“One must have gone a long way in order to finally leave behind our need to veil, or lie, or gild. Leaving behind the need to gild: this would be the passion according to Rembrandt. In his very beautiful texts on Rembrandt, Genet says…that the trajectory of Rembrandt’s work began by gilding, by covering over with gold, and then by burning the gold, consuming it, to attain the gold-ash with which the last paintings are painted. It is only at the end of a superhuman-going-to-the-depths-of-the-fathoming-of-life-and-back that one will be able to cease gilding everything. And then one can begin to adore.”
Hélène Cixous, Coming to Writing and Other Essays
Born to a young prostitute in 1910, writer Jean Genet was given up for adoption and subsequently led a life of continual petty crime even after receiving literary success. His novels and plays, several of which he wrote while in jail, feature thieves, prostitutes, transvestites, the most deviant or subversive members of French society. In particular his novel Notre-dame-des fleurs was censored as pornographic upon initial publication, its explicit homosexuality only further contributed to Genet’s controversial status and reputation (Farmer). Yet his passionate and poetic evocation of the grotesque and degenerate riveted the literary world, captivating even the elite French intellectuals of the 40s and 50s; Jean-Paul Sartre was one of Genet’s biggest supporters, even petitioning the government for his release from prison, claiming Genet’s work was of indispensible significance to French culture (Gaitet).
Hélène Cixous, quoted above, references Genet frequently throughout the scope of her writing, Genet’s having proven, perhaps unexpectedly, deeply influential for feminist and lesbian theory in particular, regardless of the fact that his texts rarely feature prominent female characters or lesbian relationships. The reason behind Genet’s far-reaching influence is one many writers and critics have pondered, and while this paper will not focus on that specific question, Cixous’ quote, I believe, perfectly reveals Genet’s project, perhaps giving insight into the uniquely impactful quality of his writing. In his novel Notre-dame-des-fleurs, Genet most evocatively “burns the gold” and writes with its “ash,” depicting a world of degrading luxury and corrupt religion where socially deviant characters thrive. Genet simultaneously repels and attracts readers, his gold ash outlining murderers, pimps, and thieves as performers of the glorious and abhorrent. Notre-dame-des-fleurs thus reveals what exists under the “gild,” that which society has tried to cover over and attempted to hide from its sight.
While attached to a very different literary movement and project, American author Djuna Barnes’s Modernist novel Nightwood bears fascinating similarities to Notre-dame des-fleurs. Barnes, herself a controversial figure, did not enjoy the same level of regard within the literary community as Genet. The question of why is another in itself. Because of Barnes’s unconventional style and gender as a female in the male-dominated Modernist writing circle, Nightwood did not easily find publication and was refused completely by American publishers. With T.S. Eliot’s support, Barnes finally published the novel in London in 1936. While it went on to receive literary success in both the U.K. and in the U.S., Nightwood has never been taught with the same frequency or held in the same regard as the work of Eliot or other Modernists (Faltejskova 14). As critic Susanna Martins writes of Nightwood in her essay, “Gender Trouble and Lesbian Desire in Nightwood,” the novel “has alternately been read as a celebration of homosexuality and as a homophobic portrayal of a failed lesbian relationship” (109). The ambiguity of identity, sexual and otherwise, is precisely what has rendered the book both difficult and rich for interpretation. Martins continues:
[T]he question of identification itself–how identity is enabled, constrained and foreclosed–is central to Nightwood. Religious, scientific, political, psychoanalytic, and social discourses are portrayed in their capacity to create certain subject positions and exclude others; every category, every naming of an identity, not only produces what it claims to represent, but also carries with it constraints and judgment. (110)
Barnes’ portrayal of “how identity is enabled” upholds decay and degradation, heresy and anti-Semitism, depicting sexual relationships that were at the time deemed socially deviant. As Martins affirms, Barnes and her characters “name these categories” without attaching themselves to any singular identity, floating instead like formless specters through Barnes’ world of the night.
Despite their stylistic and linguistic differences, Nightwood and Notre-dame-des-fleurs, the latter of which was published in Paris less than a decade after Nightwood, both seek to reveal different possibilities for sexual, religious, and socially deviant identification. The texts explore social performativity, something in both novels specifically connected to society’s dependence on art and ornament in constructing identity and sexuality. Barnes and Genet both reveal this performativity as connected to the pageant and ritual of Catholicism in Modern France. Ultimately, Notre-dame-des-fleurs and Nightwood use the degradation and negation of their characters as individuals in society to reveal new aesthetic spaces and sexual identities.
