Jean Genet (interview 1981)

Uploaded by MrMelanpyre on 12.08.2012

An interview with Antoine Bourseiller
Summer 1981
l don't know why l shouldn't talk about myself.
l'm the person who knows the most about myself. Right?
His birth certificate says:
''born at 7:45pm on December 19th, 1910, in Paris
of Camille Gabrielle Genet and an unknown father.''
Except for his books, we know nothing of him,
including the time of his death, which he expects to be near.
What mattered the most--
what mattered the most to me
l've put in my books...
not because l was the narrator--
in this instance
the ''l'' isn't anything
but a slightly magnified character.
l am closer to what l wrote
l am truer in what l wrote...
because l wrote it in jail,
and l was convinced l would never get out.
Why l never went back to jail?
l'll try and give you an answer,
for what it's worth.
l think that by age 30--
l had already fully enjoyed...
the erotic appeal l found in prisons--
male prisons, that is.
l've always liked the darkness,
even as a kid...
probably to the point of going to jail.
l'm not saying l stole
in order to end up in jail--
l stole so l could eat--
but l think that that intuitively led me to the darkness--
to jail.
Then, around age 35-36,
l had the desire to travel.
l was drawn to the Far East.
Before you guys did,
l felt like checking out Katmandu.
But hardly had l reached Istanbul than l was tired of traveling.
Traveling was boring to me, so l backtracked to Greece.
There, l saw something amazing:
the darkness mixed with light.
The four years l spent in Greece
were probably the sunniest years of my life...
but mixed with darkness.
ln this instance l found the darkness...
in bath houses
or in cinemas filled with soldiers--
very attractive soldiers.
l liked Greece also because...
along with the Arab nations,
it is the most
erotically charged place on Earth.
That's probably why l spend so much time there.
That said, my attraction to prisons was over.
There's one more reason why l liked Greece so much.
lt was, and it still is, the only place on Earth
where the people
are able to worship and honor their gods,
and mock them at the same time.
What the Greeks did to Olympia,
no Jew would ever do to Yahweh
no Christian to Christ
no Muslim to Allah.
The Greeks were able
to poke fun at themselves and at their gods.
l find that amazing.
l was raised Catholic
but God--
well, God was more like a picture:
some guy nailed to the cross.
The young woman... what's her name, again?
Mary getting pregnant thanks to a dove--
all that didn't seem very reliable to me. Right?
l was about 15, 14-15 years old,
when l got sick.
The idea of God was not to be taken seriously.
It had no place in my life
when l was a kid from age one to 15.
So when l was 15, l got sick and went to the hospital.
l don't know if it was serious or not.
So l was staying at the hospital
and was taken care of by the health department,
and every day, the nurse would give me a piece of candy,
telling me it was a gift
from the little boy staying next door.
Then l got better after a while,
and l wanted to see and express my gratitude
to the guy who had been sending me candy.
So l saw this 16, 17-year-old guy
who was so handsome
that everything l had experienced before him didn't matter anymore--
God, the Virgin Mary, whatever, were gone
because he was God.
And do you know what his name was?
That kid's name was ''Divers''
and it might as well have been ''Nobody''.
And that guy--
if he's still alive he's got to be 74-75 years old--
and that guy led to a bunch of replicas,
all the lovers l've had
up to about 10 years ago.
They weren't faded replicas, mind you.
lt was quite the opposite:
the replicas were sometimes more beautiful than the original.
So regarding God...
l must say that Greece offered me the most vivid experience.
Greece, as well as Arab countries.
''The Tightrope Walker''
Some animal tamers resort to violence.
You can try and tame your rope, but beware:
the rope, like the panther and the people,
has a thirst for blood.
Why not conquer it instead?
the death l'm referring to
will not follow your fall,
but precedes your walk on the rope.
For it is before stepping on the rope that you die.
The dancer will die looking for beauty,
ready for the ultimate beauty.
Your face is pale as you appear.
it is not fear.
On the contrary.
You're filled with invincible audacity.
Your face will eventually turn pale.
ln spite of the makeup and the glitter,
you will turn white; your soul will fade.
Only then will your dexterity reach its peak.
Free from the ground, you will dance without falling.
Make sure you die, though,
before death walks that tightrope.
l must add, you are risking physical, irreversible death.
This circus drama demands it.
