Hallucinating Foucault is a remarkable text, postmodern in the sense that it plays with perceptions of narrative yet operating within a wholly realist framework. It focuses on a fictional French author, Paul Michel, and his relationship with the genuine French philosopher, Michel Foucault. Sanity/insanity, community/isolation, love/loss, sex/death: these are the binary opposites which this novel explores. Add the tension between writer and reader and we have an extraordinary novel, a mere 178 pages which manages to present an astonishing amount of thought-provoking matter without ever losing the narrative drive one might expect from a more straightforward thriller. Given the title of the novel, the subject matter I describe above should not come as a surprise: Michel Foucault once said: “Madness, death, sexuality, crime; these are the subjects that attract most of my attention.” Although he never actually appears in Hallucinating Foucault, he is nonetheless a principal character in it, and indeed he is the pivot around which the whole narrative swings. While madness suffuses Hallucinating Foucault, for Foucault himself it was relative. Indeed, he saw it as a social construct and thus subject to differing diagnoses according to the prevailing orthodoxy of the time. We should expect, then, a nuanced analysis of insanity in any novel bearing his name, and this is indeed what we get in Hallucinating Foucault.
The unnamed narrator is a postgraduate student from Cambridge University whose doctoral thesis is on the fiction of Paul Michel. Initially, he takes the same view as me, that the author is irrelevant and everything is in the text. For that reason, his PhD subject is to be a study of the novels, not the novelist. Indeed, when he finally meets the novelist in person he makes this point to him forcibly, even as his actions are beginning to give the lie to his words.
Michel, we are told, was previously susceptible to unprovoked violent outburts and finally succumbed to a paranoid schizophrenic breakdown in 1968 whereafter he had been secured in a variety of mental institutions. As the novel begins, the narrator meets a young woman, The Germanist, whose doctoral research area is Schiller but who appears to have a detailed knowledge of Michel, too. Together, the pair grow more interested in the fate of the mysterious author and The Germanist persuades the narrator to travel to France to track him down. Thus begins the main element of the narrative. What follows is a beautiful and painful meditation on truth and narrative and love and loss.
Once in France, the narrator begins in Michel’s archive, where he uncovers a series of letters to Foucault which seem to indicate some strong relationship between the two. Ultimately, however, the narrator realises that these letters were never sent. He tracks Michel down to a mental hospital in Clermont-Ferrand and visits him. After a tricky start, the two become increasingly close, to the extent that, after a few weeks, the authorities agree that Michel can be released from the hospital on licence for two months. They travel to Nice, where they begin a homosexual relationship and the story develops towards its climax.
It gradually becomes a study of alienation and isolation and disconnection. At one point, discussing loneliness, Michel tells the narrator of: “the loneliness of seeing a different world from that of the people around you. Their lives remain remote from yours. You can see the gulf and they can't. You live among them. They walk on earth. You walk on glass. They reassure themselves with conformity, with carefully constructed resemblances. You are masked, aware of your absolute difference.” As such, Michel refuses to conform in any way. Even his homosexuality must be manifested in the way of an outsider: not for him the jeans and white tee-shirt uniform of the bar-room gays. He "didn't give a shit what other people thought", we are told, and he would promenade on the beach with his arm round the narrator or kiss him as the mood took him. James Purdy, that old curmudgeon of American letters, would have been proud of him.
So we have madness, love, isolation, truth: all of this could become a bit of a mess unless there is something to hold it together So what does? As I have said, Foucault is the pivot of the novel and, in particular, one might usefully turn to his approach to the concept of parrhesia, “frankness” or “free speech”. This was a central notion in Foucault’s understanding of the mechanics of power and social inter-relationships. Two forms of parrhesia may be said to exist, and it is the second which is of particular interest in this novel. The first, political parrhesia, can be seen in the novel in Foucault’s and Michel’s participation in the riotous events of 1968, in which they spoke out against the prevailing culture and for the counter-culture. But it is the second form, philosophical parrhesia, which dominates the novel. In any analysis of power, there must be frank discourse. As Edward McGushin explains in his superb analysis of Foucault:
Ethical/philosophical parrhesia is a form of discourse that takes place in the context of care of the self. Ethical parrhesia is poetic in the sense that its purpose is to transform individuals – both those who speak it and those who listen to it. But the notion of parrhesia, especially in its philosophical form, challenges us to rethink the concept of truth.And this is what we see in the relationships in this novel – the Germanist and the narrator, the narrator and Michel, Michel and Foucault and so on. There is truth-telling and there is concealment. True parrhesia will not allow concealment and so these relationships, however loving, are compromised. Nonetheless, they are borne of courage and there is something noble and beautiful about them. Foucault himself might have approved.
As well as this, the narrative is a vehicle for an exploration of the bond between writer and reader. For Paul Michel, that reader is personified by Michel Foucault, to whom he writes those unsent letters. “You ask me what I fear most,” he says in one of the letters, and explains that it is “the loss of my reader, the man for whom I write.” Later, we discover that there was another, equally important and this time genuine reader, “his English reader”. These are the people to whom Michel addresses his fiction. The message he relates is difficult. His prose is described by the narrator as emotionally detached. It contrasts with his true nature, he chides, which is much more open and friendly: “you’re the most passionate man I’ve ever met. And you’re nothing like what you write.” The pellucid nature of his prose is neatly mirrored by Duncker’s own, the novel being narrated in an unadorned and unaffected way. What emerges is a love story that transgresses the norms of society and is all the deeper for that.
In the end, though, I still hold to my view that the author is irrelevant. Talking of her novel, Duncker says: “I wanted it to be a love story... to explain the love between readers and writers. My life has been radically changed through the books I’ve read and I wanted to describe that.” The second sentence is undeniably true and I can empathise with it: Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, those novels changed my life. But that sentiment doesn’t logically follow from her first sentence: the love is between readers and texts, not writers. I have no interest in Hardy, Grass or Marquez; something compelled them to write works of literature which resonate with me very powerfully, but it is the text, not the impulsion within the writer that connects with me. In Hallucinating Foucault, Duncker tries very hard to draw the writer into the narrative. It is beautifully done. It is indeed a fine love story. It resonates, it will linger long in the mind. But, in the end, that is the point: Hallucinating Foucault will linger in my mind. Not Patricia Duncker.