Sunday, December 19, 2010

Remembering... Jean Genet

It was not too long ago - within the past 50 years - that the homosexual male was an outlaw, a rebel standing against all that was bourgeois and therefore contemptible about life. Well, Jean Genet could make the best of them look like powdered poodles; in fact, he even made the outlaws look like sell-outs...

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1910, he spent his first year of life in the brothel where his mother worked; given up for adoption he spent an idyllic childhood in the countryside. His idyll was shattered when, at the age of fifteen, he was sent to Mettray Penal Colony; initially intended to be lenient (not unlike the borstal system in England, with a focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment) by the time Genet was there - as chronicled in his novel The Miracle of the Rose (1946) - it was a pretty brutal place.

Upon his release he joined the French Foreign Legion, but was soon drummed out for committing a homosexual act - which to me pretty much seems the whole point of joining the French Foreign Legion in the first place, but the authorities obviously felt otherwise. Genet spent the postwar years whoring around Europe, as recounted in his book The Thief's Journal (1949); in the same year he wrote his most famous play, The Maids.

By 1950 Genet's work had, for some reason, been banned in America, which naturally made him a huge star in France; lauded by the likes of Jean Cocteau, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Jacques Derrida this should have been the most productive time of his life, and would have been had he not been depressed. When a relationship in the mid-1960s with a tightrope walker named Abdullah ended in suicide, Genet almost made it a double.

Instead, Genet became even more political (if such a thing is possible) than he was before, frequently appearing at rallies in support of that perennial French bugbear, immigrants. In 1970, at the behest of the Black Panthers, he spent three months in the United States, lecturing and writing; in 1982 he was in Beirut at the time of the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila camps, and visited shortly thereafter, later writing an essay called Quatre heures à Chatila (Four Hours in Shatila) about the experience.

Jean Genet died in Paris in April 1986, ostensibly of cancer, but a fall and subsequent blow to the head may have hastened his demise; he is buried in Morocco, in the Spanish Cemetery at Larache.
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