‘The faults of husbands are often caused by the excess virtues of their wives’ S. G. Colette
1960 is a difficult year for Mr and Mrs Foucault. And also it is the year their daughter is born. They never admit it to themselves, but the arrival of a baby into their lives at this particular point in time is felt by both of them, especially Michel, to be more than a minor inconvenience.
Michel is in the process of finishing Madness and Civilisation. It has taken its toll. How can you address the subject of Madness, and Civilisation, without facing up to your own demons? His wife is worried about him. But she is pregnant and he doesn’t seem that worried about her. Such is their marriage. As Colette, Madame Foucault’s favourite writer, once said: ‘a woman who thinks she is intelligent seeks equality with men; an intelligent woman gives up’. She gave up a long time ago.
But something about being pregnant has rekindled an old fire in Anne Foucault’s belly. Maybe the fire is the baby itself. There develops an unspoken battle over which will be born first, the baby or the book. Neither has any choice in the matter of course, but the battle is on all the same. A psychic battle, the worst kind, between husband and wife. It seems like a long time since the pair had enough passion to fight. But now, they are fighting each other once more, not out of love or hate or desire, but simply over the things they are fighting for: Anne for her unborn child, Michel for his ‘great work’.
Mother and baby ‘win’ the battle, and their daughter is born in May 1960, a couple of months before Foucault finally finishes his masterpiece. He is not there at the birth, as he has work to do. He always does. His daughter will learn this soon enough.
But the philosopher is able to spare some energy for another battle: over their daughter’s name. He wanted to call her Eleanor, after Marx’s daughter. But his wife is tired of Marx. And she knows enough to know that Eleanor had not had a happy life. She wants to call their child Colette, after her favourite novelist. Colette had not had the easiest life either, but it had been long and full of self-expression, sensuality and such beautiful writing. Something clicks inside her and she will not give in. Foucault argues and cajoles her, but he only makes it worse. Lectures in Marxist history from your all but estranged husband are not much fun at the best of times. When you are exhausted from giving birth they are more than a woman can take. His last ditch attempt to spread the impact of power is to try and get her to compromise, by calling the baby Colette Eleanor. But that seems the worst option of all. It would be a constant reminder of the fact they couldn’t agree on such a basic l thing as their daughter’s name. The mother stands firm. She gets her way and Colette is born.
The first couple of months are hard. Foucault is preoccupied with finishing his book, and his wife is restless, tentative about looking after such a fragile thing as a new life. She feels alone. That is because she is.
The shadow that hangs over the couple is darker and bigger than either of them realise. This is the year that Paul Mirguet changes the law in France, and erodes the precious ‘Code Penal’. New legislation means that homosexuals are to be included in a list of ‘scourges’ against French society, which also includes ‘whores, alcoholism and transvestism’, and punished accordingly, if they dare express their perversion openly.
This will come to matter greatly to Foucault as he is a passionate defender of the principles of the republic. Well, the ones he agrees with anyway. Nothing is fundamental. But it will matter to him more, because, despite the image to the contrary given by his wife and sudden, beautiful baby girl, he too is a homosexual. His wife is well aware of this fact. How could she not be? It is written all over his sorry French ass.
Mirguet’s law doesn’t affect Foucault immediately in the direct sense. He is too busy with his book, and trying to maintain the facade of a marriage to be much of a pederaste in the active sense at this time. But there is something about the repressive nature of it, the closing in of a regulatory discourse on sexuality, on people’s freedoms, that has a subconscious perverse effect on the man. You could put it down to a panic at becoming a father, or the coming to an end of his great project, but Foucault, without even realising it, reacts to Mirguet’s Law in quite an unexpected way.
One cool night, when his wife and baby are asleep, Michel leaves his books open on his desk and goes out. He does not have a plan, he just wants to breathe the night air. In the end he finds himself on one of his local haunts, a dingy bar on a side street near the river. He orders a cognac and sits by the window. He notices out of the corner of his eye, a young man coming into the bar, tall, thick set, a bit rough looking, possibly a labourer. The man looks at Michel and Michel looks back through his glasses, suddenly feeling very intellectual and fey. But the man does not seem concerned. He nods at Foucault and then walks past him in a very suggestive manner, clenching his buttocks. He sits at a table a little way from Michel, downs a biere and then leaves, passing Michel’s table again, doing his butt clenching thing. So Foucault takes the hint this time and follows the man out of the bar and down the street, keeping a few paces behind. He sees him turn right into a street, find a square, climb over the fence and into the bushes. Foucault follows, trying not to lose his glasses, his footing, his cool. He makes out the man in the shadows and approaches. But he is not sure what to do. Who will take the lead? Is it supposed to be him? The man decides for the both of them. He undoes his trousers and pushes Michel unceremoniously down onto his knees, guiding his head towards his cock.. Michel Foucault, philosopher, husband, father, kneels and sucks on an anonymous cock.. And, despite everything that suggests its opposite, he feels like this is a ceremony. He might be drinking communion wine, not a stranger’s spunk. Foucault swallows the sticky wordless substance silently. The man moans a little then does up his trousers and disappears into the night.
There is no going back now.
