Betrayers: The full text of the talk on Genet, Joyce, Wilde, and Dylan

(x-posted to The Valve, of course)

I’ve reproduced below the full text of my talk at UC Irvine on crime and political conscience in modern art. Since the talk is designed to give an overview of a massive reading project (100+ books), it is fairly gestural. It’s also the reason I haven’t been able to post here for a few days.



In the modernist period, the artist’s desire for beauty is irreconcilable with her conscience. By her conscience, I mean the artist’s feeling of obligation towards oppressed classes. When those classes are fleshed out iconically, I mean the worker, the beggar, the war veteran, and the mass of human beings — the crowd. Modernism is the inheritor of realism, and the realist injunction to represent human suffering in order to bring it to the attention of the public. Nonetheless, the innovators of modernism could not, for example, continue to work in the tradition of Charles Dickens, because the emergence of radical political theory made it impossible to put faith in a character’s re-integration into the social. Such re-integration, based on prospects of domestic happiness and professional success, is crucial to the scenes of resolution at the end of novels like Oliver Twist or Our Mutual Friend. For Marxists and socialists, there could be no industry under capitalism, no industriousness, without oppression. Domesticity, conventionally construed, excluded queer desire, was potentially oppressive for women, and formed a kind of conservative insulation against broader social concern.

Moreover, the class structure of industrialized Europe produced divides within art itself. The work of art had entered the age of mechanical reproduction, and it was up to artists to make sense of the divide between “high” and “low” culture, either by defending art against vulgarity, or by trying to synthesize this new profusion of culture via parody or pastiche. The mass consumption of culture forced artists into the position of critics, which made critical interpretation (including reflexive interpretation) central to new artworks. Many artists felt alienated on aesthetic grounds from mass audiences, despite their political commitment to economic and social reform.

Even these political commitments were demeaning if they were grounded in pity. Pity was demeaning to oppressed persons because it assumed their inferiority and lack of agency. It was demeaning to the artist because it imprisoned her within a series of useless, standardized gestures. In his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde writes:

The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism –are forced, indeed, to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease; they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

But this is not a solution; it is an aggravation of the difficulty.

So the artist finds herself divided between critical reflection and creative production, and divided between altruistic impulses, and aesthetic ones. The contradictions of this position demanded a reconciling, radical act. The act had to symbolize both the satisfaction of material needs and the satisfaction of the aesthetic desire for beauty. Such an act is a crime; artists made themselves over in the image of the criminal.

At the start of this presentation, I screened part of the documentary Don’t Look Back. The film was shot in 1965, long after the Modernist period, but nonetheless does an excellent job representing the qualities of the artist who becomes criminal. The subject of the film is Bob Dylan, a folk musician who wrote political protest songs. Accordingly, the members of the London press who interview Dylan want to hear him talk about the socio-political significance of his art, and in particular want to interrogate him from the skeptical position of observers who doubt his ability to have an impact outside the world of entertainment. Dylan is famous for being “rude” to them; actually, he turns the tables on his questioners by assuming a stance of such total skepticism that they are forced into an appalled authenticity. He declares that he is doing nothing but entertaining paying customers, and they in return are forced to take responsibility for asking him strangely optimistic questions. In other words, Dylan makes the interviewers acknowledge responsibility for their own social hope, rather than allowing them to pawn it off as the fantasy of an idealistic young artist.

When Dylan is pressed hard enough about his vision of “the truth,” he says that he wants Time magazine to print a picture of a hobo vomiting in the street. It’s a naïve vision, but it’s one that Dylan shares with Jean Genet and James Joyce. Dylan is not referring to the metonymic representation of a broad, practically definable phenomenon such as “poverty”; rather, he is referring to an archetype of suffering he finds subjectively fascinating, but one that nonetheless does raise the objective questions of poverty, rootlessness, and most of all indifference to suffering.

Consider, in light of Dylan’s own alienated, isolated indifference, the situation of Joyce’s autobiographical character Stephen Dedalus. Stephen, like Wilde in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” is trying to distance himself from sentimentality and the sentimental practice of religion. As a result, he feels like a betrayer. He goes so far as to compare himself with Lucifer in his shuddering rejection of his history, and specifically in his unresolved feelings towards his mother, who leaves him (at the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) with the prayer that he should learn “what the heart is and what it feels.” Jean Genet, in The Thief’s Journal, is a remarkable poet of this aesthetically-minded, unfeeling immorality. He writes, “How much more intoxicating, to the point of dizziness, falling and vomiting, would be the love I bear him if Lucien were a thief and a traitor. But would he love me then? Do I not owe his tenderness and his delicate merging within me to his submission to the moral order? Yet I would like to bind myself to some iron monster, smiling though icy, who kills, steals, and delivers father and mother to the judges” (211). The refusal to surrender to the temptation of altruism becomes an almost inhuman submission to aesthetic rigor, one that uproots sentiment.

