The Paris Strangler
- ‘L’Avenir dure longtemps’ suivi de ‘Les Faits’: Autobiographies by Louis Althusser
Stock, 356 pp, frs 144.00, May 1992, ISBN 2 234 02473 0
- Louis Althusser: Une biographie. Vol. I: La Formation du mythe by Yann Moulier Boutang
Grasset, 509 pp, frs 175.00, April 1992, ISBN 2 246 38071 5
The historian of madness Michel Foucault found and published in 1974 an upbeat first-person account of his crime written by a 19th-century French murderer: Moi Pierre Rivière ayant égorgé ma mère, ma soeur et monfrère ..., a statement precious, in Foucauldian terms, as a rare public instance of the normally suppressed discourse of madness. Now, from the man who coached Foucault in philosophy, we have another bold and engrossing first-person work which could have borne the title ‘Moi Louis Althusser ayant étranglé ma femme ... ’, for L’Avenir dure longtemps is the garlanded Marxist philosopher’s long essay in explanation of how he came to strangle his wife late in 1980. Pierre Rivière’s was the extrovert testimony of a rube, a deranged Norman farmboy and literary simpleton: Althusser’s is infinitely more adroit, the manipulative product of a theoretical intelligence turned lovingly in on itself, and a pre-emptive exercise in the discourse more on than of madness.
Pierre Rivière wrote his apologia on the orders of the judge at his trial, though boasting that he had meant to write one before carrying out his murders, so as to secure for himself a double glory, as author first of a swingeing crime and then of a memorable item of literature. This double glory is now Althusser’s and there are signs in L’Avenir dure longtemps that he is chronically uneasy about the ambiguity of his intentions, since to confess in style like this is also to add to his celebrity, as a uniquely perceptive and articulate felon. But Althusser is at pains to reassure us that what he is making is no more than the statement in his own defence which he wasn’t allowed to make at the time, because no charge was laid against him Instead, he was discreetly diagnosed as being in too chaotic a mental state to answer for his act, and consigned to what he calls the ‘tombstone of silence’, of psychiatric restraint. Coming from a man who, unlike his irrevocably muted victim, is now free to break his silence, this metaphorical ‘tombstone’ is hard to take.
Althusser is determined to be known to have suffered, in this as in other ways. His time under the tombstone most would see as a merciful imposition, compared with the much more severe things that might have happened to him, but for Althusser it is cause for prolonged complaint, against the legal and medical rules that stop an accused person from speaking out in the event of a non-suit. He has suffered from having others speak out in his place, and so trespass on the autonomy he takes to be his right. L’Avenir dure longtemps was written in 1985, five years after the ‘drama’, and that he should have been made to wait is his founding grievance in an impenitently complaining book.
Althusser’s is autobiography as hard-luck story. It expresses no simple guilt or regret for what he did, it comes to no unequivocal conclusion about why he did it. Rather, it ushers the murdered Hélène away towards the margin of his life and enables Althusser himself to usurp her place as a victim. La vedette, c’est le coupable was an angry comment made by Claude Sarraute in Le Monde about the original reporting of the affair in France, the guilty man is the star. Then, this was the fault not of Althusser but of his fame: but the guilty man who later turns autobiographer is bound to be the star of his own story and to compel everyone else who appears in it to serve his own rhetorical ends.
Althusser’s most blatant end is the exculpation of himself. As an autobiographical event, the strangling of Hélène Rytmann is a pure contingency, for which motives may be and are found but no one sovereign motive that might resolve and classify the crime as the understandable dénouement of a long and tortured relationship. Between motives and act Althusser preserves that enigmatic gap beloved of the Existentialists of old, so that the murder survives the book more or less intact as an opaque act of will. Opaque, and utterly out of character insofar as willing never came easily to this massively self-doubting man. The great revelation for most of us reading L’Avenir dure longtemps, and the first volume of Yann Moulier Boutang’s accompanying biography, must be the depth and regularity of the mental crises from which Althusser suffered all through his adult life. In 1980 I fancy that this was hardly if at all known, so that his rapid post hoc disappearance into care instead of prison made it look likely that a special and objectionable leniency had been shown because of this murderer’s high intellectual prestige.
