Deleuze Speaks to Stivale

Comparative Literature

As we all know, the unwanted attentions of Jehovah Witnesses can be deflected simply by invoking the “Old Religion”. But what if you were to be doorstepped by someone hawking “analytical tools for the humanities and social sciences”? Would you know what to do?

[…] In retrospect, I realize now the extent to which I misunderstood completely Deleuze’s interest in my activities. Having viewed his interview with Claire Parnet in the Abécédaire, I now better comprehend how importunate my communications were, especially in light of statements he makes about his ill health and vieillesse (old age). Stating how much he enjoys having been “let go” (laché) and being no longer burdened by society in his retirement, Deleuze admits that what is really bothersome is when something catches hold of him again, for example, when someone who thinks Deleuze still belongs to society asks him for an interview. When that happens, Deleuze says he feels like asking if the person is feeling OK (“ca va pas, la tête?”), and hasn’t anyone told the person that Deleuze is old and society has let go of him? (ABC 1996, “M comme Maladie” [I as in Illness]).

What follows is an account of my discussion with Deleuze that I drafted immediately afterward, in French, in order to share it with friends and colleagues in France that I would meet there. I’ve revised it only slightly, but include parenthetically the text of certain of the prepared questions to which he graciously responded while I was there. I have one reservation about this account: because Deleuze was expressly reluctant to engage in an oral interview, I have been likewise reluctant to disseminate it widely. However, I think some of his thoughts, rendered frankly and spontaneously, need to be aired, so I take upon myself the responsibility (or blame) for sharing them now. In fact, many of his comments to me have now become public knowledge through the broadcast and commercial sale of Deleuze’s Abécédaire.


After I explained to Deleuze where I came from and the origins of the SubStance issue entitled “Gilles Deleuze,” we began talking about the American philosophical tradition and American thought, and we discussed the distinction between analytic philosophers in America and so-called continental philosophers. I explained to him that the “continentaux” were beginning to makes some inroads in the United States, and he stated that the analytical philosophers were responsible for killing off what he considered to be “la pensée américaine valable” (valid American thought), for example, by writers like Kerouac, e. e. cummings, Henry James, and even philosophers like Whitehead and others. He was surprised by my impression that, in the United States, scientific questions and research were dominant in relation to the humanities, by my remark that while philosophy was a discipline within the humanities, analytic philosophers were able to align themselves with scientists to the extent that both groups reached their “incontestable conclusions” through proof and reasoning. I described some U.S. discussion groups in which no one ever said anything that called into question the bases of the scientific method, instead practicing a hermetic approach to consider scientific questions. Deleuze did not understand how things could work that way, but he had encountered similar tendencies in some scientific writing in France. But I answered that in both scientific and literary writing in France, there was a great difference from the United States, since in France they knew how to write and to express themselves well. He agreed that one could not separate ideas from style, that if ideas were present there would also be style.

In any event, we spoke considerably about the American situation, and Deleuze spoke about it, telling me that we are in a difficult period, that there are good and bad periods: for example, at the time of the French liberation in 1944, or in 1968, there were things happening (des choses qui bougeaient), and also things that were being invented, during which people discovered new and interesting things. But now it was hollow, both in America and in France. I answered that the establishment of the International College of Philosophy, by the Socialist government, seemed positive, and he said, Yes, it’s a government initiative, but the government was not able to change tendencies that deeply propel societies. So, indeed, the College of Philosophy was interesting, he said, but constituted very little in relation to what was really occurring in France. I tried to press the question regarding the College, and he said that Félix would certainly have something to say about it. He said that Félix was one of the men he loved the most in the world, that he was enormously talkative, with opinions on everything, and that was completely opposite to Deleuze.

We touched on another topic, the material question of his analysis in L’image-movement (1983; Cinema 1: The Movement-Image), in which there are a considerable number of references to a wide array of films. So I wanted to know what sort of material support he had, how he worked, with a VCR or a movieola? In response, he laughed aloud, saying, “Not at all.” I said, “So it came from the fonds deleuze [the Deleuze archives], what he had in his head? He said Yes, from all that he could recall. But he continued, saying that one did not need to see the films again if one possessed an idea. That is what’s essential: with a small idea that one could communicate, no material support was needed; one simply needs to reflect, to present the small idea, thus to show how films, for example, are linked to this small idea. He said that, in the final analysis, he wasn’t interested in the cinema; the only thing that interested him was philosophy, and he only delivered his ideas to cinema in the light of philosophy. I said, “So why write two volumes on cinema?” He answered that he didn’t know why, that there was an idea that he had to communicate, but that there was very little depth in the first volume. The second volume, L’image-temps (1985; Cinema 2: The Time-Image), presented him with many more problems, requiring much more work. He really seemed to say that this work was not very important, that there was much more to be done, for example, philosophy. And work, that he conceptualized in an interesting way: when I told him I wanted to get my book on Vallès published, he said, Yes, that’s essential, to work; one shouldn’t have to be bothered with publication; that gets done all by itself, but it’s the work that counts! I was tempted, but did not say, that this view is easily expressed by him, a famous writer, but for those struggling to get published, it’s a little bit more difficult since one has to deal with both simultaneously.

