Tripping his brains out | Daily News

Tripping his brains out

In May 1975, Michel Foucault watched Venus rise over Zabriskie Point while Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths) blared from the speakers of a nearby tape recorder. Just a few hours earlier he had ingested LSD for the first time and was in the process of undergoing what he saw as “one of the most important experiences” of his life. And he wasn’t alone. Two newly acquired companions had brought Foucault to Death Valley for this carefully choreographed trip complete with a soundtrack, some marijuana to jumpstart the effects, and cold drinks to combat the dry mouth. It was all spurred on by the hope that Foucault’s visit to “the Valley of Death”, as he called it, would elicit “gnomic utterances of such power that he would unleash a veritable revolution in consciousness”.

For decades, the details of this trip have remained sketchy. The most extensive account appeared in James Miller’s 1993 biography, The Passion of Michel Foucault, but anyone following the footnotes would have realized that the specifics, the ones above included, were based almost entirely on the documentary evidence of a self-proclaimed disciple, Simeon Wade. At the time, Wade was an assistant professor in History at Claremont Graduate School who had come under the spell of Foucault’s early works and was convinced that a new intellectual order was on the horizon. Even though Wade believed that the faculty there was “parochial”, the administration “reactionary” and many of the students “affluent and careerist”, he was still optimistic that real change was possible – even from the centre of a sleepy college town.

To help things along, Wade co-founded an interdisciplinary European Studies programme, with a curriculum largely organized around Foucault’s work and major influences. He even compiled a fanzine, Chez Foucault, intended as a primer for the students and colleagues who were just getting started. This mimeographed 110-page document includes a glossary, a biographical sketch, some extracts from the major works, a reading list (with films), a “Dialogue on Power” between Foucault and Wade’s students, and a course syllabus, all of it preceded by a list of quotations, including one that would sound about right coming from someone stargazing under the effects of LSD. (“The stars are raining down upon me. I know this is not true but it is the truth.”)

Few, if any, of Chez Foucault’s readers would have been aware that all of these lines were taken from an unpublished memoir Wade would carry around for decades. Convinced that Foucault in California was “too scandalous” to publish, and then moving on to jobs elsewhere, Wade deposited the manuscript in a storage facility in Oxnard, California, where he spent his final years in relative isolation until his death in October 2017. It has now been published by Heyday Press, a small non-profit publisher, thanks to the detective work of Heather Dundas, a graduate student from the University of Southern California convinced that the story of Foucault and LSD was either completely fake or wildly inaccurate. It also helped that she “hated theory”, which, in the early days of the search, meant she was looking for evidence that Foucault was a sham, someone who embodied “all the privilege and arrogance of the theory movement”.

In the process of tracking down Wade, however, something unexpected happened. The two forged a genuine friendship (even spending birthdays together), and Wade trusted Dundas enough to share what he had written. And thankfully he did. Foucault in California is the only known record of a drug experiment at least as valuable as those conducted by Walter Benjamin and Antonin Artaud, and provides a rare glimpse into Foucault at a moment before his emergence as a public intellectual with a global reputation. Wade and his partner, Michael Stoneman, a talented pianist, play the ideal hosts, using the occasion of Foucault’s visit to Claremont to try and learn as much as possible about the man behind the mind. What they discover is a remarkably affable, if at times shy, human being, self-effacing, generous, witty and engaging. Though the conversations as reported here can feel stagey at times, Foucault never seems unwilling to answer their questions. As a result, we discover that he works “about five hours a day”, masturbates, loves teaching but hates marking “little essays”; he adores William Faulkner, thinks Jean-Luc Godard is a “political bitch”, was paid in hash after his televised debate with Noam Chomsky in 1971, and very much enjoys getting high and “laughing a lot” with students after his lectures.

Although Dundas admits that the memoir ended up softening her own feelings about him, it wasn’t until Wade showed up one day with a carousel of photographs that she would believe unequivocally that this whole event, and the friendship that ensued, had actually happened. There in a series of colour photographs was Michel Foucault; one of the most striking shows him standing in Death Valley dressed in a white turtleneck jumper, tight- fitting bell bottoms and white mirrored sunglasses that made him look, as Wade put it, “like the child of Kojak and Elton John”.

“He was tripping his brains out in this one”, Wade explained, the desert in the photograph resembling a Kodachrome version of Doré’s illustrations of the Inferno.

At that moment, Foucault looks as if he is deep in conversation, his companion, Stoneman, listening intently, left hand folded under his chin. There is no record of the words that passed between them.

Olaf Nicolai, a conceptual artist, used Foucault’s trip to Zabriskie Point (and Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1971 film of the same name) as inspiration for a mixed-media installation last summer in St Gallen entitled That’s a God-forsaken place: but it’s beautiful, isn’t it? (a quotation taken from the astronaut Charles Conrad, Jr in 1969). Visitors walked past a series of photographs of Zabriskie Point shot at night using a flash, before entering a larger room with green light emanating from one wall, the ground filled with tons of sand, craters, a meteor (small enough to handle), and complemented by vitrines containing passages from Wade’s unpublished memoir. Bringing so many different cultural, scientific and philosophical references into such a cramped space with eerie green light does, strangely enough, capture some of the vastness and emptiness of Zabriskie Point in the dark, one intended to make you feel as if you’re orbiting the earth with your feet firmly planted on the moon.

- Times Literary Supplement


 

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