Barbara Burns interviews Joanne Brueton, whose book Geometry and Jean Genet: Shaping the Subject was published by Legenda earlier this year, in our Research Monographs in French Studies series, a joint project with the Society for French Studies.
BB. How did your interest in French language and culture begin?
JB. It all started with a great teacher, as so many of these journeys do! I went to a state school in Stratford-upon-Avon and loved hearing stories of my French teacher’s antics as an undergraduate at the University of Bordeaux in the 1980s. I was studying two canonical radicals for my A Levels – Colette and Camus – when he pulled out a battered, type-written copy of an introduction to existentialism. This caught my imagination: it introduced me to ways of thinking about the construction of our identity, our choices and our freedoms, and the imperative to question what makes us who we are.
I went on to study French and Spanish at St John’s College, Cambridge, where I specialised in modules from Occitan troubadour poetry to underground French cinema. After spending my year abroad in Paris working at a literary agency, I was hooked on learning more about modern French writing. I did a Masters in French and francophone thought at UCL, which led me to a PhD via a year teaching at the University of Paris-Sorbonne (Paris-IV). Looking back, I realise that my interest in French language and culture is the product of the relations I have had with brilliant teachers, mentors, and scholars who embody that most French way of thinking about the world: a philosophical curiosity that refuses to accept the status quo and believes in the power of language and poetry to change it.
BB. Jean Genet is relatively little known in the English-speaking world. He seems to have been a controversial figure – a complex mix of philosopher and petty criminal, political activist and art critic, and his writing was regarded as provocative in the way it presented homosexuality and criminality. You describe him as a ‘now canonical, albeit seditious, anti-French writer’. What can you tell us about this highly creative but troubled individual, and why do you think it’s important to study his work?
JB. I came to Genet’s work rather serendipitously, in one of those mad-dash trips to the library when you need to flesh out a dissertation proposal! I had been studying another literary pariah, Georges Bataille (1897–1962), who had singled Genet out as an author who was so cold in his way of writing about people and the world that he was ‘incapable of communication’. What does it mean to write but not communicate? Can literature narrate one’s solitude and still touch other people? Genet’s personal legend is very compelling: his first novel written twice on scraps of newspaper in prison; a petty thief whose literary prodigy led two canonical thinkers of the time, Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre, to petition for his release; an audacious writer of underground queer life in 1930s-1960s France; a strident advocate for the dispossessed, from North African immigrant workers in 1970s France to the Black Panthers and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. Genet was a nomad, drifting at the margins of urban society to engage with the voices of criminals, homosexuals, the homeless and the stateless.
Rather than read Genet’s work as unsociable (as Bataille does), or as unethical (as several other leading scholars claim), I found myself writing an undergraduate, Masters, doctoral thesis, and then a book (!) on why reading Genet offers us a more egalitarian way to relate to others. His novels, plays, essays on art, and political memoirs offer us the very language of resistance that our contemporary moment demands. His own non-conformity challenged the violence of the centre-margin binary; his writing destablises the norms of gender and identity by which we can be classified and then oppressed; and his texts rehearse ideas of social transformation that expose the folly of western power structures that organise and condemn today.
BB. Is Genet’s writing regarded as too philosophically impenetrable to be accessible to general readers, or is there a title you would recommend in English translation as a useful introduction to his work?
JB. Perhaps the sheer volume of time I have spent with Genet is a testament to how complex these processes are! Part of the thrill of reading him is less his ideological complexity, and more the fact that his elaborate prose reverses what we might expect from language itself. He uses his texts to expose how what we say, and how we say it, ushers in a political outlook. So he experiments with what might happen if we we find freedom in incarceration, if we achieve saintliness through evil, or if we deny family to build a community based on our shared solitude. These ideas are slippery in his work, as Genet dramatises how, when a set of words become a concept, they threaten to become a norm, are institutionalised, and lose their capacity for insurrection. (He famously stated that as soon as the Palestinians became a nation-state like any other, he would immediately withdraw his support). In an interview in Playboy magazine in 1964, Genet vowed never to become part of the French literary canon. But in 2021, his novels and poems were consecrated by France’s publisher of great classical works la Pléiade, printed on Bible paper, in a gesture that ranks Genet as a seminal French author. Yes, Genet’s writing is deviant, enigmatic, and even abstract at times. But there is a reason why two of France’s leading philosophers – Jean Paul Sartre (1905–80) and Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) – extolled his writing as trailblazing: it jolts us out of any preconceived notions of the way things always are, or have to be, at the turn of every page.
For the uninitiated, I would recommend either starting with Genet’s early memoir, The Thief’s Journal (1949), which recounts life and lust as a vagabond travelling around Barcelona and Eastern Europe in the 1930s, or his essay on the Swiss sculptor, Alberto Giacometti (1950), which Picasso lauded as the best piece of writing on art he had ever read.
