This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
It is rare enough for a major work by a major philosopher to emerge posthumously. What makes the appearance of the fourth volume of Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality so remarkable is not just the fact that this text of nearly 400 pages languished in a bank vault for more than 30 years after his death aged 57 in 1984. It is also the book’s seductive, not to say salacious, title: Les aveux de la chair, now superbly translated into English by Robert Hurley as Confessions of the Flesh (Penguin Classics, £25).
Given that Foucault died of Aids and a series of biographies have not disguised his promiscuity, readers might expect some kind of self-revelation, or at least a self-justification, in this valedictory volume from beyond the grave. If so, they will be disappointed. But this book does offer insights into its elusive author, even if that was not his intention. Like the Marquis de Sade, whom he revered as the patron saint of libertines, Foucault studied the Christian theologians only to conclude from their diabolical view of human nature “that God created most men simply with a view to crowding Hell”.
First, a word about the text. The editor, Frédéric Gros, tells us that Foucault wrote the manuscript between 1980 and 1982, delivered it to Gallimard, his publisher, but then delayed its publication in order to complete volumes 2 and 3 of his History of Sexuality, which deal with classical Greek and Latin ideas about sexual love. Foucault apparently stipulated that none of his work should be published posthumously, but as he left no will he cannot seriously have expected posterity to allow his magnum opus to remain incomplete.
For all the relativism, amoralism, even nihilism, that pervade his oeuvre Foucault could not let Christian morality go
Gros does not explain why Foucault’s heir, Daniel Defert, suppressed this final volume for so long, but we know that in 2013 Defert sold his partner’s archive to the Bibliothèque Nationale, and the Foucault family, which owns the rights, then authorised publication. The author hinted that he did not see this volume as his last word on the subject, but he left no indication of how his investigation of “the hermeneutics of desire” would have been continued if he had lived. His original scheme had envisaged a volume entitled Les pervers (“The Perverts”).
It is possible that Foucault might have reverted to the question of how certain practices came to be viewed as perversions. For all the relativism, amoralism, even nihilism, that pervade his oeuvre like the odour of black leather, Foucault could not let Christian morality go.
The word “confessions” immediately conjures up, in modernity, the spectre of Rousseau — another enfant terrible, whose Confessions may be said to have inaugurated psychological introspection — and, in antiquity, of St Augustine, whose Confessions is the first spiritual autobiography in Western literature. The Bishop of Hippo is indeed ubiquitous throughout the new text, but curiously — and in the absence of an index — I can find no citations of his Confessions in Foucault’s volume of the same title. Nor is there any mention of the young Augustine’s notorious prayer before his conversion: “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
Instead, what we have is a book-length exegesis of everything the Church Fathers wrote about marriage, virginity, fornication, masturbation and much else besides. Foucault has an inexhaustible appetite for patristic moral injunctions, most of which were intended to equip novice monks with the “art of arts”: a life of unremitting asceticism and mortification of the flesh. His fascination with the evolution and codification of Christianity has a strangely compulsive quality. It is as if this entire volume were itself a kind of penance for having been raised a Catholic, the author’s exorcism of his own guardian angel. This most impersonal of texts — the first person is rigorously excluded — is yet profoundly personal in motive and trajectory.
Take, for example, the final chapter, entitled “The Libidinisation of Sex”. Here Foucault engages directly with Augustine, who uses the word “libido” in roughly its modern sense of sexual desire — for example, in a celebrated passage in The City of God where libido “moves the whole man with a passion in which mental emotion is mingled with bodily appetite, so that the pleasure is the greatest of all bodily pleasures. So possessing indeed is this pleasure, that at the moment when it is consummated, all mental activity is suspended.”
He notes that libido presents Augustine with a problem: how can a power that deprives men of control over body and mind, albeit necessary for procreation, be anything other than evil? Yet to condemn the body, created by God, is to fall into the Manichaean heresy, while to sanctify sexual urges as natural and good, unless taken to excess, is to echo another heresy, that of the Pelagians. What is the Christian, the orthodox, the Catholic solution? According to Foucault, it is the libidinisation of sex itself.
Today, Foucault scholars and editors prefer to pass over his advocacy of pederasty in silence
What Augustine does, in Foucault’s interpretation, is to use the Fall as the source of the sinfulness of libido: just as Adam rebels against God, so in sex the body rebels against the mind. As Foucault puts it, “Our being the products of our forebears’ sex links us, back down through time, to the transgression of the first among them.” Moreover, it is this link between libido and original sin that defines every individual, not (as it is for Plato) the lack of a partner. Libido, or concupiscence, “is what justifies the damnation of those who die unbaptised”.
Foucault proceeds to analyse the steps by which Augustine constructs a theological, moral and juridical system to regulate not only human conduct, both for the married and the celibate, but also the internal “court of human conscience”. Whereas for pagans sex was all about pleasure, for Christians it was all about rules. The ancient world enjoyed sexual desire, the medieval one analysed it — and “in that analytic, sex, truth and law are bundled together, by ties that our culture has tended to draw closer rather than to loosen”.
