THE THIEF'S JOURNAL - JEAN GENET
I never understood what Bowie was singing about in Gene Genie and it used to trouble me. I knew all the words but what did it all mean? It was a puzzle. One night when I was at a party, however, the song was played over the sound-system and suddenly (with the aid of a copious amount of hashish, I should add) it suddenly made sense: All that Bowie was doing was throwing together a random selection of rhyming couplets and playing a kind of word association game. The couplets weren't actually intended to make much sense and the clue was in the line "Let yourself go", meaning to stop trying to make sense of it all and just free your mind - and your ass will follow.
I was stoned, remember.
But then what was it with the title 'Gene Genie'? I read later that it was a nod to Iggy Pop but that also it was a pun on the name 'Jean Genet', whom Bowie was an admirer of. When I discovered that Patti Smith was also an admirer of Jean Genet, I wanted to find out more.
The Thief's Journal is Genet's most famous book and it records the progress of him as a young man travelling through Europe during the 1930s. Genet is a tramp, a thief, a beggar and a male prostitute but moreover, he's a brilliant writer. His words are like those of a poet though not in the sense of 'I wandered lonely as a cloud' but more comparing criminals to flowers and waxing lyrical over an accomplice’s cock.
Born an orphan into a world that from the start had resolutely rejected him, Genet in turn rejected the world and aligned himself instead with all the other underdogs: the homeless, the poor, the criminal underground, prostitutes, petty criminals, tramps, beggars, the destitute, the desperate, the unloved and the unlovable.
According to Genet: 'Betrayal, theft and homosexuality are the basic subjects of this book', but it's also about the quest for saintliness though for someone who has only the rags he stands up in, how might this be achieved? For Genet, it's by destroying all the usual reasons for living and in discerning others. Subsequently, he becomes ecstatic in his poverty, and every crime, every petty theft becomes an exaltation.
When all you have is lice and dirt and rags, do you become a worthless person? Of course not. Genet bestows poverty with a virtue and a wonder though he doesn't romanticise it, nor does he bestow honour upon his thievery because after all, there is nothing romantic about being poor and there is no honour among thieves. He does, however, charge them both with erotic intentions. As he puts it from the start: 'I was hot for crime.'
I was once hitch-hiking on the island of Crete when a car pulled over to offer me a lift. Inside were two German girls dressed in shabby hippy chic.
"Where are you going?" one of them asked. I told them and they said to jump in. They seemed to hold little interest in engaging in conversation with me and just chatted between themselves in German. After about ten minutes, they pulled over to the side of the road and one of them said to me: "We'll be back in a minute."
They both got out and I watched as they headed off down a dusty path to an old church. After a couple of minutes they came back and got into the car again, their arms laden with candles.
I couldn't believe it. Had they just stolen a load of candles from a church?
"We use them to light our room," said one of them.
I was dumbfounded. For want of anything better to say, I said: "You won't get to heaven," and they seemed to find the remark amusing as they spent the rest of the journey laughing their heads off. When we arrived at the village where I was living, we all went for a drink together before going our separate ways though I admit, I would have liked to have hung out with them for longer.
I relay this anecdote simply because reading The Thief's Journal reminded me of it. It was my Jean Genet moment when I was hot for crime.
Genet's book is a thing of strange beauty. It transcends the consensus on how a saint should be perceived. It redefines what it is to be poor and what it is to be a petty thief. It redefines what it is to be homosexual and it redefines erotica. From out of nowhere and from out of nothing, Genet forged his own world though which he battled with, was a world of his own making rather than a world imposed upon him of which he had no say.
'My adventure, never governed by rebellion or a feeling of injustice...' says Genet at the start of The Thief's Journal. Years later, however, after becoming a world-famous writer but then to all intent and purpose leaving the business of writing behind, Genet threw his support behind Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the Paris student revolution of May '68, the Black Panthers, and the political situation of Palestinian refugees. It was only a short step thereafter to him declaring an affinity with Germany's the Red Army Faction, for which he drew much criticism.
Was this Genet being still hot for crime, I wonder?
Genet had an obsession with flowers as he so succinctly explains in the Journal: 'I am alone in the world, and I am not sure that I am not the king - perhaps the sprite - of these flowers. They render homage as I pass, bow without bowing, but recognise me. They know that I am their living, moving, agile representative, conqueror of the wind. They are my natural emblem, but through them I have roots in that French soil which is fed by the powdered bones of the children and youths buggered, massacred and burned by Gilles de Rais.'
Jean Genet may well have been the king or the sprite of flowers, who knows? What is certain, however, is that he was the most rarest of flowers and The Thief's Journal is nothing less than him in full, florid bloom.