Words on Homo Words: Jean Genet

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In honor of the Friday opening that other movie about Truman Capote, Infamous, starring a bevy of Hollywood greats (including Daniel Craig and Toby Jones, who share a steamy prison kiss), we’ve decided to dedicate this week to gay authors, stories, and other cerebral endeavors (hence our Morning Goods selection).

What better way to start off our week-long literary extravaganza than by concomitantly celebrating gay history month with a look at the French author, Jean Genet? One answer: none. While there are certainly plenty of other notable, historic gay writers, Genet’s work encompasses the radical, naughty, and lyrical elements we appreciate in fiction.

Born in Paris in 1910, the son of a young hooker who put him up for adoption, Genet entered an adversarial world in which his bastard status, his class, and his homosexuality all worked against him. Yet, by the end of his life he had gained international acclaim – not to mention notoriety – for his provocative poems, plays, and prose.

Though given what has been described as a nurturing home with a carpenter and his family, Genet found himself powerless against the allure of a criminal life, a life from which he drew as much eroticism as inspiration. It was during a prison stint that Genet wrote his first poem, “Le condamné à mort,” which our rudimentary French translates as “The Condemned To Death”.

From then on, Genet set out to forge a literary career, contacting the legendary novelist and filmmaker, Jean Cocteau for a little occupational assistance. Cocteau and his famous friends, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, would become life-long champions, even lending their influence to help Genet avoid life imprisonment for a growing list of crimes.

While the French government may have once known him as a petty thief, Genet’s name would soon be known the world over as one of the most unapologetic, stimulating, and incendiary gay writers in history. By 1949, he had written five novels, among them: Our Lady of the Flowers, The Thief’s Journal, and The Miracle of The Rose. During the 1950s and 60s, as his career flourished in France, Americans were denied his sexual explicit works. Still, he managed to find a following in The States, most notably with The Black Panthers who, despite Genet’s homosexuality, were so impressed by his examinations of social marginalization, invited him to the US as an inspiration to their liberation movement.

During this period, Genet became a fierce political activist, calling for the end of racism, sexism, and homophobia. His resolute sense of social justice became a staple of his work and life until his death in Paris in 1986.

After the jump, we’ve provided an excerpt from The Thief’s Journal: Genet’s 1949 novel based on his experiences as a vagabond bandit prostitute in Europe. These first few pages offer an unparalleled view into the mind of a man for whom criminality could not be estranged from the erotic. Do yourself a favor and give it a little read.

Excerpt from The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet, 1949:
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Convicts’ garb is striped pink and white. Though it was at my heart’s bidding that I chose the universe wherein I delight, I at least have the power of finding therein the many meanings I wish to find: there is a close relationship between flowers and convicts. The fragility and delicacy of the former are of the same nature as the brutal insensitivity off the latter. Should I have to portray a convict – or a criminal – I shall so bedeck him with flowers that, as he disappears beneath them, he will himself become a flower, a gigantic and new one. Toward what is known as evil, I loving pursued an adventure which led me to prison. Though they may not always be handsome, men doomed to evil possess the manly virtues.

genet_tillman.jpg Of their own volition, or owing to an accident which has ben chosen for them, they plunge lucidly and without complaining into a reproachful, ignominious element, like that in which love, if it is profound, hurls human beings. Erotic play discloses a nameless world which is revealed by the nocturnal language of lovers. Such language is not written down. It is whispered into the ear at night in a hoarse voice. At dawn it is forgotten. Repudiating the virtues of your world, criminals hopelessly agree to organize a forbidden universe. They agree to live in it. The air there is nauseating: they can breath it. But – criminals are remote from you – as in love, they turn away and turn me away from the world and its laws. Their smells of sweat, sperm, and blood. In short, to my body and my thirsty soul it offers devotion. It was because their world contains these erotic conditions that I was bent on evil. My adventures, never governed by rebellion or a feeling of injustice, will be merely one long mating, burdened, and complicated by a heavy, strange, erotic ceremonial (figurative ceremonies leading to jail and anticipating it). Though it be the sanction, in my eyes the justification too of the foulest crime, it will be the sign of the most utter degradation. That ultimate point to which the censure of men leads was to appear to me the ideal place for the purest, that is, the most turbid amatory harmony, where illustrious ash-weddings are celebrated. Desiring to hymn them I use what is offered me by the form of the most exquisite natural sensibility, which is already aroused by the garb of convicts. The material evokes, both by its colors and roughness, certain flowers whose petals are slightly fuzzy, which detail is sufficient for me to associate the idea of strength and shame with what is most naturally precious and fragile. This association, which tells me things about myself, would not suggest itself to another mind; mine cannot avoid it. Thus I offered my tenderness to the convicts; I wanted to call them by charming names, to designate their crimes with, for modesty’s sake, the subtlest metaphor (beneath which veil I would not have been unaware of the murderer’s rich muscularity, of the violence of his sexual organ).

Images: Walter Preiffer, Untitled (Metro-color 2), 2004.
Wolfgang Tillmans, Four Boots, 1992.