To begin an examination of sexual identification in these novels is to explore the mutual depiction of the characters’ homosexuality, which, as acknowledged above, has been one of both texts’ greatest sources of literary controversy and impact. Neither novel presents homosexual identification as a binary choice, or as the recognition of one’s essential sexual self. Instead, sexual orientation is portrayed as a fluid, self-consciously constructed process that refuses stability. As Martins writes,
[F]or Barnes, being a lesbian is something entirely different from, or more than, the simple fact of women loving women; being a “lesbian” means entering into a realm of discourse that is largely out of one’s individual control but that nevertheless produces and orders one’s identity. For gender theorist Butler, “To be” lesbian seems to be more than a simple injunction to become who or what [she] already [is]. (3)
Sexual identification in Nightwood and in Notre-dame-des-fleurs is not a “simple injunction” as Martins affirms, but a site of potential construction that offers possibility outside of heteronormative categories of gender. This is precisely why transvestism appears in both novels: the characters’ conscious ability to “perform” their gender is one of the texts’ strongest dialectic points of subversion.
Matthew O’Connor is Nightwood’s most over-determined character; he performs as a doctor, a scientist, a woman, and a Catholic devotee, all of which he performs badly, in grotesque but revelatory exaggerations and aphorisms. When the character Nora finds him in bed wearing a dress, “heavily rouged and his lashes painted,” she wonders,
[i]s not the gown the natural raiment of extremity? What nation, what religion, what ghost, what dream has not worn it–infants, angels, priests, the dead; why should not the doctor, in the grave dilemma of his alchemy, wear his dress? She thought: “He dresses to lie beside himself, who is so constructed that love, for him, can be only something special; in a room that giving back evidence of his occupancy, is as mauled as the last agony. (86)
O’Connor’s transvestism is thus not formulated from identification with his essential self, but rather from a performance, one which, according to Nora, nearly every body, at every stage of life, has carried out. Here, a strong connection to Judith Butler’s theories of performative gender can be drawn, most specifically those she outlines in her essay “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution”:
Gender attributes…are not expressive but performative…these attributes effectively constitute[ing] the identity they are said to express or reveal. The distinction between expression and performativeness is quite crucial, for if gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification are performative, then there is no preexisting identity by which an act or attribute might be measured; there would be no true or false, real or distorted acts of gender, and the postulation of a true gender identity would be revealed as a regulatory fiction. That gender reality is created through sustained social performances means that the very notions of an essential sex, a true or abiding masculinity or femininity, are also constituted as part of the strategy by which the performative aspect of gender is concealed. (520)
According to Butler, O’Connor’s performance could never have resulted from a self-produced fantasy, but only directly out of bodies whose sustained social performances—infants, priests, the dead—have been rendered essential. Nora’s equation of the Doctor’s right to perform as a woman in the context of the figures and categories she mentions unveil their inherent performativity, even though they are the ones Butler identifies as hiding the performativity of gender, their function “as part of the strategy by which the performative aspect of gender is concealed.” This is thus a performance O’Connor has learned and, in Nora’s eyes, is one in which he has every right to engage. Since his body is not one that is typically assigned to such a performance, however, it appears grotesque, a subversion.
I think it is important to note that Butler views gender performance as intrinsically tied to phenomenology, “that which appears.” Subversive gender actions allow for a different kind of appearing, the possibility of transcendence via their subversion:
[I]f the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the breaking or subversive repetition of that style. (521)
In addition to O’Connor, nearly every character in Barnes’ novel participates in a “breaking or subversive repetition” of standard, biological or socially accepted categories of gender. The character Robin Vote, in fact, refuses gendered behavior that is easily identifiable. As Monika Faltejskova argues in her book, Barnes creates in her portrayals of Robin and O’Connor a “third sex, a gender category enabled by the breakdown of the relation of determinacy between biological sex and gender” (Faltejskova 150). Not only does Robin engage in sexual relationships with both men and women, she literally moves through, “appears” in the world as neither:
Her movements were slightly headlong and sideways; slow, clumsy and yet graceful…She wore no hat and her pale head, with its short hair growing flat on the forehead made still narrower by the hanging curls almost on a level with the finely arched eyebrows, gave her the look of cherubs in Renaissance theatres…Thinking of her, visualizing her, was an extreme act of will; to recall her after she had gone, however, was as easy as the recollection of a sensation of beauty without its details. (45)
Robin performs both grace and clumsiness in simultaneous movement, her physicality inducing “a sensation” as opposed to a memory, memory being the recollection of something identifiable and familiar.
