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Writing the Revolution

Writing the Revolution The Politics of Truth in
Genet’s Prisoner of Love
Simon Critchley
, … Saintliness cannot be placed in question.

Emmanuel Levinas 1
The last thing Jean Genet’s work needs is another philosopher’s
commentary. After Sartre’ s monumental Saint Genet and Derrida’ s
equally monumental-although anti-Sartrean -Glas, it might seem
prudent, indeed respectful, to leave unsaid any further philosophical
remarks about Genet. However, in this article, I would like to
discuss a work of Genet’ s that neither Sartre nor Derrida were able
to deal with in their commentaries: the posthumously published
Prisoner ofLove (Un Captifamoureux). I shall discuss this work
in tenns of the problem of truth – philosophy’s problem – and
more particularly in tenns of how one tells the truth about a
political event, in this case, the Palestinian revolution. How is the
revolution to be written? Can the revolution be truthfully described?

I shall proceed by placing Prisoner of Love in both its historical
context and in the context of Genet’ s earlier prose work, paying
particular attention to The Thief s Journal. After surveying the
differences between Genet’ s earlier and later prose work, I shall
then try – through a series of extended quotations – to show how
the problem of writing the revolution is raised and finally resolved
in Prisoner of Love. In this moment of resolution or, as I will
claim, redemption, our understanding of Genet will undergo

Breaking the silence? The biographical and
historical context
The very appearance of Prisoner ofLove five weeks after Genet’ s
death in April 1986 was both surprising and significant, for it
represented the only published piece of extended prose by Genet
in the period following the publication of The Thief s Journal in
1949. Why did he break this silence? Was there indeed a silence
to be broken?2 At least, why should Genet resume writing for
publication after such an extended break? Towards the end of The
Thief s Journal, and at the beginning of the short sequence of
pages that fonn the philosophical climax of that book (and, indeed, of Genet’s early prose oeuvre) he writes,
Unless there should occur an event of such gravity that my
literary art, in the face of it, would be imbecilic and I should
need a new language to master this misfortune, this is my
last book …. For five years I have been writing books: I can
say that I have done so with pleasure, but I have finished
(TJ 170/JV 217).

Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990

Genet’s promise appeared to be confinned by the fact that in the
intervening years he only produced three plays – albeit of major
importance: The Balcony (1956), The Blacks (1958) and The
Screens (1961) – and a trickle of occasional prose pieces on the
theory of art, literature and theatre – most notably’ Ce qui est reste
d’ un Rembrandt dechireen petits carres bien reguliers, et foutu
aux chiottes’ (1967). After 1968, much of Genet’s energy was
given over to political writing, whether for the student movement
in France, the Black Panthers, the Red Anny Faction or the
Palestinian resistance. Yet these occasional writings by no means
constitute a large body of work; as Derrida notes in Glas (1974),
‘he almost never writes anymore, he has interred literature like no
one else’ (GL 50/GLtr 36). An explanation often offered for
Genet’s relative silence after The Thief s Journal is that Sartre’s
Saint Genet had entombed Genet’s oeuvre, burying his corpus
alive and imprisoning him within a totalizing narrative of liberty
to which he was condemned and from which it was impossible to
escape through writing. Indeed, if one accepts Sartre’ s thesis that
Genet’s prose work is akin to an extended psychoanalytic cure,
where writing becomes the means for self-liberation from trauma,
then it is necessary to read The Thief s Journal, ‘ … as a literary
testament or at least as a conclusion’ (SG 502/SGtr 545). Soon
after the publication of Saint Genet in 1952, Genet remarked, in
a letter to Jean Cocteau, ‘You and Sartre have turned me into a
monument. I am somebody else, and this somebody else must find
something to say. ‘ In response, Cocteau notes in his journal, ‘Jean
has changed since the publication of Sartre’ s book. He looks as if
he were at once trying to follow it and to escape it. ‘3 Whether
interring literature in Glas or being himself interred within the
pages of Saint Genet, the question remains: what could have
provoked Genet to write a 504-page book after a break of nearly
thirty years?

Genet writes Prisoner of Love in order to tell the truth about
the Palestinian Revolution, 4 ‘Before I started to write it I’d sworn
to myself to tell the truth in this book’ (CA 503/PL 374-5). It is
a book which has truth as its goal, insofar as Genet wants to
achieve a correspondence or adequation between his writing and
a set of empirical historical events. Very broadly, Prisoner ofLove
is a collection of souvenirs of the time Genet spent amongst the
Palestinian revolutionaries – the fedayeen – between 1970 and
1972. Although originally only intending to stay for a week (CA
331/PL 244), Genet ended up spending two years with the
Palestinians in their camps on the East Bank of the Jordan. Genet
arrived at the moment when the Palestinians, frustrated by the
dismal perfonnance of the Arab league – Egypt, Jordan and Syria
– against Israel at the Six Day War in 1967, had begun to use their


bases in Jordan as a springboard for guerilla attacks on Israeli
targets, which included some extraordinary acts of air piracy.5
Genet was forcibly evicted from Jordan at the end of 1972, but
between that time and 1983, when he began writing Prisoner of
Love, he returned to the area on numerous occasions. Genet’ s
book narrates, through a powerful and non-linear photomontage
of notes and anecdotes, the fate of the Palestinian people, from
their dream-like optimism of the late 1960s and early 1970s to
their betrayal and humiliation at the hands of the Jordanians, the
Israelis and even their own leadership. The book was very loosely
commissioned by Yasser Arafat. An anecdote wryly related by
Genet recounts an inconsequential act of ‘politeness’: ‘Why don’t
you write a book?’ asks Arafat; ‘Bien sur’ replies Genet (CA 126/
PL 90). But Prisoner of Love is persistently critical of the Palestinian leadership; Genet writes, ‘I found the manners of almost all
the ordinary Palestinians, men and women, delightful. But their
leaders were a pain in the neck (emmerdants), (CA 328/pL 243).

The real heroes of Prisoner of Love are the ordinary Palestinian
people, the men and women of the resistance, and one man and
woman in particular. But I shall return’ to this. Genet’s initial
reflection upon Arafat’s suggestion was, ‘I didn’t believe in the
idea of that or any other book; I meant to concentrate on what I saw
and heard’ (CA 126/PL 91). Genet’s transition from literature to
action, from langage to engagement, appears irreversible; and
yet, he adds, ‘without my quite realizing it, everything that
happened and every word that was spoken set itself down in my
memory’ (ibid.). It is this storehouse of memories that Genet
struggles to write down in Prisoner of Love. A more direct spur
to the writing of this book was the massacre of the Palestinians in
the Lebanese camps at Sabra and Chatila in 1982. Finally, after
numerous requests for his memoirs from Palestinian acquaintances, Genet started writing in either August or October 1983
(unsurprisingly perhaps, he contradicts himself: cf. CA 331/PL
245 and CA 456/PL 338). He paid his final and, for the book, most
significant visit to the area in June 1984, spending a few months
in Irbid and Chatila. The writing of the book was completed in
1986. After suffering from throat cancer for some years, he died
on the night of 14-15 April 1986, whilst correcting proofs of
Prisoner of Love.

