A minor note on Michel Foucault and Peter Brown: From a watershed to the parting of the waters

In the closing lines of ‘Le combat de la chasteté’, first published in May 1982, Foucault mentions Peter Brown’s description of “la cartographie du partage des eaux” between pagan antiquity and Christianity (Dits et écrits, Vol IV, p. 308). We now know that this phrase was also used in Foucault’s Subjectivité et vérité course, in the lecture of 14 January 1981. It appears on p. 40 of the published course – “comment établir ce partage, comment faire la cartographie de ce «partage des eaux»”.

The English translation as ‘The Battle for Chastity’ translates the phrase as “the topography of the parting of the waters”. The first version of the translation, by Anthony Forster, appeared in the edited collection Western Sexuality in 1985, and was reprinted in the Foucault collections Politics, Philosophy, Culture; Ethics and Religion and Culture. Though the translation in Ethics was slightly revised, the phrase is the same in all of these.

198836I was curious as to what, exactly, Brown said. There is no note, by author or translator, to this phrase in ‘The Battle for Chastity’. But the editor, Frédéric Gros, provides a note in Subjectivité et vérité, p. 47 n. 8. There, he refers to Foucault’s source, Brown’s The Making of Late Antiquity. He provides a page number to the French translation of Brown’s book – Genèse de l’Antiquité tardive, p. 22 – citing a passage talking of “la ligne de partage des eaux”. The English original is referenced, but no page number is given.

The English text has the relevant passage on p. 2. But there Brown talks of a ‘watershed’, a term that he takes from W.H.C Frend, Martyrdom and persecution in the early Church, p. 389: the “watershed between the Ancient World and the European Middle Ages”. Gros notes that link, but provides the French version of the line Brown cites: “la ligne de partage des eaux entre la monde antique et le Moyen Âge européen”. Consulting the French translation of Brown, rather than the English of Frend, would have been sufficient for this note.

A few things to note.

  1. The French translation of Brown, by Aline Rousselle, Genèse de l’Antiquité tardive, was published in November 1983 – almost three years after Foucault’s lecture and eighteen months after the chapter. Of course, Foucault read English, and knew Brown, so he was not reliant on the translation. But it’s curious that Foucault chose this phrase – which, to me at least, seems to indicate something more like the Red Sea and Moses than a geophysical change – which is then the same phrase used in the French translation. (That said, ‘Parting of the Waters‘ is a site in Wyoming where a creak splits and flows to either the Atlantic or Pacific ocean.)
  2. It’s interesting that all the English editions of the translation of Foucault’s essay go for a literal translation of his French phrase, without checking the source in Brown’s work.
  3. That the translation also renders ‘cartographie’ as ‘topography’, which is carried over in all reprints.
  4. That the division isn’t quite the same in all three authors. For Frend it’s between antiquity and the Middle Ages; for Brown between “the pagan, classical world and the Christian Late Roman Empire”, of which Marcus Aurelius and Constantine stand as emblematic figures; and for Foucault the difficulty of establishing a clear break between paganism and Christianity.
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4 Responses to A minor note on Michel Foucault and Peter Brown: From a watershed to the parting of the waters

  1. B Hautdidier says:

    You could trust wikipedia here: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ligne_de_partage_des_eaux
    Seeing the ‘ligne de partage des eaux’ road sign in the midst of a long midsummer traffic jam is for example a memory shared by most french motorists. Orography has also been for long an important part of the curriculum in french primary schools.
    So the image comes rather naturally in Foucault’s original text. It does also sound much less awkward and biblical than ‘parting of water’ because ‘partage’ implies often more the idea of ‘sharing’ than ‘cutting’.
    But the political dimension of the expression is also evident; Cf. the title of a recent documentary dealing with water management: http://www.filmsdulosange.fr/fr/film/213/la-ligne-de-partage-des-eaux

    • stuartelden says:

      Thanks for this. I think this means that my point 1 is probably a bit unfair, and that the choice is not ‘curious’, but points 2-4 hold. My concern is more with the translation of Foucault’s phrase into English, thus retranslating Brown into English, and that none of the translators or editors before Gros located the phrase in Brown’s original.

  2. Pingback: Top posts on Progressive Geographies this week | Progressive Geographies

  3. Pingback: Foucault’s Last Decade – Update 15 | Progressive Geographies

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