divine

OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS BY JEAN GENET

My introduction to masturbation occurred when I was around nine years old. A senior boy shared the secret. At home that afternoon, for the first time I rubbed my little prick and…nothing. All I created was friction, sweat and boredom. It was as though my penis wasn’t ready for what was being asked of it. A few hours later, however, I tried again, and on this occasion something did happen. The tinder started to smoulder; and then it caught fire. A small flame. I blew on it gently, scared in case it went out. The smoke intensified, rising swiftly. It entered my lungs and my breathing became laboured. Meanwhile, the fire grew bigger, warmer. I stoked it aggressively, and the warmth spread throughout my body. Then, just as quickly as it had ignited, the fire died, and I was left in pain.

The following day, everything had changed. I saw the world differently. It had became fractured, yet fuller. Suddenly there were women. I felt as though I had given birth to them, had created them myself, in my bedroom, under the covers. I had created them, then cast them far and wide; and now I sought to gather them up, to reclaim them so as to use them in private. How many women have I jerked off to in the intervening years? Thousands? Someone I see on a train, in a shop, on the street. Celebrities, nobodies. I gather these women up, and store them away, for later, when they are always obliging, and always so expert at getting me off. Nobody can do me the way that they can do me, when I act as their intermediary.

What is perhaps most attractive about masturbation is that it is an escape into another world, an imaginary, and better, world, over which you have control. The women I fondle and fuck, who gratefully grip and suck, are a conjurer’s trick; they are in fact amalgamations, they are monstrously sown together from the body parts of various women. I am their father, and, in this way, they are one of the purest expressions of my self, as well as a means of avoiding myself and my circumstances. Wanking is, therefore, an indulgent and imaginative endeavour with a factual foundation, like writing, only more satisfying, of course, and less likely to be thrust upon an unsuspecting, and largely disinterested, public.

Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers was, it is said, written in prison on the brown paper that was issued to inmates in order to make bags. It is often described as [homo]erotica, but it differs from other books of that sort in that it was most likely not composed in order to make its readers hot, although it could function in this way, but rather as an aid to getting Genet off while he languished in his cell. Indeed, the narrator/author states that he has ‘raised egoistic masturbation to the dignity of a cult’ and lauds the ‘pleasure of the solitary, gesture of solitude that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it.’ These ‘others’ are, in the main, pictures of hoodlums and murderers that he has taken from newspapers and pinned to the walls of his cell:

“But at night! Fear of the guard who may suddenly flick on the light and stick his head through the grating compels me to take sordid precautions lest the rustling of the sheets draw attention to my pleasure; but though my gesture may be less noble, by becoming secret it heightens my pleasure. I dawdle. Beneath the sheet, my right hand stops to caress the absent face, and then the whole body, of the outlaw I have chosen for that evening’s delight.”

It is no surprise, therefore, that Jean-Paul Sartre, who was a champion of the work, called it ‘the epic of masturbation.’ Yet this gives the impression that Our Lady of the Flowers is simply a record of Genet’s adventures in pleasuring himself, that it is a kind of wanking diary, but the reality is something more complex and wonderful. The moments when the author is present in the text, with cock in hand, are infrequent; in fact, sex itself, explicitly explored, makes up only a small proportion of the book. Masturbation may have been the motivating factor, and much of the content may have served this purpose for the incarcerated Frenchman, but the most fascinating, beautiful, thing about Our Lady of the Flowers is how in fantasising about the criminals on his wall, in loving them, Genet’s love ‘endows them with life.’

Throughout Our Lady of the Flowers the pictures, and his own experiences and memories, even aspects of himself, are transposed into his characters and situations. He says of the transvestite Divine that ‘it will take an entire book before I will draw from her petrifaction and little by little impart to her my suffering.’ The real Divine he met, he writes, in Fresnes prison. She spoke to him of Darling Daintyfoot, another important character in the novel, but Genet ‘never quite knew his face.’ The author sees this as a ‘tempting opportunity to make him merge in my mind with the face and build of Roger,’ only very little of this man remains in his memory. Therefore, the Darling that ‘exists’ within the pages of Our Lady of the Flowers is a composite of many men, including ‘the face of another youngster’ he saw emerging from a brothel.

