Comedy is certainly one way of escaping the tragic conflict that imprisons the neurotic: when we are able to alleviate the many competing tensions which grip the subject, we can free his libido from its chains, and let it surface in laughter. Whereas, in tragedy, the hero struggles against an obstacle and falls, in comedy the protagonist stumbles, but always gets up, and the thousand misadventures which befall him do not discourage him: a vitality is reaffirmed within him which the chains of the signifier are unable to mortify: in fact there is always a possibility of evading them, of playing with them, of making fun of them. Puns are also a way of making fun of the mortification imposed by the signifier.
Comedy, humour and irony are all different ways of escaping the weight of the institutions that control our lives, not just the social one but also the subjective one. It’s an escape from the imposition of being what we must be – with our documents in our hands, the ones the police ask for when we have to be identified – in order to become what we actually are: an object, waste, a spark of life without an identity card.
The idea underlying comedy’s elusive movement is basically one of escape, an escape from having to be oneself, a self-desertion.
Jean Genet is certainly not a comic author, but Sartre presents him as comédien, an actor, and if he adds martyr, it is to indicate that it’s a choice, to underline the idea that nobody is a clay which has been shaped by the world, everyone is his own author. This is the argument about freedom which is emphasised all through Sartre’s philosophy, revealing a blinding ambition to be a master of oneself.
Genet however, was certainly not a master of himself, and, like the rest of us, he did not choose the cards that the game of life dealt him. He was an abandoned child who was adopted by a peasant family, caught to steal money, rejected, and sent to a reformatory. He took that rejection to heart, and decided to become a thief, throwing himself into a risky, provocative game of subverting the values of the world, and putting in their place all that is considered base: theft, betrayal, humiliation, shame, and elevating them to the heights of poetry. The Thief’s diary is the manifesto of his inverted morality, where his heroes are his lovers, Stilitano, Armand, Lucien, and a thousand others. They are the scum of the slums of despair, of the most sordid places, of the most vile enterprises, but they are raised to a lyrical anti-world, ennobled by words that would be suitable to describe the deeds of the most heroic knights, but with which Genet glorifies scam-artists, pimps, prostitutes and vagabonds.
In the reformatory, when he was fifteen, perhaps by mistake, he got hold of a book of sonnets by Pierre de Ronsard, and that grandiose language made a huge impression on him. When he began to write he realized that he could never use the argot that his companions spoke. Argot was suitable for a writer like Celine, with an academic education, who can bring language down into the slums of life and find comedy in its debasement. Just think of the Talks with Professor Y, inventing its own style by breaking the classical canon of the French language. Genet no, Genet expresses in a high language what is lowest in life, because he needs to get it out of the ghetto where criminals, beggars and layabouts are locked up, and where, while posing, they provide photos for tourists, as told in an extraordinary episode of the Thief’s diary.
Escapism – it’s the red thread running through our speech. Laughter allows us to wander from the constraints of life’s seriousness, but for Genet, more than just the comic aspect, there is a subtle humour in his writing. It is not the raucous laughter of one who has fooled the world, nor the derision that exults in having overturned rejection. There is rather the display of an elusive beauty, which no prison can incarcerate, which no imprisonment can exclude.
In an interview published towards the end of his life he says: “I started writing in prison. Writing enabled me to get out of prison. When I was free, writing no longer had any function.”
In fact, everyone always needs to escape, and not just now in this time of forced imprisonment for everyone all around the world, and for a period that is difficult to specify. There is always a possibility to escape from the quagmires of life, from moments of inertia, from being captured by an invasive Other, from the incessant rhythm that fills our days, one after the other, when the chains of duty are constantly hanging over us. And each of us has our own way of laughing, that is, of lightening up, of being rarefied, of drifting, of sneaking out. You always have to invent a way out, because there is always a lock waiting around the corner. Genet did it by writing.
For us, prison can simply be the rhythm of our days, and now in particular, at a time when we are not driven by appointments, by the thousands of things we have to do, by everything that dictates the usual times during which our life passes by. But above all, escape is a flight from the weight of being ourselves. It is not walls, whether of prison, or of our homes, that imprison us, it is the walls of our self. Our patients testify to this, especially in this period, when together with the empty time of indefinite waiting, they feel their anxiety growing within them.
Too often, and rather derogatively, this period of medical emergency has been compared to a war. There is no worse tragedy than war, and Freud noticed how neurotic conflicts lessen during wars, because people are preoccupied with practical problems of survival, with the great effort needed to obtain things that are easily available in normal times. In war, however, the fear of battle, the confrontation with death, is tempered by the physical presence of the companion next to you, by the sense of belonging to a group bigger than you. We know that panic in battle is unleashed when this group falls apart, when everyone feels alone against a united enemy that totally outweighs one’s own individual strength.
We therefore understand, the need, during this period of isolation in which we all are, to maintain a sense of social cohesion, by all possible means: press conferences, social media contacts, songs from balconies. Nobody should be left alone in a time which has no definite end, unpunctuated by the various events that normally articulate social life.
This is why, for those who remain locked up in their solitude at this time, the reduction of conflicts noted by Freud in wartime does not occur. Rather, the real danger of contagion, by depriving us of social contact, increases neurotic anxiety, because it does not allow an escape.
However, there is also another effect that we can take into account in the current disarticulation of our social life. It constitutes in fact a pause in which we can, for once, see the things around us, the things that have always been there in our daily lives and that, out of habit, we have not seen for a long time: the trees that sway outside the window, previously unnoticed character traits in the people we live with that this imposed slowdown has suddenly revealed, memories that we haven’t indulged for a long time, and that are now reborn as in a renewed existence. And life, the life usually passing through us unnoticed, whose slow pulsing we now perceive.
Through his discovery of writing, Jean Genet projected himself out from the walls of his prison towards the infinite ways of the world. Each of us can find his own path, his own escape, and can find it in the most authentic way right now, at a time when escape can be understood in a different way from the trivial one of entertainment, to which for too long we have been accustomed by la societé du spectacle, the show business analyzed by Guy Debord.