The Early Foucault update 1: a week at the Bibliothèque Nationale

My post at the end of last week on beginning work on a possible book on the early Foucault got some attention and enthusiasm, for which I am grateful.

By the time I posted it I was already in Paris, on a long-planned research trip. The Richelieu site of the Bibliothèque Nationale is currently closed, as the renovation work over the past several years is coming to an end, and they are relocating material. This means the manuscript reading room is not accessible, and so I worked instead at the François-Mitterand main location. I’ve worked here before, using it as a place to access texts and especially journals and newspapers which I can’t get in the UK. It’s a strange building, on a large footprint with four ‘L’ shaped towers (like books opened at 90o) in the corners, with wooden decking between them surrounding a sunken garden, with the research library below ground. You have to descend to the entrance, and then down two long escalators to the reading rooms, which are arranged around the rectangle of the towers’ footprint, with very long corridors.


I had five days there on this visit, and worked on a few different parts of this potential project. The main work I did was to compare the translations made by Foucault early in his career with the German originals. This is a slow and painful process, especially because the translations are only available here on microfiche. I’ve used microfilm recently, as the British Library has Le Monde in that form, and I worked with this quite a bit when I was tracking Foucault’s activism for Foucault: The Birth of Power. But microfiche was something I hadn’t used for many years. While the BL microfilm readers are integrated with a PC, and you can take screenshots as images, the microfiche readers at the BNF seem as old as the texts I’m reading, with manual positioning and focus. Although at times it was tempting to say “focusing microfiche doesn’t”.

BNF 1 Dec 2016.JPG

Foucault’s introduction to the French version of Ludwig Binswanger’s Dream and Existence is fairly well known, but he worked closely with Jacqueline Verdeaux on the translation, and provided some notes to the text. The introduction is reprinted in Dits et écrits, and available in English translation, but the Verdeaux translation has been superseded by one by Françoise Dastur and the original is hard to find. In this short text I found some revealing things by tracking the passage from German to French.

Verdeaux also translated two other works by Binswanger – Introduction à l’analyse existentielle and Le Cas Suzanne Urban – étude sur la schizophrénie – as well as Roland Kuhn’s Phénoménologie du masque, and I also took a look at these texts here. One reliable report suggests that Foucault may have had a hand in one of these translations. I’d seen a couple of reports saying that the Verdeaux translation of ‘Dream and Existence’ had appeared in a reprint, but I’d not managed to track down a copy. It only appeared in library catalogues as the version published in 1954 with Desclée De Brouwer, and David Macey reports that it sold only a few hundred copies and the rest of the print-run was pulped. I did eventually work it out: the essay was reprinted in the 1971 collection Introduction à l’analyse existentielle that Verdeaux translated, published in the Arguments series that Kostas Axelos edited. That reprinted version does not include Foucault’s introduction, and his notes appear as translator notes in somewhat modified form.

The other translation Foucault worked on was Viktor von Weizsäcker’s Der Gestaltkreis, translated as Le cycle de la structure. Foucault is credited as co-translator with Daniel Rocher, who had also been a pupil at the ENS. This was published in 1958, but the translation seems to have been done a few years before. Again the translation was only available on microfiche, and although the German text has gone through multiple editions and is quite easy to locate in libraries or bookstores, the translation is very rare. The University of Oxford seems to be the only UK library with a copy. There are only a couple of brief translator notes to the French version, and the preface is by Henri Ey, so it is the choices in the translation itself which are revealing.

I also made use of my time here to check a few of Foucault’s early texts in their original publications. While Dits et écrits is a very useful resource, it does mean the texts are torn from their original context. The company Foucault was in can be revealing, and there are sometimes little extraneous things which are worth noting – author biographies, title pages, etc. In particular the original publications of Foucault’s essays on Nietzsche were worth looking at.

I’ll be back in Paris in January to work in the manuscripts room on some more of the archival material, but this was a useful and necessary trip to work on some printed material. I’m also planning to speak at the Institute of Historical Research in February on Foucault’s early translations.

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