Tuesday, May 5, 2020
"A Study in Contradictions" by Douglas Messerli
A STUDY IN CONTRADICTIONS
by Douglas Messerli
Jean Genet The Criminal Child: Selected Essays (Charlotte Mandell and Jeffrey Zuckerman, translators) (New York, New York Review of Books, 2020).
Jean Genet’s The Criminal Child, selected essays recently published in a wonderful translation of Charlotte Mandell and Jeffrey Zuckerman by the New York Review of Books, is a study in contradictions, however beautifully expressed.
Although readily admitting to his criminal childhood acts—which consisted mostly of stealing books and sexual acts as a child prostitute—Genet, naming many another such beings (Saint-Maurice, Saint-Hilaire, Bell-Isle, Eysse, Aniane, Montresson, Mettrayé)—admittedly meaningless to the rest of us, that these children, sentenced often for a prison period of 21 years (the French system was not a palliative one), writes:
These children are committing an (intentional) error, the tribunal
having passed a judgment such. Acquitted for having acted
without full awareness, and entrusted to the reformatory until
the age of majority….” But the young criminal immediately
rejects the indulgence and concern of a society that he has, in
committing his first offence, revolted against. At fifteen or
sixteen or earlier yet, he has attained a maturity that other may
not even reach even at sixty, and he scorns their munificence.
He insists that his punishment be unsparing.
I am certainly unsure that all teenage offenders quite felt the way Genet portrays them, but then Genet, despite his moral indulgences was also a highly moral being determined to react to the school-boy discipline that “strike a gentle soul as severe and pitiless,” while yet to remaining true to French church teachings that would be infused in his radical theatrical and fictional works to the end of his life.*
It is clear, even in these early essays, that Genet was always torn between societal values and his own radical reaction against them.
His ballet, “’Adame Miroir,” for example is a performance about mirrors, which reveal the class differences between a handsome sailor, who “has no past,” and whose life “beings with the choreography, which utterly contains it. He is young and handsome. He has curly hair. His muscles are hard and supple: in short, he is our of the ideal lover,” and The Domino, who represents death, a coupling performed in the interior of an extremely sumptuous palace, “the hallways covered with beveled mirrors.” In short, it is a slightly later version of Querelle of Brest.
Although it is quite clear that he loves the work of fellow French director Jean Cocteau, he also describes the famed author-director as writing a work that is a “curious fragment, brief hard blazing, comically incomplete.”
That is how Jean Cocteau’s work seems to us, like a light, aerial
stormy civilization hanging from the heavy heart of our own. The
very person of the poet adds to it, thin, knotted, silvery as olive
Genet’s wonderful essay on the artist Alberto Giacometti is just as fraught with contradictions.
On one hand, he recognizes Giacometti’s work as representing a kind of nostalgia:
It is Giacometti’s body of work that make our universe so un-
bearable to me, so much does it seem that this artist knew how
to remove whatever impeded his gaze so could discover what
remains of man when the pretense is removed.
Yet, clearly, he is entranced by the sculptures, for him an truly sensuous experience.
I cannot prevent myself from the touch the statues: I turn away
my eyes, and my hand continues to discoveries alone, the neck,
the head, the nape of the neck, the shoulders…Sensations
flow to my fingertips. Not one that isn’t different, so that my
hand travels through an extremely varied and lively landscape.
But it is the last essay of this book, “The Tightrope Walker,” that most intrigues me as a kind of metaphoric statement of Genet’s own writing and sensibility. For him, the dance, the acrobatic on the wire is everything—in short it is the performance of the art that is even more important than the writer/performer.
Give your metal wire the most beautiful expression, not of
you, but of it. Your leaps, your somersaults, your dances—
in acrobat slang, your pitter-patter, bows, midair somersaults,
cartwheels, etc.—you will execute them successfully, not
for you to shine, but so that a steel wire that was dead and
voiceless which finally sings.
This short volume of essays by Genet reveals volumes about his art, as contradictory as it may be—but then that was what Genet himself was!
After finishing them over a few days of quarantine, I wished I might read them all over again.
Los Angeles, May 5, 2020
Reprinted from Green Integer Review (May 2020).
*I need to again mention that at about the age of 15, visiting a University of Iowa bookstore, I stole the only book that I ever have or will: which just happened to be Jean Genet’s The Blacks. I knew absolutely noting about Genet, and had never read his work, and certainly did not at all know that he had been arrested for doing the same thing; but the book just called out to me and I had to have it, despite the fact that I had little money, and was allowed to visit the stores for a short while before my other family members would be delighted to take in the Hawkeyes’ football game.Strangely I never felt guilty about this one-time act, but when I relayed it, after I myself had become a major publisher, to the bookseller from that same bookstore, he seemed shocked, startled by my revelation, and surely ready to have me arrested for my childhood crime.