Jean written while he was in prison, followed

Jean Genet was born in Paris in 1910.
An illegitimate child who never knew his parents, he was abandoned to the
Public Assistance Authorities. He was ten when he was sent to a reformatory for
stealing; thereafter he spent time in the prisons of nearly every country he
visited in thirty years of prowling through the European underworld. With ten
convictions for theft in France to his credit he was, the eleventh time,
condemned to life imprisonment. Eventually he was granted a pardon by President
Auriol as a result of appeals from France’s leading artists and writers led by
Jean Cocteau. His first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (Notre-Dame
des Fleurs), was written while he was in prison, followed by Miracle
of the Rose, the autobiographical The Thief’s Journal, Querelle
of Brest and Funeral Rites. He was also a playwright and wrote
six plays: The Balcony, The Blacks, The Screens, The
Maids, Deathwatch and Splendid’s (the
manuscript of which was rediscovered only in 1993).

The story of the composition of Our
Lady of the Flowers is itself a tale of dissidence and obstinate resistance.
Genet wrote Our Lady of the Flowers while he was doing time in Paris’s
Prison de la Santé. He wrote the entire text of the novel not just once, but
twice! He was imprisoned on account of a long list of petty thefts. Writing
paper was forbidden the inmates in that prison. Genet was once sentenced to
three days in solitary confinement for writing on the paper his guards had
given him to make into bags. The early manuscript of Our Lady of the
Flowers was discovered by a guard and subsequently destroyed. Genet
said in an interview that he “ordered some notebooks at the canteen, got into
bed, pulled the covers over my head and tried to remember, word for word, the
fifty pages I had written. I think I succeeded.”

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The world we encounter in Our
Lady of the Flowers has been described as shocking and unsettling in
many ways. Genet’s book is populated with murderers, thieves, pimps,
transvestites and drug addicts, and yet the author has appropriated the poetic
language of heroism and sainthood for the description of his cast of degenerates.
This incongruous use of language here is reminiscent of Bakhtin’s description
of the language of the grotesque and the degradation that is characteristic of
the carnivalesque. By bringing together the lofty language of such established
values as heroism and purity and the life and adventures of outlying petty
criminals, Genet satirizes and attacks the oppressive presumptions of the
establishment.

As mentioned earlier, Genet wrote Our
Lady of the Flowers in prison while he was waiting for his own sentencing and
the characters in the novel are for the most part the pure creation of the narrator’s
whims and desires. Genet treats his characters with a mixture of cruelty, physical
desire, and adoration in equal measure. Freedom of choice and action has no
place in the life of Genet’s characters.  is concerned only with satisfying his cruelty.
There is a certain inertia in their progression through life; they are simply
kicked around this way and that. This is what Genet calls the ‘Cruelty of the
Creator.’ In the world of Our Lady – a world of thieves, prostitutes, queens
and blackmailers – ‘morality’ in the common sense of the word has no meaning.
But Genet’s fervent fantasies from a prison cell, crystallizing around the
handsome forms of his criminal heroes, are a transcendence of his straitened
surroundings.

Genet turns the bland and disgustful received
conception of imprisonment on its head. The prison cell becomes the setting for
the creation of unimaginable beauty and sublime sensations; the very place that
was designated for the oppression of aberrant behaviors and bringing the
nonconformist elements of society back into the fold proves an unexpectedly
fertile ground for resistance to the very same norms it was built to serve and protect.
Individualities are intensified and developed further than they ever could
outside prison. The first-person narrator of Our Lady of
the Flowers attributes the strangest properties to life in prison: a
“pleasure of the solitary … that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing
intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it, a
pleasure that gives to your most casual gestures, even when you are up and
about, that air of supreme indifference toward everyone.”

In the same passage, Genet’s narrator
delivers a bizarre and impassioned rhapsody about imprisonment: “I’ve got lots
of work for making my fingers fly! Ten years to go! My good, my gentle friend!
My cell! My sweet retreat, mine alone, I love you so! If I had to live in all
freedom in another city, I would first go to prison to acknowledge my own.”

