Two Criminal Records photographs have turned up. In one of them I am sixteen or seventeen years old. I am wearing, under a jacket of the Assistance Publique, a torn sweater. My face is an oval, very pure; my nose is smashed, flattened by a punch in some forgotten fight. The look on my face is blasé, sad and warm, very serious. My hair was thick and unruly. Seeing myself at that age, I expressed my feelings almost aloud:
“Poor little fellow, you’ve suffered.”
I was speaking kindly of another Jean who was not myself. I suffered at the time from an ugliness I no longer find on my childhood face. Nevertheless, crass insolence—I was brazen—launched me forth into life with ease. If I was anxious, it was not apparent at first. But at twilight, when I was weary, my head would sink, and I would feel my gaze lingering on the world and merging with it or else turning inward and disappearing; I think it knew my utter solitude. When I was a farm-hand, when I was a soldier, when I was at the orphanage, despite the friendship and, occasionally, the affection of my masters, I was alone, rigorously so. Prison offered me the first consolation, the first peace, the first friendly confusion: I experienced them in the realm of foulness. Much solitude had forced me to become my own companion. Envisaging the external world, its indefiniteness, its confusion, which is even more perfect at night, I set it up as a divinity of which I was not only the cherished pretext, an object of great care and caution, chosen and led in masterly fashion, though through painful and exhausting ordeals, to the verge of despair, but also the sole object of all this labor. And little by little, through a kind of operation which I can not quite describe, without modifying the dimensions of my body, and perhaps because it was easier to contain so precious a reason for such glory, it was within me that I established this divinity—origin and disposition of myself. I swallowed it. I dedicated to it songs of my own invention. At night I would whistle. The melody was a religious one. It was slow. Its rhythm was somewhat heavy. I thought that I was thereby entering into communication with God: which is what happened, God being only the hope and fervor contained in my song. Along the streets, with my hands in my pockets, my head drooping or held high, looking at houses or trees, I would whistle my clumsy hymns, not joyous, but not sad either: sober. I discovered that hope is merely the expression one gives to it. Likewise, protection. Never would I have whistled to a light rhythm. I recognized the religious themes: they create Venus, Mercury, or the Virgin.
In the second photo I am thirty years old. My face has hardened. The jaws are accentuated. The mouth is bitter and mean. I look like a hoodlum in spite of my eyes, which have remained gentle. Their gentleness is almost indiscernible because of the fixity of gaze imposed upon me by the official photographer. By means of these two pictures I can see the violence with which I was filled at the time: from the age of sixteen to thirty. In children’s hells, in prisons, in bars, it was not heroic adventure that I sought; I pursued my identification with the handsomest and most unfortunate criminals. I wanted to be the young prostitute who accompanies her lover to Siberia or the one who survives him, not in order to avenge him, but to mourn him and magnify his memory.
