Ethics of the Wound: A New Interpretation of Jean Genet's Politics

Article excerpt

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. …