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The Politics of Camp in Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers Pascale Gaitet I NTERESTINGLY, there is no French word for the style we know as camp; there had been no word for “ dandy” either, in the nineteenth century, but the English expression gained widespread currency and, thanks to Baudelaire, who in a famous piece, wrote about his under­ standing of the term in a rather prescriptive manner (a dandy is. . . , a dandy is not. . .), it acquired a specifically French accent.1Such is not the case for camp, and it would be a fascinating study to investigate why a style that without any doubt manifests itself, indeed thrives, in French culture (as had dandyism) has not been “ named” (or, conversely, what accounts for the naming of that style in English). I imagine that such a study would require sophisticated sociological and linguistic tools, and is beyond the scope of what I am undertaking here. Rather, what I wish to look at is that style’s manifestations in what surely is one of the campiest of narratives, Jean Genet’s Our Lady o f the Flowers, with some ref­ erence to The Thief’s Journal, and to investigate its aesthetic and polit­ ical ramifications.2 My understanding of camp will draw on two texts: Esther Newton’s Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America and Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp.” 3 However generally illuminating, there are some baffling statements and glaring omissions in Sontag’s essay, the most obvious of which is her “ editing of homosexuals out of camp,” as Newton put it.4Also troubling is Sontag’s assertion that camp is a-political—which is something this essay will refute. What I understand by camp is best encapsulated in the following passage from Our Lady o f the Flowers. When she is rich for a spell, Divine, a drag queen, is not interested in accumulating wealth, material possessions. What she seeks are the gestures of luxury, gestures that are performed among things of luxury—not the things themselves. The one acquisition that she does make, a set of musk-saturated leather luggage, merely serves as a prop in the following routine: Seven or eight times a day, she would take the train, enter the Pullman car, have her bags stacked in the baggage racks, settle down on the cushions until it was time for the train to leave, and, a few seconds before the whistle blew, would call two or three porters, have 40 Sp r in g 1995 G aitet her things removed, take a cab and have herself driven to a fine hotel, where she would remain long enough to install herself discreetly and luxuriously. She played this game of being a star for a whole week, and now she knows how to walk on carpets and talk to flunkeys, who are luxury furnishings. . . . But it is particularly when her hired car passes a wrought-iron gate or makes a delicious swerve that she is an Infanta. (100) Divine has learnt to move amidst luxury. She has acquired a new style. And, even more than gestures among luxurious accoutrements, it is form in motion (the feel of the curve of the road) and pure form (the ara­ besque of wrought iron) that place Divine securely in the position of onewho -is-in-luxury: “ But it is particularly when her hired car passes a wrought iron gate or makes a delicious swerve that she is an Infanta.” Indeed, the above account perfectly illustrates what both Newton and Sontag view as a quintessential aspect of camp: its performative aspect. Camp, Newton notes, is suffused with the perception of “ life-as-theater” and “ being-as-playing-a-role.” Camp, to the detriment of content, focuses absolutely upon and privileges above all appearance and surface manifestations. The importance, Newton notes, “ shifts from what a thing is to how it looks, from what is done to how it is done” (107). This passage also highlights precisely what Sontag views as the epitome of that sensibility: the extravagant gesture (having the luggage stacked and un­ stacked over and over again) and the curved line (the wrought-iron gate, the swerve of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1931-0234
Print ISSN
0014-0767
Pages
pp. 40-49
Launched on MUSE
2017-07-05
Open Access
No
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