The Tristesse of the Incurable

Funeral Rites

by Jean Genet, translated by Bernard Frechtman
Grove Press, 256 pp., $7.50

The Vision of Jean Genet

by Richard N. Coe
Grove Press, 352 pp., $2.95 (paper)

Jean Genet
Jean Genet; drawing by David Levine

In the most literal sense of the phrase, Genet is a writer who has the courage of his convictions. Out of the lives of criminals, and following a tradition in French literature, he has built an erotic mystique, even a kind of metaphysic. Just as Zola was romantically stimulated by the idea of heredity as a fate, and sex as something for the pathetic brute, so Genet is moved by an aspiration to the state of Absolute Evil. One thinks of him as a Vidocq without the gaiety, slipperiness, and hypocrisy—a Vidocq who has read Dostoevsky; the autodidact of the jails.

Absolute Evil implies the existence of Absolute Good at the opposite extreme; but there is no sign of that in his writing. Absolute Evil is not the kingdom of hell. The inhabitants of hell are ourselves, i.e., those who pay our painful, embarrassing, humanistic dues to society and who are compromised by our intellectually dubious committal to virtue, which can be defined by the perpetual smear-word of French polemic: the bourgeois. (Bourgeois equals humanist.) This word has long been anathema in France where categories are part of “logique.” The word cannot be readily matched in England or America, and simply has associations of the grotesque in Germany. Although it has a definite place in Marxist hagiography, it is hard to appoint a certain place for it in our empiricism. Some believe that its emotional force in France comes from the violent overthrow of the Commune in 1871. Possibly the ferocity, the trim, pedantic obduracy of the French middle class, owes a great deal to its roots in the satisfactions of a successful peasantry. (They got what they wanted after the Revolution and, avariciously, what they have they hold.)

Again, there seems to be a Manichean overtone in discussions about the class: the conflict is between the children of light and the children of darkness. In Genet’s novels, his criminals, traitors, male prostitutes, pimps, collaborators, and Nazis are known by adjectives that convey light and brightness. Those of us who close his works in anger and disgust at this sacrilege live in the outer darkness of right thinking. Hell is not an extreme; it is in the middle.

Absolutists put their money on Being rather than Action: they are after our souls. If Genet can be said to have mystical claims they are in his interest in the “dark night” of the soul; but the soul, in Christian thought, emerges from its “dark night”—see the lives of the saints. Genet’s murderers and cheats do not emerge. They live out a drama impenetrable to others. For Genet’s experiences as a thief, a reformatory boy and burglar, and one who has seen murder (but is not a murderer) have taught him—because he is a gifted man, a sort of poet and rhetorician—that criminals are a stupid, dingy lot of short-sighted morons. Their “dark…

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