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Spectral Mourning and Carceral Masculinities: ]ean

Genet's Miracle de la rose

Kadji Amin
French Studies: A Quarterly Review, Volume 65, Number 2, April 2011,
pp. 200-211 (Article)
Published by Oxford University Press
For additional information about this article
Access provided by University of Chittagong (29 May 2014 13:34 GMT)
This article will argue that Jean Genets 1946 novelistic memoir of his adolescence at
the boys agricultural colony of Mettray, Miracle de la rose, is a mournful elaboration of
the abjections of discourses on the boys penal colonies. In the seductive tones of nos-
talgia, Miracle evokes pleasures such as the sweetness of submission, the excitement
of virile display, and the intensities of pederastic love gured as deviant and
unmournable within the discursive eld of the boys penal colonies. In addition,
Miracle explicitly thematizes both the queering effects of such remembrance and the
masculinizing rewards of forgetting, suggesting that certain masculinities are built on
the melancholic foreclosure of ambiguous adolescent affects. In so doing, I argue, it
explores what Derrida terms spectral mourning, an alternative relation to memory
that, in Miracle, is constitutive both of the gender of the elder pederast within a carc-
eral couple and a feminine form of writing associated with poetry, fantasy, and le
merveilleux. Whereas Derrida describes spectrality as a supremely ethical relation to
the past, Miracle shows spectral mourning to be less the result of an ethical choice
than of an inability to mourn the abject conditions of adolescence in the boys penal
In 1945, after two decades of scandals, inmate uprisings, and aggressive press
campaigns, the French maisons de correction and colonies agricoles for minors, widely
judged to be as exploitative and punitive as penal colonies for supposedly unre-
formable adult criminals, were denitively abolished.
Mettray both one of
the best known and, allegedly, one of the most abusive of the childrens penal
colonies was so devastated by Alexis Danans 1930s Paris Soir press campaign
that it was forced to close its doors in 1939, a good six years before the ofcial
abolition of the other childrens penal colonies. Jean Genets 1946 novelistic
memoir of his adolescence at Mettray, Miracle de la rose, is rarely considered to be
a part of the discursive eld of historical and autobiographical writing on
the childrens penal colonies.
On the contrary, in La Colonie agricole et pe nitentiaire
de Mettray: souvenirs dun colon, 1922 1927, former inmate Raoul Leger claims:
Jean Genet na jamais ete a` Mettray, on a du lui raconter Mettray quil a
romance comme il aurait voulu que ca se passe, pour satisfaire ses fantasmes
#The Author 2011. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for French Studies.
All rights reserved. For permissions, please email: journals.permissions@oup.com
Although maisons de correction, maisons de redressement, and colonies agricoles were the ofcial names given to these
correctional institutions, I follow the practice of many former inmate authors of referring to them as boys or
childrens penal colonies.
Two notable exceptions are the readings of Miracle by Philip Thody, in Jean Genet: A Study of his Novels and
Plays (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1968), and Edmund White, in Genet: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1994).
French Studies, Vol. LXV, No. 2, 200 211
Within the public discourse on the boys penal colonies, peder-
asty a relationship of power, protection, service, and sex between an older
and a younger boy is decried as a debased, coercive, and exploitative relation
responsible for the corruption of innocent youth.
Former inmate authors fre-
quently malign pederasty and bemoan its prevalence in the colonies; they almost
never admit to participating in it.
By contrast, Miracles narrator unapologetically
presents himself as a pederast who, rather than being rehabilitated into society,
has progressed to an adult life of criminality and imprisonment. Is it any
wonder, then, that Miracles status as an historical narrative should be cast into
It is not my claim that Miracle should be read as a true autobiographical
account of Mettray. Rather, in this article, I shall read Miracle as a mournful elab-
oration of the abjections operated by the dominant discourse on the boys penal
colonies. Crying out against the destruction of Mettray and, by extension, of his
childhood, Miracles narrator, Jean, sets out on a quest of remembrance that is
also an attempt to articulate the silenced pleasures of Mettray the sweetness
of submission, the excitement of virile display, and the intensities of pederastic
love. In the seductive voice of Jeans memory, Mettray emerges as a sombre
paradise whose hardships are compensated by savage passion and ennobled by
strict codes of honour. Jeans continual return to the narrative present of nostal-
gia, erotic fantasy, and gender crisis within which these memories are evoked,
however, prompts us to read remembrance as something other than an objective
representation of the past. Miracle explicitly thematizes memorys transformative
effects on the rememberer, exploring both the masculinizing rewards of forget-
ting adolescent ambiguities and the queer seductions of remembrance. In so
doing, I shall argue, it explores spectral mourning, an alternative relation to
memory that constitutes both the gender of the pederastic top within a carceral
relationship and a feminine form of writing associated with poetry, fantasy, and
le merveilleux. Spectral mourning, a term I borrow from Jacques Derrida,
differs from both the normal mourning of those whose losses are publicly
recognized and supported and from the melancholia that, in Miracle, shapes the
hard virility of those able to disavow a constitutive involvement with pederastic
The mournful pederasts that Miracle describes remain porous
and open to inhabitation by the affects and the memories of a carceral youth.
