The words sailors use were probably arrived at quite naturally; but what a strange language they spoke when they were lost. They weren’t yet poets — landsmen moving over and resting on peaceful earth, with plenty of time to imagine the wide expanses of ocean and its abysses and whirlpools. They were just simple mariners travelling around the world without a hope, unless heaven or their mothers’ prayers intervened, of an unexpected return to known shores and familiar hearths. Yet what curious words they found for a beach or a piece of wood or canvas — words like fo’c’sle and poop and topgallant.
The surprising thing is not the wildness of their invention, but that the words still live on in our language instead of having sunk like a wreck. Invented in wandering and solitude, and therefore in fear, they still make us reel and our vocabulary pitch and toss.
“The deep” is as expressive a term as most of the old but unforgotten phrases used in navigation. When sailors lost their way in loneliness and fog, water and endless pitching, perhaps hoping never to emerge, they also ventured verbally, making such discoveries as shoals, Finisterres, breakers, tribes, baobabs, Niagaras, dogfish. It was in a vocabulary that would have sounded strange in the ears of their widows, remarried by now to some shoemaker, that they told travellers’ tales no one can explore without both dread and delight.
Perhaps the waters of the deep are as impenetrable as the darkest night: no eye can pierce its thousand walls, and colour there is first impossible and then superfluous.
In Prisoner of Love, Jean Genet’s ode to displaced nomads, seeking refuge from colonial forces beyond their denied home in Palestine, which he produced during and following a two-year stay in the nations, cities, towns and refugee camps that encircle that most contested of territories, he cannot keep his feet on firm ground. His text flows like the Jordan. Seen from the depths of the heavens, it seems almost like a straight line, traversing the land from the Sea of Galilee down to the Dead Sea, but of course it meanders, left to right, through heights and drops, detours and divergences.
The shifting sands, the smooth spaces of the desert, are too obvious a vantage point from which to view his text in this regard, not least when he can also see the Jordan and, from there, the expansive Mediterranean sea and the Milky Way high above. “The deep” is found in all environs — beneath, above, inside and out. Each deep has its Pole, its north, its guiding star, its magnetic pull. To pick one pole alone, even when its instability seems so absolute, is only to ignore so many other disturbances and uncertain grounds. There are other ways of knowing this land beyond the Orientalist cliché of desert-roaming nomads. There are other ways of life here too; other knowledges.
One day, Genet watches two processions in town. The first is for the recently deceased President of Egypt, General Abdel Nasser, which unfolds before him like a rugby match, as the coffin buoyantly traverses the crowd. “It was a good game. The ball disappeared into the scrum, then reappeared in another corner of the screen. Several players grappled for possession. Whose furious kick would send it flying into eternity?” A second procession overlaps it, incongruous and of a different temperament. Sailors march joyfully, a picture of what looks like the Virgin Mary held aloft among them. But “the lady in the picture was neither virginal nor Christian but belonged to the pre-Islamic ‘Peoples of the Sea’. Her origins were pagan, and she’d been worshipped by sailors for thousands of years. In the dimmest of nights she infallibly showed them the North, and because of her the worst-rigged ship was sure to reach harbour safe and sound.”
Genet’s fixation on water and mothers, in the early pages of his final book, seems like an attempt to process his own Western preconceptions of women’s place — the place of the maternal — in Islamic life. “I couldn’t but wonder that, in a Muslim country where, as I still believed, woman was something remote, I was able to conjure in my mind’s eye before falling asleep a procession of men, apparently unmarried, who’d captured the image of a beautiful lady. But she represented the Pole Star, eternally fixed immeasurable distances away in the ether, and belonged, like every woman, to a different constellation.” In a footnote, Genet adds that “The Palestinians, who were often invited to China, will quote the Thoughts of Mao at me; one of those most frequently quoted refers to women as ‘half of the stars.'”
