Diary

Alan Sheridan

Four or five years ago when I was writing my book on Foucault, I began the conclusion with a demur: ‘It is curious enough to write about an author who could well produce more books than he has already done, without drawing conclusions about his oeuvre.’ I confess that at the time I did not really believe my prognosis. The achievement already seemed more than one could reasonably expect of one frail human being. There was also a detectable slowing down in the rate of published books. He lectured, wrote articles, gave interviews as tirelessly as ever, but the years went by and the brief first volume of the Histoire de la Sexualité, published in 1976, was still without its projected sequels. As the world’s eyes turned increasingly upon him, he seemed more and more reluctant to commit himself to the permanence of print. Most of one and about half of another of those ‘Sexuality’ volumes had been written and abandoned. Then, in 1977, a taxi ran him over in front of his apartment building, leaving him with hundreds of glass splinters embedded in his head: for a year he suffered from nausea and giddiness. I saw him last in February of this year. His appearance came as a shock: he now looked a good ten years older than he was. He had apparently fallen ill after his return from San Francisco the previous summer. He had lost several pounds in weight. The doctors, he told me, did not know what was wrong with him. Among other possibilities he talked about AIDS, only to dismiss it. Fighting illness and lassitude, he had corrected the proofs of the two further volumes of the History of Sexuality, which were to be called, respectively, L’Usage des Plaisirs and Le Souci de Soi. Their titles have a tragically ironic ring.

In his public persona Foucault was the least personal of men, so it seems all the more odd to speak of him publicly in personal terms. He refrained from all polemics and refused to lend support to any one interpretation of his work. He was, as it were, for the public domain, rather than for copyright. He seldom referred in his books to the work of his contemporaries and never criticised it. This apparent impersonality seemed to come naturally to the generation of French intellectuals to which he belonged. Hence the shock produced when Barthes, the author of S/Z, that most scientistic piece of literary criticism, produced his Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, with its family photographs and its Proustian recollections of lost childhood. It is difficult to imagine Foucault, even with his love of the surprise attack, ever writing anything remotely autobiographical. Indeed the two men, who began as close friends and, as is so often the way of the world, dwindled into acquaintances, provide a piquant contrast: Barthes sensitive, withdrawn, urbane, bien en chair; Foucault brilliant, energetic, incisive, skeletal. I never saw Barthes’s study, but I would imagine that it was something of a personal shrine. Foucault’s imprint on his apartment seemed at first sight to be non-existent, but that was merely his style. It was designed by an interior decorator with clinical anonymity. Not a single object in it was worthy of attention on aesthetic grounds. Its oldest contents must have been the books he had bought while a student. The only colour in the rooms was also supplied by the books. He worked on a table of tubular steel and glass. When a friend of mine turned up with a bunch of flowers, he was embarrassed almost to the point of anger. But he was also the sweetest, kindest of men.

Foucault’s intelligence and humour shone from his eyes, the luminosity reinforced by the gleaming cranium, the gold-rimmed spectacles, the ivory and gold of the smile. With its customary mendacity, the camera usually let the brilliance slip through its toils, leaving a mask that almost seemed sadistic. (For a long time this journal used his image, like some latterday Kitchener, ordering its readers to subscribe.) He was not always bald, but he was always brilliant. When I first met him in Paris in 1957, he still had most of his hair, but he already had the reputation of being the most brilliant normalien of recent years.

A true disciple of Nietzsche, he handled his immense learning with gaiety. Not, of course, that he felt any personal commitment to Nietzsche or the slightest need to assume responsibility for the whole of his work. ‘The only valid tribute to thought such as Nietzsche’s,’ he remarked in an interview, ‘is precisely to use it, to deform it, to make it groan and protest.’ He took from Nietzsche what he needed – the critical element, everything that is exemplified in the phrase ‘genealogy of morals’ – leaving the metaphysics of the will to power, the Übermensch and much else. What was important to him in Nietzsche was not so much the notion of the death of God, with its correlative summons to men to replace him, as the interlocking notions of the death of truth and the death of the subject, of man as a unifying ground of knowledge. This meant a return to the relativity of history, but a history which, in turn, must be made to shed its false continuities, false causalities and false teleologies.

Marx, too, had sought to bring everything before the bar of history, but he still believed in truth and saw historical materialism as a science. Marxism was thus imprisoned in a pre-Nietzschean scientism. It was also heavily imbued with the totalising tendencies of Hegelian dialectics, to which the actually or potentially tyrannical nature of all socialisms could ultimately be traced. Though for most of his life Foucault’s instinctive sympathies had been with the Left, he had come to the conclusion that we must stop using inverted commas around the word ‘socialism’, as if to protect some unrealised ideal from all too real ‘distortions’. He had come to see the vanity of seeking to replace one form of society, totalised as ‘bourgeois’ or ‘capitalist’, by another, totalised as ‘socialist’, with its underlying assumption that the infinitely complicated network of power relations that makes up our democratic Western societies can be reduced to the dialectical opposition of two classes.

