May 2012

Josh Zajdman


Saint-Genet: Actor and Martyr by Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Bernard Frechtman

There are enough examples of authors writing book-length considerations of other authors to form a nice little subgenre. The motives vary, and so do the results. Some are masterful (think Coleridge on Shakespeare), humorous and surprisingly profound (think Dyer on Lawrence, Roth on himself and others), little jewels on an already loaded necklace (Llosa on Flaubert and Hugo), and once in a while, all of these things. These are few and far between. Sartre's Saint-Genet is one such book. Like those mentioned above, it too deals with fame, infamy, style, talent, perversion, frustration, and a host of other emotions and conditions generally ascribed to the creative lifestyle. Otherwise, though, it varies in size, scope, depth, approach, and level of insight. This new edition, published by the University of Minnesota Press, is disappointingly devoid of any academic scaffolding or analysis of the work itself. When I first began the biography, I was mystified by this omission. Upon finishing the last page and closing the book, it made sense. A little bit at least. I would have appreciated even a brief attempt at clarification, but who could possibly expand on or even elucidate Sartre's book? Well, one can try.

As expressed, Sartre doesn't make it easy. He sees Genet as "nothing other than a dead man. If he appears to be still alive, it is with the larval existence which certain peoples ascribe to the defunct in their grave. All his heroes have died at least once in their life." It was unclear whether this was Genet as man, creator, or creation. The young boy raised in a pious family became a complex man in thrall to and enslaved by everything that stood apart from what he once represented. Moreover, he became the kind of character he wrote about as if it would give his work that much more veracity. This helps support Sartre's belief that "Genet lives outside history, in parentheses." It's easy to see his writing as the living legacy and him as a kind of vessel, as Sartre initially seems to suggest. However, upon closer reflection, it's less clear how the reader can utilize this information to his or her advantage. Sartre, of course, has a thought.

If we wish to understand this man, the only way to do so is to reconstruct carefully, through the mythical representations he has given us of his universe, the original event to which he constantly refers and which he reproduces in his secret ceremonies. By analysis of the myths we shall proceed to re-establish the facts in their true significance.

Sounds easy enough, right? Strangely, it almost seems Freudian. Scratch beneath the gilding of dreams and self-perpetuated myth to understand what's real. By understanding and disassembling the subconscious (in some cases) or fictive (in others) constructions utilized by Genet, we can learn of the real-life events, which eventually generated said constructions. It's elliptical, if not downright baffling. This sustained Sartrean tone becomes easier to navigate if the reader remains confident and continues along. This is worth doing, as the book yields many rewards, despite its occasional inaccessibility.

Saint Genet is divided into four sections. The first section, "The Metamorphosis," deals with the young orphan Genet and the complications surrounding his relationship with his adoptive parents and their restrictive lifestyle.

He knows that he does not quite belong to his foster parents, that the public authorities have loaned him to them and can take him back, and that consequently nothing his parents own belongs to him. For others, things are warm, alive, elastic, but if he takes them in his hands, they die. He can name them, count them, even try to use them, but their dense opacity becomes an absence; it is to the others that they address their homey smile.

This sense of displacement, coupled with the awareness of social institutions and the ways in which they function, becomes a constant throughout Genet's life. Sartre, going so far as to call him "a fake child," accounts for this too. "He is obscurely aware that he belongs legally to administrative bodies and laboratories, and so there is nothing surprising in the fact that he will later feel elective affinities with reformatories and prisons." Sartre's analysis of Genet's background is trenchant, as one would expect, but there is something more to it. There is an understanding. An understanding of the emotional isolation and torture experienced by Genet, with the knowledge that it would eventually be channeled into something extraordinary. In fact, it verges on empathy.

The second section, "First Conversion: Evil,"is especially interesting as it highlights the philosophical and theoretical complexities of evil. It's also the most complex section of the book, and unsurprisingly, the longest. Genet remains present but the form segues from biography (a form adhered to loosely to begin with) to philosophy as Sartre explores quandary after quandary regarding morality, crime, passion, and a host of other compelling topics. There are countless passages worth quoting, but to excise parts of Sartre's argument seems criminal. Accordingly, a brief introduction to one seems most appropriate. "What does this will to be evil mean to Genet himself, what is its intentional structure?" This is the type of consideration, which peppers the pages of "First Conversion: Evil." When the third section, "Second Metamorphosis: The Aesthete," begins, the Genet of popular imagination and assumption begins to surface.

In Sartre's eyes, "Genet drifts from the Ethics of Evil to a black aestheticism. The metamorphosis takes place at first without his realizing it: he thinks that he is still living beneath the sun of Satan when a new sun rises: Beauty." Whereas Sartre previously engaged with Genet's relationship to evil, this section obviously couches Genet's budding relationship with art and the establishment of aesthetic criteria. This is a brief section, leading into Sartre's fullest consideration of Genet's writing in the final section, "Third Metamorphosis: The Writer." "It is along this road that we are going to follow him."

By the time the final section begins, readers could conceivably be under the impression that they have developed an understanding of Sartre's approach to the work of Genet. However, they would be overconfident, if not outright incorrect. For Sartre begins the last section with a pledge. "I shall explain later why Genet's works are false novels written in false prose. But prose, whether false or not, springs from the intention to communicate." Perhaps that's it then. Sartre sees Genet's work as having something powerful to communicate, and the forms it took as a means to an end. In fact, he goes so far as to say that "Genet treats his readers as means. He uses them all to talk to himself about himself, and this peculiarity may alienate readers." While that is a strong possibility, readers would lose out if they were to pass him or this consideration of him up in favor of something easier. For me, the most stirring section came at the end of section four, entitled "Please Use Genet Properly." Sartre begins with a simple question: "Have I been fair enough to Genet?" The answer is nowhere near as simple. Each reader will answer it differently, if only in a slight but no less significant way. Quite powerfully, this long, strange journey ends with a unique obligation: "Genet holds the mirror up to us: we must look at it and see ourselves." After this book, you won't like what you see and you won't be able to look away. That's why people need to read Genet.

Saint-Genet: Actor and Martyr by Jean-Paul Sartre, translated by Bernard Frechtman
University of Minnesota Press
ISBN: 978-0816677603         
640 pages