Obituary: Gilles Chatelet

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GILLES CHATELET, the mathematician and philosopher, committed suicide at his home in Paris on 11 June, but it was some time before this was public knowledge. He was an intensely private and reserved man.

Born in Paris in 1944, he specialised in mathematics and physics very successfully, writing a mathematics doctoral thesis at the University of Paris XI. For a time he was active in the Communist Party, then, in an offshoot of the student movements of 1968, he became a leading member of the Homosexual Front for Revolutionary Action.

A stay in the United States, undertaken to pursue his mathematical studies, brought him into contact with the Beat Generation, another group in favour of revolt. There, he found those who gave intellectual respectability to acts and attitudes hitherto regarded as being outside the range of civilised behaviour. With Charles Bukowski, who in 1978 was to disgrace himself in the French television programme Apostrophes, he learned about unremitting attacks on government and society.

He found a different atmosphere in the Pontifical University of Rio de Janeiro where he was part-time Professor of Mathematics in 1974, but he had already begun a different intellectual journey after encountering the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the radical psychiatrist Felix Guattari. They had published a book in 1972 which attracted a good deal of interest, L'Anti-Oedipe, an attack on Freud and a discussion of authority. And they were both interested in science, particularly in mathematics (their last book, published in 1991 shortly before both of them died, was an attempt to define the difference between philosophy and science).

Consequently Chatelet began to study philosophy and mathematics in the University of Paris-Vincennes. He was very successful. He was one of the Directors of the International College of Philosophy from 1989 to 1995. His seminar on science and philosophy embraced a wide variety of subjects, such as the study of mathematics as practised by the Ancient Greeks. In 1993 he published Les Enjeux du mobile, a study of mathematics, physics and philosophy.

His greatest success in publication came in 1998 with a book entitled "To Live Like Pigs" (Vivre et penser comme les porcs), subtitled "envy and boredom in market- economy democracies". It was described as being both a scientific demonstration and a fiery pamphlet, written with cool precision and deep feeling.

It is curious to see how Chatelet's past intellectual life fits in to the whole of this work. It is a revolt against modern society, its hypocrisy, its emptiness, its egoism. It is a discussion on the nature of authority and identity in which the issue of capitalism and the response to it is central. It is a reflection on the restraints that exist in societies, the rules that determine what can be said and not said, what will constitute reasonable actions as distinct from foolish actions, what will count as true and what false.

The mediatised democracies, the techno-sciences, world-wide economies, the tyranny of opinion: Chatelet shows these in the persons of pigs with significant names: Becassine Turbo- Diesel and Gideon-Cyber Plus. It was his vision of the present that feared the future.

Gilles Chatelet, mathematician and philosopher: born Paris 1944; died Paris 11 June 1999.