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Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Reading the Unreadable #8: Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet


By a fortunate accident, I read Genet's "Our Lady of the Flowers" directly after finishing Camus's "The Stranger" and Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago", and those directly after reading Heidegger for this reading project.  As a result, I came to it in a metaphysical state of mind, and ready to analyze the different views of incarceration presented by these authors.

Camus, being the most overtly philosophical of the bunch, uses his protagonist's prisoner status more allegorically, presenting it (at least to my eye) as further proof of the objective lack of intrinsic meaning to existence, and simultaneously the natural result of Meursault's failure to draw his own meaning from existence, falling back as he does on a kind of nihilism.  Camus, not having been a prisoner himself, was able to take a more abstract view of incarceration, using it as a vehicle to convey his ideas of absurdism without getting bogged down in the practical details.

Solzhenitsyn's work, on the other hand, draws its power from his depiction of those practical physical details.  It was his status as prisoner that drove his fame as a writer, and it was through his depictions of prison life that he made his political statement.  "Gulag Archipelago" is more prosaic in its approach and more accessible in its writing style, and it is in that approach that the reader finds the horror of the situation - that people can live and force others to live under such conditions.  Oddly, while being the least overtly philosophical of these books, in its depiction of the subjective way punishments and rewards are applied in such a system, it eventually serves to prove the same metaphysical conclusion reached by Camus - that existence does not have intrinsic meaning aside from what the individual decided to assign to it.

The expression of that subjective mapping of meaning onto existence is immediately obvious in Genet's "Our Lady of the Flowers".  By far the most poetic of these works, Genet seems to acknowledge the, at times, sordid details of existence and yet to strive for a sort of transcendence by seeing in those details a manifestation of something more sublime.  Through his controversial depictions of the life of his characters, their relationships, their actions and their crimes, Genet takes what could be considered tawdry and at times brutal events and elevates them with his language and perspective to the status of poetry.  As he says, "the artist is a God who had need of human beings."  Genet seems to recognize that god within himself the art in his characters.  The more squeamish reader might turn aside from "Our Lady of the Flowers", but in so doing would miss the opportunity that Genet provides to recognize the transcendence possible in any life simply by the fact of choosing to assign meaning to existence.

It is that idea of "choice" that forms a common philosophical thread to all three books.  Camus's Meursault fails to choose, and is condemned for it.  Solzhenitsyn, chose to see both the absurdity and horror in his situation and depict it with the eye of a naturalist.  Genet chose to assign a spiritual greatness that supersedes the immediate, through that making even an ordinary existence more bearable.  As Victor Frankl stated, "He who has a why, can bear any how."

Up next, David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest'.  This one's going to take a while.

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