Commentary Magazine

The New Immoralists

A specter is haunting modern literature, the specter of avant-garde homosexuality. Some people are thrilled, others frightened, by the morbid prospects. The leading figures of the new subversives are Jean Genet and William Burroughs, though there are many other lesser talents, less flamboyant talents, imitators, hangers-on, and plain phonies. One might think of them as the extreme Left of the advanced sexuality that has dominated fiction and the movies for some time now. But I think this is too superficial a view, almost a routine response of middle-class respectability disguised as sober criticism; and such lumping of sex, experiment, dissent, and new values promotes the appetite for sensationalism and makes it difficult to evaluate or to understand the new works.

Some day writers like Genet and Burroughs might be assimilated, but so far the reaction to both of them—particularly to Burroughs—has been uneasy, uncertain, and spotty. They have been praised, dismissed, ignored, usually as a gesture or a public stand. Mary McCarthy, Robert Lowell, and Norman Mailer have hailed Burroughs as a major talent (I don’t recall what they said about Genet); and there is Sartre’s monumental tribute to Genet, Saint Genet. On the other hand, many critics have found Genet mediocre and distasteful, and Burroughs revolting, formless, and interesting mostly as pornography. Lionel Abel, who is not known for his conservative taste, said recently that Burroughs belongs to the “cult of utterness” which lies outside of literature. Even the word “sick,” normally used only by the guardians of morality, has been applied to Genet and Burroughs by literary people. Rarely have judgments been so opposed, and for so long. What we have here is not difference of opinion, which usually varies only slightly and mainly in emphasis, but a difference of values. People are forced—not always consciously—to re-examine their values before being able to make up their minds about Burroughs or Genet, and sometimes there is a contradiction between how they feel and how they think they should feel. Hence sides are taken the way they are on political or ideological issues.

Genet is a much more complicated and more traditional writer than Burroughs, and, I think, a much more gifted one. But both of them have turned traditional values upside down. I do not mean that they have questioned only those conventions that make up the moral cant and the popular styles of our time. If this were all there was to their subversion, they surely would be part of the advanced establishment, especially now with the homage paid to the cult of novelty and rebellion. We all know about the attraction to “evil”: the Inferno is more interesting than the Paradiso, and it is an old story that the Devil is usually more likable than God. The moral underground is a staple of the modern household, like civil rights or sexual freedom. Who dares question the thinking of the avant-garde—or what is by now its tradition? And by association with such extreme but accepted figures as Rimbaud or Baudelaire or Gide, Genet and Burroughs seem to be legitimate heirs to the tradition of dissent and experiment. But the resemblance is superficial. Baudelaire’s concern with evil, for example, or Dostoevski’s with crime, were attempts to assimilate the new psychology to traditional morality; while Nietzsche, the great rebel of modern thought, seems tame today by comparison with Genet. Rimbaud talked of degrading the senses; Burroughs achieves it.



What distinguishes Genet and Burroughs is that they have broken almost completely with the past. Theirs is a distinct, self-contained world, one in which there are very few tensions or contradictions between the old and the new, scarcely any concessions to existing taste or sensibility in the choice of images or metaphors, very little guilt. There are few rests between the successions of shocks, few “normal” associations, of the kind we find even in someone like Kafka, in whom the irony and the ambiguity serve as links with the conventional world. It is hard to think of a single writer, however “advanced,” who has not been full of dull and undistinguished passages, as though to remind us how habitual genius often is, and how ordinary is the experience of most art. Sometimes the commonplace has been programmatic, as in Pop art, which—like Dada earlier—has tried to make a style out of the connection between the bizarre and the blatant. With Genet and Burroughs, however, it is just the opposite: instead of relating to more traditional ideas, they force us to accept and to judge them on terms set by themselves.

Such submission through art to what is otherwise considered to be intolerable is, of course, in keeping with the guilt-ridden spirit of liberation that is riding high these days. To embrace what is assumed to be beyond the pale is taken as a sign of true sophistication. And this is not simply a change in sensibility; it amounts to a sensibility of chaos—for it means that every new work has an equal and irresistible claim on us, that it lies outside judgment. True enough, new works do not come into being simply to be judged. Still, we all know that in some way not easily defined we both judge and don’t judge; we are open to new experiences for their own sake at the same time that we exercise some kind of selection by relating them to other things we think or have felt. Taste is actually a form of judgment.

