Perhaps the massacres at Chatila in September 1982 were not a turning point. They happened. I was affected by them. I talked about them. But while the act of writing came later, after a period of incubation, nevertheless in a moment like that or those when a single cell departs from its usual metabolism and the original link is created of a future, unsuspected cancer, or of a piece of lace, so I decided to write this book. The matter became more pressing when some political prisoners urged me not to travel to France. Anything not to do with the book came to seem so far away as to be invisible.1
Jean Genet was to die four years later, whilst he was correcting the proofs of Prisoner of Love, an immense book, beyond the ordinary measures of literature – which might explain, without excusing, why so many critics have missed its real importance.
A book in waves. Ten times, 20 times, the same scenes, the same characters arrive in the backwash to project new flotsam and jetsam of memory. ‘Souvenirs’, Genet modestly subtitles it, ‘souvenirs, which were meant to be read as reporting’;2 ‘images’ he specifies in the introduction. A book of images, a book of margins to give space to a singular polyphony in which the most secret dimensions of the poet will be knotted together (evidently I am not talking about his sexuality here, which as everyone knows, is already a national treasure), with the ‘metaphysical struggles’3 conducted by the Fedayeen and the Black Panthers in counterpoint to his perpetual wandering.4
‘Was the Palestinian revolution really written on the void, an artifice superimposed on a nothingness, and is the white page, and every little blank space between the words, more real than the black characters themselves?’5 Would this revolution have been nothing but a pretext for him to write literature? What, then, would separate him from all those ‘poets of the revolution’ that he mocks so cruelly?6 But evidently this ‘passage via writing’7 of his Palestinian experience is in no way comparable to a vulgar enterprize of literary recuperation. He detested the idea of being treated as a man of letters so much that during the incessant debate that he had with himself throughout the book, on the legitimacy of his attempt, it seems that the idea never even occurred to him that a similar accusation could be made about him.
This visceral refusal of the position of the writer, which would force him to camp on the bourgeois side of the barricade, did not escape Jean-Paul Sartre at all.8 But he nonetheless apprehended Genet from an exclusively literary angle and considered that his destiny inexorably called on him to ‘end up’ in literature. It thereby appears that given the test of time, the colossal and sumptuous monument – if not mausoleum – that Sartre built for him, in the form of a 700-page preface, turns out to be rather ill-fitting for the calibre of personality that Genet was subsequently to reveal. It is not that it was too ambitious, but rather that it also missed the processual driving force of his life and his work. According to Sartre, Genet went through three metamorphoses: that of the thief, that of the aesthete and that of the writer, and they made him pass successively from the act to the gesture, from the gesture to the word, then from the word to the work.9
Genet began to write in order to affirm his solitude, to be self-sufficient,
and it was the writing itself that, by virtue of its problems, gradually led
him to seek readers. As a result of the virtues – and the inadequacies –
of words, this onanist transformed himself into a writer.10
One would in some way be dealing with the transformation of a psychopathic pervert and delinquent into a ‘rhetorician’,11 a prisoner of the duly pacified imaginary and soul. ‘Genet, the sole hero of his books, has fallen entirely into the imaginary, he becomes the imaginary in person’.12 Although evidently distinguished from Freudian conceptions, one sees that Sartre’s existential psychoanalysis has nevertheless retained a certain schematic quality, certain reductionist tics, I would say. Genet’s work is compared to the humanization of religions, which replace human sacrifices by symbolic sacrifices;13 the writing of each one of his books functions as a ‘cathartic attack of possession’ or a psychodrama.14 The novel Our Lady of the Flowers is assimilated to a detoxification of narcissism15 and after ten years of literature which, according to Sartre, are worth a psychoanalytic cure,16 the recovery of the patient, who has finally resolved to have a little family, is triumphantly announced to us ‘Somewhere between Saint-Raphaël and Nice a house is waiting for him’.17 A miracle of literature! And above all, classic Sartre! Naïve, compassionate and secretly conformist! All of that is all well and good but it is not in this direction that the future was to turn. Genet would never have settled down, he was never to ‘attach’ himself to a Territory, to choose a house, if not in the mode of nihilation (to paraphrase Sartre). I’m thinking of the daydream of the house where he was born that he relates to us in Prisoner of Love, implanted in a place ‘out of space’ and which is nevertheless glimpsed for a few moments on the Turkish coast. He looks through an open window at the garden, the sea and, further away, the island of Cyprus, whilst the incantatory phrase ‘And from here, out of danger, I’ll watch a naval battle in broad daylight’ forces itself on him.18 A bewitching that is threatened immediately by the superimposition of another image, this time much older and Jordanian, of a little house ‘with romanesque porches […], with their semicircular vaults supported on four marble columns’. He was then in the company of a senior Palestinian leader to whom he said: ‘See how beautiful it looks on the rock!’ ‘The PLO will let it to you for six months if you like.’ It immediately became grey and dirty’.19
Thus Genet did not fall into either aestheticism or literary professionalism. The fact that he was recognized as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century did not lead him to give up aesthetic wandering and didn’t even prompt him into giving up thieving. Figuratively, he continued to assimilate the latter to poetic apperception (‘the poetry lies in his full awareness of being a thief ’);20 in reality, he carefully maintained his contacts with old or potential convicts,21 and, when the opportunity arose, he would steal from his publishers or sponsors, certain of whom, it is said, were obligingly complicit. Explanation by means of Freudian psychogenetic stages, whether revised by Sartre or not, is deficient. In particular, it doesn’t allow us to understand why – if the condition of the writer suited him so well – he would cease all literary or theatrical production for 20 years. And the reason for this dazzling resurgence a few years before his death? We will only be able to find our way here, in my opinion, if we consider that for this exceptional being, ‘before’ life and ‘before’ the work, there was always a subterranean process, an essential dynamic, a creative madness that literally subjugated him. It is something of this order that he is aiming at in 1983 when – to someone who asks him if it is still in reference to his literary work that he published an article on the Chatila massacre in the Revue d’études palestiniennes – he replies
it is thanks not to the books that I have written but to my disposition, which I get myself into, where life has put me thirty years ago to write books, that a year ago I was able to write the short essay you are talking about…22 In relation to this primary disposition, his life and work were only ever sort of sub-products, subject to every variation, every eclipse.
