Thursday, July 9, 2009
Miracle of the Rose
by Jean Genet
Translated by Bernard Frechtman
The prison is the double of life. Not so much that prison mirrors or replicates life; it is a simulated environment whose verisimilitude is independent of any ‘liberated’ life. Prison is the actualized space upon which the outside world is contingent. Life is lived by the prisoner, not by the freed man. That prisoner navigates through a series of chambers, spaces not necessarily geographical, and this progression in fact binds the him to these chambers. This sequence of containments ultimately builds to the double of life – life itself. Jean Genet composed his second book, ‘Miracle of the Rose,’ in 1943 while still interned at La Sante prison. The book chronicles Genet’s stay at the Fontevrault penitentiary as he looks back on his youth at Mettray and investigates his attraction to his fellow prisoners, Divers, Villeroy, Bulkean and the saintlike murderer, Harcamone. This is my first encounter with Genet, but I was instantly struck by the debt many of my favorite writers, Kathy Acker and Samuel R Delany in particular, owe to him. Genet’s insights on the tattoo and identity directly remind me of Acker, while Delany seems to have found much inspiration in his approach to naming from this French author.
Genet rambles on erotic games, decapitations and inter-prison power struggles, but ‘Miracle of the Rose’ is not necessarily without structure. Instead, bear in mind the earlier image of a procession through a network of corridors and chambers. ‘Miracle of the Rose’ undergoes protean transformations. These transformations anchor the book’s digressions. Genet does not break his meditations into chapters; instead, a paragraph may very well begin in Fontevrault prison, and end at Mettray Reformatory. Memory and transformation are the prevailing themes of ‘Miracle of the Rose,’ as they enact themselves upon space and the eroticized body. What differentiates the interior from the exterior? What is the erotic scope of friendship? This book is a Proustian development of thought through writing. It is interesting to keep in mind any similarities between Genet’s act of writing while in prison with the deeds of his subjects, such as the murders Harcamone commits.
The act of transformation ties all these concerns together. But then, so does identity and image. Genet, writing from prison, engages the image, the question of seeming and being. He is seized by “…the fear that honest people may be thieves who have chosen cleverer and safer way of stealing.” But then, that begs the questions, what does ‘the image’ of the honest signify? Might it not actually connote something radically different? Prison allows, for Genet, a reversing and a revealing of signs. Genet spent his adolescence amidst the contained gardens of the Mettray Reformatory, and after a spell as a cabin boy on a sailing vessel and a short turn as a petty thief, arrives at Fontevrault. Prison recontextualizes, or perhaps clarifies, the role of objects for Genet. The walls of the prison are contrast with the open air boundaries of Mettray. Do walls bind or can they liberate? Remember Genet’s conscious pursuit of punishment in the ‘hole.’
Genet regards things “…for their practical qualities. The objects here in jail have been worn out by my eyes and are now sickly pale. They no longer mean prison to me, because prison is inside me, composed of the cells of my tissues. It was no before long after my return here that my hands and eyes, which were only too familiar with the practical qualities of objects, finally stopped recognizing these qualities and discovered others which have other meanings.” That is, Genet does not so much discover the double of the image, but that images are doubled. There nature is one of many. Images can be others. Transformation is intrinsic. The protean is the fundamental quality of the thing. But then, things aren’t this simple for Genet.
Furthermore, “Everything was without mystery for me, but that bareness was not without beauty because I establish the difference between my former and present view of things, and this displacement intrigues me.” Genet, then, offers “…a very simple image: I felt I was emerging from a cave peopled with marvelous creatures, which one only senses (angels, for example, with speckled faces), and entering a luminous space where everything is only what it is, without overtones, without aura. What it is: useful.” Genet is not only discussing the object that is seen, but also the manner of seeing. Seeing itself is as much at issue within ‘Miracle of the Rose’ as is seeming. Genet clarifies the dimensions of his world, he lives “...in so closed a universe, the atmosphere of which is thick, a universe seen through my memories of prisons, through my dreams of galleys and through the presence of convicts: murderers, burglars, gangsters, that I do not communicate with the usual world, or, when I do perceive it, what I see of it is distorted by the thickness of the wadding in which I move with difficulty. Each object in your world has a meaning different for me from the one it has for you.” Genet invests the object with a singular meaning, a meaning alien to those living in the outside world.
The cave scene is a difficult passage to parse. It is an ironic one as well; as the reality is one of Genet entering the confined space of the prison in order to metaphorically exit the cave within the vision. It echoes Plato’s famous parable of the cave in order to divest it with an air of revelation. But what is being uncovered? And what does it mean? In one regard, this is a dreary world of the image stripped naked. Yet at the same time Genet offers us a vision of the angels, the image stripped bare is the actual ecstasy of the image. Genet’s view of the world is both uncovered and obscured. The prison is the entirety of the world, yet it is also the lack of the world – its insufferable absence. Is it even Genet’s intention to reconcile these negations?
Perhaps the give and take here described could be better understood as one of seduction. The book both opens and closes with evocations of the beheaded child murderer, Harcamone. The very idea of Harcamone seduces Genet. But the doomed inmate Bulkean also seduces Genet, as does the memory of Mettray. No, memory itself seduces Genet, as we shall see later when we discuss the final pages of ‘Miracle of the Rose.’