Whereas Derrida describes spectrality as a supremely ethical relation to the past,
Raoul Leger, La Colonie agricole et pe nitentiaire de Mettray: souvenirs dun colon, 19221927. Punir pour e duquer?, with
contributions by Jacques Bourquin and E

ric Pierre (Paris: LHarmattan, 1997), p. 108.

Given the hierarchization of sexual relationships in carceral institutions of Genets time, I refer to carceral
male same-sex sexuality as pederasty a male sexual relationship that implies a differential in power, social
status, and age rather than homosexuality.
My claims concerning discourses of the boys penal colonies are based on my study of the following texts:
Auguste Le Breton, Les Hauts Murs (Paris: E

ditions du Rocher, 1999); Alexis Danan, Maisons de supplices (Paris:

Denoel et Steele, 1936); Henri Gaillac, Les Maisons de correction, 1830 1945 (Paris: E

ditions Cujas, 1991); Victor

Lapie, Saint-Florent-la-Vie (Paris: Vigot fre`res, 1946); Leger, La Colonie agricole et pe nitentiaire de Mettray; and Louis
Roubaud, Les Enfants de Ca n (Paris: Grasset, 1925).
Jacques Derrida develops his concept of spectrality in his Spectres de Marx: le tat de la dette, le travail du deuil et
la nouvelle Internationale (Paris: Galilee, 1993).
Miracle shows spectral mourning to be less the result of an ethical choice than of
an inability to mourn the abject, yet sometimes pleasurable and always forma-
tive, conditions of adolescence in the boys penal colonies.
Pederastic education: the making of masculinities
Miracle opens with great fanfare, announcing the momentous and triumphal, if
slightly tardy, transformation of its adult narrator, Jean, into a real man.
announcement of his gender transformation doubles as an announcement of
Miracles departure from the narrative style of Genets previous novel,
Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs. While the narrative of Notre-Dame is woven from Jeans
masturbatory fantasies of handsome and virile criminals, Miracle trumpets Jeans
ascension to virility, his loss of the capacity to idealize criminals, and his tran-
sition, heavy with narrative consequences, from a gaze steeped in le merveilleux
to an exacte vision of his world.
The passage in which Jean weaves these
mutual transformations together into what amounts to a fascinating theory of
gender and narrative is worth quoting at length:
Lexacte vision qui faisait de moi un homme, cest-a`-dire un etre vivant uniquement sur terre, cor-
respondait avec ceci que semblait cesser ma feminite ou lambigu te et le ou de mes desirs males.
En effet, si le merveilleux, cette allegresse qui me suspendait a` des rinceaux dair pur, en prison
naissait surtout de ce que je midentiais avec les beaux voyous qui la hantent, de`s que jacquis une
virilite totale ou, pour etre plus exact, de`s que je devins male les voyous perdirent leur pres-
tige. [. . .] Je ne desirais plus ressembler aux voyous. Javais le sentiment davoir realise la plenitude
de moi-meme. Peut-etre moins aujourdhui, apre`s laventure que jecris, mais je me suis senti fort,
sans dependance, libre, delie. Aucun mode`le prestigieux ne se presentait plus a` moi. (p. 36)
In this passage, femininity, glossed as lambigu te et le ou of Jeans desirs
males, manifests itself as an erotic desire for resemblance capable of conferring
on its objects, the handsome thugs, a prestige and a seductive power that does
not inhere in them. Femininity is thus the source of le merveilleux, a feat of
idealizing and eroticizing poetic perception that, in Notre-Dame, lends itself to
escapist fantasy. Femininity, however, also signals the danger of an absolute
dependence on and enthralment by the prestigious model that one seeks to
resemble. By becoming male, therefore, Jean accedes to a state of autonomy in
which he is no longer dominated by the tyrannical prestige of eroticized crim-
inals. We learn a few lines further on that Jean has arrived at virility through the
active, penetrative masculinity of burglary, whose primary tool is the crowbar,
which Jean refers to as a verge dacier (p. 37). By abandoning the lowly, femin-
ized activities of begging and prostitution for the phallic profession of burglary,
Jean has become the gender equal of the virile criminals he previously idolized.