That cruel game remains-- one of the few
with poetry, war and bullfighting.
Danger has its reason
and your muscles will have to act with precision;
the slightest mistake will cause your fall and break or kill your body.
ln that precision will thus lie the beauty of your dance.
Which leads me to say that one should love the circus
and despise the world.
An enormous beast come from diluvian times
has landed on the city.
Enter and you will see the monster
filled with cruel mechanical wonders:
horse-riders, clowns lions and their tamers,
a magician, a juggler, German trapeze artists,
a horse that speaks and counts
and you.
You all are the remains of legendary times,
of a distant era.
Your fathers feasted on broken glass and fire;
they tamed snakes and doves, they juggled with eggs;
they put words in the mouths of horses.
Don't ever leave that enormous canvas belly.
lt is pointless, tactless advice l'm giving you.
Who could follow it?
All l wanted to do was write a poem
that would make your cheeks blush.
My goal was to tease you, not to teach you.
l met Abdallah
and l took him to Greece with me.
He was a deserter.
He was half German half Algerian--
so half French, at the time
since his father was from Algeria, which was French at the time.
He was supposed to do his mandatory service during the Algerian war
and l helped him desert.
So we went to Greece
where he learned to dance on a tightrope.
Abdallah is such a big part of my private life
that l'd rather not talk about him on camera
the same way l'd rather not talk about Jean Decarnin
who was a 21-year-old Communist
who lost his life to the Germans.
They both died: Abdallah committed suicide
and Jean Decarnin was killed by the Germans.
They died in different circumstances
but of equally heroic deaths,
and all that l keep to myself.
l won't say any more.
Can you talk about Giacometti?
Of course!
l can still feel the wicker
from the kitchen chair
he had me sit on for 40-plus days to draw my picture.
l was not allowed to move or smoke.
l could turn my head a little, that's all.
But l must say he made
beautiful conversation.
When l'm not working
and l'm trying to think of my next project,
l can picture the finished face like it's right before my eyes.
But once l start working, it's a different story.
Things get confused.
l like the whole face
but what l'm most interested in now
is to give the eye a more precise aspect.
The material
the eye is made of
is completely different from the rest of the face.
The features of a face are not very delineated,
they're actually not clear,
but the eye appears like a distinct object,
almost like an optical instrument.
What is surprising, though,
is that if the eye is too well defined
it goes against what you're trying to show,
which is the expression of the eyes.
The eyes themselves don't express anything.
What's funny is that in ''exotic'' sculpture--
l can't remember if it is in Africa or Oceania--
l've seen a sculpted face where the eyes were made of seashells,
and that sculpture had a life to itself.
lt was made of wood
with two seashells for the eyes.
lt looked absolutely real,
except with two shells for the eyes.
lt seems obvious
that one should never sculpt the face as it appears.
At least to us.
l think that today,
and since the end of the 19th century,
it is impossible to reproduce what the eye sees
and to call the result ''finished''.
Some did ''finish'' their paintings.
At least they thought they did.
For us, that is not possible.
There can't be a finished piece,
because the closer you get to your subject,
the more you see.
And the closer l get, the farther you look.
So the distance between what l'm doing and what l'm aiming to do
remains essentially the same,
and might even increase.
lf l observed you for 1,OOO years,
l am convinced that, in the end,
l would tell you that it's all wrong
but that l was starting to see something.
He speaks rugged words.
He seems to favor intonations and words
from ordinary conversations, as a cooper would.
Him: ''You've seen the plaster ones?
You remember the plaster ones?''
Me: ''Sure.''
Him: ''Do you think bronze is not appropriate?''
Me: ''Not at all.''
Him: ''Do they look their best in bronze?''
l hesitate to utter the words that best describe my feelings.
Me: ''You're going to make fun of me.
lt's a strange feeling:
l wouldn't say that they look their best in bronze,
but that bronze looks its best as them.
For the first time bronze looks its best.
Bronze has won
against itself maybe.''
Him: ''That's what it should be.''
Speaking about bronze,
one of his friends made a joke during a dinner party--
l don't recall who-- and he said:
''Really, could a normal brain
fit into a head this flat?''
Giacometti knew that a brain could not live in a bronze head
even if he had known the exact size of Mr. RenĊ½ Coty's.