While Robin’s performance resists discernible categorization, the characters in Notre-dame-des-fleurs rely upon determinacy for their sexual performances, Genet overproducing them with an excess of masculine and feminine gestures. While at a café, the drag queen Divine, born Lou Culafroy, is described as decadently dressed and drinking her tea with a stylized gesture:
Elle était vêtue ce soir-là d’une chemisette de soie champagne, d’un pantalon bleu vole à un matelot, et chausée de sandales de cuir. A l’un quelconque de ces doigts, mais plutôt à l’auriculaire, une pierre comme un ulcère la gangrenait. Le thé apporté, elle le but comme chez elle, par toutes petites gorgées (pigeonne), posant et reposant la tasse son auriculaire dressé. (39)
That evening she was wearing a champagne silk short-sleeved blouse, a pair of blue trousers stolen from a sailor, and leather sandals. On one of her fingers, preferably on the pinkie, an ulcer-like stone gangrened her. When the tea was brought, she drank it as if she were at home, in tiny little sips (a pigeon), putting down and lifting her cup with her pinkie in the air. (72)
Divine is wearing both a woman’s blouse and a man’s pants, manipulating her cup with such exaggerated gestures s/he attracts the attention of the entire café. Her integration of male and female performance is thus how she constructs her identity as Divine, a drag queen. Certainly, the drag queen can also be seen as a kind of “third sex,” neither male nor female but as a combination of both genders. However, Robin’s embodiment of a “third sex” in Nightwood is that of an indeterminate and unknowable composition; in Notre-dame-des-fleurs, the over-identification of masculinity and femininity is what creates a subversive performance. Pascale Gaitet argues in her essay, “The Politics of Camp in Our Lady of the Flowers” that “[fe]mininty performed on a body initially inscribed as male is not in any way devalued because of the artifice on which it relies” (45). Here, Gaitet points to the importance of objects and materiality in constructing Genet’s subversive gender performance. The ability to perform gender differently requires self-conscious study, observation and practice, “the repetition of stylized acts,” to again invoke Butler. These acts, however, are connected to the performer’s engagement with artifice, material objects:
Divine s’entraîna au luxe. Elle acheta des bagages de cuir et d’acier saturés de musc. Sept ou huit fois par jour, elle prenait le train, montait dans le wagon-salon, faisait entasser les bagages dans les filets, s’installait sur les coussins…et se faisait conduire à un grand hotel, où elle restait le temps d’une installation discrete et somptueuse. Elle a fait ce ménage de star une semaine entire, maintenant elle sait marcher sur les tapis, parler aux laquais, meubles de luxe. Elle a apprivoisé les charmes et pose le luxe sur terre. (Genet 79)
Divine trained herself in luxury. She bought leather and steel luggage saturated with musk. 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…and have herself driven to a fine hotel, she would remain long enough to install herself discretely 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. She has domesticated the charms and brought luxury down to earth. (100)
Divine’s ability to construct her performance results from her ability to both utilize and move amidst objects of luxury: “[w]hat she seeks are the gestures of luxury, gestures are performed among things of luxury–not the things themselves” (Gaitet 40). Yet, the “things themselves” are essential to these performances. The use of materiality in gender performance admittedly appears in Nightwood as well, although not to inscribe gender. Robin, because of her refusal of an identifiable gender, must be compared and composed of objects in order for her to appear at all; when the character Felix meets Robin for the first time, “he felt he was looking upon a figurehead in a museum” (41) and once Robin is “[r]emoved from her setting–the plants that had surrounded her, the melancholy red velvet of the chairs and the curtains…she carried the quality of the ‘way back’ as animals do” (44). When material props and clues are not available to her or to those around her, Robin thus begins to lose even her human identity.