As a result, these criminals lose their seductive power over him: les voyous ne
me seduisirent plus. Cetaient des pairs (p. 36). Jeans transformation into
Since both the narrator and the author of Miracle of the Rose are named Jean Genet, I distinguish between
them by referring to Miracles narrator as Jean and to its author as Genet.
Jean Genet, Miracle de la rose (Paris: Gallimard, 1946), p. 36. Further page references to this work will be
given in the body of the text.
a virile burglar therefore implies a change of perception, from the feminine
merveilleux of desiring and imitative idealization to the masculine exacte
vision that perceives other criminals as Jeans fallible equals (p. 36). By becom-
ing male, Jean leaves behind both his poetic illusions and his imitative depen-
dencies to accede simultaneously to an independent masculinity and to a
non-idealizing vision of his world.
But if this is the case, how is Jean to ll the long and empty hours of solitude
that make up his incarceration? Jean admits that, having lost his feminine faculty
to imagine himself in the place of another, he has also lost his taste for both
adventure novels and daydreaming. Luckily, however, virility opens another
mental realm to him. After his transformation, Jean writes: grande fut la dif-
culte a` me replonger dans mes histoires revees, fabriquees par ce jeu desolant de
la solitude, mais je trouvai [. . .] davantage de bien-etre dans les souvenirs vrais
de mon ancienne vie (p. 42). The memoir we nd before us is therefore pre-
sented as a gendered text, the product of a mature adult virility that has out-
grown fantasizing and dreaming to focus its clear gaze on the true memories of
Jeans new-found non-erotic and non-fantasizing virility must soon accommo-
date a novel inuence with the arrival of a new love object, the adolescent
burglar and former Mettray inmate Bulkaen. Initially, Jean embraces this new
love not as a contradiction, but as a potential realization of his awakening virility.
After all, now that Jean has attained mature criminal adulthood, what could be
more virile than for him to dominate a beautiful adolescent like Bulkaen? As
Jean imagines it, si la rencontre de Bulkaen redonne vie a` des charmes sommeil-
lants, je garderai le benece de cette marche vers lhomme, car la beaute de
Bulkaen est, dabord, delicate (p. 36). Since Bulkaen is young, beautiful, and
delicate, Jeans pursuit of him need not endanger his new-found masculinity,
even if it does awaken the charmes sommeillants of fantasy and idealization.
Best of all, Bulkaen provides a ready-made supplement for Jeans virile project
of remembering his childhood at Mettray. Rather than sifting through his mem-
ories in dry solitude, Jean now has the extraordinary chance, through Bulkaen,
to rediscover the past in the present and to experience the present as the pasts
living continuity. Bulkaen realizes Jeans secret desire to, as he puts it, retrouver
en un autre quen moi le souvenir de Mettray, autant peut-etre pour rejoindre
Mettray que pour le continuer dans ma vie dhomme en aimant selon les murs
dalors (p. 65). By reliving the pederastic murs of Mettray, this time as the older
and more dominant partner in a pederastic couple, Jean can grasp his new-
found virility as the continuation and the accomplishment of his past at Mettray.
Jean and Bulkaen, already united and queered by their common pasts at
Mettray, appear prepared, then, to begin a conventional pederastic prison
relationship. Bulkaen is beautiful and delicate, and rumour has it that he was une
lle not only at Mettray, but also on the outside with Rocky, his partner in crime.
Jean, on the other hand, has nally attained virility, becoming just the sort of
criminal an impressionable youth might admire. Almost immediately, however,
Jeans attempts to seduce Bulkaen are plagued by a series of complex gender
reversals. While acting the conqueror, Jean feels like a conquered territory, and
while affecting impenetrability, his love renders him dangerously permeable. Jean
must exert a superhuman self-discipline to keep Bulkaen from abandoning the
role of the submissive admirer for the alternative gure of the young tyrant:
Je tentai un dernier effort pour refermer sur moi une porte qui montrerait le secret de mon cur,
et qui risquait de laisser Bulkaen entrer en moi comme en pays conquis, monte, botte, eperonne,
cravache et linsulte a` la bouche, car il nest jamais tendre le sentiment que porte un gamin a` un
homme qui ladore. (p. 84)
Affecting the harshest indifference for fear of appearing vulnerable, entering
into obsessive Proustian speculations about Bulkaens sexuality and his other
possible lovers, both male and female, and abruptly ceding to his desires to
express, with inappropriate romantic force, his true feelings, Jean engages in a
series of baroque seduction attempts that are a far cry from la claire simplicite
de la virilite (p. 37). Moreover, if, through burglary, Jean discovered a certain
manly independence from the criminals he had previously idolized, in love, he
falls under their spell once again, caught in the game of virile imitation.
