Black Chivalry

Miracle of the Rose

by Jean Genet, translated by Bernard Frechtman
Grove, 344 pp., $7.50

Jean Genet
Jean Genet; drawing by David Levine

The French have a reputation for carrying intellectual attitudes to extremes and especially for being doggedly persistent in negativity. They are not motivated in this by any misty kind of Schadenfreude, but rather by intellectual glee at forcing their own logicality on that Janus-faced nonentity known as God or the Devil. “If this is Your creation,” one can hear the French genius saying, “we are damned well going to define it as we see it.” This is the common Frenchness linking the most dissimilar individuals—Jean-Paul Sartre, General de Gaulle, Paul Valéry, François Mauriac, the Marquis de Sade, Baudelaire, etc. As for Jean Genet, although he is a real person, he is such a perfect example of thoroughgoing negativity that he might almost have been invented as a synthetic demonstration of this tendency of the French mind. 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 counter-world, a realm of night or hell which stands in black opposition to the moderately tragic operations of daylight existence.

It is a remarkably consistent development of his personal situation. As a parentless bastard, a reform-school boy from the age of ten, a habitual thief and jailbird for whom social rehabilitation could have no meaning, a familiar of drug-peddlers, a homosexual prostitute with a despairing view of homosexuality, he was an almost ideal dropout character, or Existentialist outsider, or poète maudit, or rogue genius, or Bohemian versus the Bourgeois. To complete the pattern, he should also perhaps have been a Jewish Negro. He has done his best, as his plays testify, to become an honorary or spiritual Negro, although, for the sake of the peace of the world, it is to be hoped that most Negroes reject his view of them with loathing. I don’t remember any pronouncement by him on Jewishness, but I suppose he considers Jews, in spite of their persecuted wing, to be too firmly ensconced in the citadels of power and riches and average morality to rank among the irredeemable have-nots. At any rate, there are no Jews as such in his novels, whose 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…

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