Reviewed by: James Cartlidge (Central European University, Budapest/Vienna)
It is hard to overstate the effect Gilles Deleuze had (and continues to have) on academia. For someone who defined philosophy as the creation of concepts and devoted himself to the task so prolifically, it would surely be pleasing to him that people working in every corner of the human sciences have engaged with his creations. Deleuze’s philosophy is multi-faceted and complicated, but had a constant emphasis on thinking reality in its flux and becoming — and concepts are no exception. As Daniel Smith points out: “concepts are not eternal and timeless (true in all times and all places), but are created, invented, produced in response to shifting problematics”[i], and subject to change. Deleuze’s concepts have been given countless applications, developments, revisions, interpretations and reinterpretations, and they continue to resonate with many, philosophers and non-philosophers alike. Alas, Deleuze is no longer around to develop them himself, but the hive of activity around his work and the fascination it elicits for many shows no sign of abating. Two posthumous volumes of his work have appeared so far: Desert Islands and Other Texts and Two Regimes of Madness. Collected in them are numerous essays, interviews, conferences and other texts published in French between 1953 and 1995, which do not appear in any of Deleuze’s books. Letters and Other Texts is the third and final volume of this project. While it may not be as substantial as the previous two, the letters offer us a fascinating glimpse into Deleuze’s personality as a friend and academic, and there are some very interesting additions among the ‘other texts’. Academically speaking, those familiar with Deleuze’s work will find valuable resources for chronicling the development of some of his ideas, and the uninitiated will find useful texts to read alongside some of his major works – especially the long, hitherto-unpublished interview (with Guattari and Raymond Bellour) about Anti-Oedipus.
The book is structured into three parts, as David Lapoujade clarifies in his brief introduction:
- A set of letters addressed to different correspondents out of friendship or circumstance;
- A series of texts published or circulated during Deleuze’s life that were not included in the two previous volumes of posthumous texts;
- The four texts published before 1953 that Deleuze renounced although their publication can no longer be avoided. (7)
The book comes with some warnings. Many of these texts were either published but renounced later by Deleuze, or unintended for publication. Some of them he was thinking about publishing, but did not necessarily prepare them for it. There are texts here that are only being published at the wishes of his family, since they are being circulated containing errors and without authorization, and the letters (with one exception) were never intended for publication. Deleuze considered them to be private and not part of his work, even though he discusses his work in them. There are also significant gaps because Deleuze did not keep his mail – we do not have the responses of his correspondents, and many of the letters are not dated (though helpful approximations are made by Lapoujade). But these are only factors to bear in mind, and should not deter anyone from engaging with this valuable collection. From the perspective of studying his work and being interested in him as a human being, there are some brilliant pieces in here. Anyone familiar with the L’Abécédaire interview with Claire Parnet will know first-hand what an engaging and articulate speaker Deleuze was, and this also comes out in the letters (and the Anti-Oedipus interview). L’Abécédaire is essential viewing for those studying Deleuze because of its depth, breadth and brilliance, but also its relative straightforwardness compared to his published works. In Deleuze’s published work there is a commitment to the idea that a philosophical concept should not necessarily be easy to grasp, and must be wrestled with, thought about, thought about again, struggled to be comprehended. This is much less obvious in his interviews and letters, which are exceptionally clear and engaging, and nowhere near as much of a struggle to understand.