Observing that transporte par son admiration pour eux, il [Bulkaen] courait
vers les hommes, Jean begins looking to masculine models to supplement his
own faltering virility and thereby attract Bulkaens admiration (p. 240). Rather
than assessing his past with the placid gaze of an accomplished manhood, Jean
begins to seek virile models for the present in his memories of Mettray. Plunged
into a recollection of the glorious day in which his rst lover, Villeroy, struck the
head guard, Guepin, to avenge an affront to Jeans honour, Jean realizes that, in
the present, he needs a similar acte declat to impress Bulkaen (p. 157). When
Jean therefore provokes another inmate, Charlot, so that he can ght him in
front of Bulkaen, an astonishing metamorphosis takes place:
Aux instants que jallais ancher, le souvenir et lame de Villeroy me garde`rent. [. . .] Jempruntais, je
volais la beaute de ses attitudes. Prise on ne sait ou`, une me`che de cheveux blonds tombait jusqua`
mes yeux. Jetais dune vitesse folle. Je devais vaincre Charlot car Villeroy leut vaincu, cest avec ses
armes luisantes et ses defauts que je combattais. Les gafes marrache`rent, on emporta Charlot.
Les surveillants accoururent pour relever Guepin. (p. 159)
Jeans sudden transformation into Villeroy while ghting Charlot evinces the
return of Jeans feminine capacities of imitation at the very moment in which he
seeks to prove his virility. Far from a spontaneous expression of his own unique
manhood, Jeans spectacular act of virility draws not only from its model,
Villeroy, but also from its spectator, Bulkaen. As Jean must eventually admit of
Bulkaen, il etait le demon qui mincitait a` plus de durete, a` plus daudace, a` plus
damour: [. . .] Bulkaen e tait ma virilite (p. 311, my emphasis). Rather than a fem-
inized love object, Bulkaen is the very source of Jeans virility, a virility exposed
as a non-originary imitation and a calculated performance.
I am indebted to Judith Butlers account of gender as an imitative, non-originary performance in her Gender
Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1999).
By this time Jean has fallen head-rst into his memories. In increasingly
poetic language he evokes Mettray as a veritable paradise of reciprocal love in
which, as Villeroys younger lover, or giron, he was able to indulge in the now
forbidden pleasures of femininity:
Nos amours de Mettray! Les couples denfants ou` le male avait seize ans. Javais seize ans, lage
des jeunes lles. Quinze ans sont greles et dix-sept ans trop durs. Mais seize ans a un son dune
delicate feminite. Jaimais Villeroy qui maimait. Parce quenfant lui-meme (il avait dix-huit ans) il
etait plus pre`s de moi que personne [. . .] ne le fut jamais. (p. 154)
The exalted and poetic tone of this paean to the past suggests that Jean has
strayed far from the exacte vision of virility. As his past opens to reveal plea-
sures now denied him, Jean increasingly nds in his memories a sweet refuge
from his present trials. But if doubts about Bulkaens love for him oblige Jean a`
chercher refuge dans [ses] vieilles amours, to do so is to betray his virility and
his new role as a pederastic top in favour of more pleasurable memories of bot-
toming (p. 139). Masculine memory increasingly resembles feminine fantasy, pro-
viding an escape from the present by opening a door to forbidden pleasures and
allowing Jean to rediscover the idealized delinquents of his adolescence.
As Jean plunges into his memories of Mettray, we learn of his gendered devel-
opment within the colony as a vautour (sometimes used interchangeably with
giron), a sort of respectable bottom within carceral hierarchies. For, contrary to
what is often implied in discourses of the boys penal colonies, sexual bottoms
were not necessarily situated at the metaphorical bottom of carceral hierarchies,
nor were they always fully feminized. This is demonstrated when, as his tribute
of entry to Mettray, Jean must sing the latest popular songs from the faubourgs of
Paris. His voice so pleases the fre `re a ne of his Mettray pavilion, Villeroy, that
Villeroy chooses Jean as his vautour.
