‘Somehow I managed not to be thrown out of his borrowed office (that I was a leather-jacketed male may have contributed to his patience) and was able to shift the topic away from Stone and classifications of madness in the European Middle Ages to ask about his blurb for John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. My point of entry for the shift to my keener interests was something he said about ahistorical heritage-making of “gay people.” I suggested that one of the most egregious examples, where even rabbits are “gay,” came in a book bearing a blurb from him.
He recommended ignoring Boswell’s first chapter and said that he had been more struck by his initial reading of Boswell’s book than he was later, working through some of the same materials himself. The resolution he proposed was not to regard Boswell’s writings as a sound history of “gay people” but as valuable for understanding the particular problematic of intolerance for sexual diversity. (I rejected that, saying that I read the book as a very tendentious apologia for the moral responsibilities of the Holy Mother Church specifically for persecution of those diverging from its prescriptions for sex. He neither endorsed or rejected this characterization.)’[i]
Stephen Murray met Foucault when he was teaching at Berkeley in the 1970s. He was a student and attended his lectures, but quite critically. ‘Foucault worship’ had not taken hold then. He wrote this account of their meeting in an email to his friend, Sam , many years later:
Stephen to Sam
Thanks for your email. I am glad to hear you have a new book coming out. Sure it’s electronic but isn’t everything these days? It won’t be long before we are all fucking robots and men will just be clothes horses. Maybe that day has arrived.
You wanted me to write about that time I met Foucault? Jeez it seems so long ago. Sure you can pass my account onto your contact. I have never been in a novel before. Foucault’s Daughter sounds like she might be an interesting character.
Anyway, excuse the flowery prose. I couldn’t help myself darling! Here goes:
‘It was a bright crisp autumn morning in Berkeley. It is funny sometimes to think of how Fall is called Fall and to actually witness leaves cascading off the trees in the wind. There are not many words that so literally describe what they describe. How about ‘fuck?’ No, that doesn’t work. What about gulp? No. You see it is hard to find one. Winter? No. Passover? I guess but that’s not quite the same.
I was nervous about meeting Mr Foucault. My worst fear: that the eminent philosopher would just slam the door in my face.
I approached the study, the one Foucault was borrowing from a Professor and knocked, a limp-wristed knock on his door. ‘Entrée’ came a voice from inside.
So I entered. Who wouldn’t enter Monsieur Foucault’s inner sanctum given half a chance?
I had been in Foucault’s lectures but nothing had prepared me for being in such close proximity to the man himself. I held out my limp-wristed hand…
He did not take it but pulled out a seat and told me to sit. I felt like a kid.
‘oh yes please’ I said a little too enthusiastically.
We sat and drank coffee and I looked at his face which was so alert and alive and his bald pate and his glasses, and it was partly like looking at a cartoon and partly like looking at a lover and partly like looking at my father and partly like looking at…some kind of religious deity?
Anyway. I looked and then I thought it was about time I said something.
‘Um, well, I have always been interested in your separation of the gay’ person from people who do homosexual acts. It seems this ‘’gay identity is gaining more and more currency…
‘It does, yes. But sometimes I prefer to examine power separately from the obvious that is being presented to me. In one sense the ‘gay identity’ is only very partial. It is worth uncovering how sexuality is regulated across the board , no? ‘ he took a sip of his coffee.
‘Yes of course. I guess I was looking at your work over the course of your career and noticing a link between all the theories of how you have distinguished between an essentialist idea of the person.. for example, the ‘mad’ person and the actual systems of discourse by which…
‘Oh I do not make any link between my work over time. I am not part of the canon and I never will have my own ‘canonical oeuvre’ this is ludicrous! And bourgeois!
Foucault slammed his coffee down on the desk hard and it spills onto his papers.
This was not going too well.
‘I know what you meant! But you are wrong.!;
So I left the talking to him. He explained about how his work would get appropriated and watered down over time and how he didn’t like it and worried that when he is gone there will be such a bastardisation of his writing it could be meaningless.
‘Knowledge is not for knowing. Knowledge is for cutting’.
He looked wistful for a moment, anxious. He said that sometimes he wished he could take his work with him when he died and so everyone had to start again. He did not want to be mis-remembered, misinterpreted.
