The New York review of Books
Volume 39, Number 19 · November 19, 1992
Genet's Last Stand
By Clifford Geertz
Prisoner of Love
by Jean Genet, translated by Barbara Bray, Introduction by Edmund White
Wesleyan University Press, 375 pp., $24.95
Max Weber once said of a minor German poet, irregular, drifting, and a friend of his, who had gotten himself involved in some of the scruffier aspects of popular revolt, that God had led him into politics in a fit of malice. Literary figures, especially romantical ones, who involve themselves directly in the dirty-hands world of collective violence (as opposed to the much larger number who harangue meetings, disgorge newspaper articles, get up petitions, or display themselves in demonstrations) do not as a rule come off very well. The sort of person given to staging extravagant parabolical dramas or writing out involute private imaginings is usually at a bit of a loss among artisans of more practical fantasies; or, often enough, their victim. The danger of taking oneself too seriously or one's comrades in arms not seriously enough, confusing words with bullets or aestheticizing blood, is all too real.
Jean Genet, for our times perhaps the very epitome of the unnormalizable artist, vagrant, thief, prisoner, prostitute, homosexual, symbological playwright, autistical novelist, and possessor of a prose style his translator calls anarchic, subversive, bizarre, and metaphysical, would seem an excellent candidate for such disasters when thrown among two of the angriest political movements of the Sixties and Seventies—the Palestinian resistance in Jordan and Lebanon and the Black Panther uprising in the United States. If he is in addition, as Genet was when he wrote this episodic account of what he calls his "five years…lived in a sort of an invisible sentry-box from which I could see and speak to everyone while I myself was a fragment broken off from the rest of the world," old, dying, and emotionally played out, both fictional truth and factual accuracy appear to be in serious risk of dissolving into blur and grandiloquence. Ex ante, the thing looks dubious.
Ex post, it is, disconcertingly, a surprising success: the record of a shape-shifter at loose among fabulists. Although the text, constructed a decade and a half after the experiences it reports, is frequently difficult to follow, both because of his easy way with chronology (Genet does not seem to think that one thing flows from another, cause after cause, but that everything jostles together in a space of memory) and because the narrative sometimes wanders into the merest of free association (especially toward the end when, abjuring pain-killing drugs so as to keep his mind unclouded, his powers may have at last been weakening), his tale has a logic and direction that grows out of a strange, almost hallucinatory, sort of hyper-precision:
None of the fedayeen ever let go of his gun. If it wasn't slung over his shoulder he held it horizontal on his knees or vertical between them, not suspecting this attitude was in itself either an erotic or a mortal threat, or both. Never… did I see a fedayee without his gun, except when he was asleep. Whether he was cooking, shaking out his blankets or reading his letters, the weapon was almost more alive than the soldier himself. So much that I wonder whether, if the farmer's wife [the mother of a friend, later captured and tortured, whom he had just visited, and who recurs, with her son, through the book as a kind of mnemonic obsession] had seen boys without guns coming towards her house, she wouldn't have gone indoors, shocked at the sight of young men walking about naked. But she wasn't surprised: she lived surrounded by soldiers.
Genet first went to the East Bank of the Jordan River in 1970, where, after the 1967 war, the Palestinians had dug into what they optimistically called "bases" but which actually were ramshackle, open-air squatter camps in and around established Jordanian villages and towns. He had been invited there, for reasons neither of them seems to have understood very clearly, by Yasser Arafat, who, just another authority figure, flaunting his head scarf as Hitler flaunted his mustache and Churchill his cigar, did not much impress him. This was the period of the increasing military pressure on the camps by King Hussein and his Bedouin and Circassian army, who appear in this narrative as far more vividly hated enemies than the more schematic, less reachable Israelis—a mini-civil war which ended with the destruction of the camps, the killing of many of their inhabitants, and the flight of most of the rest, mainly into Lebanon, in the famous, or infamous, "Black September" of 1971. Genet hung on, wandering amid the ruins ("age and weakness had given me immunity") through the following year, until he, too, was finally forced out.
