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Modern Language Studies

Jean Genet and George Querelle: A Quest for Identity


Author(s): Dorothy J. Altman
Source: Modern Language Studies, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 3-8
Published by: Modern Language Studies
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3194806
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Jean Genet and George Querelle: A Quest for Identity
Dorothy J. Altman

"His ten years of literature are equivalent to a psychoanalytic


cure," Sartre writes of Jean Genet (Sartre 544). Through Querelle, the
handsome, virile murderer of his last novel, Querelle of Brest, Genet
explores the problem of identity which has haunted him since a childhood
crisis shattered his personality, producing an almost schizophrenic mode
of perception. On the physical (profane) level, Querelle is a successful
hero who masters his criminal destiny; on the absolute (sacred) plane of
reality, Querelle is a "happy moral suicide" who, at the instant he kills his
victim, simultaneously realizes his identity and destroys it (Genet,
Querelle 62); on the philosophical level, Querelle and his brother Robert,
his twin and mirror image, achieve a triumphant unification of personal-
ity, witnessed by Madame Lysiane, bewildered symbol of the society
reduced to impotence by the power of the individual. Through fiction
Genet exorcises the society which has possessed him since childhood.
Querelle of Brest is his cure and his revenge.
Genet's search for identity is better understood when seen against
the background of his traumatic childhood. A bastard, abandoned at his
birth in 1910, he was raised as a ward of the National Foundling Society.
When he was seven, he was placed with a peasant family in rural France.
Genet was a studious, obedient, and religious child (Sartre 6). Lonely and
insecure, he consoled himself with daydreams of belonging to a royal
family. He fantasized that he was destined for a special fate. He told a
Playboy interviewer in 1964 that as an illegitimate child, "outside the social
order," he could not easily hope to be a president or a general: "If I wanted
to make the fullest use of my freedom, my possibilities, my gifts . .. the
only thing left for me was to want to be a saint." (48)
Suddenly, irremediably, an identity was thrust upon him. At the
age of ten he was caught stealing. The pious, uncompromising communi-
ty united against the orphan, branding him a thief. Sartre supposes that he
took things in order to be part of a society which judged a man by his
property (12). Perhaps he sought attention. Certainly his original motives
were hardly criminal.
Sartre is probably correct in suggesting that had Genet been older,
he probably would have laughed off the community's condemnation;
however, the defenseless and submissive child unquestioningly accepted
the definition of himself given to him by his elders. He looked into himself
to discover the monster-the thief-within. Sartre sees this incident as the
death of the innocent child Genet and the birth of an alienated personality:

[Society] penetrated to the very bottom of his heart and installed there a
permanent delegate which is himself. It is himself who will be both the
court and the accused, the policeman and the thief. It is he who will
commit the offence and who will deliver the sentence and apply .... He

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will be a zealous self-tormentor and will henceforth experience his states
of mind, moods, thoughts, even his perceptions, in the form of conflict.
(21)

