A new tome of Jean Genet’s novels and poetry came out in 2021. Historically, most have had two versions: a hard-to-find “clandestine” one and another destined for a broader audience. The second mainly toned down the homoerotic “pornographic” parts. With this new publication, the clandestine texts take their place as the primary versions.
Focusing on the final book, Thief’s Diary, Genet considered “betrayal, theft and homosexuality” as its “essential subjects.” Through writing, he “composed an unknown (to [himself] first of all) (moral) order.” The order took society’s existing language and reversed its values, creating beautiful poetry of the abject; linguistic nobility of the shameful. While he was in an ordinary sense a thief, the appropriation of language in a way that profitably provoked his readership seemed to run in the same vein.
His composition of order was overshadowed by the mountain of critiques and analyses that followed its drafting, starting with Sartre’s massive study, Saint Genet. The speed with which Genet went from scribbling to wile away empty hours in his various prison cells to finding himself at the centre of literary attention and scandal was dizzying. Here, we simply want to reflect, with the help of Émile Benveniste and Plato, on how the book brought out the two sometimes incompatible senses of significance, that of naming and that of importance.
With words if I try to recompose my attitude from back then, the reader will not be fooled any more than I. We know our language is incapable of recalling even the reflection of these defunct, foreign states. It would be the same for this diary if it had to be the notation of who I was. I will clarify therefore that it has to describe who I am, now that I write it. It is not a search for a past time, but a work of art whose material-pretext is my life at one time. It will be a present fixed with the aid of the past, not the inverse. Be aware then that the facts were what I say, but the interpretation that I make of them, that is what I have—become.
Diary, published originally in 1949, recounted episodes of Genet’s life during the 1930s as he passed through Spain, Italy, Central Europe, Antwerp and Paris. As the “essential subjects” indicate, the emphasis was on his criminal and love life. Following in the footsteps of André Gide, and in contrast to Proust, the facts were presented openly as what they were and as his. At the same time, it was fictionalized; a work of art. Regardless of the line between fact and fiction, the project was one of “interpretation.” Genet used language to interpret, which is to say conceptualize or give coherent and communicable form to, his adventures.
This use of language was a central theme in linguist Émile Benveniste’s 1969 lectures on semiology (semiotics). After a career adhering to the Saussurean starting point of language as a system of signs, he confessed, “I am beginning to doubt that language really belongs to semiotics.” This was not a wholesale change in position—language was still a system of signs and its interpretive role was already recognized—, but rather a shift in focus that, for us, helps frame Genet’s project.
The shortcoming of Saussure’s starting point was that languages were among a great many systems of signs. Semiotics, the study of such systems, was primarily focused on first-order considerations. The uniqueness of language was second order, in being the means by which systems came to be and, after they were, how those systems could be explained and analyzed. Benveniste’s shift brought the second order to the fore.
Music is frequently used to tease out language’s interpretive role. Sounds, physically as waves and physiologically as aural experiences of those waves, exist in the world. Musicality, a general intuition Plato observed in Philebus, also exists among and beyond humans. For things like commonly understood notation and standardized instruments, though, music has to become a system. A subset of sounds must be signified by signifiers shared in a community. In other words, certain sounds have to be named. Moreover, they need to be related by some sort of internal logic and be largely complete. Largely complete means combinations of the finite elements can approach infinite expression. As Plato put it, “all the elements of infinity, bound down by the finite.”
The system is arbitrary in the sense that it could have been a different subset organized in a different way. Though the physics and physiology are shared, a variety of systems have been made of musical notes related by scales and phrasing. Further, even if, as we are arguing, language is both a significant system in itself and a necessary intermediary between sounds and systems of music, a piece of music cannot be translated into language or vice versa. What language can do should not be overstated.
Plato did not fully explain the role of language—Philebus was centred on pleasure, after all. That the analysis, or semiotization, was borrowed from Theuth (Thoth), the Egyptian god of writing, gives us a hint, as does the actual use of language in the dialogue—along with the other key component: counting—in the understanding of music, language itself, pleasure and so on. Still, it suffices to give an idea of how interpretation can play out beyond modern linguistics.