For Foucault, in other words, the really important sexual revolution was not the one of his own time: it was the Augustinian sexual revolution that had taken place one and a half millennia before. Sexual intercourse began, not in 1963, as Philip Larkin thought, but in the early fifth century.
It is impossible to consider here whether Foucault’s exegesis of Augustine is plausible or even possible in a textual sense. Patristic scholars might well echo their classicist colleagues who have dismissed the Graeco-Roman sections of the History of Sexuality as the work of a gifted amateur. What matters here is that Foucault’s interpretation made sense to Foucault. And it did so because it made sense of his own experience, man and boy — especially of his experience as a man who loved boys.
The bourgeoisie into which Foucault was born was steeped in Catholicism but also notable for its hypocrisy about homosexuality; it was the society dissected so mordantly by Marcel Proust. Unlike the rest of Europe, same-sex relations had been legal in France since the Revolution. According to the law of 1791 that legalised sodomy, the age of consent was 13; this meant that there was no law against pédérastie, or sexual relationships between men and boys.
Foucault later claimed to have been a “juvenile delinquent”, but he was glad to do the homework of the first boy he fell for
Yet over the next century and a half, there was only one French writer who “came out” in favour of pederasty: André Gide. Published in 1924, two years before Foucault was born, Corydon, which Gide regarded as his most important work, marshals evidence from the history of civilisation to demonstrate that homosexuality is not unnatural and is even superior to heterosexuality. His celebrity eventually earned him the Nobel Prize, but he also aroused ferocious opposition — not only from social conservatives, but from those who rejected the arbitrary and derogatory association of homosexuality and pederasty. In France, the vulgar term for gay is “pédé”, short for pédéraste.
In 1942, the Vichy regime persecuted gay men and prohibited homosexual relationships up to the age of 21. Unlike other laws passed during the Nazi occupation, this one was not repealed after the Liberation: de Gaulle merely raised the age of consent for heterosexuals to 15. During the 12 years of the Fourth Republic and for the first 25 years of the Fifth, relations between men and boys were illegal. This period coincided with Foucault’s adult life: not until just before his death in 1984, the first Socialist government for 40 years under François Mitterrand equalised the age of consent for same-sex relationships at 15.
Foucault’s life also coincided with the last flowering of French Catholicism. His parents ensured that Michel attended Mass and became an altar boy; he later took his baccalaureate at a Jesuit college. The Catholicism of this provincial milieu was cultural rather than spiritual, but it was strict in its insistence on conformity to the catechism.
Foucault later claimed to have been a “juvenile delinquent”, but he was glad to do the homework of the first boy he fell for. For a while he joined the Communist Party, but its working-class membership was at least as homophobic as the bourgeoisie. Once he had made his name, he moved to the relative freedom of Paris and, later, California. However, in the early 1960s he seems to have been less interested in protest than in simply fitting in.
Foucault longed for a world in which sexuality was an activity, not an identity
The focus during the Gaullist era was not on gay rights but rather on gaining “dignity” for gay men. Foucault was one of the intellectuals close to Arcadie, the “homophile” club founded by André Baudry. Its rise and fall is chronicled by the British historian and biographer of de Gaulle, Julian Jackson, in Living in Arcadia: Homosexuality, Politics and Morality in France from the Liberation to Aids. The sexual revolution made the quest for respectability seem old-fashioned, though a younger gay generation would later demand — and receive — the ultimate “bourgeois” institution: marriage.
Foucault, however, chose a different route. It may be coincidental that it was only after May 1968 that Foucault adopted the shaven-headed style first made famous by the “immoralist” Gide. He no longer wanted to push the boundaries but to abolish them, advocating the normalisation not just of gay subcultures, but of sadomasochism and pederasty, too. Foucault’s calculated affront to bourgeois morality symbolised his rejection of Western civilisation tout court — a rejection that included not only Christianity but its Enlightenment critics.
Power was the only reality behind these facades, a power that was all the more insidious for being unconsciously self-imposed by societies that had been internalising the Augustinian moral code since the end of the ancient world. It was a seductively simple proposition that did away with the need for the proletariat as the vehicle for revolution. Now all could be at once victims and victors.
By the late 1970s, Foucault had become an academic superstar; his distinctive appearance— the bald pate, rimless glasses and black polo-neck sweater — belonged to the iconography of the era. Yet in an interview for Le Monde in 1980, he chose to be anonymous. Why? “Out of nostalgia for a time when, being quite unknown, what I said had some chance of being heard … A name makes reading too easy.” He, the ultimate intellectual, denied that there even was such a thing: “Personally, I have never met any intellectuals.” But he also chose anonymity even in intimacy: the anonymity of the bathhouse and the bar, the self-abnegation of sadomasochism.