So, for me, the book is more about the creative writing process than it is blowing your load, or is at least about the relationship between these two things. If you have ever attempted to create a character you will know that they are, in exactly the way that Genet describes, partly born from your rib, but also from a variety of other people you may have known or observed [and, as noted in my introduction, this is how masturbatory fantasies work too]. Moreover, as you breathe life into them, as you populate, you – as the creator – begin to understand your power, but simultaneously, ultimately, your powerlessness, over them. For example, as the author you can decide to give ‘a breathing-spell, even a bit of happiness’ to your creations, as Genet is tempted to do vis-a-vis Divine and Darling. Yet he also acknowledges that once brought to life these people in a sense exist independently [“if it were up to me only, I would make of her the kind of fatal hero I like”], that, once you have given them qualities, they must act in accordance with these qualities.

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[Un Chant D’Amour, dir. Jean Genet, 1950]

I have thus far only mentioned in passing the author’s preoccupation with murderers. For Genet, these people are ‘enchanting’, they are ‘a wonderful blossoming of dark and lovely flowers.’ Indeed, it is, he states, ‘in honour of their crimes’ that he is writing his book. One could understand this fascination in relation to sex, of course. In my review of Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden I explored the connection between sex and violence, so I do not want to repeat myself here; but, on a more basic level, we are all aware of the allure, the sexual potency, of the hard man, the dangerous man, the bit of rough, even if we do not subscribe to it ourselves. However, I believe that there is a deeper significance to Genet’s interest, which is that violent criminals exist on the fringes of society, they have, intentionally, placed themselves outside of bourgeois or conventional society. Murderers are people of ‘wild imagination’, who have ‘the great poetic faculty of denying our universe and its values so that they may act upon it with sovereign ease.’ In this way, they are similar to his transvestites and homosexuals, and to himself.

This attitude, this interest in and admiration for the unconventional, perhaps also explains why Christianity is such a consistent presence in the text. Indeed, on the first page Genet writes about his dislike of angels, which, he says, fill him with horror. Most frequently, the author uses Christian language or imagery to describe something that would be considered irreligious. For example, when Divine makes hard the cocks of two policemen, they are said to knock against the doors of their trousers, urging them to open ‘like the clergy at the closed church door on Palm Sunday.’ There is also, of course, the double meaning of the name Divine [who, moreover, dies at the beginning of the book and is then, in a sense, resurrected], and another transvestite prostitute is called First Communion. By repeatedly merging the divine and the debauched, Genet is deliberately dirtying Christianity – which preaches conventionality – by association.

While all of what I have written about previously is of interest, and goes a long way to making Our Lady of the Flowers the masterpiece that it is, the biggest selling point, the most extravagantly plumed feather in the book’s cap, is the quality of the prose. I ought to say that it is beautiful, amongst the most beautiful I have ever encountered, and leave it at that; but I will attempt some kind of discussion, anyway. Genet wrote in a kind of freestyle, or at least that it how it appears in translation, in an elegantly inelegant fashion. His sentences meander across the page, like a handsome, yet drunk, young couple. His imagery is at times ludicrous or fantastical – ‘a pulled tooth, lying in a glass of champagne in the middle of a Greek landscape’ – and at others precise or impressively restrained – ‘the revolver/disappeared beneath the bed like an axe at the bottom of a pond.’ In all instances, at all times, however, it satisfied me, it got me hard.

MOUNT ANALOGUE BY RENE DAUMAL

Perhaps it is time for some gentle Philosophy. What if I were to say to you that if you can conceive of X, then it must exist? What an attractive statement! If I can think it, then it is! The problem, however, lies in the word ‘exist.’ There are things that exist in the understanding and those that exist in reality, and there are things that exist in reality and the understanding. God, for example, exists, for some people, only in the imagination; for others, he exists in both. So while it is true to say that if you can conceive of something it therefore exists, this is really only saying that if I can imagine something then I imagine it; one is not proving that it must exist in reality, even though it may in fact do so; and suddenly the argument doesn’t seem all that impressive.

