Casey Lange

“This Was the Birth of Intelligence”


Photos of several child laborers superimposed on each other to create a slightly blurred composite portrait.Lewis Hine, composite photograph of child laborers made from cotton mill workers, 1913
Later on, without refusing to get excited about a handsome boy, I applied the same detachment, when I allowed myself to be aroused, and when, refusing the emotion the right to rule me, I examined it with the same lucidity, I realized what my love was; on the basis of this awareness I established relationships with the world. This was the birth of intelligence.

This article is about the birth of intelligence, as it occurs in the life of Jean Genet, as told in his autobiographical novel The Thief’s Journal. He is about 23 when this happens. Presumably, before then, he was stupid.

Stupid and Free

In a way, Jean1 begins his life freer than most of us. Homeless, homosexual, making his living through begging, prostitution, and petty theft, he is morally and economically excluded from normal society, cut off from the possibility of gaining any sort of power or respect in it. Having no way to accrue wealth or status, no real possessions except his body, he need not worry about the repercussions of any action except to his own survival and short-term pleasure and pain. He is insignificant: nothing he does or says can signify anything of importance, no public meaning will accrue to his actions. That is, no public meaning can corrupt his actions: he need not fear definition. Solipsism is imposed upon him. He is completely free and unlimited in his meaning-making, since there is no one to say that the meanings he creates are true or false, reasonable or not. Society’s morals reject him, so he rejects society’s morals, and so there is no moral force upon him except one commandment: be more individual, more free, by more and more thoroughly violating whatever moral feelings he has absorbed.

Jean lives an aesthetic existence, begging the world for meaning, for aesthetic material to work into his lyrical narrative. This guides his romantic life, which occupies the lion’s share of his mind. His major love in this part of his life is Stilitano, a beautiful blond bully and braggart with one hand. Jean is utterly submissive and sycophantic to Stilitano, faithfully performing rites such as buttoning the snap of his one glove.

Possession and Community

I cannot discuss Jean’s progression toward subjectivity/agency/autonomy (if that is the direction in which he moves) without explaining the title of the book. The Thief’s Journal is, first, a book about thievery, that is, the appropriation of objects. Specifically, the illegitimate appropriation of objects; the appropriation of objects that one neither created through one’s labor nor bought with one’s (socially condoned and protected) wealth.

The Thief’s Journal is, secondly, a book about being a criminal; one who has no legitimate place in society. Well, that’s not really true. The criminal has a place in society, and that place is an internalized “outside” of society, a place of exclusion, an opposite by which to demarcate the good, law-abiding citizenry. (Otherwise, the criminal would be the same as the barbarian or the foreigner.) Foucault, or somebody, said that it is the enforcement of the law, that is, the way the constitution responds to breaches of it or attacks against it, rather than any static body of law, that delineates a society and its laws. When Genet refers to the society whose mores he wants to expunge from himself, he speaks of “your society,” “your morality”; and he does this constantly. Even and especially the reader is excluded from community with him because it is taken for granted that the reader has excluded him. (The truth of this is proven when we the reader feel the slightest shock, surprise, terror, discomfort at Genet’s life, thoughts, and activities.) He is not even so generous as Nietzsche or other writers who say with a wink, “No one will understand this book–well, except maybe certain readers,” thus creating a “we” of author and reader, opposed to a “them” of those who have not read or understood the book. By contrast, reading Genet, just when you feel most accepted and are all but basking in intimacy and tender complicity with him – that’s when he kicks you out of bed with that exclusionary “you.”2

Genet’s rejection of our morality goes deep. He rejects even the value of individual autonomy, of standing up for yourself against those who would exploit you, defending and justifying yourself in the face of criticism. He relates how in his adolescence in the reformatory he rigorously trained himself to wholeheartedly and inwardly affirm every insult and accusation leveled against him by the other boys.3 Thus his submissiveness in his personal relationships and willingness to be humiliated by his lovers is another manifestation of his search for freedom.

Dumb as a Hammer

Jean and Stilitano’s romance blooms in the Spanish slums, and they are a happy couple until the day Stilitano disappears without warning. Jean wanders across Europe4 in a state of luxuriant dejection until running into Stilitano in Antwerp. Stilitano has made some money and a name for himself in the Antwerp underworld. Though they resume their relationship, Jean’s attitude toward his old friend is not quite the simple reverence it was before:

Although he really was a gangster, he played at being one, that is, he invented gangster attitudes. . . . Blinded at first by his august solitude, by his calmness and serenity, I believed him to be anarchically self-creating,5 guided by the sheer impudence, the nerviness of his gestures. The fact is, he was seeking a type. Perhaps it was the one represented by the conquering hero of the comic books.