Some of these questions are raised quite dramatically in a recent piece by Susan Sontag on “camp.” Miss Sontag describes boldly and with much spirit a current mode, fairly general though mostly found among younger people, and largely homosexual in origin, that puts style above meaning, taste above judgment, living above life. Her own attitude seems to be torn—since she is reflecting as well as examining the new stance—between the “moral seriousness” of high culture and the “aestheticism and irony” of camp. And she is really not interested in reconciling these two modern forces, nor does she see any advantage in being consistent. Hers is obviously a radical and sophisticated position and so advanced that one does not like to be excluded from it. But those who have stronger roots in another style, one that recognizes that morality has limits but is not ready to abandon morality for any aesthetic stance, are even less prepared to abandon themselves to pure play, or to pure experience, which amounts to the same thing. One finds oneself judging as well as experiencing the quality of the new work or the new idea. And it is an axiom of criticism that in evaluating new art we cannot avoid applying traditional standards, though these standards are themselves altered by new works.



One of the difficulties in dealing with Genet is that there are two Genets: the wild playwright and the almost documentary novelist and memoirist. Ironically, it is the tamer, more prosaic Genet I find not only less exciting but also less palatable. For the autobiographical declaration, The Thief’s Journal,1 like most of the fiction, is little more than a saga of what Genet has done and how he has felt. The “content” of these books is a recital of the crime and perversity that make up Genet’s being. Hence one might expect some new form to accommodate the unusual subject. But the journal and the novels are naturalistic, orderly, conventional—the prose is traditional—in a way that suggests some aesthetic perversity. What comes through is only one side of Genet, his raw experience, in its most literal and routine form, even though Genet the writer does emerge as part of the person. His art consists of his having transformed his life into a life-style. Hence the work has the compact facility of a self-portrait. It is not truly an autobiography, nor a confession or a justification of what he has done or felt; it reads more like a condensed version of the murder, theft, sodomy, treason, disloyalty, sado-masochism, that make up his life, all presented as though the world they come from might be different but not abnormal. In this respect, Genet is really making the same assumptions most other writers do: that the scene of their work is one we are in or in which we can easily imagine ourselves, and can therefore take for granted.

Because The Thief’s Journal is so consistent and so explicit, it can serve as Genet’s moral and psychological dictionary. It defines his acts and his feelings and supplies the clues to his most perverse ideas; in this sense it traces his “moral” development. But more than that, the book reconstructs and gives shape to his life; it makes his life plausible by making it coherent, the way a work of art or a psychoanalysis makes an imaginary life real or endows a real life with imagination. The homosexual rites that fill Genet’s novels are here, in all their clinical splendor, told with an innocent boyish exhibitionism. But they are also connected with Genet’s absorption in crime and with other phases of his pathology, partly through the juxtaposition of incidents, partly by self-analysis, so that what emerges is essentially the evidence for Genet’s idea of himself. And not much more: for the autobiography is obsessively selective, and we learn very little about Genet’s life beyond his passions and attachments and his compulsive interest in theft and murder. The reiteration of his petty criminal acts and his perverse feelings gives the impression that there are just a few themes, rotating around one another.

As Genet presents his life the core is in his homosexuality. I don’t know whether this is the art or the truth of Genet, but it does explain many things. His total and abject submission to male ravishment clarifies his double attitude to authority: he likes to violate and to be violated, particularly by cops. His passion for killing or stealing is a passion for a pure act disconnected from “normal” acts and values, and mixed up with the betrayals, overwrought loyalties, and phallic associations that go with his homosexuality. “The only criterion for an act,” says Genet, “is its elegance.” Genet speaks with excitement of all forms of disloyalty, including treason, but always as though they were natural, innocent, and fulfilling, somehow necessary to his peculiar existence. The events of his life appear to have a pathological consistency as its abnormal components are fused, violently, as though they were mated. In the end Genet’s existence takes on a waif-like sexuality, complete, cut off, abandoned to its own deformed innocence.

Genet’s criminal simplicity almost grows on one, so long as he remains an outcast who simply is everything that has happened to him. But the spell is broken when he appropriates a nobility and a moral purity that come from a civilization he has rejected. When, for example, Genet applies for sainthood—or it is bestowed on him by Sartre—it sounds inauthentic and literary. One hears echoes of the stale, romantic association of the depths with the heights, the marriage of heaven and hell. Whatever reservations one might have about most of Genet’s work, it is not on the grounds of falseness. But when he says, “Saintliness means turning pain to good account . . . forcing the devil to be God . . . obtaining the recognition of evil. . . .”—then he is only dressing up his life in the clichés of a sophisticated and fashionable approach to literature and religion: he becomes a moral transvestite. The one thing Genet is not is a saint, unless we assume that every talented and suffering criminal is ex officio a saint.

