What Proust and the Priests Have To Do with the Poem Saint Genet by George Spencer
by Robert Mueller
This is a response. Do not turn off your accelerators.
The constitution of the self is a problem that will never go away, and it will never lack in aspects to explore for those great intense pleasures of sentimental creativity. These pleasures indwelling such intense study are surely what Marcel Proust’s glorious and breathless enfilade through the lengths and depths of the separate novel Albertine disparue (Albertine Is Gone!) is all about. It is separate because a part of, that is, a part of the series leading the seeking for, and recovering, lost immense interior spaces of previously unrecorded time. It is crucial, therefore, not to let George Spencer fool you with his spent jadedness when throwing your way the three “weird friends” of Marcel, “Baron de Charlus, Albertine and / Gilberte”.
The concept of time in this milieu of Mr. Spencer’s attributing is that time, strangely, can never be imagined as pure flow. It is duration, but made up of a very great number of individual snapshots linked together in a forward-moving process, sometimes looking more and more existential, sometimes not.
Because of the awareness of the self in action, because of the action of the self, time becomes a unity of the diverse relations of an agent moving through a diverse and always changing, always moving world. The self only lives and moves and breathes insofar as it participates in its affairs. In other words, our experience is not only defined in terms of what is around us; it takes place, it comes into being, again only so, in actions. Actions are expressions, specified in awareness, and thusly tooled toward a specified environment of situations, contexts and positions to which the self belongs, and in which it attends to its business. Time seems to flow continuously, we feel it flow continuously, we even give it its duration. That is how it seems, but it has its formation in terms of these actions — or perhaps better in analogous actions undertaken as aspects of perception — of a self-constituting time experienced and realized in different moments. It is this character and this application that render movement but not a continuum. As we endure through our run of experiences, as we continually move forward, we move from this or that position and significant event to this or that other situation; and the movement keeps coming and going, as we live and breath and act, according to the measure of a sequence of cross-sectioned, clearly understood, very much felt and even intended, incidents and reactions and just plain sheer difficult funks.
The foregoing account pertains, with differences, to what Henri Bergson says about a kind of material existence in Matière et mémoire (PUF, 1939, and Quadrige, 2008; see especially pp. 231-38 and the discussion preceding these pages). Bergson’s writing also catches Proust’s more thorough and more succinct attention. Yet the successive “moi” [plural] of Proust are themselves, however deeply enthroned in accounts of perception, of a special breed, and they act in bizarre fashion upon the narrator of Albertine disparue. As actually living this time of his life, one of overwhelming crisis most tellingly referred to as his douleur, Marcel is unable to link them — the moi followed suddenly by a different moi followed again, in line with contingent circumstances, by another moi — unable to connect and coordinate them within a healthy scope of happy existence, but always must confront the moi, the self at that moment of the narrated process, and never grant the continuous succession itself. The result, early on after confessing to the shipwreck of Albertine’s departure, a departure of obsessive keeping and glowing attachment extending into the inextricable depths, is breakage, is inconsistent sorting out of meaningful private moments, a dissolution cum distillation of heart-felt movement into scattered and transmogrified separate “moi” each casting independently on this or that shard of floating wreckage. The successive moi thus play out the duration of the self that is its birthright in the time and space of history, but with each moi migrating along in its own thinly attenuated and estranged itinerary. This is the crisis and this is its swell of complications. How it will endure and recover, all this experiencing, becomes the final test and beauty.
In this crisis of Albertine’s leaving, foreseen and instigated by the narrator himself but hardly really anticipated, the sequence of self-image constructions produces the following jumble or jangle of defined, that is named and felt, behaviors: First, as his suffering (la souffrance), now in a state of shock “morally” and being drawn through countless transformations (ses innombrables metamorphoses), all with the result of keeping a fresh open wound (de garder sa souffrance franche), receives a second announcement of Albertine’s departure, that of the moi returning to her room and visiting the objects — the chair, the little piano with its foot pedals — that Albertine was in the habit of using; Next, it is now time, Marcel realizes as he sits in the same chair dreaming, remembering, to notify one of the innumerable chastened moi, this one not yet having received the memo (“qui était ignorant encore du départ d’Albertine et à qui il fallait le notifier”), namely the moi of the day Marcel (as a matter of habit) goes to get his hair trimmed: Next, the sobbing that results necessarily brings to mind the image of a long-time faithful servant, now in retirement, when learning of his master’s passing; Next, it being the case that Marcel has been brooding over all the different selves, or moi, who are involved in the experience of Albertine’s leaving, who in different ways carry snapshots of Albertine’s presence in, as well as absence from, Marcel’s life, there appears the imaginary moi who is in need of, and gets, counseling from an imaginary but unaffected friend, who tells Marcel part of what he needs to hear, that he is acting like a fool (“‘Mais vous êtes fou. . . .’”); Next, receiving Albertine’s letter, receiving and awaiting her doom, as when one who has committed a terrible crime, assuring himself he will get away with it, sees the victim’s name in a summons he receives from the judge (“Je m’étais dit, presque avec une satisfaction de perspicacité dans mon désespoir, comme un assassin qui sait ne pouvoir être découvert mais qui a peur et qui tout d’un coup voit le nom de sa victime écrit en tête d’un dossier chez le juge d’instruction qui l’a fait mander…”) [ellipsis in the source].
