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The Upper Depths

The Thief’s Journal

by Jean Genet, translated by Bernard Frechtman
Grove, 268 pp., $6.00

The Thief’s Journal, which was first published in 1948 at the mid-point in Jean Genet’s career, stands between his earlier works of fiction and his later works of drama, and points in both directions. It is a long meditation on “betrayal, theft and homosexuality,” that is to say on Genet’s tastes and inclinations, on Genet himself. In part it is a fragmentary account of Genet’s life during the Thirties and early Forties. Its scenes, such as they are, are set in various European places, and we catch glimpses of Genet wandering through Barcelona, Antwerp, Gibralter, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and their respective prisons. Its characters, apart from Genet himself, are his associates in beggary, buggery, and assorted crimes. The activities in which these persons engage include thefts of various kinds, prostitution—homosexual and other—rolling homosexual clients, dope-peddling and running, pimping, passing counterfeit money, getting into and out of jail, and loving and betraying one another. It is a journal in the sense that it follows a roughly chronological order, that the narrator of the journal and the writer are clearly versions of the same person, that most of its episodes seem actually to have happened, and that it is written largely as a work of self-examination, self-justification, and self-creation. Mixed with the narrative episodes of the book are long passages of meditation; sometimes these passages take the form of lyrical effusion, sometimes of erotic reverie; sometimes they are disquisitions on the moral and metaphysical character of betrayal, theft, and homosexuality; and sometimes they seem to me mere exercises in ratiocination, mutterings on a very high level of sophistication. The real subject of these passages, and of the book as a whole, is always the same—the Genet who develops in the process of writing this book. In its form and structure, The Thief’s Journal most closely resembles Genet’s first work of fiction, Our Lady of the Flowers. Our Lady was largely concerned with Genet’s masturbatory fantasies while he was in prison; behind these daydreams and through gaps in their texture one could make out the figure of Genet himself. In The Thief’s Journal the emphasis has changed; the fantasies are still there, but they have been subdued and incorporated within a larger presence, Genet’s self-reflecting consciousness.

It would be an error, however, to to think of this as exceptional to modern literature. Genet’s work is unquestionably connected with a number of literary traditions. The Thief’s Journal in particular is very much a work of its time. It is a work of the Thirties, and takes its place next to the writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, to the Henry Miller of Tropic of Cancer, to the George Orwell of Down and Out in Paris and London and “Inside the Whale.” “It is the life of vermin that I am going to describe,” Genet remarks in an early passage in The Thief’s Journal; and he also says, “I was thus a louse, and conscious of being one.” He was not merely conscious; for as he describes his life as a beggar, tramp, and thief he also exalts and celebrates the condition of being outcast, abject, and destitute. “My life as a beggar familiarized me with the stateliness of abjection,” he writes, “for it took a great deal of pride (that is, of love) to embellish those filthy, despised creatures.” Existing in the “depths of…wretchedness, I was the lover of the poorest and homeliest,” and this experience, he asserts, was “a rare privilege,” for it allowed him to become “increasingly vile, more and more an object of disgust, up to that final point which is something still unknown but which must be governed by an aesthetic as well as moral inquiry.” Pursuing an exalted degradation still further, he wanders to Gilbralter where we see him picking up “the leftovers of the English soldiers. In that way I abased myself further. I no longer begged for money but for scraps of food. To which was added the shame of begging them from soldiers. I would feel unworthy if some soldier’s good looks or the potency of his uniform excited me. At night, I tried to sell myself to them, and I succeeded, thanks to the darkness of the narrow streets.” From here he pushes on to meet his destiny in further prostitution, crime, jail, and finally writing.

Passages like this strike a familiar note. They are characteristic not only of the literature of the “down and out” but of one large segment of modern literature in general. And Genet himself is also familiar. As he creates his own legend, he becomes the very idea—an ideal type—of “the modern artist.” Indeed he fulfills the requirements of that role so completely that he sometimes appears to be a parody of it. Yet one remembers that an ideal type is only an idea, a construction, and as one reads Genet one is made stiflingly aware of how much of a construction he is. It must be added that Genet is always conscious of this. The Thief’s Journal is an account of Genet’s attainment of this utterly calculating consciousness.

To begin with, Genet thinks of his writing as subversive, criminal, totally alienated. He seeks to glorify the filth and cruelty of his criminal world and his loves, to magnify the size, potency, and violence of their penises, to transform these pimps and small-time crooks into gods, angels, and heroes. What could be more “modern” than to find truth, glamor, power, and poetry in that which is outcast, outlawed, regarded with fear and contempt? But again Genet is aware that he is doing this, and that his entire project is consciously willed and therefore tainted with the inauthentic. Here, for example, is a typical description of one of his lovers.

Armand order me to follow him. Almost without speaking, he took me to his room. With the same apaprent scorn, he subjected me to his pleasure.

