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.