Ruth Scurr

At the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, Dr Manette is ‘recalled to life’. His death was figurative – he had been held in the Bastille for 18 years by lettre de cachet. The king’s sealed letter, authorising the detention of a man or woman without trial for an indeterminate period of time, was one of the Ancien Régime’s most reviled mechanisms. The letters began to be used by the king for the maintenance of public order in the 16th century, became more frequent in the 17th, and stopped suddenly in the 18th during the revolution. Among those imprisoned by lettres de cachet were the Marquis de Sade, at the request of his wife and mother-in-law, for rape and murder; the Comte de Mirabeau, at the request of his father, for kidnapping and eloping with a married woman; and Voltaire, at the request of the Chevalier de Rohan, whom Voltaire challenged to a duel, for being a violent menace.

In his essay ‘Lives of Infamous Men’, Michel Foucault argued that the fame of these victims of lettres de cachet is misleading: ‘Their infamy is only a modality of the universal fama.’ True infamy ‘mixed neither with ambiguous scandal, nor with secret admiration, compounds no kind of glory’ and can only be found attached to otherwise obscure lives: ‘Lives which are as though they hadn’t existed, lives which only exist from the clash with a power whose only wish was to annihilate or at least to efface them, lives which only return to us through the effect of multiple chances – these are the infamies whose few remains I wanted to collect here.’ Foucault imagined a ‘great compilation of infamy’ from almost everywhere and every time. He hoped for ‘an anthology of existences’, ordinary misfortunes and adventures, ‘brief lives, chanced upon in books and documents’, singular lives, vies poèmes, whose poetry consisted in the few words through which they avoided oblivion and became part of recorded history.

Foucault had two lives in particular in mind as he began to map ‘not even the skeleton of a genre’. In an early 18th-century internment register in the Bibliothèque Nationale he discovered a reclusive usurer and a sodomite friar. Mathurin Milan was sent to the hospital of Charenton on 31 August 1707: ‘His madness has always been to hide from his family, to lead an obscure life in the country, to have lawsuits, to lend usuriously and recklessly, to walk his poor spirit upon unknown paths, and to believe himself capable of the very greatest works.’ Jean Antoine Tousard was sent to the château of Bicêtre on 21 April 1701: ‘Apostate friar, seditious, capable of the greatest crimes, sodomite, atheist if it were possible; this is a veritable monster of abomination that there would be less inconvenience in suppressing than in letting go free.’

These remnants of lives– compressed, factual, fleeting – moved Foucault more than literature. Unlike Dr Manette, the usurer and the sodomite had really existed, and Foucault felt ‘the relentlessness and the ruin’ under these few words ‘polished like stone’.

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