In spite of being classed as a sexual
bottom, Jean thus has a powerful protector, an honour that, he explains, spares
him the greater sexual shame of prostitution: au lieu daller de hamac en hamac,
ou de voir tous les males ramper la nuit pour venir dans le mien, mon pote,
mon marle, mon social me faisait respecter (p. 189). Being Villeroys vautour,
moreover, does not spare Jean the masculine rites of passage that serve to allo-
cate virility in the colonies. During Jeans rst night at Mettray, Rio, an older
inmate, deliberately knocks Jeans belongings on to the ground. Jean instinctively
understands the signicance of his reaction:
Jeus le sentiment que tout le reste de ma vie dependait de mon attitude en cet instant. Je fus doue
soudain dun sens politique tre`s profond, car je compris que celui de ces enfants etait dune acuite
extraordinaire. Selon une methode tre`s sure, ils me tataient et, selon ma reaction, je serais classe
parmi les marles, les cloches ou les lopes. (p. 190)
Horried at the prospect of being relegated to the bottom of Mettrays social
hierarchies, he masters his fear and ghts. Rather than demonstrating his manly
Organizationally, Mettray was divided into groups of about forty to fty boys living in the same pavilion
under the parental authority of a chef de famille and his second, as well as two fre `res a ne s, chosen from among the
independence from pederastic hierarchies, passing the test of virility grants Jean
entry into pederastic coupledom by proving him a worthy vautour for Villeroy:
Je me defendis et Villeroy me prit sous sa garde (p. 190). For to be a respect-
able bottom (and here Mettrays misogyny is striking) is to not be fully feminized
and, indeed, to offer periodic proofs of ones nascent virility. As Jean explains,
Villeroy naurait pas accepte comme aucun marle ne lacceptait que son
vautour fut une lope. Il mobligeait a` me battre (pp. 26263). As Villeroys
vautour, Jean thus receives a virile education. He is required to sustain Villeroys
honour by adopting manly rather than feminine gestures, by ghting, and, even-
tually, by taking his own vautour. Rather than xing static and tyrannical hierar-
chies of dominance and submission, then, the noble form of pederasty
between marles and vautours functions as a veritable method for producing, pro-
pagating, and schooling virility.
If carceral pederasty is a form of education, however, it is an education that
passes through the sentiments. Jean describes pederastic education as a form of
love that compels an imitation and even a becoming of the elder partner. As an
adolescent, Jean recalls propping up the softness and changeability of his charac-
ter with his love for un homme de pierre aux angles nets, stating, je navais
tout a` fait le repos que si je pouvais tout a` fait prendre sa place, prendre ses
qualites, ses vertus; lorsque je mimaginais etre lui, que je faisais ses gestes, pro-
noncais ses mots: lorsque jetais lui (p. 37). Pederastic education relies on a love
that, rather than foreclosing identication, coincides with a desire for perfect
identity. This account of pederastic subject formation through identication
deconstructs the novels earlier opposition between feminine imitation and virile
autonomy, as pederastic education employs the feminine capacities of imitating,
taking the place of, and even becoming, someone else in the service of schooling
masculinity. The virility formed through a pederastic education, however, has no
essence; rather than being the expression of an internal masculine core, it is con-
structed from the adoring theft of anothers attributes: his gestures, his words,
and his virtues.
But if pederastic education produces an imitative and non-essential masculi-
nity, does this mean that heterosexual carceral masculinity, by contrast, is auton-
omous, unique, and internally anchored? In one remarkable passage Jean
suggests that the impermeable masculinity of the heterosexual pimp is produced
through the same loving imitation that characterizes pederastic education:
Les petits voyous vont dinstinct vers [les macs insolents], ils les entourent, ils les ecoutent, la
bouche entrouverte. Le mac les feconde. Et si lon hausse les epaules a` propos dun ideal qui
para t ridicule, on aura tort car ils obeissent a` limpulsion amoureuse qui les oblige a` ressembler a`
celui quils aiment: un dur, jusquau jour ou`, enn, ils sont devenus celui quils aimaient. Ils
perdent alors, en durcissant, lemouvante tendresse que leur donnait le mouvement de marche vers
leur but, linconsistant ecoulement de jeunesse desirante a` maturite et qui nest que passage. Alors
tout en eux oublie cette marche amoureuse. Ils sont devenus un mac banal, sans davantage se sou-
venir de laventure quil leur fallut parcourir pour etre ce mac. Ils serviront a` leur tour de pole
attractif a` dautres minos, car cest de ce moyen, peut-etre impur, que Dieu se sert pour fabriquer
les hommes impassibles des prisons. (pp. 21516)
In this fable of virility, a history of homosocial love and desire is the condition
for the production of the impermeable masculinity of the dur. Just as in a peder-
astic education, the dur is produced through an adolescents adoring imitation of
a virile model, an imitation that eventually leads to his becoming what he pre-
viously desired. Pederastic education might, then, describe a method for the
production not only of specically pederastic masculinities, but also of the hard
heterosexual masculinity of the pimp. Genets fable, however, insists on the role
of forgetting in the production of an appropriately banal heterosexual virility.