Accompanying this seduction is a complex series of contractions as Genet is both attracted and repulsed by the objects he adores. Genet views Bulkean, his lover, with a strange mix of love and indifference. It is worth paying attention to the importance are given by Genet in ‘Miracle of the Rose.’ Bulkean accumulates names. Perhaps this naming is an attempt by Genet to retain some vestige of the man after his death in a botched prison escape.
Genet first addresses Bulkean on a stairwell – marking a transition, a liminal point. Genet “…remembered he was in for a jewel robbery and not knowing his name, yet… called out, ‘Hey… Hey… Jewel! Hey, Jewel!’ He turned around, his face lit up. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘I don’t know your name.’ But he said very fast and in a low voice, ‘You’re right, call me Jewel.’” There is a strange sublimation at work here. Genet in effect conjures Bulkean through naming him – he gives the jewel thief an identity. At the same time, ‘Jewel’ sounds like Genet. Bulkean is on some level a double of the author. Later, Genet “…learned that his name was Bulkean a little later when I heard a guard rebuke him for walking too slowly…” In this instance, Bulkean is again named, but through a negative conjuring, he is being reprimanded. Names continue to form a constellation, as “it was on a back of a photo that I saw that his given name was ‘Robert.’ Anyone but me would have been surprised that at first he told people to call him ‘Pierrot’ and later ‘Jewel.’ I was neither surprised nor annoyed. Hoodlums like to change names or distort their real ones until they are unrecognizable.”
A name conjures an identity, but even a naming is ultimately inconclusive. We are left with signs. Genet considers poetic naming, literary language itself, as “In a poem, ordinary words are shifted around in such a way that their usual meaning is enriched by another: the poetic import. Each of the things, each of the objects that recur to my mind composed a poem. At Mettray, each object was a sign that meant grief.” Here we both have the multiplication of signs, as well as the narrowing of their signification into a single meaning – grief. But then, as Genet tells us, “I refer everything to my system, in which things have an internal signification, and even when I read a novel, the facts without being distorted, lose the meaning which has been given them by the author and which they have for you, and take on another so as to enter smoothly the otherworldly universe in which I live.” The book concerns itself with memory, and as such, it privileges the subjective. The only means to really confront reality is through this subjective lens.
The passion of Harcamone is the emblematic transformation in ‘Miracle of the Rose.’ Harcamone “…realized that the incarnation which had transformed him into a field hand was coming to an end. He had to fulfill his mission.” Harcamone assaults a young girl, he “…hurt her. She tried to scream. He strangled her. This murder of a child by a child of sixteen was to lead me to the vision of an ascension to the paradise which is offered me.” Again we see a subjective reversal, as a repulsive act is the catalyst for the sublime. The descent into Fontevrault leads to the ascent out of the cave, as now Harcamone’s murder is the cause for a greater transcendence.
Let us then look at the final pages of ‘Miracle of the Rose,’ in which Genet enters the phantasmagorical interior. As Harcamone slept, “…four men entered his dream. Then he awoke. Without getting up, without even raising his torso, he turned his head to the door. He saw the black men and understood immediately, but he also realized very quickly that, in order to die in his sleep, he must not disrupt or destroy the state of dreaming…” Then, the narrative assumes a nightmarish grotesquery, as “…he became huge, overtopping and splitting the cell, filling the universe, and the four black men shrank until they were no bigger than four bedbugs… the four men quickly took advantage and climbed up his leg and sloping thigh… the judge and the lawyer wormed their way into the ear and the chaplain and the executioner dared enter his mouth.” The four men travel through strange corridors and down dark alleys before, “finally, all four met at a kind of crossroads which I cannot describe accurately. It led down, again to the left, into a luminous corridor lined with huge mirrors.” The four black men move into the heart of Harcamone’s heart to encounter the mystic rose at the center of his being. They lean over into the central abyss, and “All four made the gestures of people losing their balance, and they toppled into that deep gaze.”
Harcamone is dead. Bulkean is dead. Genet tells us so in the very first few pages of ‘Miracle of the Rose.’ But then, Genet does not intend to write a novel in any such words. We are not reading to find out what happens next. We read to relive, or maybe more accurately retain, what has been before. We create for the first time what has already passed. What are words before the image? “Words have no power over Harcamone’s image. They will not exhaust it, for its matter is inexhaustible. Novels are not humanitarian reports.” No, instead ‘Miracle of the Rose’ is an imprecise impression of lives. The lives, those of Harcamone, Bulkean, and now even Genet, have rotted away, leaving only names. These are ghosts, doubles. Something else, but also a real thing. “These papers are their graves. But I shall transmit their names far down the ages. These ages alone will remain in the future, divested of their objects. Who, it will be asked, were Bulkean, Harcamone, Divers, who was Pilorge, who was Guy? ...If I take leave of this book, I take leave of what can be related. The rest is ineffable.” Genet does not pretend that life can be related with words. But words can relate life’s double – itself a sort of life. A name is a manner of life, but not for a separate thing, but for the name itself. A form of life.
NEXT: Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra & Simulation.