A Complicated Geometry: Michael Joyce and Foucault

by / Apr. 10, 2015 9am EST

Michel Foucault is one of the most significant philosophers of the twentieth century. His work, including seminal texts like Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, lays bare the dynamics of power that operate through seemingly innocuous social institutions and situates them in the larger relationship between knowledge, control, and transgression. His work was not limited to the academy, however. As his stature as a public voice grew, he openly criticized situations of domination and repression across the globe, including human rights violations, tyranny, and racial and sexual discrimination.

His status as a tireless supporter of the oppressed, combined with the liberating teachings of his philosophy, have transformed Foucault, thirty-one years after his death, into an almost mythical figure. Michael Joyce’s newest novel, Foucault, in Winter, in the Linnaeus Garden, foregoes the romanticization of the philosopher in pursuit of a poetics of desire.

Joyce, who grew up in Buffalo, is a professor of English at Vassar College and a critically acclaimed author of literature that happily transgresses formal and aesthetic boundaries. He is most widely known for afternoon: a story, the first piece of hypertext fiction, which drew widespread attention and which The Toronto Globe and Mail said “is to the hypertext interactive novel what the Gutenberg bible is to publishing.” He has been praised by heavyweights like Umberto Eco (author of Foucault’s Pendulum), Robert Coover, and Hélène Cixous, who called him “a subliminal explorer” who “sets off to explore mental regions that are generally neglected, as if they were forests or deserted islands… Ripples allude to the deepest depths. This is the secret of great poetical writing.”

Joyce’s novel follows a fictional iteration of the philosopher during the winter of 1955-56, which he spent working in Uppsala, Sweden. The story is told in a series of letters, many marked “unsent,” that Foucault writes to the various people in his life, including his lover Jean Barraqué, his mother, and a friend of the family named Jacqueline Verdeaux. They chronicle his complex relationship with Gabriella Hamnqvist, in whom Foucault becomes increasingly interested, in contrast to the darkening tone of his letters to Barraqué, many of which go unanswered. As Foucault struggles under the yoke of the Swedish winter, his daily existence becomes a living performance of Madness and Civilization, which charts the historical evolution of the significance of insanity.

Foucault, in Winter, in the Linnaeus Garden is a masterful work of introspective beauty. Its layers of meaning cascade across its pages in recursive waves of polysemous speech. The text is at once concerned with the emotional truth of its characters’ experiences and with the lived truth of Foucault’s philosophy. Joyce achieves all of this with a deft hand, a multilingual pen, and an ear for what we mean when we speak and how we speak when we mean.

I sat down with Joyce to discuss the novel, Foucault, and the decisions he made while composing it. What follows is a significantly abbreviated transcript of our conversation. A complete recording of the interview is available in podcast form.

I’m wondering if you could speak a little about why Foucault was the site on which you chose to build this novel.

One part of it is pure coincidence. I ended up a Fulbright distinguished scholar in Uppsala in 2010 in the winter and I was unaware up to that point, I will humbly admit, that Foucault had been in Uppsala in 1955, and then I found out while reading the Eribon biography that he was at the end of this relationship [with Barraqué]. But there was also the fact of facing a Swedish winter. We’re sitting in Buffalo, it’s putatively spring, it’s a whopping twenty-some degrees, we’ve lived through it and anyone who has lived in Buffalo has lived through it, but that kind of Nordic winter can just beat on a person. Really there are three hours of light, and as I say in the novel the sun goes horizontally, it doesn’t go up and down. And here is this man at this key moment in his life facing all of that. 

Foucault is only thirty years old at this point. In our youth culture, that seems pretty old. Thirty, for a French intellectual at the time, with the kind of formation he had, that is pretty young. He gives an interview when he first comes to Uppsala to the local newspaper, and they say, “Moinsieur le directeur, what do you want to do here?” And he says, you know, “I want to have a record library so we get some of the youth in, we’ll have some discussions sessions and the like.” That’s not a French bureaucrat, that somebody who is just trying to figure out, “What am I doing?” 

This was a time of enormous change for him. And then here is this relationship that is breaking up, he knows it’s breaking up. In the time of the novel, it all falls apart. I was drawn to all of that. And I was also at a time in my life when I was thinking about life and death matters and the nature of desire and all of those things. It was a fortuitous moment for me. 

Foucault was a very careful man. We know a lot about him, but we don’t know the confessional intimacy that we sort of expect. We expect that in a blog post you’ll give the history of your desire. And here is somebody who has written about desire in institutions and madness in the most eloquent and important fashion, in many ways, of the twentieth century, about whose private life we know little.

I had not read an epistolary novel in I don’t know how long.

And I had never written one. I am still shocked that I wrote one; it’s just not a form that I thought I understood. It really has to do with trying to avoid the chutzpah of writing a narrative where you say, “And then Foucault thought…” or, “Then he thought…” I think the epistolary novel offered me a stratagem. The letters in the novel are generally “unsent.” The unsent letters are sort of the way that I devised to speculate about what was going on in Foucault’s mind at this particular time, a very difficult time for him in his professional life. And that gave me the ability to let him speak for himself.

I thought that was a remarkable choice—all of the letters are fictional, some are sent and some are unsent. So often we see Foucault baring his soul, really railing against certain things, passionately discussing what appear to be his deepest feelings and desires. But it’s almost tragic because you know from the beginning of the letter that it is unsent. He never sent these to anyone.