It is just the same with the habitual dichotomies between the real and the imaginary. Let us listen to what he says in this same interview when he concedes that in associating with the Black Panthers, then with the Palestinians, he was acting more as a function of the real world than as a function of the world of the dream or the world of grammar – but, he adds straightaway, only to the extent that one opposes the real world to the world of dreams: ‘Of course, if one pushes the analysis further, one knows very well that the dreaming also belongs to the real world. Dreams are realities’.23 It is clear that right to the end of his life, Genet never passed through the famous stages of development and adaptation to the real that it is claimed are linked together around weaning, potty training, the Oedipus and castration complexes, the pre- and post-pubescent patency periods. For him, everything functioned at the same time. He never gave up his dreams and his infantile ‘perversions’. Yet that would not prevent him from being engaged, in the most lucid, the most ‘adult’ fashion, in contemporary historical realities. I will add that it would be vain to try to save the psychogenetic schema by having recourse, not to the Real-Imaginary dyad but to the structuralist triad that adds the Symbolic to it, because evidently his triumphant entrance into the ‘symbolic order’, with literature and theatre, had no redemptive effect, as far as he was concerned. Decidedly, sublimation did not work for him! Rather than a dialectical exhaustion, his mastery of writing only resulted in an exacerbation of his contradictions and his lacerations. Despite a certain soothing, noticeable on reading Prisoner of Love, Genet gave up none of his madness: the madness of desire, the madness of revolt, the madness of beauty.
We must search elsewhere, orient ourselves towards something that would order the real, the imagination and creation differently. Something that would not make of them separate instances but would lead them to engender each other. An imaginary-symbolic producing new realities, a subjective disposition capable of receiving all the charges of the imaginary conveyed by the real…One could legitimately join the phrases where Genet’s subjectivity falls back onto the most ‘limited’ of realities to those where the real irrupts outside of him in an ‘objective’ process of subjectification. One would thus pass in a continuous fashion from the thesis of mere reportage (‘As I’m not an archivist or a historian or anything like it, I’ll only have spoken of my life in order to tell the story, a story of the Palestinians,’)24 to the declarations – which are so astonishing coming from an apologist for every kind of betrayal25 – in which he worries about betraying the information mission that he initially assigned himself (by virtue of the fact that he orders the episodes that he lives through in the Palestinian resistance ‘in the same seeming disorder as the images in a dream’,)26 ‘more imagination than [his] nightmares and [his] memories’,27 an idea that he incarnates in the matrix-image of moss, lichen, grasses, eglantines, fig trees28 cracking the most mineral of realities, and which he doubles up on the side of actuality with the image of the Palestinian people hanging on to life through lumps of concrete from the camps destroyed by Israeli bombs, then from an older point of view with that of the tap in the wall.29
There is a whole theory to be elaborated on the function of oscillation, eclipse, evanescence, effacing, in Genet’s oeuvre.30 This theme keeps coming back. One of the prototypical images that he offers us of it (equally present in a very similar form in Kafka) is that of the vapour from a boiler, which ‘steams up a window, then gradually disappears, leaving the window clear, the landscape suddenly visible and the room extended perhaps to infinity’.31 Adjacent to this image – because one image always calls up another – there is the hand and sponge moving to and fro over a blackboard, rubbing out the chalk writing.32 A deterritorialization of space, time and words. The Fedayee is also essentially a being of disappearance, ‘he turns into the path, and I’ll no longer be able to see his face, only his back and his shadow’.33 His struggle as such also arises from eclipse, ‘some inexpressible feeling warned me that the rebellion was fading, flagging, was about to turn into the path and disappear’.34 And finally it is Genet in person who is abolished, shrinking infinitely towards the line of the horizon.35 Except one must be careful not to think that these are simple phenomena of annihilation. All these effacements leave trails behind them like stroboscopic after-images of other universes; their shadow play announces the coming to light of new existential dimensions: ‘the fact that they were like ghosts, appearing and disappearing, lent them (the Fedayeen) a life more powerful than that of things that never evaporate and whose image is there all the time. Or rather the Fedayeen’s existence was so powerful it could afford those sudden, almost courteous evanescences, relieving me of too insistent and tiring a presence’.36 At the time of Screens, when Genet asked Roger Blin that his mise en scène illuminate the world of the dead, there is no doubt that it was already a subjugation of the living that he had in mind.37 At death’s door he himself sometimes feels his skin become phosphorescent, ‘as a parchment shade does when a lamp is lit’.38 But one should not, for all that, think that these transformations announce any mystical revelations. No, they only participate in an entire life’s work on perception, the imagination and their various modes of semiotization.
