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Genet, Jean 1910–
Genet, a French playwright and novelist noted for his outspokenly amoral writings, is the author of Our Lady of the Flowers, Miracle of the Rose, The Blacks, and The Balcony. He is the subject of Jean-Paul Sartre's study, Saint Genet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)
Jean Genet is at once the most brilliant, the most gifted, and the most depraved of the new French dramatists; and while The Balcony is probably the most subversive work of literature to be created since the writings of the famous Marquis [de Sade], it is a major dramatic achievement. Fashioned by a genius of criminality and revolt, the play is absolutely stunning in its twists and turns of thought, and (despite occasional thefts from Betti, Cocteau, and the Surrealists) highly original in its use of the stage. In its interpretation of history, it is both provocative and scandalous; in its assault on what we take to be "the real," both inexorable and intolerable; in its violent demolition of established authority, both appealing and appalling.
Robert Brustein, "The Brothel and the Western World: The Balcony by Jean Genet" (1960), in his Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions 1959–1965 (© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.), Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 33-6.
In any account of the works written by Jean Genet, as well as in any assessment of them, it is necessary to take full cognizance of their language of sexuality. Genet is a pornographer. Yet his attitude toward pornographic detail is different from that of most persons, and in literature there is nothing quite like it. Genet does not introduce descriptions of sexual acts and desires in order to achieve a Zolaesque realism or to add spice to his pages or to gain a humorous effect. He does not use sex primarily to shock the reader or to incur the wrath of censors…. The sex in Genet's writing is there for one reason only: because it is the starting point for everything else, and the point to which all returns. (p. 5)
The use of perverse sexuality to which Genet aspired in his writing and to which he attained is of a mythopoeic kind. It structures and renders available to consciousness the meaningful world. The raw sensual data are fed to the conscience and "located" with regard to the self by the will. They enter into a dialectical formation with the intelligence. The end result is a metaphysics, a "world," and in some of the works a structure so nearly perfect that it will certainly endure the hostility of time….
On the whole, Genet's poetry is disappointing. His talent requires the larger spaces of the novel and the drama, which, as it turned out, he was able to use with exceptional ability. (p. 7)
To read as many as two of Genet's works is to realize that they are interdependent. To read them all is to become aware that their unity, above and beyond matters of style, tone, and motif, is the unity of a moral—yes, a saintly—enterprise of extraordinary intensity. They record the pilgrimage of a criminal-saint who went out from his prison-monastery. Taking at first its images and rituals with him, he later discarded them because they were too rich and too confining. He touched instead the real, which he could not define, but which he could at last believe is there. (p. 45)
Tom F. Driver, in his Jean Genet, Columbia University Press, 1966.
Jean Genet seems to lock himself up away from [reality], spinning fanciful cocoons about himself. But reality for Genet really means society—the society which rejected him as an orphaned child, condemned to live in public institutions. Genet took to an antisocial life of crime and homosexuality and learned to admire criminals, the rejected men of the world, those who oppose what the world calls normality…. [His] enflowering of the sordid indicates a desire to remain cut off from action, from the dirty human realities: if one acts, one must act only through the imagination. Genet's work, admired by Sartre, seems to have little to do with the more fashionable literary movement's of France: he is very much on his own.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, p. 185.
Jean Genet belongs to no school and owes nothing to existentialist precepts. Nevertheless, he represented for Sartre such a brilliant example of what a writer could and should be according to the philosopher's conception of literature, he fulfilled so completely the conditions that Sartre was appealing for, that he might be considered as a distant relation of the existentialist family.
Genet is an outlaw, both as a writer and as a man, thrown from birth into the depths of a society that treated him as garbage. An orphan, a juvenile delinquent who spent his adolescence in various remand homes, a thief condemned to prison, a homosexual exhibitionist, an apologist for perjury and informing, he accepts his rejection by society. In Saint Genet, Comédien et Martyr, Sartre shows brilliantly how his hero deliberately chose to incarnate evil and how, in choosing it, he became, with admirable literary results, its inspired bard.
Even in his novels—Notre Dame des Fleurs, Miracle de la Rose, Pompes Funèbres, Genet is in fact more a poet than a novelist. His language is rich, ceremonial and hieratic; it transfigures, purifies the filth in which he wallows. Whether the subject of his song is humiliation (which has free rein in prisons and borstals), homosexuality (which he voluntarily accepts as a vice), the beauties of robbery, or the spiritual pleasures that accrue to the informer or criminal, his song rises, paradoxically, to a strong, pure flame.
Maurice Nadeau, in his The French Novel Since the War, translated by A. M. Sheridan-Smith (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; © 1967 by Methuen and Co., Ltd.), Methuen, 1967, pp. 94-5 (in the Grove-Evergreen paperbound edition, 1969).
