Unhappy Man

P.N. Furbank

  • The Lives of Michel Foucault by David Macey
    Hutchinson, 599 pp, £20.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 09 175344 9
  • The Passion of Michel Foucault by James Miller
    HarperCollins, 491 pp, £18.00, June 1993, ISBN 0 00 255267 1

Only a few months after the first, revelatory, biography of Philip Larkin there come two new lives – whether they are ‘revelatory’ will need pondering – of Michel Foucault. It is a suggestive coincidence. The one an exemplar of humanism, the other a grand exponent of anti-humanism, they are about the best in the way of writers their two countries have lately produced, and at their death they seemed to leave as great a hole. Larkin, as a poet of humanistic genius, was actually something quite rare (Whitman is the only parallel who readily springs to mind), and his work reminds us how central the notion of happiness is to humanism. With fantastic rigour, with the clarity of genius, Larkin accepted that, for himself, happiness was out of the question, and his poetry, which celebrates the possibility of happiness, comes to seem even more poignant and magnificent after reading his biography. (How one hated the smugly ‘fair-minded’, ever-so-right-thinking way in which his tragic story was handled by reviewers.)

It is significant, then, that happiness is nowhere a theme for Foucault. No doubt he experienced some happinesses, but happiness formed no part of his philosophy – unlike that of his master Nietzsche, whose Daybreak and Zarathustra are irradiated by it. Given Foucault’s general outlook this perhaps had to be the case. For presumably, to experience happiness, you need to possess a Self, an ‘I’, something more than a constructed and grammatical ‘Subject’ – a thing which Foucault was not ready to grant. He had arrived on the philosophical scene at the ‘structuralist’ moment, marked by a decisive shift to the doctrine of the primacy of language, according to which the ‘self’ or ‘subject’ is the invention, not the originator, of language. It was for Foucault a central objection to Sartrean existentialism that it reinstated a godlike Cartesian cogito. ‘From the theoretical point of view,’ James Miller quotes him as saying, ‘Sartre avoids the idea of the self as something which is given to us; but through the moral notion of authenticity, he turns back to the idea that we have to be ourselves – to be truly our self.’

One feels inclined to stand up for happiness. It is a possible objection to Foucault that to glorify the insights of the ‘mad’ is to undervalue the fact that the ‘mad’, however one deciphers that name, are usually desperately unhappy. (But then, what a mass of confusion springs from the simple fact that, in French, the same word denotes both ‘madman’ and ‘fool’.) For happiness (only possible if you posit a ‘true self’) the substitute in Foucault’s system is pleasure. He liked to play with the idea that pleasure – for instance, the pleasures of hard drugs, sado-masochistic pleasures or the ‘pleasure’ of death – could rid one of one’s identity, which in his eyes was a highly desirable achievement. Both his biographers, rightly, make much of his claim that he wrote ‘in order to have no face’. ‘Do not ask who I am,’ he writes in The Archaeology of Knowledge, ‘and do not ask me to remain the same: that is an ethics for the état civil.’ By the time of his History of Sexuality, though, he had come to speak of the Self in something more like Stoic or Christian terms, as a thing which he indeed possessed but longed to get rid of. His motive for producing the History, he said, was very simple: it was curiosity, or ‘the only kind of curiosity that is worth pursuing with a little obstinacy; not that which allows us to assimilate what it is fitting to know, but that which allows one to lose one’s fondness for oneself (se déprendre de soi-même).’

This brings us to the question of biography. For it cannot but have been a help in writing Larkin’s biography that he was so utterly sure of possessing a ‘Self’, an all-too-knowable identity, which he was tied to and felt no inclination to slough off. What, if not a Self, can a biographer aim to take hold of? This ontological question is evidently a problem for both of Foucault’s biographers, and neither has quite solved it. There are more obvious difficulties also. They can offer hardly any letters; and how well would we know Henry James or Bernard Shaw without their letters? Macey and Miller even seem not to have been allowed photographs, apart from a jacket-illustration, as though someone had placed a ban on these. At all events one does not, from either of their books, quite end up feeling that one ‘knows’ Foucault.

