Jean Genet’s text “The Criminal Child,” previously unavailable in English, was translated and published in December 2015. An anonymous commentary on the text, included as an afterword within the same pamphlet, reads “The Criminal Child” as an intricately coded set of instructions for magical initiation and ordeal.
“The Criminal Child” was originally written in 1948 as a speech to be read on a radio show in order to address reforms to France’s youth prisons that had been proposed at the time. It was rejected and never read on the air. When Genet published the censored text the following year, he wrote in his introduction, “I would have liked to make the voice of the criminal audible. Not his plaint; rather his song of glory.” 1
Genet, who had spent two and a half years as a teenager imprisoned in France’s notorious Mettray penal colony (punctuated by a brief but glorious escape), clearly intended to prove himself the exception to Nietzsche’s observations that “the criminal is often enough not equal to his deed: he extenuates and maligns it,” and that “the advocates of a criminal are seldom artists enough to turn the beautiful terribleness of the deed to the advantage of the doer.” 2
Though perhaps expected to be supportive of prison reforms due to his own past experience, Genet instead recalled that he and his fellow delinquents took pride in the harshness of their treatment, and were ashamed to admit to light sentences: “It’s with a sort of shame that the child confesses that they have just acquitted him or that they have condemned him to a light sentence. He wishes for rigor. He demands it.” 3 From my own teenage years, I can corroborate this worldview.
Of course, Genet never claimed that all incarcerated youth share this adversarial attitude. As an adult and a well-respected writer, he (re)visited a youth prison where the director pointed out to him a “scout team he formed to reward the most docile children.” 4 Scathingly, Genet wrote that these were not the “chosen” of whom he spoke:
Looking at those twelve kids, it was clear that none of them was chosen, elected, so as to take on some audacious expedition, even an entirely imaginary one. But I knew that in the interior of the Penitentiary, in spite of the educators, there existed groups, gangs really, where the bond, what made them stick together, was friendship, audacity, ruse, insolence, a taste for laziness, an air about the forehead at once somber and joyful—this taste for adventure against the rules of the Good.5
For this latter category of youth, Genet argued that imprisonment is an ordeal: “Their demand is that the ordeal be terrible—so as, perhaps, to exhaust an impatient need for heroism.” 6 The youth prison is imagined to be a “corner of the world from which you don’t come back.” 7 And this premonition conceals an underlying, occult truth: “In fact, you didn’t come back. When you came back, you were someone else. You had come across a blazing fire.” 8
His Unique Magical System
“Notes on ‘The Criminal Child,’ ” the exegetical essay published alongside Genet’s text, treats Genet as a sorcerer: “Here Genet details some of the workings of his own internal cosmology, the rites and methods of his unique magical system.” 9
Genet’s system of “criminal rites” offers initiation “not into an order, but into an adventure;” nonetheless, like any initiatory system, it is “ineffable to the uninitiated, but shared between himself and other youthful offenders.” 10
The author(s) of “Notes” fill five pages with their distillation of Genet’s occultism. I cannot quote them in their entirety here, so I must pour these words through yet another alembic:
This space is what Genet called “the nocturnal part of man, which you cannot explore, which you cannot enter unless you are armed, unless you are coated, embalmed, unless you are covered with all the ornaments of language.” 12 Genet’s “ritual work prepares the initiate to enter this nocturnal space.” 13
The youth prison is Genet’s fountain of memory, but each of us has our own clandestine world into which we were initiated as youth. It was there in those spaces that we learned magic as a force of liberation, self-creation, and world-building. Though our childhoods are gone, we can access that space again in remembrance and invocation.11
Drawing heavily upon Genet’s novel Miracle of the Rose, “Notes” observes that this “nocturnal heaven” is populated “with spirits, demons, deities, ancestors, and figures from his past with blue eagles carved across their chests, youths who stand ‘the way Mercury is depicted.‘” 14 You know the look.
And how does one arm oneself to enter this “nocturnal heaven?” The same prison director who introduced Genet to the “scout team” of “the most docile children” also showed him a collection of improvised knives, but patronizingly confided in Genet that he didn’t really believe in the need to confiscate the knives: they were made of tin, and therefore harmless.
