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Kirshner

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LEWIS A. KIRSHNER

The Man Who Didnt Exist: The Case of Louis Althusser


On the morning of November 16, 1980, the eminent Parisian philosopher and Communist intellectual, Louis Althusser, burst from his shuttered apartment at the cole Normale Suprieure in a state of confusion and disarray, calling to his friend and physician Pierre tienne that he had strangled his wife Hlne. The body of the victim lay across their bed peacefully, without any indication of struggle, perplexing those arriving on the scene and instilling a mystery reinforced by Althussers own amnesia, as he brooded in isolation at the Sainte-Anne Hospital, the site of his first admission for manicdepressive psychosis in 1947. To the dismay of many, the court ruled that because of his mental illness he was not to be legally charged, leaving events behind the murder unexamined and open to speculation. Partly for this reason, Althusser wrote a remarkable autobiography, LAvenir dure longtemps (1985), with the intent of throwing light on this sad final chapter of his history.1 Aside from its relevance to forensic psychiatry, this document, with its strange mixture of fact, fantasy, and delusion, raises fascinating questions about human behavior, the nature of the self, and mental illness. Because of the public nature of his apparent act of madness, which Althusser placed in the context of his private psychic reality, as well as in the context of his philosophy of history and subjectivity, the autobiography bears comparison to that of Presiding Judge Schreber, mined by Freud (1911) for his theory of paranoia. It demonstrates what is at once most familiar to clinicians (the repetitive phenomenology of a major mental disorder) and most unfathomable (the unique case)all the more so since Althusser had undergone years of biological treatments and psychoanalytic therapy, and written with real insight on these subjects.
American Imago, Vol. 60, No. 2, 211239. 2003 by The Johns Hopkins University Press

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Althusser was one of those unfortunates who poignantly express a sense of lacking an authentic existence of my own (1985, 107). He felt disembodied and unreal, attributing this deficiency to a maternal gaze that looked through him towards another person, his deceased namesake. Death was inscribed in me from the beginning, he writes. I wanted to destroy myself at any price because, from the start, I did not exist (306). From this self-perception flowed Althussers fascination with an anthropology of the void. He echoed the structuralist pronouncement of the death of man and developed a conception of history without subjects, a theory of beginnings from the nothingness of cause, of essence, and of origin (492). In his ultimate formulations, there was no place for agency, cohesive selfhood, or intentionality. The materialist philosopher, he declared, is like one who boards a moving train by accident, not knowing where it is going or where he is headed (480). Above all, he asked in the autobiography, could he be held responsible for the death of the person around whom his life had revolved for over thirty years? Biography Louis Althusser was born in a small Algerian town on October 16, 1918, the son of a father of Alsatian background, Charles Althusser, who made a successful career in banking, starting as an adolescent on the lowest rung, and a French mother, Lucienne Berger.2 He had a younger sister Georgette, to whom he seems to have been devoted and who also suffered severe depressions. The family saga is emphasized in The Future Lasts Forever and The Facts (1976b), another autobiography written four years before the murder. The latter title, undoubtedly ironic since the account incorporates fictitious material, alerts us to the perennial difficulty in distinguishing between subjective truth and objective (consensual) reality. In The Future Lasts Forever, Althusser repeatedly insists on his role in his mothers unconscious as the replacement for her lost love, his deceased uncle Louis. The original Louis Althusser was, like his nephew, a brilliant lyce student in Algiers prepar-

