Forgetting Foucault

Forgetting Foucault

Over recent weeks I have chanced upon a few biographical articles on Michel Foucault. One was an account of Foucault’s use of LSD in Death Valley on a road trip with some fellow academics in the 1970s. Another was speculation that in the late 1970s Foucault was too close to neo-liberal ideas that would attack the French welfare state. They have led me in turn to revisit some of the discussion of the biographies and hagiographies of Saint Foucault, including his fevered embrace of sadomasochistic practices in the 1970s/80s San Francisco.

For a long time Foucault was an icon for me, driven by the mesmeric appeal of some of his thought and a personal identification with something in his personal struggle to think and to write. I read everything he ever wrote, and most of his interviews. Whether I understood them, I am not so sure. I have a copy of The Order of Things, which I bought as part of a prize for first year history at the University of Melbourne and so is signed by historian Geoffrey Blainey  (only four years younger than Foucault himself) and the writer who donated the prize, Judah Waten, (who died the year after Foucault) It sits on my shelf now unread for twenty or more years,  and is treasured more for those signatures than for Foucault’s melodramatic evocation of the effacement of humanity in sands of time. But in my twenties I collected Foucault’s thoughts obsessively, as if through the incorporation of these texts I would transform my status from benighted outsider into a public intellectual of standing. I tracked down his very early work on dreams and the practice of Ludwig Binswanger . It was symptomatic of my strange quest that my abiding memories of these texts are Binswanger’s descriptions of ways of being-in-the-world, more so than Foucault radical co-option of those ideas.

I even translated one text of Foucault’s that I could not find an English version – Foucault’s essay on Blanchot’s thought of the outside. I pursued the authors he wa fascinated by, such as the strange, enigmatic but ultimately tediously procedural spoiled rich kid, Raymond Roussel. The works that most deeply moved me were his tales of madness – in life, in writing, in suffering. It was not political Foucault that I found fascinating, although I tried to systematise all I knew of his erratic and unhinged statements on politics into some form of critique governmentality. I even conceived my PhD thesis as a kind of Foucauldian history of work and unions: I was tracing the ways in which a certain truth, a certain identity, was framed around the more fluid and undifferentiated lives of these workers. But while this idea fascinated me, it did not really help me write the work. It was his method and his style, the ravings of a self-proclaimed outcast, that both mesmerised me and paralysed me.

I wanted to borrow Foucault’s identity, his postures, his self-dramatisations, but found myself in a completely alien situation. And ultimately Foucault’s ideas and choices left me cold. He was a histrionic advocate of violence in a black velour suit. He championed the rights of spoiled, privileged men to practise sadistic cruelty. What violence did he practise and against whom? He imagined himself into a dramatic cultural revolution, and supported people’s justice He petitioned the French Government to abolish the age of consent and liberate paedophiliac men to practise their child sexual abuse on unprotected children. He loved death too much, and knew too little of life. His own judgement that taking LSD in Death Valley was the most important experience of his life, to my current mind, condemns him.

The most important thing I learned from my fascination with Foucault was how to forget Foucault. He was a Nietzsche without the suffering – the conscious self-presentation of priestly radicalism mesmerised me and millions more. Miller’s biography of Foucault presents itself as “one man’s lifelong struggle to honor Nietzsche’s gnomic injunction, ‘to become what one is.'” And perhaps this is what fired my imagination, even if I mistook Foucault’s fame and fashion for authenticity and value. Now I think a truer model of the transvaluation of all values was the lonely wandering of Friedrich himself. As Roger Kimball writes:

“But whatever one thinks of Nietzsche’s philosophy and influence, it is difficult not to admire his courage and single-minded commitment to the philosophical life. Wracked by ill-health—migraines, vertigo, severe digestive complaints—Nietzsche had to quit his teaching position at the University of Basel when he was in his mid-thirties. From then on he led an isolated, impoverished, celibate life, subsisting in various cheap pensioni in Italy and Switzerland. He had but few friends. His work was almost totally ignored: Beyond Good and Evil, one of his most important books, sold a total of 114 copies in a year. Yet he quietly persevered.”

The contrast with Foucault the wayward scion of privilege could not be stronger. Kimball uses Nietzsche’s words against Foucault himself, saying,

He epitomized to perfection a certain type of decadent Romantic, a type that Nietzsche warned against when he spoke of “those who suffer from the impoverishment of life and seek rest, stillness, calm seas, redemption from themselves through art and knowledge, or intoxication, convulsions, anaesthesia, and madness.” Foucault’s insatiable craving for new, ever more thrilling “experiences” was a sign of weakness, not daring.

In the end, I left behind some time in my 30s this icon of cruelty. By choosing life in all its mundane beauty, not melodramas of radical death, I learned to forget Foucault.


Self-portrait in a time of hunger

Self-portrait in a time of hunger

“The storm of progress now threatens to burn the remaining archives of human memory. In an infinite set of information, no tradition holds fast. Where then does the Orphean writer look, if not like this angel towards the past, while being blown irresistibly forward by a fire storm?” This blogger, July 2015, (his first post of The Burning Archive)

Today and tomorrow I am fasting prior to a medical procedure, a probe into my bowels for malignant growths. Much though I would like to find a topic external to my mere self, my inattentive mind keeps circling back to images of food. I walk into the kitchen to make a cup of black tea, and I long for the ripe black Hass avocadoes. I remind myself that I cannot snack on the salted dry biscuits. I turn quickly away from the crisp, radiant pink lady apples.

With no topic held steadily in mind,  and ever diminishing concentration, I skitter about and look back over the topics of this blog. It has voiced poems, and been visited by Dr Cogito. It has been graced with the presence of Symborska, Keats, John Clare, Wallace Stevens, Zbigniew Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Anna Akhmatova, Joyce and more. This blog has emulated Adam Phillips in venturing a form of essay on the life that I lead and the alternatives that I might imagine into being through writing. It has more secretly followed Valery in his Cahiers, improvising connections and committing myself to an artwork as a form of provisional self-creation. It has gathered the fallen blooms of thought from a personal canon, stretching across Proust, Kafka, Havel, Rilke, Benjamin, Fukuyama, Fernandez-Armesto, John Gray the pessimist, Blanchot and Sebald.

I have contemplated suicide, madness, the tragedies of history, play, sacred violence, bureaucracy, governing, trauma, terror, child sexual abuse, sanity, memory, music, literature and more. Certain images – the archive in flames – have recurred as uncanny repetitions. But others have sprung from nowhere and surprised me. There were times when a mere phrase – the disappearance of stories from the world – took hold of me, and found its way to some new thought. Other times I have dared to voice my dissent with the world that I have found in my day job, even if I cannot believe these obscure samizdat will make much, if any, difference. Still, I can practise living in truth and the ordinary virtues – dignity, compassion, the life of the mind. And what is culture if not an unenclosed field in which we are all free to sow our gifts?

The stats page of my wordpress tells me that I have now in the nearly two and a half years I have written this blog, written 164 posts. These posts have enjoyed, at this moment,  1317 views and 773 visitors. To each of you viewers and visitors, I say thank you. Despite my hunger I affirm that this project will continue, whatever strange artwork it may in some future time be known as, if it is not forgotten entirely.

It is the convex mirror in which I write my soul.

… The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther

Than your look as it intercepts the picture.

from John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Image Source: Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, c 1524, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Web Gallery of Art


Conrad’s darkness

Conrad’s darkness

“I have never been able to find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything … to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.” Joseph Conrad, 1922, in correspondence with Bertrand Russell.

A new biography of Joseph Conrad has come out. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World is written by Maya Jasanoff, an American historian, who has set out to make sense of this dark pessimist as a response to the troubles of the first globalised century.

Her book has prompted a rash of reviews, not the least of which is by the mordant critic of censorious liberalism and all beliefs in progress, John Gray. It is from John Gray’s review, “Homo Duplex,” that I have taken the epigram of this post. It is an epigram I could subscribe to myself.

I first encountered Conrad in reading a little grey-backed student’s guide to English literature, which had been handed down to me from my grandmother’s student days. It must have been published in the 1920s or 1930s if I remember rightly. In this textbook, Conrad appeared as a certain form of stylist – a plain style in contrast to the complex eloquence of Thomas Browne – and a novelist of the high seas.

I went on from this coy introduction to read much of Conrad – Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Nostromo, and, of course, The Heart of Darkness. He evoked like few other writers the gloom and glower of the world, and the futility of all our grandiose enterprises.

Perhaps the passages that have had the longest, deepest impact on my reading and writing are the portraits of his narrator, Marlow. This wandering storyteller was separated from his society by both experience and vision. His tales are those of a dark prophet spurned in his own country. They are tales of the barbarism in all civilisations.

At the start of The Heart of Darkness, Conrad describes the floating steamer on the Thames, on which Marlow will tell his tale of the horror, the horror of the Belgian Congo. Conrad evokes the great historical voyages of English navigation and English piracy – “the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure” – and exclaims: “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!… The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.”

Then he turns to the sun setting on the great metropole of London – “the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.” It is then that Marlow speaks: “”And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.'”

No-one really responds to Marlow. His words were accepted in silence, as expressive of the enigma that he was. He did not tell tales like the other sailors. and did not find in life the direct simplicity, the easy satisfactions and the disregard for secret knowledge of other men.

But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale that brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.” Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 8

This story seemed to lay down a way of being I would emulate in my own life, in my own writing. Marlow spoke of the mysterious and the strangeness we only see in darkness. He spoke as one sailor among others who yet pursued another course. He spoke as a man who made his way through the world, and yet was forever marked off by the cultures he connected to. They made him into a stranger in every world he passed through. Of Marlow, Conrad writes: “he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower.”

It would seem the most natural thing in the world then that Conrad would make an appearance in the strangely beautiful tales by W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, which have changed forever my sense of what it means to write. Conrad – “whose protracted bouts of despair were henceforth [after his trip to the Belgian Congo] to alternate with his writing” – would appear in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn as both a witness to the human destructiveness that haunts the narrator and the prelude to the tragic story of Roger Casement’s fatal opposition to the horrors of King Leopold’s monstrosity: it would lead to Casement’s brutal execution and the extirpation of his name.

Sebald, Conrad, Marlow, and if this does not seem an imposture, myself: our thoughts are connected by a deep pessimism, from which writing is the only escape. Action in the world is too marked by fatality; but writing allows us to say the things that our silent readers will ignore and accept as just like Marlow.

It is these thoughts too that John Gray speaks of in his undefinable political philosophy marked by scepticism towards all illusions of progress. If I maintain the tradition of Marlow, speaking my strange stories on a floating steamer as the sun sets on our monstrous world, then John Gray maintains the traditions of Conrad’s darkness. Let the final words of his review of Jasanoff’s biography close my post for today:

If Conrad sounds cynical to readers today, it is because he voices truths that are now deemed unmentionable. He did not believe in what Russell, in a 1937 essay, called the ‘superior virtue of the oppressed’. All human institutions, including newly independent states, were steeped in crime; barbarism and civilisation would always be intertwined, with old evils continually reappearing in new guises. It is a vision as disruptive to the censorious liberalism that holds the reins today as it was to imperial fantasies of progress a hundred years ago.