On Jean Genet’s
for Ben Sonnenberg
The first time I saw Jean Genet was in the spring of 1970, a theatrically turbulent and inchoate season when energies and ambitions were released from the social imagination of America into its social body. There was always some excitement to celebrate, some occasion to get up for, some new moment in the Indochinese war either to lament or demonstrate against. Just a couple of weeks before the American invasion of Cambodia, at what seemed the very height of the spring events at Columbia University—which, it should be recalled, had still not recovered from the upheavals of 1968: its administration feeling uncertain, its faculty badly divided, its students perpetually exercised both in and out of the classroom—a noon rally was announced in support of the Black Panthers. It was to take place on the steps of Low Library, Columbia’s imposing administration building, and I was especially eager to attend because the rumor was that Jean Genet was going to speak. As I left Hamilton Hall for the rally, I met a student of mine who had been particularly active on campus and who assured me that Genet was indeed going to speak and that he, the student, would be Genet’s simultaneous interpreter.
It was an unforgettable scene for two reasons. One was the deeply moving sight of Genet himself, who stood at the center of a large crowd of Panthers and students—he was planted in the middle of the steps with his audience all around him rather than in front of him—dressed in his black leather jacket, blue shirt, and, I think, scruffy jeans. He seemed absolutely at rest, rather like the portrait of him by Giacometti, who catches the man’s astounding combination of storminess, relentless control, and almost religious stillness. What I have never forgotten was the gaze of Genet’s piercing blue eyes; they seemed to reach out across the distance and fix you with an enigmatic and curiously neutral look.
The other memorable aspect of that rally was the stark contrast between the declarative simplicity of Genet’s French remarks in support of the Panthers, and the immensely baroque embellishment of them by my erstwhile student. Genet would say, for example, “The blacks are the most oppressed class in the United States.” This would emerge in the translator’s colorful ornamentation as something like “In this motherfucking son-of-a-bitch country, in which reactionary capitalism oppresses and fucks over all the people, not just some of them, etc. etc.” Genet stood through this appalling tirade unruffled, and even though the tables were sufficiently turned that translator and not speaker dominated the proceedings, the great writer never so much as blinked. This added to my respect and interest in the man, who was swept away without a flourish at the end of his all-too-brief comments. Having known Genet’s literary achievements through teaching Notre-Dame des fleurs and The Thief’s Journal, I was surprised at what appeared from a distance to be his immaculate modesty, quite different from the violent and eccentric sentiments attributed to him by his translator, who allowed himself to ignore what Genet said during the rally in preference for the bordello and prison scatology of some of the plays and prose writings.
When I next saw Genet, it was in the late fall of 1972 in Beirut, where I was spending a sabbatical year. An old school friend of mine, Hanna (John) Mikhail, had called me some time before and said that he would like to bring Genet around to meet me, but I hadn’t taken the offer very seriously at first, partly because I couldn’t imagine Hanna and Genet as friends, and partly because I still knew nothing about Genet’s already considerable involvement with the Palestinian resistance movement.
In any event, Hanna Mikhail deserves to be remembered seventeen years after the fact a little more substantially than I’ve just presented him. Hanna and I were exact contemporaries, he as a Palestinian undergraduate at Haverford in the mid-’50s, I at Princeton. We went to graduate school at Harvard at the same time, although he was in political science and Middle Eastern studies and I was in comparative literature and English. He was always an exceptionally decent, quiet, and intellectually brilliant man, who expressed to me a quite unique Palestinian Christian background, firmly rooted in the Quaker community of Ramallah. He was committed to Arab nationalism and, very much more than I, at home in both the Arab world and the West. I was flabbergasted when in 1969, after what I gathered was a difficult divorce from his American wife, he quit a good teaching position at the University of Washington and enlisted in the revolution, as we called it, which was headquartered in Amman. I met him there in 1969 and again in 1970 when, both before Black September and in its early days, he played a leading role as the head of information for Fateh.
