Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 3(6) (1995) 150-152
"Madame! Madame, please, I beg of you. I'm willing to lick your shoes, but tell me you're a thief...."Students, Professors and society may at times become engulfed in a cursory analysis of deviant behavior. The portrayal of a deviant lifestyle and its role in society, as dictated by the criminal in his own words and analysis, is a fledgling or latent academic resource. The Thief's Journal, written by Jean Genet, is a picturesque example of a deviant lifestyle and provides a development of historical meaning in life. The book presents to the reader the degrading, shameful, and immoral antithesis to conventional morality through a beautifully poetic and transcendent life/role development.
The Judge to The Thief in Jean Genet's The Balcony
"Convicts' garb is striped pink and white. Though it was at my heart's biding that I chose the universe wherein I delight." (p. 9) The book begins with a reflection of Genet's life as a thief while in prison in French Guiana. Genet paints a picture of the prisoner organizing a "forbidden" universe that he alone agrees to accept and live within, repudiating the values and morality of conventional society or in his words, your world. To Genet crime and criminals produce an erotic quality within, not to be explained by injustice or rebellion, "... revolt, bitterness, anger, or any similar sentiment never entered into my choice." (p. 13) Genet's choice of lifestyle was one of homosexuality, debauchery, thievery, extreme poverty, treason, and guile. To these extents he proceeded to live them in reality, fulfilling his actions to their extreme potentials as a young student of any profession.
Throughout the book the reader is introduced to numerous confederates that Genet portrays as grand heroes of the deviant underworld, " I have forgotten those boys: all that remains is the attribute that I have sung. . . I wanted them to have the honors of the Name." (p. 109) In a personal analysis of Genet's friend Stilitano, he brings to life a common theme, that of the development of one's social and personal role in life. Genet speaks of Stilitano, "Although he really was a gangster, he played at being one, that is, he invented gangster attitudes." To Genet, Stilitano was seeking a type and "attempting to copy a real hero" or play a role. (p. 125) Stilitano's role was guided by the conquering hero within the comic books which he ritualistically bought each day. As for another friend of Genet, Armand, his role provided the stolid yet ethical role of the deviant, "The code of honor peculiar to hoodlums seemed to me laughable. Armand gradually became the Almighty in the realm of ethics." (p. 188) To Genet, Armand presented himself with the most manly of attributes; he remained physically solid and unflinching to any recourse from the outside world, "No ridicule could touch him." These analyses of the development of criminal lifestyles and Genet's own personal development add a sense of lucidity to the often banal textbook representation of criminological theories, from conflict theories through social control. The reader becomes transported into the deviant realm, which can be a beneficial to our understanding of unconventional behavior.
Along with the production of these two accomplices into proportions of grand meaning, Genet remained utterly submissive to their lifestyles and wishes. In many respects he considered himself their whore, bitch, or slave and often craved to be so. Upon his first encounters with Armand, Genet reflects this relationship by stating, "I remained at his side in order to serve his nocturnal pleasure." (p. 134) The emotional relevance of this relationship changed when [End page 150] Genet proved himself to be one of the known and ruthless thieves of the area. Armand came to respect Genet for his boldness, thus changing his exploitation of Genet, "Respect alone kept him from using my body, as he had done earlier, whereas such use would have swelled me with force and courage." (p. 187) The tone of Genet's words portray this longing for submission and the emotional power it represented in his life and role fulfillment. The concept of submission remained a recurrent theme throughout the text. Conventional society and Genet's amorphous family defined his role and direction in life from the days of his reformatory school:
"Abandoned by my family, I already felt it was naturalGenet was at the submission of the dominant conventional society, and he fulfilled this path that fathered him to its zealous extremities.
to aggravate this condition by a preference for boys,
and this preference by theft, and theft by crime or a
complacent attitude in regard to crime. I thus
resolutely rejected a world which had rejected me." (p. 86)
"Prison offers the same sense of security to the convict as does a royal palace to a king's guest. The masonry the materials the proportions and the architecture are in harmony with a moral unity which makes these dwellings indestructible so long as the social form of which they are the symbols endures. The prison surrounds me with a perfect guarantee. I am sure that it was constructed for me- along with the Law Court, its annex, its monumental vestibule." (p. 87)Yet at times, Genet himself, would take on the role of master and see to it that others accept full indoctrination into the underclass world. Once again, Genet is providing the reader with valuable insights into deviance that have deep rooted symbolism and numerous criminological expressions. The concept of subjective roles that is explored by Genet is crucial to an understanding of his construction of dualities. This antilogy of meaning is the second core concept in this work.