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ing for entry into a prestigious national academy when he was drafted in 1914. Killed in battle, he left a grieving family (he was his mothers favorite) and a bereft fiance, Lucienne Berger. Into this vacated place stepped the older brother, Charles, who, following the biblical custom of levirate marriage, became the substitute groom and, nine months later, the father of another Louis. Before his birth, Althusser concluded, his destiny had been determined by two inescapable facts: his function as an embodiment of his mothers desire for her deceased fianc, and his fathers resentment of that same favored younger brother. Lacan might have said that the dice were already thrown for him. But the facts become murky when we read the devastating 1964 letter by Hlne Rytman, in which she laid out the dynamics of this family constellation, along with a detailed analysis of Althussers infancy in the hostile milieu of a North African colony.3 Althusser substantially concurred with her account, but it needs to be viewed with caution given Rytmans part in Althussers story; her desires were far from altruistic and she apparently had a tendency to think in paranoid terms. Many readers of his autobiography, including de Marty (1999), Rosset (1992), and de Pommier (1998), have been convinced that Althusser was a pathetic wreck of a person, stunted in his emotional development and never genuinely existing as a true subject. To be sure, there was always an element of contrivance and ruse in Althusser, who deliberately played the psychiatric victim, but he undeniably also had severe psychiatric problems. In addition to numerous documented episodes of mental illness beginning in 1947, Althusser was from childhood on inhibited and insecure, vulnerable to both success and failure, which could alike induce extreme anxiety, withdrawal, or depression. Revealing evidence of his frailty is provided by his stunted sexual development. This he blamed on two interventions by his mother, the first of which, Boutang suggests (1992, 82), may never have occurred. In one episode, his mother is said to have objected during Althussers adolescence to his visiting a female acquaintance; and in another, to have commented on the stain of a nocturnal emission. Whatever the reality of these incidents, he displayed

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a near-phobic avoidance of women as a young man and claimed not to have masturbated until age twenty-seven. Rytman was, in fact, his first sexual partner, and their liaison directly preceded the depression that culminated in his first hospitalization. Despite his difficulties, the young Althusser possessed many strengths and excelled in diverse areas. He was a brilliant student, artistic, athletic, a talented violinist, and, in general, engaged in the real world. Perhaps most important, he had the ability to form close friendships. From all appearances, his relationships with his family did not take on their bleak cast at least until the 1964 letter from Rytman, and possibly much later. In the autobiography, which reflects her influence, he complains of his fathers failure to make any meaningful connection with him, a situation worsened by an emotional schism between his parents that left them living almost completely disconnected lives. Only the kindly maternal grandfather, Pierre Berger, idealized in Althussers portrait, offered warmth and contact. But the heavy artillery is reserved for his mother, who is described as cold, emasculating, phobic, and controlling. If the evidence gathered by Boutang suggests that this one-dimensional portrayal was in part a product of the colossal effort at self-justification that inspired Althussers autobiographical project, this qualification ironically vindicates Althussers own philosophical claim that the sense of a life can only be emergent, never determined by the past. As a youth, Althusser was deeply involved in Catholic faith and devotion. His piety echoed that of his mother, who appears to have exhibited an idiosyncratic religiosity and habits of hygiene, which, as time went on, evolved into frankly obsessional and psychosomatic symptoms. At Lyon, as a lyce student, Althusser participated in religious retreats, favored observant professors, and moved in conservative Catholic, monarchist circles. In the late 1930s, however, through the influence of his teacher Jean Guitton, he was drawn to the Catholic workers movement. His subsequent break with the Church and its left-wing humanist politics was gradual, and it is not clear when his faith was lost. Certainly, he remained a practicing Catholic until well after World War Two.

