The Crime of Jean Genet

Dominique Eddé

Illustration by Andrea Popyordanova

He gave me the feeling of a frozen fire. His gestures were as calculated, precise and full of meaning as his words. He would switch from action to stillness in such a composed, agile way that still today the two overlay each other in my memory. I can see his hand, raised slightly—the Gitane held shakily between his index and middle fingers, smoke floating over his long, tobacco-stained nails—I see it glide, barely moving, without the slightest tremor as it brings the cigarette to his lips, then either returning to its weightless state or settling on a knee to sleep there, like moss on a stone. There was such a mixture of authority and passivity, lethargy and resolve that it was impossible to relax while looking at him. Everything was so controlled, so slow on the one hand, so rapid on the other. Never a sudden start, nor any sudden braking. But always vigilant, ready to fire. Genet’s movements mimicked the movement of time accumulating rather than passing. This created a sort of closed, musty atmosphere, which evoked the marriage of a death and a rose. His two favourite flowers.

The shadow on his face, all the shadow, was concentrated in one place, beneath his eyebrows. His eyes with their almost lashless lids were two little pools of blue. A blue flecked with white and bronze. His intense, direct gaze came from so far away that it had no surface. Unyielding. Hot and cold. Good and evil. Free to do anything, including to turn his back on someone facing him. In his gaze, Genet had the same capacity for slowness—for emphatic hesitation—as in his speech. It was never a sign of weakness, it was his wild side—he prowled round the territory before pouncing. It was also his love of theatre: the pleasure of toying with the curiosity or fear he aroused. Lulls amused him. But they were more than that. Silence, for him, was an opportunity to apply pressure and to create. His power and presence intensified when he fell silent. During those moments, his eyes took over from his voice, fixing upon his interlocutor or on a particular point in space, and holding the phrase in the way a note is held and extended on a piano. As for his sadness, no matter how he tried to cloak it, to convert it into the most neutral gravitas, it would still rise to the surface, even in his infallible malice. Then his gaze was unquestionably at its most powerful; the combination of the two was its essence.

There were no colours in his voice, or, rather, there was only one. Its sound was short, electric, metallic. It was not a resonant voice, but all the same, it was captivating. I can still hear it, half-playful, half-witch, with a screeching caused by the friction between the child and the monster. He enunciated and punctuated intensively, rattling out the syllables, presenting the phrase fully formed, like a diktat, delivered with amused vengeance. Nothing he said—neither the dazzling nor the outrageous remarks—was the result of chance or inadvertence. He pulled apart the absurd in the same way as reality. Or, rather, for the absurd to have meaning in his eyes, it had to be the result of a trap, a farce, a set-up—ideally of his own devising. He had no interest in the inconceivable. He mastered speech and silence to an equal degree, drawing on both to make himself heard. He gave little performances. Formidable mixtures of irony and precision, of calm and impudence. He was not intoxicated by the speed of his thoughts, but he savoured without turning a hair the bewilderment of his interlocutor. He took hold of his listener, he took control. And he who hated orders forced himself into an absolute, impenetrable, all-powerful solitude in order to issue his own. He was, in a sense, the anti-terrorist of our age. He did not call God as his witness but as his enemy, fighting him, setting himself against him, dreaming of seeing him die. Because, before being men, were not his worst enemies—whites, the rich, the custodians of society—first and foremost the vile progeny of God the Father? They who would never know the enviable tragedy of shame transformed into a bastard’s pride. Catholicism is everywhere in his work. It is the central motif, without which the whole canvas would disintegrate. Its vestments, rites, angels and archangels, its bells, censers, tabernacles and its Jesuses—Genet robbed the church and its ornaments in order to commit his parricide. He created and exalted a new god out of the ashes of the first: the murderous lover, the orphan Christ, sentenced to death and crowned with ‘rose thorns.'

God—the word god—was only used by Genet if he was ridiculing it or undermining its meaning. He was constantly luring it over to his side, acclaiming it, beguiling it, paganizing it, making it into ‘a sky which is not a ceiling.’1 His God carried ballast. He could play with him, kill him slowly, then revive him, blowing on the embers. However, he could only overcome and kill his father—who, unlike God, had the misfortune of actually existing—by denying him utterly. By erasing him. God is the only father to be found in Genet’s works. There is not the shadow of any other father, anywhere. Neither in his novels nor in his plays. There is no more a genitor to be found than there is solid ground beneath the foot of a tightrope-walker. This strict absence, which critics, surprisingly, have not picked up on, is forever coupled with a transfer which is both abstract and relentless. Driven out, the father finds his place beyond the ‘ego,’ outside. He has become order, the state, society, the world’s police. The West. The power of the whites. Colonisers. The law. Let us recall incidentally that when Genet, at seven months old, was entrusted to the care of the state, it was written down in black and white that from then on the state would hold ‘full rights of paternal authority’ over him. The adolescent Jean Genet retaliated against this fate through a very simple equation, with immeasurable consequences: he decided that ‘lawless’ = ‘fatherless,’ with no exceptions. Better: in a role reversal of utter audacity, he decided that as it came to one against all, if he was freed from the superego, he would be the superego.

