Paul-Michel Foucault was born on October 15, 1926, at Poitiers, 250 miles south of Paris. His family were well-to-do bourgeois in a town that has remained a byword for French provincialism. His father was a surgeon, taught at the local medical school, and ran a prosperous practice. His mother was a strong-minded woman who managed her husband’s finances, helped administer his practice, and daringly drove an automobile.
During Paul-Michel’s childhood his parents also built a seaside villa on the Atlantic coast at La Baule. This was large enough for a family of five and servants. Here the family spent their summer holidays amidst the pine trees overlooking a long curve of sandy beach. Father was kindly but stern, mother was efficient but concerned. For Paul-Michel, life at home with his older sister and younger brother was the epitome of normality. Such was the standard background of so many intransigent French intellectuals who have revolted against all forms of authority and bourgeois behaviour.
Dreaming of goldfish
At school young Paul-Michel was weedy and shortsighted. As a result his schoolmates soon corrupted his name to Polchinelle (the French equivalent of the hunchbacked figure of fun we know as Punch). Freudians will be intrigued to know that he dreamed of becoming a goldfish. Such fishy ambitions were reflected in his academic performance. Although evidently bright, he never excelled. Even at his favourite subject, history, he only finished second.
World events impinged little on sleepy Poitiers or Foucault family life. The seaside villa was built during the early years of the depression; Hitler’s posturings on the newsreels were dismissed with sophisticated ridicule in the press; and the blandly debonair records of Maurice Chevalier spun on the phonograph.
When he was ten, young Paul-Michel saw the first refugees from the Spanish Civil War tramping through the streets of Poitiers. Three years later Germany invaded Poland, launching World War Two, and the family drove back from their summer holiday at La Baule for the last time. By the time Foucault was fourteen, the Nazis had invaded France, the French army was retreating in disarray, and even Poitiers was in turmoil.
With the unbending ineptitude of an operating-theatre martinet, Dr. Foucault supervised the setting up of emergency medical units in the town. In the background his wife painstakingly smoothed ruffled feathers and efficiently ensured that things got done. Now wearing glasses, but still in short pants, young Paul-Michel looked on in bewilderment. That summer his exam results plummeted.
Mother pulled strings to have him transferred to another school, whereupon the academic ugly duckling turned into a swan. This was to become something of a pattern. Foucault was to under-perform at important exams but then shine when he took them a second time. At the age of twenty, on his second attempt, Foucault gained a place at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. This was the intellectual hothouse where the crème de la crème of France’s students were put through their paces. (Jacques Derrida was another student). To be a ‘normalien’ marked one as a superior species for life.
Normality has always been exceptional in France, and the superintellectual ‘normaliens’ were often a fairly odd lot. But even here Foucault soon stood out. By now the Punch of the school playground had developed into a decidedly prickly character. During the previous year or so he had gradually become aware that he was homosexual. Such a thing was not only illegal at the time; in Poitiers it was unthinkable. Paul-Michel couldn’t even turn to his beloved mother for guidance and reassurance. And by this stage he had also fallen out heavily with Papa. The adolescent Paul-Michel refused to follow in the family tradition and become a doctor. He just wasn’t interested in medicine, and that was that. He would stamp upstairs to his room, slam the door, and bury his head in yet another volume of history. By the time he took the entrance exam to the École Normale Supérieure for the second time, there was no doubting that here was an intellectual thoroughbred. (He finished fourth in the entire country). But there was also no doubting that he had the unpredictable temperament of a thoroughbred.
Mad and dangerous
In Paris he took to calling himself plain Michel (dropping Paul, his father’s name). Michel Foucault’s first years at the ENS were to be a litany of incidents. On one occasion he slashed his chest with a razor; on another he had to be restrained while chasing a student with a dagger; and on another he nearly succeeded in committing suicide by taking an overdose of pills. He drank heavily and occasionally experimented with drugs (very much a minority pursuit in those far-off days). Sometimes he would disappear for nights on end, afterwards slumping back hollow-eyed and haggard into his dormitory with depression. Few guessed the truth. He was tortured with guilt over what had occurred on his lonely sexual expeditions.
Foucault was unable to live with himself, and none of the students in his dormitory wished to live with him. They looked upon him as mad and dangerous, qualities that only seemed to be exacerbated by his evident brilliance. Fiercely aggressive in intellectual argument, he was not above resorting to violence. His fellow students shunned his company, and he began developing psychosomatic illnesses. Long bouts in a solitary bed in the sanatorium spared him from the communal existence of his dormitory, and here he read voluminously, even by ENS standards.
Read more in Foucault: Philosophy In An Hour by Paul Strathern, published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99.