Vol. 3 No. 9 · 21 May 1981

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Althusser’s Fate

SIR: May I ask for a little space in your columns in order to correct and enlarge on some remarks made by Douglas Johnson (LRB, 16 April)? First, the legal question concerning Althusser’s case is now settled, in the form of a non-lieu. A team of psychiatrists formally advised that he was not responsible for the death of his wife, being in a state of dementia at the time of his act. This state of dementia was interpreted in the context of a long history of manic-depressive psychosis. Althusser therefore continues to be treated in a psychiatric hospital, as he has been for many and long periods in the past. The difference lies, of course, in his status. The relevant French law of 1838 allows only two categories of admission to a psychiatric institution: voluntary (placement volontaire) and obligatory (placement d’office). His admission is now regulated as a placement d’office. This situation may change, on the advice and at the request of the medical staff concerned, and on the approval of the general administration of psychiatric hospitals. Althusser’s manic-depressive psychosis, it should be added, has nothing to do with ‘madness’ in a more popular sense. He has, for example, never been schizophrenic or paranoiac, nor has he become so. His condition is not directly related to his intellectual or moral faculties.

Nor, a fortiori, has it much to do with a conjectured ‘definitive destruction of his philosophical work’. I am indeed at a loss to know what this phrase might mean. Douglas Johnson cites some examples of the treatment of the Althusser case in certain popular French newspapers, without always refuting their often absurd claims. Thus he refers to a report according to which Althusser’s ‘disciples had left him’. This report is manifest nonsense – which may have been reinforced in Britain by a few remarks made by K.S. Karol in a piece recently translated in New Left Review. However one interprets the term ‘disciples’ – which I rather dislike – there is no doubt, first, that his closest friends and colleagues were in regular and intimate contact with him (and still are), and, second, that his influence on numbers of French philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, political economists etc is by now so substantial that any question of the ‘destruction’ of his work becomes nonsensical. Anyone familiar with French intellectual life will, for instance, surely recognise the names of Etienne Balibar, Dominique Lecourt, Emmanuel Terray, Suzanne De Brunhoff, Michel Pêcheux, Pierre Macherey, Yves Duroux, Robert Linhart etc, all of whom have been deeply marked in different ways by Althusser’s work, and ate still researching and writing. On the other hand, there never has been an ‘Althusserian school’: in consequence it has not disintegrated with his disappearance from the Ecole Normale.

Douglas Johnson mentions Althusser’s recent hope of operating ‘from two centres, from Leyden and London’. As far as Leyden is concerned, where I was responsible for co-ordinating research plans with the Ecole Normale, I can say that these plans did not form any part of a grand, integrated international scheme on Althusser’s part, but were drawn up within the normal framework of interuniversity co-operation, and continue to be developed.

Finally, I do not much care for speculative and unfounded interpretations (little ‘psycho-histories of the living’) of the kind indulged in by your author, in the second paragraph of his piece. The suggestion is that Althusser ‘is now also suffering from a physical ailment which affects his respiration, so that having, according to his own statement, strangled his wife, he can now be said to be strangling himself’. The fact is simply that, in December last, he was treated for mild pneumonia, which is now completely cured. There is no ground for any insinuation that this illness was psychosomatic in origin, or that it is chronic or degenerative. In short, Douglas Johnson’s imaginative metaphor is pure invention. Other stories contained in his piece suffer, I am afraid, from similar shortcomings.

In brief: if there are indeed British and American academics who, having criticised Althusser in the past, ‘now shrug their shoulders as if to say (when they don’t actually say it) that they always knew he was mad’, that reflects only on them.

Grahame Lock
Leyden University

SIR: May I take mild issue with Douglas Johnson’s review of my The Long March of the French Left? I take his strictures seriously, the more so since I have long been one of his great admirers, but he seems to have missed the central point I was making about Althusser. He is quite right to say that my tone towards Althusser was ironic, even sarcastic, for that is precisely what I feel his political pronouncements deserved. Given what Douglas Johnson says of Althusser’s practical political naiveté (e.g. the fact that he only learnt a little of grassroots politics after thirty years’ membership in the PCF), I am only surprised he doesn’t agree.