This is the first kind of betrayal of the oppressed: the renunciation of compassion. There is a further betrayal in the physical act of abandonment when a lower class writer receives a superior education and subsequently leaves behind her family and old acquaintances. Stephen’s mother speaks to him of his “own life” which will be “away from home and friends.” Stephen’s father Simon is a compelling storyteller and bon vivant, but he has little in common with his son, and Stephen treats him as a pox. Stephen abandons his sisters to a state of near-starvation. Genet’s account of social climbing leaves no doubt about his gladness:

I am writing this book in an elegant hotel in one of the most fashionable cities in the world, where I am rich, though I cannot pity the poor: I am the poor. Though it is a pleasure for me to strut before them, I definitely deplore being unable to do so with more ostentation and insolence.

I’d have a black, noiseless, shiny car. Idly, from inside, I would look out at poverty. Behind me would trail processions of myself in lavish finery so that poverty might watch me going by. (78)

This appears to be simply the allegiance of a nouveau riche to his class, but it is more subtle than that. It is a parody of riches. This parody is accomplished without any spoiling trace of jealousy, because Genet is actually well-off . He is miming the cruel ostentation that serves as a pretext for inequality. By displaying his wealth so tastelessly, Genet is affirming that he has no right to it, that it is his for no reason.

The betrayal of the lower class is accompanied by the betrayal of the artist’s newfound benefactors in the upper class. This is more surprising and more profound. Stephen despises Haines, the Englishman with an interest in Irish studies, and he despises his employer Mr. Deasy. Genet uses the friends he makes following the success of his first novel to case new places to burgle: “I told him in a low voice that I intended to rob a friend who owned some objets d’art that could be sold abroad. (I had just written a novel entitled Our Lady of the Flowers, and its publication had won me some wealthy connections)” (206). It is not merely that Jean Genet, the writer, is also Jean Genet the burglar exploiting his advantages. It is that the literal attempt to steal art from a wealthy home reveals the fundamental instability of class differences.

Genet is planning to steal and fence objects that still possess an “aura” of authenticity, because they can’t be reproduced: statuary, for example. His own books, by contrast, can be published as cheap paperbacks, and yet he has already stolen from the rich by becoming successful as a novelist. He has stolen from them because he has developed the ability to portray ordinary wretchedness in heroic, lyrical prose, and thus has endowed the events of his life with a desirable glamour for which they will pay. All the profits from his books are the result of this glamour, which feeds on the allure of the underworld. He writes, “To emerge from [banality], I had only to glorify myself with my thief’s destiny and to will it….Was I called a bad thief? As if it mattered!” By writing about theft, even as an incompetent, Genet succeeds at the confidence game.

The artist, in the guise of the thief, is a mediating figure between the rich and the poor. He violates moral law in every way possible. Genet writes,

“Taking upon Himself the sins of the world” means exactly this: experiencing potentially and in their effects all sins; it means having subscribed to evil. Every creator must thus shoulder—the expression seems feeble—must make his own, to the point of knowing it to be his substance, circulating in his arteries, the evil given by him, which his heroes choose freely. We wish to regard this as one of the many uses of the generous myth of Creation and Redemption. (187)

The thief acts upon his desires, and is satisfied at the expense of what is best for the community. He parasitically privileges the subjective over the objective. He creates needlessly, despite a blatant excess of cultural artifacts, and interprets culture subjectively, according to his own whim. The motif of theft (or, in Ulysses, debt) defines the artist’s relationship to the existing canon. At the beginning of Our Lady of the Flowers, Genet describes his appropriation of pulp images: “I managed to get about twenty photographs….if I have nailed [a photograph of a man] to my wall, it was because, as I see it, he had the sacred sign of the monster at the corner of his mouth or the angle of the eyelids” (55). The phrase “as I see it” is everything; the photographs will mean exactly what he sees in them. Genet even observes himself stealing the essence from living human beings in order to fuel his fantasies, which is why his theory of theft eventually merges with a theory of murder. The High Modernist emphasis on reference, pastiche — and subjective response — amount to thefts by subjective exception against the Real of shared discourse. The author receives credit for what she has stolen, rather than for new creation; the theft corrodes the past by allowing it to become permeated by the present.

The thief is the image of action by all classes. He is an archetype of the underworld, and Genet’s thieves live among the beggars, hustlers, and drag queens of the Spanish streets. He is also a disturbing mirror help up to the exploitative foundations of the upper class: look at me, Genet sneers at his new bourgeois friends, you get your wealth the same way I do. Thefts produce victims, and theft is properly dialectical in the sense that its truth requires a reference to the victim. Genet writes that he chose to pursue robbery in France because he wanted “to accuse myself in my own language” (101). In polemical works like Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, the play itself explains the allegory. In other key modernist texts, the concealment of the victim is part of the message. In Andre Gide’s novel The Immoralist, Michel makes a victim of his ailing wife when he decides to devote all his time to improving and satisfying himself. When she dies, neglected, he cannot even devote himself to grief, and yet he complains vaguely that “something in my will has been broken.” In Ulysses, the figure of the one-legged sailor is the clue to an otherwise uncertain point: whether or not Molly Bloom is actually at home when she is supposed to have cheated on her husband, Leopold.