In the first two letters, he sets the plot in motion and talks about this young woman who he runs into who puts him into a sort of disequilibrium. And the letters are being sent to his estranged lover Barraqué, the composer. The first letter is unsent, but in the second letter, which is sent, we get the more formal thing: “I met someone, it was an interesting kind of moment…” And so I hope that that alternation amplifies the tragic quality that you picked up there. The sense of, we’ve seen him loosened but we know him, the author of Discipline and Punish, we know him to be a very disciplined intellect and a very disciplined mind even at the height of his fame and the height of his eloquence. We know that there was a restraint always. I tried to come up with a way to both show the release and the bringing it back in.

The release and then the reining in. The accession, the transgression of a certain boundary and then the retreat, the restrained product after that transgression. This seems to be basically what compels him about Gabriella. And this is what made me think about the novel as a performance of Madness and Civilization.

That was for me a very risky thing to do. I think I say in the preface that Gabriella is a force of disequilibrium. To a large extent, she isn’t restrained and she is somebody who is contemplating suicide and she has a baby who she may be killing or aborting. She is chaos. She’s this kind of figure of madness, and at the same time she has a carefully honed discipline about what she wants and who she is. She is somebody who has been lifted up in society. She also to a certain extent parallels the story of Ellen West.

Let’s talk about Ellen West and [Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig] Binswanger.

Foucault wrote an introduction to a work of Binswanger’s. The introduction was about forty percent longer than the work. He had met Binswanger through Jacqueline Verdeaux, who at different times in the real world he called “my spouse” as a sort of a joke. It was because on the one hand she was the entrée for him to the entire world of psychoanalytic thinkers and activity in Paris, but she had been recruited by his mother and father, who she was very friendly with, to keep an eye on him. Foucault had had a difficult time as a normalien at L’École [Normale Supérieure]; there had been some suicide attempts and what have you and so his mother was, in a motherly way, very worried. But Jacqueline became his mentor also and brought him to his first experiences in psychiatric hospitals and introduced him to Rorschach tests, which he became quite fascinated with. She is the person who more or less recruited him for the Binswanger introduction and they travelled together to visit Binswanger’s hospital. Thus the “spouse” title. The attempt is to make Gabriella a sort of parallel with that relationship. I hope there is no indication of a sexual relationship.

While there is no semblance of a sexual attraction as we might construe that in normal society, there clearly is a dialogue of desire that’s going on. It’s one that seems to primarily center on the word, on the letter, and especially the unsent letter.

Of course. And much of this is a Derridean concern, too. Derrida has this notion, it’s in La carte postale I think, of the letter that never really reaches its destination as the nature of desire. It’s this thing we want to do in reaching out to someone else but that never actually happens. The letter that doesn’t reach its destination is to a certain extent the unspoken desire or the absolute desire that can never be…

Although I seem to recall Lacan saying that a letter always reaches its destination.

Right. And so the play as I understand it is that I’m looking at both sides of that. The thing that reaches its destination of course doesn’t really reach its destination, doesn’t reach the imagined destination, the person you think you’re addressing.

Which sounds a lot like a description of Gabriella, who is in my reading a sort of wandering Eve figure, and in fact he often refers to her as Eve—somebody who stands for Foucault the character—again, we haven’t been distinguishing between Foucault the character…

And it is always for me “Foucault the character.”

But certain details of his biography, for instance the relationship with Verdeaux, that is historical fact, right?

Absolutely. And the success of his lectures and his suicide attempt when he was fourteen. Absolutely, and [Didier] Eribon’s biography attests to that. But we lost track of Ellen West! Because the word is the connection. Ellen West, in therapy with Binswanger, convinced him of the rightness of her wanting to commit suicide, and in such a way that Binswanger intervened with her husband to say, “This is what she should do. This is what will fully form her, fully actualize her.”

Foucault was fascinated by the idea that West might have an erotic relationship with death.

And that she would be in control of that, that she would stage her own encounter with otherness or with nothingness. I think, I hope, I try in Gabriella to create a character who for him is living through this thing that he has already read in Binswanger’s account and who may very well be jumping in the frozen Fyrisån River and destroying herself and a baby in the interim out of similar motivations.

You know, I am struck as we talk—I just recently talked to a young woman whose very close friend committed suicide within weeks of the time we were talking and who was deeply troubled by it. But at one point, in the middle of other matters, we were driving along in the car, and this young woman said, “You know, after much thought, there is something about it that I admire.” I was struck silent and I just waited. She said, “If you are going to go there to this other place, she did it with as much artfulness and finality as one could possibly do.” Binswanger was convinced that Ellen West—he didn’t think she was mad, he thought she was terribly sane. 

When you follow Foucault through Madness and Civilization, when you follow him through his career, what is the one thing? The mad are as sane as any of us; their sanity is in a different register.

In a letter to Gabriella, the Foucault character writes, in the previous paragraph he had mentioned “a road that suffers no fools,” and he explains, “Or perhaps a road that suffers none but fools, since more and more I do not, I confess, know whether the road to paradise is open solely to those whom we call fools and madmen.” What she comes to stand for for him is someone who is capable of traversing unimpeded the road to what he there referred to as paradise but what we might here refer to as the realization of desire.

And it may require Gabriella’s kind of costume, or that kind of performance or that kind of enactment. Which of course shows up later in the theory: the mad are acting on their desires in ways that we want to apply a set of rules to and say, “That’s outside the norm,” and it isn’t. She shows up in a peignoir along the river in winter in the first scene and later on she goes out dressed in high fashion, purportedly heading to her suicide. She externalizes the desire, she goes off to be the bride of death in a certain sense. In the last scene, which may be hallucinatory and may not, the only one which is not epistolary, we see that figure, that spectral figure.

Michael Joyce’s works, including Foucault, in Winter, in the Linnaeus Garden, are available at Talking Leaves. The selections of the Goldberg Variations in the audio recording were performed and recorded by Kimiko Ishizaka as part of the Open Goldberg Variations project and are governed by the Creative Commons Zero license.