Jean Genet

A study of Genet's imagery, the visual transpositions of inner mental states and reveal facets of the characters�

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Jean Genet

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Jean Genet By BETTINA LIEBOWITZ KNAPP Hunter College of the City Unioersity of New York

Twayne Publishers, Inc.


New York


A Survey of the W orld~s Literature Sylvia E. Bowman, Indiana University GENERAL EDITOR

FRANCE Maxwell A. Smith, Guerry Professor of French, Emeritus 'The University of Chattanooga Visiting Professor in Modem Languages The Florida State University EDITOR

Jean Genet

(TWAS 44)

TWAYNE'S \VORLD AUTHORS SERIES (TWAS) The purpose of TWAS is to survey the 11Ulior writers -novelists, dramatists, historians, poets, philosophers, and critics-of the nations of the world. Among the national literatures covered are those of Australia, Canada, China, Eastern Europe, France, Germany, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Latin America, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, Scandinavia, Spain, and the African nations, as well as Hebrew, Yiddish, and Latin Classical literatures. This survey is complemented by Twayne's United States Authors Series and English Authors Series. The intent of each volume in these series is to present a critical analytical study of the works of the writer; to include biographical and historical material that may be necessary for understanding, app,.eciation, and critical appraisal of the writer; and to present all material in clear, concise English-but not to vitiate the scholarly content of the work by doing so.

Copyright © 1968, by Twayne Publishers, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 68-24310

To My Husband




EADING Jean Genet's works is like being thrust into a labyrinth or like seeking a footing on quicksand. His characters are complex, ambiguous, and continually dissolving into one another. At times they are identifiable human beings; at others, they are grotesque shadows. Events are described elusively, the real and the illusory overlapping each other. These, together with the effulgent sensuality of Genet's prose, the hypnotic cadences of his sentences, and the violence of his metaphors involve the reader emotionally and viscerally, but intellectually or rationally leave him struggling. Genet's characters and the events in which they participate have emotionally human, rational, and recognizable aspects. This is especially the case when they are reRections of Genet's actual life-experience. A study of these aspects as well as a literary analysis of his writings will be undertaken in this volume. But there is another quality present in Genet's works which is impersonal, inhuman, and mysterious. It is this side of his creative writings, expressions, and elaborations of the deepest layers within him, which I also tried to fathom. Genet's works themselves guided me. He wrote that the author's role is «to point out the universal in a specific phenomenon." There, it seemed to me, lay the key: to interpret and analyze the myths, images, symbols, visions, rituals, dreams, and motifs which Genet himself recounted in his works, from a broad and universal point of view as well as from a specific and personal standpoint. In Genet's very first novel, Our Lady of the Roses, I noticed, for example, its mythlike aspects: how the ancient Medea-like female figure emerged in her most vicious form, as a son killer, and how her dread presence clothed the entire atmosphere with hate. In the play The Blacks, this same mythical female force was put to positive use, to show the victory of a matriarchal society over a patriarchal one. In the novel Quarrel of Brest, I

