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A thief, a beggar prostitute and a whiff of a homoerotic symbol

The life of Jean Genet, the Avant garde French author, were beyond schizophrenic: a thief, a beggar prostitute and a whiff of a homoerotic symbol that continues to intoxicate artists, writers, musicians and fashion designers till this day. His first novel, “Our Lady of the Flowers”, was written while he was imprisoned (Jean Cocteau and Jean Paul Sartre appealed to release him from a life sentence), and when he was released, he spent his life as a nomad and civil rights activist. His writing won him an impressive league of fans: Pablo Picasso, Jean Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau were fond of his writing. 

Genet’s art is a transformation of human identity; from a condition in which humans play a role to a condition in which he discovers and founds his inner identity through endangering loneliness. The risk taking in and of itself does not matter as much as the transition ceremony and changing from condition to condition, the sense of being that is often destabilized, whether by society, values and norms represented in it, or the way we respond to roles that we and others are required to play.

Jean Genet Illustration- Edward Kinsella.

These roles are suits made by society, engineered and codified stringently to adapt our identity to a sort of institutional behavior, and in the spirit of the fashion of his time Genet sees these roles as constraints on freedom of the individual--- suffocating the creativity and individuation. According to Genet this society is a bourgeoise society which imitates rather than invents. That is why he keeps encouraging his heroes to undergo creative and generative metamorphosis. 

Genet rejected the bourgeoise society and created a bond with minority groups: men from the fringes of society, outcasts with no possessions, no voice or power. As a free man at the outskirts of society he celebrated his work through creation and metamorphosis. His heroes are also outcasts and victims, who seek a positive value for their being in society. Poverty, rejection, oppression and humiliation, his characters flee their strife to a world of illusions, games, narcissism, of secretive sexual rites, and like children, are sucked into games that mimic a world they cannot enter. They try to find identity in cathartic games but can never fulfil their potential and become a part of society.  Instead, they become washed away through isolation and loneliness, but in the end, they experience a metamorphosis thus become almost sacred. The price of this apotheosis is life of eternal solitude which is completely distinct from society’s norms and values.   

Jean Genet was born in 1910 to a single mother. Throughout his life Genet claimed that his mother was a “whore” and he was a “bastard”. He was raised in foster care, adopted by a carpenter and raised in provincial areas in France. When he was a young man he was caught stealing and sent to a juvenile delinquents institute. His book “miracle de la rose” describes this world. Very soon he left his homeland and started wandering across Europe, providing for himself by begging, military service and prostitution. Police files regarding petty thefts teach us of his travels in Europe during the 1930s: as a soldier in Damascus and Morocco, a soldier fleeing the army to Italy and Africa and finds himself in Czechoslovakia and then Poland. In 1938, the eve of the Second World War, he was seen in Paris again. 

1941: the Nazis are in Paris, Genet the gay thief, the rebel, steals a book by Marcel Proust. He flees the police, escapes and is arrested for a long period of time. While imprisoned he writes his famous book “Our lady of the flowers”, a masterpiece which is a lyrical portrait of Parisian criminals: the thieves, the killers, the pimps and perverts that took over it. Genet approaches this world through his divine hero, a male transexual prostitute. In the world of Our Lady of the Flowers there are no moral conventions, and everything is turned on its head. The book was sold as gay pornography. Only by the next edition its quality will be comprehended. This is a shocking and moving work that remains as revolutionary in our time as when it was first published, in a limited edition in 1943, thanks to one of Genet’s first fan, the great artist Jean Cocteau:

“Extraordinary. Vague. Unpublishable, inevitable…for me this is the biggest event of the time. He discussed me, repels me, amazes me. He is pure—pure as the devil is pure as he can’t do anything but evil”—Jean Cocteau. 

As noted above, Genet’s talent got to the ear of Jean Cocteau and later Jean- Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. As in 1948 he was sentenced for life imprisonment if he’s convicted again as he was caught stealing for the 10th time, a delegation of well-known authors approached the president of the French Republic in his name and asked to pardon him of his past convictions. 


After he wrote two more novels, he started experimenting with drama and playwriting, where he investigated the complex problems of human identity, a topic that soon started bothering dramatic and avant garde writers like Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. Genet became a key figure for the theater of the absurd. In the 1960s the social approach to homosexuality changes and the dark cursed perception presented by Genet crumbles and falls like petals. He starts gaining interest in politics. His books, in part, are still censored and forbidden from being published in different parts of the world.

Genet wanders again and reaches the USA, meets Allan Ginsburg and spends day and night with him. In 1970 he spent two years in Jordanian refugee camps and in 1982 he visited Shatila Palestinian refugee camp near Beirut. Genet wrote about what he had witnessed: “ the photograph does not show how you must leap from one dead body to another”. This visit made Genet a Palestinian advocate, “the prisoner of love”, his last book, is a memoir of his meetings with Palestinian fighters and black panthers. He was one of the first foreigners to enter Shatila after the massacre which claimed hundreds of life. The book was published in 1986,a month after his death. .

Genet’s work, despite being involved in social issues, rejects any kind of political commitment. His confrontation with the world created his readership and society mixed emotions of stimulation and galvanizing as well as very deep repulsion. His complex personality is outside any social box and literary tradition, and his vision si a pure psychological truth which merges with dramatic and uninhibited sexual symbolism. .Genet lived very much according to his own disruption, but his death was as stale and grey as his life was wild and colorful. His obituary simply said: “died in Paris”.

Genet, rebel and anarchist of the most extreme kind, rejected almost all forms of social discipline or political commitment. His life, his life’s erotic, his genius, created an almost mystical scent to him: our Lady of the Flowers. 

Translation from Hebrew: Dana Milles

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