Undead Letters and Archaeologies of the Imagination



by Dave Ciccoricco

Foucault, in Winter, in the Linnaeus Garden,
by Michael Joyce,
Starcherone Books, 184 pp.

You can find his lost interview on YouTube—or the surviving fifteen minutes of it at least. In 1971 Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky participated in the now famous debate on the topic of human nature, live on Dutch television. As part of the buildup to the main event, the philosopher Fons Elders, who was also to moderate the debate, interviewed Foucault solo, but most of the video footage was lost in a fire that damaged the building containing the television archives. Over thirty years later, the surviving material was found by an undergraduate researcher, Lionel Claris, who, in collaboration with Elders, went on to translate it and eventually release it to the public in 2014.

At the end of that interview segment, in contextualizing his comments about the “end of man,” Foucault adds, “I don’t say the things I say because they are what I think, I say them as a way to make sure they are no longer what I think. […] To be really certain that from now on, outside of me, they are going to live a life or die in such a way that I will not have to recognize myself in them” (Claris). In this gesture, one gives life to one’s thoughts in language so that such thoughts may live on (or die), in effect, separate from and even unrecognizable to their thinker (an added irony here of course is that the sentiments in question are themselves, after decades, newly undead).

There is perhaps, however, an inverse case—a genre no less—that involves employing language expressly not to give life to one’s thoughts in the first place: the unsent letter. An unsent letter is the paradoxical message par excellence, as I quite literally address another and yet communicate only to myself. In effect: I have said what I do not or no longer wish to say, and I have not given life to my thoughts in order to make sure that I will never, to your mind, believe them. Interrogating the status and resonance of unsent letters is one of the tantalizing tasks of Michael Joyce’s latest novel, Foucault, in Winter, in the Linnaeus Garden.

Even more seductive is the novel’s framing conceit, an imagined life of Foucault spanning several weeks of his dark Swedish winter in Uppsala, in 1956, at the end of his relationship with the composer Jean Barraqué, and at the beginning of the project that would become his first major work, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. As Joyce writes in his preface, “This novel takes the form of an historical fantasy consisting of letters, all imaginary and most of them unsent, which thus ‘fiction’ an imaginary history that is at least doubly fictional: an imagined imagined life of the philosopher Michel Foucault” (9). Literary culture may at times be all too guilty of perpetuating overly romantic conceptions of creative madness and a parasitic fascination with the figure of the mad philosopher, and Joyce enters the same fraught territory in aestheticizing Foucault. Joyce himself, in the novel’s “Afternote,” acknowledges the possible risks involved in pursuing the kind of work that might offend Foucauldian devotees (189). But these are snares he deftly avoids. The novel affords a compelling meditation on what we might call the nexus of madness, philosophy, and literature, one that conveys a productive and troubled time for Foucault with an intensity and artfulness befitting of one of the most artful philosophers of the twentieth century.

Being Michel Foucault

The thirty-year-old Foucault character writes to Barraqué, to his mother, to his close colleague Jacqueline Verdeaux, to Jean-Christophe Öberg (his assistant in Sweden), and to an exceptional Swedish woman Gabrielle Hamnqvist, whom he meets in Uppsala. This cast of characters plays a verifiable role in Foucault’s actual life with the exception of Gabrielle, whose intervention forms the nucleus of the epistolary exchange in the novel and supplies the motivation for that exchange as well: his letters to the others are replete with stories of her. She is the recipient of the most letters penned and sent by the Foucault character, equal with Barraqué; however, the fact that unsent letters to his lover Barraqué compared to Gabrielle number six to one suggests something about his lack of emotional restraint in his dealings with her.