David Macey calls his book the Lives of Michel Foucault, remarking that Foucault ‘lived many lives, as an academic, as a political activist, as a child, and as a lover of men’. He thus tackles the business of getting to know Foucault in an ad hoc way, noting insights as they happen to arise. He mentions Foucault’s ‘carnivorous smile’ and legendary laugh; the ‘boisterous aggression, sarcasm and sense of superiority’ which, as a young man, made him ‘universally unpopular’; his odd flashes (not very frequent) of black and frightening anger, and his occasional tetchiness about adverse criticism during his years of fame. He dates the fixing of Foucault’s physical ‘image’, the mad surgeon look, to his time at the University of Tunis in 1966-8; it was then that he first shaved his head ‘and thus inaugurated a morning ritual which he was to perform for the rest of his life’. He told a friend some years later merely that it stopped him having to worry about losing his hair. Others were told that he had shaved his head ‘in order to reveal his true face’. It was late on, Macey notes (James Miller makes a similar point), that, to the surprise of some, Foucault began to speak of the duty of friendship. He detested, he said, ‘that gauchiste offhandedness that consists in saying “I don’t owe anyone anything”’. ‘I won’t stand for it,’ he burst out, ‘I’ll never stand for it. The older I get, the more I believe in friendship and the duties it implies.’

A particularly vivid vignette of Foucault comes from 1958, when he was in Hamburg as French cultural attaché. The novelist Pierre Gascar, who had come to give a lecture, found himself greeted at the station by Foucault – nursing at chin level, like a condemned man tied to the stake, a placard bearing the words ‘Institut Français’. Foucault introduced himself and, Gascar writes, gave a smile conveying both irony and provocation. ‘That image of his character was to remain imprinted on my memory. It defined him for ever, imprisoning him, here in the midst of the moving crowd, in the smiling “against-the-current” impassiveness which he would subsequently never cease to demonstrate in the midst of the philosophical or political movements of his times.’

In this and similar posts Foucault seems to have proved a remarkably efficient bureaucrat and organiser, just as later, when running the seminar group which produced I Pierre Rivière (the study of a 19th-century mass-murderer) he was a scrupulously democratic chairman. What comes home is that, for all his sulphurous reputation, he was not a misfit on the French intellectual scene. Though never an Academician, he could turn out an Académie-style eulogy or mock-humble inaugural as gracefully as any D’Alembert or Valéry.

Does all that Macey has gathered help us much to ‘know’ Foucault, though? We gather fairly little about his childhood. Not much is revealed about his surgeon father, except the bare fact that Foucault hated him and that, possibly, he once compelled Foucault to witness an amputation. His feelings about his mother are equally dim, but clearly he was attached to her. (Right up to 1983 he would regularly spend August with her in the country, finding employment in watering the garden and pickling the winter’s supply of gherkins.) He is reported to have made one or two suicide attempts in youth, but it is not certain why, or even whether the stories are true. One recurrent early dream is recorded, almost too beautifully apt; ‘I have before my eyes a text I cannot read, or of which I can decipher only a tiny part; I pretend to read it, but I know that I am making it up. Then the text clouds over completely, and I can no longer read or even make it up.’ His most intimate statement, as recorded by Macey and Miller, concerns his long-time friend and lover (and fellow political activist) Daniel Defert. It is certainly striking, and maybe revealing, though typically generalised into a theory. ‘I have lived for 18 years in a state of passion for someone,’ he said in an interview in 1981, referring to Defert.

At some moments, this passion has taken the form of love. But in truth, it is a matter of a state of passion between the two of us, a permanent state ... in which I am completely involved [a ‘state of passion’ being ‘an oceanic and dissociative state’, destroying the sense of ‘being oneself’] ... I believe that there is not a single thing in the world, nothing, nothing at all, that would stop me when I have to go back to him, to talk to him.

