Foucault in Warsaw (Paperback)
I’m a sucker for many things, and among them are biographies that focus on a single, pivotal period in a subject’s life; queer histories of autocratic states; capers that involve the uncovering of archived information; and love letters to cities other than New York, London or Paris.
Remigiusz Ryziński’s Foucault in Warsaw re-examines the time that Michel Foucault, famed French philosopher, spent in Warsaw writing the thesis that would go on to become “Histoire de la folie”, the history of madness, a seminal text in the so-called ‘French theory’ wave of late 20th century philosophy. Ryziński uncovered archived reports regarding the secret police informant, code name “Jurek,” whose infiltration of the Warsaw gay scene and denunciation of Foucault led to the philosopher’s expulsion from the country. In these reports, we learn of what motivated Jurek and this peek into obscurity drastically complicates an otherwise open and shut narrative of a flamboyant foreigner run afoul of a censorious, paranoid autocracy.
What is so delightful about Ryziński’s approach to the topic is the way he jumps in and out of his amassed artifacts, delicately linking seemingly disparate objects, documents, people, places and moments until a decisive image appears on his loom. We zoom rapidly through micro- and macroscopic views of Foucalt’s life, the gay culture of pre-democracy Poland, the inner workings of the Polish secret police, all the while pulled along finely tuned threads of greater philosophical implications that wind tight and then unspool magnificently as the tale climaxes. But beyond the discursive tricks and clever meanderings through a fascinating set of circumstances, finally burnished by truth, there is real heart in this work. As the author himself states: “The hero of this book is Michel Foucault. But not only him. Warsaw is, too.” A philosopher, writer and translator, Ryziński’s earnest drive to do right by those wronged by history is passionately clear in every line. In the end, the most gripping story within the book is that of its author, doggedly seeking righteousness via the light of truth.
The fact that this bright tenderness jumps so easily off the page is a testament to the tremendous work of the book’s translator, Sean Gasper Bye. The voice of this author, so deeply moved by his own subject, speaks clearly and resolutely. For English-readers to have access to that clarity is only possible with a great translator, and this work is a wonderful illustration of what a quality translator can accomplish.— Charles