Preface wondered why and how a murderer was reliving the ancient myth of sin, sacrifice, and resurrection. I discovered that this myth, as experienced by Genet's hero, revealed, symbolically speaking, his inner growth, his emotional liberation from his environment and from his anxieties; and strangely enough, since Genet's heroes are "extensions" of himself, it reHected a literary change in the author's works. It was after the completion of Quarrel of Brest that Genet began writing plays". A study of Genet's imagery, which is an intrinsic part of his work, was also undertaken in an effort to determine why, for example, images such as glass, windows (Our Lady of the Flowers), b,alconies ( The Balcony), screens ( The Screens), fountains, ships, and birds (Miracle of the Rose), are so frequentl( used. Studied in context, these images become visual transpositions of inner mental states and reveal facets of the characters' personalities and philosophies which might otherwise have remained incomprehensible. The types of people Genet described in his works, the acts and events recounted, are treated symbolically and in their broad sense. The criminal, for example, is understood by Genet as being a man of action; the crime, as an act. In this connection, Adam comes to mind. In that he rebelled against God, he committed a negative act; in that he brought man the fruit of knowledge, his act was a positive one. Genet's heroes, in one respect or another, follow this same pattern. The murderer Lefranc ( Deathwatch), comparable to Cain in certain respects, is not killed, nor is his Biblical counterpart. Why? Symbolically speaking, the criminal serves two functions in society: the negative one of destroying established traditions and laws; the positive one of being a virulent force which provides society with the stimulation and energy necessary to renew and reactivate what might otherwise stagnate. Visions also figure in Genet's works. The narrator's vision, for example, in the Miracle of the Rose, provokes a religious experience which results in his gaining new sight or expanded consciousness. Upon his return to the world of reality, the narrator realizes that his future lies not in an outward search, but rather in an inward one: that the stuff from which his creative works would be molded henceforth, would be carved out of himself. Prayers, incantations, worship of the phallus as rituals which provoke mystic experiences are replete in Genet's works. To these rituals he adds others which serve divinity: the cult of the assassin from which a divinely inspired act results; prostitution,


a form of phallic worship; and war, the criminal act par excellence. A study of these rituals and the mystical experiences which ensue enabled me to understand why certain of Genet's heroes longed to lose whatever identity they had and be absorbed into the collective, the same feeling which overcomes a parishioner in a house of worship. Dreams described in Genet's works are also analyzed in order to delve more deeply into the meaning of the works under consideration. One of the most significant dreams is recounted in the Miracle of the Rose. The narratOl' dreams that he is on a ship, that he is climbing the cross-shaped mast, that he slips and falls into the arms of the captain. Such a dream, in brief, expresses a veritable imitatio Christi, the narrator's overly spiritual attitude which is impossible for a human to bear. The narrator, therefore, falls from the mast indicating that he has dropped into the opposite extreme-an overly instinctual attitude. Such conflicts (as expressed through varying altitudes) are a pictorial indication of an abstract inner imbalance experienced by the dreamer. He is, so to speak, poles apart from himself. If he does not want to be forever juggled from one point of view to another, if he wants to find his way in life, the dream indicates that he will have to take stock of himself, which he does in the course of the narrative. The feeling of duality and fragmentation in all of Genet's protagonists and by extension in the author himself, is intensified by their longing for the opposite: unity, wholeness, the universal -God. Genet's works embrace every religion from the most ancient to the most modern. He sees God in every phase of existence. Not the limited God, however, worshiped by those adhering to organized religions, but an infinite, transpersonal deity imbedded in all regions of the cosmos. Genet's extreme involvement with God is not only revealed through the shattering mystical experiences in the Miracle of the Rose and in Quarrel of Brest, but is also apparent in what he calls his "pilgrimage," which he recounts in The Thiefs Journal. and in his nature descriptions in which God is revealed in his infinite manifestations. Genet's prose is poetry. Its musicality, its inner rhythms and cadences, spontaneous, but at times, paradoxically enough, studied, are in many ways reminiscent of the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The visual images so important to Genet in bringing forth his feelings, sometimes have the sculptural effects and color contents of the poems of Theophile Gautier. The violent and the sardonic language reveal affinities with Rimbaud and Lautreamont; the sensuality, with Baudelaire.