Since the head is to be made of bronze
and has to come to life along with the bronze,
it has to...
lt's quite clear, right?
Of course l remember Alberto.
You told me he was one of the men you admired most.
- The only one. - The only one?
l am grateful to have spent time in Greece, if you will,
because l've learned two things there:
smiling and incredulity.
Alberto taught me to be sensitive to anything--
dust, things like that.
l mentioned earlier...
that Greece was the place where l felt the most free.
l mentioned the two young men l've loved the most:
Abdallah and Decarnin.
l mentioned the man l've admired the most
and that's Giacometti.
My life is coming to an end-- l am 71--
and before you
stands what's left of all that
of my life and of my traveling.
Nothing more.
That's really not much.
l was born in Paris on December 19th, 1910.
Since l grew up without parents,
that's all l knew about myself.
When l turned 21 l was given my birth certificate.
My mother's name was Gabrielle Genet.
My father's name is unknown.
l was raised by peasants in Burgundy.
When l happen to see flowers we call ''genet''
on my way back from Gilles de Rais's castle
now in ruins
l feel the most heartfelt sympathy for them.
l have the highest regard for them.
Nature seems to take a hold of me.
l am all alone and l might as well be the king.
Or maybe l am a fairy to these flowers.
They salute me as l go by, without moving...
they recognize me.
They know l am their human counterpart--
moving, agile, strong to the wind.
They are my natural emblem,
and they are my roots in this soil
nourished by the crushed bones of the children
sodomized, killed and burnt by Gilles de Rais.
''O let my keel split!
O let me sink to the bottom!''
what's surprising is that...
the boat says ''O let my keel split!''
in ''The Drunken Boat''.
ln French slang, a keel is a leg.
So at the age of 17,
Rimbaud said ''Oh let my keel split!''--
oh let my leg--
and at the age of 37, his leg was amputated, by the seaside, in Marseille.
That's all l wanted to say.
l can't prove it, but it seems that all human beings--
every one of them, poet or not,
even though that doesn't mean anything--
but every human being seems to have, at some point in life,
something like a prophetic vision about himself
that he doesn't even see.
l am sure Rimbaud
meant to say, and really said,
that his leg would be amputated.
l am convinced he wanted to be anonymous.
To continue with poets,
l am convinced Racine wanted to be anonymous.
l am convinced...
Shakespeare wanted to be anonymous.
And so did Homer.
So what makes it that...
every human being...
can, at some point in life,
unveil or bring that out?
l have no idea. Maybe nothing at all.
What remains sacred to me--
and l've deliberately used the word ''sacred''--
is time.
Space doesn't matter to me.
A space can...
get smaller
or bigger...
sometimes to the extremes
but it doesn't matter to me.
Time, however--
l have felt in the past,
and l still do
that a certain number of years to live
were given to me at birth.
Given by whom? l don't know.
Of course.
But they seem to have been given to me by a god.
ln any case,
even if it's not a god that dances,
don't picture a god
that judges, like you,
and that looks bleak like you can imagine.
lt's not that at all. It's a smiling god
who guides me and helps me win chess games, for instance.
and that's what l was saying yesterday,
it's a god l have created,
the same way rules are created.
l talk about him and that's a given, but--
l talk about him and l invent him.
That's all l can tell you.
But he doesn't know how to dance
the god Nietzsche wants to believe in.
He doesn't dance but he's having fun.
He's having fun with me.
Even the most anonymous of men
gets his years-- in various numbers--
and that gift of time is sacred.
Not only should l not touch it,
while others can-- they can kill me--
but l shouldn't touch it.
And during that time,
those 70 years now,
l've had to work with time.
l couldn't let it lie fallow
so to speak.
l couldn't let it sit there.
l had to...
work it hard
night and day.
But that's just me.
One could say that...
my main purpose was to turn that time
into volume.
lnto several volumes.
There will be nothing left.
When l die, when l am completely gone,
there will be nothing left, since l'll be gone.
So, volumes or not, it's all a joke.
only means something to itself.
lt means nothing
to us.
l would like to talk about the Black Panthers.
They were...
not just a phenomenon,
but a major poetic
and political event
in the United States.
lmagine those poor white folks...
stuck in the metro
or in an elevator
with people with long hair and beards--
men and women with vertical hair
horizontal beards...
all that hair and all those beards
tickling those white people, who were dying to leave
but who were stuck there.
