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Letters

Vol. 15 No. 2 · 28 January 1993

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Serbian Traditions

It seems that the recent Serbian elections have shown Basil Davidson’s faith in the depth of democratic culture in Serbia to be misplaced (LRB, 7 January). While undoubtedly there is a constitutional and democratic element in Serbia’s political culture, it has been overwhelmed by the current national psychosis. Indeed the ‘powerfully democratic attitudes’ of the Serbian people to which Davidson refers have never been much in evidence in their relations with their minorities and neighbours. Ethnic cleansing of Muslims is not a new tactic in the area: before the Second World War the Serbian monarchy planned to expel all its Albanians to Turkey and during the war around 100,000 Bosnian Muslims died at Chetnik hands (the largest proportionate loss of any ethnic group in Yugoslavia). One may trace this custom back to the foundation of the Serbian state and the expulsion of its Turkish population. The massacre of Turks is upheld as a national duty in the greatest Serbian poem of the 19th century, ‘The Mountain Wreath’ by Njegos, and the systematic destruction of Muslim cultural monuments has continued to the point where, of the dozens of mosques in Belgrade in 1850, only one remains. So, while democratic instincts do exist in Serbia, they have normally excluded the non-Serbian population and have failed to overcome a truly vicious xenophobia.

My fear that Davidson views former Yugoslavia from the perspective of Belgrade grows when he refers to Novi Sad as ‘absolutely Serbian’. In fact, as the capital of Vojvodina, it has a large Hungarian minority; the 1981 census gives its population as 38 per cent non-Serbian. He also merely repeats Serbian propaganda when he implies that his old comrade-in-arms Franjo Tudjman is a ‘Palaeo-Fascist’. I suspect that Tudjman, as a Partisan general, contributed more to liberating Yugoslavia from the Nazis than Basil Davidson.

David Westover
London SW12

The Paris Strangler

‘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.

Paddy Lyons
University of Glasgow

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?

Ethna Viney
Westport, Co Mayo

Tiananmen Revisited

A.C. Grayling’s letter (Letters, 17 December 1992), in response to Philippa Tristram’s article, is typical of the automatic prejudice with which Western liberals have reacted to what Tristram has accurately depicted as the tragedy of Tiananmen. Grayling’s heavily programmed and utterly predictable, almost clichéd view shows that he has missed the essential points raised in Tristram’s evaluation: 1. that the patience of the regime (thanks to strong prodemocracy elements in the power structure which stayed the hand of the ‘hardliners’) lasted much longer than, say, that of the French Government (in all the major student protests since 1968) or, for that matter, the Thatcher Government in its response to the students’ march to Parliament and Downing Street in 1988 (a much meeker affair than the Tiananmen demonstration); 2. that provocation and vacillation on the students’ side precipitated the final dénouement, the murder and disembowelling of soldiers and the public display of their dead bodies preceding, not following, the firing against the students; and 3. that those in control of the power of any state can be expected to adopt stringent measures against those who attack the symbols of its authority, and in this context the Chinese Government acted without due haste.

T.V. Sathyamurthy
Centre for Contemporary Research on India,

Unlucky Haydon

The sufferings of Benjamin Robert Haydon (LRB, 17 December 1992) continue through the years and reach around the planet. Shortly after Haydon’s death, his creditor R. Twentyman, a Cheapside merchant, emigrated to Melbourne. He brought with him the two ‘massive historical paintings’, Nero and Aristides. These found their way to the Melbourne Aquarium. Trainee airmen, camped there during World War Two, used them for target practice. They survived, to be reported locked in a small dark room of the Aquarium in 1948. On 28 January 1953 the Aquarium burnt down: but the paintings were by then stored in the Exhibition Building, the property of Sir Gengoult Smith. My latest (far from recent) information is that a crate of paintings owned by Sir Gengoult was still there on 16 June 1971.

John Philip
Canberra

Give them the credit

Zygmunt Frankel’s argument (Letters, 3 December 1992) that most Israelis believe that their country possesses the Bomb is generally lost on people outside Israel who have followed the Vanunu affair. Vanunu’s stated goal in making his disclosures to the Sunday Times was to inform Israel and the world at large about Israel’s nuclear research programme, but as I show in my book, Nuclear Ambiguity: The vanunu Affair, public opinion polls in Israel in 1986 found that most Israelis already believed their country possessed the Bomb. Moreover, the polls found that most Israelis favour secrecy on nuclear matters. These points were ignored by Paul Foot in his original review of the book (LRB, 22 October 1992).

Zygmunt Frankel should have considered two key questions. First, how can the minority in a democracy who oppose secrecy be kept informed by those in government about crucial matters like nuclear policy? The Israeli media have over the years been subject to numerous attempts by officialdom to prevent them reporting and discussing the subject. The only information which may be quoted about Israeli nuclear policy is derived from foreign media and foreign government sources. Vanunu’s disclosure, accurate or not, provided those who were interested with data on which to base intelligent discussion of the subject. Secondly, Frankel ignores the need for a democratic society which deems certain subjects secret nonetheless to provide for parliamentary scrutiny of government activity. Sadly, a doctorate could be written on the failure of successive Israeli governments to keep the Knesset’s Foreign and Defence Affairs Committee briefed, even though the Committee sits behind closed doors.

Rather than go public, Vanunu should have respected the public consensus on secrecy and expressed his belief that the nuclear research programme had run out of control to the Foreign and Defence Affairs Committee or to the State Comptroller’s Office, an official body which monitors government departments – particularly since his disclosures in the Sunday Times failed to show any imminent danger to the population.

Yoel Cohen
Jerusalem

Dream On

The new genre of ‘the recorded literary dream’ proposed by Bernard Richards (Letters, 17 December 1992) will need careful, indeed stringent definition before being awarded canonical status. How otherwise can it be distinguished from ‘fiction’, and especially in the old Puritan sense? I dreamt last night that John Cage discoursed at great and learned length, to me personally, about the habits of a wide-winged sea bird which, when ill, secreted itself in a heavily-lidded earthenware pot. I asked: ‘But how does it get the lid off?’ ‘You must consult him about such technical details,’ Cage replied, gesturing vaguely towards a third figure lurking in the background, who then said: ‘I am Erik Satie.’ But I could tell from the absence of any beard and some uneasiness of manner that his real name was William Wordsworth. Cage went on to say that ‘the sailors shot the albatross because they were weevils in the ship’s biscuits.’ The colours, I should add, were entrancing, ‘colours you’d like to see’.

I’d swear to all this in a court of law, but who would believe me?

Graham Martin
London SW3

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