To compare Genet's novels to those of his predecessors or even to those of his contemporaries is indeed a difficult task. Genet's early works are not the outgrowth of any intellectual exercise. He is not concerned with the intricacies of the novel form. He did not, therefore, follow the techniques of Balzac or Stendhal, or even Zola or Flau bert. Genet does not, for example, analyze character in the traditional manner; he does not try to build up climaxes or suspense; his descriptions are not the objective listings of everything he sees about him; he does not purposefully seek to create atmo~phere to help fill in the rough edges Qf his novel. Genet's novels cannot be compared to the studied works of the modern anti-novelists such as Alain Robbe-GriIlet, M·ichel Butor, and Nathalie Sarraute. By means of the latters' sharply tuned antennae, vehicles and prolongations of their intellectuality, they seek to delve into the various layers of man's intellectual and psychic world. They go about their difficult task with mathematical precision, with scientific assurance, and with cerebral clarity; trying all the while, as hard as they can to know man plain. By way of contrast, Genet's novels are unstudied. They do not try to add to the value of the novel form, nor do they essay to change past frameworks. Though one may see traces of certain literary techniques, such as James Joyce's stream of consciousness and Marcel Proust's involuntary memory, these devices are treated by Genet in his own personal way. He seems, almost naturally, to glide into past situations or into tangents; each time his body flow dictates the way. Genet's plays, with their mythlike qualities, their jarring symbols, the interplay of antithetical color tones, are somewhat reminiscent of Racine's dramas; of Claudel's because of their brutality and their perverse nature; of Beckett's because of their solitude and metaphysical anguish; of PirandelIo's because of the double reality (illusion and reality) they forever dramatize. Despite these influences, Genet's writings stand alone. They are like solitary blocks of red rock in a field of green grass. They are hard, like roughhewn stone; they are shorn of all extra growth; they are red because they have been drawn from blood. They should be experienced by the reader as living and dynamic forces. This book will be divided into two parts: Part I will study Genet's novels; Part II his theater. I should like to thank Roger Blin who, on that day at Villefranche-sur-mer, opened my eyes to Genet.


My gratitude goes to Dr. Edward Edinger for his understanding, his help, and his knowledge of Jungian psychology. To George Chimes I extend my appreciation for his illuminating views on art, on Egyptian and Greek religions, and for his warm friendship. To Professors Rene and Sidonia Taupin and Alba della Fazia Amoia, I offer my deepest appreciation for their guidance, their encouragement, and the very meaningful nature of our amitie. I am also grateful to another dear friend, Mrs. Estelle Weinrib, for having read my manuscript. My thanks to Professors Maxwell Smith and Sylvia Bowman for their helpful suggestions and kind consideration. I should like to express my appreciation to Bantam Books, George Braziller, Inc., and Grove Press for having permitted me to use Mr. Bernard Frechtman's translations of Jean Genet's works; and to Gallimard for permission to quote from works not yet translated. Most of all, I thank my husband, Russell S. Knapp, for his extreme patience and the depth of his understanding, for his continuously positive attitude during moments of stress; my parents, Mr. David Liebowitz and Mrs. Emily Gresser Liebowitz, for their guidance throughout the years; and Fate, for having permitted me the joys of family life. BETTINA LIEBOWITZ KNAPP

Hunter College of the City University of New York

CONTENTS Preface Chronology Part I The Novel


1. Genet's Life


2. Our Lady of the Flowers


3. The Miracle of the Rose


4. Funeral Rites


5. Quarrel of Brest


Part II The Theater


6. A Theater of Symbols


7. Deathwatch


8. The Maids


9. The Balcony


10. The Blacks


11. The Screens


12. Conclusion


Notes and References


Selected Bibliography




Chronology 1910 Jean Genet born in Paris, December 19. Becomes a ward of the National Foundling Society. Lives in the Morvan region of France with foster parents. 1925 Sent to Mettray Reformatory. 1926 Joins the Foreign Legion and deserts. 1932-1940 Travels through Spain, Italy, Albania, Yugoslavia, Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Belgium, France. 1942 Fresnes Prison. Writes Our Lady of the Flowers. 1943 La Sante and Tourelles prisons. Writes Miracle of the Rose. 1944 Publication of Our Lady of the Flowers. 1946 Publication of Miracle of the Rose. 1947 Publication of Funeral Rites and Quarrel of Brest. Production of The Maids. 1948 Publication of The Thiel's Journal. Sentenced to life imprisonment. Released on presidential pardon. 1949 Production of Deathwatch. Publication of