Successive moi and memory flavor the intimacy of self-existence, of imagining selves and roles and becoming ever more complexly motivated and ever more driven through and inward in the complexities of one’s pain, one’s douleur — these could be George Spencer’s choices, partly because of his capacity to drop names, to remember and name historical and personal characters, to see with their identities by virtue of a facility simply to be able to reach for it. But it is more than that, and without the interminable strain. It is secured route taken in living in full awareness of each phase while playing out the fullness of each possible remembered — and educated — self.
That is why Saint Genet, with all that figures guilt, with all of that grand and fierce perturbation aided by a whimsical kathexis of objects that are certainly “unpious,” comes so comfortably into the mix; that is why these many figures of George Spencer’s remembering enter so easily into the fold of the respective book of poetry (Unpious Pilgrim, Fly By Night Press [a subsidiary of a Gathering of the Tribes], 2011). Because it is so easy, because Mr. Spencer has learned so fully his object lessons and articulates them so completely as if by second nature and not riddled with guilt gone wild but with an unabashed and unafraid particularity for knowledge of it; and because these connections create such lucid formations in the reflecting and moving phases that the poet touches upon, and lucidly in turn accepts; a severe form of anachronism can emerge, penetrating, in accidental fashion almost, into the everpresent mysteries of that out-endured and outlived time. That is how the poem Saint Genet begins so easily in midst of the before and the after of disaster, and yet arouses no backlash:
How we trudge from Sabrett cart to Sabrett cart all
over Manhattan looking for the best sauerkraut just as
we read through small poetry magazines and
never find the perfect poem. Yet we keep on writing,
heroes bailing out the Titanic, although we know
exactly how many survived and we were not among
them. Regardless we carefully rearrange the books in
that aqueous library. This is the same old story and
I’m trapped in the middle of it. Creature of timid
habit, my head’s full of others’ imaginings like
there’s beauty in vegetables and cuteness in puppies. [end of verse paragraph]
Method in casualness and accession in madness of it all, heaped large with understanding, lend themselves to an indwelling confidence of faith. That is to say, they prepare the speaker for exploring then celebrating a general consecration of the desecrated, as in the likes of Genet’s characters “Divine” and “Darling,” candidates among many others for a kind of selfhood, or in the likes of Marcel’s articulation of the “weird” Albertine, appearing that way not as the reality of her and not for long any reliable image of her, but a burgeoning (for Proust) simulacrum of the self-feeding subjective pathologies that kindle devotion. So Proust is brought into this poem’s fold, joining a rich, assorted company, in terms, perhaps, of this self-glorying self-devouring, this self-realizing even, overall potent and partial to the look-out and expressing itself (for Proust) in the company of its awesome, mighty and, in the final analysis, self-habituating amour.
Like Genet and like Proust in the hottest pitch of crisis, George Spencer is a tale of good and bad selves. Thus facetiously, but honestly, he trades experience with a criminal element, looks into those “windows” as well, in all those places wherever they may be:
Better to send the kids to a private boarding school
where they will have cold showers and open winter
windows. This is how Genet became a writer. In jail
he met Divine and Darling and the rest of the gang.
There he learned how prisoners are meant to live, that
flourishes, like rhyme and meter, are a part of life
better left to the jailers, that rules are not for those
who love stable boys and as the practical Ben
Franklin said income exceeds expenses, happiness;
the other way, sadness. Genet stole to fund that
deficit. He knew Franklin lied. The King and his
Lords always needed money and they were happy.
From this came rack-rents and other economic
innovations. [end of verse paragraph]
It is all made possible because the speaker of the poem approaches the greatest of crises, a signified “Titanic,” an enunciated historic dive plundered into the here and now, without that batting of eyelashes given to a Cassandran piquancy, or titivated and titrated to a prophetic solemnizing of impending disaster by one who is regretfully not one of its survivors. The poet of the before and after, of two instances of time at once as if it were perfectly natural, is necessarily both inside of and remote from the absorbing filigree of the unseemly paradox of it. Time is all one, one way to put it, and perceptions register here, there and everywhere, and it matters, and it keeps on turning, all the time and all the while that it ceases or has ceased to matter.
I could explore the final two stanzas, and the sad restfulness that draws the poem to its close, acting on my belief that Saint Genet represents a major statement. How this poem emerges out of the sequence, in the clearing and still the softening of a succession of selves, is a further subject for living comprehendingly, for holding to connections wherever and whenever.
A maison de passe, for example, functions as the flip side of the royal court where the pomposity of the speech-making grows in Genet’s political drama Le balcon (The Balcony). George Spencer’s poem, in its own way and as proof of its title (borrowed of course), likewise illustrates this concern about making holy what is encountered in sometimes less presentable experience. How can a general concern of this kind mean anything? And yet it does prove engrossing. And yet it does carry weight and very much sustains our interest as we readers pass through its casual, imprintable itinerary.