"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Francois Villon, Jean Genet, And The Lyrical Poetry Of The Condemned–Lessons For A Timid, Puritanical Age

François Villon, born in Paris in  1431 and died sometime after 1463, was known for his life of criminal excess, prison time, and banishment from medieval Paris . His chief works include Le Lais (Le Petit Testament), Le Grand Testament, and various ballades, chansons, and rondeaux. Villon wrote not only about the lowlife of Paris but sophisticated, deeply philosophical pieces about life, death, and dying. 

In prison, having been condemned to death by ‘hanging and strangling’ he wrote “Ballade des Pendus,” or “L’Épitaphe Villon”, in which he imagines himself hanging on the scaffold, his body rotting, and  in which he makes a plea to God against the “justice” of men.
La pluye nous a buez et lavez,
Et le soliel dessechiez et noircis;
Pies, corbeaulx nous ont les yeux cavez,
Et arrachié la barbe etles sourcis.
Jamais nul temps nous ne sommes assis;
Puis ça, puis la, comme le vent varie,
A son plaisir sans cesser nous charie,
Plus becquetez d'oyseaulx que dez a couldre.
Ne soiez donc de nostre confrarie;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre
Image result for images ballade des pendus

Jean Genet was also a criminal and lowlife; and he like Villon reflected on the existential nature of such an existence.  Unlike Villon who in La Ballade des Pendus wrote unflinchingly about the death that awaited him and all men – a frightening, cynical portrait of death by ignorance and betrayal, Genet saw existential value in a harshly antisocial life. Patti Smith writing in The Paris Review comments on Genet’s autobiography, The Thief’s Journal
In the first stirring lines of The Thief’s Journal, Jean Genet bares his youthful aspirations, his doctrine as a poet, and his tenets as a man. He offers a single sentence—“Convicts’ garb is striped pink and white”—then embarks on a paragraph of Proustian proportions, where straightaway the reader is hurled into the inner sanctum of the convict, privy to his gestures, sounds, and scents, his unspoken codes. We view the swagger of muscular gods, outfitted in the striped colors of a child’s party dress or a faded candy cane—colors most likely chosen to mock the wearers, the most hardened criminals of France.
Yet Genet has imbued this mockery with grandeur; these are the colors of his chosen university, colors he believes he will one day wear on his own back, graduating from foundling to criminal to convict. Thus achieved, he will earn the privilege of joining his chosen comrades as they are transported by ship from the Breton port of Brest to the Salvation Islands, off the coast of a barely colonized French Guiana. He imagines himself among them, chained at the ankles, treading the muddied path to the prison of Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni, where the most feared will be ferried across the piranha-infested Maroni River to rot in the hell of Devil’s Island.
In his young mind, he sees himself as a shining acolyte, crowned in thorny laurels, wearing the colors of sacred inversion. At seven months, he was left in a basket at the Bureau d’Abandon, the hospice for welfare children. At fifteen, he entered the Mettray Penal Colony for petty crimes and misdemeanors. At nineteen, he was dishonorably discharged from the Foreign Legion for being intimate with another soldier. Scarcely twenty, he became a drifter, navigating the harshest of circumstances. This is the road he embraces in pursuit of the pink-and-white stripes of the convict.
Image result for images illustrating genet poem le condamne a mort

After returning to Paris in 1937 after a number of years of aimless wandering, minor criminal activities and a sojourn, like Villon, in lowlife, Genet was in and out of prison through a series of arrests for theft, use of false papers, vagabondage, lewd acts, and other offenses. In prison, Genet wrote his first poem, "Le condamné à mort" and the novel Our Lady of the Flowers.

In Paris, Genet sought out and introduced himself to Jean Cocteau was impressed by his writing. Cocteau used his contacts to get Genet's novel published, and in 1949, when Genet was threatened with a life sentence after ten convictions, Cocteau and other prominent figures, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, successfully petitioned the French President to have the sentence set aside.
In his poem ‘Le Condamné a Mort’ Genet, like Villon, reflects on the awareness of a certain death. 

