingeringly in all of its nauseating detail, and the ingenious sadism by which a vengeful society deliberately sets out to reduce its victims to a level considerably below that of animals is, if anything, exaggerated. The signs and the symbols are still present and still serve to transmute prison latrines and punishment blocks into miracles and roses, but the symbolism is rather more self-conscious and therefore more self-revealing. In consequence, the reality underlying these symbols is not concealed as much as it is heightened, given a spiritual or aesthetic significance without ever losing sight of its grim and ugly materiality.
The Central Prison (Lan Centrale) of Fontevrault is an isolated community cut off from the rest of the world, cruel, intense, superstitious, hierarchical, and ascetic—not very different from the medieval abbey, with its dependent monasteries and convents, that had originally occupied the same site. The convicts of the present are simultaneously the monks and lay brothers of the long-dead past, an identification that destroys the intervening barrier of time, thus giving the whole prison a dreamlike and “sacred” quality that Genet discreetly emphasizes by setting the time of his own arrival there late on Christmas Eve: “The prison lived like a cathedral at midnight.We belonged to the Middle Ages.” Thus Genet establishes the basic structure of Miracle of the Rose, which consists in eliminating the “profane” dimension of time by superimposing different fragments of experience in time, identifying them and allowing them to interpenetrate so that the reality that survives is outside time altogether.
Undoubtedly, Miracle of the Rose owes something to Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931); it is understandable that Genet, comparing his own childhood with that of the wealthy, spoiled hypochondriacal young Marcel, must have felt a definite sense of alienation. Miracle of the Rose, however, differs from the Proustian narrative in its superimposition of a third plane of experience over and above Proust’s levels of time past and time present.
That plane is the plane of the sacred, of existence that is still technically in life but, in fact, outside life, space, and time alike—the level of experience that is symbolized by Harcamone. Harcamone, from the mystic solitude of his condemned cell, is already “beyond life”; he lives a “dead life,” experiencing the “heartbreaking sweetness of being out of the world before death.” Harcamone has, in fact, through his transgression and later through his condemnation, attained that level of sanctity, isolation, and total detachment from profane reality to which Divine aspired yet failed to reach—the level at which all miracles are possible. Genet and his convict-lovers, Bulkaen and Divers, exist simultaneously on two planes, in time and space; Harcamone, on three. Consequently, it is Harcamone who dominates the rest—and not only dominates but, being himself a symbol, gives meaning to all the other symbols that compose the worlds of Fontevrault and of Mettray.
As in Our Lady of the Flowers, there is no plot in Miracle of the Rose. It is a closely woven, glittering tapestry of memories and of symbols. It is not, however, a Symbolist novel; it is, rather, a novel wherein the obsessions of memory fuse into the totality of a significant experience through the multiplicity of symbols with which they are illuminated. Frogs become princes while still remaining frogs. Murderers are changed into roses (Genet, incidentally, dislikes flowers) while still remaining murderers. Harcamone, the murderer, is the Rose of Death, yet the warden he killed was known as Bois de Rose, recalling the rosewood used for coffins. The rose is head and heart; cut off from its stem, it falls as heavily to the ground as the head beneath the knife of the guillotine; it is mourning, it is mystery, it is passion. It is beauty that symbolizes its mirror-opposite, evil and ugliness; it is paradox, blossoming simultaneously in the profane and sacred worlds. It is the Head of Christ and the Crown of Thorns. It is the Miracle and the symbol of the Miracle; it is profanation, transgression, and ultimately—in Genet’s special sense—sanctity.
Once Genet began to outgrow his basically autobiographical inspiration, his novels became less impressive; after Miracle of the Rose, it was the drama that was destined to become his true medium of expression. Funeral Rites, although it contains many interesting ideas in embryo, is the weakest of his full-length published works. Its technique is uncertain: Deprived of the electrifying impulse given by the memory of his own humiliations, Genet descends to the level of the commonplace novelist struggling with the exigencies of a conventional plot.
Querelle of Brest
By contrast, Querelle of Brest is the most technically sophisticated of Genet’s novels. It is less lyric, less subjective, less poetic, and perhaps less haunting than Our Lady of the Flowers; on the other hand, it has a far more substantial structure, it develops its themes with a persistence in logic (or antilogic) that was missing from the earlier works; it creates a whole new range of characters, symbols, and images to replace the purely personal obsessions of Our Lady of the Flowers; finally, in the character of Madame Lysiane, it introduces for the first time a woman who plays an essential part in the development of the plot.
