These are intolerable

Richard Mayne

  • Michel Foucault by Didier Eribon, translated by Betsy Wing
    Faber, 374 pp, £25.00, August 1992, ISBN 0 571 14474 8

Dryden’s gibe at the brilliant but wayward second Duke of Buckingham could be applied, with reservations, to Foucault:

A man so various,that he seem’d to be

Not one, but all Mankinds Epitome.

Stiff in Opinions, always in the wrong;

Was every thing by starts, and nothing long.

He was certainly just as volatile. In his twenties a Stalin-quoting Communist, he later blamed the CP for blinding French intellectuals to the merits of his own work. In the Sixties a sharp critic and opponent of Jean-Paul Sartre, in the Seventies he joined him in public demonstrations. A compulsive reviser and re-writer, he several times promised books that never appeared. While often labelled a ‘structuralist’, he preferred the term ‘systems’ to structures’, and was cross when people asked what the difference was. Although a lifelong student of what society called ‘madness’ and an advocate of what he saw as its merits, when he left the anarchic new University of Vin-cennes he told a friend: ‘I had had enough of being surrounded by half-madmen.’ ‘He wore masks, and he was always changing them,’ said his mentor Georges Dumézil, the great specialist in Indo-European mythology. But it was more than a matter of masks. ‘No doubt,’ writes Didier Eribon, ‘there are several Foucaults – a thousand Foucaults, as Dumézil said.’ At all events, Eribon’s biography is a masterly effort to fuse them into one.

‘Writing a biography of Michel Foucault,’ he confesses, ‘may seem paradoxical. Did he not, on numerous occasions, challenge the notion of the author, thereby dismissing the very possibility of a biographical study?’ These are Eribon’s first two sentences: but nowhere in the book does he explore, let alone dismantle, Foucault’s telling but ultimately self-destructive rhetorical trope. Literary specialists may therefore be disappointed. Historians and philosophers will be much better pleased.

General readers (if they still exist) may marvel yet again at the public interest aroused in France by essentially academic debates. Where else could a challenging TV book programme like Apostrophes have held so large an audience for so long? Where else could Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses have sold some 110,000 copies? Where else would a difficult professional philosopher be the subject of a biography within five years of his death? Bertrand Russell and A.J. Aycr wrote their own memoirs: but they were exceptional figures. Foucault was not of their stature; nor did he have the protean appeal of Sartre. But France is a country where shades of the classroom and the lecture-theatre can linger for a lifetime, and where many practising teachers, already equipped with their licences and their maîtrises, may still be studying at night for the Agrégation, perhaps a second or third time. Higher education is news, and academics are almost expected to become celebrities. In this propitious climate, Foucault gladly lived up to the image of the ‘committed’ intellectual – though his ‘commitments’ were always individual and sometimes a surprise.

He was born in Poitiers in 1926, and christened Paul-Michel. The ‘Paul’, which he later dropped, came from his father, a prosperous surgeon, whom Foucault disliked. This may have contributed to his sexual orientation: as a teenager, he began to realise that he was gay. In wartime and post-war France, that was a predicament: it harrowed Foucault to the point of attempted suicide until he met his lifelong lover Daniel Defert. In 1959, it even got him expelled from a teaching post in Poland after meeting a boy who turned out to be a Communist police spy. In later years, happy in his relationship with Defert, Foucault remarked to the psychiatrist Jacques Lacan: ‘There will be no civilisation as long as marriage between men is not accepted.’ ‘Later still, visiting New York and San Francisco, he enjoyed the sexual freedom that their gay communities offered, and he also experimented with drugs. ‘The joy of America for Foucault,’ writes Eribon,

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