Thursday, 21 July 2011

Jean Genet - controversial writer and activist

Jean Genet 1983
I've visited the new exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary called, "Jean Genet Act 1 & Act 2". I'm not going to comment on the exhibition, as I didn't understand most of it, and the parts that I did understand, I didn't particularly appreciate.

I've mentioned before that I've tried really hard to overcome my 'puritan' and 'philistine' background, and try to get an appreciation of modern art displays. I find myself though, failing miserably, as to me it is often too clever for its own good.

The language and descriptions used seem to be for those who are 'in the circle', rather than to encourage a new breed of adherents who are currently 'out of the circle'. Some might call it pretentious twaddle, but that might be going a bit too far. Of course, the reality might be that I'm just not intelligent enough to appreciate it all. On the other hand, nothing is appreciated by everyone, and the old adage is promoted by some; "I know what I like, I see what I like, and I like what I see". Taken to its extreme, this approach leaves you closed to new ideas and opinions. I however, will keep going back to Nottingham Contemporary's new exhibitions, as you never know, do you?

While the exhibition itself may have left me lukewarm, the subject of the exhibition - Jean Genet - positively fired me up with determination to know more. Anyone in my book who is described as 'controversial' has got to be worth a look. To be honest, I knew very little of Genet - don't be too harsh on me, as I've spent too much time with the likes of Spike Milligan, Stephen Fry and Robin Hood.

Genet in Stained Glass
Jean Genet was a French novelist, playwright, poet, essayist and political activist, who was born in Paris on the 19th December 1910.

His Mother was a prostitute who gave him up for adoption at the aged of one. This abandonment had a profound affect on his early life. He spent much of his youth in institutions for juvenile delinquents, and at the age of ten he was accused of stealing. Although innocent, having been described as a thief, he resolved to be a thief. He wrote later, "I decisively repudiated a world that had repudiated me".

This set the pattern for the coming years. At 18, he joined the French Foreign Legion where he gained his first experience of the Middle East. The Nottingham Contemporary exhibition notes says that he deserted, but the reality was that he was given a dishonourable discharge on the grounds of indecency (he was caught engaged in a homosexual act). He was never ashamed of his homosexuality, or ever tried to hide it, saying, "I'm homosexual. How and why are idle questions. It's a little like wanting to know why my eyes are green".

Between 1930 and 1940, he wandered through Europe living as a thief and male prostitute, eventually finding himself in Hitler's Germany, where he found himself out of place. Why? "I had a feeling of being in a camp of organised bandits. This is a nation of thieves, I felt. If I stay here, I accomplish no special act that could help me to realise myself. I merely obey the habitual order of things. I do not destroy it". As his later life shows, this 'destruction' came from his view that "the main object of a revolution is the liberation of man - not the interpretation and application of some transcendental ideology". He returned to Paris in the late 1930's, and was in and out of prison through a series of arrests for theft, use of false papers, being a vagabond, homosexuality and other offences. While in prison, he wrote his first poem.

After being imprisoned for theft in 1943, Genet began to write very seriously. In fact, many of his most influential novels and plays were written during periods of incarceration. One of his biographers writes, "Ignoring traditional plot and psychology, Genet's plays rely heavily on ritual, transformation, illusion and interchangeable identities. His experiences in prison would inform much of his work. The homosexuals, prostitutes, thieves and outcasts of his plays are trapped in self-destructive circles. They express the despair and loneliness of a man caught in a maze of mirrors, trapped by an endless progression of images that are, in reality, merely his own distorted reflection". Genet himself said, "I recognise in thieves, traitors and murderers, in the ruthless and the cunning, a deep beauty - a sunken beauty". This is undoubtedly reflected in his literary output, and is part of the reason why he is seen as being so controversial.

The Maids
By 1949, Genet had completed five novels, three plays and numerous poems.  In the early 1950's, his work was banned in the United States because of his explicit and often deliberately provocative portrayal of homosexuality and criminality. I can't help feeling that this didn't bother Genet one bit, as it only added to his notoriety and mystique.