The role of the paradox takes on utmost significance in the writings of Genet. The juxtaposition between saint and sinner, thief and judge, honor and scandal is one that is constantly being explored in The Thief's Journal. These dualities are the most informative aspect of the book because they point out the ambiguities of morality that we experience. The thief is not truly evil and the judge is not purely good in the absolute sense of these terms. There is that part of the thief that is giving and caring, which Genet points out by his admission of giving to charity when on the way to a larceny. This ambiguity is important to understand because it forces us to question the nature of our punishments as well as the process of creating our laws.
The power of the book is concentrated in its depiction of deviance from the deviant's point of view. This perspective allows for an explanation of deviance beyond the simple theoretical constructs of most criminology. In the act of stealing there is a "nervousness provoked by fear, and sometimes by anxiety, [that] makes for a state akin to religious moods." (p. 29) The epiphany that accompanies the commission of a crime is, for Genet, a force that cannot be resisted. This "religious" experience is not readily apparent to the utilitarian who sees only a rational man making the choice of crime. It is this typification of crime as emotive in nature that marks Genet off from other writers on this topic and therefore makes reading him ever more important. Crime is not committed in a moral vacuum and to study it that way is to alienate it from human nature. With persistent reductionism we may destroy the essence of what we are studying and this may inhibit any true innovation. [End page 151]
There is also an interesting depiction of the norms of a deviant society repulsing a thief who cannot be deviant. Genet speaks of Nazi Germany and his revulsion for a place where he cannot attempt to destroy the normal social order because it itself is deviant. Since there is no order to disrupt, the rebellious criminal simply becomes another part of a warped social order. The thief cannot survive in a place that does not castigate him and where abnormality is kindness and honesty. He finds stealing in Germany stultifying because "the gods who govern laws were not revolted. They were merely surprised." (p. 123)
This deification of law is interesting because it points to his need to revere the law by breaking it. Genet believes that without the criminal there can be no law, and he makes it his goal to give the law his body to punish. In the beginning of the book he talks about the penal colony being the place that is constructed for him, the one place he really belongs. Genet believes this because he sees his life as the ultimate rejection of the conforming culture that he feels rejected him. It is only by elevating this conforming culture's laws to the status of deity does his rejection of them take on the magnificent proportions he ascribes. The belief that without the criminal there can be no law is one of the central paradoxes of The Thief's Journal.
This book explores the essence of the actions of one deviant in time and space. If it is limited in any way, it is by the euphemism that makes some heinous crimes seem romantic in nature. The depiction of vice may be informative, from the point of view of the deviant, if it gives an accurate depiction of the deviant's perception of crime. The problem with this perception, noted by Genet, is that it is colored by all the intervening experiences of one's life. It is a "..present fixed with the help of the past..." that we are shown and it is up to us to decipher what it is to be deviant. (p. 71)
The creation of an aberrant anti-hero is a task that must be undertaken with caution because the drama of life can quickly become the melodrama of fiction. In graphic detail Genet pierces the veil of mystery that surrounds the criminal and describes a world of deceit, licentiousness, and anathema that surrounded his life. The paradoxes that drive this autobiography are at the base of the system we call justice. Without the criminal there can be no law, and without the thief there can be no judge. In essence, it is only with social disorder that we can have an idea of social order. We cannot know the thing unless we know it by contrast.
In sum, we would recommend this book for a graduate course dealing with the general concepts of deviance and conformity. It is quite graphic in its depictions of homosexuality, and this may have the effect of obfuscating the more abstract themes of the book for the less mature reader. It presents the deviant's point of view with a vigor and poetry that is rare to find in the field of criminal justice and for this reason the utility of this book should not be suspect.
University at Albany