Forgetting is the method by which becoming is stopped and desire is frozen
until the rock-like stasis of a non-desiring, non-imitative masculinity is nally
attained. But does this process always work as smoothly as this passage seems
to imply, or are there desiring movements that never become fully xed, durs
who never entirely forget their adolescent desires, tough prison men who none-
theless mourn and remain haunted by their lost loves?
Jean would appear to be an example of someone who never fully succeeds at
making the transition from imitating virile models to attaining a fully static,
frozen, and non-imitative virility. His abrupt transformation into Villeroy while
ghting Charlot suggests that Jeans adult virility still requires propping up by a
beloved model. Compared to the hard impermeability of the true dur, Jean is a
leaking vessel, full of cracks. As he admits halfway through the text, cest
quelque chose en moi qui sait tre`s bien quil serait vain de me donner du mal
pour para tre fort et ma tre de moi, car ma folle nature appara tra toujours par
mille ssures (p. 165). In this gure, hardness is merely a thin shell, inevitably
ssured by the insuppressible pressure of Jeans folle nature. The gure of the
crack or the ssure, however, soon multiplies throughout the text to afict even
the hardest of masculinities. The above confession is, in fact, foreshadowed by a
rather cryptic commentary inspired by Jeans ex-lover Divers. Jean recalls being
struck, as an adolescent at Mettray, by Diverss features, darkened as if by a veil
of mourning. While Jean is impelled to liken Divers to an angel carved into a
glass window, he must acknowledge that this carving has a crack. As he myster-
iously comments, je decouvris plus tard le sens de cette felure, deuxie`me signe
de deuil, et de celle, plus theatrale encore, qui sillonne Bulkaen, qui sillonne tous
les marles, de Botchako a` Charlot (pp. 11213). What do these cracks signify,
in what sense are they theatrical, how are they signs of mourning, and why do
they afict all of the prison marles?
Genets fable about the prison systems infallible fabrication of durs through
the forgetting of adoring pederastic imitation omits one key step. Far from
occurring automatically, the transition from lecoulement de jeunesse desirante
to the impassivity of the dur requires the survival of a series of painful losses
(p. 216). The dur is hardened not only by the physical blows that he receives, but
also, and indeed especially, by the loves that he loses or is forced to renounce.
In reminiscing about his adolescence, Jean thus unearths an alternative, less tri-
umphal genealogy of masculine hardness. One day, when Jean mistakenly ima-
gined that Villeroy was cheating on him, he underwent a telling transformation,
becoming ce quest nimporte quel giron sans son marle: un temple de detresse
(p. 179). Jean, who at this moment is still soft of character and without a settled
identity, suddenly becomes a ceremonial structure in memory of his lost lover, a
temple whose hardness exists only to be inhabited by Villeroys spirit. Although
this transformation, born of a misperception, is only temporary, Jeans momentary
accession to the state of nimporte quel giron sans son marle foreshadows the
transformation that every giron who receives a virile education must undergo
for the rst condition of becoming a marle is to give up ones marle. When
Villeroy denitively leaves Mettray, Jeans pride at his inclusion amongst the marles
is shadowed by a pervasive sense of loss: la tristesse de son depart perdit bien
vite son sens primitif pour devenir une espe`ce de melancolie chronique, pareille a`
un automne embrume, et cet automne est la saison de base de ma vie car il
reappara t souvent, maintenant encore (p. 164). This fundamental melancholy,
built of deep loss, is quite literally foundational, for it marks the trace of losss
conversion into a masculine hardness. Reecting, je devine ce quaux yeux des
autres, je puis para tre dur, car la durete de Bulkaen etait faite aussi de sa pro-
fonde desolation de se voir abandonne, Jean realizes that this history of loss is
not his alone; it has shaped Bulkaen and might, therefore, characterize all of the
tough masculinities forged from carceral pederasty (p. 279).
