genet: risk and the safety of ritual

If we were talking only of the prose such as Our Lady and Journal of the Flowers, it might perhaps be possible to sweep past Genet. These books are books of prismatic brilliance, containing scene after scene of bizarre or sordid incident caught in amber by the preservatives of symbol and metaphor. Their motivation, however, seems fatally miscalculated: when perfect evil is the goal, the issue is no longer art but sanity.

Jean Genet is sane, and as dramatist has turned from the abyss of pure negation. His plays are calculated attempts to dislodge society from its pinnings. A society alone against society does not perhaps strike one as a patently reasonable encounter; but the enemies of society almost invariable strike from within. Genet is outside, and it always remained to be seen whether or not he had a lever long enough for his job, beyond the extent to which his writing was part and parcel of a new political, aesthetic, and philosophical relation between writing and society in a similar way that was articulated by Burroughs, Ginsberg, Henry Miller et al.

---'I bit Lucien until blood flowed. I was hoping to make his scream; his insensitivity conquered me. But I know that I would go so far as to rip my friend's flesh and lose myself in an irreparable carnage wherein I would preserve my reason and know the exaltation of the fall. p. 145 'I did not slap anyone, but my voice was so shaken that I realised how angry was. In order to pull myself together, I robbed one of the officers that very same night.'...( Thief's Journal ) Image:

…Flowers bedeck the fragility of the convict and I garlanded myself, lovingly pursuing a journey through sweat, sperm and blood that led to prison. Without what people call my evil, I am castrated. Un petit-bourgeois rien. There was a moral vigour in the acceptance of my destiny. I was hot for crime.

I give the name violence to a noble boldness that hankers for danger, and I have seen it in many of the pimps and thieves I have worked with, men whose authority and beatific treachery bent me to their will. Rene, Stilitano, Guy … I could describe them, but I won’t. I am too much of a literary outlaw for that. Instead, let me take you back to the Barrios in 1932, where I used to jerk myself off into a sperm-spotted handkerchief, while thinking of my mother.

Oui. I am my own Dieu, I fashion my vanity, delighting in the vicarious transgression that has fashionable artists like those fools Cocteau and Picasso, who have never dared to have oral sex with a leprotic geriatric vagabond. …( Genet, A Thiefs Journal )…

Genet by Hans Koechler. ---'In the hands of a poor man, coins are no longer the sign of wealth but of its opposite. No doubt I robbed some rich hidalgo in passing - rarely, for they know how to protect themselves - but such thefts had no effect on my soul. I shall speak of the others I committed against other beggars.' ( Thief's Journal ) Image:

The Maids was his first play, and it first brought his name into general currency in America when it was produced in Greenwich Village in 1955.It deals with a ritual. Indeed, almost everything Genet wrote for the stage is couched in rites and ceremonies- from outside, these are often perceived to be our exposed flank-; in this case, two maids are discovered rehearsing the murder of their dear mistress. Claire is playing madame, and Solange her sister, is playing Claire. By the transposition of roles Claire can both revile and caress herself, in the person of Solange; and Solange, hating and fawning upon Madame, whom they also love, can at the same time loathe and fondle Claire, her alter ego. The servant is the image of himself reflected from the master.

Sartre wrote the introduction to this play, which traced he whirligigs of pretense in a circular alternation of truth and falsehood- real boys, playing false maids, who are real women enacting a false hate that is enexorably confused with self-love-; the metamorphoses can be proliferated almost at will, for the essence, the wicked heart, of this play is that Genet deftly avoids the single fixed datum that would give it an anchor and arrest the nauseating spin.

---'Later on , when, without refusing to get excited about a handsome boy, I applied the same detachment, when I allowed myself to be aroused, and when, refusing the emotion the right to rule me, I examined it with the same lucidity, I realized what my love was; on the basis of this awareness I e

lished relationships with the world; this was the birth of intelligence.' - Thiefs Journal. Image:

…Is any of this true? Who cares? It is if I say it is, for I define my existential self. Je suis what I say je suis, I beat up queers and stole from churches; burglary became a religious rite, elevating me to poet of the underworld even as I willingly debased myself in pissoirs

Rene jerked himself off in a café full of whores to calm himself down, before stabbing the Gypsy boy through the heart for a few sous. In that moment of love and death, I caught sight of Stilitano looking on and knew I must drink in the beautiful odour of his never-washed body. He was the Sacred Black Stone to which Heliogabalus offered up his wealth and I prostrated myself to his treachery and indifference.

I was born in Paris in 1910. My mother was a whore and I have my roots in the parched bones of the children who were massacred by Gilles de Rais. There was no precise time I became a thief, just a metempsychosis of Uranus that saw me graduate from the Reformatory to the Foreign Legion and thence to the piss and shit of the sewers…. ( Genet. ibid. )

---Fassbinder directed Despair when he was 33 and he died just 4 years later after he completed filming his adaptation of Jean Genet’s Querelle. Fassbinder didn’t live to see the premier and Genet never saw it because smoking wasn’t allowed in theaters. Or so the story goes. Rimbaud wrote A Season in Hell when he was 19 and he died at 37. I have to wonder – if these guys had lived longer would they have turned the corner on despair? Let a little delusion in to brighten things up? I like to think so.--- Read More:

The maids have never accomplished the murder because Madame has always come home before they had completed their elaborate incantations and were ready for her. But this time, Claire as Madame, drinks the poisoned tea, thus committing in real suicide a symbolic murder, and assuming in death the identity of the person who gave her substance. The attack of the play, exceedingly disconcerting, is on the observer’s sense of objective identity, his conviction that he can tell a hawk from a handsaw.

