Said on Foucault

Said is invited to Paris in early 1979:

When I arrived, I found a short, mysterious letter from Sartre and Beauvoir waiting for me at the hotel I had booked in the Latin Quarter. ‘For security reasons,’ the message ran, ‘the meetings will be held at the home of Michel Foucault.’ I was duly provided with an address, and at ten the next morning I arrived at Foucault’s apartment to find a number of people – but not Sartre – already milling around. No one was ever to explain the mysterious ‘security reasons’ that had forced a change in venue, though as a result a conspiratorial air hung over our proceedings. Beauvoir was already there in her famous turban, lecturing anyone who would listen about her forthcoming trip to Teheran with Kate Millett, where they were planning to demonstrate against the chador; the whole idea struck me as patronising and silly, and although I was eager to hear what Beauvoir had to say, I also realised that she was quite vain and quite beyond arguing with at that moment. Besides, she left an hour or so later (just before Sartre’s arrival) and was never seen again.

Foucault very quickly made it clear to me that he had nothing to contribute to the seminar and would be leaving directly for his daily bout of research at the Bibliothèque Nationale. I was pleased to see my book Beginnings on his bookshelves, which were brimming with a neatly arranged mass of materials, including papers and journals. Although we chatted together amiably it wasn’t until much later (in fact almost a decade after his death in 1984) that I got some idea why he had been so unwilling to say anything to me about Middle Eastern politics. In their biographies, both Didier Eribon and James Miller reveal that in 1967 he had been teaching in Tunisia and had left the country in some haste, shortly after the June War. Foucault had said at the time that the reason he left had been his horror at the ‘anti-semitic’ anti-Israel riots of the time, common in every Arab city after the great Arab defeat. A Tunisian colleague of his in the University of Tunis philosophy department told me a different story in the early 1990s: Foucault, she said, had been deported because of his homosexual activities with young students. I still have no idea which version is correct. At the time of the Paris seminar, he told me he had just returned from a sojourn in Iran as a special envoy of Corriere della sera. ‘Very exciting, very strange, crazy,’ I recall him saying about those early days of the Islamic Revolution. I think (perhaps mistakenly) I heard him say that in Teheran he had disguised himself in a wig, although a short while after his articles appeared, he rapidly distanced himself from all things Iranian. Finally, in the late 1980s, I was told by Gilles Deleuze that he and Foucault, once the closest of friends, had fallen out over the question of Palestine, Foucault expressing support for Israel, Deleuze for the Palestinians.

Foucault’s apartment, though large and obviously extremely comfortable, was starkly white and austere, well suited to the solitary philosopher and rigorous thinker who seemed to inhabit it alone. A few Palestinians and Israeli Jews were there. Among them I recognised only Ibrahim Dakkak, who has since become a good Jerusalem friend, Nafez Nazzal, a teacher at Bir Zeit whom I had known superficially in the US, and Yehoshofat Harkabi, the leading Israeli expert on ‘the Arab mind’, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, fired by Golda Meir for mistakenly putting the Army on alert. Three years earlier, we had both been fellows at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, but we did not have much of a relationship. It was always polite but far from cordial.

LRB, 2000.

2 Responses

  1. It’s kindof surreal to read about details such as Foucault’s apartment…his writings and the man seem very separated for me.

  2. Yeah a couple of the biographies mention the austerity of the apartment and there are also some pictures at Clare O’Farrell’s site eg http://www.michel-foucault.com/gallery/pictures/foucaulta26.jpg

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