This small knot of nondescript desert settlements, west of Amman, north of the Dead Sea, south of Golan, perhaps sixty miles across, was Genet's sort of place—a place marginal to everything and everywhere, where borders were but faintly dotted lines, the most recent deposits of local violence, where no one was really in charge, at least until Hussein showed the iron fist, and whose inhabitants, to the degree that this gathering of fugitives could even be called that, were, like him, extravagant, dauntless, outmatched, and doomed:
The dream, but not yet the declared aim, of the fedayeen was clear: to do away with the twenty-two Arab nations and leave everyone wreathed in smiles, childlike at first but soon foolish. But they were running out of ammunition and their main target, America, was endlessly resourceful. Thinking to walk tall, the Palestine revolution was sinking fast. Training people to sacrifice themselves results not in altruism but in a kind of fascination that makes them jump off a cliff not to help but merely to follow those who have already lept to their deaths. Especially when they foresee, not through thought but through fear, the annihilation to come.
Genet less describes the activities of the fedayeen—most of which, so far as the violence goes, take place offstage for him, in ambushes and skirmishes he is unable to witness (the "young lions," as he calls them, those men with the guns between their legs, simply go off somewhere to engage Hussein's Bedouins, more occasionally the Israelis, and some come back and some do not)—or the development of the political situation (which he regards as "a shifting dream floating over the Arab world") than he attempts to evoke the tone of everyday existence in such a place at such a time and, even more important to him, to explore his strange, seemingly unbreakable attraction to it—his imprisoning "love." It is all anecdotes, images, personalities, fragments of dialogue; scenes and ruminations.
Take, for example, the counterfeit card players. At Ajloun, the base, a stone's throw from the Jordan, at which he spent the longest time (eight months), he meets, in the night into day depths of the Fast month of Ramadan, a local doctor of severe opinions:
"I leave the fighters completely free…"
"I should hope so."
"The only thing I've forbidden is cards."
"But why cards?"
"The Palestinian people wanted a revolution. When they find out the bases on the Jordan are gambling dens they'll know brothels will be next."
But the fedayeen play, nevertheless. Or anyway they seem to. After the doctor, surfeited with soup and Qur'an chants, and bested in an exchange with Genet concerning who is more like Nero, Hussein or Adolphe Thiers, the scourge of the Commune, has gone off to bed,
Two men came in. They were fighters, still quite young but with downy moustaches on their upper lips to show how tough they were. They weighed one another up,… each trying to intimidate the other. Then they sat down facing one another, lowering themselves casually but stiffly on to the benches and hitching up their trousers to preserve a non-existent crease….
The newcomer sitting next to me took his hand out of the left-pocket of his leopard trousers, and, with a movement at once very human and yet seeming to belong to some rare ceremonial, produced a small pack of fifty cards which he got his partner to cut. Then he fanned the cards out in front of them. One of the two swept them up and arranged them in a pack again, examined it, shuffled the cards in the usual way and dealt them out between the two of them. Both looked serious almost pale with suspicion. Their lips were tight, their jaws set. I can still hear the silence…
The game began. Gambling… filled both their faces with greed. They were equally matched…. Around the two heroes, everyone tried to catch a brief glimpse of their swiftly concealed hands. Against all the rules the onlooker behind each contestant made signals to the player opposite, who pretended to take no notice…. One of the players dropped a card on the floor and picked it up so nonchalantly it reminded me of a film in slow motion.
I thought people would think he'd been cheating, imitating an "accident" familiar to card-sharpers. What little Arabic I knew consisted mainly of threats and insults. But the words charmouta ["whore"] and hattai ["degenerate"] muttered between the players' clenched teeth and lips gleaming with saliva, were quickly bitten back.
The two players stood up and shook hands across the table, without a word, without a smile.
But for all the intensity, the game was, in fact, unreal, a mocking pantomime put on for Genet's benefit. He compares it to an ironic Japanese feast he once saw called Obon, where the living caricature the dead, who have come back for three days to sit invisibly upon cushions, through deliberately clumsy actions (the children practice limping for weeks ahead), so as to say, "We are alive and we laugh at [you] the dead. [You] can't take offence because [you're] only skeletons condemned to remain in a hole in the ground."