Let’s begin with the letters, and especially on the point of what they tell us about Deleuze as a person and professional. They are a very pleasant read, revealing Deleuze’s amiability at every turn and his deep admiration for his correspondents, especially Pierre Klossowski, Michel Foucault and the poet Gherasim Luca. From the perspective of his philosophical work and his intimate, most personal thoughts, they do not reveal too much – but there are some notable exceptions. Most of these correspondences are of a professional nature, and the minutiae of academic life found in them are charming. Apparently his course on cinema was his most worrying and difficult, which was a surprise to him. (81) He didn’t seem to be a big fan of conferences or speaking at them — not entirely a surprise coming from someone who “insist[ed] that the activity of thought took place primarily in writing, and not in dialogue and discussion.”[ii] His two favourite parts of A Thousand Plateaus were the intimately-connected ‘Becoming-animal’ and ‘Refrain’ plateaus, which deal primarily with music and territorialization. (84) Dryly, he claimed (probably in 1970) that he’d “rather have another tuberculosis cavity than start over at Lyon.” (29) “This thesis pursues me as much as I pursue it” (31) he wrote to Jean Piel. To Guattari: “as usual, after my enthusiasm, doubt sets in.” (51) (Who hasn’t felt this way when writing a thesis at some point?) There are refreshing sections where Deleuze imparts advice on those that ask for it, like when Clement Rosset asks about writing his thesis (20-21), or Arnaud Villani considers writing about Deleuze.
Don’t let me become an object of fascination or a headache for you. I have seen cases of people who wanted to become the ‘disciple’ of someone and who definitely had as much talent as the ‘master’ but who ended up sterilized. It’s awful. […] You deserve much more than just being my commentator. (80)
There is one tension of significance to be found in the letters, and it also comes in the correspondence with Villani. The latter published a review of one of Deleuze and Guattari’s texts that substantially downplays Guattari’s role, much to Deleuze’s annoyance. Deleuze vehemently sticks up for Guattari in multiple letters: “remember that you have often taken my defence without me asking for it and here I am defending Felix who is not asking for it either.” (85) Many of these letters seem to show Deleuze to be self-effacing, often eschewing recognition and downplaying his achievements in favour of those he writes to, always giving credit where credit is due. Nevertheless, when the spotlight is directly on him, he takes it with grace: it is hard not to smile at his veritable elation at getting a positive review from Foucault, and how genuinely pleased he is with how he engages with his work: “I have both the impression that you understand me fully and that at the same time you have surpassed me. It’s a dream.” (68)
But what do the letters have to tell us about Deleuze’s philosophy? There are a few exchanges to look out for here. In a letter to Alain Vinson, for instance, Deleuze answers questions about Kant’s critical philosophy and his book on the subject. In the only portion of the letters that was published, Deleuze answers a questionnaire about his work sent by Arnaud Villani, where Deleuze’s well-known characterization of himself as “a pure metaphysician” (78) appears. Villani also asks Deleuze to summarise his disparate texts at some point, leading him to wonder if there is any kind of unity between them. His answer describes what he takes to be the three principal characteristics of any useful book, which might provide some readers with some guidance:
a book, if it deserves to exist, can be presented in three quick aspects: you do not write a «worthy» book unless: 1) you think that the books on the same subject or on a neighbouring subject fall into a type of overall error (polemical function of the book); 2) you think that something essential has been forgotten in relation to the subject (inventive function); 3) you believe yourself capable of creating a new concept (creative function). (86)
These aspects of his texts are exemplified later with some references to his books on Proust and Sacher-Masoch. (An essay on Sacher-Masoch is also included in the diverse texts.) Elsewhere, the letters to Jean Piel include some descriptions of the development of The Logic of Sense, and there is a very helpful and clear discussion of ‘transcendental empiricism’ in the letters to Joseph Emmanuel Voeffray.
But perhaps most important is the correspondence between Deleuze and Guattari, which mostly consists of discussions about the development of what would become their most well-known and well-read work: the two-volume Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Of especial interest are the letters about Anti-Oedipus, which contain early attempts to work out the exact direction and questions of their inquiry, and to formulate their concepts, such as ‘machine’. I would emphasize that seasoned students of Deleuze and Guattari may not find anything new or surprising here, but those struggling with the undeniable difficulty of reading Anti-Oedipus for the first time may find helpful the more concise and clear propositions about the aim of the text that appear in these letters. For instance:
as long as we think that economic structures only reach the unconscious through the intermediary of the family and Oedipus, we can’t even understand the problem […] what are the socioeconomic mechanisms capable of bearing directly on the unconscious? (37, 39)
In fact, Anti-Oedipus is probably the text that comes to the fore more than any other in Letters and Other Texts, owing not just to this correspondence, but the long interview conducted with Deleuze and Guattari by Raymond Bellour, which I will come to later.