Sartre abusively projected his own conception of imaging consciousness as a derealizing function onto Genet.39 In so doing, he condemned him to remain surrounded by an imaginary that was entirely invested with his malevolent phantasmagoria, and denied him any effective escape from accursed solitude. It is true that in Genet the creative process always fully appealed to fabulation40 – whether masturbatory or not – but his fundamental aim nevertheless remains a poetics with a social bearing. The writing of his first texts is inseparable from his experience of the penal condition. His ‘theatre of cruelty’ revolved around the themes of prostitution, negritude, colonial wars…Let’s not forget that at the outset, Prisoner of Love was a militant work, written at the personal request of Yasser Arafat, as Genet likes to recall, doubled with a more general reflection on the deeper meaning of what, starting at the end of the 1960s, were the demonic movements (the Zengakuren, the Red Guards, the Berkely Revolt, the Black Panthers, May 68 in Paris, the Palestians).41 Certainly, he was very careful not to give these revolutionary undertakings blanket approval. He rejects their wooden language, their dogmatism; he appreciates their appropriate dose of ‘theatricality’ for the media (the ‘comedians of the revolution’42) and his lucidity is formidable when it is a matter of denouncing the bureaucratic and corrupt aspects of the Palestinian movement that he had discovered.43 But what fascinates him in these ‘lively rings’ these ‘telluric faults’, as he calls them,44 is everything that goes beyond the particularity of their interests, their fundamental precarity as much as their metaphysical commitments. He is particularly attached to one of their essential mechanisms, which is what might be called their image function: the ways of being and dressing of the Black Panthers, which almost overnight change the way that black people as a whole perceive the colour of their skin or the texture of their hair, for example. Here Genet deciphers the dimensions of the body, sex, the dance of intonations of the voice and of gestures, a whole enunciative texture – one might say, a whole eventuation [événementiation] that is infinitely more profound than what they have been reduced to today under the term ‘look’. Regarding the eponymous heroes whose names have been affirmed throughout history, he speaks of ‘fabulous images’, citing Socrates, Christ, Saladin, Saint-Just…They draw their potency from being at once exemplary and singularizing, ‘not because [they are] powerful, but because [they] exist’.45 But I believe that one can legitimately broaden this expression to all the imaginary formations that, from this same perspective, acquire a particular – transversal – capacity to bridge times of life, existential levels as much as social segments, even – why not – cosmic stratifications. Because we have to seek Genet in all these places simultaneously. In this respect he is indeed a man of this century, one who, more than any other perhaps, will have given birth to new ways of seeing the world. I repeat: Genet is a man of the real. I would like to say: a man of the future real. He is not a Saint, as Sartre pretended to believe, and above all not a Saint condemned to metamorphose perpetually into a vermin, who would be called on to convert history into the categories of myth.46 In fact, myths and their images only matter to him in as much as collective operators succeed in conferring on them a historical consistency. In these conditions, becoming a ‘solitary and fabulous hero’, who is exemplary and thus singular47 ceases to be contrary to collective fusion. ‘I was all desire for the group as a whole, he writes, with regard to the Black Panthers, but my desire was fulfilled by the fact that they existed’.48 Becoming the hero of forms of sensibility to come, alongside a handful of others – Kafka, Artaud, Pasolini – is entirely in accord with his will to effacement or even his desire for invisibility.49 Exit, then, the solitude of the accursed poet! To agree to bring his ‘dreamer function’ to the Panthers and then the Palestinians is not an element in the derealization of these movements, as he still asks himself, sometimes, seemingly in an imaginary dialogue with Sartre. It is perhaps even a means of conferring on them a more intense subjective consistency. ‘So, in their revolt, the Palestinians took on the weight – oh, I’m afraid of being very literary – but they took on the weight of Cézanne’s paintings’.50
At the same time, it is worth asking oneself what this welcoming of a character like Genet – even to their secret bases – implies for a movement such as Fatah. Here is a movement that does not just raise funds, buy arms, get diplomatic and mass media support but also demands poetry! And not from just anyone, not from a laudator of the ‘socialist realist’ type, but from the shiftiest, the most deviant of authors, from whom any militant who is normally constituted – and that is the whole question – would rightly have expected the worst cowardice, the most infamous treason. But that would have been to forget that Genet could only betray through fidelity to himself. However the case may be, he did insist on laying his cards on the table: ‘The day that the Palestinians are institutionalized, I won’t be at their side. I won’t be there the day that the Palestinians become a nation like other nations.’ Is it not a very interesting revolution that thus accommodates itself to such an attitude on the part of a ‘fellow traveller’? Better still, which seems to have encouraged it. Something to keep an eye on! I call this creative instance that is established ‘before’ the manifestation of life and of the work, and which allows Genet to pass from a derealizing fabulation to these ‘fabulous images’ that produce the real, ‘processual praxis’. It is constituted by three levels – modular, polyphonic, synaptic – that entertain synchronic relations, and not of three stages.