A fourth “class” was part of Plato’s argument, besides “the finite, the infinite [and] the composition of the two.” “The cause” was the divine spark, the “soul” with “all the attributes of wisdom,” that motivated people, particularly when caught up in the enthusiasm of youth, to leave “no stone, or rather no thought unturned, now rolling up the many into the one, and kneading them together, now unfolding and dividing them.” Many implications were drawn from this; what is important for our purposes is that people have a broad impetus to name, interpret and order themselves and the world around them.
Bringing the argument back to modern times, Benveniste noted that, “The most elementary inter-human functions, those that maintain the existence of individuals, the functions of production and those of generation, are the primary significant functions.” While systems can become complex and it is easy to assume only complicated groupings tend to be named, the impulse builds off “the most elementary.” This is not to say such “inter-human functions” need in all cases to be named to exist, or that all names are explicit (e.g. the subject named explicitly as a personal pronoun versus implied by a verb conjugation), only that the drive to name touches even the simplest aspects of existence.
It also should be pointed out that the avoidance of naming certain things and actions is not necessarily reason to think they are not significant in a given community. Benveniste, in Structure and Relations of Person in the Verb, raised the example of the lack of person-based conjugations in Korean. As the language had “a complete series of personal pronouns that can come into play,” the person was still an element. A better explanation for the person to not be indicated verbally was a habit of keeping the ever-present signalling of social rank impersonal or at least ambiguous. One upside of Saussure’s language-as-a-system approach is that it offers enough context to get a sense of whether the unsaid is in or out of bounds.
Elementary functions, like any systematized elements, are a case of “infinity, bounded down by the finite.” For inter-human relations, the system is society. The interlocutors “I” and “you” and the excluded “they,” whether explicitly or implicitly signified, are notes in the social symphony. “Without this linguistic distinction that introduces the relation of dialogue and that of otherness, no society is possible.” Here again, while language is necessary for society, that does not mean one determines or can translate the other.
One final point before turning to Genet. It was not by accident that Plato invoked a god of writing. Benveniste argued that writing fixed language iconically, meaning that “writing has always and everywhere been the instrument that has permitted language to semiotize itself.” In the dialogue, “grammarians” systematized the alphabet with the aid of visual representation. Present-day standardization and the consequent slowing of linguistic change are in large part due to writing. We would go further: written laws, contracts and the like have had a comparable impact on society.
Genet’s project left very little implicit or unsaid—unwritten, rather. Society was a cohesive cluster, an “edifice,” of significance he felt both excluded from and part of:
Excluded by my birth and by my tastes from a social order of which I didn’t distinguish the diversity. I admired the perfect coherence that refused me. I was stupefied before an edifice so rigorous the details of which were understandable as against me. Nothing in the world was unusual: the stars on a general’s sleeve, market prices, harvesting olives, judicial style, the grain exchange, flowerbeds… Nothing. This order, dreadful, dreaded, of which all the details were in exact connection with a sense: my exile. It is in the shadows, underhandedly, that up until then I acted against it. Today I dare touch it, to show that I touch it by insulting those that are a part of it. In the same way that I recognize the right to do it, I recognize my place in it. It seems natural to me that servers in cafés call me “sir.”
The description placed him at the outset as a third-person other acting against society “in the shadows” and not part of the dialogue. Later, he saw himself as included though still in an adversarial position. The book regularly made both its role in the I-you back-and-forth and the tension between inclusion and antipathy explicit, “I feared in the end to lose the benefit of my laborious and difficult step in the opposite direction from yours.”
Opposition to society, as an inter-human relationship, was only fully realizable through language:
The reasons for my choice the sense of which has perhaps only been given to me now I must write it did not appear to me with clarity. I believe I needed to dig, to forage a mass of language where my thought was at ease. Perhaps I wanted to accuse myself in my language. Albania, Hungary, Poland, not India or Brazil would have offered me as rich a material as France. In effect theft—and everything attached to it: prison sentences with the shame of the profession of thief—had become a disinterested enterprise, a sort of active and thought work of art that could only happen with the aid of language, mine, confronted with the laws issued in the same language. Elsewhere, I could only be a more or less talented thief, but, in thinking myself in French, I would see myself as French—this quality that does not allow for any other—among foreigners. Thief in my country, in order to become one and justify to myself that I am one using the language of those stolen from—who are myself because of the importance of language—it was due to this quality of thief that offers the chance of being unique. I became the foreigner.