Yet if you state the argument slightly differently, something wonderful happens. If I can conceive of X, then it is possible that X exists. This is undeniable, if rather banal at first glance; but consider for a moment what it means: you are no longer trying to prove that something must exist in reality, merely claiming that it exists in my understanding and that it could also exist in reality, which is something that cannot be contradicted; and because it cannot be contradicted there springs up, for me, the greatest of human emotions: hope. This feeling – hopefulness – can bear you up and drive you on towards the most extraordinary feats, adventures or discoveries. It is, in my opinion, impossible to live a happy life without it, without believing that anything is possible.

“All the means we’ve been given to stay alert we use to ornament our sleep. If instead of endlessly inventing new ways to make life more comfortable we’d apply our ingenuity to fabricating instruments to jog man out of his torpor!”

Rene Daumal’s Mount Analogue trades upon a similar kind of argument. It begins with the narrator receiving a letter, from a previously unknown source, in which a trip to the mountain of the title is proposed. This mountain is, however, fictional, or, as Pierre Sogol, the man who wrote the letter, would have it: undiscovered but discoverable. He believes not only that one can logically argue for its existence in reality, but also that, by using logic, one can explain why its existence has hithertofore been kept a secret [curved light, is his theory], and, most importantly, decipher its location. Yet perhaps more interesting than all this is the nature of the mountain itself, and what, by extension, Daumal has to say about mountains in general.

The narrator’s article, which inspired Sogol, was ‘a hasty exploration of the symbolic significance of mountains in ancient mythologies.’ The substance of the article is that mountains have been viewed as, or were understood as being, a link between heaven and earth. This is because they rise higher than any other natural object or structure, thus touching ‘the sphere of eternity,’ and yet simultaneously reach down to the earth, to ‘the world of mortals.’ They are, Daumal writes, ‘the path by which humanity can raise itself to the divine.’ He also provides examples – from the Old Testament, New Testament, the Vedas, etc – to back up his ideas. Mount Analogue itself is, then, the mythical mountain made real, which is to say that it provides a link between the divine and the mortal but is, crucially, accessible to man by virtue of its actual existence. I found all this fascinating.

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Yet it is through the initial meeting with Pierre Sogol that I think one comes to understand the heart, or soul, of the novel. In his youth, Sogol claims to have known ‘every pleasure and discomfort, all the happiness and all the suffering that can befall man.’ As is often the way, he reached a stage whereby he felt ‘all alone,’ as though he had ‘completed one cycle of existence.’ At first, he looked for answers in God, by entering a monastery; then, when this failed, he began making absurd inventions. So, Sogol is, rather like the narrator with his ‘stagnant life,’ someone who is troubled by ennui, who, in his own words, ‘cannot manage to become attached to this monkey cage frenzy which people so dramatically call life.’ He is seeking meaning or substance in existence, and excitement, adventure, wonder…hope; he wants to shake off the spiritual and emotional lethargy, to ‘confront reality or mystery face-to-face,’ and to do this, it is suggested, one ought to listen to one’s inner child. And what is that child saying? Find the mountain, boys!

It is worth pointing out that Mount Analogue is unfinished, that, as with The Good Soldier Svejk, it was death, not the author, who composed the novel’s ending. Yet, for me, this was something of a blessing; which is not to say, of course, that I am glad that Rene Daumal is dead. The latter part of Mount Analogue, when the crew of the ship The Impossible [note that name] discover the island upon which the mountain is located, is where the book lost some of its charm. In describing the strange land, and strange practices of the locals, it turns into a kind of Gulliver’s Travels, which did not, unfortunately, hold my attention quite so much as the earlier, more philosophical, passages had done. In any case, it is still a fine work of fiction, one that cleverly ensures that its readers give existence to its subject, via their imaginations; for Mount Analogue exists now, at least in my understanding, and, therefore, it is also possible that it might exist in reality. I’ll see you at the marina.