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In the late 1960s, a sociologist described French theorist ­Michel Foucault (1926–1984) as “a sort of frail, gnarled samurai who was dry and hieratic, who had the eyebrows of an albino and a somewhat sulfurous charm, and whose avid and affable curiosity intrigued everyone.” Claude Mauriac, son of the Catholic novelist François Mauriac and a close friend, displayed some ambivalence about Foucault when he called his smile “carnivorous.” For his part, Mauriac père complained that Foucault’s thesis of the death of man made the secular Sartre look like a brother.

These comments were made in the 1960s, around the time when Foucault, in his forties, had begun to shave his head, adding to his immediately recognizable radical chic. He was then a few years past the publication of his best-selling book, The Order of Things, and at the cusp of becoming the most celebrated and often reviled philosopher of France. By the first decade of this century, he would be the most-cited author in the humanities.

Like most of his French colleagues, Foucault was not a believer, in part because of his homosexual lifestyle. At the elite École Normale Supérieure, which Foucault attended in the late 1940s, students who went to Mass were unusual enough to bear a scornful nickname, “talas,” from the middle sounds of the phrase “ceux qui vont à la messe” (“those who go to Mass”).

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