The Paris Strangler

John Sturrock

  • ‘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.

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