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Ian Birchall

Jean Genet:
Man of Revolt

(June 1986)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 88, June 1986.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

JEAN GENET died in April on the day the bombers went into Libya. Reagan’s murderous act would have angered him, but it would scarcely have surprised him. He had long learnt to know and hate the brutality of the system.

From birth, Genet was one of those whom society classifies as ‘worthless’. Illegitimate and abandoned, he was placed by the Public Assistance in a peasant family; the peasants took children for the money, and the foster-children wore special uniforms.

In infant school Genet wrote an essay about his home; all the other children turned on him and jeered at him because he didn’t have a real ‘home’.

At ten, Genet was publicly denounced as a thief; at fifteen he was sent to a reformatory for travelling on a train without paying his fare. He joined the army to collect a bonus, then deserted.

He recorded that ‘for a time I lived by theft, but prostitution was better suited to my indolence’. Genet’s life was now spent among criminals and homosexuals, frequently interrupted by arrest; he spent a total of fourteen years in jail.

Genet thus found himself among the lowest depths of society, among those to whom the existing order denies any right to culture or beauty. But Genet refused this denial; for him revolt began with his assertion of his right to beauty.

He began to write, in prison, on the white sheets of paper with which he was supposed to make paper bags. And since society denied him access to its beauty, he sought his own beauty amid the squalor and misery of his condition, inventing an amazing poetic prose:

‘There is a close relationship between flowers and convicts. The fragility and delicacy of the former are of the same nature as the brutal insensitivity of the latter. Should I have to portray a convict – or a criminal – I shall so bedeck him with flowers that, as he disappears beneath them, he will himself become a flower, a gigantic and new one.’

From a recognition of his own oppression – as an abandoned child, a convict and a homosexual – Genet came to understand and oppose oppressions of other kinds, and especially to side with the victims of racism and imperialism. He described himself as being perhaps ‘a black man who happens to have white or pink skin’. Of his own play The Blacks he said:

‘Sixty years ago, a Public Assistance child was a negro, and when this child was sent to prison, he was like a black whom people have the right to lynch. The difference is that I was alone and without hope. They are together and they have the hope of revolution.’

Genet was fascinated by the relations between sexuality and power. In his play The Balcony he shows a brothel where clients act out the fantasies of power, dressing up as bishops, judges and generals. But while in modern society a police chief has more power than a bishop, he is still a grey figure, lacking colourful costume and sexual pull; so at the end of the play the police chief announces that he has been advised ‘to appear in the form of a gigantic phallus, a prick of great stature ...’

By the sixties Genet’s novels and plays had made him famous and wealthy; he had become a commodity for publishers. Such a process is inevitable under capitalism; what is remarkable is how far Genet managed to resist the process.

Till his death he had no fixed address, collecting his royalties in cash from his publisher and moving from one small hotel to another, giving much of his money away.

Yet while Genet’s work centres on power and oppression, he never committed himself to regular political activity. There could be no place for him in the Stalinist left that dominated French politics until the sixties. Indeed, when Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes serialised The Thief’s Journal he was publicly denounced by no less than Zhdanov, Stalin’s cultural hitman. For Zhdanov, Genet’s praise of homosexuality was enough to label him a symptom of bourgeois depravity.

Above all Genet feared the puritanism which characterised the Stalinist left (and which has sometimes resurfaced in modern feminism).

Irma, in The Balcony, organising her brothel fantasies while revolution rages in the streets outside, speaks for Genet when she says: ‘If the rebels win, I’m a goner. They’re workers. Without imagination. Prudish and maybe chaste.’

For Genet, a revolution that rejected joy, sexuality and ritual was one he could not oppose, but would not commit himself too wholeheartedly. As he told an interviewer in 1976.

‘To be honest, I don’t really want a revolution to take place. The situation at this moment, the present regime, allow me to revolt ... if a real revolution were to take place, I couldn’t be against it. I would become a follower of this revolution. But a man like myself is never a follower of anything. I am a man of revolt. My standpoint is very egoistical. I don’t want the world to change in order to permit myself to be against the world.’

Genet had no illusions that he could substitute himself for the real struggles of the oppressed. Talking of his own plays The Maids and The Blacks he said:

‘I think action, the direct struggle against colonialism does more for the blacks than a play. I think the domestic workers’ trade union does more for servants than a play. I’ve tried to win a hearing for a voice from the depths ...’

Hence Genet’s political alignments have been spasmodic and emotional. His deep hatred of French society led him to rejoice at the fall of France in 1940. He supported the Black Panthers and caused an outcry by his sympathy for the Baader-Meinhof gang.

But he also supported the Russians in Afghanistan, and expressed indifference to the situation in Poland and to poverty in France, on the grounds that they were nothing by the side of the suffering in the Third World.

One of his deepest commitments was to the cause of the Palestinians; in 1982 he visited the scene of the Beirut massacres and wrote a searing indictment of them (published in English in City Limits).

In his last interview (on BBC television in November 1985) Genet contrasted the student revolutionaries of May 1968 to ‘true revolutionaries’ like Lenin, and concluded: ‘I’m really on Lenin’s side’. That that alignment did not go all the way to a commitment to the revolutionary left was Genet’s loss; it was also the left’s.

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