In The Vision of Jean Genet, Coe describes Genet as "a classic case of
existentialist schizophrenia." As he looked into himself to see the person
that the others said was he, he was dimly aware that they had missed
something. He was conscious of a void where Jean Genet should have
been. In Sartrian terms, Genet was split into the consciousness or per-
ceiver (le pour-soi) and the object of perception or being (l'en-soi). For
Sartre unity of personality was to be found in God; for Genet the irrecon-
cilable duality must be resolved by the individual. Coe writes, "He-like
every other being in this existentialist universe-is an irreconcilable dual-
ity; yet only unity is tolerable, and, as a mystic, nothing can satisfy him for
an instant except the absolute." (6)
Hurt and proud, Genet rebelliously fulfilled society's expectations.
Like Pierrot in Funeral Rites who forced himself to chew and swallow the
worm he accidentally put in his mouth, Genet willed himself to be a thief.
Repeated infractions led to his incarceration in the Mettray Reformatory
when he was fifteen; there he encountered squalor, brutality, and homo-
sexuality. Younger, weaker, and less vicious than many of the other
inmates, he suffered in the company of delinquents who determined
status by age and strength. He writes in The Thief's Journal: "In order to
weather my desolation ... I felt within me the need to become what I had
been accused of being .... I owed to being the coward, traitor, thief, and
fairy they saw in me .... I became abject." (176)
Defiantly willing himself to be the evil person others saw in him,
Genet spent the next fifteen years wandering through Europe, in and out
of jails, begging, smuggling, thieving, and prostituting himself. He sought
to define himself by opposing society and God. He defied social conven-
tion, governing himself according to a black ethic "with precepts and
rules, pitiless contraints." (Sartre 50) He defied God by using the methods
of saintliness to achieve evil: he writes in Miracle of the Rose that he lived
"according to heaven, in spite of God" (46). He states in The Thief's
Journal, "If I cannot have the most brilliant destiny, I want the most
wretched." (244)
While Genet seemed to seek his identity through humiliation and
debasement, the heroes of his cult of evil were famous murderers and
traitors, endowed with glamor and fatality. He admired and saved pic-
tures of such renowned villains as Angel Sun, Pilorge, and Marc Aupert.
The "Big Shots" he idolized at Mettray and their successors Armand and
Stilitano were lesser versions of these demi-gods-men who had the
muscles and manner of criminals.
In the original crisis, Sartre sees the psychological rape of the child
Genet which led to his passive homosexuality (79). Genet claims to have
felt an early attraction for boys; any inclination for homosexuality was
certainly reinforced at Mettray. Genet so much needed love, Sartre sug-
gests, that he once again created a reversal necessary to his psychological
survival and gave to his callous, indifferent lovers the affection he so much

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desired (77). However, it is also true that Genet was so self-absorbed in his
search for identity that he was incapable of reciprocity or fidelity; he was
seeking himself in the other. Sex is a mystical union where the beloved
takes on the attributes of the lover.
Sexual relationships are also power relationships which reflect a rigid
male hierarchy. While Genet eventually becomes virilified and dominates
a series of young men, he seems to prefer sex as an overwhelming
experience which is a symbolic death. In The Thief's Journal he escapes
anxiety by imagining sexual union with Sek Gorgui: "The negro, vaster
than night, will cover me over.... I shall be crushed by his darkness, which
will gradually dilute me. ... I shall have no further responsibility. I shall
gaze over the world with the clear gaze that the Eagle imparted to
Ganymede." (234-35)
As Genet matured, his value system became more sophisticated.
He added another dimension to his negation of conventional values,
finding a justification for evil in aestheticism. The act of murder became
"the tragic gesture of the sacrificer." (Sartre 374) Beauty and evil were for
Genet the preference of appearance to reality. To reduce being to an
appearance-to nothing-was to do evil.
In exploring his ideas and values in writing, Genet found "the
antidote to the original condemnation." (Sartre 298) As the man doing evil,
he was far from the glamorous criminal society feared and admired; he
hurt only himself. But as a writer, Genet could take revenge upon society,
forcing his readers to commit acts of homosexuality and murder and
losing them in the carefully constructed mazes of appearance which
reduced being to nothingness. But as he succeeded in finding a method to
disseminate evil more widely than he had ever thought possible, he also
began to discover his identity. Isolated, hungry, lice-ridden, writing Our
Lady of the Flowers in Fresnes Prison in 1942, Genet discovered that in
creating his characters' destinies, he was beginning to understand his own.
All of Genet's novels seek to explore and define their author's
identity; Querelle of Brest presents a hero whose quest for self parallels
Genet's. Genet's involvement with the handsome, blond sailor is clearly
intimate; "Querelle-already contained in our flesh-was beginning to
grow in our soul." Although Querelle exists within his author, Genet makes
it clear that he is free, having "his very own will, his very own fate." (17)
However, the author must take responsibility for his characters and their
acts: "Every creator must then shoulder-the expression seems feeble-
must make his own to the point of knowing it to be his substance,
circulating in his arteries, the evil given by him, which his heroes choose
freely." (The Thief's Journal 208)
Querelle is the most successful of Genet's murderer heroes; unlike
Our Lady, Harcamone, and Greeneyes, he escapes punishment at the
hands of society. Querelle, like Genet's other murderers, is destined by
fate-by a special gift of grace-to be a killer. His fate is represented in
the novel by his guardian star and is associated with the vivid smile which
appears for the first time when he embarks on his criminal career at the
age of fifteen. (This is about the age Genet was when he dedicated himself
to a life of crime.)