The game of cards, which only existed because of the shocking realistic gestures of the fedayeen—they'd played at playing, without any cards, without aces or knaves, clubs or spades, kings or queens—reminded me that all the Palestinians' activities were like the Obon feast, where the only thing that was absent, that could not appear, was what the ceremony, however lacking solemnity, was in aid of.
It was, this game that was as idle as a ritual as it was empty as a game, an expression of despair:
The fedayeen knew. The show they'd put on for me demonstrated their disillusion, for to play only with gestures when your hands ought to be holding kings and queens and knaves, all the symbols of power, makes you feel a fraud, and brings you dangerously close to schizophrenia. Playing cards without cards every night is a kind of dry masturbation.
This is the way in which the whole of Genet's account moves. Sudden turns from one thing to another. (In addition to the unexpected Japanese feast, he drops into the discussion a one-armed French general who also banned card games in Damascus when the French were in charge there, chess as the image of the cold war, and the grim handshake with which Australian tennis matches end.) He makes clear his intense concern with his own role in matters that seem radically external to him, detached and accidental. ("What am I doing here? If chance exists then there's no God, and I owe my happiness on the banks of the Jordan to chance. But though I may be here through the famous throw of the dice, isn't every Palestinian here by chance too?") His obsessive precision—about how people sit down, how they handle cards, how they look on—makes everything seem abnormally real. And the whole is held together by a subtle but pervasive atmosphere of blocked eroticism:
The Syrians often let out the same cry as the shamming Palestinians when a one of swords [i.e., spades] or any of the same suit comes up. All except the seven are of ill omen: the one means excess, the two softness, the three distance, the four absence or loneliness, the five defeat, the six effort, and the seven… means hope, and it's the one card in the pack that's greeted with kisses. The eight means complaint, the nine masturbation, and the ten desolation and tears….
All this is more mood than politics, or if it is politics it is politics of the most interior sort. Genet hardly refers to the issues involved, and then in a perfunctory, formulaic manner from which the energy of his prose departs altogether. "These were the Palestinians' enemies, in order of importance: the Bedouin, the Circassians, King Hussein, the feudal Arabs, the Muslim religion, Israel, Europe, America, the Big Banks. Jordan won, and so victory went to all the rest, too, from the Bedouin to the Big Banks." The Jews are "the darkest of peoples… a people whose beginning claimed to be the Beginning, who claimed that they were and meant to remain, the Beginning." Hussein is "something Glubb Pasha left behind on the throne," an ersatz Sun King with a taste for white skin and Lamborghinis. Israel, "imposing its morals and myths on the whole world, saw itself as identical with Power. It was Power." These are barely ideas, and Genet, who was impervious to doctrine, is not really interested in them. What he is interested in is "Ferraj, Mahjub, Mubarak, and Nabila," all of them since "physically disappeared," "all of them about whom I know nothing and never shall know anything, except that they existed when I saw them and as long as they saw me and talked to me." Now, they are "too far away, too far away or too dead. In any case gone."
As he himself frankly realizes, Genet is, for all his empathy for the Palestinians' predicament, not so much a partisan ("My heart was in it; my body was in it… but… never the whole of myself") as a connoisseur of pure rebellion, of people like Saint-Just, the Panthers, the Baader-Meinhof gang (with whom he also entertained for awhile a private romance), and the fedayeen, who are "brief flashes against a world wrapped in its own smartness,… tracer bullets, knowing their traces vanish in the twinkling of an eye." Whether he would have found the Palestinians attractive, would have fallen in love with them, if they had been at all successful, if they had held off Hussein or reentered the occupied territories, if, to revert to his earlier image, they had not followed one another off the cliff in despairing sacrifice, might well be doubted:
The gestures were genuine but the cards were not. Not only were they not on the table, but they weren't anywhere; it wasn't a game of cards at all. The cards were neither present nor absent. For me they were like God: they didn't exist.
