BOOK REVIEW / Penalties and kicks: Claude Rawson considers three lives of the French philosopher Michel Foucault

THREE LIVES of Michel Foucault have recently appeared in Britain. An irony that has escaped no one (all three biographers are self-conscious about it, and one of them actually claims that his biography 'is not a biography') is that Foucault was a prominent proponent, with Roland Barthes, Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida, of the doctrine concerning the death of the author. This discourages an interest in authors, as well as biographical orientations or appeals to authorial intention in the reading of texts. It sometimes affirms that texts are written by the language rather than by people, and that they have a life of their own which is independent of meanings inscribed in them by their authors.

For practical purposes, the death of the author functions only as long as it retains a metaphor, like other figures of speech ('they ought to be shot', for example, or 'I could eat you up') which we like to think we don't mean but don't not mean either. But Foucault's commitment to the notion was perhaps special, in an old-style Romantic way. It involved a lifelong pursuit of epiphanies or 'limit experiences', a species of self-effacement whose exact literal status is itself ambiguous. He was (both as a practitioner of S/M and in more discursive ways) interested in the idea that the most intense pleasures may come from experiences of extreme and perhaps lethal pain. In a startling prefiguration of the death of his friend and one-time lover Barthes, he was once hit by a car, thought he was dying, and described the sensation as one of intense pleasure.

Symbolically, he seems to have carried no papers that might show his identity, and the police had to contact Simone Signoret, a close friend, whose address was found on him. She recognised him from the hospital's description and was indignant that the police didn't know who he was. He may have attempted suicide in his younger days, but some uncertainty exists on the point. One or two theatrical episodes of self-inflicted injury were possibly the product of adolescent unhappiness, related to his homosexuality.

When he was close to death there seems to have been an element of denial, and he and his friends and family tended to deny that he had Aids. But disbelief in the supposed 'gay cancer' was still common in the early 1980s. Also, his death was unusually quick, and he seems to have functioned quite normally until the end, which may have facilitated the feeling that he was not really ill. The canard that he knowingly infected others is not entertained seriously by the biographers, though James Miller (The Passion of Michel Foucault, HarperCollins, pounds 5.99) suggests that he may deliberately have thrown himself into high-risk activity.

The following remark is cited by both Miller and David Macey (The Lives of Michel Foucault, Hutchinson, pounds 20): 'How can I be scared of AIDS when I could die in a car? If sex with a boy gives me pleasure. . .' It catches this same mood, which is also consistent with Foucault's contempt for the warnings of 'public health officials'. The proposition that to die from 'diseases of love' was to experience the Passion dates from 1963, and one would like to think he stopped saying such things after the advent of Aids.

Foucault seems not to have wanted posthumous attention and told a friend to burn his papers. Macey plausibly suggests that he would probably have preferred Herve Guibert's novel, A l'ami qui ne m'a pas sauve la vie, to any biography, though Guibert's book angered his friends (Foucault appears as 'Muzil', an echo of Robert Musil, author of The Man Without Qualities).

Of all the major ideologues of the disappearing author, Foucault was the least interested in la chose litteraire and seems to have felt for literary critics some of the contempt his work may have helped them to deserve. It's instructive to recall, in the present rash of 'Foucauldian theory' in university departments of literature, that Foucault's professional and pedagogic involvement with literature was marginal. He thought the 'relentless theorisation of writing' was 'a swan song', demonstrating 'that the writer's activity was no longer at the centre of things': another death of the author perhaps, which may in turn have helped fuel a dislike of literature among academic students of it.

The dislike was not shared by Foucault himself, who was a passionate and acute reader. At all events, he worked in France not as a professor of literature but as as a historian, psychologist, sociologist, and philosopher; perhaps the term philosophe, evoking the 18th-century Encyclopedistes, best describes his many-sided contribution to knowledge and ideas, and his generous and principled activism in social and political causes. The tradition that philosophers do such things survives in France.

Foucault's writings are characterised by a series or arresting schematic propositions: that the modern 'humane' treatment of the insane and of criminals is not an obvious improvement on the old forms of confinement and torture, that sexuality is an invention of recent times; that sexual repression didn't exist in the bad old days and might be a good idea anyway; that the criminality of rape is over-rated precisely because sexuality is, and that it should juridically be restricted to the element of bodily harm, any genital transaction being neither here nor there, and any denial of this being itself phallocentric.

Foucault was a radical with a billowing contempt for liberal causes, and especially for what he saw as the oppressively hygienic and interfering humanism of the modern welfare mentality. 'I am for the decentralization, the regionalization, the privatization of all pleasures', he said in an interview in 1977, after the publication of the first volume of his History of Sexuality. It's not the only occasion when the Foucauldian will-not-to-be- governed acquired a Thatcherite ring. Two years later he was telling his students at the College de France to read the Austrian economist Hayek for his defence of the free market against the power of the state.

Foucault has appeared vulnerable to historians for his leaps of historical synthesis, his seemingly arbitrary and schematic division of history into periods, and the selective nature of his evidence. Perhaps these are the qualities for which he is admired in literature departments. Foucault once admitted that his source texts were chosen on 'purely subjective grounds', 'for the pleasure, surprise or even fear' they provoked. But as Macey says, this is how the chance discovery of the Pierre Riviere documents, about a 19th-century matricide, produced Moi, Pierre Riviere, a haunting monograph about the medical, legal and social aspects of 19th-century penology, written by Foucault and his students.

Foucault's own books also sometimes begin with a powerfully evocative exemplum or anecdote, the Ship of Fools in Histoire de la Folie (Madness and Civilisation), the torture and execution or the regicide Damiens in Surveiller et punir (the English title, Discipline and Punish, drops the big brotherish overtones of surveiller). The habit has influenced the practice of the New Historicists, a mainly American group of literary scholars, sometimes with impressive results and in any event preferable to glib chatter about paradigm shifts. Miller is indispensable to the extent that he provides the only full account of Foucault's American experience. Didier Eribon (Michel Foucault, translated by Hetsy Wing, Faber, pounds 5.99) and even Macey fall short of what is needed on that front, though both otherwise provide a more readable narrative. Macey probably gives the best account of Foucault's time in Sweden, Poland, Germany, and Tunisia, and is outstandingly the best on his life in France. There are sensitive accounts of his family and friendships (his publicly known friends included Althusser at the Ecole Normale Superieure, Claude Mauriac, son of the novelist, Simone Signoret, Yves Montand and Robert Badinter, Mitterand's Minister of Justice), and a very full treatment of his progress through the French educational system from a provincial lycee to a professorship at the College de France. His political activism (for prisoners' rights, immigrants, Vietnamese boat people, and other social and third world issues) was independent of fashionable sentiment and powerful cliques, and remarkably courageous: he frequently took on thuggish policemen, and once had his ribs broken.

As a prominent figure of the French Left, he was witheringly contemptuous of gauchiste posturing and sloganising. There are vivid accounts of his help in preparing pamphlets, offering the use of his flat for political work, sometimes in the company of his arch-enemies Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Foucault thought Sartre an 'intellectual terrorist' and wanted to take over his leadership of the French intellectual establishment. Sartre resisted fiercely and the conflict was fascinating and oddly moving: Macey gives a poignant, comic account of their occasional meetings, including one in which Foucault finds himself driving an aged and tottering Sartre home from a political gathering.

Foucault emerges from each of these books as a vulnerable, principled and highly sympathetic man, very different from the implacable ideologue he is sometimes taken to be. He has been lucky in his biographers. The translators are another matter. The influence of several French sages in anglophone countries is effected through texts which don't say what they mean, and few people on either side seem aware of it.

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