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Georges Bataille on Jean-Paul Sartre on Jean Genet

Tamar Shlaim 8 April 2011

This week's archive article in the Times Literary Supplement is Georges Bataille's review of Jean-Paul Sartre's Saint Genet, his 1952 study of the life and work of Jean Genet.

Among the consequential works of M. Sartre the most recent to appear is certainly the most singular. Nominally it is no more than a preface, the preface to a "Complete Works" in themselves highly singular, written by a living author condemned by common law who is by no means satisfied by filling them with a combative account of a uniquely profligate life: he uses them to make a boast of that life, which he regards as supremely important, and he uses it as an apology of Evil, which is both its excuse and the rule by which it has been led. But this preface is not only abnormal for its length (it contains 600 pages), it is a philosophic work of exceptional interest, and to that extent an unquestionable masterpiece.

... Indeed, it is interesting to see that in spite of his scant respect for theology, M. Sartre has been led in the course of his masterly study of Evil to look at aspects of existence which theology has been the first to illuminate. Theology has played in the development of modern philosophy a part which has often been misunderstood, but it is important to remember that Heidegger, to whom M. Sartre owes much, has studied the subject. It is true that M. Sartre chooses to differ from Heidegger on precisely this point: the rich theological resources of Heidegger have no counterpart in his work. What is surprising, however, is that M. Sartre has at last found his theological professor; he has found him in the person of a man of deliberately vicious complexion, a thief who has, it may be said, a living experience of the theology of Evil. In fact, the thief in question has preserved a hidden fount of childish piety and, having made of Evil, to which regardless of public scandal he has consecrated his life, the object not only of a cult but of constant meditation, he has been served by an exorbitant lucidity, an exacerbated quickness of feeling, even (it may be said) by an element of the austere which has allowed him to endure the miseries of prison life with indifference. The works of M. Jean Genet are composed of stories of horrifying vulgarity, but these stories are always set in a framework of subtle reflection, which sets their vulgarity to the account of a despairing meditation on the nature of being; of a meditation, that is, on the divine, on sanctity, on sovereign power. This aspect of the matter, in the hands of a writer who is also a thief, does not escape the accusation of buffoonery, of shameless provocation, and yet, in the analyses of M. Sartre which take their point of departure from it, is to be found the depth of a theology released from its narrow bonds and brought to terms with the aggressive coldness of atheist existentialism as it exists in France. Perhaps, indeed, there is no more in the theory of Evil as the myth of theologians themselves bound up with the idea of landed property than a facade behind which M. Sartre has for once discovered the possibility of speaking - without even knowing it—in theological terms.

Visit the TLS to read the review in full. See also this entertaining 1963 Time review of both Saint Genet and Genet's novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, both of which had just been published in the US: 

In an age increasingly forced to distinguish between scatology, pornography and the legitimate study of evil, the story of Genet's progress to literary prominence exerts a monstrous fascination. For Genet is a matchless, unholy trinity of all three.

Beside him, Henry Miller is but a cheerfully smutty college sophomore, Sade a dilettant aristocrat of eccentric habits, Gide a genteel old lady sedately cultivating nightshade in her little kitchen garden.

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