Swans Commentary » swans.com May 18, 2009  



Guys Tried On For Size


by Michael Doliner





(Swans - May 18, 2009)   I am growing tired of the facts. Events that prove this or that, numbers that reveal increases in this, decreases in that, graphic illustrations marshaled in carefully constructed logical arguments, all leave me cold. I guess it's the unrelenting misery that gets me down. I suppose I ought to go back to college and take a refresher course in denial. Almost any course would do. But my real problem is that the whole thing makes me sick. Take the torture brouhaha, for example. Did they, didn't they. Should we, shouldn't we. Are you joking? It's all nauseating, and I don't even want to try to explain why it's nauseating. If you don't know, forget about it. I don't want to explain. The facts themselves are a lie, a cheat hiding our own shame from ourselves. Were we to truly believe what we profess, we would all be dead, having thrown ourselves in the way of the juggernaut in a glorious futile gesture. Of course that would have been stupid, childish. I'm not really suggesting it, gentle reader. After all, we're all adults here. Who would be so silly as to set his own life pointlessly against these horrors? We could have done nothing that mattered, right? Still, sometimes that neighborly smile disgusts me. Our comfortable beds, our trips to the grocery store, our insipid entertainments, are all monstrosities.

Naomi Wolf nailed the torture debacle, but pointing this out just makes me wonder, "why bother." We who really want to face who we are must admit that protecting our own little comfortable lives is number one. We don't really mind feeding on distant hidden atrocities. Our feelings of revulsion at distant barbarism, quickly forgotten when it's time to go shopping, are nothing but hypocrisies. For what good are our feelings about distant miseries to those who suffer them? Don't we know that we have these feelings primarily to make ourselves feel better?

I find myself turning back to Genet, to The Thief's Journal, but it would be stupid to review this book. Genet makes a certain type of life attractive, the life of guys, types, hoodlums if you will. These are people who live in dark places, in bad neighborhoods. They frequent dives. They do each other dirt. They are a bunch of shits, as was Genet himself. They live by petty crimes, selling drugs, pimping, theft. Genet manages to transform every misery, every shame, into something luminous, and in the process reveals just how threadbare our lives, based on workaday routines and cushioned by money in the bank, are. But Genet doesn't hide that his guys are a bunch of shits, that he is a shit. Maybe that's why I feel like reading him when everything else just seems to be a literary trick some little shit uses as a mask to hide behind. Novelists preening, intellectuals weighing evils, just give me the creeps. Genet is a shit and admits he is a shit, which is better than being a shit and not admitting it, I guess.

The lives that mesmerize Genet do so through life itself -- gestures, swagger, a kind of nonchalance, presence, in the flesh. He is not impressed by some asshole who happens to be a boss or a big shot. He cares nothing for the so-called glamorous life, the whole social hierarchy. He prefers his misery to our comfort. He finds jails to be like castles. It is the guys that attract him. Something in this or that guy masters him, and he must obey. At a deeper level Genet knows that he creates, for example, his buddy Stilitano when he gives power to his swagger, the mobility of his buttocks, and even to his cowardice. The reality of this life is probably more like what Pier Paolo Pasolini describes in A Violent Life. Pasolini's little shits are stripped of all romantic haze. His hero, Tommaso, is not, like Stilitano, one of the grander hoodlums, capable, through his presence, of dominating others. On the contrary, the other hoodlums hardly notice that the little insignificant snot-nosed Tommaso is around. Who could blame them? Tommaso is a slimy bastard, pretty much unattractive on every count. Nevertheless, even the bleak picture of poverty Pasolini paints retains a kind of dignity bourgeois life lacks. Tommaso knows just where he is -- in the mud, held in contempt by the contemptible, going nowhere, fucked. His so-called friends beat it into him. However dismal these realities, they are life's realities, free of the unrelenting hypocrisy American life has become. In America he would no doubt have the help of some guidance counselor who would try to cure him of being a shit. Then, for the rest of his life he would pretend to not be a shit. Maybe he would become a professor.

Gutter life is refreshingly free of the banal moral outrage, the phony professing of principle, that punctuates bourgeois life lived primarily, it seems, to engender oblivion in a cocoon of safety. Reading about it from within this cocoon, I can imagine myself living such a life even as I know this is quite absurd. This is not something one takes up late in the day, and anyway, I have no real desire to escape from my cozy little den. For me The Thief's Journal is just another Bourgeois fantasy. It is, like so much else, an imaginary exercise. Besides, I know full well that the hoodlum life Genet shows us draws its luminosity from his imagination. The real thing, without his illuminating consciousness, is no doubt a miserable affair.

Genet declares that all hoodlums are children inspired by comic book heroes, and, in spite of their brutality, touchingly innocent. Most of them blunder stupidly into their fate. That's part of their charm for Genet. He watches gleefully as they pop off, the little shit. Though they connive and hustle, their innocence remains somehow unsullied. They have no expectations, no careers, no plans, no bank accounts. Tomorrow never comes.

