On Complaining

Elif Batuman

  • BuyPhilosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida by Elisabeth Roudinesco, translated by William McCuaig
    Columbia, 184 pp, £15.50, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 231 14300 4

‘We are certainly living in strange times’ is how Elisabeth Roudinesco’s Philosophy in Turbulent Times begins. Roudinesco’s reader, too, is in for a turbulent and strange time, starting with the introduction, a five-page polemic against the spirit of our age:

Jean-Paul Sartre – for or against? Raymond Aron – for or against? … Should we take a blowtorch to May 1968 and its ideas … seen now as incomprehensible, elitist, dangerous and anti-democratic? Have the protagonists of that revolution … all become little bourgeois capitalist pleasure seekers without faith or principles, or haven’t they? …

The father has vanished, but why not the mother? Isn’t the mother really just a father, in the end, and the father a mother? Why do young people not think anything? Why are children so unbearable? Is it because of television, or pornography, or comic books? …

And women: are they capable of supervising male workers on the same basis as men are? Of thinking like men, of being philosophers? Do they have the same brain, the same neurons, the same emotions, the same criminal instincts? Was Christ the lover of Mary Magdalene, and if so, does that mean that the Christian religion is sexually split between a hidden feminine pole and a dominant masculine one?

   Has France become decadent? Are you for Spinoza, Darwin, Galileo, or against? Are you partial to the United States? Wasn’t Heidegger a Nazi? Was Michel Foucault the precursor of Bin Laden, [and] Gilles Deleuze a drug addict … ? Was Napoleon really so different from Hitler?

Do these questions strike you as ‘the absolute nadir of contemporary interrogation’? Do they articulate your sense of the ills of the present cultural moment? Do you want to hear more of them? Would you like to have a long conversation with someone who feels the same way? If so, you will enjoy the latest English translation of a book by Roudinesco, the author of Lacan & Co, Why Psychoanalysis? and, most recently, La Part obscure de nous-mêmes (not yet translated). If not, you might enjoy parts of the book anyway. Roudinesco has a novelist’s talent for distilling the scattered nonsense of a certain sociohistorical milieu into pithy soundbites. How economically she skewers That’s Not What I Meant! and The Da Vinci Code! One is often reminded of Flaubert’s Dictionary of Received Ideas (‘novels: Pervert the masses’; ‘students: All of them … smoke their pipes in the street, and never study’). Roudinesco, like Flaubert, is dissatisfied with an intellectual discourse which increasingly resembles ‘a vast ledger full of entries for things and people – or rather people who have become things’.

Flaubert the satirist buried Bouvard and Pécuchet alive beneath an avalanche of names and things and methodologies; Roudinesco the philosopher is offering us a conceptual shovel. What one immediately notices about this shovel is its close resemblance to the avalanche: Philosophy in Turbulent Times: Canguilhem, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze, Derrida looks very much like a vast ledger full of entries for ‘people who have become things’. (Would Bouvard and Pécuchet feel or think any better if they found such a thing in the garden shed?) For most of its length the book has the same ‘talking-head’ effect that initially seemed to be an object of parody. As in Flaubert’s dictionary, ideas and names rain onto the page in a chronologically chaotic barrage: Roudinesco is the kind of writer who breezily refers to ‘the tradition of philosophical conceptuality to which belonged names like … Gaston Bachelard, Spinoza, Hegel, Montesquieu and Freud’. As Flaubert’s dictionary is alphabetically ordered, so Roudinesco proceeds from one argument to the next on the basis of puns or metaphors.

Take her treatment of ‘revisionism’, which she identifies as one of our chief contemporary ailments. Because we are determined ‘to oppugn the idea of rebellion’, we give unprecedented prestige to ‘revisionist attacks on the foundations of … every emancipatory adventure’: on feminism, socialism, Marxism, Freudianism and ‘every kind of critique of the norm’. Roudinesco likens these ‘revisionist attacks’ to Holocaust denial and the subject of Holocaust denial leads her to redefine revisionism as the ‘necessity to “relativise” heroism’, which is what we do when we disparage the French Resistance, or when we call Salvador Allende ‘a racist, an anti-semite and a eugenicist, for the purpose of denigrating the putative founding myths of socialism around the world’. Heroism, socialism and rebellion turn out to be synonymous, and the ledger entry for ‘revisionism’ unites Holocaust denial, free-market capitalism, psychopharmacology, the neurological study of gender differences and the badmouthing of Salvador Allende.

Such are the ills of our time, which flounders between apocalypse and normalcy. Are we in a crisis, or aren’t we? On the one hand, Roudinesco rejects the ‘catastrophic outlook’ of those who announce ‘the end of history, the end of ideology, the end of towering individuals, the end of thought, the end of mankind, the end of everything’, and who claim ‘to bear witness to a new malaise of civilisation’. On the other hand, this seems to be just the kind of malaise she claims to be witnessing:

Never has psychological suffering been more intense: solitude, use of mind-altering drugs, boredom, fatigue, dieting, obesity, the medicalisation of every second of existence … As for social suffering … it seems to be constantly on the rise, against a background of youth unemployment and tragic factory closings.

   Set free from the shackles of morality, sex is experienced not as the correlate of desire, but as performance, as gymnastics, as hygiene for the organs … How does one climax, and bring one’s partner to climax? What is the ideal size of the vagina, the correct length of the penis? How often? How many partners in a lifetime, in a week, in a single day, minute by minute? … It would seem impossible not to detect, in this curious psychologisation of existence … that is contributing to the rise of depoliticisation, the most insidious expression of what Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze called ‘little everyday fascism’.