I will not go into too much detail about the ‘writings of youth’, not only because Deleuze renounced them later on, but because they are not of as much interest as the letters and ‘diverse texts’. Suffice it to say that there are some early essays and book introductions here, including the first essay Deleuze published: ‘description of women’. It is understandable, given Deleuze’s later writings, why he distanced himself from work like this. Not to say that the essay is bad, or uninteresting, but it is of a completely different style and orientation than his mature philosophy. It clearly bears influence from Sartre and phenomenology, and is of a decidedly existentialist bent both in style and content, as passages like this show:
Major principle: things did not wait for me to have their meaning. Or at least, which comes to the same from a descriptive standpoint, I am not aware that they waited for me. Meaning is objectively inscribed in the thing: there is something tiring, and that is all. This big, round sun, this climbing road, this fatigue in the lower back. I do not have anything to do with it. I am not the one who is tired. I do not invent anything, I do not project anything, I do not bring anything into the world, I am nothing, not even a nothing, especially not: nothing more than an expression. I do not attach my little meanings onto things. The object does not have a meaning, it is its meaning. (254)
Again, this is by no means a poor essay, but the kind of work Deleuze would go on to do and the philosophers he would later most associate himself with are completely different. He goes on to criticise phenomenology and place importance on philosophers that were at the time not studied that much in France. Deleuze was working in a time where ‘the three Hs’ – Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger — were prevalent in French philosophy education. Deleuze eschewed this tradition and the major philosophy of the day (existentialism, Marxism, phenomenology) in favour of what he sometimes called the ‘minor’ history of philosophy, which he found more productive: Hume, Spinoza, Proust, Nietzsche, Bergson. Deleuze’s mature work would amount to a criticism of the movements, styles and philosophers he shows more allegiance to in his early essays — but they are nonetheless of interest for the topics he discusses.
Philosophically and academically speaking, the ‘diverse texts’ are the best in this collection. Of interest are the two texts on Hume: a course Deleuze was thinking about publishing, and an essay submitted as part of his agrégation exam on the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion – “undoubtedly the only example of real ‘dialogues’ in philosophy.” (183) Hume was a particularly important philosopher for Deleuze – his first book, Empiricism and Subjectivity, is devoted to the interpretation of his work, and anyone interested in tracing this aspect of Deleuze’s career will find much worth in these two texts. The course is excellent, but consists of notes that Deleuze would presumably have expanded on at length in class, so it reads very densely and can be difficult to connect the dots at times. The Dialogues text is much more polished, contains brief summarizations of some of the text’s key arguments and offers reflections on the significance of the Dialogues and their correct interpretation. Deleuze explains nicely how the problem of religious belief becomes a problem for Hume because of the consequences of his wider theory of knowledge:
Hume finds belief at the foundation of knowledge. At the base of knowledge, there is belief […] The problem of religious belief then takes on greater urgency because one can no longer appeal to the heterogeneity of the two domains, knowledge and faith. […] Since everything is belief, the question is knowing under what conditions a belief is legitimate and forms true knowledge. (184)
And he is absolutely strident on which character represents Hume (which is Philo):
There is […] a common interpretation that says Hume put some of his thought into each of the characters: it is an untenable interpretation because it neglects both the originality and the essential of the Dialogues, that they go entirely against the idea of natural religion. (184)
