Mark Lilla
The Reckless Mind

As a work of history, it recounted a fable that would reappear in many of his later works: how, at a certain point in the seventeenth century, Europeans began to distinguish diverse experiences and 'practices' into rigid categories, accepting some and repressing others. In the case of madness, this meant moving from a tragic or playful view of the phenomenon to a fear of the threat deraison posed to modern raison. Then, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, madness (folie) was naturalized as a medical concept and various therapies were conceived. Lost in these developments, according to Foucault, was the premodern respect for deraison as a demiurgic power revealing things raison chose to ignore. It took the Marquis de Sade, Nietzsche, and Artaud to restore deraison to its proper psychological standing.

This work profoundly impressed Foucault's academic jurors. They, unlike his later disciples, agreed that it was not a conventional work of history one could take at face value, calling it 'mythical' and 'allegorical.' Like all Foucault's books, it relies on extremely limited archival sources yet speaks in the magisterial register of World History. Its style owes more to that of Hegel and the French history of science (Gaston Bachelard, Georges Canguilhem) than to the artful Nietzsche whom Foucault wished to imitate. Still, as a work of the imagination, as a prolegomenon to future histories of madness, it is an extraordinarily rich book.

Since French readers are less than exacting about the line between history and philosophy, they were also alert to the extrahistorical (that is, moral) message of Madness and Civilization. It was, they saw, an advertisement for personal explorations into experiences which the modern age allegedly repressed when it accepted a clear distinction between body and mind, and between the passions of the mind and its pure faculty of reason. What are those experiences? Madness is one: 'What is this power that condemns to folie all those who have faced the challenge of deraison?' Sexual violence is another: 'Through Sade and Goya, the Western world discovered the possibility of surpassing reason through violence.' Those who knew Foucault in France instantly saw this work as an exercise in autobiography, a Baedeker to the psychological and sexual regions he had already visited.

Foucault's reputation as an apolitical scholar continued to grow in the early 1960s. In 1963 he published both The Birth of the Clinic and a lesser-known study of the Surrealist writer Raymond Roussel, whose obsessions with homosexual sadomasochism, drugs, and suicide Foucault shared. There then followed the remarkable Les Mots et les choses (1966, translated as The Order of Things), a dense study of the 'human sciences' whose success stunned even its author. The book remains highly seductive today, from the enigmatic interpretation of Velazquez's painting Las Meninas with which it opens, to the closing prophecy that man will disappear like a trace in the sand. Rhetorically, it succeeds through a kind of intellectual surenchere: if biology is a new science, then so is the idea of 'life'; if the human sciences were invented, then so was 'man'; and so on. Like Madness and Civilization, The Order of Things was meant to point the way out of Enlightenment humanism—which, on Foucault's understanding, propagated a mythical and oppressive view of well-ordered minds, bodies, and societies—and toward Nietzsche, Sade, and the Surrealists, who promoted a kind of moral and psychological anarchy. But with the Parisian public then groping to understand the different variants of structuralism, the book became an instant best seller, despite Foucault's polite insistence that he was not a structuralist.

Foucault's response to the publicity was revealing. He left France once again, accepting a position in Tunisia in 1967 so that he might be near the young lover who would become his lifelong companion. One wonders what would have happened had he remained there, far from the Parisian sirens. Would he have become a Gallic Paul Bowles, writing rarefied books about his experiments with drugs and sex on the African coast? We shall never know. Foucault rushed back to Paris in May 1968 when news of the 'events' reached him, beginning his political detour that would not end until a decade later.

What Foucault saw, or thought he saw, in May 1968 is not hard to imagine. Until then, his Nietzschean explorations had been limited to the Bibliotheque Nationale or closed rooms. But the events of May had convinced many that the line between bourgeois normality and extreme experiences had been collectively erased by an entire generation, and that a new kind of society was in the making, one in which the working class would be joined by the 'non-proletarian masses'—women, prisoners, homosexuals, psychiatric patients—to create a new, decentered society. Foucault shared this illusion for a time and threw himself into promoting it, abandoning his academic reticence for the anti-intellectual rhetoric of the propagandist. 'It is not to 'awaken consciousness' that we struggle,' he declared in a 1972 interview with Gilles Deleuze, 'but to sap power, to take power.' He added:
In the most recent upheaval [May 1968], the intellectual discovered that the masses no longer need him to gain knowledge: they know perfectly well, without illusion; they know far better than he and they are certainly capable of expressing themselves. But there exists a system of power which blocks, prohibits, and invalidates this discourse.
This is the language of the new, political Foucault, who could now be seen signing manifestos, marching in demonstrations, and tossing bricks at policemen.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.