whitehot | Book Review: Francois Dosse, Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari: Intersecting Lives
Book Review: Francois Dosse, Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari: Intersecting Lives
Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari: Intersecting Lives
With the shovel already well into the soil of a new century, the contribution of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari continues to elude the wider socius or macro level of society, to employ two terms dear to the thinkers’ shared enterprise. This bespeaks the intrinsic radicalism—that is, the continual resistance to assimilation into the wider social milieu—of the ideas brought forth in their most famous work, the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. We can only hope, then, that a new dual biography by Francois Dosse, recently translated into English as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: Intersecting Lives, will transcend the academic confinement that the work has suffered of late, in demonstrating the remarkable ways that these two men, coming from drastically different backgrounds, managed to establish an approach that strove to eradicate the artificial borders separating art from life.
Upon meeting Guattari shortly after the whirlwind events of ‘68, Deleuze was already an esteemed professor of philosophy with a number of monographic studies under his belt. Even before publishing his first two definitive works, Difference and Repetition and The Logic of Sense, he had a reputation for being something of an iconoclast in the world of academia, with the artistic genius’s instinct for contretemps. In the 1950s and 1960s, when phenomenology was all the rage on the continent, Deleuze championed the empiricism of Hume; he also made what was, at the time, a highly unusual move by publishing a philosophical work on a literary author, Marcel Proust. He would continue this idiosyncratic approach, both with Guattari (in Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature) and in his many solo works on cinema, art, and literature, up until his death.
Guattari was a militant who had weathered the ideological storms brought on by Marxism and Maoism in France in the tumultuous years following the Second World War, and had become the figurehead of institutional psychotherapy, an experimental approach that melded psychoanalysis with revolutionary political praxis in which patients are free to come and go while playing an active role in running the facility, at La Borde, a clinic in the Loire Valley. While Deleuze maintained something of a balanced, conventional lifestyle with his wife and children, Guattari would perpetually move through a chaotic web of open relationships—so much so that his brother blanched when jovial mention was made of Guattari’s numerous amorous conquests at his funeral—and living situations; life, for him, would always be an experimental art form. At the same time, Guattari was a respected public intellectual poised to become Jacques Lacan’s appointed successor. Anti-Oedipus, which challenged Lacan’s conviction that the unconscious was structured like a language, would put an end to Guattari’s relationship with the master.
The two were introduced by a mutual friend at Deleuze’s home in 1969 when he was convalescing from a lung operation that would permanently affect his health. The two hit it off immediately. In the words of an acquaintance that was around the two men at their initial meetings, “It…has triggered a series of events that I think will continue for a long time. Many people are here besides Félix and [Deleuze]…they’re all buzzing around the daily primal scene, in which Félix and Deleuze create intensely, Deleuze takes and then adjusts notes, critiques, links Félix’s work to the history of philosophy. In a word, it’s working.” Their friendship came to be characterized by an intensive exchange of ideas, but the two were never close in any traditional sense. It was, first and foremost, a philosophical friendship; one of the many interesting facts Dosse unveils is that the two addressed each other with the formal vous throughout their lives.
I suspect that the authors’ unusual collaborative process of writing will be of most interest to many readers of this tome. Writing, of course, has always been characterized as a solitary, secretive, unglamorous act. We don’t go to quotidian offices or have the excitement of a paint-splattered studio to look forward to. Most of us work from home in our pajamas, hair tussled, the frustrated, hopeful glare of unnatural light beaming down on our efforts. For Guattari, accustomed to a thriving and chaotic communal life at La Borde, the prospect seemed intimidating, in spite of his literary ambitions and prodigious intellect; he was, according to Dosse, capable of producing three new ideas per minute. It was only at Deleuze’s persistent cajoling that Guattari managed to lock himself up in his office at the clinic several hours each day, producing the revolutionary texts that would form the basis of Anti-Oedipus, which would be sent on to Deleuze to elaborate and riff on. While Guattari’s name is often neglected in discussions of their collaborative efforts, Dosse makes clear that Deleuze needed Guattari’s fiery and explosive ideas just as Guattari needed Deleuze’s disciplinary encouragement. Indeed, so intense was the collaboration that it became impossible at one point for the authors to remember who came up with which idea. Hence, Anti-Oedipus generated a new form of writing. The reciprocality and reflexivity of the exchange endured throughout their collaboration, although What is Philosophy?, the duo’s final publication in 1991, appears to have been written largely by Deleuze, with Guattari’s name tacked on to pay homage to their long collaboration.
While Guattari would struggle to sustain his writing practice, for Deleuze, writing was a different matter entirely, albeit one he was hungry to understand. Unlike Jacques Derrida, whose science of writing produced a post-Saussurian metaphysics of difference and deference in the processual anti-form of deconstruction, Deleuze’s understanding of writing was largely excavatory, reaching a zenith as a result of his friendship with the painter Gérard Fromanger, whose ideas on painting he would apply, almost verbatim, in What is Philosophy?: “The painter does not paint on an empty canvas, and neither does the writer write on a blank page; but the page or canvas is already so covered with preexisting, preestablished clichés that first you have to erase, clean, flatten, even shred, so as to let in a breath of air from the chaos that brings us the vision.”
While interdisciplinary practices in the humanities and social sciences have since become a norm—thanks largely to Deleuze and Guattari’s contribution—the great tragedy of their work is that the radical interdisciplinarity that they called for still has not come into being. Anti-academics, Deleuze and Guattari wanted to apply their theory as practice to the wider social realm and hence transform the very fabric of reality. To do so would be to affect a veritable break, a rupture, in perception, one that opens up a broad pathway that allows for metaphorical thinking across the segmented fields that have conditioned—through our most primary education up through specialization—our way of thinking; this is one aspect of the deterritorialization that Deleuze and Guattari constantly called for in their work: one that first and foremost must be taken on by the individual.
The French, of course, have always been proponents of revolution, and in this sense, Deleuze and Guattari were very much a part of this joyful anarchic tradition. This dedication arguably took its toll on both men. The life of a militant, by definition, will never be easy, and Guattari’s example is heroic in that he managed to remain enviably productive in the face of a profound depression that lasted the last twelve years of his life, often leaving him in a near-catatonic state. Deleuze experienced serious respiratory ailments from an early age, and was left with a single lung after an operation shortly after defending his doctoral thesis in 1969. Nonetheless, he remained an avid chain-smoker and wrestled with bouts of alcoholism. Despite the rigid dedication to vitality that characterizes his philosophical work, his respiratory problems grew so severe that he ultimately committed suicide in 1995, just three years after Guattari’s death from a heart attack—an event that Dosse attributes to a general neglect of health fueled by his depression.
In more than one sense, we can say that the lives of Deleuze and Guattari, though distinct, both share qualities of the Romantic destiny of the artist, which makes their lives all the more extraordinary and their death all the more tragic. At a time when art criticism is experiencing a profound ontological crisis owing to the proliferation and failings of hyper-capitalism, now is as good a time as any to re-visit how these two thinkers managed to transform critique into a productive force via a philosophy that was as much lived as it was written.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief