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Submitted Literature

Hallucinating Foucault

By Patricia Duncker

Review

Patricia Duncker’s novel, Hallucinating Foucault (1996), is a fascinating exploration of madness, creative writing and homosexuality.  It is a tale of obsession and delusions of passion in which the narrator, a PhD student, sets out on a quest to understand the work of Paul Michel, a writer diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.  Power and sexuality as much as madness and creativity are at the heart of this story as the student-narrator breaks out of the ‘lonely obsessive activity’ of writing his thesis by flesh-and-blood engagement with Paul Michel.  The novel frequently aligns creativity and madness with destruction or violence, as in Paul Michel’s reference to ‘the sheer creative joy of this ferocious destructiveness and the liberating wonders of violence’ or the experience of extremity: ‘You taught me to inhabit extremity.  You taught me that the frontiers of living, thinking, were the only markets where knowledge could be bought, at a high price’.  But just as creativity might result from mental affliction and inhabiting extremity, it can also be its victim: ‘He had a complete nervous breakdown of some kind in 1984. And he hasn’t written anything since’.  In a playful yet serious way, the novel’s focus on the link between madness and creativity is undermined by the question Paul Michel poses to the student-narrator: ‘“And have you come to describe me in your little doctoral dissertation on the link between madness and creativity?” He let out a hideous cackle and his expression became utterly grotesque.  I shrank a little.  He leered towards me suddenly, thrusting his nose into my face.  Sensing hesitation and fear he at once pressed home his advantage.  “So you’re another scrounging, whingeing, lying voyeur.  You aren’t the first, you know.  I’ve fucked dozens of you.”’  Later in the novel, Paul Michel further disrupts any simplistic or obvious link between madness and creativity: ‘“Maybe madness is the excess of possibility, petit. And writing is about reducing possibility to one idea, one book, one sentence, one word.  Madness is a form of self-expression.  It is the opposite of creativity.  You cannot make anything that can be separated from yourself if you are mad.  And yet, look at Rimbaud – and your wonderful Christopher Smart.  But don’t harbour any romantic ideas about what it means to be mad.  My language was my protection, my guarantee against madness and when there was no one to listen my language vanished along with my reader”’. In all, the novel traces the diverse and challenging ‘monsters of the mind’ afflicting the writer/ academic, the link between violence and schizophrenia and the various clinical and social responses to this condition, not least in terms of the asylum and pharmaceutical treatments. 

Key Themes:

  • Creativity and Madness

Reference: Patricia, Duncker. 1996. Hallucinating Foucault. Picador, 1997

Reviewer

Professor Paul Crawford
Date Review Submitted: Sunday 3rd May 2009