François Dosse’s Deleuze & Guattari

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Skyros, Greece, ca. 1980. Photo: Karl Flinker.

Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives, by François Dosse, translated by Deborah Glassman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 672 pages. $38.

GILLES DELEUZE AND FÉLIX GUATTARI have assumed their place among the great mythological couples of history, from David and Jonathan to Butch and Sundance, Antony and Cleopatra to Laurel and Hardy. For a heady few decades in the late twentieth century, the language of the Left was replete with the idiom they invented: desiring machines, bodies without organs, flows and fluxes, coding and decoding, the nomadic and the molecular. The soixante-huitards may have been swept off the street and back into the Sorbonne, but their ideas were kept warm for a while in this exotic discourse of delirium and desire, one that espoused a politics owing far more to Nietzsche and Bergson than it did to Marx and Freud.

Even in their appearance, the two men seemed meant for each other. In one or two photographs in this book, the craggy Deleuze, with his melancholic clown’s face and elegantly manicured fingernails, stands side by side with a slender, boyish, long-haired Guattari, the two of them looking for all the world like a married couple. They were sworn foes of the family, of course, but like most such scourges of the domestic, with the odd exception such as Jesus Christ, they had a practice somewhat at odds with their theory. Other snapshots allow us fleeting glimpses of junior Deleuzes and Guattaris, creatures who are presumably the products of the philosophy of desire.

In other ways, however, these two ultraleftist libertarians were as different as Tom and Jerry. The mildly dandyish Deleuze was one of the most audaciously avant-garde philosophers of the modern era, but he was not an especially political animal. He kept his distance from the events of 1968, subverted ideas rather than institutions, and disliked polemic and confrontation. Among the many anecdotes retold in François Dosse’s monumental, admirably meticulous biography is one in which the Maoist Alain Badiou, nowadays the greatest living French philosopher, burst into Deleuze’s lectures at Vincennes with a posse of intellectual thugs to berate him as a petty bourgeois. Deleuze maintained a devastatingly ironic calm. While the French students were tearing up the cobblestones, he was busily at work on his doctoral dissertation.

Guattari, by contrast, was the kind of political activist who is the stuff of ruling-class nightmares. If he was not exactly handing out leaflets in his cradle, he was moving among Communists in his teens. As a student at the Sorbonne—one already well known for his Trotskyist militancy—he was a champion of a then rather obscure psychoanalyst by the name of Jacques Lacan and would soon be regarded as his most brilliant lieutenant and heir apparent. He was also running a clinical practice at La Borde, an unconventional hostel for psychiatric patients, which, in its own enlightened, nonhierarchical way, became one of the sources of the 1960s antipsychiatry movement. (The joke at the time was that you couldn’t tell the medics from the patients—except it was actually the medics who behaved bizarrely.) It is a measure of how far enlightenment still had to go that the clinic regularly used electroshock therapy.

As Dosse notes, Guattari didn’t have any formal psychiatric training, which was perhaps just as well, since in those days it was regarded by some on the Left as a grave disadvantage when treating the mentally ill, rather as being able to sing might be thought a drawback to becoming a diva. But his skills as a political organizer stood him in good stead as an administrator. La Borde was as suspicious of sexual fidelity as it was of sanity: Love was seen as capitalist, and when a couple looked like they were striking up an exclusive relationship, a kind of erotic kamikaze team was sent in to break them up and return them to a desirable state of revolutionary promiscuity. Analysis with Lacan was de rigueur for all La Borde’s staff, who on their weekly visit to the maître practically filled a train carriage.

When the student upheavals of 1968 broke out, Guattari called out the La Borde troops to take part in the uprising. Later he was to agitate in the cause of the Palestinians. He also had his apartment searched by the police when his research center published an issue of its journal in defense of homosexuality, described by a judge as the “libidinous venting of a small group of perverts.” When unrest picked up in Italy in 1977, Guattari became involved in the struggle and was treated as a revolutionary icon, kissed, mauled, and acclaimed by enthusiastic young militants on the streets of Bologna. The leading Italian Marxist Antonio Negri, falsely accused of terrorism by the authorities, fled the country with help from Guattari (who probably paid for the boat to Corsica) and took shelter in his French comrade’s Parisian apartment, where he was looked after like a brother. The kitchen of the same apartment was later used as a broadcasting studio when the French state banned free radio stations. When François Mitterrand came to power in 1981, Guattari worked tirelessly in government circles to promote the idea of new cultural and educational institutions. While leftist illusions about the new president were still intact, he even wrote a speech on culture that Mitterrand delivered at the Sorbonne, which in retrospect is rather like Noam Chomsky penning a speech for Bill Clinton.