The forces of conflict in Genet’s theater are not confined to the stage; they are directed into the audience. The characters seem engaged in a conspiracy against the spectators, and hostility flows strongly from stage to auditorium.

The Balcony was Genet’s first full-length play and a more elaborate tapestry of ritual and impersonation than The Maids. The place of the title is a bordello that caters to fantasts. Here come ordinary persons, office workers, blue collar tradesmen and the like, to be dressed in the trappings of power, as a bishop, judge, and a general, which to Genet are the personifications of society, and to use the girls who attend them, not as women, but as the objects of their authority. The eroticism of fancy dress is a scarlet thread through this play.

Jean Genet. Chicago. 1968---Said:. I guess we need to understand why great old men are liable to succumb either to the wiles of younger ones, or to the grip of an unmodifiable political belief. It's a dispiriting thought, but it's what happened to Sartre. With the exception of Algeria, the justice of the Arab cause simply could not make an impression on him, and whether it was entirely because of Israel or because of a basic lack of sympathy - cultural or perhaps religious - it's impossible for me to say. In this he was quite unlike his friend and idol Jean Genet, who celebrated his strange passion for Palestinians in an extended sojourn with them and by writing the extraordinary 'Quatre Heures à Sabra et Chatila' and Le Captif amoureux.... Read More: image:

…Stilitano and I travelled through Czechoslovakia, Poland, Italy and Germany, becoming spies and finding a purity of evil idealism in the SS. I longed to play with the cellulose grapes that hung from his member while he pushed me away like the bitch I was. I wanted him to beat me. I became his noble valet, reduced to even greater humiliations, and even now I am reduced to verbal automatism in thrall to his deity.

Can you feel the degradation? Allow your hands to wander inside your uptight bourgeois pants and feel the excitement of my squalor. But don’t stop there! I can give you so much more if only you will open your flies to me. Lose your suburban values and embrace the negative hell of the poet of the woebegone…. ( Genet ibid. )

The action takes place in the time of the revolution, and while the patrons of the Balcony are acting out their dreams of power, the real custodians of power are liquidated.Except for the chief of police who acts as a bridge between the house of illusions and the world outside. He continues to function in a desperate attempt to hold the state together because his life is unfulfilled: no one has ever come to The Balcony to be asked to be decked out as the chief of police. Until someone does, and at the end it happens, the chief cannot rise to the hierarchy of symbolism, where power no longer expresses itself in action but in mere being.

Genet concocts in The Balcony an image of society in which real authority has been absorbed by the apotheosis of authority. Out in the streets the princes of church and state lie slain, but within the bordello, priest, judge, soldier, and finally, chief of police attain omnipotence by sacrificing their ephemeral potency for a place in the permanent wardrobe of illusion. The patron who asks for the role of police chief castrates himself in a climax of ecstasy.

…I dressed as a woman and went to Tangiers with Maurice and Robert, occasionally allowing myself to commit an act the gravity of which gave me consciousness. Oui, I was ennuyé. It is no boast to say I was a clever thief, but still I went to prison where I found security in a world that had rejected me, offering up my mobile buttocks to anyone who showed interest. Michaelis wanted me to love him, yet I taunted him with abstinence when I met Java, a muscle-bound Stilitano. Java still liked to go with whores, but occasionally he would let me thread myself inside him when he was asleep, crying out in anger when I made him come. I then met * – I cannot mention his name because he is still alive, though maybe only in the Sartrean sense in which je suis – and we pleasured one another as an SS guard told us of the joy he got when he could see tears in the eyes of the victims he was about to kill…. ( Genet ibid.)

The Balcony breaks down the distinctions between the individual, his functions, and the symbolic efficacy of his office. Function annuls person, and the symbol obviates function, until at the end the brothel and its denizens become surrogates for the world and its people. The audience is defied to keep its eye on the individual, the pea between the shell, in this game of devil’s sophistry.


Sartre number two, a more familiar figure, emerges following the end of the German occupation. The key term now was “engagement” and writing was a means, if of a highly specialised sort, towards individual and social transformation. One sees this in the series of novels Sartre published after the war, Les chémins de la liberté (Roads to Freedom). Lévy suggests that the uncompromising individualism of the pre-war period was “too heavy a burden” for Sartre to bear. One realises oneself now in the context of a commitment to a group, which one writes for and acts with, such being the special role of an intellectual. This is the programme announced in Qu’est-ce que la littérature? (What is Literature?), worked out, as much as anywhere, in the plays Sartre now wrote in the shadow of Brecht and in that of the existential project he detected in Genet (Saint Genet Comédien et martyr; Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr). Genet bore at least part of the Sartrean project well, and he must have been amused by the consecration (“saint”). According to one authority, Sartre was particularly attracted to what he saw as Genet’s theatrical “gesture” in the face of a hostile environment, the taking up of an attitude that aimed “at least for a moment to overturn the order of the world.”

For Lévy, Qu’est-ce que la littérature? announces a new understanding of the literary text that was far from the pieties of academic or institutional treatments: literature as graffiti art, or journalism. “Literature is like bananas — something to be eaten at once, in an instant — and tough luck on those who still entertain fantasies of the supposed ‘immortality’ of texts.” Read More:

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