The level of modular crystallizations
A multitude of fragments of sense sweep helter-skelter across the world and the psyche. Everyone who has been well brought up, that is to say, every soul whose reflexes and mind have been duly normalized, knows how to discipline essentially heretical, dissident and perverse voices. But Genet was not well brought up, and he never intended being reborn into the common world (‘I will always be haunted by the idea of a murder that will irremediably separate me from your world’). Rather than living this turbulence in the way that it is generally lived, under the gaze of the other, as so many calamities, abysses of anxiety and guilt, he decides to live with it, to tame it, transmute it (‘Repudiating the virtues of your world, criminals hopelessly agree to organize a forbidden universe’51). By way of rhythms, refrains, passwords, magical-mnemotechnical formulae, he takes partial control of this primary processuality of sense. He learns how to make the worst horrors of punishment, humiliation and prison change sign, change into signs and make of them intensely erotico-aesthetic values. Sartre has this superb formula regarding Our Lady of Flowers: it was the collection of his erotic talismans. But what really must be seen is that this entire labour of the primary recrystallization of sense bears indifferently on the perception of the world and on language. I needed to drill into a mass of language, he writes, in Diary of a Thief, and like an echo, in Prisoner of Love he describes a world that hollows itself out ‘in the time it takes to think that prison is hollow, or full of holes and cavities, a man can imagine in each of them a time and a rhythm different from those of the stars’.52 In one case, it is the signifier that leads the dance, in the other, it is the signified. In fact, it is the traditional opposition between expression and content that proves to be relative and deficient here. What matters to Genet is not the communication of a message but the constitution of an expression that everywhere exceeds its linguistic components.
Languages may be an easily learned method of communicating ideas, but by ‘language’ shouldn’t we really mean something else? Words, and above all syntax, conveyed to the young almost before vocabulary, together with stones and straw and the names of grasses, streams, tadpoles, minnows, the seasons and their changes, the names of illnesses.53
From this point of view, the figures of the signifier and the figures of the signified will have to converge such that a matter of expression will impregnate a context and, reciprocally, so a context will imprint its impulses, its paradigmatic perversions, on discursive chains (whether or not they are of a linguistic order).
Starting with a particularly important module for Prisoner of Love, one that crystallizes around the names ‘Fatah’ and ‘Palestinian’, let us consider these diverse access routes. Genet begins by scrutinizing the scriptural matter of ‘Fatah’. This word was forged artificially on the basis of the initials FTH: Fa for Flasteen= Palestine; Th for Tahrir = Liberation; Ha for Haraka = Movement.54 Since he gains nothing from this, he turns to possibilities of the ‘clandestine’ germination of semantic content. Let us note that at this stage he stays with the significations surfacing in Arabic – he doesn’t give in to ‘free associations’. ‘Fatah’ begins by being charged with the senses of ‘fissure, chink, opening…a victory willed by God’ it then entails ‘meftah’ = key and the fact it contains the three basic letters of ‘Fatah’, then ‘Fatiha’, the name of the opening surat of the Koran. It will be noticed that this triple transformation diagonally reconstitutes the original structure of the initials
FA t ah
mef T ah
fa ti HA
So, here the signified has moved into the position of the structural key for the signifier! A game for children and philologists, Genet exclaims! However, that is not the essential point. What is essential here is that through this association of ideas, he succeeds in constellating three Universes of reference: sexual, divine and revolutionary ‘behind the three words derived from the same root as Fatah lurk the idea of a struggle (for victory), sexual violence (the key in the lock), and battle won through the grace of God’.55 We are not far from Freud, but the Freud of the good years, the mad years of The Interpretation of Dreams and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.