Genet’s death is not accidental to Prisoner ofLove, rather it is
the horizon against which the book is written and behind which
the author eventually vanishes (CA 161/PL 117). Genet’s death is
the book’s genesis. In a concluding remark, he writes:

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 a piece of lace, so I decided
to write this book (CA 502/pL 373).

The fabrication of the book is like the growth of a cancer, where
a cell departs from its usual metabolism, connecting with and
infecting other cells, interconnecting to form the sentences on a
page. Death is the event that prompts the book, watches over its
growth, disrupts its progress and prevents its completion – Genet
died before completing his corrections to the proofs. In order to
remain as lucid as possible during the writing of Prisoner ofLove,
Genet refused pain-killing drugs (PL xxi). Indeed, every page
presents the reader with the agony of the book’s creation, a
struggle which results in a fractured and quasi-cinematic narrative technique, leaping back and forth in time, moving randomly
between spaces and cutting quickly from image to reportage to
reminiscence. Genet’s frustration at not being able to relate facts


as they happened, his lapses of memory, his repetitions and
strange leaps of thought, make it an agonizing book to read and
agony to have written.

One thing a book tries to do is show, beneath the disguise
of words and causes and clothes and even grief, the
skeleton and the skeleton dust to come. The author too, like
those he speaks of, is dead (CA 414/PL 307).

And yet, if mortality is the horizon of the book’s production, a
horizon which repeatedly returns to haunt its narrative style,
Prisoner of Love perhaps also represents Genet’s intimation of
immortality, not the literary immortality of literary greats, but
rather the immortality or eternity of what Genet calls ‘the joy of
being’ (‘le bonheur d’ etre’).

A little while ago I wrote that though I shall die, nothing
else will. And I must make my meaning clear. Wonder at
the sight of a cornfield, at a rock, at the touch of a rough
hand – all the millions of emotions of which I’m madethey won’t disappear even though I shall. Other men will
experience them, and they’ll still be there because of them.

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. The
happiness my hand knows in a boy’s hair will be known by
another hand, is already known. And although I shall die,
that happiness will live on. ‘I’ may die, but what made that
‘I’ possible, what made possible the joy of being, will
make the joy of being live on without me (CA 423~/PL

Prisoner of Love presages and prefaces its author’s death, presupposing it both as the condition for the book’s possibility and
also for the possibility of the transcendence of that death through
the continuity of humanity and the eternity of creation – ‘the
happiness my hand knows in a boy’s hair will be known by
another hand. ‘

From saintliness to solidarity: The Thief’s
Journal and Prisoner of Love
We already seem far from the truth of the Palestinian Revolution.

However, proceeding negatively, it is important to stress what
sort of book Prisoner of Love is not. Firstly, it is not a straightforward reportage of historical events in the Near East; one learns
little history from the book and at the end the reader is left rather
with a bundle of disorderly facts. I found that the book needs to be
read with a history of the period rather than as such a history.

Secondly, Prisoner of Love is not a piece of political propaganda
for the PLO; the book shows the Palestinian leadership to be vain
and corrupt and Genet expresses little hope for the future of the
movement. What could be said to be the book’s political motto is
spoken by a youngfedayee in the form of a question: ‘Having been
slaves, shall we be terrible masters when the time comes?’ (CA
133/PL 96). The belief that political life is a continual negotiation
with evil, relieved only by scintillating moments of revolution, is
a recurrent theme in Prisoner of Love.

However, a third and more substantial point needs to be made;
namely, that Prisoner ofLove is not simply the second volume of
Genet’s autobiography and a sequel to The Thief s Journal. The
two books differ substantially both at the level ofform and content. At the level ofform, Prisoner ofLove lacks the poise, lyrical
self-assurance and thematic coherence of The Thief s Journal. In
Prisoner of Love, Genet’s style is simple, direct and without

Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990

pretension, whilst his images and recollections are almost photographic, offering snapshots which yet manage to express great
poignancy and depth. For example,
Though I was lying still in my blankets as I looked up into
the sky, following the light, I felt myself swept into a
maelstrom, swirled around and yet smoothed by strong but
gentle arms. A little way off, through the darkness, I could
hear the Jordan flowing. I was freezing cold (CA 19/PL 9).

Or again, Genet will suddenly expand the focus of an image in
order to move from the particular to the general, letting the reader
survey a wider historical or political horizon. For example,
As I squatted down, resting, I was drinking tea – noisily,
for it was hot and in those parts it’s the custom to proclaim
the pleasures of tongue and palate. I was also eating olives
and unleavened bread. The fedayeen were chatting in
Arabic and laughing, unaware of the fact that not far away
was the spot where John the Baptist baptized Jesus (CA 55/
PL 37).

The reader of Prisoner of Love is presented with a long series of
these images: luminous, highly coloured and randomly sequenced.

Of course, such a non-linear piling up of images, anecdotes,
snatches of dialogue, maxims and reflections is characteristic of
Genet’s earlier prose, but Prisoner of Love takes this technique a
stage further, mixing genres and almost entirely abandoning the
linear logic of story-telling. The book is bitty and flows awkwardly,
employing or rather being employed by a language that at times
appears to be out of control. Genet remarks that this ‘probably
shows what a relief it is to open the floodgates and release pentup memories’ (CA 255/PL 186). Yet at the same time the narrative
maintains a sinuous continuity which holds the book together by
the slenderest skein. Genet writes: ‘I’ve only to hear the phrase
“Palestinian revolution” even now and I’m plunged into a great
darkness in which luminous, highly coloured images succeed and
seem to pursue one another’ (CA 407-8/PL 302). And again: ‘I
feel now like a little black box projecting slides without captions’

(CA 408/PL 303). The logic and argument of Prisoner of Love is
advanced through bursts of images involuntarily dredged up from
Genet’s memory. And yet, Prisoner ofLove is notA la Recherche
du temps perdu; Genet always remained a kind of anti-Proust. In
The Thief s Journal, Genet argues that any attempt to recompose
the past through the activity of involuntary memory is impossible.

For Genet, a book’ … is not the quest of time gone by (une recherche du temps passe), but a work of art whose pretext-subject
is my fonner life’ (JV 75rrJ 58). This experience of the impossibility of recomposing the past into a present act of writing is
radicalised in Prisoner of Love. For, although the book is, for the
most part, a work of involuntary memory, the book itself does not
and cannot claim to rediscover that past and bring it to life. The
reader is continually faced with the failure to present recollection
in the fonn of writing. Genet asks the reader’ Do you remember?’

(CA 261/PL 190), and remarks to himself: ‘re-reading what I’ve
written’ (CA 167, 325/PL 121, 240) as if to underline the inadequacies of writing as a means for the presentation of remembrance. Prisoner ofLove is a book of flawed memory, a flaw that
is caused by the failure of writing itself. If this is indeed the case,
then the question that must be asked and to which I shall return is:

How does Genet’s narrative in Prisoner of Love recall the truth
about the Palestinian Revolution?

