Foucault in Warsaw

In Warsaw in 1958, Foucault was writing his History of Madness. Then, it was his PhD, and he was the first director of the university’s French Cultural Centre. Within a year, he’d left Poland. Was Jurek, his mystery lover, to blame?

Remigiusz Ryziński tries to track Foucault down. There must be some record of his stay – if not in the university archives, then in the secret service ones. Someone who knew him must still be alive and ready to talk. He must have left for a reason.

Digging for this history is enough to drive one mad. We know Foucault was there, but he vanished from Poland without a trace.

Some readers felt that a better title for this book would be “gay men in 1950s Warsaw.” Foucault w Warszawie (Dowody na istnienie 2017) provides evidence of their existence. Which is what the name of the Polish publisher means. And that evidence is desperately needed…

Ryziński goes through streets I know like the back of my hand, into the parks, the cafes, and yes, the public toilets where gay men met. He chats to some queens who remember what that secretive scene was like over sixty years ago, and recall the “countess” who ruled it. Everyone knew everyone, and they all knew the “Frenchman.” Ryziński even goes to Paris to meet Foucault’s partner and looks through his address book for Polish names.

Still, he can uncover little of Foucault’s time in Warsaw. You could fit the bare facts on a postcard.

I read this on Easter Monday, eating mazurki (Polish Easter cakes) I had made with a Polish friend, after a Triduum of liturgy in a church that tries so torturously to present as straight. So I needed this queer rereading of a city I lived in and love, in my heritage language. In this, I am not alone. We need more queer oral histories like this, tracing the untraceable, bringing people out of hiding and sharing their memories.

Sean Bye has translated it so you can read it in English. Look at the covers. The Polish one has a young male torso – Poland needs more cover boys, or gay desire needs writing back into that history. The English one for Foucault in Warsaw (Open Letter, 2021) has a mask with no eyes, with an old painting of Warsaw turned upside down. On that cover, we’re still waiting for Foucault to be found.

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