With the word ‘Palestinian’ one quits the terrain of letters and etymologies (Palestinian = Philistine) for that of phonemes and the timbre of the voice, ‘four syllables whose mystery doubtless came from the nocturnal element of their most precious enemies.’56 Genet explains that a shuddering, an affect of sadness, linked to a key image – that of a grave waiting like a shadow at the feet of every fighter – is triggered in him just on hearing the word ‘Palesti’.57 This rectangular shadow, which doesn’t stop following him around, is like the label of his singularity, the guarantee of his complete lucidity in the face of death and is unlike the white world, which ‘moves forward without a shadow’.58 One rediscovers the same type of modular schema, where the light finds itself treated by shadow in numerous variations on the theme of Black and White in their relation to writing: ‘In white America, the Blacks are the characters in which history is written.They are the ink that gives the white page a meaning.’59 Beyond any Manichaeism, the function of the Fatah-Palestian module seems to be to relink contraries at the most extreme points of their antagonism. Even the rivalry between ‘Palestine shall conquer’ and ‘Israel shall live’ seems to harbour traces of a hyper-paradoxical complicity between landless peoples of yesterday and today. That being the case, the primary quality of the Palestinians, as has already been said, resides in their resolute acceptance of finitude, whereas the Israelis, on the other hand, persist in their addiction to pernicious dreams of eternal life.60
Let us also signal other fantastic manifestations of this module, in which the Palestinian revolution appears to him in a hypnagogic image as the tail of a caged tiger sketching out a ‘hyperbolic flourish and brushing its tired curve onto its flank’, to find an inimitable taste of the familiarity of slang.61
I’ve tried to illustrate this first modular level of processual praxis on the basis of an example that is relatively circumscribed from a textual point of view, and always with a minimum of semantic safeguards. But I could just as easily have started from more deterritorialized modules: I’ve already mentioned the problematic of the drilling of holes in the real and in language; I’m also thinking of the technique of ‘flattening’ Hamza’s mother (‘like a flat cardboard dummy’62) who could only have played the key role at the heart of the ‘family romance’ forged by Genet to the extent that she previously underwent this modular treatment. Or the extraordinary game of cards without cards which is pursued throughout the book, like a red thread, an abstract machine for flaking, layering the real and predisposing it to being charged with new possibilities. Certainly, many other writers have built up their creation on similar modular concatenations to these. In the first place, of course, one should cite Proust, with his cortège of leitmotifs, of fecund moments, of refrains.63 But beyond the relatively anecdotal fact that in Genet the loose paving stones – on the basis of which memories start to proliferate – are no longer situated in the courtyard at Guermantes or in St Mark’s cathedral but in the devasted camps of Shabra and Chatila,64 I believe that there is also another type of use of intensive traits in his work which he frees on this occasion. He is not imprisoned in the universe of memory. On the contrary, the process was ceaselessly exposed to the encounter of heterogeneous realities that could inflect it, make it fluctuate far from pre-existing equilibria, or even derail it. I’m not saying that Proust went round in circles! A whole world finds its expression in his work too. But it is a world mastered like a well-tempered clavier, a definitively closed world. There is a plus (and perhaps, in a different sense, a minus) in Genet: the opening up of the expanses of the ocean, the insistent presence of death, finitude, the risk of total and definitive incomprehension.
The polyphonic level of fabulous images
At this level it is no longer a matter of drawing out from each primary module the voices that can be expressed through it, but of enlarging fields of virtuality, allowing new Universes of reference and singular modalities of expression to emerge by conjugating heterogeneous voices. In two words, it is a matter of producing another real, correlative to another subjectivity.
It may happen that a module engenders distended significations that are so contrary to one another that it ends up losing control of them (for example, when, in Funeral Rites, Genet wrote the word ‘Hitlerian’ and saw the Church of the Trinity advance towards him like the eagle of the Third Reich).65 It is completely different when several modules entertain what Mikhail Bakhtin calls dialogic relations. Not only can the most unheard of exchanges be supported, but additionally they can engender a surplus value of sense, a supplement of singularity, an existential taking consistency. Proust had superimposed the amorous dance of a wasp and an orchid onto the voyeuristic revelation of the guilty relations between Charlus and Jupien.66 In Genet, the flower is linked to the convict:
The convict’s outfit is pink and white striped. Though it was at my heart’s
bidding that I chose the universe wherein I delight, I have at least the
power of finding in it the many meanings I wish to find: there is a close
relationship between flowers and convicts.67
So, two or three universes crystallize together: jail, flowers, poetry… Anything else? The agitation that results from the oscillation between flowers and jailbirds, Genet specifies in a note.