At the level of content, Prisoner of Love at the very least
complicates the triad of betrayal, theft and homosexuality that
combine to fonn the counter morality of The Thief s Journal (JV
181rrJ 141). Theft is not discussed and, although the book’s
central theme is perhaps the eroticism of the revolutionary act (a

Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990

sensuousness expressed in Genet’s descriptions of the fedayeen)
homo-eroticism is not used as a means of linguistic, moral and
political subversion and does not have the shocking intensity of
Genet’s earlier work, particularly Our Lady of the Flowers.

Rather, a different eroticism pervades Prisoner ofLove , what might
be called revolutionary love. Genet, when presented with the
beauty of the fedayeen – ‘decked with guns, in leopard-spotted
unifonns and red berets tilted over their eyes, each not merely a
transfiguration but also a materialization of my fantasies. And
apparently at my disposal’ (CA 244/PL 178) – is surprised at
himself ‘for not feeling any desire for them’ (ibid.). This overcoming of desire in the act of revolutionary love recalls the themes
of Ce qui est reste d’ un Rembrandt … , where, in a third-class
railway compartment travelling between Salon and Saint-Rambertd’ Albon, Genet exchanges a brief glance with a rather ugly
traveller sitting opposite. This glance has the force of a revelation
for Genet, a revelation of the’ universal identity of all people’ (CQ
22), where Genet feels himself flowing away from himself into
the other (‘je m’ecoulais … je m’ec’ CQ 22-3 andcf. GL 21/GLtr
16 et passim). Genet’s problem here, as Jean-Bernard Moraly
expresses it, is the following: ‘If every man is worth the same as
another, how can one desire?’ (VE 112). Beneath the sexual
eroticism that seeks to reduce the other to the self and whose
desire is premised upon the unique individuality of the other
person, Genet locates a fragile glance which produces the revelation
‘that each man is every other man and myself like all the others’

(‘ … qui tout homme est tout autre homme et moi comme tous les
autres’) (CQ 30-31). This conception of love as the recognition
of alterity and revolutionary solidarity – truly an ethical metamorphosis – signals a break with the egoistic, masturbatory desire
that infonns Genet’s earlier work. It is this revolutionary love for
the Palestinians which holds Genet captive and to which he
alludes in the book’s title: Un Captif amoureux. 6
The concept of betrayal undergoes a similar a complex shift
between Genet’s earlier and later work. In The Thief s Journal,
betrayal-low or abject betrayal, ‘la trahison abjecte’ (JV 257rrJ
202) – becomes the unique mode of access to a state of moral and
aesthetic perfection which enables Genet ‘to break the bonds of
love uniting him with mankind’ (JV 258rrJ 202) and found a
morality opposed to that of the social order: saintliness (la saintete1.

For Genet, saintliness is ‘the most beautiful word in the human
language’ (‘le plus beau mot du langage humain’) (JV 226rrJ
178). It is the central ethico-religious concept of Genet’s earlier
prose. Saintliness is a fonn of ‘ascesis’ (JV 227rrJ 178) achieved
through an experience of abjection that demands the recognition
of evil, pain and degradation, of actions that run counter to
accepted notions of human self-interest, that opens the possibility
of total altruism and goodness. It is in saintliness that we learn to
value the other human being more than ourselves. With a paradoxicallogic reminiscent of the narrative voice of Dostoevsky’ s
Notesfrom Underground, Genet’s early homo-erotic prose should
be read as a course of spiritual instruction or purification into
saintliness, a fonn of ethical life in revolt against the Social
Darwinism of European society. Returning to betrayal, the use of
this concept is complicated in Prisoner of Love; in a couple of
passages, Genet employs fonnulations strongly reminiscent of
The Thief s Journal: ‘Anyone who hasn’t experienced the ecstasy
of betrayal knows nothing about ecstasy at all’ (CA 85/PL 59).

And later on: ‘Anyone who’s never experienced the pleasure of
betrayal doesn’t know what pleasure is’ (CA 367/PL 271). But in
other concepts, Genet condemns the betrayal committed by the
Israelis (CA 155-7/PL 112-13), and the Circassians (CA 233/PL
169); and there is a debate throughout the book about the betrayal
of the fedayeen by elements within their leadership. Indeed, what
distinguishes the fedayeen for Genet is precisely their resistance


to the temptation of betraying the revolution: ‘they (thefedayeen)
were beset by the temptation to betray, though I think it was
almost always resisted’ (CA 368/PL 273). Furthermore, if Genet
writes Prisoner of Love in order to tell the truth about the Palestinian Revolution, then it is precisely this truth that he does not
want to betray.

and, more precisely, about what sort of narrative technique is
required in order to tell the truth about a revolution. The question
then becomes (and it is this problem that Genet struggles with on
the pages of Prisoner ofLove): Can writing tell the truth? Or must
writing always exist within an economy of betrayal?

I want to explore these questions by looking in detail at some
extended passages from Prisoner of Love. The book begins with
the following words,

The triumph of truth over art: Genet’s inverted

The page that was blank to begin with is now crossed from
top to bottom with tiny black characters -letters, words,
commas, exclamation marks – and it’s because of them
that the page is said to be legible. But a kind of unease, a
feeling close to nausea, an irresolution that stays my hand
– these make me wonder: do these black marks add up to
reality? (la rea lite est-elle cette totalire des signes noirs ?).

The white of the paper is an artifice that’s replaced the
translucency of parchment and the ochre surface of clay
tablets; but the ochre and the translucency and the whiteness may all possess more reality than the signs that mar

Was the Palestinian revolution really written on the
void, an artifice superimposed on nothingness, and is the
white page, and every little blank space between the
words, more real than the black characters themselves?

Reading between the lines is a level art; reading between
words a precipitous one. If the reality of the time spent
among – not with the Palestianians resided anywhere, it
would survive between all the words that claim to give an
account of it. They claim to give an account of it, but in fact
it buries itself, slots itself exactly into the spaces, recorded
there rather than in the words that serve only to blot it out.

Another way of putting it: the space between the words
contains more reality than does the time it takes to read
them. Perhaps it’s the same as the time, dense and real,
enclosed between the characters in Hebrew ….

So did I fail to understand the Palestinian”revolution?

Yes, completely. I think I realized that when Leila advised
me to go to the West Bank. I refused, because the occupied
territories were only a play acted out second by second by
occupied and occupier. The reality lay in involvement,
fertile in love and hate; in people’s daily lives; in silence,
like translucency, punctuated by words and phrases (CA
11-12/PL 3).

