The Case of Jean Genet
'JEAN GENET is an artist," proclaimed the President of the French Republic in 1948, pardoning him from a life sentence for repeated burglaries. "Jean Genet is a criminal and a pornographer," shrilled all the proper Parisiens, promptly seeing to it that even in Paris Genet's writings for years could be sold only under the counter. "Jean Genet is a saint," declares Jean-Paul Sartre, high priest of French existentialism. "I am a pederast. I am a thief," says Jean Genet.
Is everyone right? Is anyone? More than a decade ago, when these questions caused a thunderous cafe clash on the Left Bank, they seemed unlikely ever to cross the waters to trouble puritanical American ears. But times change. That hoary pornographic classic, Fanny Hill, sits cheek by drool with The Joy of Cooking in the local bookstore. Of all long-forbidden literary fruits, Jean Genet was always the darkest and most dangerous. U.S. audiences have already been teased by exposure to a pair of Genet plays. And now for the first time, U.S. readers are to be plunged into unadulterated Genet prose in the form of his first novel. Appearing almost simultaneously is Sartre's 625-page preface to Genet's collected works, in which, among other things, Sartre correctly describes Genet's book as "an epic of masturbation."
Unholy Trinity. In an age increasingly forced to distinguish between scatology, pornography and the legitimate study of evil, the story of Genet's progress to literary prominence exerts a monstrous fascination. For Genet is a matchless, unholy trinity of all three.
Beside him, Henry Miller is but a cheerfully smutty college sophomore, Sade a dilettante aristocrat of eccentric habits, Gide a genteel old lady sedately cultivating nightshade in her little kitchen garden.
Pieced together by Sartre, Genet's life at first appears to be just one more example of a child gone wrong. Abandoned by his mother and taken into public charge at birth in 1910, he innocently filched small articles in the home of his peasant foster parents, who kept him for the fee paid them by the state. When he was ten years old, they turned on him and publicly branded him a thief. From there on until 1948, he was in and out of prison. Wandering Europe, he became by turns a dope smuggler, a beggar, a Foreign Legionnaire (he took the enlistment bonus and deserted) and a male prostitute.
No Escape Hatch. For centuries, says Sartre, despite the Christian doctrine that man is born with the capacity for evil, men have tended to protect themselves from facing the fact by pretending that evil is mainly outside them. If a man does anything wrong, he prefers to believe that it is the result of the Devil's temptations or the corrupting power of society around him. Evil is always "the Other."
Genet had no such metaphysical escape hatch. At the moment when he was denied by his foster parents, he was utterly without resources or the ability to judge himself. His fate was fixed. If parents and society cast him out, he must be guilty. His subsequent pursuit of depravity was ignited by a strange motive. By doing evil, he would discover the evil that he had been told possessed him.
This willed decision to play the role that life had already forced him into makes him, for Sartre, the perfect existential hero. Indeed, to Sartre, Genet is modern man. Born into a meaningless and hostile world, guilty, fearful, evil and vacillating, man can be free only by willing the existence he has been given and acting energetically on his decision—just as a man carried along by an inexorable current can create the illusion of freedom by swimming with the current but faster than it carries him.
He in She's Clothing. A reader is free (and likely) to differ with Sartre's view of man's condition, as well as with his estimate of Genet's genius. But it is difficult not to be intrigued by what is certainly one of the longest, most difficult and most astonishing critical studies ever written about one writer by another. Whole pages of Saint Genet could have been cut. Line after line is unintelligible to anyone but a skilled metaphysician. What remains is an appalling guidebook to a nether world.
Without benefit of Sartre, for instance, what is to be made of Our Lady of the Flowers? The book is infested with shadowy characters—like the handsome pimp known as "Darling Daintyfoot"—who come to gruesome ends after enjoying a succession of couplings and even triplings. The heroine at first seems to be a dead prostitute called "Divine." But Divine is also referred to as "Lou" and "Culafroy," and it is eventually apparent that she is Jean Genet. It is also clear that she is not really a she but a he in she's clothing.
Sartre plunges earthily to the center of all this confusion. "Seeking excitement and pleasure," he explains, "Genet starts enveloping himself in his images as a polecat envelops itself in its odor." Darling Daintyfoot and Divine are projections of Genet's imagination, conjured up to excite himself as he lay in his prison cell in 1942. Genet began to record these autoerotic visions on the paper that the prison provided its inmates to manufacture paper bags. A guard burned the writing. Genet began again. The final result was Our Lady of the Flowers.
By writing down the dreams, says Sartre, Genet became aware of another reality—the reality of words, which he could master. Till that moment lost in a nightmarish effort to justify the world's conception of himself as a thief, he suddenly wakened to his own notion that he could be a writer. He might also be a thief, but he could be his own hero—and fob himself off on the public.
All Men Are Vicious. "By infecting us with his evil," Sartre concludes complacently, "Genet delivers himself from it." This switch on Freudian analysis involves more than just turning his readers into a collective listening analyst. For Genet it means tarring them with the same brush as himself. His writings abound in emotional traps that lure a reader along the path of natural human feeling only to jar him with some small monstrosity at the end. In Our Lady of the Flowers, for example, Divine's despair is so eloquently described that the reader is moved to the kind of sympathy one feels for an aging spinster who is losing her looks. Then, with a sneer, Genet reminds everyone again that Divine is a homosexual after all. Naturally, Genet is delighted with such jokes, which maneuver the reader almost into Genet's own shoes. What criminal would not rejoice in the knowledge that all men are vicious?
Genet is now reasonably well off and respected in France. He has even been able to acquire a house near Nice, which he generously gave to a former lover (male), the lover's young wife (female) and her children by an earlier marriage. In the past decade, he has switched from prose to playwriting, and he has stopped displaying, so directly at least, his own private life. "I wanted," he explains, "to write something that would be more than merely subjectively scandalous. It would be objectively horrifying."
The World Is a Brothel. The two best-known examples of this later Genet are The Balcony, a play that suggests that the world is a brothel patronized by fetishists with illusions of grandeur, and The Blacks, in which the Negro cast dons strange white masks to act out the ritual rape and murder of a white woman—only to turn to the whites in the audience and taunt them with the explanation that they are only behaving as whites expect them to behave. Last week The Blacks passed the 1,000th-performance mark off-Broadway in New York.
No other playwright can quite match Genet at holding the audience at bay, taut between open distaste and hypnotic fascination. Even so, Genet as artist is still much smaller in scale than Genet as existentialist hero. Much of his autobiographical writing is so sleazily scabrous that it loses even shock value. On the stage, his imagination sometimes runs to episodes so melodramatically contrived that they miss theatrical effectiveness, as when the revolutionary leader in The Balcony emasculates himself onstage.
But for good or ill, Genet has been converted by Sartre into a walking allegory. If he was not born to it, or has yet fully to achieve it, he has had significance thrust upon him.