Once, l was invited to give a talk
at an American university,
50 miles from New York.
The name was...
Stony Brook, l think.
The university is located...
right in the woods. It's a very nice place.
So we were driving there.
There were three or four cars driving the Panthers and myself there.
So l tell David ''Come with us,''
and he replies, ''Never.''
He finally added,
''No. There are still too many trees.''
Only an African-American man could have said that.
For him, the tree was
first and foremost used
to hang Negroes.
What l have kept from that,
and the reason why l am interested in that country,
is because Black people
are like the black characters on a white page.
They are the black characters
on the canvas of white America.
ln a region about 30 miles from Amman
almost on the Jordan River
there was a conflict between the fedayeen,
who were Palestinians and the...
King Hussein's troops.
A French filmmaker
had asked Arafat
or his buddies, most likely,
authorization to film the conflict
knowing he was to be filming from the inside,
very close to the combat zones.
Authorization was denied.
Military officials refused to grant it.
That filmmaker may have thought...
that those officials were concerned about his welfare.
Well, not at all.
l think it was something else.
The Palestinian officials realized
the camera was dangerous
and could ''seduce''...
any narcissist.
Knowing they were being filmed,
some soldiers' performance could have been altered
they could have lost some of their abilities.
They could have favored their narcissism
over their instinct to live.
See how beautiful the fedayeen are.
l certainly side with their rebellion--
with the Black Panthers too--
but l'm not sure l could have spent as much time with them
had they not been that attractive.
l think people who fight for the same cause
are reduced to their brains.
Bodies and faces disappear.
l'm not sure l could make love with a militant.
l'm not sure l could embrace a body and a face
lacking any kind of charm.
Charm has nothing to do with beauty,
but is more related to a certain demeanor.
l won't go into details.
There are bodies and faces making war,
unable to find an agreement,
who never will.
But that's not the point.
Without being in love with them, l chose them as models.
''Miracle of the Rose''
The first directors at Mettray
had probably noticed the magnificence of the penal colony's courtyard,
especially when it was decked with French flags.
lndeed, any celebration was an excuse
to stick flags in the trees,
on the walls, in the rose bushes and the wisteria.
Red muslin stained the chestnut trees
their green branches mingled with the red and blue
but most importantly the color white
because the penal colony never forgot its founders were noblemen.
Their names are still inscribed on the chapel walls:
''His Majesty the King,'' ''Her Majesty the Queen,''
''Their Royal Highnesses and Princes of France,''
''The Royal Court of Rouen,'' ''The Royal Court of Nancy''--
a list of 500 or 600 noble names, in plain view.
Under the courtyard trees,
and without thinking of the botanical apotheosis in the branches,
a population of horny young men gathered--
their eyes as ferocious and hateful as their affairs--
spitting abominable insults through their white teeth,
their souls covered in dew.
The foresight of the founders of the Mettray penal colony
was to know
not to build a wall around it.
Still today, there is no wall around it.
When we were in Mettray--
and it was more convincing--
there were only laurel hedges
and flower beds of carnations and pansies.
lt's more difficult to--
it's more difficult to escape
crossing a flowerbed
than climbing a wall.
So, in a way, the founders of Mettray weren't completely dumb.
They created some kind of poetry.
They terrorized us with pansies, carnations and laurels.
Cement blocks are laid against the wall,
six feet apart.
They're rounded and smooth,
like mooring posts.
That's where the unruly could sit for five minutes per hour.
A provost--one of the unruly, but physically stronger, detainees--
kept watch and gave orders.
ln a corner, behind a small trellis cage, some guy read his paper.
At the center of it all
sat a shit bucket
a three-foot tall container
in the shape of a truncated cone.
Two footrests lay on its sides,
and a short back, similar to an Arab saddle, sits at the top,
giving the one using the crapper the majesty of a barbaric king sitting on a metal throne.
The detainees who needed to go, raised their hand in silence.
The provost signaled the unruly, who left the rank
unbuttoning his pants, which had no belt.
Sitting on top of the cone,
his feet resting to the sides,
his balls hung from under him.
Without seeing him, the unruly continued their round in silence
interrupted by the sound of shit dropping in urine,
splattering his bare bottom.
His urine followed gravity
as the smell rose.
