Jean Genet Genet, Jean (Vol. 5) - Essay

Genet, Jean (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Genet, Jean 1910–

Genet is a French playwright, novelist, and poet; but, Sartre has written, his eternal essence consists in his being a thief. After the early prison poems, Genet wrote the autobiographical novels, deliberately antisocial accounts of homosexual love and criminal violence which led some to call him a "black magician," before turning to drama, for him the perfect literary form for the incantatory expression of dream and ritual. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

The concept of sovereignty has always obsessed the imagination of Genet. Sartre believes that Genet chose evil because that was precisely the realm in which he could hope to reach a status of sovereignty. In Miracle de la Rose, in those passages where the character Harcamone is meditating in his cell, the ideal of sovereignty is ascribed to the assassin who is about to be executed. The state of evil is the reverse of the state of holiness. Genet plays on the two worlds because he finds them similar in the sense that the extremes of both are forbidden to an ordinary man, and that both are characterized by violence and danger.

The theory of alienation is prevalent in contemporary literature, and it has never been orchestrated so richly, with such tragic and sensual poignancy, as in Genet's books. The existences evoked in his novels and plays, which are obviously his own existence, cannot find their realization. These characters fully understand how estranged, how alienated they are, and they are both obsessed and fascinated by this state.

Genet began writing in prison with the avowed purpose of composing a new moral order which would be his. His intention was to discover and construct a moral order that would explain and justify his mode of life. (pp. 51-2)

The central drama is always the struggle between the man in authority and the young man to whom he is attracted. The psychological variations of this struggle are many. Each of the novels is a different world in which the same drama unfolds. (pp. 52-3)

The hallucinatory beauty with which Jean Genet has expressed his system of morality and his philosophy of evil increases the difficulty of defining his tradition and assessing his worth. He is the arch-romantic, far more the artist than the philosopher. His nature is essentially religious. His is also a nature of extreme passivity. In this sense, he is more comparable to Baudelaire than to Rimbaud or Lautréamont. He is the opposite of the revolutionist and the reformer. He is the man living just outside of the normally-constituted society. He has no desire to play a part in society, especially no desire to mount in society, to triumph over it. He is therefore the opposite of Balzac's Rastignac and Stendhal's Julien Sorel. (p. 53)

Wallace Fowlie, in Contemporary European Novelists, edited by Siegfried Mandel (copyright © 1968, Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of the author), Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.

The Maids, The Balcony, and The Blacks are three fine examples of metatheater. Genet's characters act out, as in a play within a play, the parts which their fantasy craves. Each one is in a sense the author of his own play. Genet brilliantly develops the theme that illusion is inescapable. Like O'Neill in The Iceman Cometh, he is seeking to demonstrate that illusions are indispensable to life, but there is a basic difference between his work and that of O'Neill. Whereas Genet's protagonists know that they are embracing illusion, O'Neill makes it clear that his alcoholic derelicts, who are unable to cope with reality, are better off nursing their pipe dreams.

What distinguishes Genet as a playwright is that he breaks down the barriers traditionally interposed between imagination and reality. A homosexual and thief who discovered art as his means of deliverance, he is a perspectivist who beholds reality not as a fixed, empirical datum, but as something to be shaped. Reality, as he portrays it, remains enigmatic and paradoxical. Struggling to transcend the limitations imposed by the life of reason, he strives to go beyond the artificially devised dualism of fact and fantasy, matter and mind, reality and dream. Genet is the savage iconoclast for whom truth is but false appearance. The vision he projects on the stage is no more to be relied on; it may be false too, but at least it serves a good purpose in exposing the collective conspiracy of falsehood…. (p. 67)

From the beginning of his literary career, Genet, like Ionesco, was concerned with the problem of determining what is reality, what is truth. Reality is full of disparate, deceptive, and conflicting elements. Even the imagination is impotent to recapture the truth of the past, for this past is reconstructed by the medium of memory and the flow of dream imagery. Like Gide and Rivière, Genet is unsparing in his efforts to achieve full sincerity; he is concerned, above all, to know himself. What fascinates him is the rich potentiality of the drama as ritual; it ceases to be an aesthetic spectacle and becomes a communion that involves both actors and audience. That is how Genet seeks to batter down the obstacles that prevent communication. He tears aside the veils of dissimulation society uses to cover up its festering vices.