There are two key points. First, belonging to a society or community trumps individual traits. Outside France, Genet was excluded not so much because he personally was an outsider but because he belonged to another society. Due to the human tendency to “[roll] up the many into one,” he was placed, and place himself, in the category “French.”
Second, in order to express his solitude, to accuse himself of being a social deviant, he needed to have sufficient mastery of conventions, predominantly linguistic. A central connotation of “work of art” is as an object of individual expression, yet the social context is equally important. As Genet put it, “My life must be legend which is to say readable and its reading gives birth to some new emotion I name poetry.” The expression needs to be both “bound down by the finite” in order to be understandable in the community and avail itself of the limited elements’ near infinite combinations to elicit something novel.
Thinking and acting as a thief in the same language as his victims, the one in which the laws of the land were written, was insufficient:
Being an orphan resulted in a solitary adolescence and childhood. Being a thief made me believe in the singularity of the profession of thief. I was, I told myself, a monstrous exception. In effect, my taste and my activity as a thief were in relation with my homosexuality, came from it which already kept me in an unusual solitude. I was greatly shocked when I noticed at what point stealing was common. I was plunged in the heart of banality.
The events as interpreted by language, as readable and poetic, seemed to evade that banality. “If I couldn’t have the most brilliant, I wanted the most miserable destiny, not for a sterile solitude, but in order to obtain an exceedingly rare material, a new œuvre.” The material was not new in itself—he was far from the first thief or homosexual on record—but his conceptualization of the life he had led certainly made original connections between what he termed the abject and the beautiful.
Only, as Emmanuelle Lambert pointed out, Genet’s language changed as his readership grew and he became, to borrow Sartre’s expression, “clandestine in broad daylight.” In previous books, words like “fag,” “fairy” and “queen” (“pédé,” “tapette” and “tante”) dominated while “homosexual” was limited to medical and legal contexts. In Diary, “homosexual” was prevalent. The shift from provocative to conventional language suggests his fear of losing his “laborious and difficult step in the opposite direction” was justified.
There is perhaps a deeper dilemma at play than the balance between readability, favouring the community’s shared rules, and poetic language, favouring unique individual expression. Genet touched on it in the middle of Diary’s first page when mentioning that, “Erotic games open an unnameable world revealed by the lovers’ nocturnal language. Such a language is not written. It is whispered the night in an ear, by a hoarse voice. At dawn one forgets it.” It would be tempting to draw a line between between immediate and language-mediated human relations, and argue that something is lost when using words to describe the former. Yet the games, as elementary as they might have been, did not escape the conceptualizing and communicating habit Benveniste and Plato outlined. Only, they used an ephemeral sort of language at odds with the relative permanency of print.
Writing allowed Genet’s life to become—to be interpreted as—legend, an enduring and visually iconic part of his exchange in and against society. Despite close connections linking the “essential subjects” of criminality and sexuality, it was also incompatible with the significance of certain inter-human relationships at the heart of that life. This incompatibility echoes a passage from Marguerite Duras’s The Lover from Northern China, a similarly sexually charged interpretation of an author’s younger days, that combined naming, banality, and future perfect’s becoming after the fact:
She does it. She says, in the midst of the pleasure, his name in Chinese. She did it. They look at each other, look until tears come. And for the first time in her life she says the conventional words for saying it—the words of books, of cinema, of life, of all lovers.
“I love you.”
The Chinese hides his face, struck by the sovereign banality of the words the child said. He says yes, it’s true. He closes his eyes. He says very quietly:
“I believe that’s what will have happened to us.”
Trent Portigal is a writer of eclectic curiosities. Novels include Our New Neolithic Age (2021), Simulated Hysteria (2020), Death Train of Provincetown (2019) and The Amoeba-Ox Continuum (2017).