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The crimes of Jean Genet

He was a child outlaw who embraced his own “evil” in search of an authentic life. But society turned Genet’s rebellion into bourgeois conformity

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“The greater my guilt in your eyes, something I entirely embrace, the greater my freedom and the more perfect my solitude and singularity.” Appearing in The Thief’s Journal, his account of his wanderings as a vagrant across 1930s Europe, this assertion encapsulates the project of self-creation that is the sole subject matter of Jean Genet’s writings.

The book is known for its unsparing account of the thieving and prostitution in which the author was involved throughout his travels. Genet does not conceal the simple necessity that impelled him to these practices – “the need to eat”. But they were, for him, much more than pragmatic expedients. Genet was possessed by the idea of evil, above all the evil he believed to be inherent in himself. Criminality and sexuality, particularly his own as a gay man, were inseparable: “I was hot for crime.” By embracing his own evil, Genet believed, he would become an authentic individual.

When it was published in 1949, The Thief’s Journal belonged in a recognisable genre. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) was a paean to vagabondage framed as a semi-autobiographical novel. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) was a lightly fictionalised memoir of his time as a dishwasher and tramp. Both books were meant as critiques of the existing social order and contained an implicit vision of a better society that was less punitive in its treatment of those on its fringes. Genet’s message was quite different. He rejected any attempt at amelioration or improvement. He approved and admired the brutal severity of the penal system because it hardened the criminal nature of the inmates, especially children.

In The Criminal Child, which began as a radio talk commissioned in 1949 during a national debate on the French reform-school system but never broadcast, he writes of the children incarcerated in the system: “I don’t want to invent any new plan for society to protect them.” Any such system of “re-education” would only deprive them of “their violence, their vigour, their virility”. Harshly repressive penal institutions developed and perfected the criminal mentality, which he celebrated for its resistance to bourgeois values. Any attempt to rehabilitate and reintegrate prisoners into society produced weaklings and conformists.

Genet looked back fondly on the three years he spent in the Mettray penal colony for juveniles:

… fist fights, often fatal, that wardens interfere with; dormitory hammocks; silences during work and mealtimes, ridiculously pronounced prayers, barracks punishments; clogs; burned feet; military marches under the noontime sun; mess kits of cold water; and so on. We experienced it all at Mettray…

For Genet these were not excesses that should be removed in a more humane penal regime. They were “necessarily born and developed out of children’s lust for evil”. By evil, he tells us, he means self-assertion: “this will, this audacity, to follow a fate in contravention of all rules”. A reformative regime of the kind later adopted in Mettray under the direction of a “soft-hearted imbecile” would subvert this proud self-assertion.

Genet reports a conversation he had with a director of another penal colony, “as naive as Salvationists, and as kind-hearted”, on the subject of knife crime. Buried in a straw mattress, or hidden in the folds of a child’s jacket, Genet writes, a knife “impregnates his dreams and drives them, I hope, toward the most criminal acts”. A repressive penal regime encourages in children “daring, cunning, insolence, the love of sloth, a demeanour both gloomy and joyful… a taste for adventure against all rules of Good”. In practice, reforming these children means destroying them. “Obviously,” he concludes, “it is an attempt at castration.”

Born in 1910 as the child of a sex worker who handed him over for adoption, Genet was raised by what seem to have been kindly foster parents. But he often ran away and engaged in petty theft, and by the age of 15 was confined in Mettray. At the age of 18 he joined the Foreign Legion, from which he was dishonourably discharged for having committed what were described as acts of indecency. It was then that he took up the vagabond life recounted in The Thief’s Journal.

Settling in Paris in 1937, he began writing poems, plays, novels and essays. With the help of Jean Cocteau (who intervened with the authorities to prevent him being subject to a long prison sentence), Jean-Paul Sartre and other members of the French cultural elite, Genet became one of the country’s most prominent writers. By the time he wrote The Criminal Child he was a public figure whose iconoclastic views ensured a wide audience. Translated into English for the first time by Jeffrey Zuckerman, and published, along with Charlotte Mandell's translation of some of Genet’s most interesting essays, by New York Review Books, this text provides crucial insights into Genet’s way of thinking.

Commenting on Sartre’s “preface” to Genet’s work – in fact a prolix, 600-page study published in 1952 – the cultural theorist Georges Bataille noted Sartre’s view that Genet’s idea of evil was theological in origin. It is an observation that strikes to the heart of Genet’s work. A celebration of evil can only emerge from a theistic world-view that thinks of morality in binary terms. Since it represents evil as an active force and not (as in central Jewish and Christian traditions) the absence or privation of good, Genet’s is an unorthodox theology. Its antecedents are in medieval antinomian heresies such as Catharism, where evil was believed to rule the world and assert itself through the human body, above all in sexuality. (There is nothing of this in the recorded teachings of Jesus, but that is another matter.) Though Genet wrote often of his disdain for the morality of monotheism, he renewed a monotheistic conception of evil. Without this idea, his work – and his life – makes little sense.

