July 23, 2012 § 4 Comments
(Fragments of thoughts on Genet that was supposed to go on Tumblr until it grew too long. The value of shutting up–I’ve yet to learn it.)
I read Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, and now I’m reading The Thief’s Journal. I seem to have reached a point where Genet’s voice is what I really need. (Well, his and Fiona Apple’s.) Genet’s voice is the voice I need to get me through sad and sullen days, or nervy, awkward, self-conscious days. It’s the voice that says, Fuck all these people and their reactions to you, look instead at the shape of this cloud, take note of the precise tone of colour of the sky, devote your attention to the charmless gestures of a man with an unexpectedly beautiful smile. Which is really strange, because Genet is nothing if not in his body and extremely self-conscious, always excessively aware of his physical being in relation to others, always watching himself through others, always keeping tabs of his place in relation to others. But maybe intensified self-consciousness can become a space, a refuge, from the need to feel/know the consciousness of others, and maybe a temporal liberation is what Genet achieves in his writing, and what he’s able to convey to (some) of his readers.
There is always someone saying that reading is dead in the age of the internet or some such nonsense, but to read Genet is to recognise that reading is not dead, just dreaming. To check tweets in the middle of reading Genet is to undream. No tweeting, no tumbling, no texting, no external words, just the Genet-words on the page or screen. Dreaming as reading as immersion. This dream-state of Genet-reading is fevered. You, the reader, get in the way of the text all the time, and so does Genet. He gets in the way of your reading. His words are profoundly disorienting; they will undo you. Genet knows this, knows that you know this, and enjoys it. No, I mean I think he strives for it—writing isn’t writing if this doesn’t happen.
In the the 600+ page Saint Genet, Sartre says a lot of things about Genet until Genet ceases to be Genet, but he does say one thing about Our Lady of Flowers that rings true to me: “No wonder Our Lady horrifies people: it is the epic of masturbation.”
And Genet’s narrator is perpetually always on the edge of orgasm, one presumes, because he is fervently, religiously jerking off:
It was a good thing that I raised egoistic masturbation to the dignity of a cult! I have only to begin the gesture and a kind of unclean and supernatural transposition displaces the truth. Everything within me turns worshipper. The external vision of the accessories of my desire isolates me, far from the world.
Pleasure of the solitary, gesture of solitude that makes you sufficient unto yourself, possessing intimately others who serve your pleasure without their suspecting it, a pleasure that gives to your most casual gestures, even when you are up and about, that air of supreme indifference towards everyone and also a certain awkward manner that, if you have gone to bed with a boy, makes you feel as if you have bumped your head against a granite slab.
“a pleasure that gives to your most casual gestures … the air of supreme indifference towards everyone” — masturbation as strategy for navigating the trauma of the social. One of the ways to attempt to love your queer self in a society that deems your sexuality monstrous is make love to yourself. But it’s never that. It’s onanism and masturbation and selfish pleasure but rarely ever spoken of as self-love. Genet forces you to reckon with the hierarchies of acceptable bodily pleasure. Genet forces you to reckon with the anguish of being an undesirable desiring the desired. (“What could I commit so as to be worthy of his beauty? I needed boldness in order to admire him.”)
Guattari in “Genet Regained”:
It is true that Genet’s creative process always made a strong appeal to fabulation (masturbatory or otherwise) but his fundamental aim nevertheless remained a poetics with a social impact.
Genet makes you think about shit a lot, which is very uncomfortable for me because I am not fond of shit. Regrettably, this makes me sound like Sartre, who says in Saint Genet: “Genet is excrement, and it is such that he asserts himself … As for myself, I am not as fond of shit as some people say.” One part of this formulation is false; either Genet isn’t excrement or Sartre is extremely fond of shit, because Saint Genet is about Sartre the heterosexual man’s man trying to “philosophically diagnose” Genet, in Sontag’s words, in order to love him better. But also to outdo him; Sartre’s worldview in Saint Genet is so limited, so conservative, so heterosexist, that I think it drives Sartre crazy to know that a man like Genet exists, that a radically different version of masculinity is not only possible, but desirable. (Dear Sartre, I don’t mean to get Freudian on you. But in the final analysis, you know I’m right.)
Genet on love:
I should like to play at inventing the ways love has of surprising people.
It enters like Jesus into the heart of the impetuous; it also comes slyly, like a thief.
Love makes use of the worst traps. The least noble. The rarest. It exploits coincidence.
If masturbation is a kind of redemption from everyday anxieties then love is the path that takes us right back to it. Love is trauma. It’s a kind of horror, actually, because I get the sense that Genet’s hyper-corporeality (explicit, almost tender descriptions of bodily fluids, wastes, processes) is a way to transcend the body he so loathes. Loving another is hard when you hate your body. Or rather, allowing another to love you is hard when you hate your body.
There are “problems” with Genet. His fetishisation of a certain type of normative masculine beauty, and of the sexuality of black men (large appendages, always); the odd comment about Arabs and their odours. This prefigures his later politics, where he spoke of the Black Panthers and the Palestinian struggle as aesthetic projects, as Things in which he can find a space for himself. But there is something here: if Genet is writing against bourgeois values (i.e. hypocrisy), then his writing never lets you forget that you are complicit, or a part of it; and sometimes you wonder if he’s merely writing through these hypocrisies to test them out on the reader, to see how far he can push. You wonder if the text is showing up your own prejudice. “Our future burglar starts by learning absolute respect for property,” Sartre tells us of Genet, and perhaps this is true: Genet also writes to investigate his own complicity.
The other “problem” with Genet is the Problem of Women. Meaning, the lack of women. Women as absent-mothers. Men mother each other; then turn on each other. Within a patriarchal society Genet’s queer men identify as women, or want to be women, or recognise some element of femininity in themselves, and hate themselves because society hates them. But in his writing Genet is perpetually in drag. I can’t help but read the text of Our Lady as a parody of phallocentrism. (Sartre, meanwhile, thinks Genet is FAKE: a FAKE man, a FAKE woman, writing FAKE prose, but in a GOOD way.)
And I can’t help but think of Genet as Hermes, appropriately enough. Genet seems to embody the trickster in terms of how he presents his art/writing and how it is received. In Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde writes that “trickster stories themselves have been told in ways that marked them as ‘special speech,’ so that, no matter how profane their content, they belonged to an anomalous category, a sort of sacred lack of the sacred.” This wrestling with the sacred is the core of Our Lady. Genet venerates that which polite society is perpetually trying to ignore. The excluded, the marginalised, the spat upon, the lost, the anus, thieves, shit, doubt, queers, self-doubt, unwanted erections, artifice, base desires, pretension — these are some of Genet’s favourite things (to write about). As Hyde says about Hermes:
For a human community to make its world shapely is one thing; to preserve its shape is quite another, especially if, as is always the case, the shape is to some degree arbitrary and if the shaping requires exclusion and the excluded are hungry. So along with shapeliness comes a set of rules meant to preserve the design. “Do not steal. Do not lie. Do not blaspheme. Do not gamble. Do not pick things up in the street. Behave yourself. You should be ashamed … ” Whoever has the wit to break these rules, whoever puts the guards to sleep, slips across the threshold and floods the sacred meadows with contingency, whoever steals the boundary stones of clear distinction, that person strips design of its protective glamour. Hermes does all this and by it he disenchants the world into which he was born.
Later Hyde reminds us that Hermes, in the Homeric Hymns, tells his mother that “either they give me honor or I steal it.”
I’ve been thinking about the idea of beautiful writing lately, and what it means when I say it and when others say it, or when it becomes sort of an institutionalised demand. Beautiful writing as good business. The idea of “beautiful writing” as a mechanism to limit and to police, to keep writing within acceptable boundaries of acceptable taste. Prose that is polite and distant. In contrast, reading Genet in all his wrongness and his flaws cracked my world right open.
(I don’t know how to explain it but maybe what I’m trying to say about writing is what Voyou says about football and Euro 2012 and Spain’s neoliberal style: “In flexibly-specalized postfordist capitalism, to be businesslike is to be virtuosic.” i.e. Spain’s football team is Michael Chabon. This makes complete sense to me. I fall asleep watching Spain play; I’ve tried to read the much-praised Michael Chabon about four or five times now but had to stop because I only ever felt crushing boredom: Death by eminently well-adjusted prose. To be fair, this also applies to Safran Foer, Lethem, Barnes, later Amis and Rushdie, and The Franzen.)
Sartre: “(Genet) has no particular desire to produce a ‘well-made work’; he is unconcerned with finish, with formal perfection.” A huge part of me is attracted to this lack of finish in Genet, excited by this undone-ness. I know I’m not the only one who thinks that “writer’s block” or the inability to write feels like constipation; finishing something often feels like you’ve just had a good shit. (Kate Zambreno: “My blog I think is a sort of toilet bowl.”) I feel that way; I think I started this blog in order to shit things out, but because of my aversion to excrement, my disgust, I prefer to stay constipated. It’s not pleasant; not for me, and not for anyone reading my jejune thoughts about shit/writing, but Genet makes you think, Fuck that shit, just write shit down.
Genet, on writing:
Since it is impossible to make a ballet of it, I am obliged to use words that are weighed down with precise ideas, but I shall try to lighten them with phrases that are trivial, empty, hollow, and invisible.
I’ve been thinking about ugliness lately. (Lately? All the time.) I was thinking about how I felt—like I was about to burst—when I first read Virginie Despentes and she acknowledges it:
Of course I wouldn’t write what I write if I were beautiful, so beautiful that I turned the head of every man I met. It’s as a member of the lower working class of womanhood that I speak, that I spoke yesterday and am speaking again today. When I was on unemployment I was not ashamed of being a social outcast. Just furious. It’s the same thing for being a woman. I am not remotely ashamed of not being a hot sexy number but I am livid that—as a girl who doesn’t attract men—I am constantly made to feel as if I shouldn’t even be around. We have always existed.