There was another moment, toward the end of our discussion, which was gauged by the level of whiskey in my glass. When I’d swallowed the last drop, it was clear to me that he felt that the discussion was ending. So I said that I had written to him about the written questions that I was supposed to prepare, and asked if he was still willing to answer them. He then explained how much he held interviews in complete horror, and the only reason he had said yes to the written questions was in order not to have to say yes to the oral ones! Then, he said that if I really felt strongly about him answering these questions, he would do so, but could not promise me when. When he told me that I could send him the questions, I responded that I had them with me, so he said, “So show them, show them.” I said, “Wait; after what you’ve just said, I want us to agree to the following procedure before you look at them: if there is something in these questions that interests you, go ahead and answer it. After what you’ve just said, though, since questions are a priori uninteresting for you, there won’t be anything to answer! I hope, though, that there might be something interesting in them, but if something in them bothers you, just drop them.” He then began looking through them and said finally, “But these questions are serious.”

He then began to react to certain ones; for example, “In Le nouvel observateur, they have published that you intend to undertake an essay entitled ‘What Is Philosophy?’” He asked, They’ve published that in Le nouvel observateur? He said he didn’t know how they could have learned that since he’d only mentioned it to a few close friends. I said, Yes, and that’s what got printed, and he agreed, Yes, that’s what got printed, but indicated that he didn’t understand at all how. But later, he returned to this idea of what is philosophy: he spoke of a painting by Francis Bacon that he had in his apartment, and of the importance of true creation, of people who can express their ideas (people who have no ideas, he told me directly, you can read Vallès for twenty years, and if you don’t have your little idea, it’s a waste of time; but if you have your little idea, then you have to read Vallès completely, fully [à fond] and communicate this little idea); speaking of Bacon, he said that Bacon succeeds in creating this painting, but never manages to paint a little wave: Bacon creates a water spout, but not a little wave. And he, Deleuze, would like to succeed in creating a little wave (une petite vague), that is, an essay called “What Is Philosophy?”

Then, regarding a question about “postmodernism” (“What is the relationship between your theoretical projects and practices and those of other so-called post-modern [or even poststructuralist] works, for example, by Baudrillard, Lyotard, or Serres? Does the term ‘postmodern’ have a meaning, and if so what? If not, how might he conceive of the contemporary intellectual conjuncture?”), he laughed at the idea of “postmodernism”: he referred (somewhat inexplicably) to philosophers of the Chicago School, that this was just a way for them to amuse themselves by creating a “postmodernism,” nothing of real interest. Regarding the question on Baudrillard and another on Jean-Paul Aron, both of whom I cited (“How do you respond to Aron’s statement, in Les modernes, that thanks to Deleuze’s contribution, Anti-Oedipus does not cut its bridges with ‘legal culture,’ maintaining ‘literary civility, clannish complicity, fraternal smiles at Lyotard, Serres, Clavel, kindly gestures to Sartre, insistent homage to Marx, and especially writing a hymn to Lacan?”), he said that he noticed I was quoting cretins, real imbeciles, this Baudrillard, Aron. About Baudrillard, Deleuze admitted that he himself had so much difficulty expressing one idea in a book, even one that was long, and that the work of formulating clearly one small idea was very hard for him. So to see these people creating books in a quarter hour, without much thought, really irritated him, he found it absurd (aberrant), not serious, the kind of thing that really drove him to despair. As for Aron, about whom and whose book, Les modernes, he spoke at length, he said it wasn’t a nasty book, but was vulgar, not even a book, something written poorly and of little import.

As he leafed through the questions, he came back to Aron because of a question about Foucault (“Foucault is dead. What reflections does this disappearance evoke for you?”). He said that Foucault’s death was something terrible, not only because Foucault died, but because France lost a very important presence who caused imbeciles to hesitate to speak out, knowing that Foucault was there to respond. For example, Aron would never have written his book were Foucault still alive. Not that Foucault would have read it, not at all, but simply Aron would not have dared to write it. Deleuze maintained that Foucault did not function as “safeguard” (garde-fou), but rather as an “imbecile-guard” (garde-imbécile) and with the passing of Foucault, the imbeciles would be unleashed. He ended by saying that there really was no one now to replace Foucault, that there was a vacuum. And he himself, he said, was unable to do it.

He did not say much at all about Anti-Oedipus. I spoke to him briefly about our experience reading it together at the University of Illinois, about the trouble that some philosophers had with it. I mentioned how one Sartrean philosopher could well accept to read Lacan, but that from the first paragraph of Anti-Oedipus, he felt himself under attack, could not understand at all what was happening, and wanted to undermine our own activity, to makes us drop Anti-Oedipus for something else. He finally left the group after three meetings. Deleuze nodded that he understood completely; for him what they write is absolutely worthless, so he understood how what he wrote would be worthless for them as well, and that he expected nothing any different.

When I told Deleuze that I was working through A Thousand Plateaus and this work was what interested us the most, he laughed as if this were the funniest thing he had ever heard, that someone would continue delving into A Thousand Plateaus. In any case, he looked at these questions and told me that he would answer them during the summer vacation, and he added that, if he said yes, it was a sworn promise. I was very happy finally because he looked through these questions as if he really found them of interest. Surely he was being extremely polite, but he had no need to make such a formal commitment as he did. So we’ll see what happens next.


In any event, I did not consider the promise Deleuze made to answer my questions binding since he had provided more than his share of answers during our meeting. That same year, he published the second volume on cinema, L’image-temps; in 1986, he published Foucault. As ever, he had his own “petite idée” to pursue . . .

[Charles J. Stivale, The Two-Fold Thought of Deleuze and Guattari, pp. 228-234.]

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