22. Jean Genet – The Miracle of the Rose (1946)
Genet was a huge influence on Burroughs. There’s no doubt about that. Whenever I track down photos of Burroughs’ various bookshelves, they always contain a number of Genet’s novels and plays, and a range of biographies about him, both in French and English.
Burroughs routinely includes Genet’s name among modern geniuses: “Joyce, Beckett, Genet,” is how his list usually ends. He cites Prisoner of Love as the main inspiration behind My Education (more on that later in the blog) and his time spent with Genet covering the Chicago ’68 Democratic Party Conference riots as the zenith of his political interventions.
The similarities between the two men clearly explain some of this hero worship. Genet was a male prostitute turned burglar who spent most of his childhood and adult years in remand homes and prisons. He idolised criminals (literally; in that he worshipped them like idols), and found an alternative morality in what Gide would call the acte gratuit.
The Miracle of the Rose is the novel that Burroughs quotes the most. It is set in Fontainebleu; a high-security prison that used to be a monastery, where the Plantagenet royal family are also buried. Even the setting hints at Genet’s inverted moral world. Prisoners, knights and saints intermingle in his mind.
Genet idolises murderers most of all. They rise above the other criminals – mostly “crashers” (burglars), “big men” (gangsters) or pimps. They have performed the “ritual” of taking a life and now, like saints, are enveloped by a charismatic miasma.
As Hercamone, the main murderer of the novel, enters, we see his chains all turn to roses and his blonde hair glows like a halo. Genet reaches his hand through the bars, hoping to touch the hem of his garments.
This is Genet’s second novel after Our Lady of the Flowers. Where Our Lady is mostly imagination – a teenaged fantasy of transvestite criminals committing crimes and rising to heaven – The Miracle is a more typical roman a clef.
There are, nevertheless, fantasy portions. Genet has a running daydream about a pirate ship where he is the cabin boy ordered around by burly sailors. This no doubt inspires Burroughs’ libertine pirates on the ship of Captain Mission.
There are also the miracles, which include Harcamone flying through walls at night, Harcamone’s blood turning into rubies as he is beheaded, and Lou Daybreak, a minor character, being able to deflect punches using the radiant magic of his name.
Sartre famously ended Genet’s writing career by writing a glowing extended review of his work. He pointed out it’s fundamentally masturbatory nature. That, in reading Genet, you are essentially peering into the private fantasies of a convict.
He certainly writes as if for himself alone. Details like sniffing his own farts for pleasure are hard to render as anything else but strange, private eroticism. There is, nevertheless, a theological component to Genet’s work that, one suspects, may have been developed yet further had Sartre not shamed Genet out of writing novels.
It is this inverse theology that I find the most interesting feature of Genet. Both personally, and in terms of the Burroughs project.
Veronique Lane, despite doing some great work unpacking the Beats’ French connection, asserts in The French Genealogy of the Beat Generation that Genet’s “anti-humanist” philosophy is one that Burroughs attempted, and failed, to mimic.
I don’t see it this way at all. It seems to me that Genet is classically Baroque in his treatment of his criminal saints. The Catholic counterreformation, adapting on the visceral appeal of classical art for Christian purposes, made of the Bible a pagan orgy of blood, guts, terror, drunkenness, sex and holy ecstasy.
St Paul, flecked with the blood of freshly-executed Christians, is struck down blind by the light of God. Jesus is torn, shredded, bleeding and boil-ridden as he hangs like meat from the cross. The illiterate St Matthew, nose red with drink, giggles like a child as an angel guides his hand, writing out the first Gospel.
It is only a small step from Baroque to Genet. One simply must revert back to the pagan morality from which Catholicism first borrowed this art; a morality of beautiful cruelty, without mercy. Hercamone is the classical iuvenis; the boy with the sword, good looks, and no cares. Deadly. Beyond good and evil.
There is nothing anti-humanist about Genet, then. Genet is pure humanity. The red blood of the Mediterranean, where piety is for art, not rules and concepts. To even call Genet’s worship an “inversion” of Christian morality, as I tend to do, is perhaps to misattribute morals where they never were in the first place. Catholic performance is not the same as Protestant moralising.
Ultimately, from this, Burroughs draws an aesthetic – gritty reality meeting luscious amoral fantasy – but not a philosophy.
To an American Midwestern Protestant, as Burroughs was raised to be, the image of murder as a saintly act could only be understood as a contradiction, rather than a celebration of style. His own violent fantasies contain little that’s beautiful. He conjures dark gods to preside over them, they are dirty, fetid, and contagious. They bring plagues.
Burroughs intuitively connects morality and hygiene. Sex-plagues are to American Puritanism what rose-adorned murderers are to Mediterranean Catholicism; they are the natural consequences of that religion when taken one step further.
I feel like my journey into Burroughs’ reading matter has been surprisingly religious so far. Theology seems to me now to be the natural way to interpret Burroughs’ work. God knows it’s not how he’s normally read, but the transcendent appears to be the one core concern tying all of his manifold interests together.
Genet, I believe, is the root of this interest. His recognition that crime is a religious practice provides a stage on which Burroughs’ own theological explorations can play out.
Burroughs, we must always remember, was himself a murderer (if not legally, at least in his own mind). He stands beside Harcamone as one who has performed the ultimate ritual. He was also an “accomplice” in the murder of David Kammerer. The question of murder, for him, was not abstract.