Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4822
Genet, Jean 1910–
A French playwright and novelist whose amorality and perversion offend many readers, Genet is best known for Our Lady of the Flowers, The Blacks, and The Balcony. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)
Genet is a thief; that is his truth, his eternal essence. And, if he is a thief, he must therefore always be one, everywhere, not only when he steals, but when he eats, when he sleeps, when he kisses his foster mother. Each of his gestures betrays him, reveals his vile nature in broad daylight. At any moment the teacher may interrupt the lesson, look Genet in the eyes and cry out: "There's a thief!" It would be vain for him to think he deserved leniency by admitting his errors, by mastering the perversity of his instincts. All the impulses of his heart are equally guilty because all alike express his essence. (p. 18)
Genet's dignity is the demand for evil. As a realist, he wants to win or lose in this world. Rimbaud wanted to change life, and Marx to change society. Genet does not want to change anything at all. Do not count on him to criticize institutions. He needs them, as Prometheus needs his vulture. At most, he regrets that there is no longer an aristocracy in France and that class justice is not more ruthless. If, thinking to please him, one transported him into some future society that gave him a place of honor, he would feel frustrated. His business is here; it is here that he is despised and vilified; it is here that he must carry out his undertaking. He loves French society as the Negroes love America, with a love that is full of hatred and, at the same time, desperate. As for the social order which excludes him, he will do everything to perpetuate it. Its rigor must be perfect so that Genet can attain perfection in Evil. In short, he is realistic because he wants what is, in fact because he wants to want it. To live is now to watch himself live. It is to acquire a deeper understanding of his condition every single instant, as a whole and in its details, in order to assume it unreservedly, whatever it may be. He takes his bearings every second. Duality is the permanent structure of his consciousness. He seeks himself and wills himself. His spontaneity dwindles. To feel and to watch himself feel are to him one and the same. He inspects his feelings and his behavior in order to discover in them that dark vein, the will to evil. He checks them or drives them to extremes. He works away at himself in order to correspond more and more closely, every day, to others' opinion of him. Never again will he coincide with himself. (pp. 55-6)
[Genet] does not find within himself any of those powerful instincts that support the desires of the decent man. He knows only the death instinct. His sexual desires will be phantoms, as his life itself is a phantom. Whatever their object, they are condemned in advance. He is forbidden from the beginning to desire. All societies castrate the maladjusted. This castration can be actually physical or can be achieved by persuasion. The result is the same. The desire of Genet, who is condemned, outside of nature, impossible, becomes a desire for the impossible and for what is against nature…. Such is the situation that has been created for him [and] … it inclines him strongly to homosexuality. (p. 82)
[Each] of the men to whom Genet gives himself becomes the variable and imperfect representative of that identical Other whom Genet wants to be for himself. In loving that indifferent charmer with his body and soul, the abandoned child fulfills his impossible dream of being loved. For since he is the Other, it is he, he alone, who is loved in the Other…. Through a thousand individual figures it is he himself that Genet is going to pursue, but himself as Other, himself untrammeled by his scruples, his cowardice, his wretchedness, his muscular weakness, a kind of titan of Evil, greater than his temporary incarnation and greater than Genet. Thus are born spontaneously the myth of the criminal, that is, the projection upon others of the qualities which the others have attributed to him, and the dichotomic conception of an outcast humanity which will be the major theme of his poetry: "the eternal couple of the criminal and the saint." (p. 86)
Genet has had a religious upbringing, society has left its mark on him, that is, it has impressed upon him, like a seal, the idea of God, who is the mythical basis of the collective imperatives. And in point of fact it is indeed God who legitimates, for the Just, that is, for those who are "integrated," the sentence of exile which they impose on the thief: God forbids theft. Genet; in flight, carries off with him the idea of God. This means that two notions are available to him for pondering the collective, that of Society and that of Divine Person. But the two concepts have a single object. Genet will therefore give two simultaneous interpretations of the same fact: his exile is the consequence of merciless social justice and, at the same time, of divine kindness. (p. 143)
The God of Genet is Genet himself. By a stroke of genius he inverts his project radically. The others had convinced him that he harbored within himself a pernicious nature, an evil will. He sought for years to perceive it, he even tried, though in vain, to put his conscious freedom at the source of this nature. In short, he wanted to make an object of it. He now changes his line of attack: he makes himself an object for it. He resigns himself to never seeing it, provided he is conscious of being seen by it. This demoniacal postulation toward Evil expresses his will, his absolute freedom which has flung itself into an irremediable commitment. But it is his will as Other. It is still a nature, but a nature-making nature, and it is Genet's clear consciousness which becomes a nature-made nature. He makes of the propensity for evil which the decent people discern in him a nontemporal choice of doing evil. Beyond heredity, instincts, all forms of passivity, a Kantian noumenal freedom has decided, in an intelligible world, in favor of radical evil. Does this mean that there are two Genets? No, not quite. The "empirical" little thief is closely united to this pure will by the gaze it directs upon him. He feels himself to be a reflected consciousness with respect to a reflective consciousness, with one difference, to wit, that the reflective consciousness is in heaven, out of reach. But it sees him, it guides and approves him. The decisions he makes from day to day are only the coin of the great fixed and eternal choice which constitutes him to the depths of his being. Thus, by a sudden reversal, consciousness becomes an object, and the imperceptible object of consciousness assumes the rank of an absolute subject which watches him. Of course, this is achieved at the cost of a further effort: it involves becoming a consciousness watched from behind. Before the transpiercing gazes of the just, he must feel himself fleeing toward himself from behind himself; he must play, must mime, until he feels a kind of inner flowing. (pp. 44-5)
It did not occur to Genet all at once to become a saint or to give the name Saintliness to his longing to do harm. (p. 194)
Genet makes a gift of himself to being, to the world, to destiny, to the sacred forces about him. And the purpose of this gift is to raise the donor to a higher potential of sacredness. Thus, without even thinking about it, Genet derives comfort from the obscure feeling that his misfortunes, his wounded self-esteem and even his misdeeds (since they cause him to suffer) increase his absolute value. This is certainly the deepest and most primitive view he has of his destiny. For him, the causality of suffering is sacred. It is on this foundation that he is going to build his theory of saintliness. (p. 195)
[Genet's choosing to become a poet,] which changes his life, involves nothing new: it is a reaffirmation of his original choice. He had decided to be what they had made of him; in striving to be a thief, he realized that he had become a dreamer; but his original will to assume himself entirely has not changed. Since dreamer there is, then dreamer he must will to be: he will be the thief become poet….
But let there be no misunderstanding: he is still far from being a writer. Evil remains his supreme end: he will first be a poet in his life, in his gestures, because this Poetry in act suddenly seems to him the best way of doing Evil and destroying being. He will be a poet because he is evil. (p. 353)
Each of his works, like each of his thefts, is an isolated offense which may be followed by other offenses but which does not require them and which is self-sufficient. In each of them he bids farewell to literature. (p. 483)
Genet's poetry, which is a premeditated murder of prose, a deliberate damning of the reader, is a crime without extenuating circumstances. (p. 519)
The only rule underlying Genet's inventions and compositions is Genet himself. For him, to compose is to recreate himself. (p. 543)
[Genet has written:] "My victory is verbal and I owe it to the sumptuousness of the terms." In point of fact, he has won on all the boards: he escapes from poverty, from prison, from horror; the decent folk support him in style, seek him out, admire him; even those who still censure him have to accept him since he has filled their minds with obsessive images. What does he give in return? Nothing. A moment of horror, a suspect beauty that disappears: he has spoken at length about a sinister and iniquitous world and yet has managed to say nothing about it. His extraordinary books are their own rebuttal: they contain both the myth and its dissolution, the appearance and the exposure of the appearance, language and the exposure of language. When we finish them, the reading leaves a taste of ashes since their content cancels itself. (p. 567)
The magic of Crime has vanished; there is only one place in the world where it can now be found: in his books. (p. 572)
Jean-Paul Sartre, in his Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, translated by Bernard Frechtman (George Braziller, Inc.: from Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr by Jean-Paul Sartre; reprinted with permission of the publisher; copyright © 1963 by George Braziller, Inc.), Braziller, 1963.
