Night had fallen on Death Valley, but for the three men sitting there on the edge of a cliff in the spring of 1975, the darkness was anything but inert. It was crackling with anticipation and with the electronic music of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Kontakte.
Soon, for each of them in different ways, it was also exploding with the ecstatic visions of their LSD tripping. Two of them, the younger Americans, had experienced acid before. For the third, a Frenchman in his late forties, the experience was novel and shattering. Two hours later he gestured toward the starry heavens: "The sky has exploded," he cried, "and the stars are raining down on me. I know this is not true, but it is the Truth."
The trip was enough of a gamble for the Americans. It was their idea, and they might have blown the fuses of the man they considered "the master thinker of our era." It was a far greater risk for Michel Foucault, world-famous philosopher, militant, and professor at the prestigious Collège de France, but one he undertook eagerly.
Ever since he was a young man, Foucault had been on the Nietzschean quest "to become what one is," or as Nietzsche had expressed it more strangely: "Why am I alive? What lesson am I to learn from life? How did I become what I am and why do I suffer from being what I am?" Foucault aimed to complete his quest through the ordeal of "limit experiences" (experiencing extremes in order to unleash creative forces and intense joy) and through the rediscovery of the "Dionysian element" in his personality (the wild, untamed animal energy within).
"It is forbidden to forbid," the notorious Sorbonne slogan had protested in 1968, reflecting Foucault's thought. That night in Death Valley he increased the stakes of his lifelong wager. He had always been fascinated with madness, violence, perversion, suicide, and death; now he wanted to liberate himself further by transgressing all boundaries.
Buffeted by a strong wind, the three men huddled together on the promontory. Foucault spoke again, tears streaming down his face: "I am very happy. Tonight I achieved a full perspective on myself. I now understand my sexuality. We must go home again."
Only Foucault's friends know the full story of that evening in Death Valley, but there's no question that it changed him -- especially his thinking on sexuality. It propelled him with reckless abandon into the doomed, midseventies San Francisco world of free sex, powerful acid, altered states of consciousness, and death from AIDS. Defiant in its openness, reckless in its conviviality, the homosexual world of Castro, Polk, and Folsom Streets had suddenly become one of the wildest, least inhibited sexual communities in history. For Michel Foucault, the lure was irresistible. Here was a nonstop testing ground rich in "limit experiences" for both body and mind.
To be fair, the dreaded term AIDS wasn't in currency in the seventies and was unknown to most people until film star Rock Hudson died of it in August 1984, just two months after Foucault himself. But the character and consequences of "the gay cancer" were slowly becoming undeniable, and Foucault faced the gamble openly.
"Should I take chances with my life?" a California student asked Foucault one day.
"By all means! Take risks, go out on a limb!" Foucault replied.
"But I yearn for solutions."
"There are no solutions," he said.
"Then at least some answers."
"There are no answers!" the philosopher exclaimed.
A Lost Wager
Foucault gradually came to associate death with pleasure, especially after surviving a brush with death back home in Paris. In a 1982 interview he said, "I would like and hope I'll die of an overdose of pleasure of any kind." Asked to explain, he added: "Because I think that the kind of pleasure I would consider as the real pleasure would be so deep, so intense, so overwhelming that I couldn't survive it. I would die." He used to say, quoting Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, "It may be a basic characteristic of existence that those who know it completely would perish."
In The History of Sexuality, Foucault wrote, "The Faustian pact, whose temptation has been instilled in us by the deployment of sexuality, is now as follows: to exchange life in its entirety for sex itself, for the truth and sovereignty of sex. Sex is worth dying for."
In the end, the character of his Faustian pact was unmistakable: "To die for the love of boys," he said. "What could be more beautiful?" There was, he believed, no more fitting climax to his work than the free embrace of a beautiful death. Was he courting AIDS and committing suicide? No, said his friends. In those last months before the dark plague came into the full light of day, Foucault and his partners wagered their lives and simply lost the wager.
"If I know the truth," Foucault had said in a revealing interview, "I will be changed. And maybe I will be saved. Or maybe I'll die, but I think that is the same for me anyway."
Truth Twisters with a Reason
The story of Michel Foucault's dark wager of death-for-pleasure opens up an important question for anyone exploring the quest for meaning. If it's so important to have a world-view, a philosophy of life, a set of governing beliefs, why aren't we conscious of it more often? Why don't people care more about it? Why do most people not seem to mind the "unexamined life" that Socrates thought was not worth living?
One obvious answer is that a dependable world-view is like good health. It's usually experienced most when it's talked about least. In the same way, philosophies of life that work well are those of which we're barely aware, like a pair of glasses we don't notice until they're dirty or scratched. We think with our world-view, not about it.
Another obvious answer is that many people are only too happy to leave such questions to others, especially to those whom society considers designated experts, such as priests, pundits, or psychologists.
But there's a deeper answer still. As many thinkers over the centuries have observed, human beings need a source of meaning and belonging, yet we also mount defenses against thinking and caring too deeply about the human condition -- and especially against the fact that we all will die.
"All but Death, can be Adjusted," wrote Emily Dickinson. "Any man who says he is not afraid of death is a liar," said Winston Churchill. The reason is obvious. Death is the fear behind all other fears, the endmost end beyond which there is no beginning. For all our limitless mental reach, our minds and imaginations are cased in finite, transient bodies. One moment we see a cloudless forever; the next we hear a rasping death rattle. Being human we know this, and being human we can do nothing about it.
The Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti knew well the absolute claim of time and death. When he reached thirty, he created No More Play, a sculpture portraying a field of graves and a meditation on the theme of death. When asked why he was a sculptor, he would often reply, "So as not to die." Yet nearing his end, he said: "I am convinced that nobody in the world believes he must die. Only an instant before death, he doesn't believe in it. How could he? He lives, which is fact, and everything in him lives, and still a fraction of a second before death he lives, and in no way can he be conscious of death."
So yes, we're "truth seekers," but that isn't the whole story. We're also "truth twisters." Sometimes truth is a matter of a serious search; sometimes it's an intellectual game -- played for a reason. "We all fear truth," Nietzsche wrote in Ecce Homo. "Humankind," as T. S. Eliot observed, "cannot bear very much reality." There's a threat in the trio of reality, time, and death that we instinctively seek to deny.
Long Journey Home