Macey’s book seems extremely well-informed. He has persuaded Daniel Defert to open up more than hitherto and we learn a great deal of new detail, partly from him, about Foucault’s days at the new university at Vincennes: the drastic redrawing of subject disciplines there under his influence, and his brief enthusiasm for sit-ins and stone-throwing, followed by irritation and sheer boredom. There is much that is new, too, about the founding, in 1970, of his own short-lived but very effective political organisation, the GIP (Prison Information Group). He was determined – out of some kind of residual Marxism, no doubt – that his group should not be ‘reformist’; but ironically it helped bring about quite substantial reforms.

There are incomprehensible aspects to Foucault as political theorist (when compared, I mean, with his insights as historian and philosopher). He is to be found appealing, almost like a Lilburne or Benjamin Franklin, to human ‘rights’, an oddly anachronistic concept; ready, too, to invoke those obfuscating concepts ‘bourgeoisie’, ‘proletariat’ and ‘the masses’, terms that cry out for his own brand of deconstruction. One feels, again, about his theory of power in its later development, that if power is everywhere, and the forces possessed by the body to resist power are the result of the exercise of power and discipline on it, the whole theory grows too pantheistic: the word ‘power’ is beginning to function like the word ‘Brahma’. Then there are one or two rather sinister incidents: for instance, his sudden enthusiasm for ‘people’s courts’ and ‘people’s justice’. But, as often with Foucault, it was not long before, honourably and soberly, he had backed down on this atrocious Maoist concept.

Macey’s narrative is patient in its heaping up of facts, and spiced here and there with a nice mild irony. (He also provides an admirably exhaustive bibliography.) It is a thoroughly external and contingent account, though, looking for no particular pattern in Foucault’s life, and cautious in what it asserts about his death (from Aids). It makes, certainly, no pretence of offering the ‘key’ to him.

Matters are otherwise with James Miller’s The Passion of Michel Foucault. His title makes a specific play on words, suggesting both a crucifixion and, as Miller designates it, the ruling passion of his hero’s life, his drive towards ‘limit-experience’. For all Foucault’s own dissolvings of ‘Subject’ and personal identity, Miller found himself tracing a classically-shaped story. ‘I was forced to ascribe to Foucault a persistent and purposeful self, inhabiting one and the same body throughout his mortal life, more or less consistently accounting for his actions and attitudes to others as well as to himself, and understanding his life as a teleologically structured quest (or, in French, recherche).’He reminds us, very fairly, that Foucault refused to be an armchair or Oxbridge common-room philosopher and that he said: ‘one must confront what one is thinking and saying with what one is doing, what one is.’ Thus Miller’s book is, he says, not a biography, ‘but rather, a narrative account of one man’s lifelong struggle to honour Nietzsche’s gnomic injunction, “to become what one is” ’.

He begins his narrative with Foucault’s death, and this for two reasons. First, that his original impulse to write the book sprang from a horrifying rumour: that in the autumn of 1983, knowing he had Aids, Foucault returned to the bath-house where he had contracted it with the intention of infecting others. (Miller now believes this to be untrue, and that Foucault and his companions, well aware of the danger of Aids, were simply playing a high-risk game.) Second, that he regards Foucault’s death from Aids, a disease contracted during sado-masochistic enjoyment, as the apt and symbolic end for a man who thought of death as the ‘lyric core’ of his life.

The line of argument runs that, from the very beginning, Foucault’s self-appointed duty was to confront the void that lies beyond the limits of language. When a writer like Maurice Blanchot takes language to its limits, he wrote, ‘what it finds is not a positivity that contradicts it, but the void that will obliterate it’. This void is, to use Miller’s words, ‘the occluded, Dionysian dimension of being human’, and to win access to it is the ultimate object of all that Foucault writes. The project is already clearly stated in his first important piece of writing, his Introduction to Bins-wanger’s Le Rêve et l’existence, where it is linked to suicide: ‘Suicide is not a way of cancelling the world or myself, or the two together, but a way of rediscovering the original moment in which I make myself world.’ And, Miller argues, it remained his true theme and deepest undertaking in all the works that followed, though in some of them, for motives of accommodation and tactics, he practised a certain amount of concealment. This was his true ‘calling’, as visionary and prophet, so Miller would have us believe, while at a more mundane level his great task was to break the sway of Sartre.

