From The Criminal Child: Selected Essays, published this month by NYRB Classics. This text is an abridged version of the essay “The Criminal Child,” which was commissioned in 1947 by the national French radio program Carte Blanche. The show’s producers requested that Genet write on the topic of criminal justice. Genet submitted, in his own words, “not a criminal’s complaint, but rather his exaltation.” The text was rejected. Translated from the French by Jeffrey Zuckerman.
Scattered throughout the French countryside, often in the most elegant locales, there are several places that have never ceased to fascinate me. These are correctional facilities that now bear the official and officious titles Moral Rehabilitation Facility, Reeducation Center, Home for the Rectification of Delinquent Youths.
One time, a director at one of these institutions showed me, in his desk, a collection he took pride in: some twenty knives belonging to the kids.
“Monsieur Genet,” he said, “the administration requires me to take away these knives. I do so accordingly. But look at them. Are you going to tell me they’re dangerous? They’re tin. Tin! You can’t kill anyone with tin.”
Didn’t he realize that when an object is removed from its practical purpose it becomes a symbol? Even its form changes sometimes; it becomes stylized. And so it acts silently; it carves ever more deeply into children’s souls. Buried in a straw mattress at night, or hidden in the folds of a jacket, or rather of some pants—not for convenience but to lie nearer the organ it thoroughly symbolizes—it is the very sign of the murder the child will never carry out in reality; instead, it impregnates his dreams and drives them, I hope, toward the most criminal acts. What use is it, then, to take these knives away? The child will choose another, seemingly more benign object to signify murder, and if that, too, is taken away from him, he will guard carefully the object within himself, the image of the weapon.
I apologize for using language as seemingly imprecise as mine. But weren’t you the first ones to speak of the “power of shadows,” of “the dark power of evil”? You don’t shy away from a metaphor when it can convince. I find metaphors more effective for talking about this nocturnal side of man that can only be explored, that can only be understood once armed and armored and adorned with all the accoutrements of language. When you endeavor to accomplish Good, you know where you’re headed. When it’s Evil, you won’t know what you’re speaking of. But I know that Evil is the only thing that can spark enthusiasm when writing with my pen, a sign of my heart’s allegiance.
Indeed, I don’t know any criterion for beauty in an act, an object, or a being, other than the song that it rouses in me, that I translate into words to share with you: this is lyricism. If my song were beautiful, if it affected you, would you dare to say that the man who inspired it was vile? You could claim that there are words that have long been charged with expressing the most exalted stances, and that it is those words I use so that the least thing might seem exalted. I could answer that my emotion rightly called forth these words and that they naturally come to serve it. And so, if your soul is low, call it recklessness, the movement that carries the fifteen-year-old child toward offense or crime; I call it by another name. Because it takes some nerve—great courage—to rebel against a formidable society, against the harshest institutions, against laws upheld by the police whose force is in the legendary, mythical, amorphous fear they instill in children’s hearts.
What drives these children to crime is romantic belief, which projects them into the most magnificent, audacious, and ultimately dangerous of lives. I am translating for them because they have the right to use whatever language allows them to venture. . . Where? you might ask. I do not know. Nor do they, even if their dreams purport to be precise, but certainly it’s outside your homes. And I wonder whether you aren’t pursuing them out of spite, because they sneered at you and they’re abandoning you.
I won’t make any recommendations. I have been talking not to the educators but to the criminals. And I don’t want to invent any new plan for society to protect them. I trust society; it knows how to ward off the amiable danger that is a criminal child. These children are the ones I’m talking to. I ask them never to feel shame at what they’re doing, to keep intact the rebelliousness that has made them so beautiful. I would hope that there is no cure for heroism. Whoever seeks, out of benevolence or privilege, to attenuate or abolish rebellion destroys any chance of salvation for himself.
Since we are divided between you who are not guilty and we who are guilty, remember that it’s a whole life that you’re leading on the side of the bar where you believe you have power, are free from danger, and enjoy moral comfort, and we hold out our hands to shake. As for me, I’ve made my decision: I’m on the side of crime. And I’ll help these children, not to return them to your houses, your factories, your schools, your laws, and your sacraments, but to steal them.
The papers still show photographs of corpses overflowing from silos or littering fields, stuck in barbed wire, in the crematory ovens; they show nails torn out, skins tattooed and tanned for lampshades: these are Hitlerian crimes. But nobody seems to realize that there have always been torturers in children’s jails, in prisons, tormenting children and men. It doesn’t make any difference to know that some are innocent and others guilty in the eyes of divine or strictly human justice. In the eyes of the Germans, the French were guilty. In prison we were so mistreated, in such a cowardly way, that I envy you your tortures. Because they are akin to and better than ours. It’s as a result of heat that a plant grows. Because it was sown by the bourgeoisie who built prisons of stone, with their guards of flesh and mind, I am overjoyed to finally see the sower devoured.
But we will continue to be your conscience. And for no reason other than to give yet more beauty to our adventure, because we know that beauty depends on the distance separating us from you, because wherever we wash up, I am sure, the shores won’t be any different, but on your well-established beaches, we’ll recognize you immediately: small, slim, sullen, we’ll sense your powerlessness and your benedictions. Rejoice all the same. If the cruel and malicious ones represent the forces you’re fighting against, then we’ll be a force for evil. We’ll be that which resists, without which there would be no artists.
I know that the morality driving you to hunt down children isn’t one you subscribe to at all. I don’t hold that against you. Your merit is in professing principles that tend to order your life. But you have far too little fortitude to give yourself over entirely to virtue or to evil. You preach the one and disavow the other despite profiting from it. I concede you your practicality. But I cannot sing it.
You’ve been cheating for far too long. Dangerous carelessness has brought you to the courtroom in a patched-up robe with its lining sometimes not even made of silk, but of rayon or glazed cotton. The criminal child no longer believes in your dignity because he’s realized that it’s made from an unraveling rope, a torn-off insignia, a threadbare fur.
None of your functionaries will be able to take these children and help them succeed in the adventures they themselves have begun. Nothing will replace the allure of outlaws. Because the criminal act is far more important than any other act, since it’s an act of rebelling against such a great moral and physical force.
All that’s left for you to do, if you don’t win over these children with sweet words, is to cure them, since you have your psychiatrists. As for these psychiatrists, all they have to do is ask a few simple questions, which have been asked a hundred times. If their function is to modify children’s moral behavior, then what kind of morality are they being led to? The kind taught in school books? Yet men of science wouldn’t dare take that seriously. Is there a particular morality outlined by each doctor? What does their authority rest upon? What’s the use of these questions? They’ll be evaded. I know this is a matter of ordinary morality, invoked by psychiatrists in bestowing the label of misfit on children. How can I respond to that? I’ll always counter your cunning with my craftiness.
As a poet who was once one of those children, I want to reiterate my love for these ruthless little kids once more. I hold no illusions. My words fall in darkness on deaf ears, but even just for my own sake, I want to insult yet again the insulters.