Stilitano’s glory and gangsterhood is not mere illusion, he is not a fake or a poseur, and Jean does not condemn him as such. Nonetheless, Stilitano is becoming in Jean’s eyes a human who needs an image of himself. When Stilitano entrusts Jean with smuggling a package of unknown contents across the border from Amsterdam back into Belgium, and Jean of course complies. He has no reason not to, no more reason that he has had to refuse anything that life presents him or a lover demands of him. Despite those hints of mortality, the creature that sends him on his quest is at that point certainly a god:

…he gave me a nice kiss and went off on the train. I beheld this tranquil Reason, this guardian of the Tables of the Law, walking before me, his authority contained in the sureness of his gait, in his nonchalance, in the almost luminous play of his buttocks. I did not know what the package contained; it was the sign of confidence and chance. Thanks to it, I was no longer going to cross a border for my own paltry needs but rather out of obedience, out of submission, to a sovereign Power. When I took my eyes off Stilitano, the sole aim of my preoccupations was to seek him and it was the package that directed me.

We can see here that in Jean’s aesthetic existence, this is the height of his agency: being a tool. A tool neither knows nor cares what anyone does with it. By agency, I mean the ability to do things in the world, things with social and material consequences; things that other people have to reckon with; being something to other people, intentionally. Contrast stealing: stealing is only barely a social action, since the victim is not aware of the action until he checks his pockets later, and even then he does not know who did it, cannot recognize the thief’s agency. Besides, stealing for Jean is above all an aesthetic and ethical action upon himself, for the sake of his own ethical and aesthetic development. Yes, he is “attacking society,” but only to reaffirm to himself that he is its enemy, maintain the distance between himself and the rest of humanity. Think of this the next time you do something “rebellious.”

The Autonomy of Objects

The package Jean carries is the earthly totem of the sovereign Power for which he is risking himself. It is also the symbol of risk itself: it encapsulates and radiates with the danger he is in, the fear he feels. This fear, anxiety, terror disentangles itself from its cause and source, becoming, if not a substantive object, a freefloating quality which flows out and suffuses everything in sight.

. . . objects were animated. . . . The stones and pebbles on the road had a sense through which I was to make myself known. The trees were surprised to see me. My fear bore the name of panic. It liberated the spirit of every object, which awaited only my trembling to be stirred. About me the inanimate world gently shuddered; I could have chatted with the rain itself. . . . Thus, I moved about in an enigmatic universe, for it had lost the sense of the practical. I was in danger. Indeed, I no longer considered objects from the point of view of their usual purpose but rather from that of the friendly anxiety they offered me.

Thus physical objects establish their autonomy. This is how Jean’s physical world establishes its autonomy from Stilitano’s power: by establishing its autonomy from practical purposes. In order to become autonomous from Stilitano, they must first sever connection with all practical purposes, because hitherto the practical purpose of anything would be relative to Stilitano: not “What is this good for?” but “What good is this to Stilitano?”

No, that “In order to” is the wrong way around, or anyway not quite right. What we are seeing here is a reorientation of someone’s life. At any “stable” point of one’s life, the objects of the world form a coherent network; you are one of these objects. The connection between you and another object can be characterized in terms of an emotional effect (such as fear) that it has on you, or an attitude you have toward it, a tendency you have to do something to it (roughly speaking, an intention). In Jean’s life, Stilitano is an organizing principle, that is, the object responsible for most of the important connections between things and between Jean and things. The importance of someone or something in your life can be indicated by how many things you associate with them, how consistently they are an intermediate term in your relation to any object (“Those are some interesting books” to “Among those books is the one X wants to read”; “That is a beautiful building” to “X should see that building”). As Stilitano degrades, so do the connections among things in Jean’s life. Think of the last time you broke up with someone, fell out of love, fell out of friendship, left a job or a school, abandoned a passion.

Jean completes his mission, delivers the package, his god continues its disintegration. At this point he is practically free from Stilitano. “I already knew that Stilitano was my own creation and that its destruction depended on me.” But he remains, by choice, devoted to the god of his creation: “Realizing that it was through me that he had to act, I attached myself to him, sure of drawing strength from the elementary and disorganized power that shaped him.”


As with objects in the physical world, so with the objects of his mental life (his experiences of events, the emotions and thoughts that they trigger in him). His internal events become suffused with anxiety, and confront him as autonomous events.


