Meet the Saint
Saint Genet : Actor and Martyr. By Jean-Paul Sartre. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. (W. H. Allen, 63s.)
Saint Genet is the Ulysses of post-war European literature. It stands on a remote pinnacle with Zhivago as the great odyssey of the misfit in search of essence, a monument to intelligence, lucidity, compassion and the critical spirit. Sartre is the Jew of our time, the thorn in the social flesh, a perpetual provocation to Aryans every- where, a man compelled more by reason than by instinct towards proletarians and lumpenprole- tarians of every kind, whether they be French workers, real Jews, Franz Fanon's 'dainties de la terre,' the victims of Budapest—or Genet. Saint Genet is a long book (originally intended as a brief introduction to Genet's work), a pillar of fire, neither biography nor literary criticism nor a work of philosophy. Sartre is never obscure; he becomes difficult to read only when his pattern of thought ramifies into an almost unbearable com- plexity, but the dedicated and patient wrestler will be rewarded : hell is an eternity of pleasure and cheap at 63s. Admittedly Mr. Frechtman's excellent translation post-dates the book's appear- ance in France by eleven years, but n'importe: ardently as the Jew embraces and chides the Thief on every page, it is not really of Genet that Sartre writes but of the human condition. And the human condition for Sartre (who makes no reference to himself) is, of course, Sartre. In this identification Louis XIV's arrogance is entirely absent; it is merely an existential inevitability.
There is the metamorphosis. The child Genet (he is ten) dies of shame and a hoodlum rises up in his place; the hoodlum will, be haunted by the child and will constantly reproduce the original metamorphosis in his secret ceremonies, in' his novels and plays. In Sartre's case, a bourgeois normalien dies of shame and a friend of the pro- letariat rises in his place; the new Sartre, taunted by the Communist Party he cannot bring himself to enter, will be haunted by the bourgeois, a ghost which in Les Mains Saks and Le Diable et le Bon Dku he strives to shake off, but to no avail. Genet's mother deserts him as her excrement, the social rejection is latent in the maternal rejection. But Sartre is not driven out and his social rejec- tion will be organic, self-imposed. Genet is cursed by his mother, Sartre by his mind. The child Genet steals secretly, almost unconsciously, be- cause he believes in society's ethics, the ethics of ownership; only what he does in the presence of adults is objectively real. An orphan, he steals as a relief from the anxiety of his solitude, and it is only when he is caught and told, 'You are a Thief,' that he learns and accepts this fact as representing his objective essence. This transition will determine his entire life.
The student Sartre believes himself to have rejected society's ethics, but the rebellion is an illusion, nihilistic and internal, an aspect of the higher intellectual conformism, the relief which the normaliens seek from their solitude. It is only later when his body, his person is caught by the throat, flung into uniform and projected through the phoney war into a German camp, into the France of Vichy, it is only then that the decent folk tell him, 'You are a Rebel.' Sartre's essence, like Genet's, is now objectified.
Genet will make the gestures (thefts) which lead him to prison; Sartre will write the books which are bound to earn him odium and isolation. While Genet remorselessly revenges himself on the decent folk who have depicted his final
destiny, Sartre continues to mock those who expect him to head repentently for the Academic. For both, alienation is the beginning of a dialec- tical process; Genet goes from one pimp to another, from one embrace to another, as Sartre's odyssey takes him from the Resistance to the Cold War to Stalinist camps to Hungary to Cuba, embracing and rejecting in turn, alternating be- tween poetic glorification, as Genet does, and corrosive lucidity. Hand in hand the Thief and the Jew spin from essence to existence and existence to essence.
Genet begins to write, conjuring up erotic visions, stimuli to masturbation, pimps and girl queens who people his cell. Later he learns his power as an artist, as an intermediary, and he learns the value of prose as communication, as recognition and reciprocity. Genet begins to write in prison, Sartre finds his maturity as a writer in the prison of occupied France. Genet writes The Condemned Man to taunt his fellow prisoners, Sartre composes The Flies to taunt both his gaolers, the authorities, and also his fellow-prisoners whom he despises scarcely less, the theatre-going public of Germany's Paris. Sartre's comment that Genet in his writing sought to attain the Positive beyond the Negative, Being beyond Nothingness, reminds us that he himself wrote Being and Nothingness while still in 'prison.'
