Ethics of the Wound: A New Interpretation of Jean Genet's Politics
Lavery, Carl, Journal of European Studies
This article sheds new light on Jean Genet's complex notion of political commitment. It does so by focusing on a biographical event, which has been hitherto underestimated by critics: namely, his traumatic encounter with an abject travelling companion in a third-class railway carriage in the early 1950s. This painful experience, defined as 'la blessure' or wound, gets to the core of Genet's politics, for it determines his ethical understanding of commitment, which, like Emmanuel Levinas's alternative concept of humanism, is grounded in alterity, respecting the difference of the Other. Additionally, the wound illuminates other little-discussed aspects of Genet's politics, including his anarchic, deterritorialized view of le champs politique and his curious decision to define himself as a witness in his final work, Un captif amoureux (1986).
Keywords: Genet, politics, ethics, commitment, Levinas
On n'accouche pas dans la douleur, on accouche la douleur. (1) Une mise en question du Meme ... se fait par l'Autre. On appelle cette mise en question de ma spontaneite par la presence d'Autrui, ethique. (2)
The last ten years have witnessed a significant shift in the way Jean Genet's work has been received. Where earlier critics were perplexed by his scathing attack on all forms of political discourse in Le Balcon (1955), Les Negres (1958) and Les Paravents (1961), these plays, along with the posthumous novel Un captif amoureux (1985), are now valued for their acute social and political insights, and their author is celebrated as a visionary thinker. (3) Nevertheless, despite this new revisionist impulse, the approach adopted by contemporary commentators remains problematic: it continues to neglect the influence of biographical factors on Genet's commitment. (4) This hinders our understanding of Genet's politics for it obscures what is perhaps the most distinctive feature of his engagement, that is to say, his refusal to dissociate politics from ethics.
To counteract this tendency, I intend to argue for a new interpretation of Genet's commitment by showing how a disturbing, personal episode in the early 1950s determined his entire political project. I do this by pursuing a thematic thread linking the later, more overtly committed writing of the 1970s and 1980s to the aesthetic and dramatic writing of the 1950s and 1960s. The claim I am principally concerned to defend here is that ethics, politics and momentous personal experience are bound together in Genet's thinking in a dense, textual nexus, which is centred on the crucial trope of 'la blessure secrete', a metaphor connecting existential suffering with an alternative notion of socialist humanism. (5)
The impact of the wound on Genet's political career
References to the 'wound' first appear in Genet's writing on art and performance circa 1957: at exactly the same time, in other words, that he was conducting his experiments in avant-garde political theatre. Where Genet's novels and early plays (Les Bonnes (1948), Haute Surveillance (1948), Splendid's (1947)) celebrate the hermetic world of criminal and gay subcultures in the France of the 1940s and 1950s, his theatre after 1955 evinces a new interest in other, more politically minded causes--primarily, the revolutionary endeavour of the Third World to reject the hegemony of Western thinking. In the dramatic trilogy of Le Balcon, Les Negres and Les Paravents, countries, continents and recognizable historical epoques replace the closed world of prisons, bedrooms and hotels, and the conventional neo-classical aesthetic favoured in Les Bonnes gives way to a stage which is allegorical in content and ritualistic in form.
In the later plays, fascism and colonialism are approached and deconstructed as complex processes, combining elements of direct and hegemonic domination. Unlike much explicitly committed drama of the period, Genet offers no ideological or meta-narrative solutions to oppression: he simply discloses its reality and challenges the European audience to recognize its complicity with the oppressor. Commitment here is ethical rather than ideological: it is grounded in respect for the Other.
The relation of the concept of the 'wound' to the humanist politics of these plays becomes apparent by looking at one of Genet's early studies in art criticism 'Le Secret de Rembrandt' (1958). In this essay, Genet claims that Rembrandt's capacity for recognizing 'la dignite de tout etre et de tout objet, meme des plus humbles' (6) is intimately connected to his awareness of being wounded: 'Rembrandt sait qu'il est blesse'. (7) According to Genet, Rembrandt's wound was provoked by the death of his wife, Saskia, an event from which he never fully recovered, and which marked a radical change in his painting from self-absorbed narcissism to empathy with the poor and down-trodden.
The Rembrandt essay suggests that the wound is not just existential, a form of ontological dispossession inciting perpetual mourning; rather the wound is ethics, the catalyst that punctures narcissism and propels us to the Other. Although Genet never mentions this directly in the Rembrandt text, the wound has explicit political consequences: it discloses equality and fraternity, the foundations of radical democracy. The political significance of the wound is explored in greater detail in the trilogy. In these works, political movements respecting the Other (the revolutionaries in the 1960 edition of Le Balcon, the Blacks at the end of Les Negres, and the revolutionaries at the start of Les Paravents) are represented positively, whereas ideologies aiming at oppression and control are savagely caricatured and undermined (the chief of police, Whites, the colonizer, etc.). This political bias is ultimately dependent on the ethical knowledge revealed by the wound, which teaches us that the individual person should never be sacrificed to abstract and/or utilitarian systems.
The political effects of the wound also impact on the aesthetics of Genet's new dramaturgy, which, like Artaud's theatre of cruelty, is based on revealing what theological and ideological discourse veils and denies. In contrast to Sartre's committed drama and Brecht's epic theatre, Genet's approach to politics in the trilogy is oblique and metaphysical, concerning as it does our anguished bewilderment in the face of non-knowledge. In the important essay on performance practice, 'Le Funambule' (1958), Genet encourages the performer to search for and express his wound:
Et ta blessure, ou est-elle? Je me demande ou reside, ou se cache la blessure secrete ou tout homme court se refugier si l'on attente a son orgueil quand on le …
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Publication information: Article title: Ethics of the Wound: A New Interpretation of Jean Genet's Politics. Contributors: Lavery, Carl - Author. Journal title: Journal of European Studies. Volume: 33. Issue: 2 Publication date: June 2003. Page number: 161+. © 1999 Alpha Academic. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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