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Althussers fledgling career, like that of his namesake a generation earlier, was interrupted in 1940 by the outbreak of hostilities in Europe. Inducted alongside his classmates, he served briefly with an artillery unit in Bretagne. Its surrender led to his removal to a POW work camp in Germany, where he was confined for almost five years. Althussers failure to attempt the escape that was on every prisoners mind thenceforth occupied an important place in his self-analysis. He attributed his paralysis to a fear of danger and a need for protection, which kept him inside the stalag. When, finally, he did seek to gain repatriation by counterfeiting certification as a nurse, he failed to remove a crucial page from his official record, which exposed his ruse. There was always a sense of security to be found on the inside for the fragile Althusser, who was able to make strong friendships and do useful work within the confines of the all-male camp. There is a parallel between Althussers wartime internment and his relations to the Church, to the cole Normale Suprieure, where he resided for most of his adult life, and, most dramatically, to the French Communist Party. Towards each of these institutions he evidenced an amalgam of profound loyalty and radical alienation. His unresolved ambivalence required the security of an ideological structure (the fantasy of being contained) and the freedom to be critical of that structure. He resembles the severely narcissistic patients who find psychic equilibrium in what Arnold Modell (1984) has termed the sphere within a sphere. They maintain a tenuous self-cohesion by remaining within the envelope of a protective object towards which they profess indifference or hostility. Although Althussers ambivalence towards his containing persons and institutions at times seemed to verge on bad faith, it also seems clear that his psychic survival required the support of an ideal object represented by these containers. During captivity, Althusser wrote to family members, read, and kept a daily journal, in which a hiatus in early 1941 is viewed by Boutang as indicating the first episode of depression. His major crisis of religious belief probably occurred about two years later. According to Boutang, Althusser admitted to having lost his faith in the camp, although he remained

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for many years a practicing Roman Catholic. As a seventeenyear-old, Althusser wrote in a letter to his closest friend, Paul de Gaudemar, I am not stable, passing through successive and even absolutely opposing states of mind. . . . If I did not have what I call my profound beliefs I would be pathetic. . . . Without my religious faith, my parents, and my friend close to me, I would be a sorry person (quoted in Boutang 1992, 82). Enthralled at nineteen by a lecture on Islamic mysticism, he expressed in his journal a need to immerse himself no less intensely in Christianity as an all-encompassing religion (134), and his lyce thesis was consecrated to the God of Faith (119). After the war, Althusser began to advocate the participation of Christians in the Communist party, on whose claim to carry the banner of history his faith increasingly came to lean. Arriving in Paris, he enrolled in the cole Normale Suprieure, where he would spend the next thirty-four years, first as a student, then as a professor. He prepared his diplme dtudes suprieuresroughly equivalent to a masters thesison Hegel in 1947 and opened contacts with left-wing Catholic groups, writing for their publications. In 1948, he joined the Communist Party. Upon completing his agrgation in philosophya competitive examination qualifying one as a professorin the same year, he was offered a position at the cole, launching his career as a politically engaged intellectual. Althussers move leftward owed much to the influence of Hlne Rytman, whom he met near the end of 1946. Ten years his senior, she was an intense and passionate woman who had a tangled history of involvement with the French resistance and the Communist Party, with which she became embroiled in a struggle to be readmitted as a member. She initiated Althusser into a new world of sexuality and emotional intimacy. Althusser and Rytman developed an instant complicity, based in large measure on their shared identification with the working class and a commitment to revolutionary change. He was far from unique in replacing religious idealism with a political and ideological one, and it seems probable that he was heading towards Communism with or without Rytman.

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There was an obvious irony in the maverick Althussers being able to join the French Communist Party, while she, a true believer, remained excluded. Matheron (1994) states that it would have been surprising, given the historical context, had Althusser not been a Stalinist during the postwar period. A certain logic led him to accept the Party as the only possible vehicle for revolutionary transformation of European civilization, while the void at the heart of his increasingly formal religious commitment demanded a new set of ideals as a bulwark against the madness by which he felt threatened. Althusser needed to adhere body and soul to a representation of an ideal. Boutang (1992, 21821) suggests that the depression of 1943 may have been either the cause or (more likely) the effect of a loss of his link to God, which confronted him with an unbridgeable Augustinian distance from the divine. De Pommier (1998) proposes the Lacanian hypothesis that God for Althusser was a third term, a figure of separation, functioning in the symbolic role for which his father had been disqualified by his mothers love for his dead brother. De Pommier sees Althussers psychopathology as springing from his continuous effort to escape an identification with the imaginary phallus, that is, to stop trying to fill the lack in his depressed mother by serving as a replacement for her lost object, but without ever being able to accomplish this symbolic castration because of the absence of a true father to aid him in the task of separation. From this perspective, all the institutions that came to represent the third term of the paternal function were bound to fall short. Althusser embraced, then undermined, each one in turn, caught in an unconscious compulsion to repeat his basic dilemma. Althusser articulated his disenchantment with organized religion in two posthumously published documents. The first is a seventy-page letter written in late 1949 to his Lyonnais spiritual guide, Jean LaCroix, in which he rejected religious faith (and with it his former relationship of discipleship) as the basis for social and political action. The affective tone was one of extreme ambivalence towards LaCroix, who never ceased to support his former student.4 The second document bearing on his evolution away from religious humanism is the 1951 essay,

