Foucault in Warsaw

Foucault in Warsaw

Foucault in Warsaw

Foucault in Warsaw


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In 1958, Michel Foucault arrived in Poland to work on his thesis—a work that eventually came to be published as The History of Madness. While he was there, he became involved with a number of members of the gay community, including a certain "Jurek," who eventually led the secret police directly to Foucault’s hotel room, causing his subsequent exit from Poland. That boy’s motivations and true identity were hidden among secret police documents for decades, until Remigiusz Ryziński stumbled upon the right report and uncovered the truth about the whole situation.

Nominated for the Nike Literary Award, Foucault in Warsaw reconstructs a vibrant, engaging picture of gay life in Poland under communism—from the joys found in secret nightclubs, to the fears of not knowing who was a secret informant.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781948830362
Publisher: Open Letter
Publication date: 06/29/2021
Series: Polish Reportage Series
Pages: 220
Sales rank: 556,283
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Remigiusz Ryziński is a philosopher, cultural critic, writer, and academic lecturer who works on gender and queer theory; he has published three academic books. He is a graduate of the Jagiellonian Universityin Kraków and has also studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. He has received grants from the French government, the Robert Schuman Polish Foundation, the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland, and the city of Warsaw. Foucault in Warsaw is his literary nonfiction debut.

Sean Gasper Bye is a translator of Polish fiction, reportage, and drama. He has published translations of Watercolours by Lidia Ostałowska, History of a Disappearance by Filip Springer, The King of Warsaw by Szczepan Twardoch, and Ellis Island: A People's History by Małgorzata Szejnert. He's also published shorter pieces in The Guardian, Words Without Borders, Catapult, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. He is a winner of the 2016 Asymptote Close Approximations Prize, a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts translation fellow, and former Literature and Humanities Curator at the Polish Cultural Institute New York.

Read an Excerpt

URBAN LEGEND Michel Foucault came to Poland in October 1958. He took a position as the first director of the newly-founded French Cultural Center at the University of Warsaw. It was in Warsaw that he finished his doctoral thesis, later published as History of Madness. Yet in mid-1959, he was forced to leave Poland. The reason was a certain boy. Jurek. To this day, no one knows who this boy was.

  IN SEARCH OF MICHEL FOUCAULT The Institute of National Remembrance was the first place I turned to in seeking traces of Michel Foucault in Poland. I was not the first at the INR. Repeated attempts had been made to locate information about Foucault. It went without saying that the first director of the French Cultural Center in communist-era Warsaw would have been under surveillance. There were definitely files. The INR: “In response to your Application to grant access to documents for the purposes of conducting academic research, submitted as per art. 36, sec. 1, pt. 2 of the Institute of National Remembrance/Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes Against the Polish Nation Act of December 18, 1998 (Journal of Laws 2007, No. 63, item 424 [amended]), we hereby inform you that a preliminary survey of materials regarding Michel Foucault, b. 10/15/1926, conducted for the query titled: Michel Foucault in Warsaw (1958–1959), has concluded with a negative result. The Divisional Office for the Access and Archiving of INR Documents in Warsaw has concluded its execution of this application.” I realized the lack of information at the INR didn’t mean that there was none, but rather it hadn’t been discovered yet. So I wrote out the appropriate applications and started searching for Michel Foucault on my own. Everywhere I turned to, I had the same result. The University of Warsaw’s documentation has no information about Michel Foucault’s time at the philosophy department in 1958–59. Nor did I have any luck with my searches at the Jagiellonian Universityor University of Gdańsk, where, according to biographical information, Foucault guest-lectured. There was nothing at the Polish Academy of Sciences. A survey of files in the University of Warsaw’s philosophy department and the Institute of Romance Languages from later years also turned up nothing. At the French Cultural Center, Foucault’s archives were unavailable. The Institut Françaiss in Warsaw and Kraków knew nothing except that Foucault really was in Poland. The French Embassy sent general information about French–Polish cooperation from that period, but in this there was no mention at all of Foucault. The archives of Orbis, the government travel agency that might have had information about the Hotel Bristol where Foucault’s biographical records say he lived for some time, do not exist. In the Okęcie Airport archives there is no data on Foucault’s possible flights. Museums, cultural institutions, the Polish Press Agency, the magazines Życie Warszawy and Przekrój, and the Palace of Culture and Science have no information. Nor are there any records at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum or at the famous psychiatric hospital in Tworki. The archives of the Capital City of Warsaw and the Museum of Literature have not retained the name Foucault. There seemed to be no witnesses of his time here. No memoirs, letters, documents, not a single photograph. Michel Foucault’s time in Poland seemed to be only a legend.

THE RIGHT CATALOG NUMBER I searched for information about Michel Foucault for over a year. I went back to the Institute of National Remembrance many times. Hundreds of musty-smelling files. Papers, notes, photos, reports, denunciations, classified information, instructions and orders, conversation transcripts and secret collaborators’ observations. Keywords: necrophilia, pathology, fetish. Dirty hands. Dust. Stickiness. Obsession. I looked through the archives from every possible angle. I searched through catalogues, putting into the search engines different combinations of queries and synonyms. No one knew what the key was. So I typed in: Michel Foucault just Foucault just Michel Paul Foucault (which was his real name). And nothing. I started looking for information in the files of people I could suspect knew Foucault. I put in people connected with France, embassy employees, people from the cultural world, artists. I looked through the archives of prominent novelists, poets, and critics: Jerzy Andrzejewski, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Tadeusz Kotarbiński, Miron Białoszewski, Zygmunt Mycielski, Paweł Hertz, Jerzy Waldorff, Edward Stachura, Marek Hłasko, and Ireneusz Iredyński. I learned many interesting things about this period and these people, where they spent time, what they ate, whom they met up with, what kinds of cars they drove, what tea they bought, whether they drank coffee, how late they came home and with whom; I learned about their fears and desires (from wiretaps). But I still couldn’t get my hands on any information on Foucault himself. Finally I typed into the search engine of one of the computers in the Institute’s reading room the most obvious word in the context of the history of Michel Foucault’s time in Warsaw. I got one result. I wrote out a request form. After two weeks’ wait the clerk handling my case called and said: “Mr. Ryziński, you’ve put in the right catalogue number.”

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