My contention is that the dramatic philosophy of The Balcony, as of Genet's The Maids, and of his play The Blacks, while certainly his own, is yet, when we think of it formally, the same dramatic philosophy present in Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Hamlet, The Tempest, Life is a Dream. Let none then reproach Jean Genet for his ideas. His thought proceeds on a level where one can only think what has to be thought. Without tragedy, of which we may be incapable, there is no philosophic alternative to the two concepts by which I have defined the metaplay: the world is a stage, life is a dream.
Lionel Abel, "Genet and Metatheatre," in his Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1963 by Lionel Abel), Hill & Wang, 1963, pp. 76-83.
Like all the modern avant-garde dramatists, Genet bases his plays on protest and paradox. His paradox is that there is no reality within society. Anyone who acts within the structure of society is literally unreal—nonexistent. What we call reality is only illusion piled on illusion. When all the layers of illusion are stripped away, what is left is emptiness. Another way of looking at Genet's vision of the world is as a diminishing spiral twisting concentrically down to nothingness. "Reality" to Genet is like Peer Gynt's onion. It would perhaps be correct to argue that this view was engendered in Genet by his peculiar role in the world as a person cast out from the "reality" of social living by his thievery and perversion, but the psychological reasons for his attitude toward the commonly accepted realities are not pertinent to a discussion of his views. The views are there and must be dealt with for themselves.
Genet demonstrates his views on the illusion of life by writing plays in which nothing is ever what it appears to be at first glance—or at second glance, for that matter. Jean-Paul Sartre has likened the working of Genet's mind to a whirligig spinning in an ever-increasing tempo. Genet's thought processes are circular and they show us that at the ultimate core of things there is nothing: when Genet starts one of his "whirligig" thought processes, he is like a snake taking its tail into its mouth preparatory to swallowing ad infinitum.
George Wellwarth, "Jean Genet: The Theater of Illusion and Disillusion," in his The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama (reprinted by permission of New York University Press from The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama by George Wellwarth; copyright © 1964 by New York University), New York University Press, 1964, pp. 113-33.
It was not Sartre who invented Saint Genet but Genet himself—in [Our Lady of the Flowers], where he is identified with the character named Divine: 'it is my own destiny … that I am draping (at times a rag, at times a court robe) on Divine's shoulders.' 'Tantôt haillon, tantôt manteau de cour' … but always female. Divine is an 'il' always referred to by Genet, and almost always by her own thoughts, as 'elle'. Only when the narrative goes back to her country childhood does Divine become for sustained passages 'il', the boy Lou Culafroy….
Brigid Brophy, "Genet" (1964), in her Don't Never Forget: Collected Views and Reviews (copyright © 1966 by Brigid Brophy; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.), Holt, 1966, pp. 296-303.
[Genet's] circuitous ramblings themselves begin to annoy, after a while; unlike those of Sterne, Faulkner, Gide, Durrell, they seem to be leading us nowhere—except perhaps deeper into the mind of the prisonerpoet. The intense homosexual introversion of both narrator and characters goes, in time, beyond the point of poignancy and pathos, and becomes simply stifling, distasteful; one can keep one's head under Genet's musty blanket for just so long.
The sordidness, the scatology are another serious block. If it is only my own psychic shortcomings that prevent me from enjoying impassively Genet's rich compositions of excrement, vomit, and sperm, well so be it: the more limited I. I may marvel at how palatable his transforming poetic genius can make them appear, but my tastes, still, lie elsewhere.