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When the reader observes him in a bistro at the beginning of the
novel, Querelle has not yet accepted himself. He is acutely aware of the
mutual attraction of two young men whom he views ironically. Since he
murdered a homosexual in Beirut, he has been invaded with doubts about
his own sexual identity. Nor is Querelle comfortable with the idea of being
a murderer: "Querelle was not used to the idea, one that had never been
formulated, that he was a monster. He considered, he observed his past
with an ironic smile, frightened and tender at the same time, to the extent
that this past became confused with what he himself was." (14) (One can
imagine the child Genet wondering, "Am I a thief because I take things?")
Querelle's insecurity is obvious when he goes to La Feria to sell
opium to Nono, the criminal boss of the brothel. Confronted by the
imposing physical bulk of Nono and the power and beauty of Mario, the
cop, watching their reflections "blur and blend their muscular bodies as
well as their faces" in the bar's huge mirrors, Querelle feels queasy; (he)
felt a trembling, a vacillation, almost to the point of losing himself, by
vomiting it all out, all that he really was." (30)
Querelle successfully exploits his sexuality to protect and develop
his identity. He disarms both Nono and Mario through sexual vassalage.
When he becomes catamite to Nono, he feels "a new nature entering into
him and establishing itself there." (175) With sexual union, Querelle takes
on Nono's criminal power and assurance. His mating with Mario is the
fusion of dynamic opposites: together they form the mystical couple of
the criminal and the policeman. Kissing Mario, Querelle feels he is "press-
ing his face against a mirror reflecting his own image." (206) His relation-
ship with Mario helps him protect his criminal identity. Although Mario
suspects Querelle is somehow connected with Vic's murder, he accepts
Querelle's betrayal of Gil Turko in his stead.
His relationships with Nono and Mario virilify Querelle and give
him confidence. He then uses his sexuality in power relationships with Gil
Turko and Lieutenant Seblon. While Querelle is genuinely fond of Gil,
regarding him as a younger replica of himself, he finds it expedient to
betray Gil to protect himself. In fact, he forces himself to make sexual
overtures to Gil to make the boy precious enough to be a fitting sacrifice to
the deity of assassins. To fulfill part of a mysterious ritual, Querelle gives
up his friends to save himself. Symbolically, Querelle cuts himself off
from his ties with other human beings; he is the criminal outcast beyond
the pale of society. Querelle also uses Lieutenant Seblon as a sort of savior.
The lieutenant, a repressed homosexual who worships his handsome
orderly Querelle, shares in his guilt since he intuitively guesses and accepts
his criminality. At the end of the novel Seblon seeks punishment for a
crime he did not commit. Seblon and Querelle form another dynamic
couple for Genet; they are the saint and the murderer, both social outcasts.
For Genet heterosexual sex is clearly superior to homosexuality
which is "monstrous." (74) At the end of the book, Querelle triumphs in his
affair with Madam Lysiane, Nono's wife and his brother Robert's mis-
tress. In Madame Lysiane's bed Querelle revenges himself against Nono
and Robert, asserting his virility and assuaging his shame.
As he explores his sexuality, Querelle also comes to accept his

