Jean Genet
Jean Genet; drawing by David Levine

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.

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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.

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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.

Let me designate Genet’s lyricism more precisely. It is that of the passive homosexual, as will be seen if one compares the image cited above with an image from Lautréaumont which expresses the feeling of the homosexual who is active.

Oh that the universe were an immense celestial anus! I would plunge my penis past its bloody sphincter, rending apart, with my impetuous motion, the very bones of the pelvis.

The action of the novel is one of revenge: the revenge of Divine, a passive homosexual, on Darling and Our Lady, active pimps Divine loves—and supports by whoring. Darling is a thief as well as a pimp and Our Lady has the special glamor of being wanted for murder. The motive for revenge is “normal” jealousy made drastic by Divine’s feeling of inferiority at being unable to play a male role. Darling finds another whore; Divine manages to get him arrested. And when Our Lady unexpectedly submits to the Negro Gorgui in front of Divine, the latter, despairing of sex, attracts the police. Our Lady is sentenced to the guillotine. But my point is that the lyrical passage about swallowing the world, which expresses Divine’s passivity, is written into the very plot of the narrative, and is also indistinguishable from Divine’s motives. The image can no more be separated from the rhythm of the story than the images of a poem from what it says.

Does Genet succeed in creating real characters? Divine, the balding male whore, who, when provoked by the assembled queens to prove that he is truly regal, takes out his denture and places it on his head (Genet remarks that it took much more grandeur of soul to replace the denture) is certainly a true, and even a great, character. Of course, Divine, as Sartre has pointed out, is a projection of Genet. But did the novelist create even one character in this book who is not a projection of himself? Without at least one such character, Our Lady of the Flowers would be a failure, even taking into account its limited scope. But Our Lady, the murderer, is no projection of Genet. He is less interesting than Divine, and has less psychological depth, but what Our Lady says and does has the surprisingness of a person we find real, in fiction or in life. When at Our Lady’s trial the judge asks him: “Why did you kill?” the murderer replies: “I was fabulously broke.” This is an answer which was surely not dictated by the author to his character. Narcissism does have creative resources, though Genet is probably the first author since. Sade to have tapped them fully.

No doubt most of Genet’s characters are roles the author has played or wanted to play. And here we see the limits of his theater, which relies not on character as we normally understand it, but on the different roles played by persons who apart from their roles would be quite interchangeable. What distinguishes Claire from Solange in Genet’s play The Maids? Only the special roles they have decided to play. They even exchange names. And are not the Judge, the Bishop, and the General in The Balcony virtually the same? They differ only when they have put on their particular costumes and gotton up on stilts. Sometimes Genet writes as if other persons were real only when invested by him with some special authority. In fact, I think it must be very hard for him to think of anyone but himself as real. In Our Lady of the Flowers, though, I think Genet has made his greatest effort to give independent life to others and to treat them as more than actors in his own drama. This is his most realistic work.

Genet has written three other novels: The Miracle of the Rose, Funeral Rites, and Querelle of Brest. All are extraordinary and should be translated. But I think only one of them, Funeral Rites, is comparable in quality to Our Lady of the Flowers, and this is the only other novel by Genet in which he relies as radically on what I have called his “Cartesian” thought. The Miracle of the Rose and Querelle of Brest are at times subjective, and at times objective in the manner of other novelists. Only in Our Lady of the Flowers and in Funeral Rites does Genet’s subjectivity, pushed to the point of paroxysm, donate whatever objectivity they have to others, things, and the environing world. I am not going to claim that the characters in Funeral Rites are very real. They are essentially roles, more so even than the lesser figures in Our Lady of the Flowers, and in Funeral Rites there is no social world, not even one like the world of pimps and queens Genet described in his first book. But the problem with which Funeral Rites begins is a genuine, even a “social” and “objective,” problem: How mourn for the dead? Jean D., Genet’s lover to whom the novel is dedicated, was a member of the French Resistance and had been killed by a French militiaman. With what ceremony should the living Jean grieve for the dead Jean D.? The whole novel, in fact, is nothing but the elaborate study of what such a ceremony might be.

A ceremony is a social act. Genet in Funeral Rites creates his own ceremony out of his own subjective needs, just as in Our Lady of the Flowers he created a whole social world in order to pleasure himself sexually. The ceremony Genet invents for mourning his lover is very peculiar, most perverse. Jean, Jean’s lover, has been killed, as I said, by a French militiaman. The funeral has not yet taken place. And the living Jean, wondering how to mourn for the dead, goes to the cinema and there sees a newsreel fight between members of the French Resistance and French supporters of Pétain. Jean sees a young French patriot killed by a young French pro-Nazi; he imagines that the man killed is his lover, Jean, and has an immediate impulse to give himself to the killer. This fantasy is pursued throughout the novel, in which there is much about German pricks. In an imaginative flight, Jean thinks of the prick of Eric Seiler, a particularly brutal Nazi, who had begun his career as the lover of the headsman of Berlin 2 , as the V-I protecting Hitler himself. In fantasy throughout the novel Genet is buggered in his own person—or in the person of French thugs or pro-Nazis with whom he identifies himself—by brutal Germans; at the end of the novel by Eric Seiler. Is this a way of mourning for a hero of the Resistance, a man valued for patriotic virtue? Or did Genet hate his lover for having this virtue which he himself did not possess? Genet identified himself, as he makes perfectly clear, with those French supporters of Hitler who took Nazi orders simply to get revolvers in their hands. So Genet could hardly mourn sincerely as a Frenchman for his lover. Moreover, Genet is a narcissist; his grief to be sincere had to be avowedly a narcissist’s. And how does a narcissist grieve for the death of another? Would he not have to have died himself in order to understand the meaning of a funeral rite? But at the end of his book Genet makes clear what his ceremony really is and must be. The living Jean will eat the dead Jean, at least in fantasy; and the fantastic giving of himself to the dead Jean’s killers is a mere preliminary to the real fantasy: the ceremonial eating of the dead Jean. This is the great moment of the novel and Genet’s description is magnificent. Personal, sexual, and religious feeling, half hidden from one another in most of us are called up imperiously by the author’s words and united by them into a mighty spell:

Once more he was swept along by the green waves of anger; which rolled by in the night, under a sky scratched with summer lightning; the waters were full of alligators. On river banks, criss-crossed with fern, savage worshippers of the moon danced in the thickets about a fire. The tribe which had been invited to the feast became drunk with the dance and with the thought of the treat in store: the young dead man cooking in a cauldron. It is sweet and consoling for me, here among the men of a dark and quaking continent, whose tribes eat their dead kings, to find myself again with the natives of a country like Eric’s, so as to eat without risk or remorse, the most tender flesh of the dead man, to assimilate it to my own, to take the best morsels with their fat in my fingers, to keep them in my mouth and on my tongue without disgust, to feel them enter my stomach and know that their essence will fill the very best parts of me. The boredom of cooking has been spared me, while the heat of the dance helped the body boil, extracting from the flesh its magic essence. My palate too was sharpened. I danced, blacker than the blacks, to the beat of the tom-tom. I made my body supple; I made it ready to receive the totemic nourishment. I was sure that I was God. I was God. Alone at the wooden table I waited for Jean, naked and dead, to bring me on a platter his own corpse. I presided, knife and fork in hand, over a singular feast at which I would consume his privileged flesh. No doubt my head was aureoled; there was a nimbus about my body: I felt my splendor going forth like a spray. The blacks played on flutes of bamboo and on tomtoms. Finally, coming from I do not know where, Jean, naked and dead, walking on his heels, brought me his corpse well-cooked, placed it before me on the table, and disappeared. Alone at that table, a God whom the Negroes dared not look at, I ate…Thus the death of Jean D. gave me roots. I finally belonged to that France which I had cursed, and so strongly desired…3

While eating Jean D., Jean is at one with Germany, the country of killers; that is why he refers to the African village where the rite takes place as “a country like Eric’s.” Having eaten the victim, Jean is united, and for the first time, with France.

Certainly this imaginary rite will disgust many readers. But I would ask them to consider what ways are at their disposal for giving ceremony to their grief for the dead. No doubt the funeral ceremonies of the established religions were at one time the result of some genuinely subjective thought or feeling. But our sensibilities are quite different now from the sensibilities of those who invented the rites which we still entrust our feelings to. Who has not wanted to invent his own ceremony, be it of grief or of joy? I do not like Genet’s way of mourning, but it does seem to me a real one, created out of his own substance. All the same, this creation of a rite, though something more than a subjective act, is not equal in my view to the creation of a world shared with others, a world with the warmth and spontaneity of a real society. So, remarkable rhetorically and spiritually as is Funeral Rites, I cannot place it on the same level with Our Lady of the Flowers.

I must add, too, that Genet’s plays, Deathwatch, The Maids, The Screens—even The Balcony and The Blacks—seem inferior to me as intellectual efforts to Our Lady of the Flowers and Funeral Rites.4 Possibly the theater and its needs have imposed on Genet too many objective problems; his thought proceeds most surely when he begins with his intimate feelings and out of these tries to construct the world. But who knows? Perhaps some day this writer will give us a thoroughly Cartesian play. In any case, is it not remarkable that centuries after the death of Descartes, a male whore and hoodlum, speaking Descartes’s language and using his method, should have given life to the novel, once the chief glory of French letters—and which without Genet’s efforts would be moribund in France today.

This Issue

October 17, 1963

  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. 

  2. 2

    In a book on Genet, not yet published but which I have in proof, Joseph MacMahon wrongly refers to the “headsman of Berlin” as the “hangman of Berlin.” This error, though, suggested to me that Genet’s pro-Germanism is, in one respect at least, not unlike the pro-Germanism of Proust’s character, the Baron de Charlus. In explaining Charlus’s leaning toward the Germans, Proust in a message of immense subtlety notes this detail about his character: “Now in him sexual pleasure was accompanied by a certain cruel idea, the full force of which I did not realize at the time—the man he loved seemed to him like an adorable hangman.” (My italics.) 

  3. 3

    Pompes Funebres, my translation. Elsewhere in this piece, I have relied on Mr. Frechtman’s translations. About Mr. Frechtman’s translations of Genet in general: I find them competent and accurate, though uneven in quality. With The Blacks Mr. Frechtman succeeded admirably; his versions of The Balcony and of The Screens are not nearly so good, and I do not think his translation of Our Lady of the Flowers catches the music of the original as well as one would have hoped. One difficulty: there is much argot in Genet’s novel. French argot is not inelegant and enters unobtrusively even into a style as convoluted and thrice-refined as Genet’s. American slang is aggressively inelegant. Mr. Frechtman has not entirely resolved the difficulty. I find his version of The Screens faulty in the same respect. 

  4. 4

    I realize that this contradicts a previously published judgment of mine about the value of Genet’s novels in relation to his plays. My mistake came from judging the novels from memory.