What, then, of the "transforming poetic genius"? What of those who would have us read Genet "for the style"? This is, after all, the prose-poet of the dunghill, in the great Baudelairean tradition. Let me grant that he can be a master of language, and that these translations do his mastery justice; there are paragraphs, fine pages, that ring the tone of true poetry. But so detachedly aesthetic a judgment, as Sartre deliciously makes clear, is unfair and absurd….
Are the Genet-affirmers, then, only that breed of cultists every intelligent pornographer attracts? Partly, yes. The French have a way of adopting, and then canonizing ("Saint Genet") their outcasts. But there is value in the encounter, in spite of all. So honest and non-defensive a view of another moral world, a world so absolutely alien to ours, can be humbling and enlarging. And Genet makes, more in the total of his works than specifically here, as good a case for his anti-world as one could. Moreover, the encounter may serve, in a way, as a test of our own moral responses—their firmness, their flexibility, the nature of our impulses….
Satre is one of those who regard the Man Genet, the example of his archetypical life, as something far more important than all of his collected works. Now this may be: and our glance at the works themselves may have already suggested something of this sort. But it early becomes evident that this stupendous study is not about Jean Genet, but rather about an elaborate philosophical construct of Sartre's who passes by his name, borrows his words, and shares the events of his life.
David Littlejohn, "Sartre's Genet" (1964), in his Interruptions (copyright © 1970 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Grossman, 1970, pp. 116-30.
"Funeral Rites" is Genet's Ars Poetica. It is a dazzling masterwork, a brilliantly reductive argument for the masturbatory, cannibalistic, evil nature of literature. Nowhere are the profound connections between Genet's writing and his criminality more explicit. Intensely honest in its failure to make any concessions to more "liberal" ideas of art, "Funeral Rites" proposes a view of literature as the Hitlerism of the spirit.
Evil is the totalitarian freedom of the imagination, a brutal violation of reality by fantasy. For Genet, the sad irony (for us, the saving grace) of this rape is that its success can be guaranteed only in the onanistic privacies of the literary imagination. Hitler transformed literary material into politics, and failed. Genet's macabre joke in "Funeral Rites" is to mock, celebrate and outdo Hitler's madness by re-enacting it in the leisurely time of the writer; he himself poses for a Portrait of the Führer as Artist….
"Funeral Rites" is interesting because of its very narrowness, its uncompromising esthetic of terrorism. Genet's range of fantasy is narrow; it is ornamented rather than expanded by his surrealistic verbal fireworks. And he is terroristic because of his lucid refusal to compromise his monotonous, obsessional view of the world by submitting it to the resistances and variety of other views of reality. Genet's imagination allows nothing to impinge on its most primitive fantasies.
Leo Bersani, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 15, 1969, pp. 5, 16.
Genet has strong claims to be considered the greatest living playwright. His five plays—"Deathwatch," "The Maids," "The Balcony," "The Blacks" and "The Screens"—constitute a body of work unmatched for poetic and theatrical power which reaches, in at least two of the plays—"The Balcony" and "The Blacks"—a pitch of inspiration and mastery. "The Screens" is a play of epic range, of original and devastating theatrical effect, of innumerable details of dramaturgy, language and stagecraft which add up to a tidal wave of total theater. But it seems to miss the formal integrity, the inexorable wholeness, of Genet's two masterpieces. Needless to say it makes almost everything else on a current stage seem like little white boiled potatoes.
Through seventeen scenes, the play whirls us through the maelstrom of revolution. Everything is here—the Algerian peasants and villagers, the cynical Arab magistrate, the whores in the bordello, the French Foreign Legion, the army, the police, the French colons and Europeans with their orange groves, cork oaks and rose gardens. One of Genet's brilliant successes is his ability to relate individuals to the mass….
Genet is still the great naysayer, and [in The Screens] he utters so many nays that they pile up to a great pyramid of poetic denial which looms above everything else in the landscape. Although he is clearly "with" the Algerians, he is much more with the ultimate fatality of things; unlike his great exegete Sartre, Genet cannot harness his insights as an artist for ideological or political ends. For Genet in "The Screens" the final historical eventuality is not the social one of revolutionary victory but the personal and individual one of death, which both cancels and transfigures the sense of self with its burdens of guilt and rebellion.
