The Voie André Malraux is a 325-metre concrete flyover built over the river Clain in the 1970s to connect Poitiers city centre with the rapidly developing banlieue area of Couronneries. The large concrete supports of the flyover are covered with some impressive graffiti, and a year or so ago I came across a striking image of Michel Foucault along with a stencilled quote, ‘Il est laid d’être punissable, mais peu glorieux de punir’ (It is ugly to be punished, but there is no glory in punishing). I think this stark, rather edgy portrayal would have appealed to him.
Foucault is one of Poitiers’ most illustrious sons; in most lists only Rabelais comes close, then you’re quickly amongst some not particularly well-known politicians and sporty types. He is regarded by many as one of the twentieth century’s most significant figures in the world of philosophy. His major works, including Discipline and Punish and Madness and Civilization,raise questions about the nature and use of institutional power and control, and suggest that certain ideas, such as madness, delinquency and sexuality, are transformed by society to serve the convenience of social systems. At the same time, he is denounced by some as a fraud, a charlatan with nothing new to say – a division of opinion probably due in part to Foucault’s flamboyant lifestyle and political activism.
Paul-Michel Foucault was born on 15th October 1926, the second of three children in a prosperous and socially conservative upper-middle-class family. The contrast between this start in life and the controversial figure he was to become may go some way to explaining Poitiers’ strangely ambivalent attitude towards him. True, there is a small plaque on the wall of his birthplace, the family home at no. 10 rue de la Visitation (now renamed rue Arthur Ranc), a sedate, genteel thoroughfare near the city centre. There’s also a rue Michel Foucault, a small street of newly built houses, tucked away behind the hospital on the outskirts of the city, the sort that is normally named after some senior town hall employee approaching retirement. In truth though, one could easily visit Poitiers and be completely unaware of any link to Foucault. Nonetheless, apart from the image on the flyover, I’ve found some odd Foucaultian echoes in the city, and two are in the street where he was born.
Poitiers’ central Post Office stands at the top of the street, a large imposing building with some impressive statuary over the doorway. However, in the past this has been the site of two very different institutions, both of confinement, one voluntary, one less so. In 1633, the Order of the Visitation established the convent which was to give the street its original name. In 1793, the nuns were summarily ejected, and the site became a prison for le tribunal révolutionnaire. From here, prisoners would be taken by cart to the guillotine in the nearby Place du Pilori.
Then in 1901, rue de la Visitation was the setting for a grisly scandal. On 23rd May, the Attorney General of Poitiers received an anonymous letter, the text of which could be translated as follows: Monsieur Attorney General: I have the honour to inform you of an exceptionally serious occurrence. I speak of a spinster who is locked up in Madame Monnier’s house, half-starved and living on a putrid litter for the past twenty-five years – in a word, in her own filth.
A search of no. 18 was ordered. Here Blanche Monnier was discovered, tied up on her bed, undernourished and extremely weak. She was 52. Investigations revealed that she had been secretly confined in the family home for twenty-five years. Various reasons were put forward. A love affair with a republican lawyer to which her profoundly royalist family would not agree. A psychiatric disorder, probably anorexia, which would have led to internment in a mental asylum, tarnishing, the family feared, their honour and reputation. On being discovered, Blanche was interned in a psychiatric hospital and later transferred to a sanatorium in Bois, where she died in 1913. Her mother was imprisoned but died fifteen days later. Her brother was sentenced to fifteen months in prison for ‘non-assistance to a person in danger’ but released on appeal. There is some suggestion that it was he who had written the anonymous letter.
In 1930, André Gide published a book about the incident, La séquestrée de Poitiers, changing little but the names of the protagonists. According to Hervé Guibert, a close friend, this book was a great influence on the young Michel Foucault. I’m not particularly a subscriber to the theory of psychogeography, but there does seem to be a certain resonance between Foucault’s birthplace and the two nearby places of incarceration.
I went back to look at his portrait on the viaduct recently, but sadly the graffito has been removed and replaced with the image of a young woman. I doubt if this would have worried Michel. As he says in The Archaeology of Knowledge, ‘Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same. More than one person, doubtless like me, writes in order to have no face.’