Without thinking myself magnificently born, the uncertainty of my origin allowed me to interpret it. I added to it the peculiarity of my misfortunes. Abandoned by my family, I felt it was natural to aggravate this condition by a preference for boys, and this preference by theft, and theft by crime or a complacent attitude in regard to crime. Hence, I resolutely rejected a world which had rejected me. This almost gleeful rushing into the most humiliating situations is perhaps still motivated by my childhood imagination which invented for me (so that I might there squire about the slight and haughty person of an abandoned little boy) castles, parks peopled with guards rather than with statues, wedding gowns, bereavements and nuptials, and later on (though just a trifle later, when these reveries were thwarted to the extreme, to the point of exhaustion in a life of wretchedness, by penitentiaries and prisons and thefts), insults, prostitution, quite naturally the adornments (and the rare diction pertaining to them) which graced my mental habits and the objects of my desire. I used them to adorn my real situation as an adult, but first as a child whom knowledge of prisons was to gratify to the full. Prison offers the same feeling of security to the convict as does a royal palace to a king’s guest. They are the two buildings constructed with the most faith, those which give the greatest certainty of being what they are—which are what they meant to be, and which they remain. The masonry, the materials, the proportions and the architecture are in harmony with a social whole which makes these dwellings indestructible so long as the social form of which they are the symbol endures. The prison surrounds me with a perfect guarantee. I am sure that it was constructed for me—along with the Law Court, its annex, its monumental vestibule. Everything therein was designed for me, in keeping with the utmost seriousness. The rigor of the rules, their strictness, their precision, are in essence the same as the etiquette of a royal court, as the exquisite and tyrannical politeness of which a guest at that court is the object. The foundations of the palace, like those of the prison, inhere in the fine quality of the stone, in marble stairways, in real gold, in carvings, the rarest in the realm, in the absolute power of their hosts; but they are also similar in that these two structures are one the root and the other the crest of a living system circulating between these two poles which contain it, hold it in check and which are sheer force. What security in the carpets, in the mirrors, in the very intimacy of the palace latrines! Nowhere else does the act of shitting in the early morning assume the solemn importance which can result only from its being performed in a closet through whose frosted windows can be discerned the sculptured façade, the guards, the statutes and the court of honor; in a little privy where the tissue paper is of the usual kind but where some uncombed, unpowdered, powdery maid of honor in a satin dressing-gown and pink slippers will shortly come to leave a heavy load; in a little privy from which the husky guards do not brutally expel me, for shitting there becomes an important act which has its place in a life to which a king has invited me. Prison offers me the same security. Nothing will demolish it, not blasts of wind, nor storms, not bankruptcies. The prison remains sure of itself, and you in the midst of it sure of yourself. And yet it is this spirit of seriousness in which they were erected which is the source of their self-esteem, of their mutual reserve and understanding; it is of this spirit of worldliness that they will perish. Were they established on the ground and in the world with more negligence, they might perhaps hold out for a long time, but their gravity makes me consider them without pity. I recognize that they have their foundations within myself; they are the signs of the most violent of my extreme tendencies, and my corrosive spirit is already working at their destruction. I pitched myself headlong into a miserable life which was the real appearance of destroyed palaces, of pillaged gardens, of dead splendors. It was their ruins, but, the more mutilated the ruins, the remoter seemed that of which they must have been the visible sign, more deeply buried in a sacred past, so that I no longer know whether I dwelt in sumptuous destitution, or whether my abjection was magnificent. Finally, little by little, this idea of humiliation detached itself from what conditioned it; the cables connecting it with these ideal gildings were broken—justifying it in the eyes of the world, in my eyes of flesh–almost excusing it, and it remained alone, by itself alone a reason for being, itself its only necessity and itself its only end. But it is the abandoned urchin’s amorous imagining of royal deeds that enables me to gild my shame, to carve it, to work over it like a goldsmith, in the usual sense of the term, until, through usage perhaps and the wearing away of the words veiling it, humility might emerge from it. My love of Stilitano made me aware of so exceptional a disposition. Though I had known through him a certain nobility, now I was discovering the real direction of my life—as one says the direction through the woods—and that my life should manifest itself outside your world. I knew at the time a hardness and lucidity which explain my attitude toward the poor: so great was my destitution that it seemed to me I was composed of a dough that had been kneaded of it. It was my very essence, traversing and feeding my body as well as my soul. I am writing this book in an elegant hotel in one of the most luxurious cities in the world, where I am rich, though I can not pity the poor: I am the poor. Though it may be a pleasure for me to strut before them, I most definitely deplore being unable to do so with more ostentation and insolence.
“I’d have a black, noiseless, shiny car. From inside, I would look out at poverty unconcernedly. Behind me would trail processions of myself in lavish finery so that poverty might watch me going by, so that the poor whom I shall not have ceased to be may see me slowing up nobly amidst the silence of a de luxe motor and in all the earthly and emblematic glory, if I wish, of the other.”
—Translated by Bernard Frechtman