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The Genius of Jean Genet

Our Lady of the Flowers

by Jean Genet, translated by Bernard Frechtman
Grove Press, 256 pp., $6.50

It was from Sartre that I first heard of Jean Genet. This was some years back, in 1947, if I remember rightly. Sartre was visiting New York, and the editors of Partisan Review asked me to a luncheon for him. For most of the luncheon not much was said, mainly, I think, because of the language difficulty—our French was labored and uncertain, and Sartre did not know English at all; then too, at the start, Sartre wanted to feel out what we, the Americans, were like—especially what our attitude was to him; and we, for our part, were not at all sure about the existentialist views he had proclaimed, or what his philosophy could mean in this country, or to us. Anyway, the conversation went haltingly until I said something about Camus, who was already enjoying a great vogue here; Sartre responded swiftly: “Camus is a very fine writer, but France has many other fine writers. Camus is not a great writer, not a genius.” He added, “There is only one genius in France today.” Who was that, we wanted to know. Sartre’s answer was: “Jean Genet.”

After which Sartre went on to speak of Genet, and suddenly became himself. For Sartre, it seems to me, is himself when he praises or decries; he needs moral pretexts to show his wit, his eloquence. And there was no question about his loyal support of the writer almost none of us knew at the time; we could not but be impressed when he compared Genet to Lautréaumont, then to Rimbaud, and even intimated that Genet was the greatest of the three—also the most “accursed.” (I see from Sartre’s book, Saint Genet, just out in English translation, that he has changed his mind about Genet’s forerunners and now places him in the line of Baudelaire and Mallarmé.) Sartre talked of Genet’s life: a foundling, brought up by foster parents, he had been sent to a reformatory at a very early age; after that he had resolutely embraced a life of crime: he was a hoodlum, a thief, a male whore. (With about twenty-seven convictions to his credit, Genet, under French law, would have been sentenced to prison for life had not French writers, notably Sartre himself and Jean Cocteau, obtained a pardon for him from the President of the Republic.) We all tend to be incredulous, I suppose, when told that someone we do not know is great. But Sartre spoke most convincingly, and there was certainly something about Genet’s story which suggested that he might be another Lautréaumont, even a Rimbaud. But then Sartre made a remark which startled me. Of Genet he said: “He has the style of Descartes.”

The style of Descartes? Years after that luncheon, when, in Paris, I had read a novel or two by Genet and also seen a play of his, I still could not understand why Sartre had thought of comparing his style with that of the seventeenth-century philosopher. At a party I repeated Sartre’s mot, and a witty French priest retorted: “But Genet is very seventeenth-century; and he has the style of its greatest writer—who, mind you, is not Descartes.” Would I have to hear Genet compared to Pascal, I wondered. My priest did as well, or even better. Of Genet’s style he said: “It has the tone, the rhythm, the surge of Bossuet,” and then went on to compare in detail the prose of the seventeenth-century churchman and orator with that of the modern hoodlum, thief, and whore. I thought people in Paris were losing their heads over Genet.

The style of Bossuet, no. I still see no reason to compare Genet with the celebrated churchman. Nor can I see any wit in the comparison, unless made by a priest. But I am now convinced that Sartre was perfectly right in linking Genet with Descartes: the insight is one of his most brilliant hits. But by Genet’s style Sartre could not possibly have meant Genet’s prose, which, in its sumptuousness, is utterly unlike the austere—and so affecting because unornamented—prose of the great Descartes. Genet’s prose is almost always dressed up—often in drag. Sartre himself has called attention to the ornateness with which Genet in A Thief’s Journal writes of Bulkaen’s behind: “Son postérieur était un reposoir.” (“His behind was an altar.”) In fact, in his book on Genet, Sartre makes a very pejorative judgment of Genet’s prose, even describing it as “false.” Why false? Apparently because it is interfused with poetry—according to Sartre, its poetry corrodes and corrupts this prose. I think here Sartre has yielded to a very French view, one which I personally do not share. Perhaps Alain said it best for all who hold this view: True prose must be “poetry refused.” In any case, Sartre could hardly have meant Genet’s “prose,” which he criticizes, when speaking of Genet’s “style,” which he admires.

So Sartre must have had in mind Genet’s style of thinking when he said of the writer: “He has the style of Descartes.”

Our Lady of the Flowers, Genet’s first novel, written in the prison of La Fresne, and certainly a masterpiece—the greatest novel, I should say, since Faulkner was great—is also, to my mind, the book of Genet which best reveals his style of thinking. It is a style of thinking which derives its order and assumptions from the “I”—the style first taught by Descartes.