When he returns home, he goes to his daughter’s room, and stands by her crib, watching her sleep. There is no shortage of love in his heart for this tiny bundle of bits of him and bits of his wife. He stands there and prays to a God he knows does not exist, prays that she will not suffer, not too much, in the coming years that he suddenly realises are going to be full of upheaval. For him, his wife, their daughter, and also the world beyond their little domestic sphere, for France.
The novelist, Colette, once said : ‘a happy childhood is poor preparation for human contacts’. This child, her namesake, is going to be very well prepared indeed.
Q: Assuming that we aren’t doomed, chained to sex as our destiny: and from childhood as they say…
MF: Exactly; look at what’s happening in the case of children. They say the life of children is their sexual life. From the bottle to puberty, that’s all they talk about. Behind the desire to learn to read or a liking for comic strips there is still, always, sexuality. Are you sure that this type of discourse is in fact a liberating one? Are you sure it doesn’t enclose children in a sort of sexual insularity? And what if after all they didn’t give a damn? What if the freedom of not being adult consisted precisely in not being subject to the law, the principle, the commonplace which ends up by being so boring, of sexuality? If there could be polymorphous relationships with things, people, bodies, wouldn’t that be childhood? Adults call this polymorphousness perversity to reassure themselves, and in so doing colour it with the monotonous tint of their own sex[i].
‘The child had a wooden reel with a piece of string tied around it. It never occurred to him to pull it along the floor behind him, for instance, and play at its being a carriage. What he did was to hold the reel by the string and very skilfully throw it over the edge of his curtained cot, so that it disappeared into it, at the same time uttering his expressive “o-o-o-o.” He then pulled the reel again by the string and hailed its reappearance with a joyful “da” [there]. This, then, was the complete gameódisappearance and return. As a rule one only witnessed its first act, which was repeated untiringly as a game in itself, though there is no doubt that the greater pleasure was attached to the second act. The interpretation of the game then became obvious. It was related to the child’s great cultural achievement — the instinctual renunciation (that is, the renunciation of instinctual satisfaction) which he had made in allowing his mother to go away without protesting’ Sigmund Freud “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” (Standard Edition, Vol. 18, pp. 14-15)[ii]
One of Collette’s favourite things is a ball, a red, rubber ball. She plays with it, throwing it against the wall at the back of the house, and catching it. When her parents are arguing she goes out to the yard and throws the ball against the wall and counts in her head: ‘un, deux, trois’… to see how far she can get before she drops it. This repetitive action calms her, and drowns out the sound of the shouting and banging indoors. ‘Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq…’ She does not know what it is that has made her parents so angry at each other, as if they are enemies. Sometimes she worries it is her, that she has done something wrong that made everything go like this. That she is a bad girl and her parents are angry at her. She throws the ball and she counts in her head and she pretends that she is happy, that her maman and papa love each other and will call her in any moment, to tell her supper is ready, or that it is time to get ready to go out on a trip, to the park, or the zoo. They never call her. She just keeps throwing the ball and counting. ‘Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six…’
Once she lost the ball at nursery- she threw it too high and it got stuck on the roof of a shed. She was distraught. She could not contemplate life without her red ball. It made her feel sick to think about the loss. She screamed so piercingly and persistently that the caretaker was called from his day off specially to retrieve the ball and placate the child, a tiny hint of a smile peeking through her tears when he handed it to her. If Doctor Freud had have been there to witness this trauma, he may have concluded she was continuing to play the ‘fort-da’ game, where a baby throws something – perhaps out of its cot – and then delights in the fact that someone, a parent usually, retrieves it, before throwing the object again and thus repeating the process. This, argued Freud, could be a sign of how children learn to repeat traumatic experiences, to relive them, as if to take control, or to turn them into something which they can derive pleasure from, albeit perversely. It could also, said Sigmund, relate to the triumph the child feels at allowing its mother to leave the room without protesting. But Colette was born into a traumatic situation and her childhood was littered with separations and losses. She has not learned to trust that if her mother or father leaves the room, they are ever going to re –appear. What evidence have they given her, that this is true? What reassurance of their consistency? In the absence of certainty she takes an unhealthy pleasure in those things she can count on, like a red ball obeying the laws of gravity. She throws the ball into the air, ‘Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit’….
It seems so young for a girl to have found a single activity that enables her to relax and forget her problems, the way adults say they do when they go swimming, or walk in the countryside, or have sex. She is a child. Her whole existence should be about joy and wonder and play, with the occasional moment of anxiety or upset. Not the other way round. Not isolated moments of sunshine, free from anxiety, throwing a ball against a wall. She doesn’t articulate this incongruity in her experience, not until much later, when she looks back on her early years with incredulity, and not a little contempt for her parents. But she knows at the time, deep in her heart, that something about her childhood is very wrong. She throws the ball, she throws herself out of her cot, waiting to see if anyone will catch her. She counts in her head, and inside the house her parents keep her subject to the law of sex. ‘Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six, sept, huit, neuf, dix’.
[i] From an interview in Le Nouvel Observateur, 1977, Reprinted in translation in The Oxford Literary Review, vol 4, no.2 1980