Reprint: Gay Star, No. 13, Spring ’84
It is assumed by many that homosexual men have become ‘liberated’ since the limited legal tolerations of 1967 and later. But the increasingly predominant bland, bourgeois, American-style, pseudo-butch ‘clone’ stereotype (over the T/Vs and ‘effeminates’ one the one hand and the leather / rubber masters and slaves on the other) is in fact a quasi-heterosexual, self-oppressing way of avoiding the perceptions and opportunities which homosexuality uniquely offers. It is a pity that this unliberated insipidity dominates male homosexuality.
For France at least has known much truer forms of psycho-sexual liberation – as exemplified in tow of the most interesting writers of the last century or so; Paul Verlaine and Jean Genet. They are very different kids of men (the former turned pietist Catholic in his old age, the latter lionised by the radical Left though completely unSocialist), yet both are very radical in their approach to sex and sexuality.
Neither hived sex off as quick relief after work or socialising. Both knew great poverty and deprivation. Genet’s was partly by choice in Borstals and jails, Verlaine’s by circumstance of penury and alcoholism. Though dissimilar both are the antithesis of the modern hygienic Gay clone, whose only difference from the rest of the consumer blancmange around him is his same-sex preference.
Verlaine was bisexual. His violent affair with the seventeen year old poet and infant terrible, Arthur Rimbaud, is famous. His relationships with bloodsucking women proved equally disastrous. His verse collections Femmes (Women) and Hombres (Men) celebrate the cunt, the cock, and the arsehole, their smells, secretions and excretions.
He was a passionate, disreputable and gorgeous teddy-bear with a zest for life and sex, both of which (being a poet and passionate) he took seriously. Not for him the pallid relief which passes for sex among so many allegedly homosexual men. His enthusiastic poems about male attraction rejoice in the cottage cheese of cocks and in shit, delight in the textures and odours of he scrotum, celebrate the taste and consistency of semen and honour the noble appearance of glans and foreskin.
He is not interested in middle-class pretence and pretensions.
He liked his lovers in their dirty working clothes – but without feeling that he was ‘feasting with panthers’ as Wilde put it. He loved armpits and sweat, not sickly artificial scents. He would engage in wanking sessions under bar tables, and other perfectly natural behaviour outrageous to society at large. Nor was he a ‘size-queen’ either, appreciating the fine quality of small cocks as much as the impressive quantity of large ones.
The collection Hombres was written in 1891, and was never suppressed. Though coming up to one hundred years old, its robust language and wholesome attitudes brilliantly couched in metre, would be shocking to many post-“liberation” Gays. Even at the Coleherne1, Verlaine would stand out as perhaps a bit too real and unhygienic.
Genet is a different kettle of phallic fish altogether, because he is not so much a celebrator as a celebrant. His view of sex is, rightly, mystic; his writings profoundly and chthonically philosophical. For him homosexuality is an essential part of a whole anti-bourgeois metaphysic which celebrates robbery and crime, ‘perversion’, the violence of the police, penitentiaries and extreme machismo. Precisely because they are in opposition to the bland superficial bourgeois society which he rightly despises — and loves.
He is no boozy cuddly teddy-bear, but a deliciously hard-looking skin-head in baggy prison trousers and donkey jacket. He made a true religion out of sexual and physical domination. He is a mystic who dwells on the essential solitude of each island / man, a solitude which is quintessential in orgasm. His novels and plays are largely concerned with the search for the Absolute. For him absolute good and absolute evil – being symbolic rather than actual – are interchangeable, for he has the Jungian perception that everything contains or turns into its opposite.
The finding of the Absolute is Grace – not the simplistic Catholic grace that the terribly ill and battered Verlaine slobbered to priests for in his last syphilitic and ulcerated years, but the Grace that comes from Orphic descent into the Underworld, which is through a mirror – as in the Cocteau film Orphée.
Grace for Genet is, as it must, be a Fall. His homosexuality is a religious rite of great importance, involving sado-masochism and murder (Querelle) and hero-worship of thugs and murderers (Miracle of the Rose). Murder, being an inhuman act is thereby Divine – the name of one of the murderers he celebrates.
He writes in symbols. His own name is Genista or broom-plant (Plantagenet). His most important symbol, Rose, is the name of a particularly vicious criminal. Querelle is a sailor – voyaging through fog on a sea of the Unconscious – whose name means ‘quarrel’. Again and again the image of the mirror occurs in his plays (The Maids; The Balcony; The Blacks) – and novels. Mirrors as reflection, opposite, mask, image, mystic lens, and magic passage through the world of appearances.
Appearance is not ‘just reality’ as Sartre the ‘inventor’ of Existentialist philosophy claimed, but super-reality for Genet. Truth is extremity of falsehood. Sex is the most spiritual of acts. Thus he sees the paradox – the truth of the mirror, the false image – the only way of resolving Enatriodromia – the tendency of human acts, ideas and attitudes to become their opposite.