In The Thief s Journal, Genet quips, ‘to speak of my work as a
writer would be a pleonasm’ (JV IIS{fJ 90). He claims that he
wrote in prison in order to take refuge in his past life and that later,
when free, ‘I wrote again in order to earn money’ (ibid.). The
motivation behind Prisoner of Love, as I will show, is quite different. Genet is not writing to make money. He is not even writing
in order to produce a work of art; but rather he writes in order to
tell the truth. This contrasts strongly with Genet’s proclamations
on the truth content of his writing in, for example, 0 ur Lady ofthe
Flowers: ‘What’s going to follow is false, and no one has to accept
it as gospel truth. Truth is not my strong point’ (OLF 169). It also
announces an aesthetics totally at odds with the views of Ce qui
reste d’ un Rembrandt … , where Genet writes,
It is only these sorts of truths, those which are not demonstrable and which are even ‘false’ , those that cannot be
led without absurdity to their extreme point without leading
to their and our own negation, it is these sort of truths that
must be exalted by the work of art (CQ 21).7
For these reasons, Prisoner of Love does not sit at all easily with
the rest of Genet’s prose oeuvre, it rather undermines it, causing
a collapse within its values and vocabulary,
In other days, I think I’d have avoided words like heroes,
martyrs, struggle, revolution, liberation, resistance, courage
and suchlike. I probably have avoided the words homeland
and fraternity, which still repel me. But there’s no doubt
that the Palestinians caused a kind of collapse in my
vocabulary (Mais les Palestiniens sont certainment a
origine d’ un effondrement de mon vocabulaire) (CA 367/
PL 272).

And again, when Genet refers to himself in the third person as an
old man with the dream of a house on the coast with a view of
Cyprus, he writes,
An old man travelling from country to country, as much
ejected by the one he was in as attracted by the others he
was going to … rejecting the repose that comes from even
modest property, was amazed by the collapse that took
placeinhim … (l’ etonnementde sachuteenlui-meme … ) (CA
430/PL 318-19).8
The massive scale of this collapse is recorded on the pages of
Prisoner of Love; Genet was at home in Palestine (CA 463/PL
344), bei sich in a country that does not exist. Recalling the first
quotation from Genet given above, one can conclude that the
event that renders Genet’s literary art imbecilic is the Palestinian

Prisoner of Love proclaims the triumph of truth over art. It is
a work of reverted Platonism, or inverted Nietzscheanism, which
elevates the true – the identity of thought and its object – over the
aesthetic – the metaphorical and non-identical relation of thought
and its object. My hypothesis here is that Prisoner of Love is a
book about the conditions for the possibility of truthful narration,


This passage raises the question that haunts the entirety of
Prisoner of Love and to which Genet will repeatedly return,
namely: ‘Do these black marks add up to reality?’ Do the legible
written signs of a book correspond to the reality which they are
said to describe? Genet replies emphatically in the negative. The
reality of the Palestinian Revolution does not reside in the written
signs that attempt to describe it, but rather that reality buries and
conceals itself in the space between the written signs. The white
space between the words contains more reality than the words
themselves; a point that Genet perversely illustrates by analogy
with the Hebrew language. The corollary of this is that Genet
cannot claim to understand the reality of the Palestinian Revolution within writing; rather, its reality lies elsewhere, in the
everyday life of the Palestinians, in involvement, in a silence that
exceeds the written sign.

Thus, on the first page of Prisoner ofLove, the reader is faced
with the veridical inadequacy of the book he or she is about to
read. There will be no adequation between language and reality,
and no narrative technique (technique du recit) will ever be able
to tell what the revolution was really like (CA 302/PL 222). True
narration is impossible. Writing is betrayal. Genet makes the point

Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990

even more emphatically later in the book,
By transforming a fact into words and characters you
create other facts that can never create the original one. I
state this basic truth to put myself on guard. If it’s only a
question of ordinary morality (commune morale), I don’t
care if someone’s lying or telling the truth. But I must
stress that it’s my eyes that saw what I thought I was describing and my ears that heard it (ce sont mes yeux, mon
regard, qui ont vu ce que j’ ai cru decrire, mes oreilles
entendu). The fonn I adopted from the beginning for this
account was never designed to tell the reader what the
Palestinian revolution was really like.

. The construction, organization and layout of the book
(redt), without deliberately intending to betray (trahir) the
facts, manage the narrative in such a way that I probably
seem to be a privileged witness or even a manipulator….

Sometimes I wonder whether I didn’t live my life
especially so that I might arrange its episodes in the same
seeming disorder as the images in a dream.

All these words to say, this is my Palestinian revolution, told in my 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
(CA 416/PL 308-09).

The transformation of a fact into words does not represent this fact
truthfully, but rather creates a new and different verbal fact that
does not correspond with the one that was to be described.

However, this Nietzschean claim, which Genet’s earlier prose
both presupposes and promotes, causes a verbal collapse within
Prisoner ofLove . For, as Genet repeatedly and almost obsessively
insists (CA45, 405,447, 482/PL28, 300, 331, 358-59), the events
that writing cannot understand and narrate really happened: ‘It’s
my eyes that saw what I thought I was describing, and my ears that
heard it.’ Thus, if writing cannot truthfully describe factual
events, and yet those events occurred and are the ones to be
described, then writing necessarily exists within an economy of
betrayal. The betrayal of the truth which writing attempts to
convey entails that the version of events eventually committed to
writing will have a content imposed arbitrarily by the individual
writer: ‘This is my Palestinian revolution’ (‘ ceci est ma revolution
palestinienne’). As Genet notes in another passage, the order of
the writing, the selection of events and the words chosen to
describe those events will not’ … be set down truthfully, as some
transcendental eye (I’ oei! transcendant) might see them, but as I
myself select, interpret and classify them’ (CA 280/pL 205).

There is no transcendental key that will provide an understanding
of the events of the Palestinian Revolution, nor can the description
of those events lay claim to universal or intersubjective validity.

Yet Genet refuses to let this state of affairs collapse his writing
into a vicious subjectivism freed from demands for communication and truth-telling. He is committed to telling the truth even
when he knows that the truth cannot be told.

However, this problematic has to be nuanced with respect to
the particular events that are being described. Genet is obliged to
tell the truth about the Palestinian Revolution. The question is,
then, not simply: ‘How is reality to be written?’ but rather: ‘How
is the revolution to be written?’ Genet repeatedly describes
revolutionaries as dreamers and the revolution as a dream, a
sublime and mysterious event that defies the linearity of conventional realist description and undermines any adequation
between language and reality. Attempting to write the truth of the
revolution is like trying to see the logic in a dream, and this
imposes a form of writing that is neither realistic, historical or
doctoral, but rather fragmentary and imagistic. Thus – and here

Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990

the form and the content of Prisoner of Love converge – the
necessary failure to understand the truth of the revolution imposes a narrative technique that evokes the sublimity of the revolutionary event: its mystery, its infinity, its naiVete, its joyful
optimism. Prisoner of Love is both a writing of revolution and a
revolutionary writing; it is what Genet calls ‘the celebration of
mystery’ (‘la celebration du mystiire’, or ‘la fete’) (CA 494/PL
367). Form and content combine in the following extraordinary
passage, where an arbitrary enchainment of images becomes
consequential within a revolutionary logic:

It may irritate me when a veteran tells me for the umpteenth
time about the battle of the Argonne, or when Victor Hugo,
in Quatre-Vingt-Treize, goes on about the forests in
Britanny, but it won’t stop me writing again and again that
the days and the nights spent in the forests of Ajloun,
between Salt and Irbid, on the banks of the Jordan, were a
celebration, a fete. A celebration that can be defined as the
fire that warmed our cheeks at being together despite the
laws that hoped we’d have deserted one another. Or as the
escape from the community into a place where people
were ready to fight with us against that community. That
exaltation may be felt when a thousand, a hundred, fifty,
twenty or only two flames last as long as it takes the match
that lighted them to bum out. And the only sound or song
is that of the charred stick writing until it’s consumed.