Hanna’s movement name was Abu Omar, and it is in that capacity and by that name that he appears in Genet’s posthumous autobiographical work Un Captif amoureux (the English title, Prisoner of Love, misses much that is subtly interesting in the French original), which I think Genet considered to be a continuation of The Thief’s Journal. Published in 1986, Un Captif is an astonishingly rich and rambling account of Genet’s experiences with, feelings about, and reflections on the Palestinians, with whom he associated for about fifteen years. As I said, at the time of his visit I had no idea of Genet’s already quite long involvement with the Palestinians, nor, in fact, did I know anything at all about his North African engagements, personal or political. Hanna had called at about eight that evening to say that they would both be dropping by a little later, and so after putting our infant son to bed, Mariam and I sat down to wait in the attractively warm and quiet Beirut evening.
I feel hesitant about reading too much into Genet’s presence in that part of the world at that time, but in retrospect there is a correspondence between this unsettlingly brilliant poète maudit and much that has been bewildering and disturbing about recent events in Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon. Genet was no ordinary visitor, no simple observer or Western traveler in search of exotic peoples and places to write up in some future book. Now, in recollection, his movements through Jordan and Lebanon had something like the effect of a seismographic reading, drawing and exposing the fault lines that a largely normal surface had hidden. I say this mainly because at the time I met him, 1972, although I had not read or seen Les Paravents (The Screens), his gigantic and iconoclastic drama about French colonialism and the Algerian resistance, and although Un Captif amoureux had not been written and would not appear for fourteen years, I sensed that this titanic personality had fully intuited the scope and drama of what we were living through, in Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere. The Lebanese Civil War would break out almost exactly three years later; Hanna would be killed four years later; the Israeli invasion of Lebanon would occur ten years later; and, very important indeed from my point of view, the intifada that would lead to the declaration of a Palestinian state was to explode into actuality fifteen years after. I could not have felt what I feel now, that the dislocating and yet rigorous energies and visions that informed The Screens would not, could not, be stilled after Algerian independence in 1962, but would, like the nomadic figures spoken of by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in Mille plateaux, wander elsewhere in search of acknowledgment and fulfillment.
In manner and appearance, Genet was as quiet and as modest as he had seemed at the Columbia rally. He and Hanna arrived a little after ten and stayed till almost three in the morning. I don’t think I could narrate the meandering discussions of that evening, but I do want to register a few impressions and anecdotes. Hanna remained fairly quiet throughout; he later told me that he had wanted to let me feel the full force of Genet’s vision of things without distraction. Later I was able to read back into that gesture some of the forgiving permission that Hanna had extended to everyone around him, and how that permission, that allowance for people to be themselves, was the true focus of Hanna’s search for liberation. Certainly it was clear that Genet appreciated this aspect of his companion’s political mission; it was the deep bond between them, that both men in effect had united passion with an almost self-abnegating tolerance.
At the outset it seemed appropriate to tell Genet my spectator’s side of the Panther rally and get his reaction to his interpreter’s embellishments. He seemed unfazed: “I may not have said all those things,” he said, “but,” he added solemnly, “je les pensais.” We talked about Sartre, whose enormous tome on Genet, I suggested, must have made its subject slightly uneasy. Not at all, Genet replied unaffectedly, “If the guy wanted to make a saint of me, that’s fine.” In any case, he went on to say, about Sartre’s strong pro-Israeli position, “He’s a bit of a coward for fear that his friends in Paris might accuse him of anti-Semitism if he ever said anything in support of Palestinian rights.” Seven years later, when I was invited to a seminar in Paris about the Middle East organized by Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre, I remembered Genet’s comment. I was struck by how this great Western intellectual, whose work I had long admired, was held so in thrall to Zionism (and to Pierre Victor, his manipulative young associate of the time) that he was prevented from saying a single word about what the Palestinians had endured at the hands of Israel for so many decades. (This is easily verified in the Spring 1980 issue of Les Temps modernes, which appeared with the full transcript of our seminar’s desultory discussions.)
