'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

10 October 2010

Jean Genet

The Homosexual Saint Genet
'I give the name violence to a boldness lying idle and enamoured of danger.'

Jean Genet was born on December 19, 1910, the illegitimate son of a Parisian prostitute, and orphaned seven months later. At the age of ten, he was accused of stealing. Although innocent but having been described as a thief, the young boy resolved to be a thief. "Thus," wrote Genet, "I decisively repudiated a world that had repudiated me." At the age of thirteen, after being a ward of the state, he began a life of crime and adventure. From  15 to 18 Genet was in the Mettray penitentiary, a place of hard labour, where a code of love, honour, gesture and justice was enforced by the inmates, and where his sexual awakening occurred. He then joined the French Foreign Legion in Syria. He deserted and spent more periods in prison living by petty theft, begging, and homosexual prostitution. By the age of 23, Genet was living in Spain, sleeping with a one-armed pimp, lice-ridden and begging - a period which became the basis for The Thief's Journal, his record of a journey, in which no aspect of suffering, sordidness, and degradation was spared him.
Between 1930 and 1940, he wandered throughout Europe and he eventually, he found himself in Hitler's Germany where he felt strangely out of place. "I had a feeling of being in a camp of organized bandits. This is a nation of thieves, I felt. If I steal here, I accomplish no special act that could help me to realize myself. I merely obey the habitual order of things. I do not destroy it."
At age 32, while in prison, he started writing his first manuscript, Our Lady of the Flowers. It was discovered and destroyed. Genet rewrote it from memory. This handwritten manuscript was smuggled out of his cell and eventually came to the attention of Cocteau and Sartre, who lobbied vigorously for a pardon from a life-sentence. More than forty intellectuals and artists petitioned the French government on Genet's behalf. Ignoring traditional plot and psychology, Genet's work relies heavily on ritual, transformation, illusion and interchangeable identities. The homosexuals, prostitutes, thieves and outcasts are trapped in self-destructive circles. They express the despair and loneliness of a man caught in a maze of mirrors, trapped by an endless progression of images that are, in reality, merely his own distorted reflection. Genet's stature as an original and important writer was cemented with Sartre's study of him in the book 'Saint Genet'

After five novels, and then silence for several years, Genet re-emerged as a playwright. He wrote a number of theatrical pieces which further established his success, beginning with the production of The Maids, and followed by the other classic plays: The Blacks, The Balcony, and The Screens. Genet, believed the theatre should be an incendiary event, and was precise about how his works should be produced.
Genet wrote of the gay world, without apology or explanation, revealing beauty in the harsh world in which his characters lived loved and died. He  deeply felt a sense of solidarity with thieves, and society's dispossessed. In later life, Genet championed the causes of the Black Panthers in the United States and Palestinian soldiers in Jordan and Lebanon. His final work, Prisoner of Love, is a record of his years spent with these two groups. He died death on April 15th 1986.
'But now I am afraid. The signs pursue me and I pursue them patiently. They are bent on destroying me. Didn't I see, on my way to court, seven sailors on the terrace of a cafe, questioning the stars through seven mugs of light beer as they sat around a table that perhaps turned; then, a messenger boy on a bicycle who was carrying a message from god to god, holding between his teeth, by the metal handle, a round, lighted lantern, the flame of which, as it reddened his face, also heated it? So pure a marvel that he was unaware of being a marvel. Circles and globes haunt me: oranges, Japanese billiard balls, Venetian lanterns, jugglers' hoops, the round ball of the goalkeeper who wears a jersey. I shall have to establish, to regulate, a whole internal astronomy.'     --from 'Our Lady of the Flowers'
Un Chant d'Amour
Written and directed by Jean Genet in 1950, the short (28 minutes) film is the only example of Genet's own ideas put into images. This  'film poem' is an avant -garde erotic work and its lyrical evocation of Gay passion and romance is regarded as one of the most intensely physical films made. It is now available on DVD and is said to be the most famous gay short film in European history.
Approaching a prison, a warder's eye is caught by the strange sight of a bouquet of blossom being repeatedly swung from one barred cell window to another, each time failing to be grasped by an emerging hand. He goes to investigate, and peeping into a series of cells sees in each one a male prisoner masturbating. The warder's excited eye fixed on the mute dialogue between an agitated North African prisoner and his neighbour, a young, disinterested, tattooed convict.  They communicate via the constraining cell wall, which in itself becomes the object of desire, tattooed and tearful, to be caressed, kissed, punched and pierced. The two men erotically exchange cigarette smoke through a straw in a hole in the wall. This sight fires the warder's chiaroscuro-lit fantasies of fucking another man, signalled by a hand reaching for a swinging blossom. Disturbed, the warder enters the older prisoner's cell and brutally thrashes him, initiating the prisoner's own daydream of a woodland romance with the young convict, who holds blossom in front of his fly. The warder leaves the cell, but returns to insert his gun into the mouth of the older prisoner. The warder leaves the prison, but looking back over his shoulder once again, sees the relentlessly swinging bouquet of blossom. He walks away and so doesn't see that the flowers are finally caught.

'Genet's imagination is essentialist, as is his homosexuality. In real life, he seeks the Seaman in every sailor, the Eternal in every pimp. In his reverie he bends his mind to justifying his quest. He generates each of his characters out of a higher Essence; he reduces the episode to being merely the manifest illustration of an eternal truth.'
Genet died in a hotel room of the same working class district in Paris where he'd been abandoned 75 years earlier. He is buried in Morocco.
"The only criterion of an act is its elegance."

 His Major Works


Deathwatch (Haute surveillance) 1944

The Maids (Les Bonnes) 1946

Splendids 1948

The Balcony (Le Balcon) 1955

The Blacks (Les Nègres) 1955

Her (Elle) 1955

The Screens (Les Paravents) 1956-61

Novels and Autobiography

Our Lady of the Flowers (Notre Dame des Fleurs) 1942

The Miracle of the Rose (Miracle de la Rose) 1946

Funeral Rites (Pompes Funèbres) 1947

Querelle of Brest (Querelle de Brest) 1947

The Thiefs Journal (Journal du voleur) 1949

Prisoner of Love (Un Captif Amoureux) 1986


The Man Sentenced to Death (Le Condamné à Mort) 1942

Funeral March (Marche Funebre) 1945

The Galley (La Galere 1945

A Song of Love (Un Chant dAmour)1946

The Fisherman of the Suquet (Le Pecheur du Suquet) 1948

The Parade (La Parade) 1948

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