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On Conjugal Obscenity. From what might today be described as a radical feminist perspective, Althusser attacked the Churchs efforts to promote a spiritual partnership between husband and wife on the basis of a religious vision. He could not conceive that a couple might find fulfillment in a shared devotion to spiritual ideals in spite ofor even because of temporal renunciations. He rightly condemned the expectation that women who marry must sacrifice opportunities for intellectual and creative growth, but he did not grasp that balancing professional achievement with emotional satisfaction could be important for both partners. This lack of balance goes to the heart of his long and stormy relationship with Rytman. Throughout their lives together, Althusser repeatedly turned elsewhere for emotional and sexual satisfaction, probably never coming to terms with his dependency on a strong woman with her own burden of problems.5 These two essays display the eloquence of Althussers rhetoric, which took on a rapturous quality at times. His idealism was, however, saved from an extreme moralism by his adherence to logical structure, occasionally the simulacrum of banal Communist propaganda, but more often a rigorous version of Marxist theory and philosophy. His analytical gift enabled him to step back from a polemic with hypomanic and fanatical overtones to engage in sharp intellectual debate. In his essays, we can trace the evolution of his ideal object from God and religion to the proletariat and Communism. Later, psychoanalysis was to enter the picture, and, as always, his idealizations had to be represented by a hero or master, with whom he entertained an ambivalent relationship. Althusser oscillated between submissive humility, which does not seem to have been simply a pose, and grandiosity, leading him to dethrone his objects by becoming what he called a father to the father (1985, 193), since he could not long tolerate anyone else in this paternal role. Consistent with his self-definition as a nonperson from birth, Althusser regarded himself as an intellectual fraud or imposter, a fate that received its ultimate seal in the juridical non-lieu that exculpated him from criminal responsibility in the death of his wife. Indeed, he claimed (1985, 21821) never to have read many of the authors about whom he wrote. He

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described his scholarly method as one of listening to hearsay and then taking core samplescarottesof the works in question, from which he was able to make astute generalizations about the whole. Perhaps this disparaging characterization contains a kernel of truth, but it is not borne out by the content of his many published and unpublished papers, to say nothing of the annotated volumes in his personal library. Certainly, beginning at the lyce where he prepared for his examinations to enter the cole Normale Suprieure, Althusser was marked out as possessing the character and intellect of a future member of the French elite. From at least his twenties, however, this exceptional talent was at the mercy of escalating recurrences of manic depression. Despite his mood swings, Althusser established lasting relationships with a number of important figures at the cole Normale Suprieure. Among others, Foucault and Derrida studied with him, as did Andr Green, whom he befriended. He was a caring and responsible mentor who kept his political and personal rivalries from impinging on his faculty duties. Even Rosset, who is far from admiring, writes that Althusser was the most devoted, informed, and liberal of masters (1992, 12). By the 1960s, the timid philosopher was becoming widely known internationally. Most notably, he developed an alliance with Jacques Lacan, of whose theories he was an enthusiastic supporter and whom he brought into the cole Normale Suprieure, an amazing feat given the hostility to psychoanalysis of the French Communist Party and much of the French academic world at that time. In many respects, these new commitments displaced his former political ones, which were shaken by his disagreements with the Party hierarchy over Rytmans ostracism in 1950 (or, according to some accounts, 1951) and his own later heresies with respect to Marxist theory. In 1964, he entered treatment with a non-Lacanian analyst, Ren Diatkine, which lasted more than fifteen years. Unfortunately, Diatkines treatment, which included medications and hospital stays, proved unsuccessful, and Althusser suffered his most serious episode of depression at the age of sixty-two, resulting in the tragedy that cast his madness in its definitive form and stamped his reputation as a murderer.

