Jean Genet (1910 - 1986)

Jean Genet, the illegitimate son of a Parisian prostitute, was born on October 19, 1910, and orphaned seven months later. At the age of thirteen, after having subsisted as a ward of the state, he inaugurated a life of crime and adventure by gaily spending, at a county fair, a sum of money that his guardian had entrusted to him. From ages 15 to 18, Genet spent an impressionable period at the Mettray penitentiary, a place of hard labor, where a code of love, honor, gesture and justice was enforced by the inmates; and where his sexual awakening occurred. After this, serving in the French Foreign Legion, he went to Syria. This period was succeeded, upon desertion of the Legion, by travel and numerous imprisonments, during which time he survived by petty theft, begging, and homosexual prostitution.

By the age of 23, Genet was living in Spain, sleeping with a one-armed pimp, lice-ridden and begging - a period which became the basis for The Thief's Journal. In the fashion of a Genet novel, life's abject experiences gave birth to rare beauty. At age 32, while in prison, he started writing his first manuscript, Our Lady of the Flowers. It was discovered and destroyed. Genet rewrote it from memory. This handwritten manuscript was smuggled out of his cell and eventually came to the attention of Cocteau and Sartre, who lobbied vigorously for a pardon from a life-sentence. More than forty intellectuals and artists petitioned the French government on Genet's behalf. Genet's stature as an original and important writer was cemented with Sartre's study of him in the work Saint Genet.

Genet by Giacometti

After five novels, and then a silence of several years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Genet re-emerged as a playwright. He wrote a number of theatrical pieces which further established his success, begining with
the production of The Maids, and followed by the other classic plays: The Blacks, The Balcony, and The Screens. Genet, like Artaud, believed the theatre should be an incendiary event, and he cultivated precise ideas about the care with which his spectacles should be mounted.

Genet portrayed the gay world openly, without apology or explanation, showing it as poetic rather than sordid, at a time when many authors were mounting pleas of "sympathy" toward homosexuality.
Still, Genet's sense of solidarity was even stronger with thieves, and others of society's dispossed. In later life, Genet championed the causes of the Black Panthers in the United States and Palestinian soldiers in Jordan and Lebanon. His final work, Un captif amoureux (Prisoner of Love), is a record of his years spent with these two groups. Genet completed Un captif amoureux in 1986, soon before his death on April 15th of that same year.

Jean Genet died in a hotel room of the same working class district where he'd been abandoned 75 years earlier. He is buried in Morocco.

Genet and Sartre

"In general, this motionless mover is Genet himself or one of his substitutes. But even when the center is merely a figurehead, this planetary attraction which makes things gravitate about a central mass is to him a symbol of Providence. He reconstructs the real on every page of his book in such a way as to produce for himself proof of the existence of God, that is, of his own existence.

This hierachical conception of a world in which forms dovetail has a name: essentialism. Genet's imagination is essentialist, as is his homosexuality. In real life, he seeks the Seaman in every sailor, the Eternal in every pimp. In his reverie he bends his mind to justifying his quest. He generates each of his characters out of a higher Essence; he reduces the episode to being merely the manifest illustration of an eternal truth."

Jean-Paul Sartre


Genet by Giacometti


"Genet betrays his actors. Perhaps nowhere has he lied
more brazenly than in The Maids." - Jean-Paul Sartre

"Jean Genet is a great poet. Genet's morality is severe
and inflexible, and he never departs from it." - Jean Cocteau

"It is because an action has not been completed that it is
vile." - Jean Genet

Here is an article about Genet's homosexuality : " Once a sodomite, twice a philosopher" by Edmund White.