From the outset, Genet’s metaphysic was based on the symbol of the mirror. The self had reality only as observed by the other (as image and reflection), but this dual self could be granted authenticity only if apprehended simultaneously by a third source of awareness. Claire and Solange in The Maids are reflections of each other; their “reality” depends on Madame, whose consciousness alone can embrace both. In Querelle of Brest, this theme of the double is worked out in greater complexity and is pushed toward its inevitable and logical conclusion. What previously was a mirror image is now literally incarnated in the double (Georges Querelle and his identical-twin brother Robert), while the “observers” are equally duplicated (Madame Lysiane and Lieutenant Seblon). To complicate the pattern, both Georges Querelle and Lieutenant Seblon—respectively a seaman and an officer in the French navy—are “doubled” by being both “themselves as they are” and the image or reflection of themselves presented to the world by the uniforms they wear. The double, with all its intricacies of significance in Genet’s aesthetic, is the central theme of Querelle of Brest.
Genet, to begin, presents a double murder. In the everlasting fogs and granite-veiling mists of the traditional French naval base of Brest, Querelle murders Vic, his messmate, who was his accomplice in smuggling opium past the watchful eyes of the customs officers; perhaps in the same instant, Gil Turko, a young stonemason employed as a construction worker in the dockyard, goaded beyond endurance by the taunting contempt of Théo, a middle-aged fellow construction worker, fills himself with brandy to fire his courage and slashes his enemy’s throat with the butt end of a broken bottle. From this moment onward, the two alien destinies begin to coincide—with this difference: Whereas Gil, terrified and hiding from the police in the ruined shell of the ancient galley slaves’ prison by the Vieux Port, is the victim, Querelle is the master of his fate, or at least as near master as any mortal can hope to be. Querelle sees in Gil his own reflection, his imitator, his young apprentice who might one day grow up to be the equivalent of himself. He takes care of Gil, feeds him, argues with him, encourages him, secretly exploits him, and finally, for good measure, betrays him to the police. The relationship between Georges Querelle and Gil Turko is, however, only the central relationship in a series of doubles; not only is Georges Querelle doubled by his twin brother Robert, but Madame Lysiane, who loves Robert, also loves Querelle and at most times is unable to distinguish between them. Mario, the Chief of Police in Brest, finds his double in Norbert (“Nono”), the proprietor of the most favored brothel in the dock area, La Féria, and the husband of Madame Lysiane. Even in the absence of character pairs there are mirrors: the great wall mirrors of La Féria, against which a man can lean, propping himself against his own reflection so that he “appears to be propped up against himself.”
The arguments of Querelle of Brest, both moral and metaphysical, are ingenious, intricate, and awkwardly paradoxical; as usual, they owe much to Dostoevski and something to the Marquis de Sade. Thomas De Quincey, writing “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” might have learned something from Querelle, just as Querelle might have learned something from Oscar Wilde’s “Pen, Pencil, and Poison.” The outstanding achievement of the novel, however, lies in the way in which structure, plot, argument, and symbols are integrated, forming an imaginative pattern in which every element serves to reinforce the others. The symbol of Querelle’s dangerous virility is the granitic, the vertical. Querelle, on the other hand, is flexible and smiling. His symbol is transferred outside himself: It is the ramparts of Brest where he murders Vic; it is the dockyard wall over which the packet of opium must be passed; it is the walls of La Rochelle in Querelle’s childhood memories. In the place of roses and angels, Genet is now using a much more abstract, sophisticated, and, in the end, powerful type of symbol. There is a geometrical precision, both of imagery and of argument, in Querelle of Brest, which contrasts significantly with the comparative formlessness, the viscosity, and the self-indulgent subjectivity of Our Lady of the Flowers or of Miracle of the Rose.
In his autobiographical The Thief’s Journal, Genet refers at one point to his “decision to write pornographic books.” As a statement, this is categorical; in any context (not only in that of the 1940’s), Genet’s novels are unquestionably and deliberately pornographic. There are passages that, even now, are difficult to read without a sickening feeling of disgust: The animality of man is unspeakable, so why speak of it?
In earlier generations, Puritans spoke with similar disgust of the “beastliness” of human appetites. The only difference, compared with Genet, is that they spoke in generalities, allegories, or abstractions. When John Milton’s Comus appeared (in Comus, 1634), it was in the company of a “rout of monsters, headed like sundry sorts of beasts, but otherwise like men and women, their apparel glistening.” The rest of Comus, however, is pure poetry; the “rout of monsters” is forgotten. Genet parades before us a similar rout of monsters, but he does not forget about them. Nor, in the last analysis, is he less puritanical than Milton. The exquisite ecstasy of disgust with human sexuality is something that he has known from personal experience; if he chooses to speak of it, it is at least with an authority greater than Milton’s. Pushed to its ultimate indignities, pornography becomes puritanism, and puritanical pornography is instinct with poetry. Every word that Genet uses is selected with rigorous and elaborate precision. Divine and her transvestite companions are “the bright explosion [l’éclaté] of their names.” L’éclaté is a rare and precious seventeenth century word, not listed in modern dictionaries, dragged by Genet out of its antique obscurity because it alone possessed the jewel-like precision of the poetic nuance he wished to convey. Genet’s pornography is poetry of the highest, most rigorous, and most uncompromising order.