…[The fedayeen's] land—Palestine—was not merely out of reach. Although they sought it as gamblers do cards and atheists God, it had never existed…. The fedayeen's goal had been transformed into something impossible for them to imagine. Everything they did was in danger of becoming useless because they'd substituted the rehearsal for the performance. The card players, their hands full of ghosts, knew that however handsome and sure of themselves they were their actions perpetuated a game with neither beginning nor end. Absence was in their hands just as it was under their feet.
However that may be, when Genet returns to his knot of settlements fourteen years later (he is, by then, seventy-four), his book nearly done and the cancer in his throat getting ready to kill him, what he finds is only the dull, worn aftertaste of capitulation—"a change for the worse trying to pass itself off as a change for the better." He wanders about trying to find traces of old friends or stories about what happened to them, largely without success. Hardly anyone remembers him. The stories are various and contradictory. A friend he has been told was killed turns out to be living quietly in Germany; his mother, that farmer's wife who had lived so happily among soldiers, cheered her son into battle, and wielded on occasion a gun herself now is weary, mistrustful, guileful, and dried up. He tries to breathe some of the romance back into things; he even speaks of the Pietà. But it is impossible. He creeps away, "almost on tiptoe, like someone leaving a room in which even the bed is asleep."
Genet's stay with the Black Panthers in the spring of 1970 just before his move to the Middle East is little more than a footnote to the rest. There are only a dozen or so pages about it scattered through the book, awkwardly inserted and flatly written. The biting humor of the Palestine section settles into juvenile jokes about elections and erections, the plangent eroticism into blunt vulgarity about genital bulges. One gets the sense that in America he was, and saw himself to be, more a trophy or a trotted-out celebrity (he refers to himself as an aged "waif" and as "White," "childish") than, as he was in Jordan, a pilgrim questing for connection. He spent, in any case, only a few months with the Panthers, giving speeches on their behalf at Berkeley, Stony Brook, and the University of Connecticut (though he had been in this country earlier as a French version of a gonzo journalist to cover the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago), as opposed to his years living in the midst of the Palestinians, and in fact his relation to the party, its leaders, and to its cause, seems to have been rather tentative, as much bemused as anything else. It took him, he says, a long time to realize that George Wallace (whom he imagines was a senator) was a racist.
But the important point for him is that the Panthers provide, as Paris in 1968 did before them (when, so the story has it, he responded to rightwing student chants of "Genet pédéraste, Genet pédéraste" by appearing lighted on a balcony with his arms upraised), and the Palestinians after them, another forbidden border to transgress. He was always seeking out such borders—legal, moral, political, racial, sexual, and, perhaps most of all, as in the disorderly stream of wide-awake dreams that make up this book, literary—and crossing them in so visible a way as to make it impossible for the world not to notice. However uncertainly he understood what the Panthers were all about ("they were haunted by fears and fantasies I'd never known except in ironical translation"), he had no trouble at all grasping the concept of "in-your-face":
The Whites' recoil from the Panthers' weapons, their leather jackets, their revolutionary hair-dos, their words and even their gentle but menacing tone—that was just what the Panthers wanted. They deliberately set out to create a dramatic image….
And they succeeded. The theatrical image was backed up by real deaths. The Panthers did some shooting themselves, and the mere sight of the Panthers' guns made the cops fire.
Genet's whole career was consumed in taunting power in this way, except that he never fired anything except images, words, and unconscionable behavior; the more unequal the combat, the more certain the failure, the more he seemed drawn to it. By the time he got to Jordan the game was about up for him. He lived another sixteen years, producing a preface to George Jackson's prison letters, an apology for the Baader-Meinhof gang even some his defenders found hard to take, an inflammatory description, with bloated bodies and crucifixions, of the scene at Shatila, the Palestinian camp in Lebanon, after the massacres there in 1982. But in Jordan, and in this book, completed, if indeed it was completed, only weeks before his death, something more than drama and provocation appears—a quiet, almost diffident attempt to define a moment, and himself in that moment, in such a way that neither will be dismissible from history as oddity and aberration. The man Cocteau, who is supposed to have discovered him in the first place, called "The Black Prince of French Literature" seems in the end to have settled for witnessing. "I feel, now, like a little black box projecting slides without captions."
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