With the example of the game of cards without cards, we have already signalled that an intermediary module could supplant the terms that it joins together and set to work on its own count. The game of cards is the feast of Obon in Japan, during which the dead are supposed to come back to visit the living68, it is a ‘dry masturbation’69, it is a way of characterizing the Palestinians 70, it is the imaginary guitar of Lieutenant Mubarak 71, it is the trickery of the brother of the knight of Grieux, who allow Nabila, a Lebanese nurse, to be associated with Manon Lescaut, it is a world of silhouettes, it is writing, which is only ‘eyewash’ 72, and, ultimately, it is nothing in particular, it is a style, a principle of deterritorialization…But the ‘fabulous images’ will go further in acquiring autonomy. Let us now try to define more specifically their modalities of expression. The best example that we can offer of them is Mubarak, the Sudanese lieutenant, a senior officer in the PLO. He is a composite character of whom it is impossible to assess how much of Genet’s portrait of him is imaginary:73 a negro with tribal markings, a lover of cheap junk, a ‘fabulous animal’, a skilled soldier from Sandhurst military college, a reader of Spinoza, a dancer to African rock, a pervert, voyeur, pimp, whore, this graceful black man is one of the rare protagonists in Prisoner of Love who succeeded in bringing Genet out of what was his sexual reservednesss, at least psychically, during his Palestinian wanderings. ‘He wallowed in my discomfiture’. 74 But what is it, exactly, that touches him in this abundant character? It seems that it is certain traits that pass across several avatars: the timbre of his voice (‘his sperm seemed to be transmitted through the guttural tones of his voice’ 75) and his way of speaking French like Maurice Chevalier…his limping, a trait they shared, and also his silhouette, which is very important! In this regard, we should note a curious transferring of an existential cutout between the narrator and the Sudanese man, one day when the latter was amusing himself by imitating his [walk], in response to an imitation that Genet had himself just tried out:
He imitated me going up and down some mud steps. Thanks to him I saw myself as a huge figure outlined against an almost black sky, descending in the distance, though nearby, a bit stooped with the weariness of age and from marching up and down hills as high to me as the clouds over Nablus, and limping at the end of the day. The limp was simplified and exaggerated, but just like the way I walked. I realised I was looking at myself for the first time, not in a so-called Psyche-mirror or cheval glass but through eyes that had found me out…76
Let’s be clear that the fabulous image here has nothing do with the image one [comes up against] in the mirror of the psyche or in that of pure alterity. There is no longer any reflecting-reflected mirage, any imaginary supercharged with identifications, phantasms or anything else of this kind. It is to Mubarak that Genet owes his power to apprehend himself from an angle that is all the more true, all the more real for having been reworked, rewritten, repainted, mise en scène again. As a counterpart, he has a polychromatic memory of Mubarak, dominated by violet and Prussian Blue 77. A multi-colour negro78 who makes the Constellation of Universes of sex, violence and theological virtue – around which he had been turning for so long – more intelligible. A negro chameleon at the crossroads of his dreams of Africa, his prison loves, black America, and the shadowy part of the Palestinian struggles. It appears here that the time of Archibald’s imprecations in The Blacks really is over: ‘Let Negroes negrify themselves. Let them persist to the point of madness in what they’re condemned to, in their ebony, in their odor, in their yellow eyes, in their cannibal tastes’.79 Black is no longer the other side of White, nor its limit. It has become the probe-head – ‘the laughing Panthers wore a dense furry sex on their heads’80 able to explore the repressed values of the West and its logics, where ‘discontinuity and number, those two names of death’ as Sartre writes,81 are suspended. However, we will have to make space for another enunciative procedure, because the fabulous image in turn shows its limitations! Mubarak wavers, cracks, breaks up in a fragmenting of the body and the world; a continuity solution for the process threatens:
I was surprised to see the world bisected. The image took the form of a person there at the moment when it happened. It’s a moment that seems short when the knife is sharp, but which seemed long as Lieutenant Mubarak walked in front of me in the setting sun. He was the knife, or rather the handle of the knife that was slicing the world in two … The lieutenant, walking before me and separating the light from darkness.82
The synaptic level of existential operators
Both the modular concatenation of cosmic and signaletic fluctuations and the ‘fabulous’ harmonizing of voices that were not generically destined to meet each other, left the subject without any hold on the creative process: neither from a position of passive contemplation nor from a position of active orchestration. Now it is enunciation as such which he aims at. In a certain fashion it is a return to the idea of primitive swallowing. Is it a crazed attempt at self-mastery (of ipseity, in Sartre’s terminology) or rather – as we will see – a methodical enterprize of the production of a mutant subjectivity? Everything will depend here on the capacity of the aforementioned process to avoid being imprisoned by the phantasm.
One day in October 1971, Genet makes the acquaintance of a couple of Palestinians – Hamza and his mother – in a refugee camp in Jordan. This encounter, which he was profoundly affected by without ever managing to understand why, will lead him to re-evaluate his relation to the Palestinian revolution and will give a direction to the book project that was to end up as Prisoner of Love. What I call an existential operator or synapse is constituted from it, that is to say, an Assemblage that is at once psychic, material and social, able to put in place a new type of enunciation and, as a consequence, a new subjective production. His reflection, the journeys, but above all, a long search for dreams and lost revolutions, were to converge on the setting up of this instance.
Hamza is a 17-year-old combatant to whom Genet was entrusted by his Palestinian friends. They will only spend a few hours together, before and after the young man leaves on a mission against the Jordanian army, which had just begun to attack the PLO’s bases. Subsequently, Genet won’t have any news of him for 14 years: certain rumours will make him believe that he died during torture, until he finally manages to find a trace of him in Germany. On that night, Hamza’s mother had put Genet up in her son’s room. He remembers with emotion the moment when she came into the darkened room to bring him a Turkish coffee and a glass of water on a tray. He stayed silent, with his eyes closed. He realized that this woman was, quite naturally, bringing him coffee as if he were her son. Genet experiences genuine love at first sight for this unknown couple who, in his own words, became a ‘fixed mark’ which guided him. ‘My fixed mark might be called love, but what sort of love was it that had germinated, grown and spread in me for fourteen years for a boy and an old woman I’d only ever seen for twenty-four hours?’83.