Genet's five main plays seem to revolve around an examination of the oppressed and the oppressor. In Deathwatch, he experiments with a murderer in the role of hero. The play shows three inmates who struggle for domination of a prison cell, while a fourth, unseen prisoner looks on. In The Maids, Genet portrays a ritualistic act of two maids who take turns acting as 'Madame', abusing each other as either servant or employer. The ceremony reveals not only the maids' hatred of the Madame's authority, but also their hatred of themselves for participating in the hierarchy that oppresses them. The Balcony was first staged at a private club in London because it was considered to be too scandalous for Paris audiences. It is set in a brothel of 'nobel dimensions', a palace of illusions in which men can indulge their secret fantasies. Outside the brothel, the country is caught up in the throes of revolution, and these false roles become confused with the real roles, until nothing is certain. In The Blacks, a troupe of coloured actors enacts before a jury of white-masked blacks the ritualistic murder of a white of which they have been accused. The last play to be produced during his lifetime was The Screens, which is Genet's comment on the Algerian revolution.

To one reviewer of Genet's works, "These plays are grotesque, sometimes bewildering, savage and haunting. Simultaneously cultivating and denouncing the stage illusion, they exude a strange ritualistic, incantatory quality that successfully transforms life into a series of ceremonies and rituals that bring stability to an otherwise unbearable existence".

From the late 1960's, Genet became very politically active, particularly after the student riots in France in 1968.

Among many areas that he involved himself with, there are three that stand out for me. The first was his participation in demonstrations drawing attention to the conditions of immigrants in France. He particularly protested loudly against police brutality of Algerians in Paris, where since the Algerian War of Independence, beaten bodies of Algerians were to be found floating in the River Seine.

In 1970, the militant civil rights group, The Black Panthers invited him to the USA. He must have sneaked in to the country somehow, as with his criminal record, there was no way to obtain a legal visa. However, he far from hid away, as he gave lectures, published articles in the Black Panther journals, and attended the trial of the Black Panther leader, Huey Newton, who was facing the death penalty. He wrote of this experience, "What I did not yet know so intensely was the hatred of the white American for the black, a hatred so deep that I wonder if every white man in the country, when he plants a tree, doesn't see Negroes hanging from its branches".

In the latter part of 1970, Genet spent six months in Palestine refugee camps, secretly meeting with Yasser Arafat. Spending most of 1970 in the USA and Palestine had a profoundly moving effect on Genet, which he chronicled in a final lengthy memoir called, 'Prisoner of Love', which was published after his death. The plight of the Palestinians continued to exercise his mind and time until his death. While in Beirut in 1982, the massacres took place in the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila. His response was to write 'Four Hours in Shatila', an account of his visit to Shatila after the event.

Jean Genet developed throat cancer, and was found dead on the 15th April 1986 in a hotel room in Paris.

I started this journey knowing very little about Jean Genet, but was intrigued by his controversial reputation. I have learnt much about the man and his work. He went his own way, and the only time I can find when he was affected by what was said about him by others, was when Jean-Paul Sartre in 1952, wrote a long analysis of Genet's existential development from vagrant to writer. Genet was so affected by this analysis that he did not write for the next five years. Words used to describe Genet's works, such as explicit, provocative, grotesque, bewildering, savage and haunting may all be true, and would fit in with Genet's comment on his childhood, "I decisively repudiated a world that had repudiated me". His period of political activism shows a man very much on the level of the oppressed, and revealing an implacable hatred of the oppressors. He once said, "What we need is hatred. From it our ideas are born".

Jean Genet was an artist of the spoken word. It has been often asked, What is art for? Though when this was asked of Ezra Pound by a lady in 1913, his reply was, "Ask me what a rose bush is for". It's perhaps too simple a question, but I suspect that for Genet, his work was to shock and make people think. In the Guardian 2002, Jeanette Winterson tried to answer the question. "When you take time to read a book or listen to music or look at a picture, the first thing you are doing is turning your attention inwards. The outside world, with all of its demands, has to wait. As you withdraw your energy from the world, the artwork begins to reach you with energies of its own. The creativity and concentration put into the making of the artwork begin to cross-current into you. This is not simply about being recharged, as in a good night's sleep or a holiday, it is about being charged at a completely different voltage".

Let's leave the last word with Jean Genet. "Worse than not realising the dreams of your youth, would be to have been young and never dreamed at all".

1 comment:

  1. Dad - for someone who opens this post saying he doesn't understand Genet this is an amazing compression of a vast and complex life and work. I think Genet always had a sense of personal freedom to do and say whatever he liked because he had nothing ordered in his childhood. For some people this would lead to a life without direction, for Genet it gave him purpose. I've always believed in the power of negative energy, perhaps unusually for someone so positive. Politically driven writers are always interesting and those, like Genet and Orwell who 'live' it too are even more fascinating. To end with Winterson is inspired....