A peculiar claim: how can Roudinesco possibly know whether more psychological and social suffering is caused by obesity, youth unemployment, factory closures and – one rather admires the leap – the hygienisation of sex, than, say, by the bubonic plague, the Spanish Inquisition or the slave trade? And haven’t any of our gains offset our losses? Thanks to hygienisation, sex has become less spontaneous … but we don’t all have syphilis. (‘syphilis: Pretty much everyone has it.’) It is a terrible irony of the Foucauldian anti-medicalisation argument that Foucault himself died of Aids at the age of 57, that he didn’t practise safe sex, and didn’t know about HIV transmission until a few months before his death. (It is even said that Foucault initially discounted Aids as a mythical homosexual-targeting disease invented by the medical superstructure to control male homosexuality; in this sense, he was a literal victim of his own conspiracy theories.) In other words, we might all have benefited had Foucault undergone some ‘medicalisation’ and ‘hygienisation’.

‘Health fascism’, which appears in the OED, does of course have an empirical reality. It’s not great to be told that one should quit smoking, cut down on coffee, go to the gym more often and regularly submit to screenings for various cancers. Nobody likes to sit on a metal table, wearing a paper ‘gown’, awaiting the arrival of a doctor who is increasingly likely to be younger than oneself. But who is the fascist here: the medical institution or the human body? What can doctors do if our bodies crave things which are harmful to us?

And if we are being subjected to socially determined aesthetic and ethical norms, under the guise of biological ones, is the ‘biocracy’ really responsible? Personally, I blame the fashion magazines, according to which a 5’9’’ woman ideally weighs 110 pounds, rather than the medical superstructure, according to which she should weigh between 125 and 165 pounds. Is anybody making us read these magazines: the same magazines, by the way, which order us to be constantly reaching orgasm? (No word on that from the surgeon general’s office.) But is living in a culture that produces fashion magazines really a source of unprecedented misery? In 1908, repressed sexual thoughts led to hysterical neuroses; in 2008, medicalised sexual thoughts make us obsess about having enough orgasms. With how much certainty can anyone say things are getting worse?

A lot of our modern plagues seem to have been around for an awfully long time, especially in France. To quote the Dictionary again: ‘gymnastics: One can never do enough. Wears children out’; ‘hygiene: Must always be maintained. Prevents illnesses, except when it causes them.’ Roudinesco’s tendency to sound like a 19th-century satirical dictionary doesn’t do much for her claim to acute contemporaneity. Flaubert’s catalogue already includes such major and minor exercises in revisionism as the defence of slavery, the celebration of censorship and the denial of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (‘an old wives’ tale’). It includes the dictum: ‘Say about a great man: “He is completely overrated.” All the great men are; besides, there are no great men.’ It also includes catastrophism, mistrust of technocratic free-market capitalism and anti-Americanism: ‘There will no longer be any ideals, religion, morality. America will conquer the earth.’

Roudinesco seems to be describing not a topical crisis but a matter of ‘human nature’ in the longue durée. It’s true that Flaubert, whom some Marxists consider to be a Marxist visionary, did his share of railing against modern times; his complaints are, in their details, historically specific, and would provide material for an interesting Foucauldian history of complaining: when, exactly, did children become so unbearable? (Certainly, no later than the 18th century, and probably earlier. ‘Il n’y a plus d’enfants!’ Molière wrote in 1673.) But Flaubert’s primary target was larger, more amorphous, nearly timeless. ‘Human stupidity,’ he wrote in 1875, ‘is a bottomless abyss, and the ocean I see from my window seems to me quite small in comparison.’ The implication is less that we have scaled historic heights of catastrophism, stupidity and complaining, than that humans have long been a catastrophic, stupid bunch of complainers.

Roudinesco, however, attributes our stupidity, like our unhappiness, to political causes – specifically, to fascism. She is a strong advocate of ‘politicisation’, which appears to mean the redescription of everything one doesn’t like in terms of the Third Reich. Thus cognitive science, which uses ‘biological, neuronal or cerebral reasons to “explain” the supposedly innate differences between the sexes and the races’, turns out to be a mere step away from eugenics, which is synonymous with … Nazism! By extension, any science which equates mind and brain is fascist, as is the belief that emotional ‘health’ can be determined by physical exercise. Neuroscience, psychopharmacology and calisthenics turn out to be nothing more than what the Marxists called reification: treating people as things.

Perhaps the greatest intellectual leap Roudinesco requires of her anglophone readers is to entertain, at least temporarily, the notion of ‘continental’ philosophy as a means to combat social ills. Because all our problems are caused by fascism and reification, they can be cured through the practice of the kind of philosophy represented by the generation of postwar Freudo-Marxist philosophes engagés, and characterised by a categorical refusal ‘to serve the project to normalise the human being’. Her six chapters are not overviews or introductions to the philosophers in question. Roudinesco concentrates on one text per philosopher, and it is a strength of the book that she often chooses relatively little-known texts by these much discussed writers.

In her first chapter, ‘George Canguilhem: A Philosophy of Heroism’, Roudinesco relates Canguilhem’s work as a doctor in the French Resistance to The Normal and the Pathological, the influential book in which he challenged the prevailing definition of normality. Canguilhem defined health as the ‘stable’ condition of life, and pathology as a reaction or a process rather than a ‘fixed constitution’. Roudinesco plausibly argues that Canguilhem’s thesis was informed by his experience tending to wounded résistants under an occupation which must have presented all the features of an unfathomable pathology. For Canguilhem the maquisard, the Resistance had to be assimilated into the realm of the possible – just as, for Canguilhem the philosopher of medicine, pathology had to be assimilated into the realm of normality.