Reading Jean Genet's works is like being thrust into a labyrinth or like seeking a footing on quicksand. His characters are complex, ambiguous, and continually dissolving into one another. At times they are identifiable human beings; at others, they are grotesque shadows. Events are described elusively, the real and the illusory overlapping each other. These, together with the effulgent sensuality of Genet's prose, the hypnotic cadences of his sentences, and the violence of his metaphors involve the reader emotionally and viscerally, but intellectually or rationally leave him struggling. (p. 3)
The feeling of duality and fragmentation in all of Genet's protagonists and by extension in the author himself, is intensified by their longing for the opposite: unity, wholeness, the universal—God. Genet's works embrace every religion from the most ancient to the most modern. He sees God in every phase of existence. Not the limited God, however, worshiped by those adhering to organized religions, but an infinite, transpersonal deity imbedded in all regions of the cosmos.
Genet's prose is poetry. Its musicality, its inner rhythms and cadences, spontaneous, but at times, paradoxically enough, studied, are in many ways reminiscent of the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (p. 5)
Genet's odyssey is the story of one man's ascension through degradation. Nothing was spared him, and he let nothing escape him in the domain of human suffering. He turned himself inside out to lay his smudged, sickly, suffering soul bare for all to scorn and stone. It was society's angered reaction that he sought. He wanted hatred to be heaped upon him by society for his transgressions and his homosexuality; by his fellow criminals for his betrayals; and later, by his readers, for his pornography, insults, and deceptions. The emotions he was experiencing during his pilgrimage into the abyss would later become the fundament and substance of his works of art. (p. 19)
In Our Lady of the Flowers we come to know the sort of people Genet, as revealed through his characters, despised: the weak and the sentimental. Also presented are his ideal types: virile, ruthless, hard criminals who are unafraid of death. Genet dreamed of possessing his ideal men and built up a whole web of fantasy around them. He created a "cult of the murderer" and a "cult of the thief," upon which he nourished and fed himself. In this way he compensated for what he believed were his own deficiencies. (p. 25)
It is through Genet's stylistic techniques—his impressionism, his use of color, the juxtaposition and antithesis of his images, and the rhythms and counter-rhythms of his prose—that he reveals, in part, the beings he projects from his unconscious world. (p. 33)
That the phallus should play the enormous role it does in Genet's work is not astounding, since it is one of the most powerful natural symbols known to man. It is around the worship of the phallus as a source of creative energy that Genet's philosophy will be centered. Divinity can be reached both through spirituality and sexuality. For Genet, they are one. (p. 37)
It is through the phallus that Genet's characters reach divinity. Perhaps their search for divinity is their way of expressing their need for love through contact with the divine. Human love is considered at times to be a necessary step leading to the divine presence. (p. 38)
In the Miracle of the Rose Genet re-creates for the reader his magic world, one of dazzling beauty, charged with novelty and excitement. Rarely did Genet see reality for what it was. Rather, he saw into things and beings and created a world to suit his fancy. (p. 40)
The miracle which had caused Genet's descent into self and which he described in the Miracle of the Rose resulted in the emergence of a new attitude toward life…. From his immersion in life he learned that absolutes, either good or evil, do not exist, and paradoxically, that death is not an end, but rather an initiation into another realm of being. (p. 57)
Genet's plays are to his novels what symphonies are to string quartets—the quintessence of his art. His theater is a thoughtful and mature reappraisal of the basic themes that run through his ebullient and youthful narrative works: illusion and reality, life and death, good and evil, strong and weak, old and young, ephemeral and eternal, collective and individual, conscious and unconscious. Genet's theater is hedonistic and devoid of a moral purpose. It sets no ideal…. Audiences present at a Genet production witness a religious ritual. Genet sees God in whatever he does. His plays, therefore, are sacred dramas during the course of which the deepest parts of man are moved communally through the common sharing of the theatrical ceremony. (p. 88)
That Genet's attitudes are considered base, sordid, perverted, and nihilistic by many is not really the question. Genet is living out his life as best suits him. His credo has evolved from his subjective experience. His works rank with the greatest of the century. Genet is a literary phenomenon.
If audiences and readers take Genet's message lightly; if they try to emulate his ways instead of struggling to work out their own; if they use him to create a new and giddy fad—they will be as guilty of vice as any murderer is. If, on the other hand, Genet's brand of humanity makes people react and take stock of themselves, can help them to increase their understanding of themselves by sounding out their own souls, honestly and courageously, rather than by merely glossing over surfaces, then Genet's negativism will have been transformed into a fruitful and positive force. (pp. 156-57)
Bettina Knapp, in her Jean Genet, Twayne, 1968.
Jean Genet, who has been both a thief and a convict, is obsessed with solitude. Such intimate realities as family, or friendship, or the comradeship of labour are abstractions to him; they appear as mere 'functions' of a complex social pattern, pleasanter perhaps, but ultimately no different in kind from the necessary functional interdependence of criminal and victim, or of prisoner-at-the-bar and magistrate-on-the-bench. For Genet the only truly significant relationship is that of a man with himself.