BB. It’s unusual to see a book on a literary writer with the word ‘geometry’ in the title and ‘points’, ‘vectors’ and ‘planes’ in the chapter headings. Why is the language of geometry so central in Genet’s work? Can you explain the basic concept underpinning your book?
JB. Yes, it was certainly surprising to find so many mathematical shapes woven into Genet’s texts! I was consistently struck by the sheer volume of geometric figures – points, lines, diagonals, grids, and circles – that arise whenever Genet is trying to explain how his vision of the self relates to the world. It got me thinking about the history of geometry, as a way of measuring space in order to demarcate and apportion land. Originating in Ancient Egypt as King Sesostris sought a way to divide terrain between citizens, geometry was later caught up in the colonial practices of European cartographers who carved up territory in the expansion of Empire. Genet takes these dehumanising forms of measurement – which turned space into capital, and individuals into numbers – to imagine subjectivity as itself a spatial map. He liberates the self from the fixed metrics imposed by identity or gender politics, for example, to consider that much more unquantifiable dimension of selfhood as a position: always related to an Other who sits painfully out of reach.
In writing the book, I found that geometry provides a critical vocabulary in which to bring what is most incalculable about being human into relief. For example, the Roman architect, Vitruvius, recounted in the first century BC how when the Socratic philosopher, Aristippus, was shipwrecked on the island of Rhodes and discovered the traces of geometric figures, he felt immediately reassured: not because humans had been physically present, but because geometry was a sign of communication, signalling the ethical promise of humanity.
BB. Can you give us one or two examples of images from geometry which Genet uses?
JB. A striking example is how he draws on the geometric point as an image of our impenetrable singularity. The point becomes a wound, a puncture, or stigma, that sits at the core of each individual, which unites us in a form of standing together, while being apart. Or, how upon admiring Giacometti’s sculptures, he states that ‘a line is a man’ and opens up a way of thinking about the yoke of lineage, and how we can embrace a more transversal, multiple, and unpredictable form of relation that bonds, not binds. Such unseen geometries speak also to the work of several twentieth-century French philosophers, from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, to Roland Barthes, Hélène Cixous, and Michel Foucault. The book suggests that Genet’s geometry offers a new way to critically approach modern French literature and thought, one which promotes the radical anti-identitarian mood of the twentieth century and galvanises the possibility for social change.
BB. What were the biggest challenges in researching this subject?
JB. Definitely the hardest has to be not being a mathematician! Borrowing a term like geometry from a different disciplinary logic posed several challenges: how to demonstrate the differences between literature and mathematics; how to show that texts that prominently foreground the mathematical often undermine its claim to establish a coherent, stable order; and how to query Galileo’s own apocryphal maxim about using mathematics to ‘measure what is measurable and make measurable what is not’. I had already experimented with the idea of uniting these two worlds in a co-authored book with Antoine Houlou Garcia and Bernard Randé, Le compas et la lyre: Regards croisés sur les mathématiques et la poésie (2018). I analyse how in a handful of modern French literary figures, including poets Charles Baudelaire and Stéphane Mallarmé, playwright Samuel Beckett, and literary critic, Roland Barthes, the figure zero constantly reoccurs: not as a void or an absence, but as a poetic mode that makes what escapes representation both present, and acutely felt. More generally, the book traverses a host of artists from Edgar Allen Poe to Lewis Carroll, OuLiPo poet Jacques Roubaud to the Russian abstract artist, Walter Kandinsky, to show that the artistic world of the senses is, albeit unexpectedly, best expressed through the abstract idiom of mathematics. To build on – and slightly bend – the words of the Martinican poet and politician, Aimé Césaire, for whom ‘poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge’, perhaps there is room in both literature and mathematics to go beyond the French Enlightenment values of reason and the desire to know, and to pursue the much more liberating path of unknowing, or undoing what we think we know.
BB. You currently work at the University of London Institute in Paris, which is the only British university in mainland Europe. What is it like to live and teach there, compared to the UK?
JB. It’s a rare and rewarding experience to think, teach, and do research on contemporary French literature in the metropole itself, as the process of reading becomes embodied in the encounters of a multicultural francophone city. You get to attend the book launches of lesser-known French writers who don’t necessarily make it across the Channel; or participate in conferences with colleagues from French universities whose literary methodology differs from, and complements, the more interdisciplinary, cultural studies approach of an anglophone education. Students at ULIP hail from largely British backgrounds, and they each bring their intellectual curiosity to what French life might be like beyond the museumification of Paris in books and films. I teach undergraduate classes on gender and queer politics in French writing, critical theory and postcolonial thought, and postgraduate modules on exiles in the francophone world. It is a great privilege to talk to students in the classroom and the corridor, drawing on their own position as expats to think more critically about other outsiders in a French context.