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The circumstances of the catastrophe were as follows. In the course of a highly productive period of creative work, Althusser developed symptoms of an inflamed esophagus, diagnosed as a hiatal hernia. After a routine surgical procedure in April 1980, he awoke with restless anxiety that progressed into a severe depression. Since his youth, Althusser had been sensitive to physical ailments, a castration anxiety in its most elemental form. Althusser always blamed his depressions on medical problems, and after his release from wartime captivity he had referred to his little physical miseries (Boutang 1992, 222), only much later acknowledging his fears of sexual impotence. His first hospital admission in the stalag had followed an inguinal hernia. Now, his alarmed physicians told him that he was displaying classic symptoms of melancholia (Althusser 1985, 274). He was rehospitalized and various medications were tried, one of which may have led to a toxic delirium. In any event, he suffered symptoms of profound regression, confusion, and paranoia. Upon discharge, he was not fully recovered, and his relationship with Rytman disintegrated into a destructive stalemate of shared despair and selfhatred from which she tried, according to Althussers autobiography, to extricate herself, only to arouse in him the keenest separation anxiety. As the couple turned inwards, isolated in their apartment on the rue dUlm, Althusser slid further downhill. Diatkine, who by then had reluctantly become Rytmans therapist as well, urged rehospitalization, allegedly against her opposition. An urgent letter he sent to Rytman was apparently never delivered. From here, the facts are unknown, Althusser claiming amnesia for the events. There was no evidence of a struggle. The philosopher came to his senses while his fatigued arms massaged the inert neck of his wife, as he had often done at her request. His account paints a picture of her complicity in the strangulation, as though she had wished to be released from their shared inferno by being murdered, a suicide by an interposed person (1985, 285). The strangeness of this scenario recounted by Althusser is augmented by seeming to have been lifted from two dreams he had transcribed sixteen years earlier. The first dream followed his receipt of Rytmans 1964 letter about his familial pathol-

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ogythe same letter that, in the guise of helpful analysis, gave rise to a paranoid explanation for Althussers illness that had not previously been indicated in either his correspondence or personal conversation, but which may have steered his ambivalence towards a destructive hate. He responded that the letter touched him to the quick (1985, 422) and that, like the lightning, it illuminates and it kills (428). In his dream, Althusser was obliged to murder a complicit sistera sort of pathetic communion by sacrificewith her accord (429). In a second dream, a man-father had murdered his wife, although there were exculpatory features. In his associations, he brought up his lack of support for Rytman during her trial by a Communist-front peace council, which had voted to exclude her as an agent provocateur after she recommended sabotaging munitions trains at a Paris railway station. The record of the two dreams was discovered by a friend among Althussers papers four years after his murder of Rytman. Sections were underlined in the version he showed to Diatkine, but we do not have any record of their conversations. Intellectual Contributions It is beyond the scope of this article to evaluate the theoretical contributions of Louis Althusser. One striking fact is the sheer quantity of material that he withheld from publication, though under the direction of Franois Matheron and Olivier Corpet much of it has appeared posthumously. Despite being exceedingly critical of his own work, as well as frequently incapacitated by depression, Althusser produced a series of important studies, as well as privately circulated writings, all of which contributed to a legendary reputation. His readers cannot fail to be struck by a powerful intellect wielding a vigorous and eloquent style. Althusser had wide-ranging interests, but his originality rests largely on his reading of Marx and, especially, the structural theory that organized that interpretation. Whoever speaks of Marx must inevitably speak of Hegel and the tradition of German idealist philosophy. Hegel had gained renewed attention in France just before World War Two, when Jean Hyppolite published his translation of the