The sailor is the missing term in the equation; he is literally that without which we cannot know the truth, because he represents the stranger and the anonymous object of compassion. His appearance is linked to the card on Molly’s window that reads “Unfurnished Apartments,” which in turn foreshadows the metonymic symbolization of Blazes Boylan by something called Plumtree’s Potted Meat. Without Potted Meat, its advertisers warn us, a house is “incomplete.” The stranger imposes himself through his need, jaundicing the domestic sanctuary, making it barren, unfurnished, incomplete in its disdainful exclusivity. However, when the stranger does attract Molly’s notice, his intrusion is linked with the crime of adultery. In order to minimize this trauma, the stranger allows himself to be misrecognized: he asks for alms in the name of “England,” “beauty,” and “home,” even though he is intruding on domestic space, is a grotesque figure with one leg, and seeks alms from the Irish. He can only be falsely integrated into the bourgeois order. Accordingly, Molly’s coin misses him, and an urchin has to fetch it and assign it to him by putting it in his hat. Having become an occasion for pity, he is transformed in the text from a “sailor” to a “minstrel” (185-186). In other words, the text ironizes its own representation of a pitiable human being by comparing the episode to a minstrel show.

Joyce writes that the “barefoot urchins” were “gaping at [the sailor’s] stump with their yellowslobbered mouths” (185), an image with unpleasant overtones of cannibalism (the major theme of the earlier chapter “Lestrygonians”). If the thief represents the principle of sovereign action among the underclasses, the beggar is the passive figure, cannibalized and incapacitated. As such, he mirrors the essential incompletion of the ruling class. The ruling class has the apparently trivial problem of stunted desire, but this is the tip of the iceberg: the real problems are an untenable refusal to recognize its complicity with violence and oppression, coupled with an inability to legitimate its rule. Desire is only the loose thread that unravels the rest. As Genet writes, “If the king’s banner, borne by a galloping horseman, appears alone, we may be moved, may bare our heads; if the king were to carry it himself, we would be crushed. The foreshortening proffered by the symbol when borne by what it is meant to signify gives and destroys the signification and the thing signified” (183). Genet’s point, which anticipates Lacan to an astonishing degree, is that the preservation of the existing regime through symbols reveals a fundamental lack against which power must continually re-assert itself. The powerful are themselves cripples, like Genet’s lover Stilitano. Stilitano is Genet’s masculine ideal despite his having lost a hand in the war, and he is an object of love for Genet precisely because he occasionally takes refuge, passively, in the piteousness of his disability.

But Genet keeps trying to break free of love. He writes, “It is enough that the betrayer be aware of his betrayal, that he will it, that he be able to break the bonds of love uniting him with mankind. Indispensable for achieving beauty: love. And cruelty shattering love” (219). In other words, the absolute principles of aesthetics have to be affirmed regardless of the sentimental bonds of love, which in Genet always summon the beggar and (in his particular case) the orphan, among others. When Genet parades himself in drag, and his dress is trampled by a cripple, the “beautiful actress who smoldered within” (59) him screams. It does not matter that the cripple cannot help himself. In fact, that makes it worse, since it makes the aesthetic ideal appear more hopeless to attain.

Sentimental novels, which depict human beings lifted out of misery through virtue and the generosity of others, or ruined through vice, assuaged the consciences of readers who wanted to solve political problems through tricks of perspective and scale. Modernist novels, on the other hand, which are sometimes accused of abandoning politics in favor of subjectivism, actually brought to full flower the unsentimental novel, which is based on the extrapolation of crime. From the standpoint of crime, the beggar has the potential to become a thief, and to revenge himself freely on his oppressors, by doing so excessively, far beyond the sympathetic limit of need. The ruling class is revealed to be dependent on the underclass, not only in the acquisition of wealth, but even through its defining pleasure in philanthropy and vicarious criminality. The unsentimental novel has no need for pity because it is revolutionary. An absolute commitment to art announces, in its moments of lucidity, its nature as crime. (It also reveals, where it becomes intentionally confused, the victim to be the missing term.) Because art cannot survive the banal disfigurements of want, it has to throw off the burden of pity by becoming monstrous. It follows its own laws by transgressing against love and retreating into an unfeeling solitude. Thus it pierced the veil that separates the subjective experience of alienation from its sources in hideous poverty, hideous ugliness, and hideous starvation.

Thank you very much.