Then the anxiety disappeared. I felt I was perceiving things with blinding lucidity. Even the most trivial of them had lost their usual meaning, and I reached the point of wondering whether it was true that one drank from a glass or put on a shoe.

The anxiety in which things emerged falls away, and objects stand bare before him for him to “perceive with blinding lucidity” and “luxurious detachment.” The “elegance and oddness” of a clothespin left on a line “appeared before me without astonishing me.” This is in contrast with a more naïve, receptive attitude in which one simply identifies with or manifests one’s thoughts and emotions.

Thus Genet’s narrator’s birth of intelligence is when he learns to detach himself from his emotions and look at them objectively, and still follow their urgings if he chooses. It is not that he deadens or represses or resists them (he claims): that would be a sign of his still being attached to them. In that case, he is still his emotions, and the only way to control himself is to control his emotions. Or rather there is no distinction between controlling himself and controlling his emotions.

“I realized what my love was.” This is one of the most important aspects of self-awareness that one can develop. I don’t know if you ever have ever noted the peculiar feeling of doing “one of those things you have heard about.” Which objects in life stimulate this feeling first may vary from person to person, but my hunch is that it tends to move, as it did for Genet, from the outside in. That is, first you realize that you are instantiating more external, material things, like “having a job,” “being a tenant.” Rather than simply responding to the problems and opportunities that ensue from being in these positions, you think things like “this is what I would do, as a tenant.” Then, emotions. What does it mean to be a friend, if that is what I am? What does it mean to be in a relationship, if that is what I am in? What shall it mean? What is good? What is evil? What is care? What is cruelty? These are real things; these are not mere labels for things “out” in the world, but things I can be.

Big Hard Reality

But we get ahead of ourselves. I was saying something about Jean developing autonomy. So is he now his own man, not wasting his time chasing big strong boys? Not at all! As he and Stilitano drift apart, Jean slides into the arms of Stilitano’s acquaintance Armand, whom Genet describes as “the perfect brute, indifferent to my happiness”. It would be wrong to say that he has now gained freedom and autonomy, in terms of being dominated by others, since immediately upon gaining freedom from Stilitano, he submits himself to Armand. BUT there is an important difference between these submissions which corresponds to (/points out) his progress. Having shaken off dominance by an image, an idea, he needs to be dominated by something with the power to truly dominate him; something as unstoppable as nature, a falling rock. Something he did not create; something he fears.

Here we find another search for reality, the real, that which is indifferent to our pleasure pain and well being, something that can beat us, that we cannot woo or persuade to pity. A friend of mine was arrested once, and thought he would have to serve jailtime. When it turned out he wouldn’t, he was disappointed. “It was as if the world said to me, Yes, you can get away with anything, because you’re not a threat. The idea that you would need to be sequestered from society to make others safer is laughable. You don’t need to be punished, because you still haven’t ever done anything important enough for anyone to mind.” Invulnerability revealed to be impotence.

The Power to Possess

Walking with Stilitano (with whom he has remained friendly, and while Armand is away on some business has reconnected) in a fair, Jean is transfixed by the sight of a young carny, Robert. This is a new experience: rather than an older stronger man in which to dissolve himself, here is a youth he could seduce, dominate, possess for his pleasure. Jean shudders at his newfound power, “frightened at possessing the world and knowing I possessed it.”

To illuminate this moment Genet recalls the sight of a bourgeois woman picking out a plant from a vendor at a market.

‘I’d like to have a plant in the house . . . a nice plant. . . .’ This need for possession, which made her want to have a plant of her own, chosen, with its roots and earth, from among the infinity of plants, did not surprise me. The woman’s remark made clear to me the sense of ownership.

Besides telling us something of what possession is about , distinguishing a discrete object from among the multitude by incorporating it into one’s purview, more markedly, this indicates how foreign the concept of ownership has been to Jean. Now he possesses Robert.

The only live things I had ever owned were lovely pricks, whose roots were buried in black moss. . . . Nevertheless, each remained fastened, by a mysterious and solid base, to the male whose chief branch it was; he owned it more than I did. Some flies were buzzing around Lucien. My hand mentally made the gesture of chasing them away. This plant was going to belong to me.

. . . Not only his prick, but all of Lucien was mine. Before him, Robert.

Possession is not only having a relation to an object, but having authority over your relation to it and its relation to whatever other objects would buzz around it. Intelligence is the awareness of the relations among objects and your relations to them; specifically an awareness of the looseness, contingency, mutability of those connections. Intelligence is the precondition of reconfiguring the world through appropriation—of forming the connection to a thing that allows you to govern its connections to other things.

Something Needs Squaring Here

Earlier I said that Genet’s complete submission to Stilitano was a manifestation of his freedom. When Stilitano showed his power to be imaginary—something Jean could not truly submit to, willingly or not—he submitted himself to Armand. No inconsistency here. But then he takes a stab at power and dominance himself, first by sexually possessing (as the dominant partner) a man his own age, and then by using explicit, violent power to rob men. The question is, has he now slackened in his renunciation of oh-so-conventional masculine strength? Is now less free morally, more in accord with conventional values?

A few points here.

  1. When he partakes of violent power to rob, he is consciously imitating or channeling Stilitano. He feels Stilitano acting in him. Thus it is not the progressive arc of the slave growing into the image of his former master. It is a play-acting diversion.
  2. Genet writes that his ultimate goal is not moral solitude but “saintliness”. I will not try to explicate that concept here, but moral solitude is what one would reach by relentlessly rejecting any morality that comes into view as belonging to someone else, to a “you”. The emphasis for him is not, in the end, on the rejection of power as a moral value, but on the completeness of his degradation. This would include the moral degradation of being cruel.
  3. The concrete meaning of freedom changes along with reality. Once something makes itself visible as an option—an incremental expansion of one’s reality—one must take that into account in order to choose, or refuse, that option intelligently. (Genet’s criminal might truncate and sharpen that to: One must choose it, in order to really prove it was possible.) Montaigne wrote in an essay on the education of children that a young man should do what is right because he chooses it, not because he is unable to do otherwise.6. In a similar vein: wouldn’t it be dishonest to make the more defensible choice based on the pretense that it is the only one available? It is easy to be unaware of the ways in which one can control or influence people (whether to their good or to their detriment). At that point, one cannot really be blamed for the harm one causes—though one can be pitied—, but nor does one deserve the least credit for avoiding harm. One of the most troubling and difficult realizations one can have in life is that one is capable (“physically”, including psychologically) of cruelty: that one could hurt, and maybe one already has hurt. More troubling is the realization that one is not necessarily enjoined by oneself against cruelty, that one is ethically capable of cruelty: that one could (in the fullest sense of could) choose to hurt, and might (in the fullest sense of might) knowingly choose to hurt. That there are very possible situations where one would have to choose to hurt (and not in some trolley problem scenario, where one must harm in order to effect an acknowledged greater good. That is an easy decision, since one can imagine the gratitude and applause of society). That one is morally capable of evil. To those who would say this isn’t a realization to be had because it isn’t true, I note that it’s not the sort of thing that becomes evident by seeing it written, but only by experience and reflection. To those who would say this is so obvious as to be not worth writing, I note that it is one of the hardest things to (in a full, practical sense) remember—and so it is worth reminding ourselves of.
To be unaware of the contingency of the relations of things in the world and in oneself, and of the possibility of changing them—to be unaware of the full extent of one’s freedom—is stupid. To feign stupidity to ourselves—is despicable.

1 In general, I will write “Jean” to refer to the youth whose life is being told, and “Genet” to refer to the narrator.

2 Later in the book, Jean lures a horny middle-aged man to the docks only to tie him up and rob him. When Genet writes “you”, we get a sense of how the man feels as Jean mocks, “You old son of a bitch, you thought I was going to stick it in!”

3 “I kept no place in my heart where the feeling of innocence might take shelter. I owned to being the coward, traitor, thief, and fairy they saw in me.”

4 Genet’s impression of Nazi Germany concisely illustrates his feeling of exclusion and the moral inversion with which he responded to that exclusion. “I had the feeling that I was strolling about in a camp organized by bandits….Probably I stole there as elsewhere, but I felt a certain constraint, for what governed this activity [stealing]—this particular moral attitude set up as a civic virtue—was being experienced by a whole nation which directed it against others. ‘It’s a race of thieves,’ I thought to myself. ‘If I steal here, I perform no singular deed that might fulfill me. I obey the customary order; I do not destroy it. I am not committing evil. I am not upsetting anything. The outrageous is impossible. I’m stealing in the void.’”

5 Is anarchical self-creation Genet’s ideal? Probably not mature Genet-the-writer’s ideal; I think he would call that an oversimplification. Or maybe even impossible/incoherent/stupid. Possibly young Jean saw it as an ideal, which is why he attributed it to his god Stilitano. Possibly the decay of Stilitano as a god was also the decay of that ideal.

6 Apparently Kant said this too.

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