And so the conversation went for many hours, punctuated by Genet’s long, puzzling, and yet compellingly impressive silences. We spoke about his experiences in Jordan and Lebanon, his life and friends in France (toward most of whom he expressed either deep hatred or total indifference). He smoked constantly, and he also drank, but he never seemed to change much with drink, emotion, or thought. I recall that once during the evening he said something very positive and surprisingly warm about Jacques Derrida—”un copain,” remarked Genet—whom I had thought of as a quietist Heideggerian type at the time; Glas had not yet been published, and it was only six months later, when Mariam, our little son, and I spent a few weeks in Paris in April 1973, that I learned from Derrida himself that his friendship with Genet had been sealed as the two of them watched soccer matches together, which I thought was a nice touch. There is a brief allusion in Glas to our encounter at Reid Hall in Paris, although I’ve always been slightly miffed that Derrida should refer to me only anonymously, as “un ami” who brought him news of Genet.
But to return to Genet in Beirut: my overwhelming impression was that he seemed totally unlike anything of his that I had read. And I then understood what he had said on a number of occasions (most notably in a letter about The Screens to its first director, Roger Blin), that in fact everything he wrote was “contre moi-même,” a motif that turns up again in his 1977 interview with Hubert Fichte in The New Review, where he says that only when he is alone does he tell the truth. This notion is elaborated somewhat in his interview with La Revue d’études palestiniennes, in 1983: “The moment I begin to speak, I am betrayed by the situation. I am betrayed by whoever listens to me, simply because of communication itself. I am betrayed by my choice of words.” These comments helped me to interpret his disconcertingly long silences, particularly at a time when, in his visits with the Palestinians, he was quite consciously acting in support of people for whom he cared, and for whom, he says in the Fichte interview, he felt an erotic attraction.
Still, it is the case with Genet’s work that, unlike that of any other major writer, you feel that his words, the situations he describes, the characters he depicts—no matter how intensely, no matter how forcefully—are provisional. It is always the propulsive force within himself and his characters that Genet delivers most accurately, not the correctness of what is said, or its content, or how people think or feel. His later, more overtly political works, most notably The Screens and Un Captif amoureux, are quite as explicit, indeed scandalous, in this regard as his earlier, more personal works. Much more important than commitment to a cause, much more beautiful and true, he says, is betraying it, which I read as another version of his unceasing search for the freedom of the negative identity that reduces all language to empty posturing, all action to the theatrics of a society he abhors. And yet Genet’s essentially antithetical mode oughtn’t to be denied either. He was in fact in love with the Arabs he draws in The Screens and in Un Captif amoureux, a truth that does shine through the denials and negations.
The Thief’s Journal (1949) is full of this contradiction. A picaresque account of his early life of “betrayal, theft, and homosexuality,” the Journal lauds the beauty of a betrayal “that cannot be justified by any heroic excuse. The sneaky, cringing kind, elicited by the least noble of sentiments: envy, hatred…greed.” Betrayal for Genet is better if it is meaner, not that of Lucifer, but the kind we associate with a police informer or a collaborator. “It is enough,” Genet continues, “if the betrayer be aware of his betrayal, that he will it, that he be able to break the bonds of love uniting him with mankind. Indispensable for achieving beauty, love. And cruelty shattering that love.” For Genet, to betray is to assert that “exceptional” identity foisted unjustly on him by a society that has found him to be a guilty criminal, but it is also to assert his power to elude any attempts to rehabilitate or reclaim him. Better the destabilizing effects of a permanent will to betray, always keeping him one step out of everyone’s reach, than a permanent identity as a crook who can be punished or forgiven by others.
The irony here, and in his later work, is that notwithstanding his repeated betrayals and his claims to dispassionate meanness, Genet’s writing also records the emergence of a recognizable and indeed strongly marked social being with real, albeit threatened, bonds connecting him to people and ideas. In part this is because Genet, the character whose adventures are being told, wants his readers to get a pretty firm grip on who and what he is, for all his wandering delinquency and surprising vagabondage. He stands for, and in fact becomes, the outcast unconfined by ordinary social formality or “human” norms. But it is also true that Genet’s work is undeniably influenced by the history and the politics of his time; in that setting and throughout that world Genet’s addiction to betrayal is a clearly perceptible element. Far from occurring in the abstract, however, it is interpretable as part of his radical politics, which have allied him with Black Panthers, Algerians, and Palestinians. To betray them is not to abandon them exactly, but to retain for himself the right not to belong, not to be accountable, not to be tied down.