That we now know was unfair. Althusser had in fact endured up to 1980 a bleak thirty-year history of invincible manic depression, to an extent which makes it remarkable that he should have had a public life at all. Boutang calculates that he had to be taken into a hospital on an average of once every three years and that he was ‘immobilised’ by depression for perhaps half his working time. He was treated by ECT and by drugs, and was permanently in psychoanalysis. At one time, early in their life together, it was only Hélène’s blind hatred for institutions, according to Althusser, which saved him from being kept in hospital for good.
Vol. 15 No. 2 · 28 January 1993
From Paddy Lyons
‘I strangled my wife, who was all the world to me, while undergoing an intense and unforeseeable crisis of mental disorder in November 1980 – she who loved me to the point of wishing nothing but to die for want of the capacity to go on living – and undoubtedly I must have, in my confusion and all unknowingly, “done her that favour” against which she made no defence, but from which she died.’ Thus Althusser, in March 1985. As both his biographer and his archivist record it, Althusser wrote L’Avenir dure longtemps because the friends who supported him through his long haul back to health were bewildered about how to answer a journalist’s smear. Claude Sarraute, pundit and columnist in Le Monde, had likened Althusser’s case to that of the cannibalistic thrill-killer Issay Sagawa. It was not, as John Sturrock claims (LRB, 17 December 1992), with a ‘blatant end … the exculpation of himself’ that Althusser began his grief-filled memoir, but d’abord pour mes amis et si possible pour moi.
The circumstances in which Althusser became his wife’s strangler – omitted in Sturrock’s account of the matter – are clearly documented. 1980 had begun auspiciously for Althusser and his wife: she was beginning to enjoy her retirement, he had pulled out of incipient depression without recourse to clinical care, and was busy setting up a new research centre. A spring holiday in Greece gave them shared happiness. Then in June, after a run-of-the-mill operation for hiatus hernia, Althusser entered a state of acute melancholia. He was hospitalised and treated with niamid, a mono-amine oxidase inhibitor. Though niamid can induce alarming side-effects and relapses, and in 1978 had been withdrawn in the UK, in previous mild depressions it had brought Althusser swift and effective relief. On this occasion, however, he had no immediate response, and the dosage was accordingly doubled. Disastrously. He lost urinary and motor control, became unable to take food without vomiting, and suffered waking dreams in which he was subject to suicidal compulsions. Once niamid was discontinued, Althusser recovered enough to be discharged from hospital. But his general condition continued to deteriorate, to the extent that his wife Hélène – at first appalled, then terrified – became suicidal and begged him to kill her: a plea, he recalls, that left him shuddering in horror for hours.
Strangulation is a violent form of death, but the doctor who first examined Hélène’s dead body found no marks on her throat, and attributed to deranged grief her husband’s cry, J’ai étranglé Hélène. While post-mortem examination confirmed strangulation as the cause of death, it also remarked that there was no sign of bruising to her skin, and no evidence of resistance. To dismiss L’Avenir as the product of ‘a Machiavellian savoirécrire’, arranged and calculated – so Sturrock would have it – to render ‘autobiography as hard luck story’, is plausible only if you leave out of the reckoning the actual hard luck which brought the couple to their folie à deux.
Throughout L’Avenir Althusser pursues the question of how far he might have been damaged from early on. But Sturrock cannot tolerate this enquiry: ‘that his parents failed him is belied by his admissions of his father’s humour and intelligence, and of his mother’s concerned affection.’ Again Sturrock’s argument relies on omission. Omitted is the disquieting prurience of Althusser’s mother, who every day examined her teenage son’s bed-linen for tell-tale stains of émissions nocturnes – which left him afraid to attempt masturbation till he was in his late twenties. Omitted, too, is a chilling incident when Althusser’s taciturn father (Charles – ‘I was firmly convinced every little boy, once he became a grown-up, changed his name to Charles’ – and not, as Sturrock renames him, Georges) took his son into an unlit lavatory, and there spent more than an hour silently and painfully tugging in an unsuccessful effort to release the head of the boy’s penis from a constricting foreskin. Althusser’s parents were not monsters. ‘They did their best,’ he comments, arguing instead that in the family, which serves the state by inculcating respect for authority, parents and children alike are caught, cripplingly and unwittingly, in habits whereby exchanges of love become twisted because conducted through abstract duty. Or as a conservative contemporary put it, ‘they may not mean to, but they do.’