Canguilhem is particularly useful to Roudinesco as the rare instance of a philosopher whose philosophical work apparently benefited from his political activity. Canguilhem is also the author of a biography of Jean Cavaillès – a philosopher of mathematics and résistant shot by the Gestapo in 1944 – in which he famously, ironically, observed that none of the ‘philosophers of existence and of the person’ had risked their lives for the Resistance, as Cavaillès and the philosophers of mathematics, logic and science had done: fields ‘apparently more speculative and remote from any form of subjective and political commitment’.

It’s an interesting question: why did the philosophers of logic pass the test of political commitment, while the philosophers of subjectivity failed? Roudinesco proposes logic itself as a ‘philosophy of heroism’, making a link between the lack of authorial subjectivity in Cavaillès’s philosophical writings and his selflessness in sacrificing his life for his country. By following ‘the logic of the Resistance’, Cavaillès, like Canguilhem, established ‘a logical coherence, grounded in the primacy of the concept, between political commitment and intellectual activity’. This claim, which seems to imply the politicisation of logic itself, strikes me as very strange. Is one to understand that the philosophers of commitment lacked the logic to live according to their writings? That the only people who had enough logic to do it were logicians? What, then, drew the philosophers of logic to the philosophy of commitment in the first place?

To my mind, a more likely solution would involve the formal affinities between logical philosophy and mathematics, on the one hand, and existentialist philosophy and the novel, on the other. Mathematicians and logicians, unlike novelists and existentialists, often achieve greatness at an early age, and without having written hundreds of pages. It took Cavaillès fewer than a hundred pages to launch the French ‘philosophy of the concept’, composed in a prison camp in a few months in 1942. And Wittgenstein wrote the 80-page Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, his revolutionary critique of Russell and Frege, from the trenches of the First World War.

It does nothing to belittle the achievements of Cavaillès and Wittgenstein to observe that, if Sartre had been active during the Resistance, he wouldn’t have managed to publish an 850-page philosopho-novelistic brick like Being and Nothingness by 1943. Sartre and the Freudo-Marxist philosophers of the self were, like novelists, discursive thinkers, who needed the long process and materiality of writing in order to discover their own thoughts. Canguilhem’s observation that there was no existentialist equivalent of Cavaillès may be true, but if there had been a future Sartre fighting at Cavaillès’s side and if that future Sartre had also been shot in 1944, he would surely have died without committing very much to paper. As a counter-example, take Hannah Arendt: a philosopher of existence and the human condition who spent the years between 1933 and 1939 working full-time for various Jewish refugee organisations in Paris, and who published her first important work, the 700-page Origins of Totalitarianism, only in 1951. If Arendt had been killed in the war, she, unlike Cavaillès, would now be totally forgotten. Roudinesco probably wouldn’t like this explanation, which relies on the ‘mechanical’ factor of how long it takes to write a book of a certain length.

Canguilhem, who shares with Roudinesco a mistrust of cognitive science and the ‘mechanisation’ of the human body, might not have liked it either. In medical treatment, for example, he always valorised ‘the clinic’ (the doctor’s examination of the patient) over ‘the laboratory’ (scientific tests), on the grounds that test results can be interpreted correctly only in the light of the patient’s history. Television viewers may recognise in Canguilhem’s hierarchy the premise on which House is based. In this hospital drama, test results are inconclusive, genetic factors are a red herring and the missing key invariably turns up in the patient’s lived history. (In one episode, a metal key literally turns up in the intestines of a magician, who swallowed it as part of a trick.) A CIA agent, stationed in Brazil, gets selenium poisoning from Brazil nuts; a Hasidic convert turns out to be suffering from a floating kidney dislodged when she was lifted on a chair during a wedding. The eponymous diagnostician, Dr House, regularly orders his medical staff to search the patient’s house: the non-biological, autonomously chosen counterpart of the human body. Sartre would have liked House, in which people get sick from existence rather than essence.

Sartre, perhaps the most omnivorous and omnipresent of the 20th-century philosophers, is the subject of Roudinesco’s second chapter, ‘Psychoanalysis on the Shadowy Banks of the Danube’, which details Sartre’s foray into film-making: his abortive collaboration with John Huston on a screenplay about Freud.

Roudinesco begins by situating Huston’s choice of Sartre as screenwriter within the context of America’s hygienisation, medicalisation and corruption of psychoanalysis. Apparently, the one oasis in America where ‘emigrants from old Europe’ sustained the ‘high tradition’ of Freudian analysis was Hollywood, which Roudinesco represents as a European-operated machine for ‘criticising the ideals of the American way of life’. Huston, although an American – or ‘American born’, as Roudinesco charitably puts it – decided to make a movie about this Freud: the European, anti-American one.

Another way of looking at it would be to say that Huston, following the great American biopic tradition, wanted to make a movie about how Freud became Freud. But in either case Sartre, the pre-eminent and ultra-European philosopher of becoming, was an ideal choice. He completed a 95-page screen treatment in 1958. The protagonist of Sartre’s script was Freud the young neurologist, who had reached a ‘desperate impasse’ in his treatment of Anna O. and in his theory of the sexual etiology of hysterical neurosis. For the part of Anna O., incidentally, Sartre had his eye on Marilyn Monroe, who was discouraged from taking the role by Anna Freud and by Monroe’s own psychoanalyst, Marianne Kris, whose father had been Freud’s tarot partner.