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identity as a murderer. His shipmates don't like Querelle, but they accord
him a grudging respect because of his strength and the manliness which,
ironically, they associate with his frequent visits to La Feria. His murders
seem to provide a magic, protective wall which isolates Querelle but
makes him feel superior to his fellows: "As he accepted it, the idea of
murder was more than familiar to him, it was merely an exhalation from
his body. ... Thus Querelle felt a different sense of loneliness: that of his
creative singularity." (130) He no longer thinks of himself as a monster,
but rather as an artist. (As did Genet the poet?)
In fact, Querelle not only accepts his identity; he wills it. While Gil
Turko tries to deny his murder by breaking it down into insignificant
actions, Querelle looks back over his crimes and accepts them all-even
the errors. He offers up the mistakes to his guardian star, convincing
himself, "I did it on purpose. On purpose." (136)
When the novel ends, Querelle's ship is leaving Brest. He has
escaped detection, added to his wealth, and affirmed his virility. He has
proved himself resourceful, self-sufficient, and, most important, he has
accepted himself.
Actions, for Genet, have repercussions on the sacred or absolute
level. He is concerned with the effect of Querelle's deeds in the realm
beyond time and space. With the first murder, Querelle liberates himself
from society, himself, and God: "He knew the horror of being alone,
seized by an immortal enchantment in the midst of the world of the
living." (14) In a single act Querelle achieves a terrible unity and a total
negation. Killing Vic, he simultaneously kills himself, "No longer was any
part of Querelle present within his body. It was empty. Facing Vic, there
was no one." (59) As Querelle makes Vic an object, he too becomes an
object. Immediately after the murder he has a mystical vision of being
tried, condemned, and sentenced. To expiate his crime and carry out his
own capital punishment, he makes Nono his executioner. Later he has
another mystical experience where he becomes the wall where he buries
the jewels. In one sense Querelle achieves unity of personality when
subject and object merge, but to become an object is also death.
Murdering another person also destroys God or the God-in-
oneself. As Coe explains in The Vision of Jean Genet, having killed God,
the murderer becomes God: "He then shoulder(s) the entire moral
responsibility of the universe. The prospect is terrifying, overwhelming."
(Coe 182-83) The freedom is so frightening that the murderer is often
relieved to seek punishment at the hands of society, for in the absolute,
punishment is inevitable, incurred at the instant of the crime.
The murderer is a tragic and heroic figure who reaches the abso-
lute in a single bold stroke. Genet chose the slow, painful path of his
dynamic opposite, the saint. As Querelle's jewels represent his authentic-
ity, so too Genet's authenticity is what remains after he is burned all over
with the flames of shame--"an unattackable matter, of a shape formed by
sharp, severe lines, a kind of diamond rightly called solitaire." (Genet as
quoted in Sartre 242)
In the unity of George and Robert Querelle, Genet reverses his
original relationship with society. Instead of the other (society) being the

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powerful entity which can reduce the individual to object (as Sartre
believed), Genet depicts a unified personality which reduces the other to
object. United as a single egg in their mother's womb, George and Robert
share a consciousness or pour-soi. Since each has his own being in the
physical world (en-soi), they are in perpetual conflict. The brothers have a
ferocious battle over Querelle's submission to Nono. The struggle
between masculine and feminine in the consciousness nearly leads to
death, but as they fight, Genet comments, "Rather than trying to destroy
one another, they seemed to want to be united." (Querelle 123) Other than
this confrontation in the street, the brothers rarely meet. Their unity is
observed chiefly through the eyes of Madame Lysiane. She becomes
obsessed with their resemblance, sensing that their relationship is so
intense that she imagines it to be sexual, with Gil Turko's young friend
Roger as their child. She is tortured by the thought that although she can
possess both brothers physically, she can never come between them. As
the novel ends, Madame Lysiane realizes her solitude; faced with the
indissoluble union of George and Robert, she imagines hanging herself
and burning the brothel. She thinks, "If his brother goes to sea, Robert's
face will always be turned to the west. . . . Every minute they will
celebrate their nuptials." (275-76)
In Querelle of Brest Genet the poet redeems Genet the murdered
child. Through Querelle Genet realizes his identity as a successful crimi-
nal, tragic hero, and unified existential being. But at the same time as
Querelle unifies his personality, Genet reduces him to nothing-to a song.
Genet the writer successfully beguiles his reader into believing in Querelle
and then, in a malicious stroke, he destroys him. At the novel's end,
Madame Lysiane is alone, seeing her own words written in front of her,
describing her lovers Robert and George, "They is singing." (276) Once
again, the aesthete and the thief in Genet unite, reductively transforming
the world into nothing and achieving his revenge.

Bergen Community College

WORKS CITED

Coe, Richard, N. The Vision of Jean Genet: A Study of His Poems,


Novels. New York: Grove Press, 1968.
Genet, Jean. "Interview," Playboy, April 1964, pp. 45-50.
Genet, Jean. Miracle of the Rose, translated by Bernard Frechtman.
Grove Press, 1966.
Genet, Jean. Querelle, translated by Anselm Holo. New York: Grov
1974.
Genet, Jean. The Thief's Journal, translated by Bernard Frechtman.
Grove Press, 1964.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr, translated b
Frechtman. New York: George Braziller, 1963.

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