Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Wars, inverts, and a giant stone phallus...

I think it's worth pointing out that the historic port city of Brest where Genet's novel is (possibly, maybe) set was pretty thoroughly wiped off the face of the planet during the Battle of Normandy (a mere three years before Querelle de Brest would be published). Of course many other French cities suffered a similar fate during WWII, but I think Brest is at least fairly unique in the awesome and total destruction it suffered. What I have a hard time deciphering is when the action of the story takes place. Perhaps I am missing some obvious clue, some revealing statement from the text like: "It was the summer of 1910, most definitely before the Battle of Normandy," but I just have no idea. The Brest in the novel came across to me as fairly detached somehow from history and the physical world. It might as well be sitting in the middle of an ocean of seamen.

(Maybe it isn't the town, but the characters that are giving me this impression?)

Still, it's interesting that Genet chose a city that was so heavily affected by the war. Somewhere around the time of the Franco-Prussian war saw the emergence in France and elsewhere the concept of sexual inversion, which became important to France in the wake of their humiliating defeat. Virility became a national obsession and this relates to male inverts as they were generally seen as not being very virile. Here we have a book written more than a half-century later, and the word pops up fairly often. These men do not appear to me to be your run-of-the-mill sexual inverts. If I'm remembering right from a class I took a long, long time ago, it was scandals that erupted after WWI that infused in our public consciousness what we think happens whenever you stick a bunch of men in close quarters for too long. Ironically, in trying to re-establish its virility as a nation, France helped introduce the possibility that all men, even the virile ones, could potentially be capable of the same actions as the non-virile, isolated inverts. Oh, and then there was WWII. Not exactly a high point for that country. I'm not sure where I'm going with this anymore, so let's come back to our sheep.

Lieutenant Seblon writes in his journal about "having been so overwhelmed by the loneliness to which [his] inversion condemns [him]" (8). He is, I believe, the only character to identify himself as an invert and I think the journal entries that break up the text highlight his loneliness and his separation from the other men. Seblon is the "pederast" of ancient greek tradition who wishes to posses the men he loves. Here we have Querelle going pee:

"It was a feeling of both power and the lack of it: of pride, in the first place, to know that such a tall tower could be the symbol of his own virility, to the extent that when he stood at the base of it, legs apart, taking a piss, he could think of it as his own prick... ...But when he was by himself, at night or during the day, opening or buttoning his fly, his fingers felt they were capturing, with the greatest care, the treasure- the very soul – of this giant prick; he imagined that his own virility emanated from the stone phallus, while feeling quietly humble in the presence of the unruffled and incomparable power of that unimaginably huge male" (40).

The statement "it was a feeling of both power and the lack of it" sums up perfectly, for me, masculine identity in our culture as it exists today, which is basically: realizing, and being proud of the fact that one belongs to a privileged group, being in awe of this masculine ideal, yet in constant struggle with other men to embody that ideal (which can only be obtained by conquering other men). There's also, and possibly most importantly, the constant threat of being conquered oneself, emasculated, and turned into a "fairy". Querelle comes across in this first part of the book as an extreme example of this struggle. On the one hand he worships this giant, erect penis (that he wishes were his), and on the other he murders a fellow sailor. A struggle that for most men eventually becomes a source of pain and isolation appears to be a real rush for Querelle. He seems to revel in his own manhood.

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