… but, then again, nobody is perfect
Michel Foucault (15 October 1926 – 25 June 1984)
We all have at least heard the name Michel Foucault but how much do we actually know about the man that it belonged to? For some, it will be much more than for others. Indeed, rather like greatness itself, some are born to Foucault, some achieve Foucault and others have Foucault thrust upon them. In both cases, we freely admit to belonging to the latter grouping.
Michel Foucault was born on 15 October 1926, making him a Friday’s child, which, according to the nineteenth century poem, predestined him to a life of “loving and giving,” though those with a more thorough knowledge of the great man might argue that Sunday would have been more appropriate in his case.
Foucault came into this world via the small town of Poitiers in central France and was actually christened Paul-Michel Foucault, after his doctor father, Paul Foucault, whose own father, another Paul Foucault, was also a doctor, though it was his mother, Anne Malapert (daughter of yet another doctor, needless to say) who insisted on tagging on the double-barrelled Michel part. Little is known of his childhood, which remained the single part of history (or anything, for that matter) that he was ever reticent to discourse about, though he did describe himself as a “juvenile delinquent” and claimed that his father was a bully much given to stern punishments. He and his father were never on the closest of terms, a situation that was not helped when he decided to slope off into philosophy instead of becoming the doctor that family tradition demanded, and this conflict may be part of the reason for his dropping of the Paul from his name. Luckily, younger brother Denys stepped into the breach and thus the doctoring went on. The self-proclaimed image of the youthful Foucault as an adolescent tearaway is somewhat tarnished, however, by the fact that he found time to serve as an altar boy at mass in the Catholic church of Saint-Porchair.
Foucault later went on to enter the École Normale Supérieure, which, from the sound of it, was anything but normal (though most certainly Supérieure), being rather like the wilderness seclusion of a monastery for boy geniuses. (That, by the bye, is the correct plural in instances of high intellect, genii being the one for spirits with influence toward good or evil, as in “Rasputin, the evil genius of Russian politics.” Or simply more than one genie.)
“Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same.” So said Foucault. And he didn’t remain the same. As the years passed, he mellowed and became increasingly popular, and was even described as “a radiant man, relaxed and cheerful,” some going so far as to call him a “dandy.” This is the image we normally associate him with: the toothy grinning character portrayed in black and white photographs. Though this may simply be the old Foucault maliciously relishing the idea that whatever comes pouring forth from his pen will undoubtedly be inflicted upon every future generation of students for many years to come.
Foucault wrote a large number of books, including The Order of Things, Discipline and Punish and the History of Sexuality. In 2007, Foucault was listed as the most cited scholar in the humanities by the ISI Web of Science. He was certainly the baldest. Mostly, though, Foucault became known for wearing turtleneck jumpers. And he was pen pals with René Magritte: how surreal is that?
[Michel Foucault’s works remain as popular and relevant as ever, whilst within Birkbeck Library itself, he continues to be amongst our most heavily borrowed authors year upon year. To see the vast range of material we have available by this week’s Giant, simply type Foucault into VuFind and search by author. Here’s one we prepared earlier …]