Any biographical study of Michel Foucault must inevitably chronicle the social and political evolution that shaped France and Western Europe from World War II to the 1980’s. Although Foucault attempted to disassociate himself from French society, and although he was reticent about his personal life, he was inextricably involved nevertheless in social, political, and philosophical movements that have influenced the understanding of history, psychology, and literature. Through works such as Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (1961; Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, 1965), Naissance de la clinique: Une archéologie du regard médical (1963; The Birth of the Clinic: An archaeology of Medical Perception, 1973), Les Mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines (1966; The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 1970), L’Archéologie du savoir (1969; The Archaeology of Knowledge, 1972), as well as the multivolume history of sexuality left incomplete at his death, Foucault cast a probing look at history, sexuality, psychology, and modern society that inspired through its originality but also troubled because of its innovative conclusions.
Didier Eribon traces Foucault’s life from his birth on October 15, 1926, in Poitiers, a beautiful yet stifling city for the philosopher, to his death in Paris on June 25, 1984, from AIDS. This biography focuses with the minutest of detail on the reconstruction of Foucault, the individual, as known by family members, colleagues, students, and friends. It offers an extremely thorough rendering of what can only be described as a challenging, supremely varied, and illustrious life. It is of note that Eribon does not attempt to judge, justify, or otherwise explain extremely personal dimensions of Foucault’s life such as his homosexuality. Rather, he endeavors to present an objective and in-depth account of Foucault’s intellectual and social development, his contradictions, his consistencies, and, above all else, his unrelenting quest for truth and justice.
After a privileged childhood and adolescence in Poitiers, Paul-Michel—as he was christened after his father, a prominent medical doctor—began preparation in 1943 to enter Paris’ prestigious École Normale Supérieure, a school renowned for producing graduates of the highest intellectual order, many of whom become statesmen, professors, and individuals of significant social standing. During the German occupation of France, Foucault developed a special interest in philosophy and avidly read Henri Bergson, Plato, René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and Baruch Spinoza. Despite his discipline and keen interest in his studies, he failed to pass the entrance exams to the École Normale Supérieure, and it was at his mother’s insistence that he moved to Paris in 1945 to undertake further preparation at the Lycée Henri-IV, one of the most elite schools in France. Foucault was hardly eager to move to Paris, for although the city had been liberated in 1944, it suffered from food shortages and other material problems. Moreover, as Eribon effectively points out, Foucault was very much a provincial, wearing unfashionable clothing and feeling quite marginal compared to his classmates. It was at Henri-IV that Foucault was dazzled by the teaching of Jean Hyppolite, a brilliant philosopher and scholar, to whom Foucault would remain forever grateful. Hyppolite introduced Foucault to philosophy, in particular the works of G. W. F. Hegel. Throughout his life, Foucault would pay tribute to Hyppolite for revealing to him his lifelong vocation.
Admitted in 1946 among thirty-eight students to the École Normale Supérieure, Foucault was solitary, unsociable, unhealthy, and ill at ease with himself and classmates. He adapted with great difficulty to the communal life of the school and was combative and something of an intellectual show-off. Despite his self-imposed marginal status, Foucault was an indefatigable worker. Following this socially difficult yet intellectually fruitful period, the young scholar joined the Communist Party and tied for third place in the agrégation competition, an extremely arduous written and oral examination that, when successfully completed, led to a teaching position at the secondary or university level. Appointed French instructor in 1955 at the Maison de France in Uppsala, Sweden, Foucault became renowned in the city for his fascinating lectures dealing with such topics as the concept of love in French literature from the Marquis de Sade to Jean Genet and religious experience in French theater from Chateaubriand to Georges Bernanos. The dynamic young teacher soon transformed the Maison de France into a culturally vibrant and inspiring milieu. For Foucault personally, his Uppsala experience was especially important; it was there that he commenced and brought near to...
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