When I asked the green-eyed Parisian air hostess with whom I shared a flat why Michel Foucault had fallen from grace in France but was flavour of the decade in both British and American universities, she said: ‘Our literary theories are like our clothing: they are for a single season.’ Foucault really went out of style in France because he decided that America and liberal democracy were OK after all, a discovery he made during his first visit to San Francisco’s gay bathhouses in the late Seventies. Until then he had believed that Western democracy was really tyranny, tolerance was repression, madness was sanity, and freedom of speech a particularly subtle and vicious form of thought control. By the time of Foucault’s death in 1984 virtually the entire French intellectual Left had undergone a similar Damascene conversion from Marxism.
This was too late for the people around the world whose destinies had been altered by what the author of this fascinating book calls ‘the glittering theoretical novelties’ fashioned at the Sorbonne and in the cafes of St-Germain-des-Prés. Unfortunately, Marxisant theories which have little impact on real life in France amass greater and greater force as they move away from their source.