I have chosen, though, to connect Genet with Descartes through still another writer—one not too well known in this country, but perhaps the greatest and most original of all Cartesians, and who has the advantage, for me, at least, of being, like Genet, a modern: the philosopher Edmund Husserl. Now it may seem strange to compare a purely theoretical work like Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations, composed mainly of lectures he gave at the Sorbonne, with any novel, let alone a novel apparently at such a remove from questions of theory as the one written by Jean Genet in the prison of La Fresne. However, the efforts of Husserl and Genet are not at all dissimilar. About the Meditations: In this work the German thinker attempted the perhaps impossible task of scaffolding our common world on the structures of the solitary ego; he tried to set up, within the confines of the self, a world shared, or sharable, with other selves—on which public world, in turn, all scientific communication could rest. Now Husserl’s effort has been called a failure. Was not his common world rather like the brothel designed by Leonardo, which each client could enter and quit without the risk of meeting any other client? For there seems little “danger” of the ego’s meeting another ego in the maze of Husserl’s Meditatious. Just the same it remains one of the seminal works of this century. I heard the French philosopher Jean Wahl say of it: “Husserl’s Cartesian adventure failed.” But then he added: “Like all great enterprises.”

Our Lady of the Flowers is not a failure. But what I must explain is how this novel about homosexuals and criminals suggests comparison with Husserl’s Meditations. The German thinker began with solipsism. Genet, isolated on his prison bed, begins, as radically, with narcissism: Genet is masturbating. And in order to make masturbation effective he calls up images of the pimps, whores, and criminals he has known or imagined himself to be. According to Sartre 1 , so single was Genet’s interest in getting sexual satisfaction while writing this book that the measure of his interest in each of his characters was solely whether he could keep an erection. Sartre calls the novel “an epic of masturbation.” I cannot agree. The novel is purely lyrical, and the word “epic” gives, I think, a wrong impression of it: an erection is brief, an epic long-lasting. Moreover, the book is not about masturbation; it is about all those figures Genet could make real to himself while masturbating. Masturbation was his aim and end; but it was also his method and means; by it he elaborated his personal world into one he could share sexually with others, and finally into the actual social world of criminals and homosexuals, male whores and pimps, which he had known. This world, to my knowledge, has never before been described by any writer: Genet in his novel constitutes it for us almost out of his own substance; in any case, out of the very substantial sexual pleasure he took in remembering and contemplating it. Thus it is that the social world of homosexuals and criminals of Our Lady of the Flowers has a freshness, a spontaneity—a sweetness, even—scarcely approached by those novelists who describe the world “objectively.”

But did not Proust begin as radically, with his own impressions, and constitute, out of his sensations and memories, the French society of his time? Proust did indeed begin with his impressions, but out of these he wrought only those characters who could move him deeply; the French society of his time he described objectively. Often Proust reads like Balzac. Now Genet—at least in Our Lady of the Flowers—never reads like Balzac, but always like Genet; even when describing “objectively” the criminal and homosexual hierarchy he knew, Genet always seems most intent on remembering his own homosexuality, his own crimes.

It may be asked: If Husserl could not make of the private self the architect of a world with others in it, then how was Genet on his narcissist’s couch able to construct such a world? Can it be said that Genet, the novelist, succeeded, where Husserl, the philosopher failed? Let me make myself clear on this point: Our Lady of the Flowers, though a beautiful book, does not merit comparison with such works as The Human Comedy, War and Peace, and The Red and the Black. And Genet’s novel would have to be as inclusive and universal as these to seriously challenge “objective” thinking—even in literature. I do claim for Genet that in Our Lady of the Flowers he created out of his narcissism a world with others in it. But this world is subject to a severe limitation: the others whom Genet is able to reach out to narcissistically are essentially narcissists themselves, as strictly separated from one another as Genet is from them. But Genet has this very great strength: the only world he wants to describe is the only world he can describe subjectively, the world of criminals and pederasts. To deal with any wider forms of social life he would have to attenuate, by objectifying, his method of description.

I have said that Genet’s Our Lady is lyrical: it is necessarily that, given its method of composition. The fable or plot of the book is suggested at the outset by an image:

…I wanted to swallow myself by opening my mouth very wide and turning it over my head so that it would take in my whole body, and then the universe, until all that would remain of me would be a ball of eaten thing which little by little would be annihilated: This is how I see the end of the world.

  1. 1

    Sartre’s introduction to Our Lady of the Flowers, taken for this edition from his vast Saint Genet, can only be described in superlatives: it is one of the most amazing pieces of literary analysis I have ever read.

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