Also in the diverse texts is a short, remarkably positive book review of an ethnographic text by Pierre Clastres, a French anthropologist Deleuze admired greatly and whose importance in relation to Deleuze and Guattari is perhaps underappreciated. Clastres is cited approvingly a couple of times in Anti-Oedipus but referenced more often and substantially in A Thousand Plateaus, which appeared three years after his untimely death in 1977. Part of the ‘war machine’ plateau is written as a tribute to his memory and makes use of his fascinating work on the Guayaki Indians, and his anti-evolutionary theory of so-called ‘primitive societies’, expressed by Deleuze and Guattari as follows:
Societies termed primitive are not societies without a State, in the sense that they failed to reach a certain stage, but are counter-State societies organizing mechanisms that ward off the State-form, which make its crystallization impossible.[iii]
The reason so-called primitive societies don’t have a state, on Clastres’ account, is because they put mechanisms in place to make sure it never arises, as though they unconsciously ‘saw’ ahead of time that this would be necessary. Given the power that Clastres’ ideas seemed to have for Deleuze and Guattari, it is interesting to see Deleuze engage with Clastres’ ethnographic text. He describes his style as one which “attains an ever-increasing sobriety that intensifies its effect and turns this book, page after page, into a masterpiece. […] In truth, it is a new ethnography, with love, humour, and procedures formed on location.” (192-193) Though the review was published in 1972, there are parts which arguably seem to anticipate the language of ‘lines of flight’ and ‘rhizomatic connections’ that would feature more heavily in A Thousand Plateaus, such as when Deleuze is describing Clastres’ method:
He enters his tribe from any direction. And there he follows the first line of conjunction that presents itself to him: what beings and what things do the Guayaki place in conjunction? He follows this line to the point where, precisely, these beings or things diverge, even if they form other conjunctions…etc. Example: there is a first line «manhunter-forest-bow-animal killed»; then a disjunction woman-bow (the woman should not touch the bow); from which a new conjunction «woman-basket-campsite…» starts; another disjunction «hunters-produce» (the hunter should not consume his products himself, in other words the animals he has killed); then another conjunction (hunter alliance-food prohibition, matrimonial alliance-incest prohibition). (193)
Clastres was clearly an influence on Deleuze and Guattari to some extent, though exactly how influential is unclear. But Deleuze’s review of Clastres, despite its brevity, is a welcome addition to the English translations of his work because it highlights an interesting (and perhaps underappreciated) intellectual, and his connection with Deleuze’s philosophy.
But the most substantial text to be found in this collection, from a scholarly viewpoint, is the Anti-Oedipus interview with Deleuze and Guattari, conducted by Raymond Bellour. Anti-Oedipus is the first volume of Capitalism and Schizophrenia (arguably Deleuze and Guattari’s most important text), so reading it is essential for anyone wanting to get to grips with their work. But reading it is a challenge for anyone: it is dense, bizarre and erudite in equal measure. The number of psychologists, philosophers, anthropologists and artists it refers to is dizzying. Concepts are often deployed without their meaning being explained — either until later or not at all. It seems determined to overwhelm the reader, confuse them and shatter their expectations of what an academic book on psychoanalysis is supposed to be. It is often ironic, makes plentiful use of foul language and takes delight in mocking its targets. It’s a brilliant text, but one that requires a lot of hard work on the part of the reader.
Some of the initial difficult to understand the main points of the book, and its arguments, can be lessened by reading this interview. It covers some of the book’s main points, the motivation behind it, the response it received, and includes some helpful questions from Bellour[iv] about the books central concept that provoke clarificatory responses from Deleuze and Guattari. They explain that the point of the book was to help a certain class of people for whom psychoanalysis, as traditionally practised, does not work.
