Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet

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This summer we’ll be reading three books based on a singular concept: The Summer of Love, LGBT Edition. The books will be love stories, loosely defined, by and about the LGBT community. We’ve chosen our first two books: Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (meeting July 27th) and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (meeting August 31st). Now we must choose our third book. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting some of the suggestions people have made. These will be cut and paste reviews, and not my personal thought (I have not read any of these yet). Feel free to post suggestions below.  We’ll be meeting June 29th at BookPeople to discuss Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain and make our decision.

Reviewed by Hodgsonson here: http://hodgsonson.wordpress.com/2013/04/25/our-lady-of-the-flowers-jean-genet/

Our Lady of the Flowers

By Jean Genet

Pgs. 272

Grove Press

 

Our Lady of the Flowers is another ‘book I ought to read’ – though not for the sake of being a better writer, but rather for the sake of finding books that deal with being gay in a clever, dare-I-say-it ‘queer’ way – eg. by engaging with heterosexism as an actual, productive force rather than something that can be overcome through assimilation. Plus I got a bit tired of reading about Joseph K. seducing scullery maids all the time.

 

So Genet does all that, and so much more. Our Lady of the Flowers was written in prison. The first draft was destroyed and so he re-wrote it. I can’t really do justice to the whole book in a blog post. There’s  too much good stuff in it.

A quick summary: the narrator flips between vignettes of his own life and those of his characters, who he ejaculates into the world in order to survive the isolation of prison. At it’s core is Genet’s rehersal of the most radical position of rebellion possible: to fight oppression by exalting the filthy, by becoming the most despised thing – also known as  ‘abject saintliness’. His prose is camp as heeel, gur’. But its more than just excessive and luxurious, it’s steeped in irony – I guess this stems from Genet’s awareness of all the ways in which he might be complicit with those that oppressive him.

Reading it is a strange experience. For one, I’ve never found quite so much of my life represented or taken seriously in a book before. Not so much the whorin’ or the thievin’; more the thinking about being a homo. What it feels like, what you desire, how you do it. The way you retreat to imagination. The way we perform gender; the way we don’t quite get it right. How you fight the niggling feeling of shame – this quiet sadness – that you’re excluded from the Grand Procession of Life. You ain’t in their fantasy, ho! Now deal with it!

It hits the spot for me theoretically, aesthetically, and in terms of its homos (who are erotically charged and fascinating, ephemeral figures, strange alien birds). Which brings me to an important point – Leo Bersani’s written a lot about Genet; his writings in Homos has basically shaped my thoughts on Our Lady of the Flowers. The rejection of society in order to realise personal desire. The power, community and ethics that are bound up with the active impoverishment of the subject. Needless to say, both Genet and Bersani take a dim view of hegemonic gender behaviour. There’s a great paper on manliness/becoming-unnameable by Bersani here: http://www.oca.no/programme/audiovisual/the-state-of-things-illegitimacy  that deal explicitly with this book, but you should check out what he says about Funeral Rights as well.

‘Thus I lived in the midst of an infinity of holes in form of men’ (102)

There’s also a lot you could say about the operation of Baudrillard’s symbolic exchange in the text; death and life constantly exchanged as characters disappear, die, return, shatter/exchange their identities, become other people, have sex with fictional characters, recognise their own fictionality, etc. etc. Non-productive exchanges happen all over the shop. Which is probably an obvious reading, but that I find kinda cool. Especially in the connection that these writers all trace between homosexuality and the sacred (in the sense of Bataille’s accursed share). Feels very rich to me.

‘Culafroy became Divine; he was thus a poem written only for himself, hermetic to whoever did not have the key to it. In short, this is his secret glory, like the one I have decreed upon myself so as to obtain peace at last’ (190)

It’s just so good.

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