This last image reminds me that a wake is a kind of fete.

In fact, every fete is at once jubilation and despair. Think
of the death of a Jew in France under the German occupation: he’s buried in a country graveyard, and seven of the
worst Jewish musicians come from seven different directions carrying seven black boxes. Badly but superbly the
clandestine septet plays an air by Offenbach beside the
grave, then each goes off on his own without a word being
said. For the God ofIsaiah, who is only a breath of wind on
a blade of grass, that night was a fete.

The slight or subtle unease of the Mukabarats as I looked
at the mother’s white hair and face was necessary for the
celebration of the mystery, and made it possible for that
strange encounter to become a fete.

Of course it’s understood that the words nights, forests,
septet,jubilation, desertion and despair are the same words
that I have to use to describe the goings-on at dawn in the
Bois de Boulogne in Paris when the drag queens depart
after celebrating their mystery, doing their accounts and
smoothing banknotes out in the dew (defroissant dans la
rosee, les billets de banque).

But every more or less well-meaning organization is
bound to be gloomy – not funereal, but gloomy. So they put
loudspeakers in factories for the music to cheer up the
assembly-line workers and increase their output. The
owners of battery farms say music makes hens lay more
eggs. Any celebration of a mystery is dangerous, forbidden. But when it takes place it’s a fete (CA 494-5/PL 3678).

Prisoner of Love employs a form of writing that celebrates the
mystery of the revolutionary event, an event which, like the
Kantian sublime or the Moral Law, demands our respect. By
limiting the claims to understanding, that which resists understanding is better understood; that is to say, better evoked, feted
or celebrated. However, Genet focusses his revolutionary writing
upon a single image that haunts the entire book. This, and the other
themes that have been discussed so far, are brought together in the
closing passage of Prisoner of Love:


After giving his name and age, a witness is supposed to say
something like, ‘I swear to tell the whole truth … ‘ Before I
started to write it, I’d sworn to tell the whole truth in this
book, not in any ceremony but every time a Palestinian
asked me to read the beginning or other passages from it or
wanted me to publish parts of it in some magazine. Legally
speaking, a witness neither opposes nor serves the judges.

Under French law he has sworn to tell the truth, not to tell
it to the judges. He takes an oath to the public – to the court
and the spectators. The witness is on his own. He speaks.

The judges listen and say nothing. The witness doesn’t
merely answer the implicit question how? – in order to
show the why? he throws light on the how?, a light
sometimes called artistic. The judges have never been to
the places where the acts they have to judge were performed, so the witness is indispensable. But he knows a
realistic description (la verisme d’une description) won’t
mean anything to anyone, including the judges, unless he
adds some light and shade (les ombres et les lumiares) which
only he perceived. The judges may well describe a witness
as valuable. He is.

What’s the point of that medieval, almost Carolingian,
sounding oath in the courtroom? Perhaps it’s to surround
the witness with a solitude that confers on him a lightness
from which he can speak the truth. For there may be three
or four people present who are capable of hearing a

Any reality is bound to be outside me, existing in and for
itself. The Palestinian revolution lives and will live only of
itself. A Palestinian family, made up essentially of mother
and son, were among the first people I met in Irbid. But it
was somewhere else that I really found them.

Perhaps inside myself. The pair made up by mother and
son is to be found in France and everywhere else. Was it a
light of my own that I threw on them, so that instead of
being strangers whom I was observing they became a
couple of my own creation? An image of my own making
that my penchant for day-dreaming had projected on to
two Palestinians, mother and son, adrift in the midst of a
battle in Jordan?

All I’ve said and written happened. But why is it that this
couple is the only really profound memory I have of the
Palestinian revolution? I did the best I could to understand
how different this revolution was from others, and in a way
I did understand it. But what will remain with me is the
little house in Irbid where I slept for one night, and fourteen
years during which I tried to find out if that night ever
happened. This last page of my book is transparent (CA
503-4/pL 374-5).

Prisoner of Love ends with the image of a tribunal, where Genet
is cast in the role of witness, upon whom it is incumbent to tell the
truth, and the reader assumes the role of the judge, who is to listen
to the evidence and come to a decision. The value of the witness
consists in describing acts that the judge did not witness, acts
which are not simply to be described realistically, but are to be
given ‘light and shade’ . It is out of the transparent and memorial
silence of past events that the witness, in his or her solitude, tells
and betrays the truth. The only image that for Genet can evoke the
truth of the revolution, that can bear the entirety of what Genet
calls its ‘enigma’ (CA 242/PL 176), is the couple of mother and
son that he met in Irbid. The revelation of this image is the truth
of Prisoner of Love. But what is this image?


The scene of redemption: Genet becomes God
In 1970, Genet spent a half-day and a whole night in the company
of Hamza, a youngfedayee, and his mother. After striking up a
rapport, Hamza took Genet back to his house to meet his mother,
who was also sympathetic to the revolution. After a simple meal
of sardines, omelette and salad, Genet helped Hamza prepare his
arms for that evening’s action against the JordanianBedouin. That
night, whilst Hamza was out fighting, Genet took his place and
slept in his bed, where, in the middle of the night, Hamza’ smother
brought Genet some coffee and a glass of water.

Such are the bare facts of the story, which appear unremarkable in themselves. However, it is this event that haunts Genet for
the next fourteen years, returning repeatedly like a spectre as the
book develops and which ultimately prompts Genet’s final visit
to the area in 1984 when he meets Hamza’ s mother once again
(CA 460–86/PL 341-61). Now, why does this image bear the
entire mystery of the revolution? How is the sublime truth of the
revolution redeemed in this image? What follows is the crucial
moment in Genet’s narrative.

The fact that the Virgin Mary is called the Mother of God
makes you wonder, since the chronological order is the
same for parenthood human and divine, by what prodigy
or by what mathematics the mother came after the Son but
preceded her own Father. The order becomes less mysterious when you think of Hamza….

