edmund white on michel foucault


‘Michel Foucault was in the hospital one winter. When he came out he seemed much thinner and weaker and racked by a constant cough, but he was determined to give a dinner party for William Burroughs and twelve of the band of young Parisian men who were always gathered around the philosopher. Foucault could speak English wonderfully well, but his success with the language was a sustained performance demanding complete concentration, the sort of intensity that made his seminars in the States so exhilarating (and exhausting). I’d attend a seminar at New York University in 1982 and I remembered how much Foucault had had to rely on written notes and words precisely produced by a mouth glittering with silver fillings, as though the metal helped him to chew out the difficult foreign words. What he wasn’t equipped to do was chat idly or understand mumbling; as the evening wore on Burroughs began to slip into slangy, stoned incoherence and I had to “translate” Burroughs’s English into Foucault’s.

Two months later Foucault was dead. An article on the front page of Libération denied that he’d died of AIDS, as though it would be a calumny against France’s leading philosophy to suggest he’d succumb to such an ignominious disease. Only very slowly did the truth emerge; all I could think of was his patience, trudging back and forth from the kitchen to the salon to serve the dinner without vegetables he’d bought at the caterer’s downstairs. I remembered his patient smile and cocked head as he listened to Burroughs’s stoned murmurs; he was trying unsuccessfully to understand what this American writer whom we all admired so much was saying. His humility in serving dinner to friends was in complete contrast to his fiery temper, bordering on madness, when he thought he was being criticized by a member of an enemy conspiracy of intellectuals. ‘

edmund white, 1998, the farewell symphony, vintage

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