Tristesse dans ma bouche !
Amertume gonflant
Gonflant mon pauvre cœur !
Mes amours parfumées
Adieu vont s'en aller!
Adieu couilles aimées! Ô sur ma voix coupée adieu chibre insolent !
Gamin, ne chantez pas, posez votre air d'apache !
Soyez la jeune fille au pur cou radieux,
Ou si tu n'as de peur l'enfant mélodieux
Mort en moi bien avant que me tranche la hache.
Image result for images illustrating genet poem le condamne a mort

While both men like most facing imminent death, have their regrets, neither were apologetic about their lives.  Long before his final imprisonment and during his life of vagrancy and crime, Villon composed the poem his editors have called Le Petit Testament, which he himself entitled Le Lais. It takes the form of a list of “bequests,” ironically conceived, made to friends and acquaintances before leaving them and the city. To his barber he leaves the clippings from his hair; to three well-known local usurers, some small change; to the clerk of criminal justice, his sword.

Genet writing in A Thief’s Journal realizes that his romantic notion of a life of crime and villain ending in the depths of France’s worst prison will never be realized.  He learns the last prisoners are being transported back from Devil’s Island as the French Republic, citing inhuman conditions, closes the penal colony forever. “I am shorn of my infamy,” he mourns. He will be condemned to serve his sentence outside of Paris in brown homespun.

There is something very satisfying reading the poetry and biographies of these two men In our timid, censorious, and fearful age amidst allegations of ‘wrongdoing’, immoral and disreputable behavior, ‘abuse’, disrespect, and impropriety. Their unrepentant, dismissive, and persistently antisocial behavior is exactly what a judgmental, sanctimonious age needs to help resent the moral balance. 

Nothing really has changed since the Medieval times of Villon – human nature is as raw and irrepressible as it was then and only given a new, proper suit of clothes.  Certainly the value of life – one’s own and those threatened by it – has changed since the 1400s.  Existential perspective of the very short life that resulted from the murder, mayhem, incivility, wars, disease, crime of the era was very different from our very protected and concerned one.  But since that wildness and untamed incivility was closer to basic human nature than the cared-for, compassionate, and considerate life of today, it is not surprising that there is some longing for it.  If not the actual barbarity, at least a romantic reminiscence of it.

Abel Ferrara’s film Welcome To New York is the story of a wealthy, powerful, promiscuous French politician who is accused of rape by a New York City prosecutor who later drops all charges. The story is obviously but loosely based on the saga of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund and presumptive President of France who was wrongly accused by an African maid of rape. 

Image result for images welcome to new york film

Ferrara’s story, however, is not a fictionalized account of the long legal process nor a biopic of Strauss-Kahn.  It is the tale of an unashamed philanderer who refuses to be put in the cage of conventional morality.  He is neither proud of nor guilty about his infidelities or sexual appetites.  It is who I am, he says, a self-described libertine whose supposed immorality is other people’s problem, not his. The real-life Strauss-Kahn was no less defiant.  When he flippantly rejected charges of procuring, he said that he had no idea that the women at a party he attended were prostitutes.  “All women look the same without their clothes”, he said.  “I did no wrong”.

The film ends as Devereaux and his wife are about to return to Paris.  He is alone in the apartment and is served coffee by an attractive maid to whom he makes advances.  Even as his political future and reputation are in disarray, and as his wife is now finally ready to divorce him, he still risks pursuing women.  He has not ‘learned his lesson’ because there is no lesson to learn.  He has beaten the rape case because of his powerful New York attorneys, the likelihood that his wife paid off the prosecution, and because of his international reputation.

Sexual libertinage, promiscuity, or addiction – whatever the press might call it – in his eyes is morally neutral.  Prostitution has always been tolerated if not legal in France, and women are as much commodities as those he has always traded on world markets.   The fact that his sex drive is more insatiable than others is not the point.

Ferrara’s film is particularly interesting because it was produced in a very politically correct time and dealt with subjects– accusations of rape, infidelity, and sexual ambition -  which are reported in only predictably correct ways.  Devereaux’ legal proceedings and acquittal do not interest Ferrara.  The film is as ambiguous on this score as the claims and defense of the case on which it was based.  Ferrara is only interested in showing an absolutely confident, determined, willful, unapologetic, and unrepentant man in the face of sanctimonious social censure.

The film is especially important because it is an indictment of today’s increasingly Puritanical American culture.   Sex in the name of civil protections and women’s rights has been legalized, sanitized, and nearly considered off-limits unless it is between two consenting, married adults.   Sex for Devereaux was necessary and absolute.  As in the case of most older men, sex with younger women is their only hope of retaining the potency and vitality of their youth.  Although sexual conquest is enough for most men, Devereaux could not stop there.   It was the sex act in all its twisted diversity that mattered.  And what was wrong with that?

Reading about or watching the lives of those with an unashamed, unapologetic dismissal of conventional morality who revel in the unconventional, the outrageous, and the unacceptable is a sheer delight.

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