The novel’s narrator, a prison inmate
named Jean, begins his long, unbroken address to the reader by relating that he
scours daily newspapers—”tattered by the time they reach my cell”—for stories
about executed murderers. He cuts out “their handsome, vacant-eyed heads,”
glues their images “on the back of the cardboard sheet of regulations that
hangs on the wall,” and honors “the most purely criminal” among them with
frames constructed with “the same beads with which the prisoners next door make
funeral wreaths.”

When evening falls, he crawls under
his covers, just like Genet, and masturbates to the assortment of criminals he
has diligently put together to reach orgasm: “At night I love them, and my love
endows them with life.” It’s the stories that are hatched in his mind during
this nightly ritual which will make up the book that is coming into being
before the reader’s eyes: “As you read on, the characters, and Divine too, and
Culafroy, will fall from the wall onto my pages like dead leaves, to fertilize
my tale.” Later on in the book it becomes known that “Divine” and “Culafroy” are
one and the same character—the first name refers to her fulfilled sexual
identification as a Parisian drag queen caught up in a love triangle with two
struggling and volatile lovers; the second name harks back to the time of her
boyhood, which by the way greatly resembles Genet’s own life as a child.

At the beginning of the book Genet pays
tribute to several famous murderers of the time and gives a brief account of
their lives, and says: “It is in honor of their crimes that I am writing my
book.” Glory and abjection are the key themes developed throughout the story.
Genet’s characters go through the lowest possible states of being and pure
abjection only to reemerge in a state of sainthood. Ultimate glory awaits them
on the other side of murder. To set the stage for the account of the eponymous
murdering hero of the story, Our Lady of the Flowers, the narrator first
presents the saintly—because abject—life of the leading character, Divine, who
is a drug addict and a male transvestite prostitute.

The story of Divine begins and ends
with her death. Genet uses the female pronoun whenever he wants to refer to the
transvestite characters in the novel. I believe in this way he advocates and
gives priority to the transgressive self-conception of the character rather
than preserving their ‘original’ and ‘primary’ sexuality in compliance with the
norms of writing; normally the sexuality of characters is supposed to remain
the same (as—we’re supposed to believe—is the case with real people), and the
opposite would be seen as sloppiness on the part of the author. The narrator
constantly moves in and out of his present surroundings in the prison cell,
working up all sorts of fantasies about his main character, who is also partly
based on himself. Divine is in love with a pimp, Darling Daintyfoot. The reader
gets to know Darling, he gets to know all about his appearance and the story of
his life, as well as Divine’s youth, when (s)he used to go by the name of Louis
Culafroy, until we finally arrive at their first night together.

Genet gives a lyrical and detailed
description of their life together, even down to their fights and Darling’s
sexual domination of Divine. All of this is recounted in a fractured narrative
and passages of Divine’s youthful reminiscences are interspersed with the
narrator’s present experience in prison. 

After this extended development of
the narrative, the title character finally makes his entry: “Our Lady of the
Flowers here makes his solemn entrance through the door of crime….” A
sixteen-year-old who spends his time wandering through the streets. His life
enters a new stage when he murders and robs an aging homosexual. Genet does not
bother to give a reason for the crime. The murder is described as a solemn,
even heroic event, through which brings Our Lady in touch with ultimate glory.
Not long after, he meets Darling in a train station. Our Lady loses the wallet
he had stolen from his victim with all the money in it. Darling finds the
wallet and offers to return half of its content to Our Lady. This marks the
beginning of their friendship, which continues growing to the point where Our
Lady moves in with Darling and Divine. Darling is a restless sort, however, and
soon disappears; Our Lady is no less erratic and unpredictable and is gone for
long stretches of time.