All the elements of fabulous conversion previously described can be found here, the same semiotic distortions, with Hamza’s silhouette cut out against a thick shadow, in particular. When he evokes the mother opening the door of the bedroom, for example, he always sees the son next to her, immense,
in the end I never imagined just one image on its own: there was always a couple, one of them seen in ordinary attitudes and realistic dimensions while the other was a gigantic presence of mythological substance and proportions. It might be summed up as an apparition of a colossal couple, one human and the other fabulous.84
But another labour, which I will call one of sanctification, is added to this labour of ‘fabulous image creation’ if I may call it that. The mother-Hamza couple literally finds itself bound to the pieta-Christ couple, in a sort of family romance, like those in which some children attribute themselves a noble heredity, in which, not content with being an orphan, Genet voluptuously occupies all the places – of husband, wife, crucified victim and so on.85 He had already a conducted a similar religious transformation a long time before, by magnifying the penal colony: ‘‘I call the Virgin Mother and Guiana the Comforters of the Afflicted.’86 But evidently the Holy Land lends itself much better to this kind of operation! We will note in passing that in both cases one finds oneself in the presence of a deterritorialized earth, but one notes that Genet is all the more nostalgic for prison given that the latter has been abolished, is a dream prison and that he is all the more compassionate with regard to the Palestinian desire to recover their lands given that he reckons achieving this is problematic. However, the essential point lies in the supplement of processual power that is brought to the fabulous image by this narrative graft of a religious origin. The image is not just a crossroads for heterogeneous voices/pathways; it works for itself; in a certain way it becomes self-sufficient, self-referent, self-processual. This doesn’t prevent it from enlarging its field of action over memory and the occurrences of events. Like the fabulous image, its function is to produce a singular temporality, a specific way of discursivizing subjectivity. But it proceeds to do so in an even more open manner, ceasing to turn round and round the contours of an icon but constantly deploying new lines of possibility. Genet experimented with his self-divination procedure in his prison time:
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 I was thereby entering into communication with God: which is what happened, God being only the hope and fervor contained in my song.87
However, it will be admitted that this is a God in need of a bit of air! In fact, the Virgin Mary-prison coupling represented a veritable tour de force for trying to overcome a crack in the universe that could seem irrevocable, uncurable. Sartre’s equation imaginary – derealization – evil – solitude was never far away.88 With Lieutenant Mubarak, good and evil, black and white begin to entertain relations that are complex in a different way. Reality not only opens up, it is charged with infinite virtualities. However, the character still remains too massively mythological, barely fit to enter into fine-grained subjectification procedures and finally, as we have seen, he himself becomes the agent for a new splitting of the world. Everything changes with the synaptic double articulation:
The term ‘synaptic’ aims to underline that one is right to expect something very different to simple rearrangements or harmonics of sense from this operator: a pragmatic effect, an existential surplus value, the release of new Constellations of Universes of reference. Relations are now less identitarian, less personological – however tempting it may be to reduce them to Oedipus and incest.89 Henceforth, numen no longer affixes itself to the marrow of images, but finds itself distilled in much more molecular praxes, if you will, appropriate for transforming the everyday perception of the world and its eschatological horizons.90 Besides, Hamza is not even a believer, he is neither Muslim nor Christian. That wouldn’t change anything. And when, after 14 years of eclipse, he will ‘rise from the dead’ for Genet, married to a German, probably the father of a whole rabble, that will not desacralize him, it will not take apart our existential operator. This is for the good reason that its efficacity doesn’t reside in its visible cogs but in a machine of abstract intensities, conjugating Universes of jouissance, poetry, freedom, death to come, in a new way…Through it, something comes undone for Genet. Through it, another Genet is born. An end to the faultline, the laceration. He explains that he has ‘cut this couple out to suit [him]self, cut it out from a contininuum that included space and time and all the connections with country, family and kin’.91 Even the past, present and future seem to want to be superposed, in one of those retroactive smoothings of time dear to Réné Thom, in such a way that it seems to him that the Palestinian revolution is an integral part of his oldest memories.92 And what if death too was, in truth, nothing more than a resurrection of the instant: a wellspring of absence, of potential. ‘To have been dangerous for a thousandth of a second, to have been handsome for a thousandth of a thousandth of a second, to have been that, or happy or something, and then to rest – what more can one want?’93
1 Jean Genet Prisoner of Love translated by B. Bray New York, New York
Review of Books, 2003 p.429.
3 Ibid. pp.166, 381.
4 Ibid. p.364.
5 Ibid. p.5.
6 Ibid. p.358.
7 Ibid. p.381, translation modified.
8 Jean-Paul Sartre Saint Genet. Comedian and Martyr trans. Bernard
Frechtman, London, W. H. Allen, 1964, especially the chapter ‘On the
Fine Arts Considered as Murder’.
9 Ibid. p.423.
10 Ibid. p.535.
11 Ibid. p.568
12 Ibid. p.422.
13 Ibid. p.485.
14 Ibid. p. 544.
15 Ibid. p.449.
16 Ibid. p.544.
17 Ibid. p.642.
18 Genet Prisoner of Love. p.367.
19 Ibid. pp.369, 425.
20 Jean Genet The Thief’s Journal p.243.
21 Ibid. p.250.
22 Rudiger Wischenbart ‘Conversations avec Jean Genet et Leila Chahid’ in
Revue d’études palestiniennes.