But even the pretense of sainthood does not make The Thief’s Journal easier to assimilate. Nor does it rescue the book from the boredom of the homosexual catechism. What makes Genet’s world at all palatable is the literary gift; it is through literature that the middle class flirts with the forbidden. And Genet’s sensibility helps make his inferno seem almost respectable. For the clean, functional prose—the prose of journalism and exposition—is something we associate with the rigors and the responsibilities of middle-class society, with the idealizing of order and the therapeutic approach to disorder.

The other Genet, however, the Genet of The Balcony and The Blacks, is a different story. In the plays, which are marvelously suggestive and ambiguous because they do not pretend to be documentary, the metaphors that connect his life with other kinds of life are more mysterious and, therefore, ultimately, less disturbing. The Balcony, for example, has to do with perversity, but not literally or exclusively; and its meaning is enlarged because of the way the sexual idea the characters have of themselves runs in and out of their worldly idea of themselves. It might be said that Genet’s novels are transformed into his plays, the way life is normally converted into art.



Our other underground man, William Burroughs, on the surface at least, is more experimental, less conventional, and wilder in his fantasies than Genet even in the plays. Where Genet has a recognizable subject, Burroughs’s subject is his fantasies. The new book, Nova Express,2 differs from Naked Lunch in that it is conceived in the mode of science fiction, but like his earlier work, it is essentially a biological nightmare. The cast, as usual, includes junkies, queers, criminals, wanderers of all sorts, but in Nova Express they are more explicitly insiders and outsiders, because Burroughs has created a fanciful opposition to “the police machine.” Beyond this, it is almost impossible to explain what happens. (Because it cannot be paraphrased this would have made a good example of a prose text for the New Critics.) All one can say is that Nova Express is very much like the scenario of a battle, with the various bizarre characters jerking in and out of the set, flashing all kinds of lurid messages in junkie code, the whole scene blazing in images of death and destruction, merged with drugged states, hallucinations, queer dreams, images of feces, vomiting, etc. It is as though Burroughs had hit upon a way of seeing all of life in terms of a homosexual essence: the feeding, almost literally, of human flesh and organs on each other in an orgy of annihilation. The whole world is reduced to the fluidity of excrement as everything dissolves into everything else: ideas, metaphors, objects, associations, memories, bodies, people, all melt into one other in a cosmic orgasm.

Burroughs’s prose, too, though woollier than Genet’s, is, like Genet’s, always working—there are no wasted words, only wasted sentences—and as in the case of Genet, what he is writing about is blunted by making of writing into a common denominator of experience.



A few years ago, when Burroughs was being dismissed because he was new and unrespectable, it might have been necessary to defend him against the philistines and the legions of decency. But now that unrespectability itself is becoming respectable, one can’t go on talking about him as though he were a wild new talent, full of the promise and the faults of youth. It seems reasonable to expect Burroughs by now to have developed into something more than a permanent, however able, propagandist for his obsessions. His gifts as a writer of prose can carry him only so far—unless we are ready to reduce writing to its craft.

The ultimate test of a new work is its influence on other writers and its effect on our view of things. In the case of Genet’s plays there is some indication that our imagination has been stirred and enlarged. But I do not think this is true of his novels. And I do not believe this happens at all with Burroughs. But there is also a more immediate and simpler test, boredom: and the truth is that Genet’s fantasies in the form of confessions and Burroughs’s confessions in the form of fantasies are bound to bore anyone outside that closed circle of experience. Boredom, after all, is a form of criticism. And the sophisticated reader’s or professional critic’s failure to be bored is a failure of personality—an overeagerness to become something other than what one is.

The trouble is that we are constantly changing. We can no longer be sure of what we think we are and what we believe. Scared by the speed with which the future seems to be coming at us, a new breed of literary vigilantes has sprung up to safeguard nonexistent values and warn against the dangers of the latest avant-garde. But, really, literature is dangerous only to those who in the name of a morality they do not believe in attack an art they do not like. Even if writers like Burroughs or Genet sometimes sound like spokesmen for what used to be considered immoral and abnormal, at most this can only be tiresome—almost as tiresome as pep talks about normal and healthy art. Extremes are bound to feed on each other. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see an up-to-date version of the old gentility in reaction to a new avant-garde.


1 Translated by Bernard Frechtman, Grove Press, 268 pp., $6.00.

2 Grove Press, 187 pp., $5.00.

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