Genet's guys are not Mafia types. Mafia types live in a sort of shadow of our world, a distorted copy of ordinary life, a grotesque imitation of it full of loyalties and codes of conduct. Genet's guys don't belong to any organization, don't have any ongoing criminal businesses other than a little mom-and-pop pimping, and don't adhere to any code unless it is one they made up themselves. There are no "made men." They've got to do it again every day. They have no ongoing loyalty. There's nothing they have to do. Stilitano reveals his cowardice several times without diminishing Genet's admiration. Genet betrays friends, and when he later hears of Stilitano's fate finds he is indifferent. Blessed by having been thrown out, by their ignorance and childishness, Genet's guys are not responsible, like I am, for the larger atrocities. Nor do they have to kill friends, like Mafia guys seem to have to do, because of some code. They can do anything, even join the Gestapo, yet remain unsullied. Their childishness protects them. They live not on their skills, but on their presence, and on luck, unless they have skills for burglary. In a world where we try to distinguish the appearance from the reality, they embrace the appearance. Unlike our international financiers who globetrot to their atrocities without even noticing that they do so, Genet's guys are criminals in the neighborhood. Like children for whom each day is new, they see fleeting opportunities and take them.

Genet himself is a slave, a slave to love. He calls himself a cunt, by which he means that he must obey the violence in this or that prick, a violence that masters him not by blows, but by its shear presence. Genet experiences love of the classic type, not love that ends in little houses, picket fences and happily ever after, but love that is a calamity. It is love as the Greeks knew it, where the lover becomes the slave of the beloved. Eros, as Socrates, recounting Diotima's teachings, describes him, is the child of Need and Resource. He lacks all beauty, for that is what he needs. When Eros's arrow strikes, Genet is smitten by beauty, and at the same time stricken by his own poverty. It is the beautiful, which Genet convinces us is found only in the gutter, that masters him. After Socrates' speech in the Symposium we get to witness it first hand as Alcibiades, acknowledged by all as the most beautiful man in Athens, barges in and recounts his utterly abject unrequited love of Socrates, a squat, snub-nosed unprepossessing satyr who is beautiful inside. Genet's love for Stilitano, who is a cripple, has something of this.

Stilitano is a pimp as a sort of side business. He has one whore. Compared to today's franchised fast-food whoredom fed by human trafficking on a vast scale to satisfy the grim desires of the indiscriminate modern prick, Stilitano is small potatoes, a pimp on a human scale. He is cruel to his whore, but does not rule her by force and terror, as the industrialized whoremasters rule their herds. No, Stilitano masters her, as he does Genet, through the force of his presence. Just as Genet puts himself at risk to smuggle a package for Stilitano, Sylvia sacrifices herself to him because cruel Eros has enslaved her. We only see Sylvia in a few quick strokes. Genet has no interest in her other than his admiration for how Stilitano handles her. She is no doubt doomed. Stilitano has no loyalty to anyone and will surely abandon her in a moment of distraction. We see her, if at all, as a reflection of Genet himself, wounded by Eros and no doubt dying from the wound. Eros, as Socrates recounts Diotima's story is "harsh and arid, barefoot and homeless, sleeping on the naked earth, in doorways, or in the very streets beneath the stars of heaven" but full of resource and cleverness. Not that different from Genet or one of his guys. Sylvia, hypnotized by Stilitano's presence, immolates herself. Is it a bad fate? Let the studio audience decide.

Eros, as Diotima sees him, is a messenger between mortals and the Gods, conveying information about the Gods to mortals. His wound is both a calamity, for it turns you into a hungry beggar, and the greatest blessing, for it reveals to you the nature of beauty. There are many beyond his reach, "having neither beauty, nor goodness, nor intelligence, they are satisfied with what they are, and do not long for the virtues they have never missed." Welcome aboard, matey. With this in mind I have to think that perhaps Sylvia's life is better than that of the safest middle-class wife or husband, myself included, who has somehow made him or her self impervious to the fatal erotic wound.

I have to wonder when I see videos of the new tent cities mushrooming around the good old USA whether a new crop of guys will grow up from this misery. To be sure the adults sitting in their little tents on their camp chairs, stunned, will never recover. Even if they escape from homelessness it will haunt them forever. Their dog in the derby of success has come in out of the money and the race is over. But for their children things might be different. They will run wild, learning the ways of the street. They will become little shits like Tommaso or big shits like Stilitano, whose first crime will be to sell their sisters into whoredom. It is not really for me to say, but Genet and Pasolini might claim that better a little shit and a whore than a pompous international financier and an asshole.


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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Swans -- ISSN:  1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/mdolin43.html
Published May 18, 2009