Miller’s is a serious, heart-felt book, but was he justified in giving it this plot? He recounts a significant episode in a way which puts doubts in one’s mind. In 1963 the young Derrida launched an attack on Madness and Civilisation. Pointing out the resemblance between Foucault’s account of the Renaissance regard for unreason and Nietzsche’s description of the ancient Greek fascination with the Dionysian, he questioned the ‘historico-philosophical motivations’ behind these mythical approaches to history. ‘The attempt to write the history of the decision, division, difference, runs the risk of construing the division as an event or a structure subsequent to the unity of an original presence, thereby confirming metaphysics in its fundamental operation.’ Foucault’s response was to suppress the preface to the first edition of Madness and Civilisation, and further to publish a retraction in The Archaeology of Knowledge, where he admitted that his Madness and Civilisation ‘accorded far too great a place, and a very enigmatic one too, to what is called an ‘experience’. In retrospect he realised, he said, that he could not really ‘reconstitute what madness itself might be, in the form to which it first presented itself in some primitive, fundamental, deaf, scarcely articulated experience’. Miller explains this move of Foucault’s as largely tactical, but it could strike one as sincere and responsible. It reminds us that self-criticism – for instance, the gruelling self-interrogation at the end of The Archaeology of Knowledge – is one of Foucault’s strongest points.

Here, indeed, is a question a biography might well raise: was Foucault responsible as a man and thinker, in the sense in which we feel that Freud was responsible? I would be inclined to give a qualified ‘yes’. He certainly said some fearsome and absurd things to interviewers, but interviews have their own rules and temptations, and he once made a striking remark which would cover many apparent sins. ‘I do not say things because I think them. I say them rather with the aim of self-destruction, so that I will not have to think them anymore, so that I can be certain that from now on they will live a life outside me, or die the death in which I shall not have to recognise myself.’ Reading too many Foucault interviews becomes a stupefying pursuit: but his books often surprise by their sobriety.

The point is very relevant here. For Miller gives enormous prominence to Foucault’s sexual adventures, as well as to his death from Aids. Her gives us a hair-raising account, drawn from a variety of sources, of the ‘leather-scene’ in San Francisco, a fantastic Gothic novel realised in the back rooms and bath-houses of Folsom Street. ‘ “Glory holes” re-created toilet stalls. Mazes allowed players safely to re-enact furtive assignations in dark places. Welcoming dungeons filled with whips, chains and cells conjured up an image of prison as the cosy habitat of the sexual outlaw and his punishing “master”.’ A friend of Foucault’s reports that the spectacle amazed and excited him. ‘There are no such places in France,’ he exclaimed. We are also told, at second-hand from a Berkeley colleague of Foucault’s, how the writer went shopping for the ‘tools of the leatherman’s trade’. ‘A black leather jacket, black leather chaps, and black leather cap with visor; and, for play, a variety of “toys”: cockrings, tit clamps, and handcuffs; hoods, gags, and blindfolds; whips, paddles, and riding crops; and so forth.’ But, as Macey reminds us, this – already generalised information rather than evidence – is more or less all we do know about Foucault and Folsom Street. That is to say we know almost nothing, unless we also trust a short story and a novel by Hervé Guibert, A l’ami qui ne m’a pas sauvé la vie, based on Foucault and his friends but denounced by Daniel Defert and some others as vicious fantasy.