The Huston-Sartre collaboration fell apart in 1959, when Sartre travelled to Huston’s home in Ireland to work on the script. The two didn’t work well together. ‘There was no such thing as a conversation with him,’ Huston later recalled. ‘He talked incessantly, and there was no interrupting him. You’d wait for him to catch his breath, but he wouldn’t.’ Meanwhile Sartre, in his letters to Simone de Beauvoir, described Huston as ‘perfectly vacant, literally incapable of speaking to those whom he has invited’. Evidently he didn’t realise that Huston was waiting for him to catch his breath. The philosopher went on to compare Huston’s ‘inner landscape’ to ‘heaps of ruins, abandoned houses, plots of wasteland, swamps’: ‘He is empty,’ Sartre concluded, ‘except in his moments of infantile vanity, when he dons a red tuxedo, or goes horseback riding (not very well).’ (Huston, of the infantile red tuxedo, was equally bemused by Sartre’s wardrobe, its stark invariance: ‘I never knew if he owned one grey suit or several identical grey suits.’)

Who can fail to be entertained by this picture of Sartre criticising somebody for being a bad rider? Or by the anecdote about how he once had toothache and refused to go to Dublin, as Huston suggested, to get it treated? Huston didn’t know any local dentists, but Sartre found one, from whose surgery he emerged in a matter of minutes, having had his tooth extracted. Huston – who, despite his scepticism about America, had evidently not totally renounced the ‘hygienism’ of his native country – wondered at Sartre’s casual attitude to his teeth, but concluded that ‘a tooth more or less made no difference in Sartre’s cosmos.’ Here you see the entire charm of the existentialist way of life.

The theoretical story Roudinesco tells has it that, through his work on the Freud screenplay, Sartre finally surmounted ‘the doctrinal superego of his own existential Freudo-Marxism’, which was impeding his work on a long-projected ‘existential biography’ of Flaubert (eventually published, in 1971-72, as The Family Idiot). The premise that Freud enabled Sartre to write about Flaubert is an interesting one, but Roudinesco’s explanation remains murky. It apparently involves Freud’s realisation that not all fathers were child molesters, and that his own father was not a child molester. This realisation, which the historical Freud reached in an exchange of letters with Wilhelm Fliess, is dramatised by Sartre as a conversation with Anna O., in a carriage ‘between a bordello and the shadowy banks of the Danube’. By virtue of this fictional dramatisation which asserts the primacy of ‘history over structure’, Sartre overcomes his doctrinal superego and is able to become an autonomous biographer.

‘Through a Freud more Freudian than the original,’ Roudinesco writes, ‘Sartre in part renounces his own former anti-Freudian philosophical stance, and links a conceptual moment to an act of subjective liberty. Only in part, though, because this renunciation leads him to an even more radical anti-Freudianism.’ Such clarifications bring to mind the tortuous locutions that finally drove Don Quixote insane: ‘The reason of the unreason which has afflicted my reason, debilitating my ability to reason, so that it is with good reason that I complain of your beauty.’ Some sense is apparently being made somewhere but it’s hard to put your finger on it.

The irony of Foucault is that reading his books can be such an exciting, liberating experience. Language breaking off its kinship with things, Cuvier smashing the glass jars in the museum of natural history, and immutable nature itself turning out to be a human construction: it all sounds like a marvellous adventure. In Foucault’s archaeologies, as in Freud’s dreams, seemingly arbitrary dates, names and images line up to produce a secret meaning and a message about the future. And yet, Foucault’s work is somehow also a mill for grinding out disciplined bodies subject to the normalising gaze. The stethoscope turns out to function exactly like the Panopticon, which does justice neither to the seriousness of incarceration, nor to the Foucauldian conception of heterogeneity.

Unfortunately, in her chapter on Foucault’s History of Madness, Roudinesco turns out to be operating a similar mill, the mill of ‘politicisation’, which takes the most disparate entities and tries to make them resemble totalitarian regimes. The account starts out straightforwardly enough, with an introduction to Foucault’s groundbreaking structural definition of insanity, which took the form of a history of the ways in which the mad have been isolated from the sane. Roudinesco helpfully associates Foucault with Canguilhem and Saussure, through a redefinition of mental ‘norms’ as being relative and social rather than absolute and biological. She also identifies the legacy of Sartrean ‘bad faith’ in Foucault’s project, which exposes ‘the retroactive illusion that madness was already a given in nature’.

But the discussion of Foucault gives way to a ‘politicised’ history of psychoanalysis in France. First, Roudinesco challenges some anti-Freudians who apparently believe that ‘the so-called Freudian revolution was no more than a totalitarian revival of the Jacobin revolution of sinister memory,’ and thus ‘the foundational act of the abominable Gulag to come’. The potentially interesting analogy between Freudianism and Marxism – between superegos and ruling classes, psychosexual fetishism and commodity fetishism – ceases to be useful when Freudianism is taken to be a politico-economic theory, disguised for some reason as a theory of the individual psyche. Although the proposition that Freudianism is ‘no more than’ Jacobinism or Stalinism is very nearly meaningless, Roudinesco readily engages with it. Stalin and the Nazis, she explains, both despised psychoanalysis as being bourgeois and/or Jewish, and psychoanalysts perished in both the gas chambers and the Gulag.

In a daring rhetorical coup, Roudinesco then one-ups the anti-Freudians: Freudianism, she argues, in its emphasis on personal and sexual history at the expense of hereditary or genetic factors, is essentially anti-eugenicist and … anti-Nazi! QED: You, sir, are the Nazi! Maybe the point of such games is to train us to recognise Nazis, on the grounds that we weren’t quick enough the first time around. But really all they train us to do is to liken more and more different things to Nazis. To fail to notice that all things are political – i.e. potentially fascist – is naive, bourgeois, complacent, immoral. Rigour and logic then consist in assigning all phenomena a fundamental pro or anti-fascist meaning.