As Althusser recounts it, his upbringing left him a speculative onlooker, distant, ascetic and fearful of closeness and of touch. It was Marxism that enabled him to give primacy to all that is bodily and practical. His account of how he fell in love with Hélène Rytmann begins on a frosty night, with him venturing tentatively to take her hand in his. His central sorrowful memory is of her hands ‘stiffened from toil, and worn through work and hardship, but in their caress unutterably and heartbreakingly tender’. This is hardly, as Sturrock charges, ‘to usurp her place as a victim’, nor does it usher ‘the murdered Hélène away towards the margin of his life’.
Propelling Sturrock’s deformations is a drive to equate Marxism (‘desperately utopian polities’) with self-pitying madness. Althusser always distinguished Communism (which he upheld) from socialism (which he opposed), but to convict Althusser of a ‘nebulous millenarianism’ Sturrock finds it useful to collapse the distinction. He puts forward as if representing Althusser’s own politics a passage in which Althusser mocks socialism for advancing empty promises: ‘Everyone alights, there is no more struggle … but a profusion of flowers and fruits that all may pick for their delight.’ In fact the phrase ‘everyone alights’ (tout le monde descend) comes from Lenin’s denunciation of those who suppose social change to be as easy as changing trains, and was frequently cited by Althusser when deriding Eurosocialist aspirations as ready-made and glib. With the sentence immediately following – which Sturrock regrettably omits – the satiric inflection becomes quite blatant: ‘Then will burst forth Spinoza’s “joyous passions” and Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy itself.’ Althusser was no utopian. The scandal of Lire Le Capital (1965) was that it took issue against the doctrine of teleological progress (from capitalism, through socialism, to Communism) which held sway as Marxist dogma in many leftist circles.
University of Glasgow
From Ethna Viney
On what basis (other than prejudice) does John Sturrock make his arrogant assumptions that John Smart Mill ‘famously demeaned Harriet Taylor in his Autobiography by his reckless eulogising of her’? It is more likely that JSM was countering the prejudice of a literary world hostile to intellectual women. Whence Sturrock’s male certainty if not from misogyny?
Westport, Co Mayo
Vol. 15 No. 3 · 11 February 1993
From John Sturrock
As Paddy Lyons (Letters, 28 January) sees it, the strangling of Hélène Rytmann by Louis Althusser was a folie à deux: she wanted him to kill her and he in a moment of lunacy obliged. This is one ‘explanation’ of his act offered by Althusser himself in L’Avenir dure longtemps. But how, by accepting it as the right explanation, does Lyons make things any better for Althusser who, it now turns out, has destroyed his own life in the performance of an act of charity? By my reckoning, that makes his autobiography even more of a hard-luck story and enhances the self-pitying theme of ‘oblation’ apparent all the way through it: the still living Louis is suffering in the place of the dead Hélène for having done as she wanted. As for the idea that L’Avenir dure longtemps was written in answer to Claude Sarraute’s ‘smear’, that I don’t understand. There was no smear: Sarraute complained, and rightly, of the way the murder had been glamorised in the reporting of it, which was none of Althusser’s doing. By comparing his case with that of the disgusting Issay Sagawa, she wasn’t suggesting that Althusser, too, was a monster, only that both these (male) murderers had been given a starring role to the complete occlusion of their (female) victims. To answer such a ‘smear’ by then writing a whole book about yourself seems perverse, to say the least.