What saves this from grimness is Genet's paradoxical sense of life, the elation which is his as man and artist. Not only do his works have a mythic force; the man himself is a myth: the rejected orphan who created his own identity by choosing to become a thief, a homosexual, who was saved from life imprisonment by an extraordinary petitioning of intellectuals and artists, whose novels and plays constitute a unique rationale for the negative, destructive energies of crime, of self-degradation, of nihilism….
Perhaps Genet's commitment to exalted degradation is showing a bit of wear at its Romantic seams. After a century of accursed prophets from Baudelaire to Kafka to Burroughs, what we need now is a new esthetics of virtue. We need an anti-Genet of genius to show us how powerful and transcendent, how hair-raising and sexy true goodness can be.
Jack Kroll, "Genet's Algerian Epic," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc. 1971; reprinted by permission), December 20, 1971, p. 58.
The French presence in Algeria is not the butt of Genet's venom [in The Screens], nor is French officialdom the object of his mockery and wrath. His real target is civilization itself—all of modern civilization. He despises everything that it has spawned; he is no more pro-Algeria, as a social interpreter might read him, than he is anti-French. His scorn is all-embracing; it aims at universal devastation. The agony within him and the residue of a profoundly Gallic cultural heritage are wrenched from him in immense gusts of grotesque laughter. They echo like reverberations from Rabelais and Rimbaud….
Satre has called Genet a saint. He is a saint who would purge us in a reversed morality which scours our hypocrisy, deceit and violence in an acid bath of loathing. (The play's title is not a reference simply to the screens that are used as "scenery" but to the symbols of the false front behind which we hide our villainies. Evil be thou my saviour is Genet's prescript, an outcry which has in it almost as much mephitic irony as anguish….
Only a true poet, a man possessed of verbally imaged artistry, could write such a play as The Screens. In one of his earlier pieces, Genet spoke of "a truthful idea born of an artificial show." The use of the screens in the present play to obviate all traces of realism, the instruction he gives for devising weird masks, costumes, sounds, reveal a fabulous theatrical imagination, a joy in the creation of stage hyperbole. And when one acknowledges the joy in spectacle added to the thrills of language—colorful, adventuresome, astonishing and dense in allusion—it can no longer be maintained that the end result or even the purpose of the whole enterprise is to depress or destroy. Genet is one of the few creative dramatists of our epoch. From the holocausts of the day he lights his own flaming torch. It illuminates what we are, what we have wrought, what we must renounce.
Harold Clurman, in Nation, December 27, 1971, pp. 701-02.
The deep ambivalences of Genet repel, and may elude, the virile mind. The intentions of Being and the intentions of Doing, as Sartre argues, clash in Genet's character, and subject him to a sophistical fate. Genet wants to be evil because he does Evil, and wants to do evil because he is Evil. The game derives its rules from mirrors. We shall see Genet's face in countless mirrors. For the moment, let us simply admit that he reflects the void….
The life of Jean Genet spreads underground; he invents his true biography within black prison walls. Gradually, the life emerges, from blighted soil, as a complete artifice, a synthetic flower of evil. The flower casts a shadow that we call art, visible to the sun….
The imagination of Jean Genet takes flight in solitude and returns to the void; his destiny barely escapes the circle. Foundling, pariah, deviant, he knows that isolation is the sign of his birth; he will make it the means of his salvation. Even his characters exclude him from communion. He lives an erotic liturgy of the self….
[The] imagination of Genet activates his life. Theft and treason become a form of art. Both transpose appearance and reality; both partake of beauty. Every seduction enacts a ritual of love. Myth, magic, and archetype transform Genet's existence into an artifice of eternity. He does not stand in historical time. His hierophanies emerge from the sacred and cyclical time of myth….