In this part of the book the focus of
the narrative is turned on Divine: flashbacks to her youth and first homosexual
encounter with Alberto; her love affair with a young soldier, Gabriel; and her
meeting with a black pimp, Seck Gorgui. Gorgui is based on the narrator’s recollections
of Clement Village, a black murderer whom he had met in prison, so he also
tells of Village and Village’s murder of a young prostitute. Seck Gorgui moves
in with Divine and is still there when Our Lady returns from one of his decadent
adventures. A menage-a-trois forms between the three of them, with Divine
filling in the role of lover to both of them. This situation goes on quite
happily for a while. Until one day when the young Our Lady has dressed for the
first time as a woman for a transvestite ball, falls for Seck. Divine’s
jealousy is provoked, and she eventually enlists the help of Mimosa to eliminate
the competition.

Meanwhile, the narrator has not
forgotten about Darling. All this while, Darling has been in prison. Darling
has been arrested and humiliated by the police for stealing from a department
store. The story of his imprisonment serves as an introduction to the story of
the undoing of Our Lady (sort of like a frame narrative), because Darling hears
about his downfall in prison. Our Lady had been living with someone else and
dealing drugs. When the police arrest him, he is tortured and in an unexpected
and shocking turn of events confesses to his earlier heinous crime (the murder
of the homosexual). The revolting process of Our Lady’s trial serves as an
occasion for the narrator to express his rage and indignation against what he
views as the oppressive regime of ‘normal’ society. Genet gives a revolting
depiction of the judge, the lawyers, and the jury as sanctimonious,
self-serving idiots who act together to condemn the saintly and angelic Our
Lady to death. Genet takes an axe to the roots of all this hypocrisy through
Our Lady’s biting and vulgar remarks in his peculiar and idiosyncratic slang. A
prohibited speech is employed to the break the silence on prohibited truths. This
section of Genet’s work bears witness to the subversive effects of profanity and
its capability for speaking truth to power.

The story follows a rapid downward
course to its bitter end following the condemnation and death of Our Lady.
Divine devolves into a parody of herself, an aging shadow that sinks deeper and
deeper into drugs. She is disappointed in herself for lacking the courage to
take her own life, and in a frenetic moment of frustration kills a young child.
Her actual death scene and the thoughts that pass through her mind in those
moments are explored in great detail. The narrator ends with his own thoughts
on his upcoming sentencing and with a letter to Divine from the imprisoned
Darling.

For Genet, fantasizing about Divine
meant giving her a teeming, well-stocked inner life in which he could share. It
entailed going so far as to almost become her, just like, in one of the book’s
late reversals, Darling’s arrest leads him into a cell that overlaps perfectly
with the narrator’s own “on the fourth floor of the Fresnes prison,” where the
writing of Our Lady of the Flowers was finished. The one consistent
project across the book was perhaps not, as Sartre supposed, Genet’s need to
bring himself to climax, but his need to take on, voluptuously and vicariously,
the lives of the people his narrator imagines. It’s unclear to what extent
Genet’s efforts on the page were in fact his way of playing God with his
characters, alternately lavishing them with gifts and blighting them with
poverty, loss, and disease.

The profundity of the novel and its power
to move and impress derives in part from the intensity with which the narrator
identifies with these personages. The narrator can find in the lives of these
characters all the freedoms he has been denied. The density of the characters
lies in their ability to arouse the narrator; through them he gains access to alternate
bodies he can wear like a suit, in their stories he finds spaces in which he
can freely move about, he can live multiple lives by going through their
memories, and on the wings of these experiences of otherness he is transported
beyond the boundaries of his prison cell. This intimate contact with otherness
is an important transgressive aspect of Genet’s work.

Leo Bersani in his book, Homos,
identifies betrayal and the ethical necessity that Genet attributes to it as an
especially important and problematic theme in his works. Edmund White, Genet’s
biographer, confesses to be confused about his take on relationships and betrayal
and the unabashed manner in which he owns up and even defends his own treacherous
behavior. White writes in his books: “I could never comprehend Genet’s purported
admiration for treachery. . . I recognize that a prisoner might be forced
to betray his friends, but how can one be proud of such a failing?” Genet
somewhere confesses that he once handed over to the police his “most tormented (martyrisé)
friend”. He even demanded payment
for his treachery, which
leaves no room for doubt in the self-serving nature of his intention for doing
this. Neither the long record of his crimes and incarceration, nor his extravagant
and lustful homosexuality has been as shocking and appalling to his readers and
critics as the facility with which he treats treachery (including his own).