Spectral mourning
The temple, Jeans metaphor for the sorrowful state of a giron abandoned by his
marle, in many ways resembles a melancholic structure. In his 1917 essay
Mourning and Melancholia, Freud contrasts normal mourning and abnormal
melancholia as the two possible responses to loss. Whereas, in mourning, the
subject gradually withdraws his/her libidinal energies from the lost object until
he/she is able to let go of it completely and reinvest his/her libido in a new
object, in melancholia, whose affects of extreme sadness and disinterest in the
outside world mimic those of mourning, the subject clings to the lost object
instead of letting it go. Melancholia, however, is no ordinary refusal to let go;
for the melancholics loss must remain, on some level, unconscious. As Freud
puts it, the melancholic
knows whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him. This would suggest the melancholia is in
some way related to an object-loss which is withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to
mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious.
Refusing to mourn an unconscious loss, the melancholic retains it by setting it
up inside the ego as an identication.
Erected upon the pain of his lover Villeroys imagined abandonment, the
temple that Jean becomes is a psychic monument to loss. Rather than melancho-
lically burying an unconscious loss, however, Jeans temple remains haunted and
Sigmund Freud, Mourning and Melancholia, in Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund
Freud, ed. and trans. by James Strachey, XIV (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), pp. 24358 (p. 254, emphases
open to possession by Villeroys living memory. This openness to possession
and to haunting by lost objects that are neither fully mourned (for then Jeans
melancholy would not be a chronic state) nor entirely disavowed and forgotten
(for then Jean would resemble a mac banal) is gured as a series of tiny
openings ssures and cracks in the hardness of Jeans masculinity. Is this,
then, the sense of the ssures that traverse the other marles from Mettray? At
one point Jean reects on another gure for wounded masculinity. Of Mettrays
former inmates, he speculates, ils auront des femmes, mais je nose croire que
ces gosses qui furent si longtemps courtisanes, ou males les adorant, puissant ne
pas garder au cur, a` lame et dans les muscles la meurtrissure de Mettray
(p. 198). La meurtrissure de Mettray, like the cracks on the surface of the
marles, marks the ssured and swollen hardness of toughs in perpetual mourning
for the haunting pleasures of imprisonment, of adolescent femininity, and of
pederastic bottoming. The impermeable and xed hardness of the heterosexual
pimps, on the other hand, resembles that of the tomb rather than the temple.
Abraham and Torok have likened the melancholic fantasy of incorporation to
the entombment of an ungrievable loss, writing evocatively that inexpressible
mourning erects a secret tomb inside the subject.
They characterize incorpor-
ation as the connement, imprisonment, and (in extreme cases) entombment
of the object, which, in the process, is made lifeless and inert.
Entombing a
lost love rather than invoking spirits, the pimps attain a perfect hardness
through the melancholic forgetting of their adolescent passions. This hardness is
precisely that of their idealized virile models, whom they have melancholically
incorporated, the better to deny having loved and lost them.
By contrast,
Jeans ssured pederastic masculinity which, he at times suggests, is not so
very different from that of the other toughs who were once incarcerated at
Mettray is that of the temple, a hard structure that nevertheless encourages,
by its hospitable hollowness, the ephemeral passage of honoured spirits.
If Jean erects a temple for his lost loves, he builds a prison to hold on to his
childhood memories: Comme une porte de prison me garde, mon cur garde
ton souvenir . . . Je ne laisserai pas mon enfance sechapper (p. 42). While the
metaphor of the prison cell is undoubtedly more coercive than that of the
temple, both are hard psychic structures built to be inhabited by memories and
spirits from the past. As such, both might be read as gures for what Derrida
would term spectral mourning. For Derrida, spectrality is an ethical attitude
towards both the past and the future characterized by an openness towards
transformative inhabitations. Spectral mourning, un deuil en fait et en droit
Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, Mourning or Melancholia: Introjection versus Incorporation, in The
Shell and the Kernel: Renewals of Psychoanalysis, Volume 1, ed. and trans. by Nicholas T. Rand (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1994), pp. 12538 (p. 130).
Ibid., p. 132.
