Claude Bonnefoy: How do you experience the activity of writing?
Michel Foucault: When I write, I always have something in mind. At the same time, I always address something that’s outside myself, an object, a domain that can be described, grammar or seventeenth-century political economy, or the experience of madness throughout the classical period. And yet, that object, that domain, I don’t get the impression that I’m describing it at all, of placing myself in a position of receptivity to what it says, of translating with words on paper and with a certain style a certain representation I’ve created of what I’m trying to describe.
Earlier, I said that I’m trying to reveal the distance I have, that we have to these things; my writing is the discovery of that distance. I’d add that, in one sense, my head is empty when I begin to write, even though my mind is always directed toward a specific object. Obviously, that means that, for me, writing is an exhausting activity, very difficult, filled with anxiety. I’m always afraid of messing up; naturally, I mess up, I fail all the time. This means that what encourages me to write isn’t so much the discovery or certainty of a certain relationship, of a certain truth, but rather the feeling I have of a certain kind of writing, a certain mode of operation of my writing, a certain style that will bring that distance into focus.
For example, one day in Madrid, I had been fascinated by Velázquez’s Las Meninas. I’d been looking at the painting for a long time, just like that, without thinking about talking about it someday, much less of describing it—which at the time would have seemed derisive and ridiculous. And then one day, I don’t recall how, without having looked at it since, without even having looked at a reproduction, I had this urge to write about the painting from memory, to describe what was in it. As soon as I tried to describe it, a certain coloration of language, a certain rhythm, a certain form of analysis, especially, gave me the impression, the near certainty—false, perhaps—that I had found exactly the right language by which the distance between ourselves and the classical philosophy of representation and classical ideas of order and resemblance could come into focus and be evaluated. That’s how I began to write The Order of Things. For that book I used material I had gathered in the preceding years almost at random, without knowing what I would do with it, with no certainty about the possibility of ever writing an essay. In a way it was like examining a kind of inert material, an abandoned garden of some sort, an unusable expanse, which I surveyed the way I imagine the sculptor of old, the sculptor of the seventeenth or eighteenth century, might contemplate, might touch the block of marble he didn’t yet know what to do with.
Excerpt from: Michel Foucault, Speech Begins after Death, In Conversation with Claude Bonnefoy, ed. by Philippe Artières and trans. by Robert Bononno (Minnesota: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2013), pp. 78-81.