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Book Review: Saint Genet by Jean-Paul Sartre

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If a biography is a chronological account of the life and work of its subject, Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic study of Jean Genet, Saint Genet, is far from what would be called a biography. If a biography is an attempt to understand the psychic make-up of its subject, how it was formed, and its effects on his life and work, it comes a bit closer. If, on the other hand, a biography is an attempt to understand how an individual’s life echoes certain elemental patterns growing out of key determining events, Saint Genet hits the bull’s eye.

Rather than being a study of the events of Genet’s life, Sartre’s 1952 text,  nearly universally acknowledged as a masterwork, has been reissued by the University of Minnesota Press. It is an examination of the existential forces that create the being that creates itself.

Sartre has a particular philosophical view of the world and the individual’s place in that world, and Genet becomes a kind of metaphor for that philosophical view. Branded as an outlaw as a child, Genet chooses to embrace the brand, to be the outlaw. “I decided to be what crime made of me,” he says.

Sartre’s analysis in much the pattern of his philosophical speculation points out the duality of being and doing inherent in Genet’s statement, the circularity of the relation between the two, and the impossibility of resolving its duality. “Like the mad needle of a compass, he [Genet] oscillates perpetually from act to gesture, from doing to being, from freedom to nature without ever stopping.”

The conception of Genet as saint and sinner finding the evil in beauty and the beauty in evil is on some level simply a logical extension of this ontological emphasis on duality. Not only is this true of Genet’s life, but more importantly, it is true of his writing; although, as the translator points out, Sartre’s discussion of Genet’s work doesn’t include anything published after 1952. He engages in writing, but he is contemptuous of writing. What he has written is always his last book. He has said whatever he had to say. “The rest is beyond words. I must say no more,” Sartre quotes Genet from The Miracle of the Rose.

In many respects Sartre’s application of his philosophical system to the criticism of literature is the precursor of the variety of schools of literary theory that were to dominate academic criticism in the later part of the 20th century. It is quite easy to see a book like Saint Genet as is some sense the ancestral forbear of the critics like Derrida, de Man and the like. And like their critical tomes, Saint Genet is not a book for the casual reader.

Sartre’s analyses are always subtle, challenging and carefully reasoned, but to the extent that they are inevitably tied to his philosophical perspective, they may well leave the uninitiated reader at something of a loss. This is a book that requires a good deal from the reader.

Like perhaps all of the contemporary criticism that followed in its wake, it demands a knowledge of some rather complex philosophical systems. It demands the reader’s constant attention. It demands a commitment to close reading and analysis.

To the reader who is willing to make that commitment, the book will be its own reward. To the reader willing to make the commitment, not only are there remarkable insights into Genet and his work, but there is also the privilege of tagging along on a journey with one of the great minds of the last century.

About Jack Goodstein