This reading develops Judith Butlers account of the production of binary gender through the melancholic
foreclosure of a same-sex love in the context of the pederastic education of the boys penal colonies; see Judith
Butler, Melancholy Gender/Refused Identication, in The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford,
CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), pp. 13250.
interminable, sans normalite possible, sans limite able, dans la realite ou dans
le concept, entre lintrojection et lincorporation, might mean a receptivity to
haunting by spectres from a past that is never fully closed and mourned.
Between introjection the full assimilation of a loss after a completed mourn-
ing process and incorporation the melancholic swallowing of an
unmournable and disavowed loss spectral mourning is never complete and
does not exclude such pathological symptoms as haunting and possession.
However, whereas Derrida conceives of spectrality as a supremely ethical
relationship to the past, Genets metaphor of the heart as a prison for its mem-
ories, like that of the abandoned giron as a commemorative temple, eloquently
gures both the persistent melancholy and the trauma-induced hardening that
can accompany spectral mourning. For Jean, imprisoning the past and becoming
a temple to his ex-lovers function less as ethical stances than as the means of
keeping alive losses that cannot be publicly expressed. Shut down thanks to the
efforts of reporters like Alexis Danan and attacked in the writings of former
inmates, Mettray, and therefore Jeans adolescence, is both literally and gura-
tively in ruins. In one of the most melancholy passages of Miracle, on revisiting
Mettray after its closure, Jean writes: davoir jete un coup dil sur ces ruines,
jamais ne guerira la tristesse de mon ame. [. . .] Je nai trouve quun cadavre. Je
sais que ma jeunesse est morte. Il ne reste plus rien du passage de tant de
voyous (p. 306). Mettray is a corpse, murdered and forgotten, and Jeans
sadness at its death can never be healed; for he knows of no socially recogniz-
able way to mourn Mettrays carceral subculture as something of value, as a true
loss that can be recognized and communicated as such. The public discourse
that gures the boys penal colonies as abusive institutions and pederasty as the
sign of their moral corruption relegate the pleasures, the pedagogies, and the
social forms of the colonies to the status of abandoned corpses and unmourned
It is in light of the inexpressibility, within available public discourses, of the
loss of the boys penal colonies that Miracles play between different styles of
writing remembrance can be understood. Although Miracle begins with the pre-
tence that remembering the past is a virile sport, as memory unearths melan-
cholic remainders, buried and forgotten within public discourses on the boys
penal colonies, its gendered function gradually changes. The exacte vision of
virility gives way to a voluptuous falling into remembrance, and memory is
transformed from an objective, virile faculty into a volatile, seductive, and poten-
tially queering practice. In the process Jeans narrative style becomes increasingly
poetic, imaginative, and even fantastical. Memory, at this point, has veered into
the excess sans normalite possible of a spectral form of mourning that, bent
on healing, is performative rather than constative.
The discursive project of
Derrida, Spectres de Marx, p. 160.
For a fuller development of this distinction between introjection and incorporation see Abraham and
Torok, Mourning or Melancholia.
Derrida, Spectres de Marx, p. 160.
mourning melancholic remainders is, properly speaking, an act of sorcery, which
seeks to raise the socially unmournable to the dignity of a true loss through the
magic of a poetic, excessive, and even miraculous feminine mode of writing.
The miracles, fantasies, and rites that increasingly litter Miracles pages such as
the miraculous transformation of death row inmate Harcamones chains into
roses, Jeans childhood fantasy of being a cabin boy tortured by the older sailors
but beloved by the captain, and Bulkaens ritual desecration by Mettrays marles
spitting into his open mouth mark the texts turn to a performative, magical
mode of writing that breaks with both the exacte vision of virility and the
conventions of the memoir. Miracle fails to tell the story that its opening
promises that of a properly carceral development in which Jean would mature
from the position of the noble bottom, the vautour, to that of a top in a pederas-
tic relationship with a younger, feminized inmate. Instead, it shows how Jeans
attempt to tell this triumphal narrative fails, seduced by the feminine lures of
memory, and undoes, in the process, Jeans tenuously attained virility. Miracle
thus unlocks the capacity of memory to disaggregate the unity of the self, of
autobiographical writing to interrupt, rather than culminate in, the present, and
of fantasy and poetry to supplement the shortcomings of dry narrative, singing
those affects and dependencies abjected within the liberal discourse of penal
reform and foreclosed from collective mourning. If, as Genet writes in
Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs, vraisemblance is the melancholic desaveu des raisons inavou-
ables, then Miracles fantastical mode of writing carries out the impossible, spec-
tral mourning of that which must be disavowed for a narrative of the boys
penal colonies to qualify as truth.
Jean Genet, Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), p. 27.