Genet, too, he writes as one of the ugly ones. He writes ugly down: all of the things you want to clean up, forget, pretend doesn’t exist.
I need to be reminded, often, that beauty doesn’t always take you places.
December 19, 2011 § 19 Comments
Use Twitter, for one. Use Twitter, and then;
- Assume that the best blogs need to be written in the Grad Student Voice because you follow a lot of grad students on Twitter and quite a number of them follow you, and so you to try to write like they write their blogs, because other grad students like it, and retweet those blogs, and;
- Assume that retweets mean something, and assign GRAVE IMPORT to those retweets, and become convinced that they not only create meaning about your worthiness as a writer but also assume that retweets are an indication of your worthiness AS A HUMAN BEING AND IF YOU HAVEN’T BEEN RETWEETED YOU’RE JUST A FUCKING FAILURE, OH JUST GIVE UP ON LIFE ALREADY and then realising, in essence, sometimes retweets, i.e. attention, is like bird shit, sometimes you get splattered, and most days you don’t, really, because;
- Quite a bit hangs on spheres of influence, networks, and who knows you, who really knows you, and whether or not they’re influential in the blogosphere and the Twittersphere, and how;
- One day, if they decide to like what you write and say, “THIS IS AWESOME”, then all the people who are their friends and who want to be their friends or who are merely influenced by their tastes or opinions will also retweet what you wrote and say, “THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER, I LOVE HER BLOG”;
- And promptly forget about you or your blog the next time you link to a post or to something you wrote;
- Which you, being silly and foolish, will see as a sign of your failure as a writer or a blogger, and perhaps it is a sign of your failure of a blogger, if being a blogger means garnering page views and “hits”;
- After which you try to repeat your style, your writing, whatever it is that brought about that first bout of attention, and slowly realising:
- The influential grad students of Twitter have probably stopped paying attention to your blog, and they’ve stopped talking to you anyhow, and you’ve stopped talking to them, and the previous compliments and attention had really nothing to do with what you wrote, it just had something to do with you being there at the right moment, i.e. it’s all about whether the BIRD HAD TO SHIT AT THAT PARTICULAR MOMENT;
- And you realise that you’ve wasted a lot of time on really stupid self doubt and you’ve been a fool for not actually using your blog the way you promised yourself a year or so ago when you started it – to test out ideas, to write bullshit, to think through things, to write, to write in any way that comes to you without being hemmed in by the “right style” or the “right form”, and realising that maybe, just maybe, the grad-student style was never your thing because;
- You’re not a fucking grad student, and;
- You remind yourself that the things you write should not be contingent on retweets and attention, or maybe-
- In the digital economy and online spaces where you publish, retweets, links, and attention are exactly the factors that make or break a writer, except with the volume of writing that is online these days, you either get noticed or you don’t, and then you remember the people who have noticed you and who have taken the time to consistently remind you, even through emails and private DMs, that they read what you write, and that you tend to forget about them thinking about the people who don’t pay attention to you;
- And there is really no particular explanation or reason as to what makes people consider you good one day and meh the next, but then you realise this isn’t true, that there are perhaps complex factors about your “audience” and where you live and where they live, and that the politics of space, race, gender, sexuality, and class will also have a role to play online, both in the type of attention you get and don’t get, and the type of attention and validation you seek, and then realise you’re beginning to have a headache;
- Because does it, and if so, how?
- And you entertain the idea that far from erasing boundaries and limitations and constraints, Twitter really does reinforce “the power of place” and that maybe, politics aside, because you don’t know how to deal with the politics of digital attention at the moment, but you can deal with your Individual Feelings, so you deal with your feelings and decide that this is what they meant when they said be fearless and fail in your writing, when they said that if it mattered to you, you really should not care who else cares or who else does not care, and maybe this lack of attention allows you to fail spectacularly, in front of an audience, an audience that is present and aware but does not really care either way whether you write or you don’t, an audience that does not really pay attention to you unless you say something at the right moment, when circumstances are right, when people see what you say and feel moved enough to want to read what you wrote, which is essentially Twitter in a nutshell;
- And you learn to show up and write, regardless of who’s paying attention to your fucking tweets, grad students or no, and you suddenly think of Rilke, who will be shocked, and then embarrassed, at this woman who is sitting here writing, nay BLOGGING, about retweets and page views, a woman who will then comfort herself by imagining him repeat these words: “I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now.”*
- (And to ignore the little voice that won’t shut up, that wants to ask Rilke how to ignore the outside when the outside seeps into the inside, and the inside exists in the outside?)
* From Letters to a Young Poet