Genet's talent as a writer is unique, Sartre's is not; it does not have to be. Genet's poetry com- mits murder, shows us disarmingly the real, then, unexpectedly, its de-realisation, and finally, agonisingly, the unreal as the gulf in which the real is swallowed up. Sartre in his turn writes to murder illusions. In Huis Clos, the characters are dead even before they take the stage; in Les Mains Sales, Hugo is first real as a political killer, ceases to be so, and re-emerges as the agent of a crime passionnel, mocking the false coherence we attach to our motivation. In Le Diable . . ., it is Tolstoyan quietism which is unmasked, the belief that violence is invariably to be avoided, when Heinrich tells Goetz: 'in one day of virtue you have caused more deaths than in twenty-five years of malice.' In Altona, the real, Nazism, is swallowed up in the unreality of crabs in an attic.
Genet writes frantically. There are long lapses when he loses interest. He is not concerned with finish, he skimps the ending and lets go when the criminal impulse is satisfied, when the orgasm is over. Sartre, on the other hand, who also writes frantically, finds it difficult to finish (try Critique de la Raison Dialectique), to satisfy his criminal impulse, because his murders originate in his mind, Genet's in his psycho-body. But in one sense—taking us back to the divergent qualities of their original metamorphoses—the writer Sartre is compelled to envy the writer Genet. For Genet writes not about thieves and inverts but as a thief and invert, never identifying him- self with the decent folk, still less with the public prosecutor. But Sartre bears a cross; in rebelling he did not and could not become the proletarian as Genet the thief, he could only cherish and champion the Other from which he is eternally separated by his bourgeois past and, as he once said, by an iron wall—the Party.
`They took a child and made a monster of itim for reasons of social utility.' By 'they,' Sartre means the decent folk, the bourgeoisie, the real
culprits. It is true, as he argues, that many criminals would be public prosecutors and vice- versa had the circumstances of their lives been different, and it is equally true that largely by luck have we escaped being what repels us. But can we be sure of the moral that Sartre draws from his depiction of Genet's evolution, namely that freedom alone can account for a person in his totality, and that genius is not a gift but rather the way out that one invents in desperate cases? It would seem that Genet was the creature of his metamorphosis and not its creator, even if he consciously decided to transform his curse into a mission. As for 'genius,' how many desperate cases inhabiting Genet's underworld could have managed this transformation by 'inventing' their own genius, had they wished to do so? Eleven years ago, Sartre was not yet prepared to elevate Marxism to the level of a philosophy and to relegate existentialism to the status of an 'ideology,' a mediary between the individual and society which would gradually contract and wither away as Marxism learned to extend its system of explanation from the general to the particular. He was, therefore, inclined to over- emphasise the factor of pure freedom, of individual self-determination, to load an explana- tion more relevant to his own life on to Genet's.
In the same way, the overtly Marxist element in Sartre's thesis raises more problems than it solves. Quoting Merleau-Ponty's dictum that 'every ,opponent is a traitor, but every traitor is only an opponent,' Sartre, with a final flourish, attempts to reincarnate Genet as the Bukharin of the bourgeoisie, a defeated opponent of bour- geois society as Bukharin was of Communist society, and therefore a 'traitor.' But the parallel fails. There are homosexual thieves in Russia, but they are not invited to the Kremlin as Genet, when pardoned by President Auriol, was invited to the Elysee; the literature of obscenity, how- ever impregnated with genius, is carefully shielded from the light of day in 'proletarian' societies. If we want to discover the entity with which the solitary, guilty Genet will on no account suffer himself to be integrated, the positive essence of which he has become the anti- thesis, then we must surely look beyond 'bourgeois society.'