I lay fully dressed on Hamza’ s bed, listening to the noise
of battle. It grew less regular but remained just as deafening and apparently close. Then in the midst of this aural
chaos two little reports from nearby seemed to hurl the din
of destruction back. I suddenly realized they were two
peaceful taps at the door of my room. While iron and steel
exploded in the distance, a knuckle was banging on wood
a few feet away. I didn’t answer, partly because I didn’t
know how to say ‘Come in’ in Arabic yet. And “mainly
because, as I said, I’d only just realized what had happened.

The door opened, light from the starry sky came into the
room, and behind it I could see a tall shadow. I half-closed
my eyes, pretending I was asleep, but through my lashes I
could see everything. The mother had just come in. Was
she taken in by my pretence? Had she come out of the now
ear-splitting darkness, or out of the icy night I carry about
with me everywhere? She was carrying a tray, which she
put down on the little blue table with yellow and black
flowers, already mentioned. She moved the table near the
head of the bed, where I could reach it. Her movements
were as precise as a blind man’s in daylight. Without
making a sound she went out and shut the door. The starry
sky was gone, I could open my eyes. On the tray were a cup
of Turkish coffee and a glass of water. I drank them, shut
my eyes and waited, hoping I hadn’t made a noise.

Another two little taps at the door, just like the first two.

In the light of the stars and the waning moon the same long
shadow appeared, as familiar now as if it had come into my
room at the same time every night of my life before I went
to sleep. Or rather so familiar that it was inside rather than
outside me, coming into me with a cup of Turkish coffee
every night since I was born. Through my lashes I saw her
move the little table silently back to its place and, still with
the assurance of someone born blind, pick up the tray and
go out, closing the door. … It all happened so smoothly that
I realized the mother came every night with a cup of coffee
and a glass of water for Hamza. Without a sound, except
for four little taps at the door, and in the distance, as in a

Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990

picture by Detaille, gunfire against a background of stars.

Because he was fighting that night, I’d taken the son’s
place and perhaps played his part in his room and his bed.

For one night and for the duration of one simple but oftrepeated act, a man older than she was herself became the
mother’s son. For ‘before she was made, I was’ (‘j’ etais
avant qu’ elle ne fiit’). Though younger than I, during that
familiar act she was my mother as well as Hamza’s. It was
my own personal and portable darkness that the door of my
room opened and closed. I fell asleep (CA 229-31/PL

can identify himself both as the son of a mother who is younger
than he and, more particularly, as Hamza himself. This image
allows a number of themes to be reconciled:

1. Genet becomes Hamza, the brave fedayee, and thereby becomes an initiate of the mysterious truth of the revolution.

2. Genet becomes reconciled with a mother who, paradoxically,
could be his own mother and is thereby reconciled symbolically
with his absent mother, Gabrielle (JV 46/TJ 34).

3. Genet qua Hamza discovers a home, somewhere outside of
France and Europe where he can find proper repose.

4. Genet becomes God; he is not merely Saint Genet, but the dead
Christ lying in his mother’s arms. The truth ofGenet’s art is an act
of auto-deification.

The various strands of meaning carried by the image ofHamza
and his mother are knotted together in Genet’ s text. And yet the
image is clearly contradictory, for why should the emblem of the
Palestinian revolution be the Christian image of pieta? One has to
believe Genet’ s sincerity
when he says that he does
not know why he chose
this image; it remains for
him a question, a perplexity:

This passage describes Genet’s initiation into what he calls the
‘mysteries of resistance’ (‘mystares de la resistance’) (CA 228/
PL 166). The entire purpose of Prisoner of Love is the recovery
in memory and writing of this event, of the simplicity of this
routine act of a mother’s giving a drink of coffee and water to her
‘son’. It is the event of
this gift that ultimately
prompted Genet’ s visit to
Irbid in 1984, where he
felt compelled to meet
Hamza’s mother in order
, .,. to establish that I knew
something’ (CA 476/PL
Perhaps it’s not very
353). This event, the free
important, but it’s
and routine giving of cofvery strange, that for
fee and water to a stranger
me the seal, the emmistaken as a son, constiblem of the Palestintutes the book’s redempian Revolution was
never a Palestinian
tive moment: the point of
transcendence that Genet
hero or a victory like
has to recover in writing.

Karameh, but that alGenet explains this event
most incongruous apthrough the theological
parition: Hamza and
paradox of the Immacuhis mother ….. But why
had this’oft-repeated,
late Conception; namely,
that Mary is the mother of
profoundly Christian
the God who inseminates
couple, symbolizing
her, precedes her and is
the inconsolable grief
of a mother whose son
ultimately the cause for
her existence. (This is the
was God, appeared to
me like a bolt from the
very concept that resounds
blue as a symbol of
on both columns of Glas.

Derrida asks: ‘And what
the Palestinian resistance? And not only
if the Aujhebung were a
that. That was underChristian mother?’ (G
standable enough. But
280/Gtr 201).) The child
why did it also strike
is therefore older than the
me that the revolution
parent. The significance
took place in order that
of this for Genet is that,
Ercole de’ Roberti’s Pieta, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

for one night and for the
this couple should
haunt me? (que cette
duration of one oft-rerevolte eut lieu afin que me hantat ce couple?) (CA 242peated act, he becomes the son of a mother who is younger than
43/PL 177).

he. This paradoxical event soon begins to haunt Genet and he
comes to associate the couple of himself/Hamza and Hamza’s
It is now clear why the image of Hamza and his mother should be
mother with representations of pieta, that is, the depiction of the
Genet’s ‘only really profound memory’ ofthe Palestinian revoluVirgin mourning the dead Christ. There is no Biblical source for
tion. With this image Genet achieves redemption and reconciliathis, but it is intended to illustrate both the Virgin’s motherly love
tion, redeeming himself and the truth of the revolution in the
for her son (and via him for humanity) and the Christ’s suffering
reconciliation of his desire for a mother, a family, a home, love,
for our salvation. What fascinates Genet is that in some represenproperty, community and God. The final page of Prisoner ofLove
tations of the pieta, Mary appears to be younger than the dead
is left transparent because at that moment Genet achieves the
Christ (CA 240/pL 175).

breakthrough into the reality of ‘involvement, fertile in love and
The paradox of both the pieta and the Immaculate Conception
hate; in people’s daily lives; in silence, like translucency, punctulend an essential and enigmatic ambiguity to the image of Hamza
ated by words and phrases’ (CA 12/PL 3). The economy of
and his mother. If a son can be older than his mother, then Genet

Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990


betrayal, within which the writing of Prisoner ofLove circulates,
is broken by a redemptive moment of transcendence that cannot
be comprehended in writing and, precisely because of this, is able
to comprehend the truth of the Palestinian revolution. Writing the
truth of the revolution is a writing of the truth of what lies outside
of writing: redemption, reconciliation.