And when one of his characters dared to break this rule, this is how he would go about shutting them up:

VILLAGE:  My father once told me . . .
ARCHIBALD (interrupting him):  Your father? Sir, don’t use that word again! There was a shade of tenderness in your voice as you uttered it.
VILLAGE:  And what do you suggest I call the male who knocked up the negress who gave birth to me?
ARCHIBALD:  Dammit, do the best you can. Invent—if not words, then phrases that cut you off rather than bind you [ . . . ]
VILLAGE:  What can I substitute for the word father?
ARCHIBALD:  Your circumlocution is quite satisfactory.2

All of his characters—louts, sailors, pimps, murderers, convicts, whites, blacks, or Arabs, militiamen or légionnaires, soldiers or judges—were, without exception, only ever the sons of their mothers. And even then, only here and there, because these women turn up very rarely, they are barely even mentioned. They appear fleetingly and are downtrodden, when not hysterics or madams. Most of the time they are maids. Like Eugénie Régnier, Genet’s foster mother, was before her marriage and, above all, like Camille Genet, his birth mother, about whom we know almost nothing other than that she was unmarried and a femme de chambre. In fact, it is possible that the continuous inversion of the roles of the two sisters in The Maids (1946) is in part a result of the tension, indeed the extreme psychological difficulty, that Genet experienced when writing characters so closely associated with his secret self. Solange and Claire move towards crime with hesitant, contradictory, incomplete steps. They never stop shedding their skins; they almost never are who they are. Genet sends them from one persona to another with the skill and urgency of a juggler with balls of fire in his hands. When the spectre of his mother drew too near, he found himself forced to thwart it, warding off the danger of the ghost’s appearance by distorting the features of the maids, making them into ‘Madame.’ Perhaps it is also this—the risk of losing control—that led him to depart so far from the real crime that provided the play’s inspiration: that of the Papin sisters, Christine and Léa, the two maids who, following a violent incident inflicted on them by their mistresses—a mother and daughter—killed them both, hacked them to pieces and gouged out their eyes. It is probably also no coincidence that the little orphan maid in Funeral Rites (1947), the mourning lover of Jean Decarnin, is the only character who escapes utter sordidness. The honour of closing the novel falls to her, a daisy in her hand, in a patch of moonlight. An honour which she owes, it must be said, to the perfection of her misfortune. For if she had held on to her man, or even his child, which she had carried, Genet, her saviour, would not have spared her. 

To be granted, from his pen, the status of a real mother, a woman had to be Arab or black. Only three women attained this favour in his work: Saïd’s mother in The Screens (1961), Félicité in The Blacks (1955) and above all Hamza’s mother in Prisoner of Love (1986).


All in all, Genet’s only creator is himself. It is his creations who re-create him, multiply him, perpetuate him and drive him; it is they who offer him up the ‘crime’ which, he feels, left him an orphan. There is not a crack between him and them, not the shadow of anyone else. They light up or disappear at the touch of his finger like the lights in a theatre. Unlike most of literature’s great fictional characters, whose lives leave their authors behind like birds flying the nest, his are nothing without him. Antigone, Hamlet, Emma Bovary, Le Père Goriot, Raskolnikov, Swann or Charlus, Nostromo, Quentin and Bloom became part of the world once they were brought to life. Even the characters of Kafka and Beckett, who belong nowhere, stopped belonging to their authors. With Genet, the cord is never cut. Whether they are named Mignon, Bulkaen, Divers, Querelle, Harcamone or Notre-dame, Genet’s monsters, heroes and ‘beautiful murderers’ have no past or future, they are written with the foreknowledge of the corpse that awaits them. ‘It is my way of possessing those I love,’ he wrote to Cocteau. ‘I wall them up alive in a palace of words.’ Cursed offspring, cut off from the world, at the first stroke of his pen, they become children of the purest, most intense present, in which ‘eternity flows in the contours of a gesture.’ This is how Genet succeeded in capturing the execrable and the sublime within the same fabric, without the stitches unravelling. He constructed his phrases in the manner of dreams, in a motionless progression; pushed into a time beyond time where breathing battles the scarcity of the air, beauty and death their own estimation of each other, and poetry the licence to kill.

translated from the French by Andrew Rubens and Ros Schwartz

Used by permission of Seagull Books. 

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