Politicisation takes a particularly ugly form in the next chapter, on The Future Lasts a Long Time, a memoir Althusser wrote after he murdered his wife, Hélène, and was judged mentally incompetent to stand trial. The text is well chosen, and might have given Roudinesco the opportunity to unite the big themes of the previous chapters. Instead, she turns it into an apologia for Althusser, a key to the supposedly political and philosophical significance of the murder.

The impetus for Althusser’s memoir came from an article in Le Monde about Issei Sagawa, a Japanese citizen who, while living in Paris, killed and ate a young Dutch woman. Like Althusser, Sagawa was judged mentally incompetent – until he returned to Japan, where he was set free and went on to enjoy ‘a career as an actor in pornographic films and a bestselling author’. The Le Monde article made a passing reference to Althusser, to the effect that both he and Sagawa received more media attention than their victims. It seems a legitimate, if banal, observation, but it filled Roudinesco with outrage. Althusser, she reports, suffered tremendously from this comparison with the ‘Japanese cannibal’, whose fate was ‘so radically different from his own’. Sagawa was an opportunist, who had exploited a shortcoming in the Japanese criminal justice system; Althusser was a victim of the normalisation of mental health, ‘robbed of his own deed and deprived of a trial’.

In the context of her own long friendship with Althusser, Roudinesco’s heated defence is understandable and even sympathetic. (Althusser was apparently so fond of Roudinesco’s apartment that he became obsessed with the idea of buying it, ‘to the point of persuading himself, and convincing Hélène, that I had put it up for sale’.) But to someone who never knew Althusser personally, his suffering from being compared to a Japanese cannibal seems less compelling than Hélène’s suffering from being emotionally abused and eventually strangled by the most famous Marxist in postwar France.

Hélène was a Russian Jewish émigrée, a Resistance fighter (unlike Althusser, who spent the war in a prison camp), eight years older than her husband, and not beautiful. By the time she got married all her closest friends had been killed by the Nazis. Her parents had died long, slow deaths from cancer before she was 14; the family doctor, her only friend at this time, betrayed her by abusing her sexually and eventually forcing her to euthanise her own parents with morphine injections. Life with Althusser was never easy either. In his manic periods, the philosopher compulsively seduced younger, more attractive women and brought them home to ‘show’ his wife. The actual murder took place when he was giving Hélène a ‘neck massage’ – on the front of her neck. The great Marxist pressed his thumbs ‘into the hollow at the top of Hélène’s breastbone and then, still pressing, slowly moved them both … up towards her ears’, squeezing so hard that he felt pain in his forearms. He noticed this pain before he noticed his wife’s glazed eyes and protruding tongue.

In The Future Lasts a Long Time, Althusser breezes through Hélène’s monstrous childhood in less than two pages, but returns again and again to the scene of his own symbolic ‘rape’ by his mother, which occurred after he began having wet dreams, and consisted of his mother pointing at his sheets and announcing: ‘Now you are a man, my son.’ Such passages alternate with confessions, self-recriminations, Freudian self-analyses and sentences like ‘I know you are waiting for me to talk about philosophy, politics, my position within the Party, and my books,’ creating an impression of parodic egotism.

One can excuse Althusser for writing an unbalanced book, because he was deeply unbalanced when he wrote it. But Roudinesco, who refuses to treat people like objects or books as symptoms, is obliged to read his memoir as a heroic assertion of human autonomy. Althusser, she explains, was answering the imperative to transform the strangulation of Hélène ‘into a work’: ‘otherwise it would be endlessly reproduced, recounted, disseminated, falsified, interpreted, by countless witnesses or non-witnesses’ who would audaciously speak in place of the true ‘author of the crime’.

Roudinesco is here tacitly invoking the Foucauldian authorial principle, which ‘impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition and recomposition of fiction’. She describes Hélène’s murder as a ‘work’ on which Althusser may have the final say, as an author has the final say on the content of her book. The problem is that the authorial function was never meant to apply to human actions. Nietzsche can have the last word on what Zarathustra said, and Tolstoy the final interpretation of how Ivan Ilyich died, but Althusser can never be the final author of his crime – if only because, as Arendt puts it, ‘real stories, in distinction from those we invent, have no author.’ This is a key point in Marxist history: every human action is always immediately absorbed into an ‘already existing web of human relationships, with its innumerable, conflicting wills and intentions’: although each individual may be, as Sartre put it, the author of his self, none is the author of a historical outcome.

Nonetheless, having posited the murder of Hélène as a ‘work’, Roudinesco sets about reconciling it with the rest of Althusser’s output: viz, books of Marxist philosophy. This reconciliation is again an application of the author function, which, according to Foucault, serves to resolve all contradictions within a single author’s writings in terms of ‘evolution, maturation or influence’ – in terms of the author’s ‘thought or desire, of his consciousness or unconscious’. It’s a brilliant piece of literary theory – but can human identity be said to comprise the sum of human actions, in the same sense that an author’s identity comprises the sum of their written work? And can an author’s written work – can an oeuvre, in all its finitude and stability – be used to confer coherence on the contradictions in their life?

