foucault in warshaw

Belgian newspaper Le Soir spends ample space to an article by Maya Szymanowska about a new Polish publication by sociologist Remigiusz Ryzinski, ‘Foucault W Warszawie’ (Foucault in Warsaw – no translations yet).

In 1955 Michel Foucault arrives in Uppsala, Sweden, where he will work on his doctoral dissertation. But then in October 1958, he moves to Warsaw, Poland, where he is going to direct the Centre de civilisation française at the local university. There he continues writing the manuscript he will  eventually defend in 1961 in Paris as his so-called ‘principal thesis’. It is published originally as ‘Folie et déraison. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique’.

It was already known that Foucault had to leave Poland in a hurry in the middle of 1959, due to pressures by the secret service of the then communist state. French Wikipedia blames this on  his “travaux et fréquentations”, his works and social contacts, ‘fréquentation’ ironically also meaning intercourse. The secret service would have pushed a young man, only known as ‘Jurek’, into Foucault’s arms in order to discredit him. One day, the police raids the hotel where Foucault and Jurek are spending some time together; the French ambassador is subsequently urged to send Foucault back to France.

But why? Was there really a ‘Jurek’? And discredit, how? Homosexual contacts were not a offence in Poland at that time; homosexuality was simply ignored. Ryzinski has tried to find witnesses of that episode and to reconstruct the case.  In the – now public – archives of the secret service he found Foucault’s files. That’s how he discovered the names of people Foucault frequented in Warsaw. It enabled him to reconstruct a fragment of the local homosexual scene in the 1950’s, a scene that also included diplomats, foreign scholars and secret services.

Daniel Defert – Foucault’s partner during the last decades – confirms that Jurek and Foucault had a close relationship. A short time after the Polish episode, Jurek came to visit him in Paris and admitted he had been recruited by the secret service. But still, why the provocation to get the philosopher out of the country? Szymanowska (or Ryzinski?) gives no answer. “In his doctoral thesis, (…), L’histoire de la folie, (…), the French philosopher speaks of the category of the Other who is assimilated to an enemy, just like the homosexual … or the opponent. Would the communist regime have had so much fear for the subversive scope of this philosophy?” A bit meagre for an explanation.

The other elements Szymanowksa reports from Foucault in Warsaw are Ryzinski’s presumption that the city inspired Foucault into conceptualizing the panopticon and writing Surveiller et punir, and the tenderness of the description of a gay scene avant la lettre, “a hidden world, a world that renounced social codes, a world before AIDS”.

Whatever the relevance of the book or the review, here’s a nice picture of Michel Foucault in 1958, hairy and all.

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And more unshaven Foucault:

The clip is called Umberto Eco interviews Michel Foucault, but Eco is nowhere to be seen. The interviewer in the short video is Enzo Melandri, and the meeting is taking place somewhere in Milano, Italy in 1968. Pour la petite histoire, Eco and Melandri had bet a beer on how Foucault would pronounce episteme: as in French (according to Melandri) or as in Greek (Eco). Melandri won.


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