What, after all, is one supposed to make of Althusser’s great public sallies in the wake of the Left’s defeat in the 1978 elections? Having for years past criticised the PCF for being insufficiently Leninist – for making a reformist alliance with the Socialists, for abandoning the dictatorship of the proletariat – Althusser suddenly discovered all the demerits of Leninist party organisation. Why on earth had this taken him thirty years to realise? Had he never read Michels? Did he not know what sort of party he was in? Apparently not. What, moreover, was he really in favour of? He pronounced himself in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat but for inner-party democracy. Did he not know enough history to know these things have never co-existed? Similarly, he opposed the PCF’s alliance with the Socialists but offered no viable practical alternative to it.

Actually, Douglas Johnson makes the point at least as well as I can with his anecdote of Althusser regarding the Left’s defeat in the 1978 elections as ‘a secondary matter’ compared to the larger theoretical points which he, Althusser, was concerned with. Yet the opportunity to gain power which confronted the French Left in 1977-78 clearly represented a great historical turning-point. No better chance than that had presented itself in a whole generation, and on that opportunity rested the hopes and aspirations of millions of Frenchmen, including the overwhelming majority of the working class. To argue that that loss, that historic defeat, was of less importance than the theoretical constructions inside one’s head required a degree of intellectual arrogance which was, let us be blunt, already fairly close to madness. I am at one with Douglas Johnson in regretting the later political misuse and abuse of Althusser’s lethal insanity. But if I am to be taken to task for finding Althusser’s theoretical posturing laughable, it can surely only be on the grounds that one was acting with cruelty in taking him seriously long before his final and tragic dénouement.

R.W. Johnson
Magdalen College, Oxford

Douglas Johnson writes: I am pleased to read Mr Lock’s letter, which fills out many of the points which I made originally. I can’t of course accept his suggestion that my article contains inventions. R.W. Johnson’s letter continues to make a political and moral judgment about Althusser, just as his lively book tends to make similar judgments about the French Left in general. The disadvantage of such an approach to French politics is that it seems to judge everything according to the perspective of British politics. But Althusser is not Anthony Crosland.

In theory

SIR: Christopher Ricks’s lengthy discussion (LRB, 16 April) of the tactics by which the American scholars Hartman and Fish have recently managed to ‘theorise’ interpretation into being the primary act of literary creativity (authors being thus regarded as, at best, honest traders in raw materials) contains much sensible and pointed argument. ‘Interpretation is not the art of construing but the art of constructing.’ claims Fish in a flourish of ‘either/or’ism. Ricks, by way of a splendid reductio argument based on misprints in Fish’s own text, shows just how thin and vulnerable are claims for the reader as, really, the writer too. Ricks rightly wants to ask the big question about the act of interpretation which both Fish and Hartman are reluctant to pose – ‘what is that act an interpretation of?’ – but here I think his own argument could be more positive. For, hermeneutic excesses duly refuted, it is surely the case that what the two Americans view as the ‘productivity’ of the reader, the way in which reading from a work and reading into or upon it are often impossible to differentiate, continues to present something of a snag for the formal teaching of literary criticism?

At the same time, of course, it is also a source of academic opportunity. A year or so ago, I was amused to read a publisher’s brochure which announced John Bayley’s latest work on Hardy with the statement that this offered ‘a completely new reading of Tess of the D’Urbervilles’. Yet it is precisely ‘new readings’, hitherto unrealised (or unpublished) accounts of works, which constitute the critic’s main stock-in-trade. Published critical readings are, nowadays, professional performances requiring originality. You may not consider yourself a ‘producer’ of the work under analysis, but certainly your consumption needs to be conspicuous. To see all such variant readings (and, in some areas, how the shelves groan!) as somehow sanctioned and guaranteed by either the author’s intentions, or, for that matter, ‘the text’, begs questions in areas where Ricks seems at the moment disinclined to travel.

