- An Unsavory Saint—A Deidealized Genet and the Future of Queer Studies
Jean Genet was born in Paris on December 19, 1910, but as a ward of assistance publique, he knew nothing about his background until, at the age of twenty-one, he obtained his birth certificate. It confirmed his mother's name as Gabrielle Genet, although his father remained unknown.1 This personal history caused Genet to describe his birth as an accident, and his life project became to transform this accident into necessity.
In the years since his death, he has emerged as an idealized queer, criminal, anticolonial outsider. Yet, for all Genet's counterculture cachet, his biography contains much that is less than ideal. In Disturbing Attachments: Genet, Modern Pederasty, and Queer History, Kadji Amin focuses upon the more discomforting elements of Genet's life to examine fundamental practices in Queer Studies and create a work of breathtaking relevance. By departing from notions of queerness that merely mean "nonnormative," Amin offers a model for Queer Studies that does not content itself with simplified ideals or icons. Rather, by focusing upon aspects of Genet's biography that create "unease" and by insisting on a critical historicization of sexuality, Amin suggests how Queer Studies can be transformed into new transnational and geopolitical formations.
Amin begins his thought-provoking introduction by detailing his early work on Genet. Like many others, he first considered Genet to be "an object for Queer Studies in its utopian, coalitional mode" (4), but, as he dug more deeply, he found himself "disturbed," particularly [End Page 95] by Genet's pederasty and racial fetishizing (5). Rather than stopping his work on Genet, however, or ignoring the more unsavory elements of Genet's biography, as many have done, Amin had the insight to concentrate upon the very issues that troubled him. In so doing, he came to realize that addressing difficult topics, such as race and power, could broaden and deepen Queer Studies' impact.
Amin begins by addressing Genet and modern pederasty. This allows him to examine how historical subjects are either idealized or silenced in the creation of "comfortable" narratives. To counteract this, Amin historicizes pederasty, which has remained othered as either something belonging to the past, that is, Ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy, or something belonging elsewhere, that is, the Arab-Islamic world or within disciplinary institutions. Amin both challenges this marginalization and defines it more broadly, as any male same-sex relationship. This allows him to consider how age differences are eroticized and how they can be the basis of relationships (39). These twin threads—of Genet and of modern pederasty—thus become the lens through which we can see how historical subjects are either idealized or silenced in the creation of "comfortable" narratives.
Amin addresses four other aspects of Genet that cause unease—nostalgia for prison, racialized attraction, pederastic kinship, and hatred of the state. Through them, Amin proposes a practice of deidealization that mines these disturbing attachments for what they can tell us about the methodological and theoretical bases of Queer Studies and coalition building. It is a means of coming to terms with a figure like Genet who "spoils every ideal" and resists easy categorization as either saint or antihero (9). Most important, Amin's illuminating deidealization demonstrates that there is a spectrum between idealization and critique.
For example, Amin understands Genet's nostalgia for Mettray, a penal colony for boys where he was incarcerated as an adolescent, as a kind of mixture of trauma and pleasure that was emblematic of contemporary queer modes of life. This mixture, which Amin terms "commingled affects," can be defined as "bodily intensities that have not been granted social meaning or assigned particular narratives as emotions." When Genet wrote Miracle of the Rose in 1946, it was after Mettray's closure in 1939, when, in the wake of public discourse on abuse and corruption that attended such institutions, the prison had been romanticized as a place where childhood innocence was lost. In Miracle of the Rose, criminals and condemned men are treated as saints [End Page 96...