Lyons find my propellant in what I wrote to have been a ‘drive to equate Marxism … with self-pitying madness’. What a very silly ambition that would be. The sorry story of Althusser does nothing so far as I am concerned to undermine Marxism, which seems quite capable of undermining itself; it does, however, raise very interesting questions of a psychological kind about why he should have become and remained some sort of Marxist. I can’t for the life of me detect the ‘satiric inflection’ that Lyons claims to detect in what Althusser has to say about the ideal, i.e. Communist society of the future. He accuses me of shortening before time my quotation about the river of shit; let me now carry it on, beyond the point where he himself leaves it: ‘I believe indeed – and think that on this issue I am in line with the thought of Marx – that the one possible definition of Communism – if it is one day to exist in the world – is the absence of market relations, therefore of relations of class exploitation and domination by the State. I believe that there certainly exist in our present-day world very numerous circles of human relations from which all market relations are absent.’ Where is the ‘satiric inflection’ in all this? Or, for that matter, in the equally deluded account he gives of life in the then Soviet Union on pp. 182-3?
Talk of delusion brings me to the ‘arrogant assumptions’ I am supposed to have made about John Stuart Mill (Ethna Viney’s letter, same issue). They are arrogant, I assume, for not allowing that Mill’s extraordinary hymn to Harriet Taylor in his Autobiography may be no more than she deserved, that she really was the moral and intellectual paragon he describes there. If so, and I’ve not come across anyone before who thought it might be so, I can only say that the decent thing for Mill to have done was to make sure that Harriet Taylor got her due in her lifetime and not suffer her to wait until she was dead and to receive it by way of his own book about himself.
Lindfield, West Sussex
From W.A. Suchting
I was dumbfounded by the tastelessness of the title of the review of Althusser’s recently published volume of autobiography and of the first volume of a biography. It would have been repellent enough in some daily rag; it was its appearance in a journal of the quality of the London Review that was so staggering. Still, on second thoughts, perhaps it was not entirely inappropriate for a review of the giggling, tittering, sniggering kind over which it appeared.
Ultimo, New South Wales
Vol. 15 No. 5 · 11 March 1993
From Douglas Johnson
Further to the discussion as to why Althusser killed his wife (Letters, 11 February) there are two additional theories now receiving attention. One is that he could not bear to think that she was actively preparing to leave him. While his mentally depressive condition was important, his act nevertheless becomes a more ordinary crime of jealousy and passion. The other arises from the fact that they both attended the same psychoanalyst. Althusser supposedly became obsessed with the idea that his wife was betraying him by having secret conversations with the analyst.
I think that there is a simpler explanation. When Althusser stayed with me in London in 1978, I discovered that he was a sleep-walker. He was not apparently depressed at this time. Indeed he saw himself as having a great role in the revolutionary world of the future. But his sleep-walking was persistent. It is not unknown for people to commit murder at such times. Perhaps this is the moment for me to say how I always found Althusser to be a gentle and kind man. He was most helpful to me when we were students in Paris and he was a good friend for many subsequent years.
Vol. 15 No. 7 · 8 April 1993
From David Kitson
While I was in jail in Pretoria for two decades in consequence of my pursuit of the Marxist ideal, one of my fellow inmates, serving a mere seven years, had spent some time in the Sorbonne reading for an MA in politics. He had sat at the feet of Louis Althusser (LRB, 17 December 1992), and expressed his admiration for the maestro by running seminars on the thought of Althusser for us. Marxists are not merely concerned with a delineation of Communist society – an ideal which seems somewhat further away now since my release. In fact, Marx himself was rather coy about a detailed description of Communism for fear of being regarded as a utopian. Marxists also present a critique of capitalism in much greater detail. A part of this is the analysis of the state, which was particularly the concern of Lenin.
In prison, we discussed Althusser’s notions of ideology and ideological state apparatuses. According to him, these serve to bolster the capitalist state, and he lists the family among other institutions as an ideological state apparatus. Thus, if one is opposed to capitalism, one can contribute to its downfall by undermining ideological state apparatuses. Therefore it might seem logical to destroy that foundation of capitalism, the family, by strangling one’s wife.
My comrade was not impressed when I put this to him after we heard of Althusser’s action. He continued in his respect for Althusser’s erudition and incision by imitating his style to some effect, although not in spouse-strangling. In deciding whether Althusser was motivated by lunacy or logic, it would have helped if he could have strangled some children as well, but it seems that none came to hand.