It is one thing to show the shortcomings of uncompromising ‘interpretative’ theories when applied to that most objective level of textual organisation – word form. It is quite another to tackle just what happens when a work’s semantic and imaginative possibilities are actualised through the mind of a particular reader.

Behind some of Professor Ricks’s comments, and his quotations from Keats and Shakespeare, there seems to be the assumption that those various modes of thinking and argument employed by novelists, poets and dramatists in their writing are naturally those most appropriate to critical inquiry too. If, indeed, this is how his critical ‘principles’ are derived, then I should like to see the case argued and the question noted above given some close attention. I’m not asking for any ‘elaborated concatenations’ either; Ricks’s plainstyle will do nicely.

John Corner
University of Liverpool

SIR: Presumably the title of Professor Ricks’s article, and the fact that it does not appear as a book review, should lead us to interpret it (if ‘we’ may be allowed to ‘interpret’) as an intervention in the ‘Cambridge’ debate, a companion piece to Michael Mason’s rather more cogent critique of Colin MacCabe’s work on Joyce and 19th-century realism (LRB, 16 April). For whatever reasons, reviewing which makes repetitive but clever fun of the sillinesses of the author of the book under review is thought to be a legitimate activity. Had Ricks’s knockabout fun with the excesses of Hartman and Fish so appeared, it would hardly be worth a reply. The title and the context of the piece suggest, however, a more substantial polemic. This, I take it, is an exposition of the reasons for continuing unquestioningly to do so cleverly and well what the constituency of readers addressed by the London Review of Books love to do, or see done, cleverly and well. If it is also an example of a more traditional critical practice and its intellectual resources, it makes very sorry reading.

So charmingly unself-conscious is Professor Ricks in his principled (theoretical?) preamble to his onslaught on Hartman (a nice man) and Fish (an implicitly odious one) that I hesitate to draw attention to moments of slippage (or ‘wobble’, to use his own preferred nursery word) in his argument. Perhaps I should also hesitate to call it an argument, as it may be merely an assemblage of proverbial wisdom. Rather than imitate his own technique of laborious exposure of all the logical flaws in Hartman and Fish, I shall refer to one profoundly symptomatic instance. It is his invocation of Aristotle’s contrast between mathematical and oratorical demonstrations as evidence of the same kind as Keats’s distinction between philosophy and literature (the fact that elsewhere in his letters Keats suggests the superiority of philosophy to poetry, reflecting a rather more complex and interesting relation between the two than Professor Ricks will permit, is somewhat disingenuously concealed). Literature may well be a branch of oratory – is this what Ricks means? – but surely the developing distinctions between them, if only by their practitioners, in the period separating Aristotle and Keats should be explored in a historical/theoretical way if literary criticism is to retain any credibility at all? If oratory is being endorsed here as in some way exemplary (i.e. as not amenable to theoretical analysis), it must also follow that ‘criticism’, defined perhaps more broadly, should be concerned with the sorts of things it does demonstrate, those to whom it is addressed, what interests it serves and in what contexts it is delivered. We must assume that it is not, and was never, merely the verbal ludo of those much-maligned geniuses whom Professor Ricks wishes to protect.

It is precisely through slippages of this order that the article is so wanting. The notion of history does not occur once throughout. Historical understanding as such seems to inform, predictably enough, only Rick’s presentation of an enclosed world of literary criticism developing from, roughly, Dr Johnson to Geoffrey Hartman. Its apparently admirable irresolutions, its inner agonies and now its death-throes are presented as self-determining.

I suggest that by suppressing the concern with history as an issue in the controversies surrounding critical theory, Professor Ricks simply compounds the existing notion that they are not, in fact, informed by real and imporant political differences, if only in the politics of higher education. The Left has shown rather more honesty in these matters. Any examination of the debates generated by the work of F.P. Thompson, John Berger and Raymond Williams (to say nothing of earlier disagreements between Lukacs, Benjamin, Brecht and Adorno) will reveal a lot more of what is at stake for education and the culture as a whole in these questions of the value and significance of literary and artistic production.

