What interests me about Genet’s description of Mettray is how it produces a very ‘different space’ compared to, for example, Foucault’s account in Discipline and Punish. Here is Foucault in 1983 looking back at probably his most popular book:
In Discipline and Punish, Foucault portrays Mettray as the ‘disciplinary form at its most extreme’, amalgamating the coercive technologies found in the ‘cloister, prison, school, regiment’. In contrast, Genet provocatively supported the cruelty of the regime, as he thought it transformed young people into independent, rebellious and toughened criminals. In Miracle of the Rose, he castigates certain liberal journalists for suggesting that all penal homes for children should be closed:
…. they fail to realise that if they were, the children would set them up again. Those inhuman kids would create courts of miracles… and perform their secret, complicated rites in the teeth of well-meaning journalists .
Genet even suggests that Mettray was a ‘paradise’.
It is true that Foucault also claims that the ‘delinquent is an institutional product’, but he argues that the supposed failures are in fact part of the functioning of the prison or part of its maintenance. The prison isolates, absorbs and organises a potentially dangerous form of illegality, but also produces a productive realm of illegalities, such as those that sustained ‘useful’, profit-making brothels. Genet did in later life come to view Mettray as exploitative, but he was also reported to have said to Jouhandeau, the diarist and novelist: ‘prison isn’t prison, it’s escape, it’s freedom. There you can escape the trivial and return to the essential’. As Genet recounts:
The prison lived like a cathedral at midnight of Christmas eve. We were carrying on the tradition of the monks who went about their business at night, in silence.
28 May 2012