By Ed Dodson, installation intern for the Jean Genet exhibition, and English student at the University of Leeds
Genet was born nearly a century ago, and we live in very different times. Nevertheless, it is an apt time to write about Jean Genet – and for Nottingham Contemporary to host an exhibit in dialogue with his life and works. Genet was a radical writer – these are riotous times. We have witnessed destruction and violence that in some instances tragically proved fatal, and so did Genet. If Genet can teach us something here, it is that such actions are never causeless, although those causes may be difficult to understand.
Many commentators have stated that the recent UK rioters did not seem to have a specific aim in mind. They did not have a manifesto, an ideology, or even a particular policy they wished to attack. However, as the conflicted psyches of Genet’s texts reveal, this does not mean we should not try to understand the causes behind these acts, or to understand the conditions they are borne out of. Only then can we help prevent them ever occurring again. This does not condone the actions investigated. A historian or political scientist might study the causes of World War II and Nazism for instance, but that is not done to condone Hitler’s actions.
Genet was scarred by his own family circumstances, and from the consequent social exclusion, almost from the moment of his birth. He was abandoned by his parents and this quickly led to his imprisonment at the premature age of ten. He continued to commit crimes, most of them petty. His five novels were written while in prison. It was only later in life that Genet found acceptance by a certain section of society. He was adored by an influential circle of French philosophers, headed by the towering figure of the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. Such adoration could evidentially be uncomfortable. The publication of Sartre’s eight-hundred page biography called Saint Genet led to an eight-year writer’s block.
Genet later joined the Black Panthers (and later the Palestinian movement) in order to satisfy his urgent need to be an outsider. His espousal of the Black Panther movement came from a desire to help their cause. Yet it also satisfied his own radical impulses in that he had joined a movement ostensibly counter-productive to his own ends as a white man. He was a rebel for the sake of rebellion itself. He sympathised with outsiders, whatever the reasons for their alienation, marginalization or exclusion. “Obviously I am drawn to peoples in revolt because I myself have the need to call the whole of society into question,” he stated. In this vein, Genet continued to steal even when he was rich. Theft may have been more of a necessity when he was young, but now he no longer needed to steal for survival, or even for material purposes. Theft had become an ideological act – an act against capitalism, an act against the society that had so excluded him and humiliated him. Perhaps there are parallels with today’s rioters in that the causes of Genet’s criminality were far from simple – but this did not mean his actions were apolitical or anti-political.
Genet’s play The Maids (1947) exemplifies the swirling contamination of impulses that can lead to radical or violent acts. Two maids – Solange and Claire – plot to assassinate Madame, their employer and idol. Their act is emblematic of class rebellion- the underclass rising up against their oppressive master or mistress. But the maids are also reliant upon Madame for their livelihood. As much as they hate her, they desperately love her too. They dress up and perform her. Their attempted murder of their glamorous employer is in many ways an attempted suicide. Indeed the play ends in self-destruction, as Claire drinks, quite literally, her own poison – the poison she has prepared for Madame.
The maids’ actions, like Genet’s, do not fit into a particular political programme. They are contradictory, and ultimately self-defeating and self-destructive. Genet had the medium of art – literature, novels, plays, and speeches – to express the confused state of mind of an alienated rebel. Some are not so fortunate. We must look to him and artists inspired by him, as exhibited at Nottingham Contemporary, in a time of need – a time which needs analysis and understanding, as well as condemnation.