Solitude, then, with its complexities, its rewards and its terrors, is Genet's main theme; it dominates the novels, it informs the early plays, it is constantly felt even behind the crowded tapestry of moving figures that constitutes The Screens. Genet is the poet of solitude. From the first, however, the poet, with his emotional responses of anguish, despair and visionary mysticism, has been accompanied by the philosopher, determined to discover a more or less rational solution to the mystery of human loneliness. (pp. 3-4)
All Genet's novels are concerned with a search for the Absolute—whether for an Absolute Good or an Absolute Evil is, in the long run, essentially indifferent, and indeed, in those ultimate domains of thought, beyond time and space, to which he eventually leads us, the one becomes indistinguishable from the other. (p. 6)
For Genet, all reality (including sexual reality) is a synthesis of dynamic opposites. Miracles appear as truly miraculous only in so far as they are fake; crime is inseparable from punishment, and the criminal—like Our Lady—endures an anguish of unreality until he is tried and condemned. (p. 21)
[The] search for an authenticity by opposition—by forcible separation of the Self from all the conventional beliefs and dictates that surround it—is another of Genet's fundamental attitudes. It is present from his earliest writings, although in Our Lady of the Flowers and Miracle of the Rose it is to some extent overshadowed by the search for a unity that comes through the fusion of opposites. (p. 22)
Genet's characters—like his writings, like his own life—are meant to cause offence, for the first step towards being-what-one-is—towards authenticity or sanctity—is isolation; and it is by offending the accepted morality of society that the saint achieves his most effective solitude…. Realism in itself interests Genet very little; the sordid and nauseating details which he recounts have always a specific function to perform: they are aimed at the spiritual centre of man, they are rarely designed merely to titillate his sensibility, however perverse. Genet has no time for what he calls anecdotes—the straightforward telling of an incident, the delineation of character for its own sake. For him, to kill an enemy is mere melodrama, not worth wasting a line on. To kill gratuitously, without hatred and without purpose, is a step in the right direction…. Only in utter isolation, as an object of horror and contempt for the whole of society, can a man finally be-what-he-is. The lover who sordidly betrays the object of his love for cash becomes the symbol of the metaphysical tragedy—and strangely, of the greatness—of Man. (pp. 23-4)
If the mirror is the most characteristic of all Genet's symbols, it is because it is the meeting-point of the two most dynamic forces—themselves irreconcilable mirror-opposites—in the world of paradox and abjection which he has created. On the one hand, a densely-argued existentialist dialectic, which closely parallels and sometimes seems even to parody the arguments of Being and Nothingness; on the other, a kind of primitive animism, where poetry fuses into religiosity, where the Virgin Mary works miracles in sky-blue and baby-pink…. It is not easy to appreciate both: one or the other must necessarily appear slightly absurd, if not obscene…. Yet both are Genet; and he stands or falls by the synthesis, and not by the separation, of these irreconcilables. They belong with each other, even if they distort and torment themselves in their reciprocal reflections, even if the Sailor is reflected as the Domino, even if both are void, or meaningless, or dead. (p. 25)
Richard N. Coe, in his The Vision of Jean Genet: A Study of His Poems, Plays and Novels (© 1968 by Richard N. Coe; reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.), Grove Press, 1968.
Genet's theatre may lack plot, character, construction, coherence, or social truth. It undoubtedly has psychological truth. His plays are not intellectual exercises (cleverly though they are constructed) but the projections of a world of private myth, conceived as such in the pre-logical modes of thought that are the hallmark of the sphere of myth and dream; hence the prevalence of magical modes of action in Genet's plays—the identification of subject and object, symbol and reality, word and concept, as well as, in some instances, the divorce of the name from the thing it signifies: the objectification of the word (Genet once told Sartre that he hated roses, but loved the word 'rose'). In the world of pre-logical thought, dream, and myth, language becomes incantation instead of communication; the word does not signify a concept but magically conjures up a thing—it becomes a magical formula. Desire and love express themselves in the wish for possession through identification and incorporation of the beloved object. Incantation, magical substitution, and identification are the essential elements of ritual. It is the use of language as incantatory magic—the objectification of words—that makes Genet's theatre, in spite of its harshness and scabrous content, into a truly poetical theatre, a translation, as if were, of Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal into dramatic imagery.
Genet's theatre is, profoundly, a theatre of social protest. Yet, like that of Ionesco and of Adamov before his conversion to epic realism, it resolutely rejects political commitment, political argument, didacticism, or propaganda. In dealing with the dream world of the outcast of society, it explores the human condition, the alienation of man, his solitude, his futile search for meaning and reality.
Martin Esslin, "Jean Genet: A Hall of Mirrors" (© 1961, 1968, 1969 by Martin Esslin; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Company, Inc.), in his The Theatre of the Absurd, Doubleday-Anchor, 1969, pp. 166-98.
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