D.he first impression: a look at a historical document, at a time when literature and politics were seldom close. A trip back to the time before 1989, before the fall of the wall and the iron curtain, which Jean Genet (1910 to 1986) was no longer to see. His political writings and interviews, which appear as part of the German edition of his works by Merlin Verlag, are very close to his literary work, thematically but also structurally, because for Genet literature was an act of revolt. That did not prevent him from concrete engagements, which are discussed in detail in the volume: especially for the Black Panthers and the Palestinians, as well as for the migrants in France and incidentally something for the Viet Cong.
The essays can mainly be dated to the years 1968 to 1975, with 1970 being the climax, the year of the trips to the United States and Palestine. Genet was driven by the desire to stand on the side of the “truth of tomorrow” – and by a passionate hatred of the French majority society (embodied by Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, for example), of “US imperialism” or Israel as a “bruise on the shoulder of a Muslim”. In other words: to the western world, which is branded as colonialist-capitalist.
Provocation and unscrupulousness were traces of being a street boy
Even if the situation of the Palestinians and the blacks is essentially unchanged, many topics and judgments of Genet seem obsolete to today’s readers – but above all his political language, which almost seems like the intellectual and popular culture folklore of bygone times. Depending on your point of view, you can either condemn them as misguided (or smile at them) or consider them with nostalgia for idealistic engagement. Both lines of sight back fail, however. Viewed individually, there is a lot to be said for Genet, who first made a name for himself as a novelist, especially with “Querelle de Brest” (1947) and the “Diary of the Thief” (1949); Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre were its discoverers and promoters. Perhaps even more striking are the dramas, such as “The Maids” (1947), “The Negroes” (1958) or “The Walls” (1961).
The public welfare child who was taken out of foster care and school at the age of thirteen in order to enjoy all the joys of educational, reformatory and penal institutions that France of the thirties and forties could offer in any case, assert excellent reasons to be at odds with his home country. The fact that Genet found drastic expression for this in that he was delighted with the victory of Hitler’s Germany in 1940 shows a decided pleasure in provocation and the ruthlessness of the street boy he had been.
Explosive justification for revolutionary violence
The second point is general. Ever since the historicity of human existence was discovered around 1800, the power of time to change has often been overestimated. Sure, times change, but some things don’t – many values or feelings, for example, are more nuances of basic human equipment, the variations of which are intellectually interesting, but do not mean any fundamental change. And if circumstances or behavior change, then it is by no means said that this change is permanent. That is why what Genet proclaims in his political writings and interviews may not have passed as it may seem to some.
The most explosive example is the justification of revolutionary violence. Genet does this above all in his infamous text “Violence and Brutality” (published in Le Monde on September 2, 1977), which was dedicated to the members of the RAF imprisoned in Stammheim and which caused a scandal: the BDI was supposed to be published three days after it was published -President Hanns-Martin Schleyer are kidnapped by the RAF, killing three people; Schleyer was later murdered. Excerpts from the article appeared in German in Der Spiegel magazine on September 12th. Genet’s apology that revolutionary violence is merely an answer to the brutality of bourgeois society could not have been more inconvenient. In terms of argument, it has the same function as the thesis of systemic violence (Genet himself speaks of the “brutality of the system”), against which one has to defend oneself – and is similarly absurd.