genet’s existence and essence

Complexity of atmosphere and motive. Are morality and aesthetics mutually exclusive? In the case of Jean Genet, does eroticizing the victims, often his own lovers, wipe the slate clean, peeling away the layers of Judeo-Chrisitian morality?

Jean Genet always put to the test the vaunted tolerance and humane flexibility of contemporary society. “All men and women are brothers and sisters ” is our fervent carol, but how well does it stand up to a little insolence, a smashing of the structural barriers, a little exclusion, and some enigmatic mumbo-jumbo? It is humiliating to find one’s facade of goodwill so thin.

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At the end of a Genet play one has a most curious sensation while going through the conventional courtesies: the bows of the performers seem insulting; the applause of the audience sounds defensive, there is no cordiality about it- we were told we could be had, and we were had. Because as it turns out the entire jerry-rigged structure of Judeo-Christianity has been ginned up and we have a major hangover now being used against us.

There was a time when Genet was quite the lion of the Paris salons and hostesses would be wont to put a piece of silver or some charming bric-a-brac temptingly within his reach: there was always the chance of enjoying the glory of being robbed by so distinguished a guest. Such a man must have had a particular understanding of what it means to let bygones be bygones, for he was an outsider and a marginal, one of whom others have sat in judgement of. But, it is remarkable how clean of heart one must be to come safely within the spell of the unrepentent sinner….

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Genet freely described his bond with the Palestinians as an “irrational affinity,” resting “on an emotional—perhaps intuitive, sensual—attraction; I am French, but I defend the Palestinians wholeheartedly and automatically. They are in the right because I love them.” ….Genet described himself as “enthralled” by the Palestinian hijacking of civilian airliners to Jordan in August and (“Black”) September, 1970; a month later, he was with the fedayeen in northern Jordan, at the invitation of Yasir Arafat. The appeal of armed youths bordered on the erotic:

The first two fedayeen were so handsome I was surprised at myself for not feeling any desire for them. And it was the same the more Palestinian soldiers I met, decked with guns, in leopard-spotted uniforms and red berets tilted over their eyes, each not merely a transfiguration but also a materialization of my fantasies.( Martin Kramer )

---The Palestinians who wish for Israel's destruction as they battle the Bedouin troops of Jordan in 1971 operate in an ideological no-man's land somewhere between Das Kapital and The Koran, "with God always bumping into the domed forehead of Marx, who denied him" . Genet's Palestinians, wary of Islamic fundamentalism, resent the wealthy Palestinian aristocratic families who, secured by claims of descent from the prophet, sustain the viability of the movement. Conversely, familiar historical players whom Genet meets are humanized by his novelist's eye for detail. His closest confidantes, the otherwise anonymous characters named Hamza and Mubarak, are eroticized as icons. --- Read More: image:

But Genet’s attraction to the Palestinian cause went beyond mere solidarity with an oppressed people. What intrigued him about the Palestinians concerned their construction of a resilient and resistant identity. In Prisoner of Love, Genet notes that for the Palestinian resistance fighters, being Palestinian came before the religious identity of Christian or Muslim. To be Palestinian in the 1970s was to question the overall structure and institutional base of society as a whole, to make alliances with all those in the world attempting to resist oppression of all kinds and to fight from exile for a land that would most likely never be seen. It was this understanding of the power behind the ability to produce resistant identities that sparked Genet’s other love affair with The Black Panther Party….

---For Genet, Jews represented the living affirmation of morality over aestheticism. He thought himself covered by what he called a “thick black layer of Judaeo-Christian morality,” which he longed to strip away. The Palestinian struggle was very much his struggle precisely because Zionism, along with imperialism, were “the last incarnations of Judeo-Christian morality, which is itself the master of terms.” --- Read More:

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…At Sunday’s panel discussion on the play someone from the audience asked if anyone thought it possible for us to be self-creative, to forge an identity based on race or other categories that are defined not by an outward imposition, but on our own terms. For me, this is precisely what Genet captures in his writing on the Black Panthers, and especially in his description of their adoption of slogans such as “Black is Beautiful.”

The Panthers chose not to stop short by simply analyzing ‘the powers that be.’ According to Genet, for the Panthers it was equally important to believe that another world was possible, a world where we would not limit our political action to a defense of who we are, but rather, where we would invest in attempts to actualize who we want to become. On the effects of the Panther era, Genet writes, “The Blacks were no longer seen as submissive people whose rights had to be defended for them, but determined fighters, impulsive and unpredictable but ready to fight to the death for a movement that was part of the struggle of their race all over the world.”…

---Blurring the lines that should show where the Palestinians end and he begins, the poet merges with his subjects in a feat of empathy and self-recognition few Western travel writers have ever achieved. Borders and frontiers pose an existential challenge, not a cultural one: A border is where human personality expresses itself most fully, whether in harmony or in contradiction with itself. If I'd had to be someone other than myself - a difficult choice - I'd have been a native of Alsace-Lorraine. It's quite different from being German or French. Whatever they may say, anyone approaching a frontier stops being a Jacobin and becomes a Machiavelli. It might be a good thing to extend border areas indefinitely - without of course, destroying the centres, since it's they that make the borders possible. (170)---Read More: image:

…Through such an analysis, Genet avoided an essentialist understanding of race and national identity. It was just such a stance that allowed him to say, “The Day the Palestinians become institutionalized, I will no longer be by their side.” Today, the apparatus of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) no longer reaches out in an attempt to question society from the bottom up, rather, it seeks to be that “institutionalized” apparatus that Genet had so feared.