The types of objects, as Gaitet insists in her essay, are of important significance to the construction of gender identity in Notre-dames-des-fleurs, as they are in Nightwood. The focus on objects of luxury for Divine illuminates a desire for ascension from her subversive status. However, by refusing to take or own an object, she instead becomes the object, performing it, pulling it into her identity, one for whom such objects and luxury were not intended. This, too, recalls Nora’s reaction to finding O’Connor in drag; she acknowledges that his performance resembles that of “infants, angels, priests, the dead,” bodies who in various ways all represent ascension or holiness.
It is thus in the space of French Catholicism that the characters in both novels subvert materials of ascension most profoundly as elements of their identities. Although Nightwood was written in English, like Notre-dame-des-fleurs, it is set in 1930s Paris, where Catholicism and France have had a tenuous relationship for the last several centuries. As in many Western European countries, religion and politics in France were completely intertwined during the Reformation. Following the French Revolution, however, there were attempts to establish a secular state, and traditional religious values were associated with the royalists who wanted to return to the ancien régime (Vilet). In 1905, after various compromises, a law formally separating Church and state was established (Vilet). The twenty or so years that led to the publications of Nightwood and Notre-dame-des-fleurs saw a rapid decline of religion’s popularity, the rise of Modernism and the birth of psychology contributing to the perception of religion as irrational and outdated, in contradiction to progress and the championing of the subject (Foucault 23).
It is particularly interesting that both Nightwood and Notre-dame-des-fleurs, whose characters literally transgress most of the standards of behavior Catholicism seeks to establish, choose to make such extensive use of the symbols of religion. The material accouterments and ritual inherent in Catholicism are used by the characters to gain ascension, as was suggested earlier, while they simultaneously acknowledge their emptiness, the ultimate absence of God. The complexity of this invocation is perhaps why, although, religion is central to both Nightwood and Notre-dame-des-fleurs, its role has eluded much of the scholarship on either text. The significance of French Catholicism in these narratives is part of a reaction to Modernism, an attempt to construct outside of potentially stifling new forms of categorization introduced by Modernism and the new science of psychology. On the level of aesthetics, Modernism, also sought to eliminate ornament, constricting the possibility for performance offered by decadent materiality. As Virginia Elkins writes specifically of Genet’s texts in her essay:
Modernity, divested of heaven, evolved different arrangements for positions of power, one of which amounts to an investiture of conspiracy. Genet depicts just such a conspiracy composed of decadent sacramentalism and ritual hierarchy. Simultaneously a parody of plenipotentiary Catholicism and a burlesque of bourgeois secularism…Genet reveal[s] the efficacy of religion long after the earth is loosed from heaven and bound only itself. (74)
Traditional Catholicism thus provided a clear alternative placement to Modernism in its sponsorship of performance and extensive use of ornament to execute its performances, the characters in both novels believing that religious performances still held possibilities for identities that, even if in parody, Modernity had removed in its categorization.
Theorist Peggy Phelan takes a slightly different look at performance than does Butler in emphasizing the significance of repetition and ritual. Hers is a perspective that illuminates the role of performativity in Catholicism for the characters in both Notre-dames-des-fleurs and in Nightwood. In her essay, “The Ontology of Performance,” Phelan writes that “[p]erformance in a strict ontological sense is non-reproductive,” that it “implicates the real through the presence of living bodies” (148). This non-reproductive performance:
shares a fundamental bond with ritual. Catholic mass…is the ritualized performative promise to remember and to rehearse for the Other’s death. The promise evoked by this performance is to learn to value what is lost, to learn not the meaning but the value of what cannot be reproduced or seen (again). It begins with the knowledge of its own failure, that it cannot be achieved. (152)
The repetitive failure of performance is a strong point of entrance into the significance of Catholicism in both texts; the identities performed by the characters, as has been established, are ones conscious of instability, ones that refuse a binary position, and both literally and figuratively embody impossibility. In this sense, their identities must be performed over and over because they will never become permanent, therefore necessitating repetition, ritual.