Does his love for the Palestinians nevertheless amount to a kind of overturned or exploded Orientalism? Or is it a sort of reformulated colonialist love of handsomely dark young men? Genet did allow his love for Arabs to be his approach to them, but there is no indication that he aspired to a special position, like some benevolent White Father, when he was with them or wrote about them. On the other hand, he never tried to go native, be someone other than he was. There is no evidence at all that he relied on colonial knowledge or lore to guide him, and he did not resort in what he wrote or said to cliches about Arab customs, or mentality, or a tribal past, which he might have used to interpret what he saw or felt. However he might have made his initial contacts with the Arabs (Un Captif suggests that he first fell in love with an Arab while an eighteen-year-old soldier in Damascus half a century ago), he entered the Arab space and lived in it not as an investigator of exoticism but as someone for whom the Arabs had actuality and a presence that he enjoyed, felt comfortable with, even though he was, and remained, different. In the context of a dominant Orientalism that commanded, codified, articulated virtually all Western knowledge and experience of the Arab/Islamic world, there is something quietly but heroically subversive about Genet’s extraordinary relationship with the Arabs.
These matters lay a special kind of obligation on Arab readers and critics of Genet, which compels us to read him with unusual attention. Yes, he was a lover of Arabs—something not many of us are accustomed to from Western writers and thinkers, who have found an adversarial relationship with us more congenial—and it is this particular emotion that stamps his last major works. Both were written in a frankly partisan mode—The Screens in support of Algerian resistance during the height of the colonial struggle, Un Captif in support of Palestinian resistance from the late ’60s until his death in 1986—so that one is left in no doubt where Genet stood. His anger and enmity against France had autobiographical roots; on one level, therefore, to attack France in The Screens was to transgress against the government that had judged him and imprisoned him in places like La Mettray. But on another level, France represents the authority into which all social movements normally harden once they have achieved success. Genet celebrates the betrayal by Saïd, the protagonist of The Screens, not only because it guarantees the prerogatives of freedom and beauty for an individual in perpetual revolt, but also because its preemptive violence is a way of forestalling what revolutions in course never admit, that their first great enemies—and victims—after they triumph are likely to be the artists and intellectuals who supported the revolution out of love, not out of the accidents of nationality, or the likelihood of success, or the dictates of theory.
Genet’s attachment to Palestine was intermittent. After some years in reserve, it was revived in the fall of 1982, when he returned to Beirut and wrote his memorable piece on the Sabra and Shatila massacres. He makes clear, however (in the concluding pages of Un Captif), that what ties him to Palestine is that revolution continued there after it was forgotten in Algeria. Precisely what is obdurate, defiant, radically transgressive in Saïd’s gestures, and in the life-after-death speeches of the Mother, Leila, and Khadija in The Screens, is alive in the Palestinian resistance. Yet in that last great prose work of his, one can see Genet’s self-absorption struggling with his self-forgetfulness while his Western, French, Christian identity grapples with an entirely different culture. And it is in this encounter that Genet’s exemplary greatness comes forward and, in an almost Proustian way, retrospectively illuminates The Screens.
For the greatness of the play, in all its lurid and unremitting, often comic theatricality, is its deliberate and logical dismantling not just of French identity—France as empire, as power, as history—but of the very notion of identity itself. Both the nationalism in whose name France has subjugated Algeria and the nationalism in whose name the Algerians have resisted France since 1830 rely to a very great extent upon a politics of identity. As Genet said to Roger Blin, for the French it was all one big event without beginning or end: the connection between the Dey’s coup d’éventail in 1830 and the invention by 800,000 pieds noirs of Tixier-Vignancour, the extreme right-wing French lawyer who defended General Raoul Salan in the trials of 1962. France, France, France, as in the slogan Algérie française. But the opposite and equal reaction of the Algerians is also an affirmation of identity, by which the affiliation between combatants, the suffusing presence of patriotism, even the justified violence of the oppressed to which Genet always gave his unequivocal support, are all mobilized in the single-minded cause of Algérie pour les Algériens. The gestures that contain the extreme radicality of Genet’s anti-identitarian logic are of course Saïd’s betrayal of his comrades, and the various incantations to evil pronounced by the women. It is also to be found in the intended decor, costumes, and verbal as well as gestural impropriety that gives the play its terrible force. “Pas de joliesse,” said Genet to Blin, for if there was one thing the force of the play could not tolerate, it was prettification, or palliation, or any sort of inconstancy to its rigor.