As leftist hopes faded in France in the 1970s, Guattari moved into environmentalist politics. A decade later, having lost his political hope but not his political faith, this dynamo of ceaseless activity sank into deep depression. He died of a heart attack in 1992. Not long before, having given up his château near La Borde and been thrown out of his spacious Parisian apartment, he felt confused and unmoored. It is worth noting that this state of so-called nomadism was exactly what he and Deleuze had uncritically celebrated for a good few decades. One prefers to remember him at the height of his powers during his 1974 visit to the United States, meeting a stoned Allen Ginsberg, who had no idea who he was; being introduced to Bronx gang members; catching a Patti Smith concert in Berkeley on his way to San Francisco to meet Lawrence Ferlinghetti; hiring the biggest car he could lay his hands on and driving down the highways with the radio blasting away.

This is not exactly the image one preserves of his companion. The life of Deleuze was a quieter, more contemplative affair. Like his comrade in arms, he stemmed from an impeccably bourgeois background (what notable French intellectual, with the exception of Pierre Bourdieu, did not?), but a less happy one. Overshadowed by an elder brother, he felt utterly insignificant in his parents’ eyes and was later to find the mere mention of his childhood unbearable. Perhaps the excessively positive, vitalist tone of his later philosophy, with its highly un-Gallic hostility to notions of lack, absence, and negativity, was partial compensation for this initial sense of invisibility. (As far as negativity goes, Dosse comments that Deleuze and Guattari, in their work on “minor” literature, present a “comic, joyful Kafka,” which is rather like presenting a riotously funny King Lear.) Deleuze was hailed as the new Sartre when he was scarcely out of short trousers, although his very first publication was a brief phenomenology of lipstick, a satiric send-up of the older thinker that makes one wonder whether the Oedipal rivalry he would later scorn in his most celebrated book, Anti-Oedipus (1972), is quite as mythical as he imagined.

La Borde clinic, near Cour-Cheverny, France, ca. 1965. Photo: Collection of Emmanuelle Guattari.

It was clear from an early stage that this teacher of high school philosophy was destined to become one of the great antiphilosophers of Western civilization, in an honorable lineage stretching from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud to Wittgenstein, Adorno, Benjamin, and Derrida. Antiphilosophers are not just those hostile to philosophy, a category that would no doubt include Donald Rumsfeld and Clint Eastwood, but those hostile to philosophy for philosophically fascinating reasons. Deleuze once remarked that he saw the history of philosophy “as a sort of buggery or (it comes to the same thing) immaculate conception. I saw myself as taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet at the same time monstrous.” It is not quite the kind of sentiment one can imagine flowing from the pen of Bertrand Russell or William James. Deleuze was bold enough to break with all the then-fashionable conceptual currents (Hegel, Marx, existentialism, phenomenology) for a lifelong devotion to Bergson, Spinoza, and Nietzsche. His doctoral thesis, curiously enough, was on that most genteel, conservative of Scottish thinkers, David Hume, hardly a fabled name in the lecture halls of Paris. Yet Hume’s very British empiricism is not far removed from Deleuze’s passion for immediacy, his impulse to grasp experience before it falls into the generalizing grip of the concept. He was interested for similar reasons in (of all unmodish philosophers) the late medieval Franciscan Duns Scotus, the man who introduced the notion of individuality into scholastic thought and thus helped to set us on the long trek to modernity and Donald Trump.

