Lily Sykes

The director on the work of French author Jean Genet

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“Born illegitimately to a whore most likely
He became an orphan
Oh, what a lovely orphan
He was sent to the reformatory
Ten years old, It was his first glory,
Got caught stealing from a nun
Now his love story had begun.”

In this way the band CocoRosie describe the beginning of French author Jean Genet’s relationship with the criminal world. It was a love story born out of inevitability. As the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre describes in his lengthy monograph St Genet, Criminal and Saint, Genet the Parisian orphan became an outcast early in his life. Having nothing of his own, the people he admired most were people who owned material things. In order to be like them, he had to have what they had. Ergo, he had to steal. Genet spent the next twenty-four years in and out of prison, charged with thieving, vagrancy, desertion and amorality. Regarded as a criminal by the society he lived in, he came to think of himself as exactly that. As a result, the relationship between bourgeois society and crime was to become a major theme in his work.

As a queer writer, dismantling binaries is one of Genet’s chief concerns. For Genet, the outcast, criminals are equivalent to saints. Just as a Saint attains holiness by making a stand against society for their religion, so criminals are ‘holy’ through their resistance to society’s laws. In Genet’s work there is a hierarchy of crime; the more dangerous the crime, the more depraved, the more transgressive, the more holy, the more heroic the criminal becomes in his eyes. Crime as a revolt against oppressive circumstances is for Genet the ultimate salvation. As he writes in The Maids: “I wanted the beauty of my crime to redeem the banality of my suffering.” He therefore rejects the “niceness” of liberal bourgeois society, in favour or the ‘maladjustment’ of crime “Whoever by gentleness tries to abolish revolt destroys any chance of salvation for the oppressed.” Social equality is of no use to the outcast unless it brings with it economic equality.

Genet sees a big discrepancy between the way that we treat criminals in art and criminals in life. In The Criminal Child he writes: “Your literature, your fine arts, your after-dinner entertainments all celebrate crime. The talent of your poets has glorified the criminal, who, in life you hate.”

Is the admiration we have for a Walter White or a Tony Soprano consistent with our condemnation of mass murderers or gunmen? In the film Manson, made following the Tate/Labianca murders which horrified suburban America, the remaining members of the Manson Family describe themselves as “brought up watching your TV, on your cowboy films. We are a what you have made us.” For Genet, the urges which lead to violent crime were an intricate part of human beings; the difference was the extent to which these urges were tested and in what form they expressed themselves… for example, in art.

For Genet, “Poetry is an ersatz for criminality.” In The Maids he refers to the murder of the mistress as a “landmark work”. We go to the theatre or the cinema or play a video game to satisfy urges or parts of ourselves not catered to by society. Often the things we seek are transgressive, be they violent or sexual. The success of Fifty Shades of Grey as a piece of transgressive literature for middle-aged housewives is a prime example of this. French philosopher Georges Bataille says: “To me it seems if literature stays away from evil it becomes boring… literature is based on anguish and that anguish is based on something going the wrong way, towards evil if you like.”

Writers like Charles Baudelaire, Franz Kafka, and Genet considered themselves criminals, because their creative activity involved a transgression of society’s laws in their personal lives; Genet was a thief and spent time in prison, where he wrote his major works; Baudelaire and Kafka both disobeyed their families to become writers. The work of an artist like Marina Abramovic plays with mental and physical extremes. She puts herself in (often violent) situations which violate taboos and show clear parallels with the committing of a crime.

Why is our society obsessed with crime in art but puts its head in the sand when it comes to crime in life? Playing Grand Theft Auto can give a necessary release at a distance. Crime in life, on the other hand, reminds us of unpleasant aspects of ourselves and society which do not fit into our ostentatiously moral world. Genet’s alternative ontology, in which the outcasts, the orphans, the criminals, the maladjusted are redeemed and the charitable and benevolent condemned, confronts liberal society with its own double standards. As Martin Luther King said: “There are some things in our nation and in our world to which I’m proud to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, and leave millions of people perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of prosperity… And I call upon you to be maladjusted to these things until the good society is realised.”

The Maids is at HOME Mcr from 16 Nov – 1 Dec. To book tickets visit the HOME website.

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