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Jean-Paul Sartre

Novelist, playwright, and biographer Jean-Paul Sartre's major works include No Exit, Nausea, The Wall, The Age of Reason, Critique of Dialectical Reason, and Being and Nothingness.

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Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr

Declared by the French Government as a “Habitual Criminal”

02/12/14

“Nobody knows anybody . . . not that well,” Tom Regan (played brilliantly by Gabriel Byrne) declares in the Coen Brothers’ gangster noir “Miller’s Crossing.” And before I’d read Jean-Paul Sartre’s expansive, exhaustive (in a good way) biography of one of our most complex authors, Jean Genet, I agreed with tough guy Tom. But after trudging my way for nearly two years through this unbelievable work of art cum psychoanalysis, I beg to differ. For if anyone knows the inside and out of the highly compartmentalized Genet, it is most definitely Jean-Paul Sartre.

In the 2012 University of Minnesota Press re-release of “Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr,” Sartre has completely turned his compatriot, existential philosopher/playwright/actor/thief/all around man of letters Jean Genet, into his own private existential-living hero. It has taken me 19 months to digest this incredible book not because I’m a slow reader or because it clocks in at 650 pages (considerably fewer than Edmund White’s 1994, 800-page offering), but because in his psychoanalysis of Genet, Sartre manages to turn the tables around on the reader himself (at least this one), making him pause for tremendous chunks of time to thoroughly examine the ghastly, horrific tendencies that lie beneath and inside a human being, secretly tucked away from “proper, virtuous” society. As a writer and a semi-reformed thief/liar, I found myself stopping often and for sometimes weeks at a time to mull over and attempt to reconcile the ideas on the page aimed at deciphering Genet with my own similar reasons or justification for my petty crimes.

Sartre divides Saint Genet into four sections. The first, “The Metamorphosis,” presents us with the young orphan Genet and the complications surrounding his relationship with his various adoptive parents and their restrictive lifestyles.

Genet’s hyper awareness of social institutions and the ways in which they function transform the young boy into a willing societal tool. This little bastard child, this “ward of the French State” becomes, then, an incorrigible truant, eventually declared by the French government as a “habitual criminal.”

The administrative machine with its various gears grinding down on Genet becomes a constant, menacing entity throughout Genet’s early life, eventually metamorphosizing from foe to friend. Sartre captures this: “He is obscurely aware that he belongs legally to administrative bodies and laboratories, and so there is nothing surprising in the fact that he will later feel elective affinities with reformatories and prisons.” In Sartre’s analysis of Genet’s psyche there is an empathetic understanding of the emotional isolation and torture experienced by Genet at the hands of French society, with the knowledge that it would eventually be channeled into something extraordinary.

The second section, “First Conversion: Evil,” plays fully into Sartre’s wheelhouse, as it highlights the philosophical and theoretical complexities of evil. It is by far the most complex section of the book, and unsurprisingly, the longest. Genet’s spirit still hovers, but the form morphs from biography to philosophy as Sartre explores predicament after predicament regarding morality, crime, passion, and a host of other compelling topics. “What does this will to be evil mean to Genet himself, what is its intentional structure?” This is the type of philosophical inquiry (and subsequent exploration) that governs “First Conversion: Evil.

In the third section, “Second Metamorphosis: The Aesthete,” the Genet of popular imagination, the Legend itself, begins to surface. To his fans, Genet was, at various times in his life: a beggar, thief, homosexual, prostitute, deserter, and escapee from both reform schools and prisons.

Genet proceeded to continue to live out the life of what he had accepted as his defined role in society, as a vagabond, deadbeat, homosexual, and criminal. Even later in life, after he had become both a famous and a wealthy writer, he traveled, continued thieving, defended revolutionary causes, and never quite stopped giving the middle finger to the society that had previously rejected him. But to this list he could now also add the legitimate title of genius writer.

(When it was discovered that he was not just a writer, but an extraordinarily good one, Sartre and other members of the French Literati requested and got him pardoned from an automatically earned life sentence.)

Yet, it is precisely in this willingness to adhere to a life of crime that Genet emerges in Sartre’s eyes as the ultimate existential hero. Sartre maintains that, only “by [actually] doing evil, could [Genet] discover the evil that [French society] had told him, he possessed.” In Sartre’s eyes, Genet, born into a meaningless and hostile world, filled with guilt, fear, evil, and vacillation could only be free by eventually learning to rebel against the society that had so carefully categorized him and then so profoundly rejected him.

Sartre declares him a Saint because the morality he carves out for himself is based on a kind of pristine innocence and truth that will not admit to “bad faith.” Genet sees morality as a local bipolar tool to create psychological stability, if not some sense of self-defined equanimity. If one is honest enough (and Genet is), one can forge a black and white morality out of any kind of debris — even that leftover from a hostile society — and use it to drive one’s own stake into even alien moral ground. That is why for Genet, there is no contradiction between being a committed bible-reading altar boy and a skillful full time thief.

As The New York Times put it so elegantly at the time of the book’s original release in 1952: “Of all the forbidden literary fruits, Jean Genet was always the darkest and most dangerous.”

It is in this third part of the biography that Sartre posits: “Genet drifts from the Ethics of Evil to a black aestheticism. The metamorphosis takes place at first without his realizing it: he thinks that he is still living beneath the sun of Satan when a new sun rises: Beauty.”

Unlike Sartre’s previously engagement with Genet’s relationship to evil, this particular section, brief by the book’s standards, formulates Genet’s budding relationship with art and the establishment of aesthetic criteria, and serves as a connecting bridge to Sartre’s fullest consideration of Genet’s writing in the final section, “Third Metamorphosis: The Writer.”

Sartre begins the final, fourth section with a pledge: “I shall explain why Genet’s works are false novels written in false prose. But prose, whether false or not, springs from the intention to communicate.” There it is, then. Sartre sees Genet’s body of work as having something extremely muscular to transmit and the forms it has taken, as a means to an end. In fact, Sartre goes so far to say that “Genet treats his readers as means. He uses them all to talk to himself about himself, and this peculiarity may alienate readers.” This could very well be a possibility, if readers had weak enough constitutions to feel self-conscious of their exploitation; however, they would lose out on Genet’s writing genius if they were to pass him up in favor of this easy dismissal.

Of Sartre, Genet himself said in a 1964 Playboy interview that “in a world where everyone is trying to be a respectful prostitute, it’s nice to meet someone who knows he’s a bit whorish but doesn’t want to be respectable.” About this biography, in that same interview, he said that “It filled me with a kind of disgust, because I saw myself stripped naked by someone other than myself. When I strip myself I manage not to get too damaged as I disguise myself with words, with attitudes, with certain choices, by means of certain magic. My first impulse was to burn the book. I was almost unable to continue writing. Sartre’s book created a kind of void which made for [me] a kind of psychological deterioration.”

In this last section, Sartre asks a simple, stirring question: “Have I been fair enough to Genet?” The answer is not surprisingly multi-layered and complex. Each reader will have his or her own powerful, different opinion.

Despite often being misunderstood, Genet has been called a genius, and he ultimately became a rich man. He remained, until his death from cancer in 1983, a man of simple counter-cultural taste. Until the bitter end, he mocked the society that had rejected him.

Sartre, quite powerfully, ends this long, intense journey with a unique obligation: “Genet holds the mirror up to us: we must look at it and see ourselves.” If you’re like me, you won’t like what you see, but neither will you be able to look away.

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