In his mind, Genet could only laugh at the jailer’s obliviousness—confiscating the knives was indeed pointless, but they were far from harmless, and would only be replaced by more dangerous weapons:
Did he not know that, the more it deviates from its practical destination, the more the object is transformed, becoming a symbol? […] What is the point of taking it from him? The child will choose another object to signify murder, something apparently more benign, and if someone doesn’t take that as well, he’ll keep in himself, preciously, the more precise image of the weapon.15
Armed with symbols, the initiate must “pay attention to signs and signs and sigils carved and painted onto walls—M.A.V. (Mort aux vaches), B.A.A.D.M. (Bonjour aux amis du malheur)—and read these as you’d read inscriptions on the walls of an ancient temple.” 16 “Notes” instructs the initiate to build a temple within as well: “Build your inner temple here and consecrate it to ‘amorous passion.’ In this temple you can now face your ordeal.”17“Notes” recalls the eponymous flowers of Miracle of the Rose—in which Harcamone, convicted of murdering a prison guard, transformed “his chains into a garland of roses, one of which Genet clipped and concealed”—and further explicates the term “ordeal” by quoting Raven Kaldera:
Take the rose into your hands, and squeeze the thorns until your hands bleed, even as you smell the scent of Aphrodite. When you can understand why there is no contradiction there, the first step of the path will be open to you.18
To Insult the Insulters
If mysteries can only be understood through experience, why write of them at all? Sannion, of the Starry Bull tradition of Bacchic Orphism, writes that “There are two ways to keep a religious secret concealed: the first is to never talk about it at all and the second is to talk about it all the time.” Like the Starry Bull tradition, Genet opted for the latter approach.
Genet’s primary objective, of course, was to speak directly to the initiated:
This whole time I haven’t been speaking to the educators, but to the guilty […] I ask them to never be embarrassed by what they do, to keep intact inside themselves the revolt that has made them so beautiful. There are no remedies, I hope, for heroism.” 19
Once his speech was censored from the radio, he despaired of reaching his target audience, but decided to publish anyway: “I speak in the void and in the darkness; but even if it were just for myself, I would still want to insult the insulters.” 20
For the uninitiated, Genet’s counsel is as harsh as it sounds: “Refuse all pity to the kids who don’t want any.” 21 He is explicitly and unapologetically hostile to mainstream society: “Let a poet, who is also an enemy, speak to you as a poet, and as an enemy.” 22 Even Edmund White, Genet’s biographer, found his “poetry” in “The Criminal Child” difficult to translate: “since for Genet crime itself is beautiful, he supports the cruelty of the unreformed prison system because it turns youngsters into hardened criminals.” 23 But that’s not quite right:
“Supports”—White’s word—doesn’t quite fit here. Genet is explicitly in his enmity toward this society, its prisons surely included. He sees the prison as an obstacle to be overcome in a path of criminal becoming, a path of individuation.
This is the folly of trying to read him as “the political Genet.” To say that Genet supports (or doesn’t) any given state policy enmeshes his words in a political mode unbefitting the text at hand. Genet neither supports the prison nor desires to reform it. He seeks to escape it […] 24
Blinded by Their Brilliance
In Miracle of the Rose, Genet compared religion to prison, but his comparison was based upon the possibility that the bounded space of the finite (as opposed to the infinite) can lead to a “minute” exploration of the heart:
Abhorring the infinite, religions imprison us in a universe as limited as the universe of prison–but as unlimited, for our hope in it lights up perspectives just as sudden, reveals gardens just as fresh, characters just as monstrous, deserts, fountains; and our more ardent love, drawing greater richness from the heart, projects them on the thick walls; and this heart is sometimes explored so minutely that a secret chamber is breached an allows a ray to slip through, to alight on the door of a cell and to show God.25
Similarly, Genet wrote that prisoners “sentenced to death for life” (i.e. those serving life imprisonment) become hardened and brilliant in their captivity:
Living in so restricted a universe, they thus had the boldness to live in it as passionately as they lived in your world of freedom, and as a result of being contained in a narrower frame their lives became so intense, so hard, that anyone–journalists, wardens, inspectors–who so much as glanced at them was blinded by their brilliance.26
One recalls, of course, that Zeus’s name is etymologically derived from Proto-Indo-European *dewos, meaning “god,” is cognate with Latin deus and Sanskrit deva, and ultimately comes from the root *dyeu- meaning “to gleam, to shine.” The “deities” are “the shining ones.” And so the “shining ones” among the living are touched by gods as well.