Genet has no interest in [stylistic] expansion or modulation. He must bring everything back to the cell where he sits; he must shut out. He must also repeat, using the future tense only to reveal the grip of Destiny. Genet's style, at its best, is like his existence: white bones and dark flowers, timeless….
[Genet's] choice [of the dramatic form] is profound. In drama, he satisfies his need for ritual while preserving the blankness behind every act. He practices the consummate art of illusion under pretense of objectivity. He counterfeits reality before the eyes of an audience without recourse to a first-person narrative. In short, Genet creates a dramatic form that forces universal truth on a solipsist's fantasy…. The play appear as "reflections of a reflection," metaphors of a metaphor….
He makes characters transparent, turning them into signs as remote as possible from what they are meant to signify….
He imitates the pomp and mystery of the Mass, and the barbaric cruelty of the Mau Mau, till ceremony and terror meet, revealed in the ineluctable Moment. By his own admission, Genet detests the Western theatre, detests its social, realistic, and psychological tradition. He wants a sacred drama, founded on the heroic rigors of despair. Against rhetoric, he pits a poetry from the abyss. He even subverts his own poetry, as Roger Blin remarks, destroys the audience's credibility, awakening them to his duplicity in order to sink the poetry deeper into their souls. At last, all appearances melt, all shadows, images, masks, leaving us with a pure Lie, an intuition, as Sartre would say, of Evil or Nothingness….
A scholar asks: "Can we afford not to dismiss Genet?" This is like dismissing evil, and worse, dismissing a chance to redeem it. We know where Genet fails. His great hate condemns him to repetition; thus he avoids liberty. He longs to transcend his fate but remains a slave to transgression. He cannot finally create a new ethic because the hold of the old on him is irrevocable. He denies woman her flesh, and her fecund womb, seeking a new zone in Nature where nothing is of use. Sperm turns to excrement; Being spends itself. His glacial consciousness … gives to the world nothing. Yet somewhere within the black tundras of his vision, Genet sees a light. He follows the inhuman to the edge, and sees new shapes of love among the shadows. Secretly, he hopes that Evil may cleanse the universe and recreate God in another image. This is the theme of his miraculous song….
Genet sings to destroy reason, history, and society. So do the Surrealists. Genet, however, rejects love, humor, and surprise, rejects any collective or unconscious truth. He sings to undermine all the assumptions of Being. He probes anti-consciousness….
Genet sings finally to dissolve language into a silence deeper than Aliterature. He does not, of course, succeed. Singing of the rites of death, he reclaims part of his existence from nothingness, and reclaims part of ours from our small versions of oblivion. He shows us, in language, the very end of solitude, of revolt, of endurance. Drawing palm trees on a screen, we can still sit in the shade; we summon the breeze. Meanwhile, Orpheus and Narcissus embrace in a black pool.
Ihab Hassan, "Genet: The Rites of Death," in his The Dismemberment of Orpheus (© 1971 by Ihab Hassan; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press. Inc.), Oxford University Press, 1971, pp. 177-209.
It takes something like Frank Dunlop's production of The Maids to bring you to the brink of conviction that there might be more to Jean Genet than sado-masochistic pyrotechnics…. The casting of male actors brought out three important points. Firstly that in Genet evil is impersonal: two men playing two chambermaids playing lady and chambermaid had a distancing effect where their human reality became irrelevant (human reality being Genet's weak point anyway). Secondly, that in Genet sex is impersonal, indeed sexless: it is merely one aspect of human life seen as a merciless psychological power-game. Thirdly, that in Genet evil is grotesque. I doubt if this last point would find favour with Genet himself. For, despite his occasional grim laughter, he is essentially without any sense of humour whatever: a dark fantasy-priest celebrating at a black mass of his own devising. It is the relentlessness of his amoral devotion that makes Genet's vision of evil so improbable, so un-human and therefore so irrelevant….
Randall Craig, in Drama, Summer, 1972, p. 38.