Part absolution and part apology, this, the first volume of a posthumously published autobiography, begins on the morning of November 16, 1980 with the tragic death of the author’s wife at his hands. As the influence of academe was brought to bear upon the local authorities, the French proto-Marxist was deigned unfit to plead on his own behalf and sent straight to the sanitarium without arrest or trial—a merciful outcome for anyone other than an intellectual, that is, one in the business of “speaking his mind.” Returning several years later to the scene of the crime, Althusser attempts to reconstruct the defense he was denied, and to supply some crucial answers to a resentful public and even to himself. “I intend to stick closely to the facts,” says he, “… but hallucinations are also facts.”
Tracing his troubles back to earliest childhood, to his name in fact—Louis was his mother’s beloved first husband, killed in the war—Althusser describes his haunted experience with dispassionate candor. In the process we come to know the boy continually plagued by his own absence and inauthenticity—a self virtually destined from the start to disappear. Taking refuge in his studies and subsequent academic career, Althusser distinguished himself as a scholar and the foremost authority on Marxist analysis which he revised for the hippie generation through his influential concept of the “state apparatus.” Yet periods of concentrated production and lucidity inevitably gave way to paralyzing depression: the eminent philosopher gracing the halls of higher learning one day, and the loony bin the next. Shuttled from one institution to another, Althusser remained a shut-in for the greatest part of his life, first at home with his domineering mother, then as a POW during World War II, and finally within the ivory towers of academia. His political imagination flourished within these closed quarters, as did the various maladies which finally overwhelmed his reason.
A latter-day Oedipus wandering through the wreckage of his life, Althusser seeks through writing to probe the central blind-spot, to suspend the self at the point where it vanishes, or fractures into separate compartments, be they Marxist, misogynist or just mad. The revelations which follow are a little hard to swallow perhaps, but it is entirely to his credit that he doesn’t try anything “easier.” Just as tenuous and volatile as the lines which connect radical theory to revolutionary practice are those that bind the subject to the object of love. Retaining no memory of the fatal act itself, nor even a prompting desire, Althusser argues that killing his wife amounted in effect to a kind of suicide; that by destroying “the other” through whom he gained his meager identity, he himself would cease to be. It is a scenario worthy of Robbe-Grillet: The detective discovers not only that he is the perpetrator but simultaneously the victim of his crime.
Publisher: New Press
Paperback: 364 pages