24 Genet Prisoner of Love p.237.
25 ‘Anyone who’s never experienced the pleasure of betrayal doesn’t know
what pleasure is’ The Prisoner of Love p.312.
26 Ibid. p.355.
27 Ibid. p.392.
28 Ibid. pp. 388, 392, 414.
29 Ibid. p.414.
30 ‘The malicious, slightly timid word, eclipse, allows everything to be a
star occluding something else’ Genet Prisoner of Love p.376 [translation
31 Ibid. p.375.
33 Ibid. p.23.
34 Ibid. p.24.
35 Ibid. p.134.
36 Ibid. p.347.
37 Jean Genet Lettres à Roger Blin Paris, Gallimard, 1986, p.11.
38 Genet, Prisoner of Love op. cit. p.362.
39 Ibid. p.146.
40 Genet The Thief’s Journal p.86ff.
41 Genet, Prisoner of Love op. cit. p.376.
42 Ibid. p.332 [translation modified].
43 On this point, there are numerous references. See in particular ibid.
pp.105, 107, 145, 238, 262, 333, 391, 393.
44 Ibid. p.376.
45 Ibid. p.301.
46 Sartre, Saint-Genet op. cit. p.5.
47 Genet, Prisoner of Love op. cit. p.301.
48 Ibid. p.300.
49 Wischenbart op. cit.
51 Genet The Thief’s Journal op. cit. p.5.
52 Genet, Prisoner of Love op. cit. p.376.
53 Ibid. p.81 [Translation modified].
54 Ibid. p.23.
55 Ibid. p. 23.
56 This phrase does not appear in the Bray translation of the text.
57 Ibid. p.378
58 Ibid. p.399.
59 Genet Prisoner of Love op. cit. p.245. See also pp.5, 251.
60 Ibid. pp. 75, 390. But sometimes Genet cannot stop himself from
launching into frightful ‘praise’ [coups de chapeau] for the cruellest
adversaries of the Palestinian refugees. Witness this very fine passage
on the dancing of Bedouin soldiers (pp.79 et seq.) and the incredible
‘hommage’ to Israeli brutality: ‘it would be unfair to deny Israel the thrills
of bravery, pillage and torture’ (p.382) or even the tender description of
the ‘six curly blonde wigs’ of the fake (or real!) Israeli homosexuals who
had gone to Beirut to assassinate the Palestinian leaders (pp.182–6).
61 Ibid. pp.136, 380.
62 Ibid. p.407.
63 Cf. Felix Guattari ‘The Refrains of Lost Time’ in The Machinic
Unconscious op. cit.
64 Genet, Prisoner of Love op. cit. pp.388, 391.
65 Jean Genet Oeuvres complètes t.III Paris, Gallimard, 1985, p.10.
66 Marcel Proust In Search of Lost Time v.2 ‘Cities of the Plains’.
67 Genet The Thief’s Journal op. cit. p.5.
68 Genet, Prisoner of Love op. cit. p.30.
69 Ibid. p.34.
70 Ibid. p.235.
71 Ibid. p.245.
72 Ibid. p.31.
73 Ibid. pp.:163, 165, 174, 177, 223, 229, 235, 244, 245, 337, 339, 342, 346,
74 Ibid. p.223.
75 Ibid. p.165.
76 Ibid. p.244.
77 Ibid. p.339.
78 The illustration that comes to mind of its own accord would seem to me
to be the series by the painter Gerard Fromanger called ‘Un balayeur noir
à la porte de sa benne’ (1974).
79 Jean Genet The Blacks trans. B. Frechtman New York, Grove Press, 1960,
80 Genet, Prisoner of Love op. cit. p. 252.
81 Sartre Saint Genet op. cit. p.464.
82 Genet, Prisoner of Love op. cit. p.382.
83 Ibid. p.392.
84 Ibid. p.202.
85 P.296 and above all p.203: ‘Amidst that world, that language, that
people, those faces, those animals, plants and lands all exuding
the spirit of Islam, what preoccupied me was a group embodying
the image of the mater dolorosa. The mother and the son, but not
as Christian artists have depicted them, painted or sculptured in
marble or wood, with the dead son lying across the knees of a mother
younger than the son de-crucified, but one of them always protecting
86 Genet The Thief’s Journal op. cit. p.254.
87 Ibid. p.86.
88 Sartre Saint-Genet op. cit. pp.183–4.
89 A theme which returns several times, with the inversion of the age relation between mother and son, pp.192 and 202 or via a slip that makes
Mary the wife of Jesus, Prisoner of Love, p.260.
90 ‘More and more I believe I exist in order to be the terrain and proof
which show other men that life consists in the uninterrupted emotions
flowing through all creation’, ibid. p.361.
91 Ibid. p.204.
92 Ibid. p. 244.
93 Ibid. p.269.