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.

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