Beyond the immense corruption within the PLO, it has also ceased to be that organization that once fought for autonomy and a better global society alongside thousands of other marginalized peoples throughout the world. It seems evident that the current structures of power, including the Israeli imposition of daily desperation upon Palestinian life, have birthed a PLO that lacks the revolutionary fervor that once attempted to question the whole of society and produce a necessarily Palestinian identity that stood for something greater than another nation-state ready to take its place beside 200 other pawns at the United Nations, while today’s political game is being played across town at the IMF, World Bank and WTO….

---Genet clings to his nihilism not because he rejects God so much as he finds the world more interesting without Him. Challenged repeatedly by the Palestinians to profess his religion, he answers: I didn't believe in God. The idea of chance, a random combination of facts - a trick, even, of events, stars and beings owing their existence to themselves - such an idea seemed to me more pleasing and amusing than the idea of One God. The weight of religion crushes; chance rings lightness and laughter.--- Read More: image:

…The cause of the Palestinian people is today more just than ever. But today we must understand that what the Palestinian people have come to symbolize is the desperation of an entire generation of humanity, who through policies of neoliberal globalization has been exiled from their homes and from their ability to make and remake themselves.

We must understand, as Genet did in the past, that today when we say, “Palestine must exist!” we are really saying, “Another world must exist!” Read More:


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Readers might be surprised by the prevailing defeatism Genet detects even among the movement’s martyrs. Twenty years later, his conclusions find their parallels in today’s headlines. “You have to understand that the people you call terrorists know without needing to be told that they, their persons and their ideas, will only be brief flashes against a world wrapped up in its own smartness” .

Reliant on Francophone guides, Genet manages to forge meaningful connections with almost inexplicable ease, and even religious debates provide an inspiring cultural dissonance. Barely clinging to his grip on his professed atheism, Genet frequently resorts to patterns of pagan imagery and grotesque wartime anecdotes that resonate like fables. He informs us that the Palestinian operative Abu Omar was once Henry Kissinger’s pupil at Stanford University. He describes the nightmares of a Jordanian missionary nun who has been forbidden from praying. In Karachi, Genet has an epiphany when he sees the “seamless robe of Christ” in a street vendor’s unfurling sari. In one of the book’s most vivid episodes, in lush homoerotic prose that recalls the foggy seaport of Brest in Querelle, Genet describes Israeli assassins infiltrating PLO headquarters disguised as gay hippies.

After dark two English speaking hippies with fair curly hair appeared with their arms round one another’s necks, laughing and exchanging kisses. They staggered up to the two guards on duty at the foot of Kamal Udwan’s stairs. The guards shouted insults at the two shocking queers, who promptly showed the excellence of their training by whipping out revolvers, rushing up the stairs and killing Kamal.

Presence and re-presentation, appearance and disappearance, these are the parameters of Genet’s morality. He describes suicide bombing as an aesthetic choice. “Would Hamlet have felt the delicious fascination of suicide if he hadn’t an audience, and lines to speak?” . So it’s not surprising when he compares the decision of suicide bombers to “cross over,” with the joy felt by the transsexual who has opted for a sex-change operation. And he sets this metaphor to the soundtrack of Mozart’s Requiem:

Once the decision is made he is filled with joy at the thought of his new sex… Thanks to joy in death or in the new, despite bereavement, and in contrast to ordinary life, all moralities had broken down. What prevailed was the joy of the transsexual, of the Requiem, of the kamikaze. Of the hero.  …

…Existence precedes essence. Yet essence is often all we live by. One of Genet’s recurring concerns is that existence hinges on the impossibility of a movement (or of a writer or of a self) preventing its own eclipse:

The word [eclipse] also summons up the old image – Chinese, Indian, Arab, Iranian, Japanese – of a dragon swallowing the sun, which is eclipsed by the moon. In French the reflexive verb s’eclipser, literally, to eclipse oneself, hovers between the usual meaning, to slip away, escape, and the figurative connotation, to disappear because of the brightness of another. Even obsession will never fix this word – it’s always giving people the slip.  Read More:

…Martin Kramer:Genet once called Lawrence of Arabia an imposter, whose supposed friendship toward the Arabs concealed his function as an agent of Western imperialism. But Genet, “prisoner of love,” was perhaps the more insidious imposter: an agent of Western nihilism, urging freedom for the unfree, provided they forever remain prisoners of hate.

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