I have also been intrigued by the possible heterotopian qualities of certain literary spaces. Casarino has explored the heterotopia of the ship within nineteenth century sea narratives, but I have been particularly drawn to Jean Genet’s part-autobiographical and part-imaginary accounts of prison life, particularly the Mettray agricultural colony (see also Ripley 2006 in bibliography). About half of Genet’s Miracle of the Rose focuses on Mettray. According to the writer Edmund White, the colony ‘had the peaceful air of a provincial military headquarters posing as a gentlemen’s farm’. Set amongst open farmland and reached by a lane lined with trees, the place was ‘deceptively pastoral’ and ‘ominously well organised’.
The institution was based on the principle that nature could heal the corrupting influences of society (a theme in Foucault’s History of Madness). Mettray was originally designed by Blouet, who devised a model for over sixty penitentiaries in France, but it became much more than a simple reproduction of Bentham’s panopticon design. In the middle of the main courtyard, a replica schooner was erected with full masts, rigging and sails. The ship was originally designed so that inmates could learn navel techniques and drills. According to White, the remnants of this ‘landlocked ship excited Genet’s imagination’, as did the colony’s cemetery and garden. Indeed Ripley argues that Mettray ‘seems to underlie much’ of Foucault’s account of heterotopia. In some peculiar ways Genet’s half-real, half-imaginary portrayal is like a composite heterotopian site. Its overall design has the rectangular organisation of many utopian communities such as Foucault’s description of a Jesuit colony; it is a prison that also houses gardens, an imposing ship and a cemetery; and, although not strictly a brothel, in Genet’s account the space has a resemblance to a ‘house of illusion’ where sex is negotiated, bought, or imposed.
25 May 2012