Indeed, Genet canonized the prisoners he wrote of as saints:
The audacity to live (and to live with all one’s might) within that world whose only outlet is death has the beauty of the great maledictions, for it is worthy of what was done in the course of all the ages by the Mankind that had been expelled from Heaven. And this, in effect, is saintliness, which is to live according to Heaven, in spite of God.27
Genet hated Sartre’s biography of him (Saint Genet) and said of it, “In all my books I strip myself, but at the same time I disguise myself with words, choices, attitudes, magic. Sartre stripped me without mercy. He wrote about me in the present tense.” The “words, choices, attitudes, magic” that Genet spoke of are surely the same “ornaments of language” required to explore the “nocturnal part of man.” Sartre stripped Genet of his magic, perhaps because he was afraid of being blinded by it. We honor him for it.
The Ekklesía Antínoou honors Jean Genet as a Sanctus, especially on his birthday (December 19) and the date of his death (April 15). Similarly, Brennos Agrocunos has declared David Bowie to be “Saint Bowie, Patron Saint of Enchanted Misfits.” And at the shrine of Jesús Malverde (the unofficial “Santo de los Narcos”) in Culiacán, Sinaloa, women who have never met Joaquín Guzmán Loera (A.K.A. El Chapo, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel and two-time prison escapee) pray fervently on his behalf: “I ask God to take care of him wherever he is, to take care of his sons, his wife.”
In “The Criminal Child,” Genet expressed the ethic of veneration in simple but elegant terms:
Genet also castigated mainstream French society for its hypocrisy: “Your literature, your fine arts, your after-dinner entertainment all celebrate crime. The talent of your poets has glorified the criminal who, in life, you hate. So deal with the fact that, for our part, we despise your poets and your artists.” 29
I don’t know of any other criterion for the beauty of an act, an object, or an entity, than the song it arouses in me, which I translate into words so as to communicate it to you: this is lyricism. If my song is lovely, if it has upset you, will you dare say that he who inspired it is vile?
You can say that there have always been words charged with expressing the haughtiest attitudes, and that I would have recourse to them so that the least appears haughty. But I can respond that my emotion calls for precisely these words and that they come naturally to serve it.28
TV shows and films portray outlaws as protagonists, but “those who were their more or less exact models suffered for real. […] You know nothing of heroism in its true nature, in the flesh, how it suffers in the same everyday way that you do. True greatness brushes past you. You ignore it, and prefer a fake.”30
- Jean Genet, “The Criminal Child,” v.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Chapter 4, Aphorisms 109 and 110.
- Jean Genet, “The Criminal Child,” 3.
- Ibid., 11.
- Ibid., 4.
- “Notes on ‘The Criminal Child,'” 37.
- Ibid., 37-39.
- Ibid., 41-42.
- Jean Genet, “The Criminal Child,” 12.
- “Notes on ‘The Criminal Child,'” 46.
- Jean Genet, “The Criminal Child,” 10-11.
- “Notes on ‘The Criminal Child,'” 40. “Mort aux vaches” is translated as “death to cops,” “Bonjour aux amis de malheur” as “Greetings to friends of misfortune.”
- Ibid., 42.
- Raven Kaldera, qtd. in “Notes on ‘The Criminal Child,'” 43-44.
- Jean Genet, “The Criminal Child,” 14-15.
- Ibid., 25.
- Ibid., 16.
- “Notes on ‘The Criminal Child,'” 45.
- Ibid. Emphasis added.
- Jean Genet, Miracle of the Rose, 43.
- Ibid., 42-43.
- Jean Genet, “The Criminal Child,” 13.
- Ibid., 20.
- Ibid., 21-22.