They meet in a chance encounter, when the Foucault character offers assistance to Gabrielle when he sees her on the street in front of his residence in Sweden at the Maison Française. She is adorned in a “diaphanous emerald peignoir,” making her both overdressed for an Uppsala sidewalk in the early morning and underdressed for Sweden in February. They proceed to strike up an emotionally charged correspondence that covers the vagaries of Swedish cakes, poetry in local Nordic dialects, and suicidal ideation—the latter topic taking on added complexity in light of Gabrielle revealing that she has become pregnant to a young hussar. Despite the morbid overtones, the novel is by no means merely a trip down a despairing memory lane for what is widely known to be a trying time in Foucault’s young adult life. He arrived in Sweden with the mistaken impression that, compared to France, it was a more open-minded culture with regard to his sexual preference (see Macey 73); he departed it with a rejected PhD dissertation at the University of Uppsala.

In fact, Joyce’s creative study is full of delectable elaborations that serve to humanize the philosopher, such as when the Foucault character, in a letter to Gabrielle, jokes about driving his Jaguar off the road following their indulgent night out in Stockholm: “No matter that the pumpkin of Cendrillon had become an aureate Jaguar motorcar rather than a gilt chariot, no morning could undo its magic, nor no country ditch entomb it!” (154-55). Foucault is known to have driven his prized sports car into a ditch on several occasions on the same Uppsala-Stockholm route. And while he is not known definitively to have stepped in horse manure while attempting to dodge a mounted Swedish battalion on parade, the account offers an equally charming characterization: “I had to drag that foot behind me through the snow all the way down the first and steepest hill along Drottninggatan, limping comme Le Bossu de Notre Dame” (115). The elaborations of the novel’s imagined history, at the same time, can serve to further mystify conceptions of the philosopher; that is, for the Foucault character, Gabrielle’s intervention represents a new kind of energy, hope, and certainly some form of desire.

The tight coupling of historically grounded people, places, and events of Foucault’s Swedish winter on the one hand with, on the other, his unknown and unknowable desires, fears, and puns—which abound in Joyce’s polylingual narrative—recalls a similar project by Lance Olsen in Nietzsche’s Kisses (2006). That novel portrays the last hours of the invalid philosopher as he drifts in and out of consciousness, somewhere between memory and hallucination, and it burrows into his most charged relationships with his fleeting lover, his anti-Semitic sister, and Richard Wagner. It not only makes for a common reference point here, but in matters of intellectual genealogy and influence, it also makes sense to experience the Nietzsche account before Foucault’s. In Joyce’s novel, as in Olsen’s, both philosophers find themselves confined not just by their immediate physical surroundings, but also by their own theories, as they live through versions of folie and eternal recurrence—forces beyond their control if only barely within their conception.1

The comparison to Olsen’s novel obligates me to say more about genre, with the requisite qualification that there is something deeply hypocritical about this move with regard to a novel that does so well to innovate in form, about a man whose very name stands for problematizing the practice of classification and systems of thought more generally. Madness and Civilization, the work that provides the novel’s backdrop, marks an iconic blend of myth and history, and ultimately amounts not to a work of literary criticism, philosophy, history, mythology, or anthropology, but all of the above. Foucault, in Winter, in the Linnaeus Garden is an epistolary novel that employs an invented language, mixing French and, to a lesser extent, some Swedish into English. It also, along with Nietzsche’s Kisses, belongs to a long-standing but newly resurgent (post 1980s) tradition of partially invented biography, which has gone under various labels including but not limited to fictional biography, biographical fiction, the biographical novel, and intellectual biography. It is clear in any iteration that the form transcends “historical fiction” both in delimiting its temporal and personal frame and in atomizing the known details of the personality involved.

Over twenty-five years ago, Linda Hutcheon made what was an incisive contribution to contemporary literary theory by introducing the concept of “historiographic metafiction,” a concept that reflects some traits of Joyce and Olsen’s texts but does not correctly categorize them (apparently Wikipedia demurs). In Hutcheon’s formulation, “historiographic” replaces “historical” so that the impossible exercise of writing history or pursuing historical truths is laid bare; the “meta” basically functions to “postmodernize” it all. It will suffice to say that if historiographic metafiction sees history strictly in aesthetic terms, if it is relentlessly parodic in this aim, and if it is steadfastly reflexive at its nonexistent core, then it simply does not apply here. (Pohlmann, for that matter, aptly notes the absence of “postmodern textual smoke bombs” in Olsen’s work.) Nevertheless, the novel begins with the premise that history is always already under erasure, and its epigraph featuring Foucault famously claiming that he has “never written anything other than fictions” is our overt reminder. We are reminded in turn that the time is right to both aestheticize Foucault and historicize the postmodernist movement of which he was a reluctant figurehead.