The Maids ingeniously exploits the resources of the theater in order to challence and subvert the conventional notions of what reality is. Genet builds up a facade that seems eminently plausible and then proceeds to tear it down and reveal what lies concealed behind it. The play deliberately employs a technique of mystification. It is extremely difficult, in following this dialectic of dissimulation, to disentangle the imaginary aspect from the real. If Genet is attracted to the theater by the element "of fake, of sham, of artificiality," he offers no version of what we can confidently accept as the truth…. The Maids brings out the extraordinary degree to which all men, in their shifting roles of subordination, play the staged game of duplicity…. (pp. 67-8)

The Balcony offers a striking example of a play that endeavors to shatter theatrical illusion by showing that all is illusion. From her balcony, by means of her peep-hole system, Madame Irma sees that her customers betray no inclination to gain their ends in reality; their gratification comes from the knowledge that all this takes place in a realm of fantasy. They know they are not what they seem; it is only the illusion they crave. Genet focuses on the brothel as a microcosmic reflection of society. Only in Madame Irma's establishment does the true character of reality emerge. At the end of the play, Irma addresses the audience directly; she will prepare her costumes and studios for the following day, when business will go on as usual, regardless of which political regime is installed in power…. (p. 70)

The Blacks presents the fantasies of revenge by a whole group, all of whom are Negroes. The actors arrange themselves in two bodies: those who by gesture, speech, and action will reveal the fantasies cherished by the Negro race, and the masked Negroes (representing the whites) who will portray what the Negroes imagine is the white man's conception of the Negro people. The Negroes act out the murder of a white woman, since this is what the whites imagine Negroes are capable of. The fantasy of "projection" is powerfully built up: the alleged sexual potency of the Negro, the rape, the murder of the white woman. The clownish element is exploited as a way of making this display of homicidal hatred bearable to the whites in the audience. Genet stresses the ceremonial aspects, reminding the spectators that this is only a ritual performance, a play within a play that shuttles back and forth between reality and illusion. Mirrors, mask, ritual, dream, fantasy: these are the devices Genet uses to bring out the grotesque contradictions of reality. The Negroes in this "clown show" see themselves as the whites see them, but since the whites are Negroes masked as whites, even this image is a reflection of their own tormented consciousness of color. (p. 71)

Charles I. Glicksberg, in his Modern Literary Perspectives (© 1970 by Southern Methodist University Press: Dallas), Southern Methodist University Press, 1970.

[If Genet] had not existed, Sartre would have had to invent him; fortunately "God" invented him to provide Sartre with a perfect Existentialist subject for his Saint Genet. His system of values is as symmetrical as a French formal garden, and his sense of hierarchy and ceremonial detail is almost as acute as if he had been brought up under the Ancien Régime at Versailles. But what he presents us with is an inverted mirror-image of the "average" world. His is literally an underworld or counterworld, a realm of night or hell which stands in black opposition to the moderately tragic operations of daylight existence. (p. 289)

[Genet's] heroes are criminal riff-raff, often with exotic names indicating international origins. But they all speak French argot, and over them all Genet spreads the rich decoration of his own sumptuous literary French.

Not the least surprising thing about him is that a child brought up in what one imagines to be a desert of illiteracy should have acquired this unerring distinction of language. His underworld speaks its own peculiar tongue, which is also, of course, his own native idiom, but he himself constantly describes it in the most refined style of the upper world…. Aristocrats, after all, are only people who are confident that they are the best. Genet decides to have this confidence, at least linguistically, and so he turns prison yards into courts of love, condemned murderers into holy martyrs, and tattooed thugs into Lancelots and Guineveres. This extraordinary imaginative effort succeeds to a surprising extent, and it is none the worse for also containing its own ironic negation. Genet's books are typically modern works of art in that they build up a deliberate illusion as if it were the truth, while at the same time suggesting that, in matters of this kind, there is no truth other than varieties of willed illusion. (p. 290)

[His novels] might … be considered as different volumes of the same work. They take the form of rambling, fantastic memoirs, which dodge about between the first person and the third, and show no respect for clarity of narrative. They are not ordinary books written with an eye to the reader, but rather private ruminations or celebrations in which Genet goes over the past and works it up to the poetic pitch at which he can, in a sense, become reconciled to it. (p. 291)

Genet's writing expresses strong emotion only in the direction of sublimity. He is so steeped in pornography and dirt that he deals with it quite unselfconsciously. It is there and, whenever the need arises, he refers to it directly by means of … obscene terms…. But his real interest is in psychological detail and the poetic superstructure. He both wants to see the situation as it is and to transmute it into noble terms…. To read Genet is to be whirled through a succession of appearances: male changes into female and vice versa, darkness into light, horror into ecstasy. And the doomed sump of humanity appears more moving and obscene through being lit by this fitful glow than if it were described with straight and conscientious sordidness. (pp. 291-92)

His most memorable scenes have a sad, detached poetry about them, and sex and excretions are present only because these are what his imagination has found to work on…. Genet has a marvellous way of suggesting the strange and ludicrous aspects of sex as well as its lyricism and mystery. This comes out most clearly not in Miracle of the Rose but in the astonishing copulation scene in Querelle de Brest, which is like an amplification, in poetic prose, of Rimbaud's powerful homosexual sonnet.