Incidentally, Professor Ricks fails to deal adequately with Hartman’s distinctions between professional and non-professional readers. Implicit in his own comments is an equally tortuous patronage of a hypothetical ‘common reader’, a determination to see him or her as the member of a delightfully non-productive class of Eloi. H.G. Wells’s own sense of the different kinds of intelligent reading would be worth exploring here, but anyone who has engaged with students, particularly outside the context of the university English department, by listening to rather than addressing them, ought to recognise this.

Simon Edwards
Whitelands College, Roehampton Institute

Hitler and History

SIR: In reply to my letter, Hans Keller successfully refutes a view which I did not advance (Letters, 16 April). At no point in my letter did I deny Cosima’s influence on Wagner’s anti-semitism. What I described as a myth was Keller’s claim that Cosima was the ‘source’ of her husband’s anti-semitism. This claim seemed to me, and still seems, indefensible.

Hans Keller goes on to draw attention to the ambivalence of Wagner’s attitude towards Jews ands cites as an example the composer’s friendship with the Jewish conductor Hermann Levi, who ‘forgave’ Wagner. It is certainly true that we cannot understand Wagner’s anti-semitism without considering this friendship, but the charitable interpretation made of it by Keller is by no means the only possible one. The opposing view is put by Leon Poliakov when he writes (in The History of Anti-Semitism, Vol. III), that Wagner ‘extended the feelings of affection he had for animals, to servile Jews, castrated by him, men like Joseph Rubenstein or Hermann Levi, Wagner’s human dogs, animated objects, subject to his complete control … This sort of transference has also been observed in the Nazi killers, great animal lovers, who also lavished affectionate benevolence on the Jewish slaves allocated to their personal service.’ It might well be that Hans Keller would disagree with this interpretation of Wagner’s behaviour but he should not make the easy assumption that those who dispute his views do so simply out of ignorance.

The case of Wagner would not be so important were it not for the fact that it would be possible to engage in similar arguments over the anti-semitism of Chaucer, Marlowe, Voltaire and Dostoevsky, or, indeed, of Martin Luther and Karl Marx. Because of an excessive love of ‘culture’ or an indiscriminate respect for Christianity, the anti-semitic attitudes of these and countless other figures tend again and again to be minimised, bowdlerised or suppressed. It is perhaps this form of historical revisionism, rather than that of David Irving and other like-minded historians, that is most dangerous: it is dangerous precisely because it is so frequently practised unconsciously and endorsed unknowingly.

Richard Webster

Bacon’s Furies

SIR: Are you sure David Sylvester’s interviews were montag-ed (LRB, 2 April)? Mightn’t they have been dienstag-ed, mittwoch-ed, donnerstag-ed, freitag-ed, sonnabend-ed, or even sonntag-ed?

Joking apart, is there any hope of your computer being slowly taught how not to divide words at line-endings? I know it is too much to expect the beast to learn how to do this properly; but maybe it could be reprimanded for its worst misbehaviours.

Hans Schmoller

Goethe Translations

SIR: Further to Nicholas Jacobs’s letter (Letters, 16 April), where he complains that David Luke’s anthology of Goethe’s Selected Verse is out of print, it seems worth pointing out that we will be reissuing it in August of this year.

Donald McFarlan
Penguin Books, London SW10

Reinhold Niebuhr

SIR: For a biography of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose contacts in Britain were many and long-lasting, I would appreciate hearing from anyone with letters, photographs or reminiscences.

Richard Wightman Fox
Department of History, Yale University

Fox into Lady

SIR: I would like to correct the error committed by Alasdair MacIntyre in his review of Descombes’s Modern French Philosophy (LRB, 16 April) concerning my sex, which is female. However limited the clues afforded by a mere initial, it is probably a good rule never simply to assume the masculinity of translators (or of anyone else).

Lorna Scott Fox
London E8

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