You’ve Got Unsent Mail

The letter is the primarily vehicle for this undertaking—a word whose connotations underscore the fact that the Foucault character essentially prepares some of his letters for nothing other than a kind of burial. In one of his unsent letters to Barraqué, dated 21 February 1956, he asks, “Is there a value of addressing my pain and confusion to you rather than de garder ce compte pour moi-même? Would the questions become clearer, or the world they involve become less painful, en fait, when in fact you no longer answer? […] is there something that the other gives even in his silence?” (83). A dead letter denotes either something that has lost its force but has not been formally abolished, or a letter that is undeliverable and unreturnable. An unsent letter fits neither definition; it has not yet attained the potential status of undeliverability, and it has the uncanny ability to gain force in its latency. As the Foucault character writes in a letter to Jacqueline, “You, of course, will thus understand this present communication to be encore une lettre qui suit une lettre non envoyée, and as such it is both haunted and made more intimate by an unseen presence” (123). Subsequent sent letters thus refer to previously unsent ones, disclosing a moment of prior intensity that, in turn, wills these documents into a sort of liminal existence for both parties. In this manner, such “undead” letters assume their curious ontology.

It is, furthermore, the link between madness and creativity—madness and writing in particular—that the novel configures. The Foucault character is aware of the connection between his feverish letter writing and his scholarly practice researching the life of madness as a historical concept. Writing to Jacqueline, he suggests that he is in the middle of a strange “intellectual exercise […], or perhaps rather a variety of madness selon mon métier, writing a series of letters to various persons that refer to letters unsent. Yours is the third such that I have sent today sous cette rubrique” (91). It was the eventual publication of Madness and Civilization, biographer David Macey notes, that prompted Foucault to “devote a great deal of effort to tracing and deciphering that experience and its literary expression, rather as though he detected some primal relationship between writing and madness” (Macey 97).

While Foucault was working on Madness and Civilization, another intellectual force of the twentieth century, Gregory Bateson, was also rethinking the role of language in mental illness, exploring how common, everyday communication patterns factor into the development and manifestation of schizophrenia. Although Bateson was working with an overbroad and now somewhat outdated notion of “schizophrenia,” his ideas were revolutionary, recasting schizophrenia not as something inaccessibly and “abnormally” puzzling, but as something that should be considered, instead, in relation to familiar acts of communication and logical impasses that, on a continuum, cause problems only at their pathological extreme. He stressed that messages are always layered, from the singular context of metaphor to the proliferating pluralities of fictional or actual worlds. For Bateson, one could suffer from an overactive and indeed sometimes dysfunctional aptitude for reading such micro- and macro-social contexts. He succinctly called such syndromes “trans-contextual,” and made the important point that these subjects can be both enriched with creative gifts and impoverished with persistent confusions (Bateson 243).

The notion of writing as both palliative for and symptomatic of madness continues to color romantic and common conceptions alike. On this count Foucault keeps the waters muddy, which is crucial to his maintaining the cultural contingency of madness in genealogical terms. However, Foucault’s cryptic description of madness as the “absence of an oeuvre,” a formulation that bamboozled his thesis committee (Macey 102) and has occupied many a scholar since, might take on added relevance here. The description makes some sense if we see literary expression functioning as a guarantor of self-knowledge—even sanity—of an author who is both the subject and object of its creation. After all, the possibility of language, of rational thought, as insulation against delirium (no matter how deluded the substance of that thought), arose in the fallout over a competing interpretation of Descartes’ cogito between Foucault and a then young philosopher on the rise, Jacques Derrida (see Felman). In light of the requisite metacognition involved, perhaps it is thus not the creation of unsent letters that signifies madness but rather the very failure to do so, the inability to make sense to ourselves in the first and foremost instance.

