20 July 2021

Foucault in Warsaw, Remigiusz Ryziński

The topic of the book, ostensibly, is Michel Foucault's sojourn in Warsaw in 1958. The problem is, very little is known about it, and almost all records seem to have been destroyed. So the book is also a kind of detective fiction, as Ryziński tracks what few leads are available, trying to piece together what happened, and to imagine what Foucault's experiences in Poland were like. There's not much to work with, so the book wanders a bit, trying to evoke the milieu of queer life in Communist Poland. Which is a fascinating topic!

A few years ago, I did a handful of translations for a zine called DIK: a Fagazine, and one of the issues focused specifically on queer culture during Communism. I loved learning about that world (and the photographs, especially, were just so marvelous) — gorgeous, brave, sometimes tragic. And Karol Radziszewski, the force behind DIK, did such fantastic work in bringing it to life, in no small part because of his incredible talents as an interviewer and artist (DIK isn't available online, but Karol's instagram is also excellent).

Foucault in Warsaw, unfortunately, is less effective. Because the book relies heavily on information drawn from secret police files (part of Operation Hyacinth, a project to create a database of queer people in Poland and track their activities), there's a much grimmer tone to the whole thing. Of course, homophobia past and present is a big part of this story, but I think it's absolutely crucial to also capture the vibrancy and joy, and Ryziński struggles to do that effectively.

I wanted to love this book, and it definitely has some wonderfully poignant moments. But it feels like it's stretched a bit too thin. Ryziński actually has no lack of material to write about, despite the lack of information about Foucault, but he doesn't organize it effectively, and the mostly elegiac tone that the book is written in doesn't do the subject justice. The book is worth reading — it really is a fascinating subject! — but I wish it were better.

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