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Genet, Jean (19l0-1986)  
 
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Jean Genet's work has left a powerful legacy to post-modernity and remains a provocation to questions of gay identity. Genet's fidelity to outcasts and the socially marginal, his simultaneous criticism of and participation in radical politics, his obsession with role-playing and identity, and his stylized violence and obscenity anticipate post-modern apprehensions and techniques.

His commitment to the extremes of revolt contributed to the myth of "Jean Genet."

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Beginning with his first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (1942), Genet openly embraced and affirmed his homosexuality, constantly recreating and manipulating his own identity throughout his career as a novelist, playwright, activist for the Black Panthers in the late 1960s, defender of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and friend of the French literati, especially Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Cocteau (who aided in securing his official free pardon for criminal offenses in 1948).

Genet's homosexuality and his awareness of his sexual "marginality" encouraged the empathy he felt toward oppressed groups in his later career. Although Genet's revolt is deeply rooted in his awareness of his "deviant" sexuality, his political work was not predicated on his personal identity; instead, Genet worked on surmounting a simple affirmation of identity and forging a general coalition of socially disaffected groups.

Scrupulously careful in how he represented others, as his dealings with the Black Panthers and the PLO attest, Genet's affirmation of his dissident status was, in effect, universalist: It led to a generalized concern for all those who were excluded from political power.

Early Life and Explorations of Identity

Born the illegitimate son of parents he never knew, Genet, abandoned by his mother at birth, brought up by Public Assistance, was finally sent to live with foster parents at the age of seven.

His life as a thief began early; he was sent to Mettray, a French "reform" school for boys, at the age of fifteen. Much of his young adulthood was spent in prison for crimes such as theft and prostitution. Pronounced an unreformable criminal in 1948, Genet was nearly incarcerated for life until Sartre, Cocteau, and others convinced French authorities that his literary career was far too important.

Most of Genet's work incorporates themes related to prison life: the inversion of bourgeois morals, prostitution, murder, theft, betrayal, and the complex formation of identities associated with criminal subcultures.

A writer who extolled individual treachery and betrayal as a virtue, Genet's novels and plays illuminate the possibilities of survival among men, and sometimes women, bound together by fierce, unrelenting erotic desire that illuminated and transfigured the "margins."

Genet realized early the possibilities of refusal; his work is obsessed with transforming everyday objects--the vaseline confiscated by prison guards, the pin-ups of criminals placed on prison walls--into minitheaters of insurrection staged with minimal means.

As a chronicler of outcasts, lost causes, and the underworld, Genet carefully scrutinizes the very notion of "stable identities," whether French, homosexual, black, or Palestinian.

Though his novels are intricate explorations of the question of identity, primarily of Genet and the men he loves, his plays become ritualized means for staging and demolishing identity.

Our Lady of the Flowers

Genet's first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers (1942), was written in prison over an extended time since his manuscripts were constantly confiscated by prison officials. The very circumstances of the story highlight Genet's sexual identity: Our Lady is narrated by a masturbating prisoner who tells us that the characters he describes are products of his erotic fantasies conceived under the hot wool blanket of his bed.

The narrator, Genet, most closely identifies with the "hero" of the novel, Louis Culafroy, known throughout the novel as Divine. Divine's experiences as a prostitute in Paris lead him to several erotic relationships: Darling Daintyfoot the thief and pimp, Gabriel the soldier, Our Lady of the Flowers the murderer, and Gorgui, another brutal killer.

A story filled with sexually explicit descriptions of male prostitution, Genet's scatological language is a provocation to the reader's bourgeois sensibility.

Genet states that all the characters created here are masturbatory fantasies, characters "chosen for that evening's delight." He tries to define throughout Our Lady the psychological nature of fantasy; the characters themselves often "dream" their sexual encounters with each other. At one point, Divine does not know "whether she is already dreaming or merely reminiscing."

Usually referring to Divine as "she," Genet highlights the dual role of the queen and the complex relationships she/he has with her lovers.

Our Lady of the Flowers is an exaltation of erotic passion and the triumph of Genet's imagination to overcome his dehumanized existence as a prisoner.

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Jean Genet in 1963.
  
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