On this premise, Roudinesco sets out to rationalise Althusser’s spousal misdeeds by subjugating them to the ‘Louis Althusser’ which holds together a group of politico-philosophical texts. For example, she suggests that womanising – particularly, a long-term affair with a sexy Italian translator – was the method by which Althusser ‘learned to detach himself from the Stalinist tradition of Communism, and thus to read the works of Marx another way.’ So it is to the beautiful Franca that we owe the Althusserian concept of ‘overdetermination’. It sounds like the kind of boozy late-night rationalisation Althusser’s friends would think up to make him feel better. I was no more persuaded by Roudinesco’s claim that the Althussers’ marriage ‘was made of the same turmoil, the same putting to death, the same repulsion, the same exaltation and the same fusion that united [Althusser] at the same time with the Communist Party, the asylum and psychoanalytic discourse’; or by Derrida’s characterisation of Althusser as the prisoner of ‘crimes perpetrated in the name of Communism’: ‘the killing of conceptuality, the murder of a woman of the Resistance, a militant of the Communist idea’. To a hygienised American reader, there is something grotesque in this description of a domestic crime as an expression of disillusionment with the Communist Party – or an abstraction on the level of ‘the killing of conceptuality’.

The chapter on Althusser is largely a catalogue of such claims by Althusser’s friends and enemies, in which Roudinesco defends the friends and disparages the enemies. These enemies level the same attacks on Althusserian Marxism as on Freudianism, calling it a ‘homicidal philosophy’, embodied in an uxoricide which was itself ‘merely the visible part of a much more dreadful crime … perpetrated for decades by all the Communists in every country’, who paved the way for ‘the crimes of Stalinism’. Daniel Sibony compared Althusser’s wife to the USSR: ‘well before the thaw in Russia … this philosopher … twist[ed] the neck of the very soviet union in which he was confined with his wife.’ Jean Allouch, another anti-Althussard, took the fact that Althusser used to refer to Hélène as an appareil idéologique de l’état (AIE) and that ‘aïe!’ was the very interjection that Hélène did not utter when she was being strangled, and argued that Althusser had killed Hélène as an act of sabotage. Although Roudinesco accuses Allouch and Sibony of ‘great vulgarity’, they aren’t actually saying anything more vulgar or less reasonable than Derrida or Roudinesco herself. According to the anti-Althussards, Althusser killed his wife because he was a Stalinist and Stalinists kill people; according to the Althussards, Althusser identified Hélène with Stalinism. Both sides make the same, rather vulgar and unreasonable leap between Stalinism and Hélène, influenced, no doubt, by her Russian-Jewish Marxist background.

For good measure, Roudinesco also quotes some less politicised pro-Althusser opinions, but these are, if anything, still more bizarre. Jean Guitton, citing Althusser’s early flirtation with Trappism, characterises him as a ‘mystic monk’: ‘Is there such a great distance between a criminal and a saint?’ he asks. Régis Debray describes the murder as ‘an altruistic suicide’: ‘a beautiful proof of love … that one can save one’s skin while sacrificing oneself for the other, only to take upon oneself all the pain of living.’ Ironically, this is the same argument that Roudinesco discounted when it came from Issei Sagawa: ‘that the young woman did not suffer when he killed her and that anthropophagy was an act of love’. Indeed, what girl wouldn’t feel flattered by such a ‘beautiful proof’ of delicate feelings?

The Freudo-Marxist biographical approach is more convincing when domestic, family relations are taken to constitute, rather than to resemble, actual political phenomena. In one of the most interesting passages in The Future Lasts a Long Time, Althusser remarks that the first time he experienced the freedom of youth was during the five years he spent in a German POW camp: ‘I discovered during my captivity,’ Althusser writes, ‘how much I enjoyed living with people other than my father and mother … I was free from that most frightful, appalling and horrifying of all the ideological state apparatuses … namely, the family.’ In Stalag XA, Althusser has his first adult conversations, liberated from the ‘awful combination of fear, upbringing, respect, timidity and guilt’ instilled into him by his parents – and instilled by their own parents into everyone else he knew at that point. The parents themselves were equally miserable in their ideological prison, the prison of ‘absolute respect for absolute authority and above all for the state’ – meaning not the government but the bourgeois values that upheld it. The description of the nuclear family as an ideological state apparatus made much more sense to me than the description of Althusser’s Russian-Jewish Marxist wife as an embodiment of Stalinism.

The ideological function of the Freudian family unit is mentioned briefly in the rather cursory ten-page chapter on Deleuze’s Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (written with Félix Guattari). Anti-Oedipus is the book that brought us the Deleuzian rhizome: the endlessly sprouting conceptual potato plant which embodies the ‘principles of connection and heterogeneity’. For the most part, Roudinesco leaves the obscurities of Deleuze and Guattari unplumbed – ‘“Be the pink panther,” said the two authors, “and may your loves be like the wasp and the orchid, the cat and the baboon”’ – and simply asserts their support for her anti-capitalist programme: ‘Deleuze foresaw the arrival of a one-dimensional world without culture and without soul, entirely subject to the laws of the market and the politics of things, a sort of factory for making wretches, modern avatars of Cosette, Jean Valjean, Thénardier and Javert.’ (Wasn’t the age of Hugo already a ‘factory for making wretches’?) The solution, apparently, is the ‘schizophrenia’ mentioned in the title: as Roudinesco puts it, ‘capitalism, tyranny and despotism would run up against their limits in the desiring machines of a “successful” schizophrenia, one entirely free of the grip of psychiatric discourse.’

Deleuze’s rejection of the Oedipus complex as ‘a machine for normalising the libido and erecting a retrograde familist ideal’ was perhaps one source of Althusser’s idea of the family as an ideological apparatus. Surely we know that the real ‘factory for making wretches’ is the family, where love and loyalty do somehow become tied up in power dynamics. For the horizontal, comradely bonds of friendship and intellectual collaboration, most people have to turn to the larger world.

