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French Forum 26.3 (2001) 71-90
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Jean Genet in the Delinquent Colony of Mettray:
The Development of an Ethical Rite of Passage
Roland A. Champagne
Jean Genet's outcast status is called an aesthetic one. 1 One of his earliest experiences of being an outcast was at Mettray, a colony for young male delinquents near Tours. Genet was sentenced to the colony from the age of fifteen in September 1926 until his majority. After two and a half years at Mettray, he volunteered for the military to end his term in March 1929. Later combining his talents as a writer, dramatist, and poet, Genet would return to his term as a delinquent and portray it as a rite of passage from the ethical system he learned in reform school to his aesthetic vision of the outcast. Genet's aesthetic refers to the product of his artistic blend of language, drama, and poetic insight. With Emmanuel Lévinas as a guide, I define ethics as the recognition of obligation toward the members of a community as a response to the experience of alterity (Lévinas 1982 90). This obligation is usually recognized as the commitment to the values of one's chosen community and, in the case of Genet, the group of criminals at Mettray identified as others by society.
At Mettray's delinquent colony, Genet has a clearly defined sense of otherness. As a criminal defined by society and as a homosexual chosen by his identification with the male colonists, he assimilates their argot, behavior, and set of values, including betrayal, to establish his membership within the community of colonists. This ethical sense of treachery, acceptable within the homosexual community at Mettray, becomes an aesthetic value when Genet the artist allows society, as his readers, to obtain access to that community through his writing. Aesthetically, he relives his experiences of the clearly defined alterity between criminals and society at Mettray as a crucial rite of passage for him from adolescent to artist. The combined arts of his prose, theater, and poetry find their ethical origins through Genet's narration in [End Page 71] what he calls le bon français. What was once an ethical community of criminals at Mettray becomes the aesthetic myth in Genet's Miracle de la Rose (1946), Journal du voleur (1949), the radio script "L'Enfant criminel" (1949), and the unpublished film scenario "Le Langage de la muraille." Mettray thus becomes this well-defined paradise where once "j'étais véritablement heureux" (Genet 1990 45).
Genet describes the rituals of the community of criminals at Mettray. These rituals are not simply copies of a copy, that is a simulacrum, of the ethics from society at large. They are homosexual acts reaffirming the communal identity of the colonists apart from the society from which they are marginalized. Today, within "the culture of postmodernity" (Dunn 7), the simulacrum is an abiding concern (Baudillard; Jameson) and represents the longing of the individual for a collective, preexisting narrative (Lyotard vii-xxi). The simulacrum invented by Genet the artist makes a timely commentary about a place and a time when his otherness was clearly delineated. The criminal ethos to which he once belonged is a "daemonic" simulacrum (Durham 8), a simulacrum that creatively calls into question a prior model of representation and interjects an alternative. Society's model of the reform school is the prior model whose effectiveness at transforming deviant criminals into socially adaptable adults is subverted by Genet's Mettray and transformed into a model for how otherness can be the basis for community. Let us examine Genet's Mettray as a daemonic simulacrum that invites a renewed investigation of his complete work functioning "daemonically" within late postmodern culture.
In Genet's writings, Mettray contains an ethical system that undercuts society's disciplinary model of the reform school in order to project a model for a community of pariahs. The otherness of the delinquent colonists is thus reversed to make society into their alterity. Like Hannah Arendt (1978a), Genet was...