You visited Mettray,
you filmed it, you took pictures, you explored it:
you saw it for what it is.
You experienced a certain array of feelings
and so did l.
Those who founded it, Baron Demetz in particular,
and his descendants
made tremendous amounts of money.
So we knew that...
all that was a major swindle,
organized by people way above us.
That was beyond the petty thefts we had been arrested for.
We also knew
that the trades we were taught there were bogus.
Mettray, which was a prison for children,
changed its name several times in the three years l spent there.
First, it was called ''Mettray penal colony''.
Then, it became a ''youth reformation institution''.
Then, it turned into a ''supervised education institute''.
After that...
l forgot some of the names,
but they became sweeter and sweeter.
We were never sentenced by a judge.
We were children
and we had committed petty theft,
nothing serious, nothing bigger than we were.
Those were petty crimes, and we were acquitted
because we had acted out of bad judgment,
to finally be sent to the Mettray penal colony.
But that was a prison.
lt seems to me
that the judges didn't think of this:
kids who go to jail once...
always go back to jail...
because why not?
Kids who have never been to jail are scared of it;
kids who go back to jail don't think it's a big deal.
Jail is way scarier
when you haven't been to jail.
So what are you going to do?
What is the government going to do
to rehabilitate-- one of their favorite words--
petty delinquents?
What is it they want, to take out of them
what poetic beauty?
lf they steal, big things or small things,
if they run away,
if they do the things 15-year-olds do
to end up in jail for three to six months
it is because society is not adapted to them.
So, if we really want to rehabilitate them...
isn't it a shame...
to send them to jail?
l would say that nowadays, good people are sent to jail.
Young people...
or men who find themselves in situations...
they weren't prepared for
and that got them confused.
Those who steal
because they're hungry,
because they want a motorcycle
or things like that...
didn't want to get away from society.
They wanted to be a part of it.
The true prisoners...
and l'm tempted to quote Baudelaire:
''But the true voyagers are only those who leave
Just to be leaving.''
The true prisoners are only those
who go to jail because they hate society.
Because they don't give a shit.
And those never commit suicide.
l think the only ones who commit suicide
are those who've never liked jail.
l can assure you
that there are people, and l was one of them
who enjoyed being in jail.
because they hated society
as it was
and as it still is.
The children in Mettray
had already rejected
moral standards
as it was dictated by your society,
because as soon as we got to Mettray,
we were ready to accept
the medieval moral standards
according to which the vassal obeyed the suzerain.
lt's a well-defined hierarchy,
based on power, on honor,
on what we called honor
and on one's word.
That was crucial.
Now, everything is based on written agreements,
on signed and dated contracts
issued by lawyers and various authorities.
Quite often, you know, within an order
lies another, smaller one.
ln that colony for children aged eight to 21,
resided a group of poor children, about 300 of them
who were petty delinquents,
as well as 15 to 20 rich kids
who attended what was called the ''reformatory school''
and who were deemed ''rebellious''.
They didn't work, but were taught military discipline
to turn them into Navy or Foreign Legion officers.
The Mettray penal colony is such a rich, unique entity
with its fields, its forests its own cemetery,
its own history and legends,
that l have little to say about myself.
When l was locked up there,
forests, parks, rivers, fields, meadows and cemetery
were mine.
in the hellish world you have filmed and seen,
l have known happiness.
l experienced...
those feudal moral standards
that are still applied to kids
in juvenile prisons in France today.
l lost something when what l wrote
brought me financial gain.
l lost some kind of purity.
What's brought back some of that purity--
if l ever had any-- is...
l'll venture...
a guess as to why that is.
To write is your last resort when you've betrayed someone.
There is something else l'd like to say.
Very early on...
when l was about 14-15...
l knew that all l could ever be was a vagabond or a thief--
an untalented thief, of course.
Otherwise, my only social accomplishment would have been something like
becoming a ticket controller...
or a butcher's assistant or something like that.
Since the idea terrified me
l trained myself, from a very young age,
to experience such strong feelings
that all they could lead to was writing.
lf writing means experiencing emotions or feelings
so strong...
that they will guide your whole life;
if they're so strong
that only describing them,
repressing them, or analyzing them
can lead you to acknowledging those feelings,
then l can say that l started writing in Mettray,
at the age of 15.
Writing might be the only thing left
when giving your word is not enough anymore.