On Nov. 16, 1980, Louis Althusser, the leading philosophical and political theorist of French Marxism, strangled his wife, Helene Rytman, in their suite at the Ecole Normale Superieure, an elite institute for the training of the French professoriate where he had lived, first as a student, then as a professor, for 34 years.
Many received the news of his crime as a symbol of the demise of European communism. Those who knew Althusser understood that whatever fit of madness induced him to strangle Helene was not brought on by the world of politics. The elegant theorist, the man who redefined the concept of “ideology” as “our imaginary relationship to real conditions of existence” and who fought against a purely economistic interpretation of the works of Marx, had shuttled back and forth between the Ecole Normale and the psychiatric Hospital Sainte Anne at regular intervals for many, many years.
As a result of the murder of his wife, Louis Althusser was declared unfit to stand trial by reason of insanity--in French, this is called a non-lieu. This verdict preceded and preempted a trial. The non-lieu saved Althusser from the nightmare of a trial, and possible condemnation, but its consequences were enormous. As a person deemed unfit to plead, he lost his right to a trial--that is the right to testify and be held responsible for his actions; he lost his right to enter into contract (his affairs would be handled by a legal guardian) and hence by extension--at least symbolically--his signature, his authorship.
Althusser, calling himself a “missing person,” claims to be writing his memoir from this “non-place.” He writes not as some latter-day Chateaubriand, from beyond the grave: He writes buried alive.
Following the murder, Althusser was committed to psychiatric internment for a period of three years, after which he retired quietly to an apartment far from the Ecole Normale. There he wrote the second of the two memoirs published in this volume, which were donated after his death in 1990 to the IMEC, the Institute for the Memory of Contemporary Publishing in Paris. (The IMEC houses archives of a number of French writers, including Celine, Genet and Paulhan). Olivier Corpet, the director of the IMEC, prepared the Althusser manuscripts for posthumous publication along with Yann Moulier Boutang, Althusser’s biographer.
Their editors’ forward, like the introduction to a very good mystery tale, frames what follows with a statement of the basic facts and with provocative questions for the reader: “How is it that such a story can move into the realm of madness, yet its author remain so aware? How does one come to terms with the author of a book of this kind?”
Althusser’s story, they argue, is both the work of a madman and of a philosopher, both a work of imagination and a document about contemporary French intellectual history. Part one, “The Future Lasts a Long Time,” was written in 1985. It is structured as a flashback, beginning with the scene of crime--the night of the strangulation--and moving backward to Althusser’s relationship with his mother, his upbringing, his relationship with Helene, his intellectual formation and the escalating mental illness that would lead to the murder. Part two, “The Facts,” written before the murder in 1976, is straightforward and condensed, reiterating the themes of part one in a lighter mode.
The lucidity of a man condemned by his madness to a living death is perhaps what gives this book its chilling edge. Althusser’s sense, since childhood, of his own nonexistence is at its core. He was named after his mother’s great love, Althusser; when Louis died at Verdun in World War I, Althusser’s mother would marry Louis’ brother, Charles, and name their son for the dead love. Althusser is a brilliant close reader of his given name:
“For a long time, Louis was a name I literally detested. It was too short . . . and ended in the sharp “ee” sound which offended me. . . . Doubtless it also said yes (oui) a little too readily on my behalf, and I rebelled against this ‘yes,’ which corresponded to my mother’s desire rather than to mine. Above all, it contained the sound of the third person pronoun (‘lui’) which deprived me of any personality of my own, summoning as it did an anonymous other. It referred to my uncle, the man who stood behind me: ‘Liu’ (him) was Louis. It was him my mother loved, not me. . . . My mother’s love, directed through me to someone who was dead, made it impossible for me to exist in my own right.”
Douglas Johnson, a former student of Althusser’s, argues in an introduction designed for readers outside France that one should not take Althusser too seriously when he insists that he was something of a fraud as a thinker. This is just the kind of joke, Johnson surmises, that brilliant Ecole Normale students like to make about never having to study. He’s doubtless right on target about students at the Ecole, but not about Althusser.
The sensation of fraudulence was deeply bound up with Althusser’s self-definition, his depression, his imagination. The passages where he explores his own success, and his concomitant feelings of being a fake (his ability to charm, to reduce things to a formula), are among the most critical moments in the book. He writes, “In fact my philosophical knowledge of texts was rather limited. . . . I felt (what an illusion!) that I was capable of working out, if not the specific ideas at least the general drift or direction of an author or a book I had not read, on the basis of a simple turn of phrase. I obviously had certain intuitive powers as well as a definite ability for seeing connections, or a capacity for establishing theoretical oppositions, which enabled me to reconstruct what I took to be an author’s idea on the basis of the authors to whom he was opposed.”
This confession does not lessen our sense of Althusser’s contribution to the history of philosophy--his theories, by now, have taken on a life of their own, separate from his life--but it heightens our sense of his self-loathing. Each successful writing project would be followed by anguish, and a breakdown.
What Althusser proves in “The Future Lasts Forever” is that in addition to his talents for theoretical work, he had a real genius for story-telling. The feeling of having “gotten away with murder” all his life is what makes the literal murder of his wife make such terrifying good sense. His writing ranks with Gide’s for narcissistic self-condemnation and with James M. Cain’s for sheer creepiness and a sense of evil. The clarity of his French formulations are inevitably somewhat muted in English, but Richard Veasey’s British translation works. I liked the choice of “The Future Lasts Forever” as the title for the two-part volume, instead of the original French, which would have translated literally as “The Future Lasts a Long Time Followed by the Facts: Autobiographies.”
The idea of a future lasting forever captures perfectly our sense that Althusser was condemned by his murder to a living death. As a reader I had the uncanny feeling of inhabiting Althusser’s thoughts; repulsed and fascinated by him, as he was by himself, I was terrified and compelled to read on. Who, I kept asking myself, was Helene, the woman portrayed on Page 1, already dead, the tip of her tongue showing between her teeth and lips?
I learned that after the first time Althusser made love to her (he was a virgin at age 30; she was 38) he vowed never to do it again and needed to be hospitalized for anguish; that she was purged from the French Communist Party on suspicion of betraying the Resistance and that Althusser didn’t believe the charges but voted to purge her in a moment of cowardice; that he tortured her by seducing other women in her presence; that his friends resenting her; that, with the pressure of taking care of him, she became every bit the witch they imagined. We may need to wait for the translation of Yann Moulier Boutang’s biography to learn more about Helene Rytman’s own story. The way Althusser himself tells it, the real incentive for murder was all hers.