Barnes’ introduction of the character Guido in Nightwood immediately acknowledges his Jewish identity as one that offers only failure, one that cannot be performed: Guido “had lived as all Jews do…cut off from their people by accident or choice,” finding “that they must inhabit a world whose constituents, being alien, force the mind to succumb to an imaginary populace” (5). Guido gravitates toward Catholicism instead, performing, as Phelan writes, that which cannot be achieved, since any identity would be unachievable: he has nowhere from which to learn the religious performance of Judaism. Like Robin and O’Connor, who must coerce their sexuality “to an imaginary populace,” Guido,
adopted the sign of the cross; he had said that he was an Austrian of an old, most amazing line, producing, to uphold his story, the most amazing and inaccurate proofs: a coat of arms that he had no right to and a list of progenitors (including their Christian names) who had never existed. (Barnes 6-7)
Again, this production demonstrates the significance of material objects in performance: Guido’s accumulation of “inaccurate proofs,” of a “coat of arms,” and a “list of progenitors” are all essential to creating his role. His Christianity is not an establishment of belief then, but rather a space that allows performative representation. The flagrant artificiality of the objects of his performance show his understanding of its failure and absurdity, the word “amazing” used repeatedly to describe both the Austrian line Guido invents and the inaccurate proofs. Guido, too, is aware of his “false” identity: he has “no right to [the] coat of arms” but uses it regardless.
Robin, who refuses identity more than any other character in Nightwood, still connects herself to the physical performance of Catholicism. She “[s]uddenly…tak[es] the Catholic vow,” drifting from church to church, her devotion interested in the church as an aesthetic place which allows and insists upon performance (50). Robin’s method of prayer thus does not seek a connection to God, but rather engages her in repetitive performance:
[s]he prayed, and her prayer was monstrous because in it there was no margin left for damnation or forgiveness, for praise or for blame–those who cannot conceive a bargain cannot be saved or damned…Leaning her childish face and full chin on the shelf of the prie-dieu, her eyes fixed, she laughed, out of some hidden capacity, some lost subterranean humour; as it ceased, she leaned still further forward in a swoon, waking and yet heavy like one in sleep. (51)
The action of Robin leaning her face “and full chin” on the pre-dieu makes her “swoon” and thus awaken. Again, her body’s performance comes from her engagement with an object, the pre-dieu. Robin’s inability or unwillingness to select a position in the binary between the “damnation” and “forgiveness” proposed by Catholicism mirrors her unwillingness to select a position on any binary system, most specifically that of her sexual identification. Her rejection of this duality, however, does not render religion ineffectual. It instead reinforces performance that can never be complete, ritual that operates based on the need to constantly reestablish opposition. Robin’s literally unorthodox approach to Catholicism ultimately accomplishes the deep release promised by prayer, the access of “some hidden capacity, some lost subterranean humour,” or, as Phelan suggests, “the value of what cannot be reproduced or seen.”
Although Catholicism is undeniably connected to performance in Notre-dame-des-fleurs, it occupies a more nuanced position in relation to identity than it does in Nightwood. While Nightwood acts as a total rejection of the past, all identity being composed from surface, objects, and materialism, Notre-dame-des-fleurs has a history, and its characters’ identities are profoundly influenced by theirs. It is also significant that the characters in Nightwood are all expatriates living in Paris, while those in Notre-dame-des-fleurs are native French, therefore having an intrinsic connection to their surroundings, Catholicism included. In this sense, Notre-dame-des-fleurs more holistically displays the influence of history on creating performance. Divine, therefore, does not exist in the novel without Culafroy, the man she was at birth. Throughout the novel, the narration oscillates constantly between Divine and his upbringing as Culafroy, revealing the pivotal moments that cultivated Divine’s future self, including his time spent as an altar boy. As Culafroy, Divine believed in the existence of God and that the performance of his gestures as altar boy indeed affected God. Culafroy loses his faith, then, precisely in his transgression of a holy performance:
Lou-Culafroy saisit les trois hosties et les laissa tomber sur le tapis. Elle descendirent en hésitant, planant comme des feuilles qui tombent par temps calme. Le silence se ruait sur l’enfant, le bousclait comme l’eût fait un tropeau de boxeurs, lui faisait toucher terre des épaules. Il laissa échapper le ciboire, qui, tombant sur la laine, donna un son creux. Et le miracle eut lieu. Il n’y eut pas de miracle. Dieu s’était dégonflé. Dieu était creux. Seulement un trou avec n’importe quoi autour. Une forme jolie, comme la tête en plâtre de Marie-Antoinette, comme les petits soldats, qui étaient des trous avec un peu de plomb mince autour. (184)
Lou-Culafroy seized the three hosts and let them fall to the carpet. They descended hesitantly, drifting like leaves that fall in calm weather. The silence that rushed at the child bowled him over like a team of boxers, pinned his shoulders to the floor. He let go of the ciborium, which made a hollow sound as it fell on the wool. And the miracle occurred. There was no miracle. God had been debunked. God was hollow. Just a hole with any old thing around it. A pretty shape, like the plaster head of Marie-Antoinette and the little soldiers, which were holes with a bit of thin lead around them. (173-174)
As with Robin’s “heretical” form of prayer, this incident does not dismiss the power of religion for Culafroy. The experience, in fact, can be viewed as Culafroy’s initial realization of the possibilities of subversive performance—his choice to drop the Eucharist is the subversion of a repetitive act. The fact that there was no miracle then is the miracle, according to Genet, a “divinely” different occurrence created by Culafroy’s performance. The power of silence in the passage also evokes a kind of “miracle” or divine moment in itself. The very absence of sound, with its connotation of total nothingness, has the power to “[rush] at the child” and “[bowl] him over…[pin] his shoulders to the floor.” Here again the existence of something powerful results from spaces of negation.
The placement of power in religious performance is thus a vital component of performance that has not yet been addressed. Following a description of Culafroy’s days as an altar boy, Genet calls attention to the power of the performer, that every discourse and structure attempts to exert control and order over who has a right to which performance:
Ainsi les actes n’ont-ils de valuer esthétique et morale que dans la mesure où ceux aui les accomplissent sont doués de puissance…Cette puissance nous est déléguée assez pour que nous la sentions en nous, et cela rend supportable le geste de nous baiser pour montrer en auto, parce qu’au moment où nous baissons une mémoire imperceptible de nous une star, ou un roi, ou un truand (mais c’est encore un roi), qui se baissait de la meme façon et que nous vîmes dans la rue ou à l’écran…Les prêtres qui recommencent les gestes symboliques se sentient pénétres de la vertu non du symbole, mais du premier executant; le prêtre qui enterra Divine en refaisant à la messe les gestes sournois de vols et effractions se parait des gestes, dépouilles opimes, d’un montre-en-l’air guillotiné. (181)
Thus, acts have esthetic and moral value only insofar as those who perform them are endowed with power…This power is delegated to us sufficiently for us to feel it within us, and this is what enables us to bear our having to lower our head in order to step into a car, because when we lower it an imperceptible memory turns us into a movie star, or a king, or a vagrant [but he’s another king] who lowered his head the same way [we saw him on the street or on the screen]…Priests who repeat symbolic gestures feel themselves imbued with the virtue not of the symbol but of the first executant; the priest who, at Divine’s funeral mass, imitated the sly gestures of burglary and theft, was adorning himself, with the gestures, spolia opmia [i.e. battle trophies taken in single combat], of a guillotined second-story man. (172)
This insistence is yet another form of subversion; every performance is imbued with the high and the low, the holy and the degraded, a recognition of performativity, then, that can “endow” one to disrupt a power structure, perform an identity not granted to them. As Elkins affirms,
Genet’s ‘notables’ are certainly not vicars of Christ…Instead, they are role models of the sublime whom anyone is invited to as the thought he/she were the bread self-administering the elevation of the Host. In this modern spiritual drama, sublime appearance performs the part of divinity, infallible perception performs the part of revelation, and sacramental mimesis performs the part of salvation.
In this sense, the “modern spiritual drama” of Catholicism can be transferred to any situation, its roles given to anybody, making every performance a potential elevation or violation: the criminal pushed into the back of a police car can become a movie star sliding into her limousine, the priest can be viewed as a thief for adopting Jesus’ gestures as his own, when they are, of course, only repetition of a performance created 2,000 years ago.