The Order of Monstrous and Beautiful Things

Even though it is the creation of Madness and Civilization that is narrativized by the novel, Foucault’s The Order of Things, the work that gained him widespread recognition, is an equally vital inter-text. He would not publish it until a decade or so after his time in Sweden, but its presence is felt throughout the novel, as a pre-text, so to speak, for the narrative action. In terms of Foucault’s own intellectual trajectory, both works reflect his efforts to explain how systems of knowledge are built, rather than necessarily explaining why they should be challenged or dismantled. That is, we are more or less dealing with an as yet politicized philosopher whose method, in his own terms, was still in the process of moving from “archaeology” to “genealogy” in dissecting the substrata of knowledge. The novel seizes on a time during which Foucault himself was just starting to formulate his own suspicion of totality per se, which was influenced by Nietzsche as well as Barraqué’s compositional practice of serialism. But theories of classification and the formation of totalizing systems of thought pervade Joyce’s text as a theme and a preoccupation. At times, the Foucault character is immersed in the notion of classifying madness, and the process of constructing “an entire system of such words with which we propose to describe others who see so much more than we do” (21). At others, immersed in his grief over the prospect of losing Barraqué, he is contemplating a “system of classification of emotions of his own” (34-35).

Foucault’s time at Uppsala, where Carl Linnaeus taught, is justification enough for the novel’s titular framing, and the staging of its pivotal moments in the Linnaeus Garden. After all, if the eighteenth century was the era of classification, then Linnaeus was certainly among its prime classifiers. But his ghost haunts Foucault in other ways and is thus more deeply enmeshed in the thematic framework than would at first appear. Better known for kick-starting the sexual revolution for plants, Linnaeus’ appetite for classification also included mental illness, and his grand and ultimately unsuccessful gesture culminated in his Genera Morborum (1759). He arranged diseases into 11 classes, 37 orders, and 325 species (genera); he addressed mental illness in Class 5, Mentales, which he divided into 3 orders and 25 genera (Munsche and Whitaker 226). Based on symptoms—including, among the most curious, tarantismus, the “unnatural desire to dance, thought to be caused by a spider’s bite”—his system did not endure. Nevertheless, the historical footnote frames the problem of taxonomy in general terms. Whether you are categorizing madmen or flowers, you will always run into the same problem when you come across something that does not fit the system. You either find a way to make it fit or create another category; but you run the risk of constructing what is known as a “dustbin taxon,” a convenient home for the aberrant but a potentially all too convenient one for any viable system. Of course, for the scientist as for the philosopher, stumbling upon a deviant form can be at once the greatest threat and the greatest thrill—a most monstrous and a most beautiful discovery. There was presumably some degree of both concerning the famed discovery of the deviant Linaria plant, found on an island in the Stockholm archipelago with five spurs instead of the customary single one. The plant threw Linnaeus’ theory of universal and unchanging types out of whack and nudged us closer to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Linnaeus called the plant Peloria, after the Greek for “monster.”

In the novel, the Foucault character is busy adding monsters to his menagerie of madmen when Gabrielle enters the scene. Even if moving between madness and desire would make for an easy segue, Gabrielle still presents a fairly intractable set of taxonomical questions for Foucault in the story. For him, she falls into several disparate categories. She is the sweet “ice princess” with whom he eats Swedish cakes, the “truest star that I have been able to find in this dark winter” (110). She is, or at least was as her backstory reveals, a showpiece and procuress for a wealthy Brazilian homosexual: “Jean-Christophe […] assures me this marks her as a glädjeflicka, which in Swedish is something like what we mean by une gigolette mais peut-être pas une catin” (42). She is an incarnation of Ellen West, the well-known psychiatric case of the early twentieth century who suffered from severe depression, eating disorders, and suicidal tendencies, and was for Foucault a source of great fascination, on both clinical and conceivably personal grounds. Soon after their first meeting, the Foucault character writes in a letter to Gabrielle, “I think I will call you Elle, the contraction of it amuses me, you who at the last are she. Mais aussi it puts me in mind of another creature who fled this world of ours, this Elle an Ellen, Ellen West, she fleeing to her longed-for death and the distant and lofty space of light that it offered her” (22). She is also a confidant and potential lover, though on this count categorizing desire becomes most problematic, for as he makes clear: “je ne suis pas ton genre” (37), that is, “I’m not your type.” For Foucault, such longing might fall under Order 3 of Linnaeus’ cataloging of pathetici or “irregular desires.”