Palestinian Sittlichkeit: Genet becomes Hegel
But what is the meaning of this scene of reconciliation? Genet’s
redemption into the truth – what I called above his inverted
Nietzscheanism – privileges love, family, home, property, community and divinity. Reconciliation is the dream of a community
of presence, of co-presence; a community of self-recognition in
othemess, where the other becomes an object of my amorous
cognition; a Christian community bound by the bond of Holy
Spirit and rooted in the Holy Family, of which each empirical
family is an echo; an existing ethical community rooted in
substantial customs and practices and through which the individual
finds actual and not merely abstract freedom. In short, the political
truth that transcends Genet’ s writing is the dream of a polis of
Palestinian Sittlichkeit, that is to say, a free ethical life rooted in
the substantial customs (Sitten) of the community: family, marriage, love, heterosexuality, fecundity, property and divinity (cf.

PR 105-10).

The interesting paradox here is that it is precisely this concept
of Hegelian Sittlichkeit that Derrida attempts to displace in Gias.

The focus of Derrida’ s reading of Hegel is the concept of the
family, which constitutes the first moment of Sittlichkeit in the
Philosophy of Right (PR 110–22). Derrida’s ‘critical displacement’ (GL 6/GLtr 5) of the Hegelian system begins from a reading
of the family, and his claim is that any displacement of the family
will have deep implications for both the concept of Sittiichkeit and
the Hegelian system as a whole (GL 5-6/GLtr 4-5). Now, Derrida
juxtaposes a commentary on Hegel with a text on Genet in order
to aid this critical displacement and, alluding to Genet, he calls his
methodological procedure in Gias ‘a bastard course’ (GL 8/GLtr
6). A commentary on Genet – the bastard, the thief, the homosexual, the unfree enemy of communal morality – intertextually
displaces the values inherent within Hegelian Sittlichkeit. The
question is: has Genet, the enemy of European Sittlichkeit become
Hegelian in Prisoner of Love? In one of the strangely autobiographical passages in Gias, from which a fragment was quoted
above, Derrida writes:

Not to stop the path of a Genet. For the first time I am
afraid, while writing, as they say, ‘on’ someone, of being
read by him. Not to stop him, not to draw him back, not to
bridle him. Yesterday he let me know that he was in Beirut,
amongst the Palestinians at war, the encircled outcasts. I
know that what interests me always takes (its) place over
there, but how do I show it? He almost never writes
anymore, he has interred literature like no one else, he
leaps wherever it (cia) leaps in the world, wherever the
Absolute Knowing of Europe takes a blow, and these
stories of gias, seing, flower and horse must really piss him
off (doivent ie fair chier) (GL 50–51/GLtr 36-37, translation modified).

Would Gias really piss Genet off? How can Derrida show that
what really interests him takes place over there, in the concrete
actuality of revolution or political resistance? How can Derrida
show this interest through the writing of Gias? How can he too
write the revolution? As has been shown, Genet’s path was not


stopped by Gias- indeed, epistolary evidence suggests that Genet
was very appreciative ofDerrida’s work (VE 304)-andhe writes
the revolution in Prisoner ofLove as a testament or souvenir of his
blows against the Absolute Knowledge of Europe. Yet, paradoxically, the book’s truth is the postulation of Palestinian Sittlichkeit,
a form of political life which, whilst challenging the Absolute
Knowledge of Europe, implicitly replicates its ethico-religious
hierarchy: God, property, community, home, family, love, heterosexuality. Prisoner ofLove is a replacement of that which was
to be displaced by Gias. As such, Prisoner of Love enacts a
profound inversion of the ethically privileged terms of Genet’s
earlier writing: homosexuality, betrayal, theft, solitude, alterity,
abjection, and, most importantly, saintliness. As Jean Cocteau,
cited by Sartre in 1952, remarked, ‘Sooner or later it will have to
be recognized that he (Genet) is a moralist’ (SG 584/SGtr 558).

This was and remains true; but what takes place in Prisoner of
Love is a collapse in Genet’s ethical vocabulary which produces
an inversion of values: from an ethic of saintliness which respects
the other’s alterity through an experience of aestheticized abjection,
to an ethic of family and community, where the other is my mother
or brother and is recognised as an object of loving cognition to
whom I am captive. With characteristic irony, it appears that
Genet had the last laugh against both Derrida and Sartre.

And yet, this community is not wirklich. The Palestinians
remain without a homeland, the community remains a promise of
community, and freedom remains abstract and Kantian. Genet
writes a book of memory, the memory of an absent or disappearing
community. His narrative voice is one of resistance and hope, but
one which speaks, as it were, at dusk, when the owl of Minerva
spreads its wings (PR 13). Prisoner of Love is the fragmentary
remembrance of a disappearing community, and as such the book
offers only the promise of community, a promise deferred. To this
extent, Genet’s book resembles the Bibie or the Iliad, and indeed
all books that are written in remembrance and promise. As
Edmund White remarks in his introduction to the English translation of Prisoner ofLove, ‘in a thousand years people will know
of the Palestinian exodus only in his version’ (PL xix).

CA –

Jean Genet, Un Captif amoureux, Paris, Gallimard, 1986.

CQ –

Jean Genet, ‘Ce qui est reste d’un Rembrandt dechire en petits
carres bien reguliers, et routu aux chiottes’ ,in Oeuvres Compllites,
Vo!. IV, Paris, Gallimard, 1968, pp. 19-3l.

GL –

Jacques Derrida, Glas, 2 volumes, Paris, Denoal-Gonthier, 1981.

GLtr – J acques Derrida, Glas, translated by John P. Leavey and Richard
Rand, Lincoln and London, Nebraska University Press, 1986.

JV –

Jean Genet, Journal du voleur, Paris, Gallimard, 1949.

OLF – Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers, translated by Bernard
Frechtman, London, Paladin, 1988.

PL –

Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love, translated by Barbara Bray, London, Pan Books, 1989.

PR –

Hegel, Philosophy of Right, translated by T. M. Knox, Oxford,
Oxford University Press, 1952.

SG –

Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet. Comedien et martyr, Paris,
Gallimard, 1952.

SGtr – Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint Genet. Actor and Martyr, translated by
Bernard Frechtman, London, Heinemann, 1988.

TJ –

Jean Genet, The Thief s Journal, translated by Bernard Frechtman,
Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1967.

VE –

Jean-Bernard Moraly,Jean Genet. La Vie ecrite, Paris, Editions
de la Difference, 1988.

Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990


was authored by two different writers. While one recognizes Genet in lyrical passages which seize the cruel
beauty of human existence in paradoxical figures, one
cannot identify the voice speaking in the more didactic
passages, which give almost journalistic accounts of
Middle East politics and the history of the Palestine
Liberation Movement. It is not unlikely that Genet’s last
work, which has provoked a great deal of gossip in the
press but not much critical reading, was written cooperatively, though the nature of such collaboration and Genet’ s
part in it will never be known.

Although one must defer to Oswald’ s greater familiarity with
Genet’s literary language, intuitively I find no support for her
thesis – why is it implausible for a book to have two or more
narrative voices? It is hoped that this article will provide a
reading of Prisoner of Love which will be parasitic rather than
critical; which will not need to have recourse to any thesis of dual
authorship in order to explain the inversion that Genet’s work
undergoes in Prisoner of Love.