Dominated by his strength and age, I gave the work my utmost care. Crushed by that mass of flesh, which was devoid of the slightest spirituality, I experienced the giddiness of finally meeting the perfect brute, indifferent to my happiness. I discovered the sweetness that could be contained in a thick fleece on torso, belly and thighs and what force it could transmit. I finally let myself be buried in that stormy night.

Yet having once created such a description he is also capable of saying of his lovers, “We know that their adventures are childish. They themselves are fools.” Or, having depicted another one of his lovers, Stilitano, in grandiose, Homeric terms, he then shows him reading comic books. Subversive in his espousal of the criminal and the vile, Genet is still further subversive by openly acknowledging that he believes in what is also inauthentic or fake. In this his unmistakable intention is to leave the reader nothing to hold onto. It seems to me, however, that readers of the literature of the past one hundred years have become so used by now to walking around in the void that Genet’s rug-pulling act is not likely to be as unsettling an event as it might once have been.

In short, Genet is embarked on what I take to be a perfectly orthodox quest for new moral formulations in one of the central traditions of modern art. His work is full of such transvaluating statements as the following:

The greater my guilt in your eyes, the more whole, the more totally assumed, the greater will be my freedom.

I believe that by facing and enduring this painful anxiety I shall, as as result of my shamelessness, come to know a strange beauty. I had the simple elegance, the easy bearing of the hopeless. My courage consisted of destroying all the usual reasons for living and discovering others.

Such statements are supposed on the one hand to have a diabolic and undermining effect on the bourgeois reader, and on the other to liberate and transfigure anyone who can attain the same consciousness as the writer. I do not believe that there is a reader of this review who is not well acquainted with these ideas and assertions—they are, in fact, among the grand assumptions of modern art. But Genet is a latecomer, an autumn bloom, in this great poisoned garden. Two things should be noted, however about Genet’s Nietzschean maneuverings. First, his affirmations of the negative, the horrible, the squalid, and the perverse are convincing. When he revokes the “horrible odor” of a hovel in which he has spent a night with a lover and asserts that it “will always remain for me the very odor not only of love but of tenderness and confidence,” it sounds true. (Just as in his film, Un Chant d’Amour, the better scenes are those which show the sordidness of prison life and sexual loneliness, while those scenes which dramatize his fantasy of pastoral homosexual bliss are vulgar and embarrassing.) As a result, he is the first writer who has been able to take homosexuality from the forbidden, the clinical, and the frivolous and make it a legitimate subject of literature.

By this shipwreck, sunk by all the woes of the world in an ocean of despair, I still knew the sweetness of being able to cling to the strong, terrible prick of a negro. It was stronger than all the currents of the world, more certain, more consoling, and by a single one of my sighs more worthy than all your continents.

This passage is impressive not because of Genet’s silly notion that homosexuality is superior to heterosexuality; it is impressive because of its Nietzschean anger and resentment, its powerful drive to transcend the world by descending beneath it, to answer the contempt of society with a greater contempt of its own, and finally because of its awareness that the entire procedure is merely an assertion, and therefore futile. Second, it is a matter of interest that Genet has actually done the things he writes about; he is not having fantasies in a German university or in a cottage in the English countryside. His early works, including this one, are fantasies, to be sure, but they are fantasies about what he has literally experienced. In this respect as well, he is simply advancing the whole modern project one step further along its logical path.

Genet takes all the modern themes and gives them one more twist. His treatment of homosexuality, for example, must be regarded as logically following the great liberation instituted by Lawrence and Joyce; indeed it was necessitated by that liberation. Genet’s modern preoccupation with moral loneliness or solitude is of a similar order, This theme reaches its greatest intensity, I suppose, in the novels of Conrad, particularly in Under Western Eyes, that masterpiece about betrayal (and an overwhelming counterweight to Genet’s ditties in praise of treason). After Razumov has committed his act of betrayal, Conrad states that “No human being could bear a steady view of moral solitude without going mad,” and the rest of the novel consists of a working out of this conception. Characteristically, Genet has taken this theme and simply upped the ante on it. “It is perhaps their moral solitude—to which I aspire—that makes me admire traitors and love them,” he writes, “this taste for solitude being the sign of my pride, and pride the manifestation of my strength.” In another passage he writes that he has always been “haunted by the idea of a murder which would cut me off irremediably from your world.” This is why, he says, he admires the Gestapo; by reason of its dedication to all the criminal virtues it “established itself in an indestructible solitude,” and became “sparkling, unassailable.” Apart from the fact that a good deal of this consists of verbal tricks, these reversals are not so large or dramatic as Genet—and Sartre—seem to have supposed. Genet transforms the typical modern themes merely to push them one step further ahead in the direction in which they are already moving.