For Foucault, the undertaking of what he called ‘general history’ as opposed to ‘total history’ entailed an immense labour of research, only a fraction of which eventually found its way into his books. It meant covering areas of hitherto neglected material, devising his own boundaries or juxtaposing various different fields, with the result that no critic or reader felt competent to pass judgment on the whole of any one of his books. It also meant a democratic demotion of the great names of intellectual history, the resurrection of long-forgotten ones, and the salvaging of vast tracts of anonymous discourse.

Foucault always claimed that the past, as such, did not interest him: he was writing the history of the present. This was undoubtedly one of the predispositions that governed his outlook. It assumed many forms and sometimes had a surprisingly emotional character. He had, for instance, no great love of England, which he tended to think of as already half-dead. (To be fair, those things that we most cherish in France meant little to him either.) For the past fifteen years or so it proved quite impossible to get him to come here. On the occasion of his last visit, to the French Institute in London, he refused to give a lecture, asked for a list of questions concerning his work to be sent to him in advance, then proceeded to ignore these questions, refused to sit behind a table on the platform (where his words could be recorded) and solicited questions from the audience. There was to be another visit but that time he did not turn up at all: a ‘French month’ had been organised by the French cultural service and the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The climax of the month was to be a discussion about his work with his translator. At the last minute he refused to come unless his audience was confined to 25 ‘specialists’. Several hundred people were turned away from the ICA on a wet Saturday night.

Without doubt his favourite country was the United States, in particular New York and California, of course, which continued to fascinate him, and where auditoria of seemingly infinite space held no terrors for him. He also had a great love of Japan – not, this time, for its present, but for its past, because it was not his own. The most felicitous of all the photographs taken of him shows him wearing the robes of a Buddhist monk in a temple in Kyoto. It was this photograph that led me, in my book, to write: ‘He is the reverse of a guru, a teacher, a subject who is supposed to know, though he would, in all modesty, be flattered if, without excessive seriousness, he were compared to a Zen master, who also knows nothing. For him uncertainty causes no anguish ... He advances hypotheses with the delight that others reserve for the revelation of truth.’

Another aspect of his concern to hear the voice of the present was a tireless interest in day-to-day politics. Since his brief membership of the Communist Party as a student, however, he never joined or identified himself with any party or group, even when, in the aftermath of ’68, he felt great sympathy for a certain libertarian gauchisme and his closest friend, a young sociology lecturer at Vincennes, was a committed Maoist. He always kept his distance, because, for him, each issue had to be judged afresh, even if this led him on occasion to side with the Right, and, increasingly, against the Left. Latterly, most of his political views happened to coincide with those of the social-democratic/liberal centre, but this was not enough for him to assume a label.

In the late Sixties he spent two years as Director of the French Institute in Warsaw, where he acquired a profound loathing for Eastern European socialism and an equally profound admiration for the Poles. I remember, one Sunday morning, watching the installation of Pope John Paul II with Foucault and a friend – all three of us ex-Catholics – on Michel’s minuscule black-and-white television set. I was struck at the time by the fascination with which he watched the proceedings. Quite apart from delight in the ‘camp’ of the occasion, it was obvious that he was feeling something of the pride and joy felt by the Poles themselves: their masters may be puppets of Moscow, but a Pole was now running the Catholic Church. He was always in the forefront of any action to assist the Eastern European dissidents. Solidarity was obviously very close to his heart. His most sustained involvement in practical affairs was his work in the Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons. Soon after his appointment to the Collège de France in 1970, hunger-strikes broke out among France’s political prisoners. These also drew attention to the conditions in which common-law prisoners lived and gave rise to much discussion of penitential theory and practice. The purpose of GIP was not to speak for the prisoners, but to provide a megaphone for those who were not used to speaking up for themselves and certainly not used to being heard. It led to prisoners setting up their own organisations, at which point Foucault and his friends withdrew, their work done.

Foucault was much criticised retrospectively for his early support of the Ayatollah Khomeini. What fascinated him was how a certain kind of spirituality could galvanise millions of people to take to the streets and bring down one of the most highly-armed regimes in the world. He withdrew his support as soon as the nature of the ‘Islamic revolution’ became apparent, but I believe that he did suffer from a naive belief in the sanity of the ‘popular will’, failing to see that where it is unmediated by established procedures and institutions it can all too easily be manipulated into tyranny.

From the outset, he gave equivocal support to what is now known as the ‘gay movement’, a term that certainly irritated him. He disliked the ‘ghetto mentality’ of some of its activists and preferred the term ‘homosexual’ to be applied to acts rather than to people. Where the ‘women’s movement’ was concerned, he preferred to keep out of what did not concern him. He had no time at all for what he saw as the naive political thinking, the easy emotionalism and the hypocritical moralism of the ‘unilateralists’. Like most of his compatriots, he saw them as the unwitting accomplices of Soviet foreign policy and, in so far as they were effective at all, a hindrance to negotiations on arms reduction.