Above all, she is him, or what he fears he may become, and he sees himself in her wild smile: “C’est moi peut-être que je vois dans son sourire sauvage” (87). It is a description she would readily accept; at one stage she even likens herself to “the monsters in your beloved archives” upon realizing she is pregnant (64). The beautiful monster that is Gabrielle can of course be all of the above, notwithstanding her own wish “to remain suspended forever, outside all categories,” as one of his letters to her puts it (159). There is, however, one inevitable exception: she cannot be a subject, free from “all categories,” with whom he shares his most intimate self, and at the same time an object for analysis, on whom he conducts his thought experiments like some kind of case study. The impasse speaks to larger philosophical problems taken up in Foucault’s project of a history of critical thought, and the logical contradictions arising from being both a subject of knowledge and an object for knowledge. In the novel, the Foucault character wants to care for and indeed save Gabrielle, but at the same time he persists in his attempts to accommodate her in his emerging edifice of thought. At one stage, after Gabrielle realizes that Jean-Christophe, under dubious circumstances, has acquired a parcel that contains her draft of a personal account of her life, she asks, “Why do you have to dig inside someone?” (177). He cannot bring himself to respond, but the answer is all too obvious for an archaeologist. And herein we find the crucial tension of the relationship between Gabrielle and Foucault, which comes to a head, fittingly, in the final scenes within the locked gates of the Linnaeus Garden.

Everything about Joyce’s Foucault is alluring, and his characterization will seduce the philosopher’s devotees and doubters alike. It is possible that a critic of orthodox narratological ilk might object to the abrupt introduction of a narrator to deliver the closing two sections of the novel without in some way signaling a narratorial presence in an opening frame. The novel could also present some challenges with regard to its imagined language. Although it is quite forgiving in the way that it uses partial repetitions to contextualize its French interpolations, it may not always work in the service of the rhythm of the prose; and where there is dialogue nested in the imagined letters, it is not always immediately clear which language the characters are supposed to be talking in at the time. The multilingual prose worked best, for me, wherever there were punctuated pauses signaling what linguists, in instances of spoken language, would call the “code switch.” The effects in such movements are melodic: “And then I was standing there by the locked gate of the Linnaeus Garden, complètement perdu, lost and not knowing where to go next” (76). It is likely that a reader with a more diverse linguistic palette will savor this quality of the novel much more than I could. All in all, as always, there is a pronounced erudition and generosity in Joyce’s art. Even if the latter proves much more difficult to measure, in the presence of such imagination and invention—indeed, in the presence of Joyce’s oeuvre—it is certainly worth trying.

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Works Cited:

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. St. Albans: Paladin, 1972.

Claris, Lionel. “Foucault—The Lost Interview.” Online video. Youtube. Youtube, 20 Mar. 2014.

Felman, Shoshona. “Madness and Philosophy or Literature’s Reason.” Yale French Studies 52 (1975): 206-28.

Foucault, Michel. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Routledge, 2005.

—. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Routledge, 1992.

Hutcheon, Linda. “Historiographic Metafiction Parody and the Intertextuality of History.” Intertextuality and Contemporary American Fiction. Ed. O’Donnell, P. and Robert Con Davis. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. 3-32.

Joyce, Michael. Foucault, in Winter, in the Linnaeus Garden. 
Buffalo: Starcherone Books, 2015.

Macey, David. The Lives of Michel Foucault. London: Hutchinson, 1993.

Munsche, Heather and Harry A. Whitaker. “Eighteenth Century Classification of Mental Illness: Linnaeus, de Sauvages, Vogel, and Cullen.” Cognitive and Behavioral Neurology 25 (2012): 224-39.