Since I have a high opinion of Genet's writing and, indeed, think he is quite unique within his given range, I would like to indicate his limitations. Being a rapturous monologuist like Céline or Henry Miller, he has little sense of over-all literary structure. You just have to accept each "novel" as a flux in which he moves from incident to incident without warning or explanation. Sometimes an episode is completely elaborated, but often the scenes are merely hinted at or not developed enough to become fully intelligible. Some readers may feel that this adds to the literary effect of sinister chiaroscuro; but I often find it disappointing and think it arises from the fact that Genet is writing primarily for himself and not completely objectifying his experience. Also like Céline or Miller, he is an egoist with little or no gift of characterisation. In Miracle of the Rose, he keeps referring to different boys by name …, but it is impossible to get an individualised picture of any of them. They are all in a sense the same boy, and no doubt versions of the author, wavering between masculinity and femininity, fidelity and betrayal, courage and cowardice, defiance and abjection. They have hardly more substance to them than figures in a courtly romance, such as L'Astrée or The Faerie Queene. (pp. 292-93)

Genet is only concerned with their sexuality and the emotions of power and humility connected with sex. They have no personal quirks, no ideas, hobbies, or ambitions…. [For] Genet, respectable society is a compact, foreign bloc, like capitalist America for a naïve Russian Communist or Soviet Russia for a naïve American right-winger. In Miracle of the Rose, he can thus build up Harcamone, the condemned criminal, into an august sacrificial figure, around whom the prison community moves, like the faithful around the figure of Christ during the Passion. This is the ultimate point of inverted Romanticism, and I don't believe in it for one moment. But I think I see why he needs it to complete his topsy-turvy psychological structure and maintain his imaginative stance. (p. 293)

[Even if Genet's] account is valid only for a small minority or for himself, it gives one of the most convincing and moving visions of psychological distress to be found in contemporary literature. (p. 294)

John Weightman, "Genet's Black Chivalry," in his The Concept of the Avant-Garde: Explorations in Modernism (© 1973 by John Weightman), Alcove, 1973, pp. 289-94.

In Genet's work, the essential alienation is conveyed by and through the ritual, symbolic and allegorical resources of the theatre. The world, the writer, his beliefs, dreams and art, the play itself, are all wrapped round each other; and yet Genet's plays are authentically political, obsessed as they are with a fundamental theme, the relationship of the rulers to the ruled. The two maids, the clients of the brothel in The Balcony, the blacks in The Blacks, all perform, acting out their lives in a conscious acknowledgment of the circumstance of their own incarnation, which is theatre. Thus they are both the subject and the object of art; art comes back at them, helping them (not always conclusively) to bridge the gap between their predicament and their aspirations….

Genet … provides us not only with multiple reinsurance against illusion and empathy, but also with a delicate commentary on the interplay of art and reality, on how content emerges from the dialogue between subject and form. He uses myth, symbol, ritual and allegory to delineate the levels of consciousness and political aspiration operating in the world outside the theatre. (p. 66)

David Caute, in TriQuarterly 30 (© 1974 by Northwestern University Press), Spring, 1974.

Genet creates—and destroys—his characters solely to serve the turn of his pleasure. When he hears the voice of God on the Day of Judgement, it will be his own….

[One] of the triumphs of [Our Lady of the Flowers] is the metamorphosis of reality. Trivial and sordid things become elevated and beautiful: but they remain trivial and sordid as well. It's almost impossible to achieve this effect without language. The soldier Gabriel, for example, is described by Genet as the Archangel: but he also wears boots and a sagging belt….

Genet offers us emblems to play with—he wants us to create for ourselves.

Stewart Trotter, "Flowers," in Plays and Players (© copyright Stewart Trotter 1974), May, 1974, p. 43.