We are closer to Genet’s solitary truth—as opposed to his sense of compromise whenever language is used—when we take seriously his description of the play as a poetic deflagration, an artificially started and hastened chemical fire whose purpose is to light up the landscape as it turns all identities into combustible things, like Mr. Blankensee’s rosebushes, which are set aflame by the Algerians in The Screens even as he prates on unheedingly. This notion also explains Genet’s various, often very tentatively expressed requests that the play not be performed too many times. Genet was too serious a mind to assume that audiences, or actors and directors for that matter, can live through the apocalyptic purifications of the loss of identity on a daily basis. The Screens has to be experienced as something altogether rare.
No less uncompromising is Un Captif amoureux. There is no narrative in it, no sequential or thematically organized reflection on politics, love, or history. Indeed, one of the book’s most remarkable accomplishments is that it somehow pulls one along uncomplainingly in its meandering, often startlingly abrupt shifts of mood and logic. To read Genet is in the end to accept the utterly undomesticated peculiarity of his sensibility, which returns constantly to that area where revolt, passion, death, and regeneration are linked:
What was to become of you after the storms
of fire and steel? What were you to do?
In their movement of regenerative rebellion, the Palestinians, like the Algerians and Black Panthers before them, show Genet a new language, not of orderly communication but of astonishing lyricism, of an instinctive and yet highly wrought intensity that delivers “moments of wonder and . . . flashes of comprehension.” Many of the most memorable fragments in the mysteriously digressive structure of Un Captif amoureux meditate on language, which Genet always wants to transform from a force for identity and statement into a transgressive, disruptive, and perhaps even consciously evil mode of betrayal. “Once we see in the need to ‘translate’ the obvious need to ‘betray,’ we shall see the temptation to betray as something desirable, comparable perhaps to erotic exaltation. Anyone who hasn’t experienced the ecstasy of betrayal knows nothing about ecstasy at all.” There is in this admission—dubious, even repellent, on moral and political grounds, tolerable, if at all, only as an aesthetic or rhetorical credo—the very same dark force that motivates the Mother, Khadija, Leila, and Saïd in The Screens, partisans of Algerian liberation who nevertheless exultantly betray their comrades.
The challenge of Genet’s writing, therefore, is its fierce antinomianism. Here is a man in love with “the other,” an outcast and stranger himself, feeling the deepest sympathy for the Palestinian revolution as the “metaphysical” uprising of outcasts and strangers—“my heart was in it, my body was in it, my spirit was in it”—yet neither his “total belief” nor “the whole of myself” could be in it. The consciousness of being a sham, an unstable personality perpetually at the border (“where human personality expresses itself most fully, whether in harmony or in contradiction with itself”), is the central experience of the book. “My whole life was made up of unimportant trifles cleverly blown up into acts of daring.” One is immediately reminded here of T. E. Lawrence, an imperial agent amongst the Arabs (though pretending to be otherwise) half a century earlier, but Lawrence’s assertiveness and instinct for detached domination is superseded in Genet (who was no agent) by eroticism and an authentic submission to the political sweep of a passionate commitment.
Identity is what we impose on ourselves through our lives as social, historical, political, and even spiritual beings. The logic of culture and of families doubles the strength of identity, which for someone like Genet, who was a victim of the identity forced on him by his delinquency, his isolation, his transgressive talents and delights, is something to be resolutely opposed. Above all, given Genet’s choice of sites like Algeria and Palestine, identity is the process by which the stronger culture, and the more developed society, imposes itself violently upon those who, by the same identity process, are decreed to be a lesser people. Imperialism is the export of identity.