In the face of this, one cannot help thinking of that cool, chastened, cunning book La Volonté de savoir (the Introduction to his History of Sexuality), a work which argues that, far from sex having suffered repression during the 19th century, there has been, from the 17th century onwards, a growing obsession with the topic, a ‘steady proliferation of discourses concerned with it’, ‘an institutional incitement to speak about it, and to do so more and more’. ‘Sex’, as now experienced, is the highly-charged product, not the cause, of a power-discourse of ‘sexuality’. This took his readers aback, as his books often did, but what it was putting forward was no vain paradox: in its needling way, it makes a great deal of sense. The gulf between this sober book and the Totentanz evoked in Miller’s pages is a large one, and it is not clear how we cross it or whether indeed we absolutely have to.

Miller’s biographical ‘plot’ also has the effect, just a little, of cheapening intellectual history. ‘These were giddy years in Paris,’ we read. A new generation of writers are ‘dazzled by Saussure’s dictum that “the linguistic sign is arbitrary,”’ and ‘throw off the old existentialist stress on the commitments and responsibilities of the individual’. Barthes is ‘swept away’ by the lure of seeing the world as one vast text. Foucault, coming on the file of some obscure convict in the Bibliothèque Nationale, is to be imagined ‘quivering like a diviner in a desert, standing over a hidden spring’. Foucault’s dispute with Derrida is to be understood in terms of ‘taunts’, ‘sneers’ and ‘fury’. It is not quite false but a shade too much in the historical-novel vein.

More to the point, the plot – the gospelstory of Foucault as visionary and prophet – leads Miller to depreciate The Order of Things, that endlessly rewarding text, as somehow inauthentic, even dull. He speaks of it as ‘methodologically self-conscious, drab, faintly laboured’. It is, for Miller, the wrong pole in an ‘unstable oscillation between the wish to become a conventional (hence anonymous) scholar, and the desire to let blossom in secrecy a singular kind of genius’.

If Foucault needs to be rescued from his biographer, here would be the place to begin. The revolution that he achieved in The Order of Things – and not only there – is, if you like, a ‘methodological’ one, but surely momentous none the less. For long one had been half-conscious that old-style ‘history of ideas’, as written, shall we say, by Ernst Cassirer, or a hundred others, had something profoundly wrong with it, might even be based on some fundamental fallacy. Who could be content with its false concretions (‘The Enlightenment’, ‘Pre-Romanticism’), its illegitimate appeals to causality, its haphazard dabblings with ‘origins’, ‘developments’, ‘anticipations’ and ‘tendencies’, its rag-bag of shopworn metaphors – ‘flowering’, ‘decay’ and the like? It required Foucault, and in particular The Order of Things, to show that there might be another way of doing things, the ‘archeological’ way, in which there could be some agreement – as there has to be in any true science, but had never been in ‘history of ideas’ – as to the sort of objects one was studying. Given that, one could then begin to posit the sort of relationships that might exist between these objects, these ‘figures of thought’, as Foucault liked to call them; and, as he showed, there were handy names for certain of these relationships in our ‘figures of speech’ – ‘metathesis’, ‘metanoia’ and the like.

If I ask myself where I feel most intimate with Foucault, it is not in descriptions or anecdotes, nor in his pronouncements on death, sex and power. It is in reading a certain kind of prose unique to him, the sort in which, with euphoric vigour, a quite astonishing long-breathedness and tenacity, he exhausts the permutations of some set of variables – thereby making one reflect bitterly on one’s own mental laziness. (He was greatly influenced by Samuel Beckett, who is the supreme master of permutation.) I am thinking particularly of the famous analysis of Velazquez’s Las Meninas as the ‘representation of a representation’, at the beginning of The Order of Things (curiously, we learn that it was not originally intended for that book); or again of his protracted dissection of the relationships of the stagescenes, and stage-scenes within stage-scenes, in Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine.

This does not take us very near the ‘true self’, as we meet it, or imagine we meet it, in Boswell or Holroyd. Still, it is an intimacy of a kind – Foucault is intensely alive and present to us at these moments – and it may be as near as we shall get.