There is a whole generation of young people in analysis, who are more or less stuck in analysis, who continue to go, who take it like a drug, a habit, a schedule and, at the same time, they have the feeling that it is not working, that there is a whole load of psychoanalytic bullshit. They have enough resistance to psychoanalysis to think against it, but at the same time, their thinking against it in terms that are still psychoanalytical. (195-196)
Deleuze and Guattari want to criticise and rethink psychoanalysis and the practise of therapy from the ground up. But doing this requires overcoming the psychoanalytic language and categories we are used to, which the authors attempt by deploying a cornucopia of new concepts. But their biggest targets, by far, are the dominant psychoanalytic conceptions of the unconscious and desire. They contend not only that these conceptions are wrong, but that they have been used to repress people and reinforce the capitalist hegemony. Desire and the unconscious contain great revolutionary potential which psychoanalysis, as usually practised, suppresses. The Bellour interview focusses more on desire, but the gist of their argument about the unconscious can be well illustrated by a quote they cite from D. H. Lawrence:
the unconscious contains nothing ideal, nothing in the least conceptual, and hence nothing in the least personal, since personality, like the ego, belongs to the conscious or mental-subjective self. So the first analyses are, or should be, so impersonal that the so-called human relations are not involved.[v]
Psychoanalysis mistreats the unconscious and obscures it because it conceives of it as ‘slightly-less-conscious’ rather than un-conscious and as a mere passive receptacle for repressed thoughts and drives. The crucial idea that motivates Anti-Oedipus — as Foucault explains in the preface — is that we have been made to desire our own repression. The key to overcoming this is unlocking the potential of the unconscious as an active, productive machine through which desire flows.[vi] The flow of desire has been perverted such that people actually want to be oppressed, but if we could better understand the mechanisms by which this is possible, we can reprogram ourselves and begin to get out of this lamentable condition. Desire is suppressed when we treat it as a lack of something that one wants, it is rather an active force that flows through everything we do and produces our thoughts, behaviour and society itself.
One of Bellour’s strengths as an interviewer is that he, as Deleuze puts it, concertedly ‘plays the role of the simpleton’ (200). His questions and comments about desire are the sort that anyone would have on first hearing Deleuze and Guattari’s conception of desire, especially: why would we call this desire, when we always understand it in terms of lack? This provokes some helpful clarificatory responses from both authors. I have largely focussed on Deleuze here, but Guattari, though usually harder to understand, has moments of exceptional clarity, such as when he expresses one of the key conceptions of ourselves (that we have clear, well-defined identities) he and Deleuze are seeking to overturn.
It is an incredible illusion to think that people have an identity, are stuck to their professional function, father, mother, all that… They are completely lost and distressed. They flow. They put some shit on television, they look transfixed, caught in a constellation, but they are adjacent to a bunch of systems of intensity that run through them. You really must have a completely rationalist intellectual view to believe that there are well-built people who preserve their identity in a field. That’s a joke. All people are wanderers, nomads. (204-205)
Letters and Other Texts is the final part in a trilogy, the conclusion of an admirable project to bring the remainder of Deleuze’s texts to publication. It should be understood in context and read alongside Desert Islands and Two Regimes of Madness. Compared to the previous two volumes, Letters is much less substantial from an academic point of view, but there are still texts in here that will be of interest to Deleuzians of all stripes. In many ways, Letters is a fitting conclusion to the oeuvre of one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers – in the letters, we see not just Deleuze the philosopher, but some of Deleuze the person: friendly, helpful, self-effacing, sincere, funny. Seasoned scholars probably won’t find much here that will be new to them, but students wanting to become familiar with Deleuze’s more difficult texts – especially Anti-Oedipus – will have a lot to go on here. Taken together as a unified project, Desert Islands, Two Regimes and Letters stand out as essential reading for anyone interested in Deleuze’s thought – and each has its place.
[i] Daniel W. Smith. 2020. «The Deleuzian Revolution: Ten Innovations in ‘Difference and Repetition.’» Deleuze and Guattari Studies, 14, Issue 1: pp. 34-49; p. 36.
[ii] Daniel Smith and John Protevi. 2020. «Gilles Deleuze.» The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/deleuze/>
[iii] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. 2019. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (‘Apparatus of Capture’ plateau). Translated by Brian Massumi. Bloomsbury Academic: London/New York, p. 499.
[iv] Although Guattari certainly didn’t think they were helpful, and sometimes calls Bellour’s interventions ‘stupid’ and ‘lousy’.
[v] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. 2019. Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus. Translated by Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. Bloomsbury Academic: London/New York, p. 139.
[vi] Deleuze and Guattari suggest that we see a glimpse of what a completely unfettered unconscious would look like in schizophrenia.