I looked sheepish, being one of those students who was guilty of lifting Foucault quotes left right and centre.
He smiled softened.
‘I am tired of these four walls. He said. J’en ai mar de ces murs’. He gesticulated at the cramped space around him.
‘let’s go for a drink’.
With that he stood up and reached for his leather jacket , which made his attire become remarkably similar to mine.
And then he almost pushed me out of the door, talking as he went, down the corridor out of the building, across the campus, strewn with fallen golden leaves.
He took me to his favourite bar just off campus. I felt like I was in a dream.
‘what would you like?’
‘a beer please;
We took our beers and we sat at a table. Quiet for a moment. Just two guys in a bar.
‘so do you go out? On the scene?’ asked Michel.
A little I said.
‘I t gets a bit repetitive after a while/
‘and do you go to the s and m clubs?
‘They do not have them in Paris. I think it is amazing to have a public place for such things.
‘I guess so, yes’.
I am very interested in the overt demonstration of power dynamics in the S and M sexuality. It seems, so, so,… honest.
‘I hadn’t really thought of it like that before’ I said. I had really but I decided to be deferential to the don. Despite his protestations I think that is how he liked to be treated, and something was telling me that beer could turn into something much more interesting.
‘It is fascinating.. the way people, men, enact power inequality in the sexual arena and it produces something new it is not merely reproducing power but creating it, I am sure it can have a liberating effect!’
He was getting very animated now and took off his jacket in the heat. I saw his chest through his poloneck it looked firm, sensual. I started to wonder what his cock was like. Oh god this was Michel Foucault and I was thinking about his cock.
Was he thinking about my mouth, on his cock?
He stopped talking.
What is it? He asked. ‘You were miles away.
‘Oh sorry’ I mumbled. I don’t think Foucault liked it if you didn’t pay attention to him.
‘anyway I was saying about how in s and M the dominant partner synthesises the irreducible element of power, the mythical irreducible element of power and presents a challenge for the bottom. The submissive partner to either conform to that irreducibility, or to disrupt it. Do you see what I mean?
I nodded. I understood perfectly how I would have liked Michel Foucault to challenge me to disrupt his irreducible power by either sucking his cock or not. Or sucking his cock in a way that was not 100% satisfying to him which would challenge him back to reassert his irreducible power, maybe by turning me round and spanking my arse very hard.
Now he sounded angry.
‘You are not listening to me Stephen! What is going on!;
Or maybe I could challenge his irreducible power by mere insolence?
‘I am sorry Michel. I am really interested in your theory it is just.. just..’
‘What? What is the problem.’
‘let me get you another beer and I will tell you.’
So I went to the bar. I walked slowly, breathing in, moving my ass in as seductive a way as possible. He couldn’t fail to see the signs. Could he?
I came back with the beers and he just started talking again.
Talking and talking about fucking power. All theory and no practice.
I tried one last time.
‘S o how would it work, in practice, if the actors were, say, you and me?’
I looked at him as coyly as I could.
For a moment the great philosopher seemed embarrassed.
‘er.. I don’t know.
And then he said:
‘ you see Stephen, in my recent explorations of power in S and M, I have been most interested in ‘surrendering power. It is quite a new experience for me and I have found it, liberating! I think there is an ontological change that comes about .from giving up power to another man don’t you agree?
‘yes’ of course I fucking agreed. That’s what I wanted to do too.
This exchange of power was really not working for me.
And then Foucault returned my coy look with his best coy look and said.
‘I would consider giving up my power to a man like you’.
I started to laugh.
At first he seemed hurt, angry again.
But the man was not stupid.
He got the joke and he started to laugh as well.
We drank our beer and we laughed at the ridiculousness of sex and power, and the impossibility of equilibrium, a pair of cock suckers sharing a private joke.
Outside the leaves kept falling off the trees . There was nothing anybody could do to stop them.
From Sam to Stephen:
Ha. Wasn’t it Edmund White who said he thought all writers are bottoms, really? They must use up all their phallic penetration in their intellectual practice. Looks like I got everything the wrong way round. As usual.
This is an extract from my 2011 novella, Scribbling on Foucault’s Walls. You can obtain a PDF copy here