Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Jean Genet’s "Miracle of the Rose"

How to begin to describe a book that is reading me rather than the other way round? In every cell of Fontevrault prison, in its stone yards, in the stairwell where Genet and Bulkaen talk, and then exchange their intimate letters, constrained life speaks to constrained life, criminal activities—burglary, prostitution, murder—are haloed with an aura simultaneously piercing and muted, more piercing than martyred arrows and more muted than monkish holiness.

In the intensity of Genet’s vision, the chain of a condemned child-killer flowers into a garland, Harcamone is transfigured into Christ.

Harcamone dropped his arms, and the chain hung in front of him, below his belt. He walked out of the cell. As sunflowers turn to the sun, our faces turned and our bodies pivoted without our even realizing that our immobility had been disturbed, and when he moved toward us, with short steps, like the women of 1910 in hobble skirts, or the way he himself danced the Java, we felt a temptation to kneel or at least to put our hands over our eyes, out of decency. He had no belt. He had no socks. From his head—or from mine—came the roar of an airplane engine. I felt in all my veins that the miracle was under way. But the fervor of our admiration and the burden of saintliness which weighed on the chain that gripped his wrists—his hair had had time to grow and the curls had matted over his forehead with the cunning cruelty of the twists of the crown of thorns—caused the chain to be transformed before our scarcely astonished eyes into a garland of white flowers. The transformation began at the left wrist, which it encircled with a bracelet of flowers, and continued along the chain, from link to link, to the right wrist. Harcamone kept walking, heedless of the prodigy. The guards saw nothing abnormal. I was holding at that moment the pair of scissors with which, once a month, we were allowed, each in turn, to cut our fingernails and toenails. I was therefore barefooted. I made the same movement that religious fanatics make to seize the hem of a cloak and kiss it. I took two steps, with my body bent forward and the scissors in my hand, and I cut off the loveliest rose, which was hanging by a supple stem near his left wrist. The head of the rose fell on my bare foot and rolled on the pavestones among the dirty curls of cut hair. I picked it up and raised my enraptured face, just in time, to see the horror stamped on that of Harcamone, whose nervousness had been unable to resist that sure prefiguration of his death.

A passage like this, and there are many more such terrifying and beautiful passages in the 76 pages I have read so far, gives me courage to pursue a singular vision, a dark light, a place inaccessible to irony. Its beauty is the beauty of Lear crying, “Never, never, never, never, never,” an affirmation of the negative. It forces this realization on me: I am that barefooted religious fanatic whose deepest impulse is to worship, and not to understand, to debase myself and not to stand.

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