But is there an alternative to the ‘retrograde fascism’ of the family? (‘parents: Toujours désagréables’.) Under what circumstances can its vertical bonds be made horizontal? In boarding schools, children’s colonies, communes? How will they be kept free of ideological shackles? Is there an alternative to the retrograde fascism of the family? Or is it another case of the paradoxical Foucauldian demand ‘that our autonomy be embodied in our institutions’? More troubling yet, does ‘fascism’ in this discourse simply consist of being told what to do, for whatever reason, by anyone at all? Is it always like Sylvia Plath said: Daddy is ‘a man in black with a Meinkampf look’?

In the last chapter, on Derrida’s Work of Mourning, one suddenly understands what Roudinesco’s book is about. It’s about the end of something: the end of a big adventure, and the dissolution of a group of companions who witnessed the Holocaust and the gulag, who lived and died believing that the pen was as mighty as the sword, and of whom Derrida was ‘the last survivor’. This chapter, like the one on Deleuze, is only ten pages long, but it doesn’t seem cursory. It doesn’t pretend to present Derrida’s contribution to the discourse of Freudianism, Marxism, politics or ‘the subject’. Instead, it is an elegy to a generation, and a meditation on the melancholy condition of friendship: the shared knowledge that, in Derrida’s words, ‘one will see the other die.’

Roudinesco honours the great deconstructionist with a short musing on the words adieu, à Dieu and au revoir, before turning to the Three Musketeers, which turns out to be all about the dilemma of friendship: ‘Which of the four friends will depart first? Which of the four will say farewell to the other? This is the great question posed by the novel.’ Well, the duplicitous Aramis outlives them all, Porthos, Athos and finally D’Artagnan, whose dying words conclude the final volume: ‘Athos, Porthos, au revoir – Aramis, adieu for ever!’ A neat inversion: the dead man bids adieu to the living, ‘to the friend who is condemned to live eternally knowing that no friend will ever bid farewell to him’.

This invocation of the Three Musketeers reinforces the general impression of Roudinesco’s puzzling likeability – puzzling, that is, for someone like me, who disagrees with most of what she says. I found myself imagining her, with her love of ‘emancipatory adventures’ and intellectual duels, her fierce loyalties and hyperbolic assertions, as some hard-drinking cowboy who takes no stock in doctors or government because the county sheriff just wants him behind bars, who stands by his friends but knows all along that the days of real cowboys are over.

The trouble is that, even at her most elegiac, Roudinesco keeps trying to gear us up for some horrific sequel – something like the first instalment, only worse. Her characterisation of Derrida’s Spectres of Marx might be better titled Marxism II: Not Dead Yet:

Rather than being turned towards the past, or nostalgically evoking a bygone era, it sounds a call to a new struggle against the triumphant powers of the technosciences, which are using the pretext of the death knell of the Marxist period to impose a globalised order in which man will be no more than a piece of merchandise meant for enslavement all the more bitter for being decked out as the fulfilment of the democratic ideal.

Something rings hollow about this new call. Hitler and Stalin were defeated and things didn’t magically become perfect, but that doesn’t mean that Nazism didn’t end, that one Nazism was replaced by another, or that a baby Nazism sprang, alien-like, from the old Nazism’s ear. The figurative ‘fascism’ of the free market is nothing like the Fascism of the Nazis. When Roudinesco quotes Derrida’s declaration that ‘no amount of progress warrants us to ignore the fact that never, in absolute terms, never have so many men, women and children been enslaved, famished or exterminated on earth,’ one suspects the master of ‘hauntology’ of indulging in ghoulishness.

One suspects: but how can one be sure? I went looking, as we bureaucratised Americans do, for statistics. Although I didn’t find any for long-term global enslavement or extermination, I did find that, by most accounts, the absolute number of impoverished and undernourished people in the world has declined in the past twenty years. Some agencies object that a rise in hunger in Africa is rendered invisible ‘only’ by the massive dip in China; but even if we blank out China and take Africa to be the true barometer of the modern condition, can its troubles really be blamed on the new hegemony of the technosciences? And if the technosciences really are going to make things worse, is existential philosophy, deconstruction or psychoanalytic theory the right tool to turn the tide?

What’s ‘at stake’ here, to use a term beloved of the philosophy of commitment, is the continued existence of such a philosophy. As Roudinesco puts it, how is one to ‘move on from the philosophy of commitment without reverting to the monotony of phantasmal life or of just managing the business of living’? The philosophy of commitment, one assumes, was never supposed to be something you did to make your life feel more exciting – and yet there it is, the problem of ‘the business of living’, paraphrased by Deleuze as the choice between two extreme alternatives: ‘To fancy oneself an academician, or dream of being a Venezuelan guerrilla fighter’.

It’s a real problem – and so is the feeling that there aren’t any cowboys anymore. From a Marxist perspective, it’s really the same as the problem that drove Flaubert to write such depressing books. According to Lukács, Flaubert suffered the genuine historical misfortune of reaching creative maturity after 1848, in an already ossified bourgeois capitalist apparatus: a world with no heroes. Flaubert’s meticulously detailed portraits and natures mortes were the product of socioeconomic alienation – the same alienation that eventually reduced Zola to ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’: to the journalistic-novelistic illustration of ready-formed social messages. A generation or so earlier, Stendhal and Balzac were the ones who had all the historical luck. Born into the moment of revolution and flux, they lived and wrote out their times.