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Phenomenology of Spirit (see dHondt 1991). Its reception was facilitated by Alexandre Kojve, a German-trained Russian, who from 1933 to 1939 devoted a seminar to this magisterial work for an audience that included Hyppolite, Lacan, and Merleau-Ponty. Althusser initially valued Kojves work on Hegel, which was published in 1947, although he later declared that Kojeve knew strictly nothing (1985, 199) of either Hegel or Marx. Lacan was influenced by Kojves interpretation, and his emphasis on the struggle for recognition as the fundamental desire of the subject can be traced to Hegels parable of the master-slave dialectic.6 The themes of selfformation through the mediation of the other and the need for recognition by the other must have resonated with Althussers fragile self. Yet if vestiges of the intellectual pathway leading from Hegel through Kojve to Lacan can be found in Althussers diagnosis of his mothers failure to acknowledge his separate identity, he never made these connections explicit. For all his denials, Althusser had read Hegel in German and can be said to have been engaged in a life-long struggle with the great philosopher. Like the Christianity of his youth and the Communism of his maturity, Althussers encounter with Hegel was marked by ambivalence; the idealism of the Phenomenology and its belief in the inexorability of the historical process exercised both a powerful appeal and a deep unease. On the negative side, the later Hegel seemed to justify the perpetuation of a feudal-like system in Germany under Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm. At the same time, by approaching history as a dialectic, in which ideology played a decisive role, Hegel created a powerful instrument for a revolutionary assault on bourgeois democracy from beneath. In his 1947 masters thesis, Althusser had argued that Hegels awareness of the material existence of mankind in concrete historical forms meant the abolition of a metaphysical logic driving history. For the young Althusser, this rejection of transcendence justified a humanistic Marxist concern for the oppressed: The entire revolutionary effort could be considered as the taking possession of the transcendent by the empirical, of the form by the contents. This is why the Marxist

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movement is a materialism . . . but also a humanism. . . . Revolutionary action can conceive, at least formally, of the coming to be of the human totality reconciled with its own structure. (1947, 222) But Althussers attempt to harmonize Marxist praxis with Hegelian theoryin keeping with the self-representation of the French Communist Partywas abandoned in his mature work, in which he likewise repudiated his erstwhile Catholic social and theological commitments. Long before his rejection of utopian Marxism, Althusser was hostile to the notion that Marx had built upon an inherited Hegelianism. In the standard account, Feuerbach had corrected Hegels individualism by redefining man as the ensemble of his social relationships. From here, it seemed only a short step to Marxs identification of the class struggle as the true subject of the historical dialectic. The later Althusser argued, however, that Marx had broken decisively with both thinkers by abandoning a humanistic focus on the individual subject of history. What counted instead was structure, determined by economic relationships and modes of production; the changing forms of human consciousness were the effects of this structure, not its cause. By his advocacy of a structuralist approach, Althusser rendered expendable the notion of a conscious subject as the agent of history. Roudinesco (1994) observes that structuralism seemed to offer a scientific approach to the human sciences by elevating theory and analysis over unreflective observation. It allowed one to go beneath the psychological and phenomenological levels of experience to uncover underlying causes. The individual subject could now be seen as a historical construct belonging to a particular time and social class. For this reason, Althusser rejected the attempt by progressive Communists to harmonize Marxs early humanistic ideals with his later emphasis on class struggle. Instead, he argued, Marx represented a prodigious tearing away from his origins in replacing individuals with societies as the true subjects of history. In a notorious phrase, he insisted that Marx had effected a displacement that dispensed with the theoretical services of a concept of man (1965, 255).

