The Early Foucault update 3: Another week at the Bibliothèque Nationale

bnfI’ve just spent another week at the Bibliothèque Nationale manuscript room – newly renovated and now a dedicated space. This is at the older Richelieu site in the centre of the city.

I worked through boxes relating to two key periods – Foucault’s reading notes in preparation for Histoire de la folie, and his notes from the period immediately before this. There was a lot of material to go through – more than I expected, since two numbered boxes were each actually split into ‘a’ and ‘b’ boxes – and I essentially made detailed notes on what was there, and spent some time on the most interesting material, but have not yet worked through everything in careful detail. The first set of boxes had a lot of material you’d expect to find, but also showed how much the research for this project overlapped with that for Birth of the Clinic. Daniel Defert notes that Foucault thought that book was essentially the ‘outtakes’ from the earlier study – it’s more than that of course, but this description makes some sense. It’s also striking how much the research for the madness book initiated themes that Foucault would explore over a decade later in his work on punishment and sexuality. I made the point back in my PhD thesis that the full text of Historie de la folie (as opposed to the then-truncated English translation Madness and Civilization) made it clear how much it anticipated many of his later concerns. That point can be substantiated much more carefully with these reading notes. I should caution though that because Foucault’s notes are undated, we cannot be exactly sure when materials were collected. Foucault organised his notes thematically, and moved things around as he worked on new projects. But there is clear break in style of note taking in the later 1960s, so I am quite confident these notes date from before that period.

The notes from his earliest reading are mixed in with lecture notes – not lectures he gave but those he attended. Who keeps all of this for thirty-plus years, organised so carefully and supplemented by extensive reading notes? Foucault did. Again, he doesn’t date the notes, though he usually but not always gives the name of the lecturer. They were a set of formidable figures – Jean Beaufret, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean Hyppolite and Jean Wahl among them. It was helpful in verifying just how much of the philosophical tradition he knew, with extensive notes on figures that might not ordinarily be seen as part of Foucault’s background – Hume, Pascal, Spinoza, and the Greeks, for instance. There are also extensive and detailed notes on psychology and psychonalysis that fed into his earliest publications – the key names that might be expected, and a range of less familiar figures.

The notes are filled with his difficult, at times illegible, handwriting, employing some idiosyncratic shorthand and abbreviations. His citations are usually provided, but often in compressed form. Tracking some of these leads down may take some time. Foucault tended to group his (at this time A5 size) notes together by folding an A4 sheet around them, but some of these are so decrepit that they have been replaced by more recent sheets – some clearly from the BN archivist, others look to be Foucault’s from a different date, and some look to be by Daniel Defert, whose handwriting I recognised in a few places. For some of these grouping-pages, and occasionally for notes themselves, Foucault would use various bits of paper that he seemed to have to hand – invitations to events, manuscript drafts, mimeographs of various things, headed notepaper and so on. In the absence of dated notes, these can give useful indications of periodisations – though usually only providing the earliest date that they could have been grouped together. But some of them seem to come from quite unknown providence: Foucault seemed to have an extensive stack of headed paper from a journal that he never published in, was not on the board and as far as I know had no other links to.

I worked almost flat out in the manuscript room on this visit, pausing only for brief breaks. I did meet up with The Funambulist’s Léopold Lambert for a beer one evening, and made a couple of trips to favourite bookstores. I also spent a couple of hours at the BN’s François-Mitterand site, looking back at Foucault and Daniel Rocher’s translation of von Weizsäcker’s Le cycle de la structure on microfilm. I’m still trying to get hold of a copy of this elusive text.

This was the last reconnaissance visit I needed before sending off the book proposal for The Early Foucault. I’m hoping to have an indication of whether it will be contracted before I next head to Paris in mid-February. In the meantime I’ll be speaking about this project at the Institute of Historical Research on 2 February.


The previous updates on this project are here; and Foucault’s Last Decade and Foucault: The Birth of Power are now both available from Polity. Several Foucault research resources such as bibliographies, short translations, textual comparisons and so on are available here.

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