a tale of two books
There is a great difference between the depiction of the characters within both of the books. In The Thief’s Journal, the characterisation is in bold relief - Salvador, Stilitano, Robert, Lucien, Armand, Guy and others all stand out in highly distinctive ways, while the depiction of individuals is more evanescent and subtle in Prisoner Of Love. Thus Genet himself. “I feel now like a little black box projecting slides without captions. My times with the fighters seem to have consisted of abrupt appearances and disappearances. But all of them are vibrant.” That is certainly the feeling one gets as one reads about the various characters, who more often than not seem to be just passing in the night. And yet they are portrayed with such vividness that this fact hardly seems to matter.
When I was in my twenties, I must have read The Thief’s Journal five or six times altogether, each time discovering new riches in it which I either had not noticed before or had forgotten with the passage of time. The thing I most noticed at my recent reading of the book was the strong Catholic tinge to the writing – to the imagery in particular and also to some of Genet’s obsessions. The quest for moral abjection seems to me an inverted Catholic one, which wouldn’t much occur to someone from a Protestant background, like myself. It is as if Genet wanted to rehabilitate his degraded characters and subject-matter “by writing of it with the names of things most noble.” He goes on to say. “My victory is verbal and I owe it to the richness of the terms, but may the poverty that counsels such choices be blessed.” Later on he says. “The idea of a professional writer leaves me cold. However, if I examine my work, I now perceive in it a will to rehabilitate persons, objects and feelings reputedly vile.”
This strong Catholic element in his writing, whereby, like Christ, he seems to want to take the sins of the world onto his own shoulders and redeem them, is one of the reasons why Sartre dubbed him a saint and wrote a tome in his honour called Saint Genet. This was a book which for some time seemed to sink Genet as a writer, and he came to view Sartre’s efforts on his own behalf as very debilitating. One perhaps shouldn’t look too closely at the machinery which causes one to write what one writes and the desire to do that seemed to have been Sartre’s besetting sin in relation to Genet. However, regarding Genet’s ‘sainthood’, Sartre probably had something of a point. After all, it can’t really be denied that in The Thief’s Journal, Genet is seeking some kind of sainthood – although a highly inverted one from a Catholic perspective – on behalf of those who would normally be considered outcasts by the Catholic community. So there is an element of irony in Genet’s quest for sainthood, which is hardly likely to earn him much approval among the faithful of Catholicism. (I very much doubt if he will ever be canonised!)
I have often noted this Catholic strain in my favourite French writers – e.g. Baudelaire and Rimbaud, to mention only two. Baudelaire, of course, would have identified with Satan, while Rimbaud seems to have been more content simply with blaspheming his old religion. Neither of these is really the case with Genet, who, at least in his writing, takes the terms of Catholicism much more seriously. Of course, in real life, Genet is an atheist, but this fact has no impact on The Thief’s Journal, where he is under the influence of Catholic symbolism and imagery. In relation to this, I am reminded of the joke about a visitor to Northern Ireland who was asked whether he was Protestant or a Catholic and on his replying that he was neither, but an atheist, was asked, “Ah, but are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?” And it is perhaps a very pertinent rejoinder. Just because one has consciously overcome or renounced one’s religion, it in no way implies that it still doesn’t influence one unconsciously. An ex-Catholic communist I used to know revered a picture of Joseph Stalin and treated it as if it were an icon of the Virgin Mary herself.
In Prisoner Of Love, Genet has largely overcome his Catholic obsessions and so is able to write about Catholicism and religion in general – including Islam – in much more insightful and objective ways. In fact, Prisoner Of Love is a veritable tour-de-force of cultural and historical commentary – which is woven into the narrative tapestry about the Black Panthers and PLO without so much a dropping a stitch. This is especially noticeable in Part Two of the book, which is more philosophical and poetic than Part One, as if Genet felt the need to sum up all the observations he had made in Part One and cast them into a more reflective light.
Genet’s method of writing seems to be to allow everything to come out in the wash and assume its own order, sometimes in rather helter-skelter ways. Very often, the only connections between his ideas are of those of random association – or perhaps a need to relieve himself and the reader of monotony by suddenly talking about something else – only to return to the subject a little bit later. This discontinuity in the writing is something Prisoner Of Love shares with The Thief’s Journal, but it is accomplished with much more panache in the Prisoner Of Love, perhaps as a result of Genet’s learning more over the years. The style is as supple as ever, but his greater knowledge allows him to use it to greater effect. In The Thief’s Journal, the transitions can often seem a little bit gauche, but this is not the case with Prisoner Of Love.
Notwithstanding the quixotic and theatrical element Genet observes in both the Black Panthers and the Palestinian fighters, Prisoner Of Love is clearly motivated by Genet’s sympathy with the political aims of both the Black Panther Party and the PLO. However, what he brings to his account is not only an awareness of the historical injustices that both African-Americans and Palestinians have suffered and the background of oppression which has forced them both to take up arms, but also a keen eye for individual nuance, which doesn’t skim over the faults of the actors involved. In other words, he presents them as real multi-facetted people rather than puppets in some kind of glamourous revolution in which the actors become no more than stereotypes fulfilling the roles designated by either white liberals - in the case of the Black Panthers - or orientalist westerners - in the case of the Palestinians. He thus imaginatively involves his readers in the milieu he is describing, which is the real subject of his book. Genet is no less interested in people as people in Prisoner Of Love than he is in The Thief’s Journal. The chief difference lies in the more uncertain nature of those people’s identities in the Prisoner of Love. There is also the fact that both old age and the environment he finds himself in have somewhat lessened his sexual interest in the characters he describes, although, of course, he is not completely immune to their erotic attractions. The object of love has become much more desexualised and now consists of the intense feelings of comradeship amounting to love which fighters can often feel for one another while risking their lives on the battlefield. This is basically the love that has taken him prisoner.
Finally, Genet’s philosophical divagations. Genet’s philosophy could be summed up as an almost total abandonment to chance. Chance is preferable to God and divine providence. God doesn’t play dice and therefore has to be relegated to the margins of non-existence. After all, if God himself was in any way subject to chance, or even permitted chance, he would no longer be God - that is to say in total control of every event that takes place. “The idea of chance, a random combination of facts, a trick, even, of events, stars and beings owing their existence to themselves – such an idea seemed to me more pleasing and amusing than the idea of One God. The weight of religion crushes, chance brings lightness and laughter. It makes you cheerful and curious; it makes you smile. Claudel, the most religious of French poets, though he wouldn’t acknowledge he knew it, expressed it best when he wrote of 'the jubilations of chance'.” It is curious that this is a position that I myself have arrived at of late, which is perhaps one of the reasons I am able to appreciate Prisoner Of Love more than I have done on previous readings. It should also not go unnoticed that I am the same age as Genet himself was while he was writing it, although it should be added that I am not dying of throat-cancer. Like him, I see chance as liberating. Random Mutations? Without them there would be no evolution. Chance factors in life? Wouldn’t it be dreadful if everything was predictable? Quantum events in physics – and in life. Totally fascinating. Chaos Theory? Bring it on. Genet is absolutely right in his valuation of chance. And it is this fundamental philosophy – which is also crucial to the book’s composition - that makes Prisoner Of Love as good and also as profound as it is – and one of the few truly inspiring works of the last decades of the Twentieth Century.