We can observe this process at work even in Genet’s construction of the myth of his biography. Born a bastard and an orphan, and a public ward from birth, Genet never ceases to yearn for the mother “who abandoned me in the cradle.” Brought up first by foster parents, and then cast into reformatories and prisons he begins to discover his identity “in children’s hells, in prisons, in bars…. I pursued there my identification with the handsomest and most unfortunate criminals.” Abondoned by his parents, alienated and humiliated in an alienating world, he never ceases to believe that he carries within him “the sign of a secret grace”; he never renounces his “abandoned urchin’s amorous imagining of royal magnificence,” that is, the secret of his birth. Beneath the thief, the prostitute, and the writer there lies the deserted child.

When I was in the Metray Reformatory, I was ordered to attend the burial of a youngster who had died in the infirmary. We accompanied him to the little cemetery of the reformatory. The grave digers were children. After they lowered the coffin, I swear that, if anyone had asked, as they do in the city, for “the family,” I would have stepped forward, tiny in my mourning.

The legend with which Genet has most identified is one of the nineteenth century’s most familiar versions of the myth of the birth of the hero. The story of Genet’s childhood is the story of Oliver Twist, in France in the early twentieth century. (Genet himself is explicitly aware of this.) The differences in Genet’s version of the story represent the distance culture has traveled within the century. Yet even the one seemingly insuperable difference between the two parables is partially dissolved. Oliver Twist hates the criminal world into which he has been abandoned, and his whole effort in life is to escape it and rise into the respectable world where he can become a gentleman and a success; Genet identifies with the world of crime and makes its values his own. But crime was not to be Genet’s final resting place. His destiny was to become a writer, and by virtue of this grace with which he was born, he was to be freed from prison, to be made a success in the world which had despised him and an object of its interest and even its awe. This wildest of ironies puzzles even Genet; it is the one circumstance concerning himself which he has almost nothing to say about and as yet apparently no way of handling, where the conditions of reality have outstripped even his sense of the impossible. Despite himself, he finds that he has fulfilled the requirements of the old myth.

It seems to me, then, that Genet is one of those creatures who sum up or express the potentialities of an entire species or form even as its life is passing from it. This situation of classic decadence is usually accompanied by a heightened consciousness, and one of the most striking things about Genet’s work, and especially The Thief’s Journal, is the consciousness with which it is suffused. His work is inhabited by a kind of super-consciousness, and it seems almost excessive to have to add that such super-consciousness is not necessarily an advantage, for it limits as much as it liberates. Genet is aware that his writing is “the cry of a man monstrously engulfed within himself,” as he is also aware that this self-consciousness is often false, self-deceiving, and arbitrary. In further intensifying the degree of consciousness which informs his writing, and in making his very means of expression the central interest of his work, Genet is again exemplifying in an extreme way one of the major tendencies of modern art. The result, however, has a peculiarly decadent and peculiarly French lucidity. In this connection, one other thing becomes clear. Modern art, we all know, is a very aggressive undertaking. And of all the modern writing I have read none has been composed with greater aggression than Genet’s. This aggression is contained in the subjects Genet writes about and in his attitude toward them. It is there in the very quality of his imaginative style, and he notes himself “the extraordinary power of verbal creation that springs from pride, as from anger.” It is there in the structure of all his early writing, whose coherence depends upon Genet’s arbitrary associations rather than argument or narrative. And of course the aggression is present in his attitude toward his readers, whom he scorns and tries to ignore, but upon whom he also intends to inflict his work. This work is designed to outrage the reader in all the usual ways, and also by being dense, private, absurd, nagging, and boring, none of which Genet ever fails to be.

Yet this very impressive work, The Thief’s Journal, fails in its design on us. It fails to outrage, and for a number of reasons. Genet, I have said, comes very late in the day. We have become accustomed by modern reality and modern art to being outraged, we are all numbed by it, and it would take a more powerful detonator than Genet’s to shake us awake. In the second, the revolt of the slaves has taken place, the sexual revolution is being won, and few contemporary readers are going to be outraged either by Genet’s homosexuality or his descriptions of sex. As for his praise of crime, one need only recall Dostoevsky to recognize how poor Genet’s representation is—it is indeed the weakest part of his work. There remains the remarkable fact that Genet has actually experienced some of the things he describes. But it is exactly at this point that the irony is revealed. For Genet’s career exemplifies the career of the modern artist in still one more respect. Having the experiences he had, and in his early works written about them and about himself, he then has gone on to efface himself, to achieve “impersonality” in the received and sanctified modern way. He goes on to write his plays, which do confront us with ourselves and thus are truly shocking. These represent unquestionably a larger achievement than his earlier works of fiction and meditation. Genet’s writing of The Thief’s Journal, along with the novels, can be understood as a necessary preliminary to that achievement. It is a sad, cruel, and very modern irony that works written out of such outrageous designs, with such diabolic motives, and with such wickedness of heart, should in the long run find their chief significance as preparations for works of art.

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