Barbara Burns interviews Mairéad Hanrahan, author of the recently published Legenda volume Genet's Genres of Politics.
BB. Genet is a famously controversial avant-garde writer, a complex and seditious personality who rebels against the established order. This is your second book on him; can you tell us what interests you so much in him?
MH. I guess the main reason is that he is just one of the most original figures in twentieth-century French culture! He had an extraordinary trajectory: he was a foster child who spent his adolescence and early adulthood in and out of various penal institutions, and who discovered writing in the most unlikely of circumstances. That transformed his life: freed from financial necessity by the extraordinary success of his works (and freed from the consequences of his early life by being sponsored by influential people such as Sartre), he was able to live most of his life with an enviable level of liberty to do what he pleased. But that freedom was a result, not the cause, of the exceptional imaginative freedom he had adopted while still in prison! If Genet is an iconic reference in debates about identity, it is because his work was hugely formative: his explicit representation of homosexuality, his treatment of gender, his staging of racial relations were unprecedentedly innovative long before the very notion of identity politics gained acceptance.
BB. So that suggests his writing rather than his life is what matters for you?
MH. Yes, absolutely. Genet is a real poet: someone who is of lasting significance less for any ‘message’ he sought to convey than for the new, original voice he forged. And part of the reason for my wanting to write a second book about him was the sense I had that that special voice was getting lost in today’s general rush to prioritize political positioning over everything else.
BB. Yet your book is specifically about Genet’s politics. Can you explain your approach for the benefit of the uninitiated?
MH. In my eyes, Genet is a particularly rich case to explore the relation between art and politics precisely because the political significance of his work lies as much in the form his writing takes as in any message or ‘content’ one might find in it. Indeed, one of the fascinating aspects of his legacy is that his work has given rise to hugely different interpretations. For some (probably for most), he is a revolutionary, an enthusiastic supporter of the oppressed; but for others, he is a reactionary with fascist sympathies. For me, the fact that his work could generate such opposing views was in itself food for thought.
There is no doubt that his work is profoundly concerned with political questions. But equally there is no doubt that it can’t be easily fitted into any political category. And it seemed to me that there was something about that impossibility of classifying him politically that was fundamental for our understanding of the relation between art and politics not just in Genet but in general. Basically, I wanted to explore how it could simultaneously be true that Genet’s work can neither be situated on the political spectrum nor presented as separable from political issues and practice. To put that in more technical terms, I argue that the relationship between art and politics in Genet is not a dialectical one: the difference persists as a constant tension between them rather than being reconciled in an overarching unity.
BB. Is that attention to formal issues why you structured your argument around genre?
MH. Yes and no. Yes, in that I wanted to insist that the significance of Genet’s work – of any great literature – can only be approached by attending to its formal aspects: by engaging with what it does as much as what it simply says. But no, in that it seemed to me that everything about Genet’s writing is political, including such literary categories as genre: I wanted to challenge the notion that any ‘purely’ aesthetic sphere exists. And of course I was helped here by the fact that ‘genre’ is also another word for class, the archetypical political category...
BB. I’m struck that you don’t pay much consideration to the fact that ‘genre’ in French also means gender...
MH. So was I! My first book gave pride of place to questions of gender in Genet, and the fact that class is more prominent in this one of course doesn’t mean that I would minimize the importance of the former. But my focus is on showing how no identity – whether sexual, racial, economic, or generic! – is ‘simple’ (or, as we could say following the insights of deconstruction, ‘identical to itself’). And on exploring the political implications of that.
BB. One of your chapters is provocatively titled ‘Revolting Theatre’. Can you explain a little what you are arguing about Genet’s dramatic work?
MH. I play on the fact that ‘revolting’ means both disgusting and to do with rebellion. It’s in Genet’s theatre that he first directly addresses the question of revolution. It emerges there along with the question of recuperation, it emerges as a question of recuperation. I’m interested in how politics is like a constant attraction or itch for Genet: he is tempted by it but also increasingly suspicious, as time went on, that his work could serve to shore up rather than undermine the social structures that he wants to attack.
BB. What was the most surprising aspect of this research project?
MH. The most surprising was certainly the discovery, in my final chapter, that religion offered an unexpectedly fruitful lens to approach Genet. It arose initially because I wanted to engage with the – in my view unmerited and unilluminating – allegations that he was anti-Semitic. I would go so far as to say that he is one of the least racist writers I have ever read. But there is no doubt that he said some troubling things about the Jewish religion. I won’t reproduce my overall argument here but in summary I show how his hostility is in fact a hostility towards Judeo-Christianity more broadly, and that the important line for Genet is the one that exists not between Judaism and other religions, or between religion and atheism, but between monotheism and other kinds of religion.
In addition, religion, a word which derives from the Latin religare ‘to bind’, is also of value in helping us to understand his attachment to the Palestinians, with whom he spent two years in 1970-72. It is fascinating that Genet seems for the first time to have found in their company – and in that of the Black Panthers, with whom he also spent some time in 1970 – a sense of community, although a community to which he did not belong.
BB. Is Genet’s work included in university curricula today? If so, what do students make of him?
MH. Genet has a rather peculiar, albeit iconic, place in French literature! His plays are the texts that get most taught; they have been a regular feature on university curricula for many decades now. That is probably because the novels for which he first became known are very explicit sexually, which makes teaching them a delicate matter. I have often taught Les Bonnes (The Maids) on courses dealing either with theatre or with 20th-century writing, but I have also taught Journal du voleur (The Thief’s Journal) many times at UG level and Pompes funèbres (Funeral Rites) in my MA class. Students generally love him – his works are centrally concerned not just with questions of identity, a question of the utmost importance for people their age, but with sex!
BB. What’s next for you on the research front – more Genet, or something different?
MH. The book I’m working on at the moment follows on from this in that it’s concerned with genre – but not with Genet! It’s provisionally entitled Genres of Grief: I’m interested in investigating whether the different genres people choose to write about grief – poetry, fiction, autobiography etc. – makes a difference, or what difference it makes. For example, the French poet Jacques Roubaud wrote both a volume of poems called Quelque chose noir and a prose work called Le grand incendie de londres following the untimely death of his wife Alix. I explore the significance of the choice of genre from his perspective: what difference is there between what a poem or a prose work can or cannot do?