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With this finely chiseled interpretation of an antihumanist Marx, Althusser was transformed from an obscure philosopher with political enthusiasms into an intellectual star who rode the structuralist wave with Lvi-Strauss, Barthes, Foucault, and Lacan. Yet this very breakthrough got him into trouble with the French Communist Party, which, in a humanistic turn, was now denouncing the Stalinist-Chinese revisionism that they accused Althusser of fomenting. He began to assume his preferred position as an internal critic. Still later, his structuralism led him to reject altogether any notion of an inherent logic to history, which he described as a process without a subject or purpose (1985, 243), determined only by the fortuitous concatenation of events. Despite class conflict, he came to believe, it was not inevitable that social change would proceed from a dialectic of contradiction. The suffering proletariat remained important for him, but he did not address why one should continue to struggle in its behalf or remain a Communist.7 In his impressive study, de Marty (1999) makes a great deal of the denial of the individual subject as a defining feature of Althussers work and madness. But Althusser belonged to a generation of eminent thinkers who did not have much use for liberal humanism; and others, such as Foucault, were even more vociferous in their denunciations than he. There are, moreover, cogent arguments against taking the perspective of the subject as the best means of understanding history or biography, not the least important of which are Freuds. Thus, Althussers contribution to structuralist theory needs to be assessed on its own merits, not as a symptom of his pathology. What seems genuinely symptomatic is Althussers refusal to acknowledge a persistent concern with his own subjectivity. One wonders whether, had he continued to live and work, he might have revised his antihumanist positions. Although he continued to call himself a materialist and to identify with revolutionary politics, Althusser discarded most of Marxist theory, and his materialism was tempered by a recognition of the independence of ideology from economic arrangements. In a 1966 paper on the cultural revolution in China, he described ideology not as an epiphenomenon but as the cement binding societies.8 A coherent system of beliefs was

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the cement Althusser sought for himself, but, in the end, he was unable to ground himself in any single ideology. He was an outsider on the inside of the Church, the stalag, the Party, and psychoanalysis, accepting no master in the flesh and having immense difficulty even with symbolic ones. Although his autobiography revolves around this crucial issue, he was never able to account theoretically for the dynamic relationship between ideology and the individual subject. He refers frequently to Spinozas three orders of knowledge, in which the nominalism of the first exists in tension with the abstract truth of the second, while both are integrated on a third level of synthesis (1985, 24244). We probably would not be far off the mark in seeing here a reflection of Althussers struggle to grasp his life both objectively, as a patient determined by a psychiatric condition, and subjectively, as a singular psychological being. Paradoxically, Althusser, once an apologist for Stalinism and an opponent of liberal Eurocommunism, concluded by rejecting the Marxist dialectic and the Leninist philosophy of historical determinism. Although he never left the Party, he came to the poststructuralist conclusion that history has no laws. As I have noted, his ultimate version of a materialist was of one who boards a train with no starting point and no destination. History, by the same token, is without a subject or purpose. Sartres existential critique of Genet, that he refuses to hear the voice of the cogito (1963, 36), could thus also be directed against Althusser. His account of his murder of Rytman is striking for its refusal to accept responsibility, an evasion that has disturbed many readers. At the close of his autobiography, an astonishing disclaimer of personal guilt is attributed to an anonymous friend who interjects, It would have sufficed for only a few of the many random factors at play to declare you not responsible for your act (1985, 314). Psychoanalytic Contributions In a manner unusual for French intellectuals of his generation, Althusser developed an early interest in psychoanalysis. In his masters thesis, he cited Freud, notably for his account of negation. A positive content can present itself,