Genet’s belief that “pederasty is evil”, stated categorically in this volume, was inconceivable in pagan polytheism. This is not merely because sex between persons of the same gender was not considered a radically separate and forbidden category of human activity. The very idea of evil was absent. The gods might be mischievous or malignant; human beings could be prone to weakness and subject to tragic fates. But there was no binary division in the moral world, or in human beings. Goodness was not opposed by any omnipresent malevolent force. In making an idea of evil the heart of his thinking, Genet showed that he continued to inhabit the dualistic universe of monotheism even as he inverted its core values.

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Choosing evil as one’s guide to life is not a novel stance. In Milton’s retelling of the Christian story in Paradise Lost (1667), Satan proclaims “Evil, be thou my good” – a declaration repeated by generations of Romantic rebels. Defying moral conventions was an integral part of the appeal of Lord Byron in the 19th century. A similar impulse animated the Marquis de Sade, an Enlightenment thinker who upended the philosophes’ belief in natural goodness and recommended that his readers follow the predatory practices that are normal in other animal species. These Romantic and Enlightenment currents came together in Nietzsche, who devoted much of his work to revalorising pagan virtues of self-assertion and vitality as defining features of a higher type of human being. When he identified himself with the criminal classes, Genet did much the same.

In celebrating crime, Genet was defining himself against the bourgeois values of his day. If de Sade and Nietzsche countered these values with a pose of aristocratic individualism, Genet opposed them with values he attributed to the lumpen criminal classes. In doing so, he shifted bourgeois morality from an ideal of improvement towards a cult of transgression.

Genet’s writings are addressed to the reader he most despises – the humanistic reformer who aims to redeem the denizens of the criminal underworld. His pungent and racy style was an attempt at provoking this reader, and it succeeded. Genet is recognised throughout the world as an enemy of bourgeois values. The political causes with which he identified himself – the French student rebellion of 1968, the American Black Panthers movement, the Baader-Meinhof Red Army Faction and the Palestinian movement – only solidified this image. But these were causes with which much of the European intellectual bourgeoisie also identified, and the result was that Genet became an icon of the society he despised.

Ever clairvoyant of the zeitgeist, David Bowie anticipated Genet’s far-reaching cultural presence in his 1972 hit single “The Jean Genie”. As the anti-bourgeois counter-culture Genet embodied was absorbed into mainstream life, he became a revered figure in the bourgeois world.

A deeper irony concerns the identity he constructed for himself. Like others in the Romantic tradition, he valued personal authenticity above anything else. Authenticity requires acting in accordance with one’s nature; but Genet’s devotion to evil was highly performative. Like Yukio Mishima, Genet constructed his sexuality by reference to an aesthetic ideal. Aestheticising values is a Romantic habit but, unlike the Japanese writer, Genet inherited a theistic world-view in which sex was a disruptive and demonic force.

Accordingly, it was an idea of ugliness, not beauty, which framed his view of his own sexuality. As he represented it, gay sex was not a way of finding pleasure and expressing love – in other words, an integral part of the human good – but a transgressive ritual. Because authenticity was expressed in acts of rebellion, same-sex erotic relationships had to be infused with homophobia if they were to be authentically valuable.

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The fundamental problem with Genet’s self-constructed identity has little to do with his sexuality, however. To cite a line from the Anglo-Irish philosopher and Anglican bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753), Genet wrote as if “to be is to be perceived.” As an Idealist, Berkeley thought of the world as being composed of thoughts. What we believe are material objects are in fact ideas, which exist only as long as they are in the mind of God.

Genet seems to think of himself in a parallel manner, but it is the perceptions of other human beings that create and form his existence. He exists only in the eyes of others, whose view of him shapes his view of himself. If they regard him as evil, he does not reject their view. He internalises it, and lives accordingly. Not only is Genet’s identity artificial. It is fashioned by other people. Without their negative perception of him, he is nothing.

A person whose identity is an artefact of how others perceive them displays an odd kind of authenticity. If Genet’s nature was an inverted replica of the values of the society he so fiercely rejected, in what sense was his individuality his own? But the paradox that what is regarded as authentic may in fact be thoroughly derivative does not only apply to Genet. It is even more striking when the pursuit of personal authenticity becomes a mass lifestyle. Genet formed his individuality by interiorising the perceptions of society and identifying authenticity with the transgression of social norms. But when society regards authenticity as the supreme human value, what do transgression and authenticity actually mean?

In his incisive and revealing essay on the sculptor Giacometti, collected in this volume, Genet wrote: “If I am nothing, I am indestructible.” Criminal children, who were regarded by society as worth nothing, were indestructible if they were authentically themselves, which in Genet’s account meant accepting that they were evil and acting on it. A difficulty arises when a sense of evil has faded and society has been converted to a morality of authenticity. At that point the individual has nothing to define itself against, and the will to follow an individual fate is dissolved into a succession of shifting poses and desires. All that exists are personal whims, changing according to the dictates of fashion.

Without a conception of evil to rebel against and embrace, the antinomian cult of transgression becomes the latest version of bourgeois conformity, and Genet its unwitting prophet. 

John Gray’s most recent book is “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

The Criminal Child and Other Essays
Jean Genet, translated by Charlotte Mandell and Jeffrey Zuckerman
NY Review Books Classics, 280pp, £14.99

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Seven Types of Atheism (Allen Lane)

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special