THE philosopher Michel Foucault was born in Poitiers in 1926. His mother owned land and a large house outside the city. His father was a provincial surgeon, and no friend to his son. They had a cook, a nurse and a chauffeur, and although Foucault judged his family to be 'somewhat anti-clerical' he spent time as an acolyte and a choirboy.
He finished his schooling at the Lycee Henri IV in Paris in 1945-46, and was placed fourth in the intensely competitive entrance exam for the Ecole Normale Superieure. There he attempted suicide several times, showed a 'pronounced tendency towards megalomania', was furious when he failed to come first in the philosophy agregation exam (in 1951), persecuted his enemies with extraordinary verbal ferocity, and was soon 'almost universally detested', according to Didier Eribon. The main cause of this was simple. Foucault was miserable in his homosexuality. His frequent expeditions to pick-up places and homosexual bars used to leave him 'prostrate for hours, ill, overwhelmed with shame'.
Foucault's homosexuality affected his career in various ways. It probably motivated his early passion for psychology, and his enduring interest in the more marginal members of society. More certainly, it terminated his stay in Poland in 1959, where he was in charge of a French cultural centre at the University of Warsaw, and later blocked his appointment as assistant director of higher education at the Ministry of Education. Louis Althusser had no doubt that it caused him to leave the Communist Party in 1953, since the Communists condemned homosexuality as a bourgeois vice.
After the agregation, Foucault began to teach part-time at the Ecole Normale. An appointment to teach psychology at the University of Lille from 1952-55 was followed by three remarkable years as director of the Maison de France in Uppsala in Sweden, where he ran a Jaguar, drank powerfully, wore a tartan suit, listened to the Goldberg Variations every night, contracted 'the filthy habit of writing for five or six hours a night', composed a large part of his massive doctoral thesis Folie et deraison (translated into English as Madness and Civilisation), and proved to be a 'very brilliant representative of French culture abroad', in the words of the official report.
After Uppsala, a year in Poland, another in Hamburg, then a philosophy job at the University of Clermont-Ferrand from 1960-66, the year in which he published Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things) and became famous. Two years at the University of Tunis, during which he missed the events of May '68 in Paris, two years at the newly founded radical University of Vincennes, and finally a well manoeuvred but deserved appointment to a professorship at the College de France in 1970, where he taught until his death from a cerebral tumour, complicated by Aids, in 1984. As a teacher and administrator he was conscientious, furiously hard-working, highly efficient and extremely gifted.
That, at least, is the story of Foucault's pay cheques, and of the workings of the extraordinary networks of patronage and influence that determine virtually all appointments in France, and sometimes come close to forming the main subject of this book. Eribon runs it concurrently with the story of Foucault's copious publications: in addition to the books already mentioned there were many academic papers, interviews and newspaper articles, a book on Raymond Roussel (1962), The Birth of the Clinic (1963), The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975), and the first three volumes of the unfinished History of Sexuality (1976-84). To this Eribon adds, from 1969 on, the story of Foucault's involvements in an incessant series of protests, action committees, demonstrations and petitions in support of a variety of mostly good causes - including a movement for the reform of the prison system.
This is a book about a life lived with great intensity. Foucault was sardonic, arrogant, a man who demanded absolute fidelity in friendship and did not forgive easily - 'there were many names one did not mention in Foucault's presence'. At the same time, Foucault's old friend and patron Georges Dumezil was right to see a 'profound kindness and goodness' behind his 'legendary touchiness'. Foucault emerges as a man in the hands of his daemon, bound to a certain path, his failings more moving than objectionable.
Eribon knew Foucault for the last five years of his life, and gives a sound basic account of the public man. But he offers little insight into the nature of his work - into his long historico-philosophical exploration of human power relations, and of the many forms of transgression and abnormality that they make possible, or define into existence. And this is partly because many of Foucault's earlier ideas, for all their apparent suggestiveness, are unintelligible in the standard French naked-emperor manner - hyperbolic, fanatically paradoxical and obscure.
What becomes clear, however, is that Foucault was a casualty of the windy and self-indulgent intellectual culture in which he was raised, and of its sad, trashy relation to language. It was not his natural medium, as it seems to be Derrida's. His hero Nietzsche observed that 'it is the mark of a higher culture to value the little unpretentious truths, which have been found by means of strict method, more highly than the joy-diffusing and dazzling errors which spring from metaphysical and artistic times and peoples', and Foucault's deep impulse was Nietzschean. Increasingly he liberated himself from the French miasma. His claim to be one of the great thinkers of our time may be sub judice, but he had too much to say not to want to be clear, and in his later work on the history of sexuality he abandoned gorgeous, mystificatory soliloquy, and entered into serious communication with his readers.
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