Genet, therefore, is the traveler across identities, the tourist whose purpose is marriage with a foreign cause, so long as that cause is both revolutionary and in constant agitation. Despite their prohibitions, he says in Un Captif, frontiers are fascinating because a Jacobin who crosses frontiers must change into a Machiavellian. The revolutionary, in other words, will occasionally accommodate himself to the customs post, haggling, brandishing a passport, applying for visas, humbling himself before the State. Genet tried artfully to avoid this: in Beirut, he spoke to us with rare joviality of how he once entered the United States from Canada surreptitiously and illegally. But crossing to Algeria and Palestine was not an occasion for such adventurism, but rather the expression of a dangerous and subversive politics involving borders to be negotiated, expectations to be fulfilled, dangers to be confronted. And, to speak here as a Palestinian, believe that Genet’s choice of Palestine in the 1970s and 1980s was the most dangerous political choice, the scariest journey of all. Only Palestine has not been co-opted in the West by either the dominant liberal or the dominant establishment political culture. Ask any Palestinian and he or she will tell you how our identity is still the only criminalized and delinquent selfhood—whose code word is terrorism—in a historical period in the West that has liberated or variously dignified most other races and nationalities. So the choice first of Algeria in the 1950s, then of Palestine in the period thereafter, is and ought to be understood as a vital act of Genet’s solidarity, his willingly enraptured identification with other identities whose existence involves a strenuously contested struggle.
So identity grates against identity. Genet’s is thus the most antithetical of imaginations. Ruling all his endeavors, housing all his nomadic energy, are precision and grace, embodied in one of the greatest formal French styles since Chateaubriand (here I quote Richard Howard). One never feels any sort of sloppiness or diversion in what he does, any more than one would expect Genet to have worn a three-piece suit and worked in an office. Genius (“le génie”), he once said, “c’est la rigeur dans le désespoir.” How perfectly that sense is caught in Khadija’s great ode to “le mal” in scene 12 of The Screens, with its combination of hieratic severity and its surprising self-deflation, all contained in a rhythm of high formality that suggests an unlikely combination of Racine and Zazie.
Genet is like that other great modern dissolver
of identity, Adorno, for whom no thought is translatable into any other
equivalent, yet whose relentless urge to communicate his precision and
desperation—with the fineness and counter-narratival energy that
makes Minima Moralia his masterpiece—furnishes
a perfect metaphysical accompaniment to Genet’s funereal pomp
and scabrous raucousness. What we miss in
Adorno, however, is a minimalist whose distrust and hatred of the totality cause him to work entirely in fragments, aphorisms, essays, and digressions. As opposed to Adorno’s micrologics, Genet is a poet of large Dionysiac forms, of ceremonies and carnivalesque display: his work is related to the Ibsen of Peer Gynt, to Artaud, Peter Weiss, and Aimé Césaire. His characters do not interest us because of their psychology but because in their own obsessive ways they are the paradoxically casual and yet formalistic bearers of a very finely imagined and understood history. Genet made the step, crossed the legal borders, that very few white men or women even attempted. He traversed the space from the metropolitan center to the colony; his unquestioned solidarity was with the very same oppressed identified and so passionately analyzed by Fanon.