Everything in human life requires its opposite: the judge and police are unemployed without criminals, therefore crime is the raison d’être of such people and they are both right and hypocritical to denounce and punish it. Crime is defined by its punishment, so without judge, policeman, prison warder, tabloid press, there is no crime. For Genet all reality is a synthesis of dynamic opposites.
Genet is also greatly concerned with existential authenticity. But though a reasonably accomplished burglar, he never reached what he considered to be the ultimate in authenticity – the convicted murderer. The first step towards authenticity of self is isolation, ad the best way to achieve this is to cause the deepest possible offence to bourgeois society. So he celebrated the teenage thugs who worked for the Gestapo.
For him convicts and anchorites follow identical solitary paths to Grace. The prison at Fontreville, about which he writes, was a famous monastery, founded by the troubadour-Duke of Acquitane. Grace is obtained through rejection of the world, and this is best achieved by making the world reject you – as Jesus said.
Thus, Hitler acquired at least as much Grace as St. Teresa or St. Francis, and Judas was incomparably superior to Jesus because,
a) he was absolutely necessary to make Jesus’s statement of authenticity,
b) he was the mirror image of Christ,
c) he betrayed Jesus – and Genet considers betrayal the highest form of mystical beauty, and
d) because Judas, being an instrument, almost a thing, asserted the passive life principle.
But Genet is not a mere word-juggler. Hitler is not a saint simply by dialectical inversion of appearances, but by virtue of the unparalleled enormity and hideousness of his crime and the utter – if brief – desolation and isolation of his punishment amidst the ruins of the Third Reich in the Berlin bunker.
The greater the crime – he does not use the word Sin – the greater the redemption and Grace. These terms are not Christian for Genet. Christianity has merely debased them into dogmatic claptrap. Genet uses words and symbols which are universal – like the mirror; like the rose which is for him the passive life principle so utterly devalued in our hyperactive thorn-producing culture.
Genet is passive. He is a vehicle – like a priest. His shaved head is that of a priest and a convict. He received the active in graciousness and grace in humility and ecstasy. He took the cocks of the butchest men he could find – and in doing became butcher that they by acquisition and reception. The victim kills his murderer at the moment of death, by similar magical possession. Genet’s Rose means love, friendship, death and silence; it is a cock ramming into him; it is the guillotined head – the severed head was the phallic emblem of the Celts -; it is a passion, mourning, mystery, he crown of thorns, the complete sacrifice of Judas, the miracle.
But an old man cannot be passive. As the Greeks so well knew, young men should be fucked, and older ones should fuck. He longs for young men to fuck him, but this is not right. Older men are authority, they must move from passive to active. Here he perceives and approves the whole sado-masochistic power-structure of our patristic society, ruled by old men — Prison Governors and Lords Chancellor.
The homosexual man is, at his most passive, apparently an object, hence a thing given life and new identity by the active Other, the virile male. By taking the cock and seed of the conqueror, he becomes greater than the conqueror; the victim inhabits the murderer… This is all very complex, poetic, mystic. He sees through the mirror into the black hole – his head, his arse, his birth, his dream, his Shadow.
Being a thing, a sexual object, unites him animalistically2 with the world about him. It makes him a threshold, a Shaman. This runs counter to our whole hierarchical and dualistic culture, which sets man up as a demigod, higher than woman. In sex, sexuality, mysticism and symbol, Genet points a path out of the Christian morass of double-standards, sentimentality, abattoirs, Auschwitz and the nuclear holocaust.
Genet identifies with the Beast – but more subtly than Aliester Crowley (who founded a new religion to replace Christianity earlier in this century. It was based partly on ancient Egyptian religion and on the notion of the Superman). For Genet the Beast is not only Satan (and Lucifer – the son of Morning), but the sacrificial bull, the Saviour, and life itself. The Beast is the soul; and sex being animal is entirely and chthonically (i. e. of the earth, the soil) mystical. His message is Orphic and Eleusinian.
He never mentions fist-fucking, but I suspect that for Genet a death by colonic rupture literally at the hands of a neo-Nazi or KGB thug would be a supreme act of Grace.
Verlaine celebrated the ‘sordid’ as both real and desirable. He was not a mystic, but saw sex as an expression of his zestful self. He was a man of passion who almost became a murderer when he shot Rimbaud in a drunken rage. Genet celebrates reality as death, seeing sex as a means to self-realisation and authenticity. He is not a passionate man, yet he believes that by loving the enemy — the police, judiciary, ‘businessmen’ and the rest — one loved the enemy within and thus became more whole.
The average, frivolous Gay male of bars, clubs, saunas and cottages celebrates nothing, not even his homosexuality.
Afraid of thinking about it, he relieves himself as inconspicuously as possible.
1 The Coleherne (aka ‘The Coalhole’) was a large gay bar in West London. It catered for leather-ladies (of both genders) and their admirers.
2 A misprint for ‘animistically’. ‘Animism’ is the attribution of magical, religious and even moral qualities to natural phenomena.