Far from a patriarchal idealisation of the figure of the mother, as an orphan himself Genet recognises in this fixation a kind of maternal return; a desire for a mother-land that stretches from the river to the sea, watched over in turn by half of the stars in that great celestial ocean above. In this sense, the Palestinian struggle is not so much a struggle for a parcel of land but for a lifeforce that flows outwards, albeit cut off from its source; a love that cannot be regulated and cannot be contained by geopolitical borders. To turn back on the source, estranged yet desirous, is hard to comprehend. How to wage war in your own cradle? “I wouldn’t have been surprised”, Genet notes, “if some of the fedayeen, feet firmly on the ground, but angered at so much beauty arching out of the land of Israel, have taken aim and fired their bullets at the Milky Way”, far into the deep. “But could they fire at stars rising out of their own cradle, Palestine?”
This desire to return to the motherland is perhaps not so much a desire to return to the cradle of a mother’s care but the cradle as a place of creation. It will be necessary, whether Israel is obliterated or not, to re-create Palestine, to birth, nurture and raise it once more. Genet routinely notes the age of the warriors fighting for liberation, who may not be so lucky to make it out of childhood, but rather than displaced sons, children without a motherland, they are perhaps more like mothers fighting for a child-land.
“To create is always to speak about childhood”, Genet says elsewhere, and it seems telling that so much of his own childhood is left out of his Palestinian memoir. Of course, he had, at this point, written and spoken about his early life at great length, having made his name and received his presidential pardon on the back of the beauty of his adolescent confessions. But there it still lurks in the background.
The book opens with a brief meditation on paper: “The white of the paper is an artifice that’s replaced the translucency of parchment and the ochre surfaces of clay tablets; but the ochre and the translucency and the whiteness may all possess more reality than the signs that mar them.” Against the backdrop of his nomadic adventure lies the unspoken reality of an orphan’s existence, re-created anew through the productive force of a struggle wielded by a dispossessed people.
In Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, the child is framed as “a metaphysical being”. Far from the mountains of the fedayeen, they describe how, “By boxing the life of the child up within the Oedipus complex, by making familial relations the universal mediation of childhood, we cannot help but fail to understand the production of the unconscious itself, and the collective mechanisms that have an immediate bearing on the unconscious”. The family, the triangle relation of mommy-daddy-me, lest we forget, is but a diminutive representation of the state and one of the smaller units of control’s matryoshka doll. That a child might be designated as the smallest unit is only to make of children prisoners of love, from whom creation springs forth but who are instead reduced to products of parental relations, their wings clipped by authority. But the mind has no mother-father. Not really. “For the unconscious is an orphan, and produces itself within the identity of nature and man.” Not man the father and nature the mother, but the swirling “autoproduction of the unconscious [that] has no parents”.
“The deep”, whether oceanic or geological, quickly comes to represent this same orphan-unconscious. The thalassic swirl of thoughts and impulses that exist on the outside of social authority are made so apparent in Genet’s travels around the boundaries of settler-colonial authority. If society is a father, the Palestinian people defer to the orphaned child of the deep, who is feared and avoided, turned and spurned by the striated world at large. But this orphan-unconscious is far from inert. It produces its own language, its own relations, its own ways of being. Much like the language of sailors, which has survived not by being written down but like all life on earth, crawling back on its hands and knees. Emerging from the ocean, the language of the orphan-unconscious carries with it the gift of another life.
So much philosophy is predicated on a fear of the sea. The transcendental pitches itself on a terminal beach and keeps a watchful guard for new mutations. Luce Irigaray, addressing Nietzsche, wonders why he ever left the ocean retreats he would frequent for his health:
Why leave the sea? To carry a gift — of life. But it is to the earth that you preach fidelity. And forgetfulness of your birth. Not knowing if you descend from a monkey or a worm or if you might even be some cross between plant and ghost.
And when you say that the superman is the sea in whom your contempt is lost, that’s fine. That is a will wider than man’s own. But you never say: the superman has lived in the sea. That is how he survives.
It is always hot, dry, and hard in your world. And to excel for you always requires a bridge.
Are you truly afraid of falling back into man? Or into the sea?
The Palestinian liberation movement finds its home in the sea. Chants of freedom to be established between bodies of water echo around protests and demonstrations, where what is contained between the river and the sea is a cradle. But what lurks beyond, where the displaced have nonetheless found themselves adrift, is an outcrop where an orphan-unconscious that has been newly set in motion. No people are more capable of generating new worlds than the orphaned.