I don’t think it is wrong to say that in the twentieth century, with very few exceptions, great art in a colonial situation appears only in support of what Genet in Un Captif calls the metaphysical uprising of the natives. Lesser art fudges or trims, but ends up being for the status quo. The cause of Algeria produced The Screens, Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, Fanon’s books, and the works of the great Algerian novelist Kateb Yacine, who died in 1989. Compared with these, Camus pales, his novels, essays, and stories the desperate gestures of a frightened, finally ungenerous mind. In Palestine the same is true, since the radical, the transformative, difficult, and visionary work comes from and on behalf of the Palestinians—Habibi, Darwish, Jabra, Kanafani, Kassem, Genet—not from the Israelis who oppose them. Genet’s works are, to borrow a phrase from Raymond Williams, resources of hope. In 1961 he could complete an overwhelmingly theatrical work like The Screens because, I believe, victory for the FLN was very near at hand: the play catches the moral exhaustion of France and the moral triumph of the FLN. When it came to Palestine, however, Genet found the revolution in an apparently uncertain phase, with the disasters of Jordan and Lebanon recently behind the Palestinians and the dangers of more dispossession, exile, and dispersion all around them. Hence, the ruminative, exploratory, and intimate quality of Un Captif amoureux—antitheatrical, radically contradictory, rich in memory and speculation:
This is my Palestinian revolution, told in my own chosen order. As well as mine there is the other, probably many others. Trying to think the revolution is like waking up and trying to see the logic in a dream. There’s no point, in the middle of a drought, in imagining how to cross the river when the bridge has been swept away. When, half awake, I think about the revolution, I see it as the tail of a caged tiger, starting to lash out in a vast sweep, then falling back wearily on the prisoner’s flank.
One wishes Genet were alive today for many reasons, not least because of the intifada, which has been continuing since late 1987. It is not farfetched to say that The Screens is Genet’s version of an Algerian intifada, given flesh and blood in the beauty and exuberance of the Palestinian intifada. Life imitates art, but so also does art imitate life and, insofar as it can be imitated, death.
Genet’s last works are saturated with images of death, especially Un Captif, part of whose melancholy for the reader is the knowledge that Genet was dying as he wrote it and that so many of the Palestinians he saw, knew, and wrote about were also to die. It is curious, however, that both Un Captif and The Screens end with affirmative recollections of a mother and her son who, although dead or about to die, are reunited by Genet in his own mind: the act of reconciliation and recollection that occurs at the end of The Screens, as Saïd and the unnamed Mother are seen together, prefigures Genet’s last prose work by twenty-five years. These are firmly unsentimental scenes, partly because Genet seems determined to present death as a weightless and largely unchallenging thing, partly, too, because he wants to retain for his own purposes the priority and affective comfort of the relationship between an almost savagely archetypal mother and a loyal but somewhat aloof, often harsh son.
In Un Captif, the primordial relationship—fierce, loving, enduring—of the maternally defined pair (Hamza and his mother) is imagined as persisting beyond death. Yet so meticulous is Genet’s refusal to concede that any good can come from permanence or bourgeois, and heterosexual, stability that he dissolves even these positive images of death in the ceaseless social turbulence and revolutionary disruption that are central to his interest. Yet it is the mother in both works who is strangely unyielding, uncompromising, difficult. “Tu ne vas pas flancher,” his mother reminds Saïd, you are not to be co-opted, and you are not to become a domesticated symbol or a martyr for the revolution. When Saïd finally disappears at the end of the play, undoubtedly killed, it is once again the Mother who with considerable anxiety and, I think, disgust suggests that Saïd might be forced by his comrades to come back in a commemorative revolutionary song.
Genet does not want the death that awaits and will surely claim him and his characters to invade, arrest, or seriously modify any aspect of the rushing turmoil that his work represents as deflagration, which he imagines to be centrally, even mystically important. It is startling to find this irreducibly religious conviction so close to his heart at the end. For whether demon or divinity, the Absolute for Genet is perceptible neither in the form of human identity nor as a personified deity, but precisely in what, after everything is said and done, will not settle down, will not be incorporated or domesticated. That such a force must somehow be represented and cared for by people who are absorbed in it and, at the same time, must risk its own disclosure or personification is Genet’s final, most intransigent paradox. Even when we close the book or leave the theater once the performance is over, his work instructs us also to block the song, doubt the narrative and memory, disregard the aesthetic experience that brought us those images for which we now have a genuinely strong affection. That so impersonal and true a philosophical dignity should also be allied with so poignantly human a sensibility is what gives Genet’s work the unreconciled and tense note it communicates. In no other late-twentieth-century writer are the dangers of catastrophe and the lyrical delicacy of affective response to them sustained together as grandly and fearlessly.