As a young professor at the Sorbonne, Deleuze was a spectacularly successful lecturer. Finding a seat in one of his spellbindingly charismatic sessions was about as easy as finding an Irish pub that has never heard of Guinness. In ditching Marx and Freud for Nietzsche and Bergson, he was already in the 1960s heralding the reaction against so-called grand philosophical narratives that, in the wake of the failed politics of 1968, would become the hallmark of postmodernism. Dosse reports that Guattari once turned to a friend in disgust and bewilderment with the news that their old pal Michel Foucault had rediscovered the idea of truth, of all drearily discredited notions. To which one can only riposte in vulgar-Marxist spirit that while finding out the truth of your situation may not be the most pressing need for intellectuals residing in six-room Parisian apartments, there are others on the planet who are not so fortunate. There are those who need the most precise sense possible of how things stand in order that they might stand otherwise. Deleuze and Guattari would have regarded such a view as a piece of reactionary metaphysics, which makes one proud to be a reactionary metaphysician.

In a Stanley-and-Livingstone moment, the two enfants terribles finally met in 1969. Three years later, the first offspring of their union emerged into the world raw and bawling in the shape of Anti-Oedipus, with its scabrous assault on orthodox psychoanalysis as a betrayal of revolutionary desire. Foucault hailed the book joyfully as a “pure event,” though he was later to fall out with his close friend Deleuze, not least over his own scandalous defense of the right-wing “new philosophers,” and died without making up with him. Lacan, who before the explosive volume was published had wined and dined Guattari at an expensive restaurant on the Seine in order to wheedle from him the secret of its contents, broke off all contact and had rumors put out to discredit him. The work, he decreed in his customary papal fashion, was not to be discussed among his acolytes.

Dosse is right to claim that Anti-Oedipus does not in fact idealize schizophrenia, as many of its critics have charged. On the contrary, the schizophrenic emerges as one who has pressed the decoding, deterritorializing logic of capitalism to a surreal extreme. Dosse is mistaken, however, to imply that no such romanticizing of mental affliction ever contaminates the pages of his heroes. He makes up for this defect with a gripping account, at once comic, grotesque, and outrageous, of the vicious infighting between the various Left luminaries at the left-wing campus of Vincennes, where Deleuze taught for a time. In the customary comradely spirit of the political Left, almost everyone was at daggers drawn with everyone else, with Deleuze himself maintaining a certain impressive sangfroid.

Anti-Oedipus was the progeny not just of two intellectual mavericks but of 1968 itself. Eight years later, as the dark clouds of political reaction began to settle on the Western world, Deleuze bitterly judged it to have been a total failure. After a series of works that shook conventional philosophy to its foundations, he turned to the world of cinema, which has never been philosophized so perceptively. He also wrote about literature and painting and could have written finely about music, in which he was deeply immersed. Afflicted by a lung disease that caused him regular bouts of suffocation, and that he bore with remarkable courage, he took his own life in 1995, on, as Dosse inconsequentially notes, the same day Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

There are those who regard Deleuze as a philosophical genius and those who see his work as a political cul-de-sac. There are also perverse creatures like myself who hold both views simultaneously. Of all the dissident French thinkers of modern times, Deleuze was the most obvious heir to the great Gallic lineage of anarchic avant-gardism, with origins in Rimbaud and Bataille. His work is also ridden with Romantic-vitalist error, the influence of which can be found in any off-the-peg piece of postmodern theory today. The dogmas are tediously familiar: All multiplicity, decentering, or dispersion is positive, while all unity or homogeneity is suspect; all marginality is creative, while all majorities and consensuses are oppressive; small-scale political action is to be commended, while large-scale, state-centered projects are to be treated with thorough-going skepticism.

This is not the kind of politics that brought down apartheid, upended the neo-Stalinist states of Eastern Europe, or, as I write, has toppled a couple of autocracies in the Arab world. It is rather the expression of post-1970s political deadlock in advanced Western societies—one that then, in a grandly universalizing gesture not unfamiliar in Parisian theory, mistakes itself for the truth. Except that we cannot speak of truth . . . Dosse has produced a magnificently well-researched double biography, which in the course of some five hundred pages manages to breathe scarcely a single word of criticism of its subjects. This is an achievement almost equal in ingenuity to all of Deleuze’s pathbreaking volumes put together. One can only hope that a second volume, titled Deleuze & Guattari: The Critique, is even now in press.

Terry Eagleton’s new book, Why Marx Was Right, was published by Yale University Press last month.