Jean Genet's five novels have secured him international recognition as one of the masters of modern French fiction. He wrote "Querelle" in the late 1940's after he had finished "Our Lady of the Flowers," "Miracle of the Rose," "The Thief's Journal" and "Funeral Rites." In many ways "Querelle" is the purest and the most austere enactment of those romantic situations that Genet's envy of handsome young men caused him to return to again and again. The charming little queens who graced "Our Lady of the Flowers" have disappeared, but they have been replaced by the more complex Lieutenant Seblon, a naval officer who maintains a severely masculine exterior in order to disguise the fits of ecstasy he rehearses in daydreams about his steward, Querelle. Whereas Querelle and all but one of the other adult men in the book are heterosexual and stupid, Lieutenant Seblon is clandestinely homosexual and as brilliant, devious and eloquent as Genet himself. We are treated to many excerpts from the Lieutenant's diary, and Genet mentions parenthetically: "While the other characters are incapable of lyricism, which we are using in order to recreate them more vividly within you, Lieutenant Seblon himself is solely responsible for what flows from his pen." What flows are poetic effusions celebrating desire and masochism—and Querelle.

Genet is in an awkward, dishonest—no, an ambiguous relationship with his reader and his characters. At the beginning of his novel, he announces that he is writing for homosexuals. But Genet cannot resist scandalizing his reader who, if homosexual, must also be a prude and a hypocrite—indeed, Baudelaire's "hypocritical reader, brother, counterpart." Thus Genet can write, after a violent scene, that he trusts the reader "to complete, with his very own malaise, the contradictory and twisted windings of our own vision of the murder." Not only is the reader made an unwilling accomplice to Genet's fiction, he is also bullied and confused by the narrator. The climactic scene is placed too early in the book, and Genet insolently acknowledges that he is breaking "the habitual rules of narrative logic." The conclusion is speeded up because, as Genet admits, he has become impatient with his tale. Worst of all, the book is left incomplete, unfinished….

Strangely enough, Genet is also on an odd footing with himself. Throughout much of the book, he is the solitary dreamer conjuring up his elegant brutes and placing them in tableaux that excite his lust and cruel imagination. He sides with his characters and defies his readers. This is the posture he assumed in his earlier novels as well. But by the end of "Querelle" "the character escapes from its author, becoming its own, singular being." Indeed, one senses that Genet is frightened by Querelle, the monster he has created. The murderers in earlier books had flaws. They were cowards, they were caught, they were executed. Querelle seems to be getting away with it. Uneasily, Genet shifts his sympathies to the bourgeois reader. He begins to speak of "that sense of true justice that lives in everyone." Perhaps Genet laid his book aside in horror, not in disdain….

In "Querelle" the mythological and the analytical powers seem to be perfectly in balance. By mythologizing his hero, Genet makes him as bright as not just a star but an entire constellation; through analysis, Genet delineates the subtle dynamics that relate one character to another. As his ability to dissect action became more and more powerful, Genet abandoned fiction and turned to plays (in his plays we encounter nothing but analysis of social machinery). Then, his work finished, the master embraced silence. (p. 4)

Edmund White, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 8, 1974.

This disquieting novel, ["Querelle,"] first published in France in 1953, demonstrates once again Genet's unique gift as an artist and conjurer. Querelle is a sailor, thief, murderer, and waterfront prowler whose ship is temporarily docked in Brest. He has murdered more than one man and, for reasons he cannot articulate, has come to depend on thievery and acts of brutality for the liberating effect they have on his spirit. Two murders take place: one committed by Querelle, the other by a young mason. The mason acts out of confusion and passion, but Querelle murders his victim (a friendly messmate) calmly, and with no apparent motive. Genet's celebration of violence, his descriptions of homosexual lechery, and his opulent nihilism are sometimes extraordinarily interesting, sometimes repellent, and sometimes simply dull—but his uniqueness lies elsewhere. It is in his ability to create a wholly private, totally idiosyncratic world that is as poetically "pure" as its components are blunt and coarse. His quayside haunts, vaporous docks, and handsome young toughs have an almost mythic power to disturb one. (pp. 188-89)

The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), October 21, 1974.

The more I read Genet, the more I feel that his is a case where the biography of the writer is fallacious (in the sense the New Critics once argued all literary biography to be), that his life has no bearing on his work….

Doubtless Genet's experience as a prisoner, and between imprisonments as a petty criminal, has provided him with a wealth of material, a plethora of the factual detail documentary novelists love. Yet Genet is not a documentary novelist. You can probably learn more about the actual life of French criminals from the memoirs of surviving Devil's Island convicts or from perusing Simenon with care than you can from reading Our Lady of the Flowers or The Miracle of the Rose.