While the necessity of subversive performance and materiality in constructing gender and identity is evident in both Nightwood and Notre-dame-des-fleurs, the question of where these performances and objects take us is more complex. Nightwood’s refusal of all depth, of anything essential, ultimately removes its characters from reality completely. The final scene of the novel results in Robin turning into a beast, “down she went, until her head swung against his; on all fours now dragging her knees. The veins stood out in her neck, under her ears, swelled in her arms…then she began to bark…barking in a fit of laughter, obscene and touching” (179). Certainly, this ending can be interpreted as the ultimate subversive ascension—Robin no longer must live in or be attached to the physical world, the beast being a degraded, untamed and mythic representation closest to the identity she has sought. Her transformation to beast, however, has left many readers with a sense of dissatisfaction, and regardless of personal reading preference, it is true that the conclusion is not one easily transferable to reality (Pochoda 179).
Yet, this sense of the mythic, of a self-conscious construction of the imaginary, exists in Notre-dame-des-fleurs as well; Divine and Culafroy are not “real.” The narrator, whom Genet identifies as himself, claims to be writing the story while in prison, and although deeming the text autobiographical is problematic, it is factually true that Genet indeed wrote the manuscript while in jail. The narrator tells the reader that the story of Divine and Culafroy came to him in his dreams, and from pictures he’s cut from magazines and pinned to the walls of his cell. He inserts interjections throughout his narration of Divine to remind the reader of the odor of piss that surrounds him while he writes, of the details of his criminal trial, of the crimes of his inmates. Notre-dame-des-fleurs is then the product of an imprisoned man’s imagination, the possibilities for performance not yet realized, and that can, perhaps, only come out of a body constrained. Genet begins the novel with Divine’s funeral, before she has even been introduced. As the novel closes, he describes her death in terms of subversion, her descent into “a vast physical peace…Filth, an almost liquid shit, spread out beneath her like a warm little lake, into which she gently, very gently—as the vessel of a hopeless emperor shrinks, still warm, into waters of Lake Nemi—was engulfed” (305). The close of Divine’s narrative transitions to the narrator’s anticipation of his criminal hearing. He has, however, already decided on his freedom:
Libre, c’est-à-dire exile parmi les vivants…J’ai envisage la condemnation la plus forte dont il puisse m’atteindre. Je m’y suis prepare soigneusement, car j’ai choisi mon horoscope…comme figure de la fatalité. Maintenant, que je sais lui obéir, mon chagrin est moins grand. Il est anéanti devant l’irrémdiable. (375)
Free in other words, exiled among the living…I have anticipated the stifflest possible sentence. I have prepared myself for it with great care, for I have chosen my horoscope…as a figure of fatality. Now that I can obey it, my grief is less great. It is annihilated in the face of the irremediable. (305)
His creation of Divine has literally offered the narrator the experience of the divine; the imagining of performance has allowed him to subvert his imprisoned fate into one of freedom.
The acceptance of fate, of “obeying” and performing the worldly because of belief in ultimate ascension defines salvation. The promise of Catholicism is, of course, redemption through the performance of Jesus, through the taking of his body literally into a devotee’s own. To perform Catholicism, then, will guarantee one’s “ascension” to heaven after death, the performance inherently requiring identification with a body that is not one’s own, and potentially not even one’s gender. In the Catholic Mass, the priest is following Jesus’ instructions to “do this in memory of me,” standing in the place of Christ and by virtue of this role has the power to forgive sin as Jesus did. This renders him, as Genet notes, “a burglar,” “a thief,” like the narrator himself and so many of the characters he invents.
“Such an aesthetic religion,” Elkins writes of Catholicism, “possesses all the qualifications necessary to succeed in a world where even the noumenal is phenomenalized and even the real is imaginary [because it] endows its believers with the power to rise from the living” (75). Robin achieves redemption in Nightwood by giving up on her soul and becoming a beast, while Divine/Culafroy gains power by breaking the taboos surrounding the holy sacrament—without any of the repercussions which he expects—and then taking the physical form of the source of sin in the world: the female. Their subversions all reveal precisely what Culafroy discovered when he dropped the Eucharist: silence, negative space that holds power. The emptiness within the hollow images, the gold ash left behind by the incinerated gilding, is like the silence that rushed at Culafroy, negation that is the ultimate source of power. In this negation, Notre-dame-des-fleurs and Nightwood indeed reach the “end of a superhuman-going-to-the-depths-of-the-fathoming-of-life-and-back,” refuse to gild, and then adore.
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