It sounds good, so far as it goes. But the thing is that Stendhal, who had marched as a young man with the Grande Armée, and witnessed the burning of Moscow in 1812, and couldn’t possibly have been any closer to the heart of his historical moment, nevertheless wrote his novels from and about the perspective of historical belatedness. ‘I fell with Napoleon in April 1814,’ Stendhal wrote in the 1830s, and the defining circumstance of Julien Sorel’s life is that he was born too late for Napoleon. Two centuries earlier, in Spain, Cervantes had lived out the same situation. A hero of the most cowboy-like triumph in the history of the Spanish Empire, the Battle of Lepanto, he outlived his own heroism and, thirty years later, invented a hero of belatedness: Don Quixote, who was born too late for chivalry.

In short, Roudinesco’s historical situation – she was born too late for the Resistance, and has long outlived 1968 – seems less like a particular crisis, than like a general condition of modernity. Some times may be more ‘turbulent’, or historically interesting, than others; but simply by being born at all, and by being young first, and then less young, we are none of us spared from belatedness. As Umberto Eco put it in Foucault’s Pendulum,

To enter a university a year or two after 1968 was like being admitted to the Académie de Saint-Cyr in 1793: you felt your birth date was wrong … You are always born under the wrong sign, and to live in this world properly you have to rewrite your own horoscope day by day.

Foucault’s Pendulum is the cautionary tale of a Piedmontese editor who suffers the misfortune of being 11 years old in 1943. Too young to fight in the Resistance, old enough to feel like a coward, he is driven by historical anguish and self-loathing to a fatal hobby: the construction of an all-subsuming meta-conspiracy theory that involves everyone from the Knights Templar to the Cathars to the Third Reich to the Okhrana in a quest for subterranean telluric currents.

Why does the sense of belatedness make one particularly vulnerable to conspiracy theories? Imagine it like this. A would-be hero has the misfortune to be born into a lifeless world with no adventures – a cardboard stage set, populated by puppets. Naturally, the hero invents a puppeteer. Don Quixote, for example, has el Frestón, the evil sorcerer who turned the giants into windmills, just to rob him of his shot at glory. To quote Eco, ‘If there was a Plan, then he would no longer be defeated, diffident, a coward’: he would no longer fail the test of ‘commitment’. Frestón reappears, in The Matrix, as the evil cyber-intelligence who tricks us into thinking we live in a colour-saturated late capitalist city – when in fact real life is taking place only in another dimension, where black clouds hang heavy over warehouses and factories: a dreamscape of the Industrial Revolution, when victims were really helpless and villains were really bad. And Frestón is in Roudinesco too, in the form of the fascists, who turn out to be responsible, not only for everything bad in the world, but also for the fact that all those bad things somehow don’t present the same opportunities for heroism as they did back in 1940.

Although Foucault’s pendulum is named after Léon Foucault, its 19th-century inventor, Eco’s novel brings to mind another Foucault, a 20th-century conspiracy theorist. Not only does ‘the Plan’ itself operate by the same paradigm of semblances chronicled in The Order of Things, but Michel Foucault himself made the intellectual trajectory from historical belatedness to a many tentacled Plan. Foucault spins a brilliant, mesmerisingly erudite tale of how the seemingly intractable conditions of the modern world are actually shackles of human fabrication: a discourse of power that has been accreting since the Middle Ages, and which gradually turns out to be responsible for everything that has changed for the worse since ancient times. Just as ‘the Plan’ consolidates all esoteric groups, from the Jesuits to the Afro-Brazilian cults, so do processes like governmentalisation and medicalisation seem to consolidate all forms of state and social power into a single entity.

Foucault’s Pendulum illustrates the great threat of any Plan: if you build it, they will come. Eco’s imaginary conspiracy, a tissue of dubious scholarship and brilliant associations, somehow comes true. Real, demented conspirators turn up. They abduct the author of the imaginary Plan, and take him straight to Paris, to the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, where he meets his awful fate: strangled to death by the very wire of Foucault’s pendulum. There is a glimmer here of the fate of Michel Foucault, a sacrifice to the anti-medicalisation argument, a man strangled, to a more or less figurative degree, by his own conspiracy theory, whose Plan continues to be elaborated on by people much crazier and less imaginative than he was.

What Richard Rorty called the ‘cynical Foucauldian left’ has been around for a while now, and Rorty’s criticisms of it still stand. Now, as twenty years ago, improving the world isn’t a matter of producing ‘better philosophical accounts of man, truth or history’ – still less, of ‘criticising obvious evils in terms of ever more “radical” theoretical vocabularies’. Now, as then, ‘social virtues aren’t the only virtues,’ and there remain many useful and meaningful endeavours for those who choose not to devote their lives to battling economic and social injustice. Perhaps a certain kind of philosopher has to choose between doing philosophy or battling injustice. It could be a painful choice, but isn’t that why they call it ‘awful freedom’?

Marxist philosophers should know better than anyone else that time is never going to move backwards. The argument that ‘Those who do not know the past are condemned to repeat it,’ which was supposed to teach us to set ourselves free from history, has too often been taken to mean that the problems of the present are ‘nothing more than’ the problems of the past, cloaked in some ingenious guise, which needs to be penetrated by still more ingenious philosophers. It’s both wrong and dangerous to believe that a hospital is just like a concentration camp – or that the offices we work in are just like Zolaesque coal mines – or that the windmill, because it is big and has arms and because it destroys a previous model of agronomic livelihood, is just like a man-eating giant. To put it differently, the windmill is just like a giant – until you charge at it with a lance and it nearly dislocates your shoulder. Such comparisons are material for artists. The philosophers serve us better by teaching us to rewrite our horoscopes day by day.