There is no honor among thieves in
the world of Genet’s characters, none of that sentimental fraternity and code
of loyalty that is frequently depicted in representations of crime world in the
media. In the conceptual space of our dominant ideologies even the criminal
underworld is not allowed to be exempt from certain inviolable constraints,
some sacred boundary that even the worst kind of criminal would not dare cross.
What is important about the account given above of Genet’s treacherous behavior
is his rejection of any appeal to the conventions of normal society. He refuses
to invalidate such ideological assumptions as the belief that the criminal
world adheres more rigorously to ethical ideals than the “lawful” society in
which those ideals originated; assumptions that simply serve to entertain the
public and deny the slightest possibility of the existence of symbolic
configurations and modes of behavior other than those allowed by the
establishment. Because of the resistance he shows to normative ideology, the
way in which treachery is articulated in Genet’s works (and his own life) is truly
dissident.  Genet is much more ambitious.
In his work he imagines a form of revolt that has no relation whatsoever to the
laws, categories, and values of society. Those ideals are contested and
destroyed by his characters in their subversive interactions.

Bersani also refers to an important
project in recent queer theory, especially as formulated by Judith Butler: that
of citing heterosexual (and heterosexist) norms in ways that mark their
weakness in them—ways that will at once expose all the discursive sites of
homophobia and recast certain values and institutions like the family as, this
time around, authentically caring and enabling communities. Genet can perhaps
contribute to the critical rigor of this project by providing a perversely
alien perspective. He does not show any interest in the reconfiguration or redefinition
of dominant terms that are taken from the dominant culture and refer back to it.
Genet has nothing to do with the excess of parodic imitation of the dominant
culture’s styles and values; Genet’s writing is exceptionally original and it would
be a mistake to assume, like Sartre, that Genet’s shameless reception of
criminality was simply what would be a rather pathetic reaction to his rejection
by the society and the stigmas he had been forced to carry all his life. It was
not a simple appropriation of his destiny and taking proud responsibility for
what he was.

Genet’s use of his culture’s dominant
terms (especially its ethical and sexual categories) Does not amount to a
reworking of those terms, just giving them a spin and charging them with new
meanings. He identifies cracks in their ideological makeup and sees a potential
for true subversion and goes for it. Genet obliterates cultural relationality
altogether; what he does is not a mild change in the position from which you’re
viewing things; rather, he yanks the audience out of their cultural comfort
zone and takes them on a tour to avoided extremes.

The achievement of this erasure is no
easy feat. It cannot be obtained by reversing moral categories, or working out
antithetical reformulations of moral value. In the case of betrayal, does not
produce guilt and is instead hailed as a moral achievement; Genet writes that
it was the most difficult step in the “particular ascesis” that led him to evil.
But even here where we might recognize a reversal of value, Genet’s discussion
of betrayal is immediately followed by talk of the ecstasy that is the fruit of
betrayal and betrayal is taken to a different conceptual level and put in relation
with terms and notions of a different register (different from its initial
ethical constellation.) Thus, the original term of the reversal is lost in this
transition. Betrayal is removed from its oppositional relation to loyalty.
Betrayal’s place in an ethical reflection disappears in the immediacy of an
“erotic exaltation,” and this categoric displacement saves Genet’s attraction
to treachery from being merely a transgressive relation to loyalty.

For Genet, homosexuality has to be
implicated in betrayal once the latter is erotically charged. Darling’s
relationship with Our Lady confirms this conception. It would be convenient to
separate the two (to take the homosexuality without the betrayal), but Genet’s notion
of (erotic) homosexuality is an original and more disturbing one that goes
against this reassuring move. Genet wants to show that homosexuality is
congenial to betrayal and, further, that betrayal gives homosexuality its moral
value.