This does not mean, however, that Genet is an inferior author. On the contrary, he is better than most novelists writing in France today. What I am suggesting is that, far from becoming a writer because he was a criminal whose life provided him with something to say, Genet is a natural artist who happened to become a criminal, and whose experiences in that role have merely assisted him in presenting his romantically metaphysical visions.

Indeed, the source of Genet's visions is to be found not in the underworld he has inhabited and described, but in the long vistas of French literature. Genet is hardly a literary freak. He stands firmly and centrally in the French "anti-tradition," the line of great amoral moralists beginning with Sade and Laclos and continuing through Balzac and Stendhal, Baudelaire and Verlaine, to Gide and Céline, Camus and Malraux.

While English and German romanticism foundered in Gothic nightmares and amorous idylls, French romanticism made the criminal its hero, and linked the artist with the outlaw in an alliance that, in the cases of Verlaine and Genet, has amounted to identification. This explains French romanticism's extraordinary vitality, for no conflict is more enduring than the one between the individual and society; and no situation in life or fiction represents that conflict more intensely than the relationship between the criminal and the policeman, the convict and the jailer, the condemned and the executioner. (p. 19)

[No] one can read Genet without being reminded of Vautrin, the Satanic malefactor of Pére Goriot or, for that matter, of Stendhal's Julian Sorel. But of course there are differences. The crimes of Vautrin and Sorel are seen by their perpetrators as direct challenges to the corruption and tyranny by which society sustains itself. Rebellion is explicit, whereas in Genet it is only implied. In this way, his people are really closer to later, more nihilistic figures of French literature, Gide's Lafcadio and Camus' Meursault, anti-heroes who commit crimes gratuits, motiveless acts of emotionless violence. Criminality for Genet is autonomous, and is described with a curious artifice that lifts it completely out of a naturalistic realm.

This sense of crime as artifice—and the novel as well—is enhanced in Querelle by Genet's stylized description of Brest and its fogs (giving the book a tone of haunting remoteness reminiscent of Marcel Carné's film Quai des Brumes) and by the remarkably elaborate passages of psychological analysis. These take on the nature of an arabesque decoration unrelated in any immediate way to the characters or their actions. The verbal surface of the novel is extraordinarily well-worked in the original: Much that we take at first for profundity is in fact a skillful arrangement of ideas and images into evocative but ambiguous fictional patterns. Unfortunately, this aspect of Genet's writing is largely lost in … translation. (pp. 19-20)

Genet is not the deep or subtle thinker some critics have taken him for. Although he, like Sartre and Camus, deals with extreme situations, he does so in terms of evading them rather than facing them; in the final analysis he is nearer to grand symbolists like Proust than to the novelist-philosophers. His criminals are significant not for what they tell us about the relationship between society and its enemies, but for what they suggest to every man about himself and about those pure impulses—diabolical yet innocent because they are beyond good and evil—that demand liberation from within each of us. (p. 20)

George Woodcock, "The Satanic Tradition," in The New Leader (© 1974 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), October 28, 1974, pp. 19-20.

[Querelle] is the last of Genet's "novels" and the nearest to being an example of the genre, since it clarifies out into a group of interlinked stories, whereas the earlier works, such as Pompes funebres or Miracle de la rose, are more in the nature of rhapsodic meditations with anecdotal passages embedded in them. The central character, Georges or Jo, who bears the unexplained but apparently aggressive nickname of "Querelle de Brest," is not merely a beautiful hoodlum; he is also a sailor in the French navy, and this allows Genet to make great play with the matelot type of homosexual lyricism, which seems to be common to various nations. Querelle's consciousness of the way the uniform moulds his limbs, his characteristic sailor's walk, the fact that he comes from the sea and will go back to the sea after committing certain deeds in the fog-laden and sailor-haunted air of the port of Brest—all this adds up to a thick, steamy, "Quai des brumes" poetry, such as Genet bestows, in other contexts, on reformatories and prisons. If, at times, it appears to verge on sentimentality, Genet very soon corrects the impression by showing, as usual, that his sense of the human, all-too-human, is accompanied by the bleakest cult of evil. He is a much better writer than the Marquis de Sade as regards subtlety of style and precise detail of notation, but he is every bit as relentless….

Genet creates his habitual subject/object patterns of power and sexuality, which read like deliberate illustrations of existentialist psychology, although there can be no doubt that Genet had evolved them long before he had even heard of Jean-Paul Sartre.

John Weightman, "Kind of a Drag," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), November 3, 1974, p. 3.