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Jean Genet's Inquiry into Language

The Letter, Issue 33, Spring 2005, Pages 105 - 128


Michael Murphy

Jean Genet and Jacques Lacan were Parisian contemporaries, and belong to the flowering of French intellectual life hothoused by the Second World War. On the nineteenth of March 1944, Lacan partied with Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, Bataille, Picasso and Braque. Four days earlier, the petty criminal, Jean Genet, was released from the Camp des Tourrelles in Paris, a known deportation centre for the concentration camps. He emerged as one of the great literary figures of the twentieth century, and would never again be behind bars. For Genet, prison became a metaphor for language, and Genet used words to make his escape. His masterpiece, Our Lady of the Flowers, had already been written during the nine months Genet spent in Parisian jails in 1942. It was begun in the Sante prison at the start of the year, and finished towards the end of the year after his release from the prison of Fresnes.

While Genet and Lacan come from different backgrounds, what they have in common is that they are fiercely original thinkers, with the result that in their lives they were provocative figures. Lacan chose a theoretical route, and Genet's pathway was through literature. Both were moulded by the elegant subtlety of their French heritage (langue), but they share in addition a profound interest in the nature of language (langage), about which they enunciate the same type of thought, which we can recognise as psychoanalytic. To give an example of Genet's work, here is a sequence in the translation by Bernard Frechtman, which I have re- punctuated to make it instantly comprehensible. It articulates clearly, without the jargon, ideas propounded by Lacan:

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