Debauchery as a protest against Biblical morality are redundant when the Ten Commandments are more honoured in the breach than the observance
Foucault longed for a world in which sexuality was an activity, not an identity. Yet his own discourse, persona and pose were erotic constructs. His “confessions of the flesh” are utterly unlike those of Augustine or Rousseau, because the “I” is absent from the text — yet the entire project is really the history, not of sexuality in general, but his own sexuality in particular. Any awareness of women, or even of female sexuality, is absent from his work.
By all accounts, Foucault was sexually promiscuous, even reckless, in his last years. Like plenty of others before and since, he identified with the Nietzschean slogan “what does not kill me makes me stronger”, while affecting the lifestyle of a libertine. Even after he realised that he was suffering from Aids, he continued to go to “the limit”. His partners may or may not also have been infected. Thanks to the Covid pandemic, we are more familiar with the ethics of social distancing than people were in the era of Aids.
All the same, that Foucault might have been a super-spreader of a lethal and, at the time, incurable immunodeficiency virus is abhorrent. His early demise has even been seen by some as a form of suicide. One might, like Metternich on the death of Talleyrand, wish to ask of the departed Foucault: “What did he mean by that?” The appearance of his posthumous volume prompts one final reflection. Is Foucault still relevant? Or is his grand projet of the history of human sexual desire hopelessly dated? One thing is certain: the austerity and piety, if not the hypocrisy, of postwar France are as dead as de Gaulle, the imposing, unyielding Generalissimo who symbolised everything Foucault hated. Younger generations no longer feel the need to rebel against the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
Debauchery and dissipation as a protest against Biblical morality are redundant when the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount are more honoured in the breach than the observance. The Church Fathers, like Foucault’s own father, are long past their prime as candidates for parricide. The Foucauldian critique of the Catholic Church reads as if the author were flogging a dead patriarchy. The burning of Notre Dame two years ago was the literal fulfilment of Voltaire’s anticlerical watchword: “Écrasez l’infâme!”
For half a century, the influence of the 68ers has blocked every attempt to protect children from abuse
Today, Foucault scholars and editors prefer to pass over his advocacy of pederasty in silence. It is striking that the volume of his Essential Works entitled Ethics includes many interviews, but not one he gave in 1978. There he argued that it was “quite unacceptable” and an “abuse” to assume “that a child is incapable of explaining what happened and was incapable of giving his consent” to sex with an adult. (Note that Foucault takes it for granted that the child will be a boy.)
It is a matter of public record, however, that Foucault signed a petition to the Assemblée Nationale in 1977 calling for the decriminalisation of all “consensual” sexual relations between adults and children. Foucault was impressed by the fact that the Greeks “never admitted love between two adult men … [for them] love between two men is only valid in the form of classic pederasty”. He even told his biographer James Miller: “Besides, to die for the love of boys: What could be more beautiful?” For Foucault, pederasty was the only truly romantic form of love.
To this day, France — unlike most other European countries — has no law that treats sex between adults and minors automatically as rape. Hence it is, and has always been, possible under French law for children of 13 and over to consent to sex, which means that adults can only be charged with sexual assault, not rape. Moreover, a statute of limitations means that those who were abused as children can only bring charges until the age of 48. Paedophilia has in practice seldom been prosecuted in France. Indeed, sexual “liberation” for children was a fashionable cause among some leaders of the May 1968 protests, notably Daniel Cohn-Bendit (“Danny le Rouge”).
For half a century, the influence of the 68ers has blocked every attempt to protect children from abuse. This use of intellectual prestige for the purpose of sexual exploitation is, perhaps, an authentic example of “biopower” being exerted in the Foucauldian sense: the legitimisation of paedophilia by leading intellectuals has enabled reform to be successfully resisted. If it is possible to be posthumously hoist by your own petard, then that has been Foucault’s fate.
Revulsion against the sexualisation of adolescence is stronger in France than ever before
There is, however, a postscript. In 1977 Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Roland Barthes were among the 67 signatories to a letter in Le Monde calling for the legalisation of sex with minors. The letter was written by Gabriel Matzneff, a 1968 radical and novelist, with a predilection for very young girls. One of his victims, Vanessa Springora, has now shocked France with her memoir of their three-year affair. Consentement, published in English as Consent (Fourth Estate, £12.99), tells the story of her seduction aged 13 by a man of nearly 50, who was also sleeping with other minors.
Though Matzneff has hidden in plain sight, using his Lolitas as material for his novels, as a result of the scandal caused by Springora, at the age of 84 he has now been investigated, charged and is due to stand trial in September.
If Foucault were alive today, even at the age of 94 he would most likely face protests, if not prosecution. The is no sign that the public, even in France, is ready to entertain the philosopher’s special pleading on behalf of paedophilia. If anything, revulsion against the sexualisation of adolescence is stronger in France than ever before. Where children are concerned, the prophet of pederasty has completely failed to overturn Judaeo-Christian morality. Given the choice between Athens and Jerusalem, we have chosen the latter. What one might call Foucault’s pendulum has swung back against the libertines.
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