Facets of Artifice: Rhythms in the Theater of Jean Genet, and the Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture of Alberto Giacometti

By Finburgh, Clare | French Forum, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Facets of Artifice: Rhythms in the Theater of Jean Genet, and the Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture of Alberto Giacometti


Finburgh, Clare, French Forum


Je n'avance qu'en tournant le dos au but, je ne fais qu'en defaisant.

Alberto Giacometti

The works of Jean Genet and Alberto Giacometti embody an immutable, unquestionable reality--the reality of artifice. Rhythm for both poet and artist contributes crucially towards the composition, decomposition and recomposition of this reality. Each word, theme and character in Genet's texts, each line, color and figure in Giacometti's works, is subsumed into a system of socially constructed signs. And yet, an absence of transcendent meaning from all signs transforms this subordination into a liberation. The perpetual flux between these two poles generates a rhythm of vibrancy and vivacity in both artists' works. Artifice is celebrated for its myriad diverging facets.

In his text entitled L'Atelier d'Alberto Giacometti, Genet describes the artist's figures as crystallized, infusible masses. He attributes this substantivity to their consistency with reality: "le visage [...] s'impose [...], d'une realite et d'un relief terribles" (1958, 52). But neither Genet nor Giacometti uphold an essentialist conception of reality. In his article "Mai 1920," Giacometti evokes his first encounter with Giotto's fresco The Lamentation over the Dead Christ. (1) For him, the work embodies with crushing force the pantheistic manifestation of an absolute essence: "j'etais ecrase par ces figures immuables, denses comme du basalte, avec leurs gestes precis et justes, lourds d'expression." (2) In Giotto's works mind and matter, nature and Man, figure and andscape, finite and infinite, are all manifestations of a patriarchal status quo: the divine. But in his article, Giacometti questions his own faith in this centralizing role of God and Man that submits all things to the means of neo-Platonic su preme knowledge. Giacometti's admiration for the harmoniously distributed grievers and angels dominating the pictorial space around the body of Christ, is shattered by his overwhelming sense of loss. Correspondingly, Genet explains an antiepiphanic moment of wonder and disappointment when Culafroy in Notre-Dame-des-Fleurs waits with terrified anticipation for the blood of Christ to run over the chalice he lets fall to the ground. But instead, "[il] donna un son creux." Genet continues: "Et le miracle eut lieu. Il n'y eut pas de miracle. Dieu s'etait degonfle. Seulement un trou avec n' importe quoi autour" (1948, 184). The original site of meaning is grounded in its own self-perpetuating myth. When asked to define truth, Genet says, "avant tout, c'est un mot." (3) Teleological signification, the genealogical origin of truth, be it religious, social or aesthetic; categories of right and wrong, are the manifestations of social function. They are discursive, not transcendent. (4)

This study focuses on the dynamic rhythms displayed in the prose of Genet's theater. The prominence of acousticity in his prose is noted by numerous theoreticians. (5) Genet himself describes the text of Les Paravents as "une musique tres douce." (6) The constant syntactical revisions he makes to his plays perhaps indicate his endeavors to enhance rhythmical effects. (7) However, insufficient effort has been expended on exactly how this prose is elaborated. In general, studies in rhythm support the view that cadenced sound is subsidiary to sense or sentiment. This empiricist approach, that tends to insist upon the causal relationship between sound and sense, is incompatible with Genet's refusal of essential relationships between the sign and signification. On the other hand, a scientific reduction of Genet's texts to empirical statistical data that highlighted linguistic features, would be equally spurious, for it would fail to account for the function rhythm holds in structuring not only syntactical movement , but also a philosophical premise. This essay therefore seeks to foreground rhythm--stress periodicity, homophony and lexical repetition--both for its role in textual composition, and also for its property as a fundamental organizing and disorganizing principle. …

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