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Genet, Jean (19l0-1986)  
 
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Genet as a Public Intellectual

After The Screens and its autodestruction of drama, Genet turned to perhaps the most fascinating and complex of the roles he assumed. From inverted saint to heir of Artaud, Genet then became a public intellectual eager to give whatever cultural weight he had accrued to marginal positions and groups, aiding their collective struggle. The search for revolt moved from an exploration of mystical reverie in Miracle of the Rose to more concrete collective actions.

During a time of relative quiescence in writing, Genet became openly involved with militant politics in the late l960s and early l970s. He defended Mao's Red Guard, supported the Black Panthers during the turbulent years when they were subject to police harassment and brutality, and expressed his solidarity with the Palestine Liberation Organization after Israel took the West Bank in 1967.

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Interviewed by prestigious European newspapers, Genet would refuse to speak of his work; instead, he would use these interviews as an occasion for political activism.

Genet disdained the word intellectual, but it was as a critical intellectual that he worked to sustain support from youth audiences and literary intellectuals for these causes. He toured U.S. college campuses in support of Panther Bobby Seale after Seale's arrest; he took credit for the recognition of gay rights in the Panther organization, mitigating the and sexism that touched many militant groups in the 1960s.

Genet's political commitments were pure and intransigent; despite his constant affirmation of treachery and betrayal in his novels, his work as an espouser of activist politics illustrates his commitment to any struggle where identities are in the process of formation, whether these identities be "black" or "Palestinian."

Edward Said notes in his discussion in Grand Street: "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."

Success in the quotidian sense that usually constitutes political action Genet often suggested was beside the point. Edmund White, in his preface to Prisoner of Love, cites Genet as saying, "The Day the Palestinians become institutionalized, I will no longer be on their side."

Prisoner of Love

The complexities of Genet's relations to the Palestinian cause are charted in his last work, Prisoner of Love (published 1986 as Un Captif Un amoureaux). Occasioned by Genet's return to Palestine after the l982 massacres in Sara and Shatila, Prisoner of Love was completed the year of his death (l986).

In its effort to represent subordinated groups, the book reveals how much self-scrutiny was part of Genet's attempts to represent others. Part travelogue, cultural commentary, and psychological analysis of Genet's own motivations toward political commitment, the work is a provocation to current thinking on Arab-European relations.

As Edward Said observed, Genet never simply goes "native": rather, he carefully examines the differences between his position as a Westerner and the position of indigenous Arabs.

His cultural criticism and political analysis firmly reveals Genet as a critical intellectual in the general French tradition exemplified by Sartre: Yet one cannot imagine a less "nationalist" intellectual. Cosmopolitan in his willingness to be moved by causes vilified by dominant interests, Genet's intellectual allegiances are global.

Prisoner of Love also analyzes, in ways that the novels only suggested, how eroticism could lead to a radical politics. In the case of the Panthers, Genet admitted his erotic attraction to black men; likewise, he was aware of the libidinal charge that hedged his fascination with the young soldiers of the PLO.

However, erotic attraction leads to the clearer articulation of what Genet's work had always promised to do: establish a new ethic. Rather than ostracize and eroticize these new attractions, Genet attempts to use them as an incitement to dialogue and self-scrutiny. Despite its focus on the male bonds of the military, Prisoner of Love also led to Genet's most sustained meditation on women.

Genet died in l986 after completing Prisoner of Love, leaving behind not only a striking body of work, but a powerful example pure in its commitments and obsessions.

Amy Farmer

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    Bibliography
   

Brooks, Peter and Joseph Halpern, eds. Genet: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1979.

Chaudhuri, Una. "The Politics of Theater: Play, Deceit, and Threat in Genet's The Blacks." Modern Drama 28 (1985): 362-376.

Driver, Tom. "An Exaltation of Evil." Saturday Review (11 March 1967): 36-37, 113.

Durham, Scott, ed. "Genet: In the Language of the Enemy." Yale French Studies 91 (1997): 159-184.

Said, Edward. "On Jean Genet's Late Works." Grand Street 9.4 (1990): 27-42.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Saint Genet. Trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1963.

Thody, Philip. Jean Genet: A Study of His Novels and Plays. New York: Stein and Day, 1970.

White, Edmund. Genet. London: Chatto and Windus, Ltd., 1993.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Farmer, Amy  
    Entry Title: Genet, Jean  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated December 29, 2007  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/genet_j.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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