pain and ink

     by patti smith

[from Details, November 1993]

In the '50s it was said that those who aspired to be Beat read Kerouac, but that the real Beats read Genet. Genet, the superior bum of art, seduced their imaginations with his purity and corruption, and tore apart literary convention with work that ennobled every marginal being. The Beats passed around a smuggled translation of the forbidden Miracle of the Rose and declared Genet their pulp poet. His exquisite beauty, his affirmation of betrayal, crime, and homosexuality filled the guts of Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac. It helped spawn Jackson Pollock, John Coltrane, and eventually rock 'n' roll.

The adoration of the Beats was but one of the many laurels pressed upon Jean Genet. His major works are now considered masterpieces. His revolutionary plays, The Screens and The Blacks, are performed worldwide. During his life he received the Grand Prix des Arts et Lettres, and he is remembered by the oppressed for championing their causes. Yet astoundingly, no biography of Genet had been attempted. Perhaps writers were intimidated by Jean-Paul Sartre's mammoth psychological study, St. Genet, published in 1952. Perhaps it was the elusiveness of Genet himself or fear of his complex morality.

In 1987, writer Edmund White began the journey of tracking Genet's life and devoted the next six years to the task. The resulting biography, Genet (Knopf), is a shining, enduring work in the spirit of Enid Starkie's Arthur Rimbaud and Richard Ellman's Oscar Wilde.

The author of A Boy's Own Story and The Beautiful Room is Empty, White first read Our Lady of the Flowers in 1964. Not only did he respond to Genet's "deeper, more extravagant prose," but he also experienced a sort of self-liberation. "For the first time the gay world was presented without apology or explanation," said White from his home in Paris. "This afforded gays freedom and showed how art can affect real-life politics. Others saw the gay world as tacky, but Genet allowed gay men to see it as glamorous and poetic. And his affectionate treatment of drag queens helped elevate our ideas of them."

White, who had tested HIV-positive in 1985, was also grateful for a project that allowed him to reflect on homosexuality, art, and literature in a world untainted by disease. Genet evolved in a culture without AIDS, and White traveled through it interviewing scores of people, from fashionable Parisians to village peasants. He takes us through the French welfare and prison systems, crisscrossing criminal, artistic, and political scenes: high society led by Cocteau; café society led by Sartre; and revolutionary movements -- the Black Panthers and the PLO. Writing the book reaffirmed to White that "gays are not a single-issue community." Just as Genet was never a single-issue being.

Genet's life, like his work, is a terrain of contradictions that White lays out with clarity, with all the kindness and cruelty intact. Abandoned as an infant by his poor, servant-girl mother in 1911, Genet started life as a ward of the state. Like all orphans of his day, uniformed in a black apron, black stockings, and wooden shoes, he was identified and raised as an outcast. By thirteen he was wrestling with a sensitive, convulsive nature. He pilfered and lied; he ran away. Somewhat effeminate, he fell for the masculine airs of older boys and longed to take on their gestures as his own. But fourteen he was branded a thief. A bastard. A faggot. He accepted these tags with arrogance, wearing them like a bright coat. And at fifteen, he was handcuffed and led into the Penitentiary Colony of Mettray.

Mettray was a work farm where hard labor and discipline were rigidly enforced. By day the young prisoners worked the fields in silence and performed naval drills on landlocked ships. By night they created a kind of twisted netherworld, enforcing their own codes of love, honor, gesture, and justice. It was a world where the handsome, sadistic heterosexual was king, and where Genet, passive and adoring, blossomed as a princess and future scribe.

He cherished Mettray, harsh as it was, for it housed so many awakenings, sexual and aesthetic. It sharpened his powers of observation, his ability to see goodness or the lack of it. Peering inward, he also found, with great anguish, that he possessed the evil that other people attributed to him. He drew his coat even tighter and maintained a swaggering pride in his weaknesses. Through this, he became strong.

At nineteen, destitute but free from the confines of institutions, he began a decade of wandering through Europe and Africa. Often arrested for some petty crime, he passed from prison to prison. And in 1939, in a cell in Fresnes, he realized that he possessed a power -- a unique way of looking at things, and the words to express what he saw. As World War II closed in, Genet -- cold, hungry, imprisoned -- mapped out his masterpiece, Our Lady of the Flowers. He reopened all his adolescent wounds and wrote, with haunted blood, the death and glorification of the transvestite Divine. He portrayed the ordinary thug as one with an inner handsomeness and unsung grace. In this world of trapped young men, treacherous yet fiercely loyal, gravitating to their dominant and submissive natures, he revived his youthful loves, the inmates of Mettray.

For the first time in modern literature, society's most marginal men were portrayed without shame or remorse. White points out that Genet did not use his work as a forum for understanding or accepting the homosexual or criminal. He had no political motivations, yet his books sparked furious censorship battles in the European courts. He opened doors for future writers and, more important, gave dignity and mystery to society's estranged.

I was twenty when introduced to Genet. He was widely read in the arts community, and we adopted his vision as our own. We dressed like Marseilles dockworkers and filled our notebooks with swaggering conceits. It was 1967, a time when homosexuality was not understood -- even feared. Yet many boys who seemed to detest "fags" were tagging themselves as such to escape the Vietnam draft. It seemed, too, that many of these same boys, riddled with guilt or curiosity, were softening their views. The way in which homosexuals were being regarded, not only by others but by themselves, was changing.

Without conscious attempt, Genet had sparked a kind of miracle -- social change. At the same time, the president of France, at Sartre's behest, pardoned Genet for all his crimes. Almost immediately he fell into a deep depression and ceased writing. White attributes this response to Genet's success and pardon, both of which stripped him of his outcast status, his sacred individuality.

Shortly after, he befriended the sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Their relationship brought him new life and a new revelation about the interdependence of humanity: that "every man is every other man, as am I." Renouncing possessions, returning once more to his role as vagabond, Genet disavowed his early work, his erotic imagery, his own importance as a poet. But repudiation is common in the evolution of an artist, and in examining the stages of Genet's life, it is clear that revelation was not exhausted in youth, but born again in old age.

In his last years, addicted to Nembutal, and suffering throat cancer, Genet devoted himself to the plight of the Palestinians. He saw them as orphaned, rootless warriors, not unlike himself. His last work, Prisoner of Love, is not only dedicated to them, but to life and the imagination. He had come to believe that every being is as valuable as another. This was the final miracle of Genet -- that we are all potentially holy, that we all contain a common speck called God.

Genet died a transient's death on April 15, 1986, in a hotel room in the thirteenth arrondissement, the same working-class district of Paris where he had been abandoned seventy-five years before. He is buried in Larache, Morocco, in a grave covered with two sun-washed white stones. With our own transforming powers let us imagine that if we parted the earth to raise him, we would find nothing but a singular, muscular vine, crowned with a magnificent studded rose.

Copyright © Patti Smith 1993

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