Thistext fonns part of an ongoing commentary on Derrida’s Glas, a part
of which has already appeared as ‘A Commentary on Derrida’ s Reading
of Hegel in Glas’ in the Bulletin of the H egel Society ofGreat Britain 18
(AutumnIWinter 1988), pp. 6-32. Together with a discussion of the
methodology of Derrida’ s reading of Genet and a critical comparison of
Glas and Sartre’s Saint Genet, it is hoped that this commentary will
eventually be published in its entirety.

A remark of Levinas ‘s transcribed inAutrement que savoir, Paris,
Editions Osiris, 1987, p. 72.


In this article I shall remain within the parameters of the legend
of Jean Genet. Jean-Bernard Moraly’sJean Genet. La Vie ecrite
(details above) powerfully contests the legend of Jean Genet:

that he was simply an untutored homosexual thief who suddenly
became a writer, out of boredom, and just as suddenly gave up
writing when he had achieved his desires for liberty and wealth.

This legend is most deceptively apparent in The Thief s Journal,
where Genet writes, ‘through writing I have attained what I was
seeking …. To achieve my legend. I know what I want. I know
where I’m going’ (JV 217-18fTJ 170 -It is this legend that
Derrida writes of at the beginning of his discussion of Hegel in
Glas, GL 2/GLtr 1). In his conclusion Moraly writes:

What has the legend shown us? A rebel who, by
chance, wrote five books in prison and, through boredom, inadvertently wrote five plays. The theatre? He
hates it. The desire to construct une oeuvre? He despises literature and himself has never read and never
written, or nearly. As hazardous as it may have been,
our voyage in the realm of suppositions has the advantage of having shown Genet at work: ceaselessly
reading and writing.

(VE 339)


Cited in Annie Cohen-Solal’ s Sartre. A Life, London, Heinemann,
1987, pp. 316-17. See also in this respect Genet’ s remarks in an
interview with Playboy magazine, cited in Moraly’s biography
(VE 96).


I follow Genet here in describing the Palestinian insurgence as
a revolution rather than resistance. Of course, it is at the very
least questionable whether the Palestinian struggle is assimilable to the Western concept of revolution.


See David McDowell, Palestine and Israel. The Uprising and
Beyond, London, I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1989, pp. 31-33. For a
more comprehensive account of the Palestinian question, see
Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, London and Henley,
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.


In Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (London, Virago, 1977 [1969]),
she argues that Genet ‘ … appears to be the only living male writer
of first-class literary gifts to have transcended the sexual myths
of our era’ (p. 22). The importance of Genet’ s work for feminism
is that he reveals the arbitrary, non-natural status of sexual roles
by replicating heterosexual power/sex relations in a homosexual
context (pp. 18-19). Millet writes:

Moraly produces a great deal of persuasive evidence that there
were unpublished or destroyed manuscripts by Genet, ‘une
oeuvre-iceberg’ (VE 340) of which only the tip was published
(Cf. VE 144). Contradicting the legend of Genet, Moraly constructs Genet’s biography in tenns of the problematic of writing,
showing Genet’ s extensive acquaintance with literature – especially Proust, Gide, Dostoevsky, Rimbaud – and his obsession
with the act of writing, finally asserting that ‘Genet n’est
qu’ecriture’ (,Genet is only writing’) (VE 340). Moraly’s thesis
is supported by some challenging hypotheses and abundant
empirical evidence, upon which I have largely relied for biographical infonnation about Genet.


His critique of the heterosexual politic points the way
toward a true sexual revolution, a path which must be
explored if any radical social change is to come about. In
Genet’s analysis, it is fundamentally impossible to change
society without changing personality, and sexual personality as it has generally existed must undergo the
most drastic overhaul (p.22).

As a final remark on Moraly, it is interesting to note that,
although the tone of Moraly’s book is fashionably anti-Sartrean
throughout (e.g. VE 95-110), he unwittingly employs Sartre’s
central concept of metamorphosis, a notion employed in existential psychoanalysis to explain the development of Genet’s
life and work. According to Sartre, Genet undergoes three
metamorphoses – thief, aesthete, writer – on his ascent to liberty.

For Moraly, it is writing that detennines Genet’s life, and the
metamorphoses of that life are explained in tenns of writing:

Genet is first the prose pornographer, who secondly is metamorphosed into a playwright, and finally becomes a political writer
(Cf. VE 127-28). The unity of these three metamorphoses
establishes, in a thoroughly Sartrean manner, the unity of Genet’ s
oeuvre (VE 149). But why should both Moraly and Sartre want
to employ a triadic pattern of metamorphoses in order to impose
unity upon Genet’ s work?

An interesting thesis on the authorship of Prisoner of Love and
its relation to the Genet legend has recently been proposed by
Laura Oswald in Jean Genet and the Semiotics of Performance
(Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1989). She argues (pp.

ix-x) that Prisoner ofLove was written by two different authors,
Having worked long and closely with Genet’s literary
language, I have the impression that Un Captifamoureux

Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990

There can be no liberation without liberation from sexual oppression, and Genet’ s work offers a path to that liberation. Is this
yet another version of Sartre’ s thesis on Genet? In the closing
pages of her book, Millet writes: ‘Alone of our contemporary
writers, Genet has taken thought of women as an oppressed
group and revolutionary force, and chosen to identify with them’


However, if, as I will argue, Genet’s work undergoes inversion
in Prisoner of Love, then one might read the latter in tenns of a
shift from a writing of feminist resistance to the postulation
outside of writing of a masculine, patriarchal and even heterosexual community. Even though the Palestinian women are
idealized in Prisoner of Love, and Hamza’s mother becomes a
sort of Passionara figure, this is clearly not sufficient for the
kind of sexual revolution envisaged by Millett. It would be
extremely interesting to see what Millet would make of Prisoner
of Love in the light of the reading of Genet proposed in Sexual


‘C’est seulement ces sortes de verites, celles qui ne sont pas
demonstrables et meme qui sont ‘fausses’, celles que 1’0n ne
peut conduire sans absurdite jusqu’ a leur extremite sans alIer a
la negation d’elIes et de soi, c’est celIes-la qui doivent etre
exaltees par I’ oeuvre d’ art. ‘



This is how the sentence reads in translation. However, parts of
this sentence have not been translated from the French,
Le vieillard qui va de pays en pays, chasse par celui ou
il se trouve autant qu’aspire par les suivants – Mozard
enfant disait en entrant dans le nouveau: le royaume de
derniere – refusant le repos que donne la propriete,
meme modeste, connut l’etonnement de sa chute en luimeme, if s’ ecouta, if se regarda vivre (my italics).

This fact, combined with evidence of other untranslated phrases
(for example on PL 166, the phrase, ‘Le mot de songer ne voulant
pas se substituer a celui de djlechir’ (CA 229) is not rendered
into English) leads one to suspect the reliability of the English
translation, although a much more thorough examination would
clearly be necessary.

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Radical Philosophy 56, Autumn 1990

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