Foucault on Sweden: ‘The end of the Human’

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When he turned 30, in 1955, Michel Foucault left France. He thought he might never come back. The post-war religion of Parisian academia, namely a certain kind of Marxism, ‘suffocated’ him. He said he got tired of competing to quote Marx, Engels, and more rarely Lenin. He somewhat hoped to spend the rest of his life traveling (but he would settle again in Paris 5 years later). In 1955, if we are to believe him, he wanted above all to avoid a career that would involve too much writing — for decades he would suffer from the exercise of writing. At best, Foucault said, writing gave him a ‘pleasure that did not bring [him] pleasure’ (Roger-Pol Droit, Entretiens avec Michel Foucault, 1975).

Foucault stayed three years in Sweden, around the University and the French Institute of Uppsala. He taught French a little. Despite the adrenaline of his jaguar sport car and the occasional exciting encounter, he got bored enough with the very long winter nights and with the silenced Swedes: he started writing what would become Madness and Civilisation (Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique), in a form that he hoped could secure him a PhD. Because he only quoted Marx once in his text (and without much praise), he decided to apply for a Swedish PhD instead of a Parisian one.

But he submitted his work to Professor Sten Lindroth who, in typical Swedish cold positivism, replied that he was unimpressed. According to Lindroth, Foucault’s dissertation was not serious, historically poor, filled with speculative assertions, and too literary. Sten Lindroth had just been elected to be a member of the prestigious Swedish Academy.

Foucault left Sweden disappointed. The motto of the Swedish Academy is ‘Talent and Taste’ (Snille och Smak). Its members decide every year who receives the Nobel Prize of Literature.

Ten years later, Foucault would comment: ‘It is perhaps the mutism of the Swedes, their silence and their habit of talking with elliptical sobriety, which prompted me to start speaking [writing?] and develop this endless chatter that I believe can only irritate a Swede. [… In Sweden], a human is but a moving dot, obeying laws, patterns and forms in the midst of a traffic that is more powerful and defeats him/her. In its calmness, Sweden reveals a brave new world where we discover that the human is no longer necessary.’ (Interview with Michel Foucault by I. Lindung Bonniers Litteräre Magasin, Stockholm, 1968).

Today, Madness and Civilisation, the final version of the essay initiated in Sweden and rejected by the Swedish eminent professor, is unanimously considered as one of the important books of the second half of the 20th century. In the last 30 years, the book was quoted in more than ten thousand academic articles throughout the world. In 2014, the fourteenth annual meeting of the International Foucault Circle was hosted by the university of Malmö, in the South of Sweden.

LdM

PS: Michel Foucault, in The Order of Things, sets the beginning of our modernity in 1775. That year is also when this medallion was produced

Posted in Ideas and Papers and tagged , , .

2 Comments

  1. Dear Luis,

    I was wondering about the photo details and source? (just in the process of writing a review of a novel that fictionalizes Foucault during his time in Sweden – would be great to include an image of the jaguar, which he famously ditched on more than one occasion en route to Stockholm and back).

    Thanks
    Dave

    • Dear Dave,

      I honestly can’t remember where I found that image, but feel free to investigate and tell me more about it. What is the title of the novel?

      Cheers
      Luis

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