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Althusser wrote, in the form of an absence or a negative, and he went on to criticize Freuds concept of a substantive unconscious from a Hegelian perspective (1947, 275). Possibly this interest was reinforced by his own clinical experiences of depression, and certainly by his narcoanalysisa therapy using a drug such as sodium pentothal to facilitate memorywhich began with Laurent Stevenin about 1950. Roudinesco says that he discovered psychoanalysis by way of the mirror of his own madness (1986, 376). In any event, he began reading psychoanalytic texts after the War and gave a lecture on child analysis in 1959 (see Corpet and Matheron 1993, 1). Despite his denials, Althusser clearly used Freudian concepts in his thinking. This appropriation took three forms: (1) the application of psychoanalytic analogies and metaphors to philosophy; (2) efforts to integrate Freudian and Marxist theories of society; and (3) explorations of the status of psychoanalysis as a science growing out of his encounter with Lacan. According to Roudinesco, after Lacans schismatic group of analysts had founded a new society, the French Psychoanalytic Association, in the 1950s, Althusser began to read Lacans publications in La psychanalyse. His laudatory discussion of Lacans work in a 1963 article, Philosophy and the Human Sciences, brought him to the attention of the master, then in the throes of his inquisition by the International Psychoanalytic Association (Corpet and Matheron 1993, 7). Althusser organized a seminar on psychoanalysis at the cole Normale Suprieure in 196364, published his well-known essay Freud and Lacan in La nouvelle critique in 1964, and invited Lacan to move his own seminar to the cole Normale after his expulsion from the International Psychoanalytic Association that same year. Although in The Facts he claimed to have attended Lacans seminar only once, Althusser was familiar with the latters crits (1966), an annotated copy of which was found in his library. He credited Lacan with grasping the essential in Freud, namely, the essential role of theory in advancing scientific knowledge. What could be viewed as either a measure of his genius or excessive intellectualism was Althussers insistence that psychoanalysis move beyond being a collocation of impressive findings and useful techniques towards the status of a genuinely scientific theory.

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In Freud and Lacan, Althusser offered an ideological critique of the social functions of psychoanalysis, especially in its revisionist versions, which he accused of subsuming its radical discoveries into academic disciplines such as sociology and psychology, and also gave an epistemological elucidation of its original concepts. These concepts had to do above all with a new objectthe unconsciousthat cannot be annexed to other human sciences that seek to define human nature or to develop an ethology of humankind. The latter project of assimilation characterized American ego psychology, whose European-born founders explored the function of the ego as an evolutionary organ of adaptation to external reality. Althusser honored Freuds break with the thinking that preceded him by situating the coming-into-being of the human subject as an uncertain journeyan eruptionthe success of which can never be foreordained. At this time, he closely followed Lacans interpretation of Freud, especially concerning the function of language in producing a split subject inserted into the symbolic order. He defended Lacans aphorism that the unconscious is structured like a language, and he saw the brilliance of substituting the linguists, Saussure and Jakobson, for Freuds reliance on the natural sciences. Although he never subscribed to Lacans nearly exclusive emphasis on the signifier, Althusser grasped the structuring role of language even for the preverbal infant, who enters a world organized by symbolic systems. In one of two long letters to Diatkine in 1966, he brilliantly explained how this net captures one even at birth: The child irrupts as a biological being within the system of the symbolic order. He is caught up in it from his birth exactly as he is caught within the element of the atmosphere . . . cast into a world that is structured by the symbolic order. That order will become his order (1966, 67 68). From this standpoint, he saw the possibility for a new science of psychoanalysis. The crucial point was to separate ideology (a conception of normality privileging the values of a particular class or society) and ritual (an esoteric technique passed on through indoctrination) from science (a system of ideas attempting to define a theoretical objectin this case, the unconscious).

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Althusser again took up the question of psychoanalysis as a science in an undelivered paper for a 1979 symposium on the unconscious at Tbilisi in the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic, though written several years earlier. While recognizing the necessity of integration with other disciplines, Althusser (1976a) continued to advocate the specificity of psychoanalysis as a science of the unconscious. After first praising Lacans attempt at mediation between an outmoded biophysical theory of psychoanalysis and current scientific and philosophical models, Althusser stringently criticized the results of Lacans project, which he described as teetering on the pedestal of its uncertain theses (92). Instead of a scientific theory of the unconscious, he wrote, Lacan had given a fantastic philosophy of psychoanalysis that duped everybody. Althusser withdrew this paper in reaction to the alarm of his associates, notably Roudinesco, and the name of Lacan disappeared from the revised version, On Marx and Freud (1976c). In On Marx and Freud, Althusser confronted the official Communist opposition to psychoanalysis, observing that part of the resistance was indeed unconscious. He lauded Freud and Marx for instituting radical breaks with their predecessors that made them illegitimate children without fathers. Both treated their objects of studythe individual and society, respectivelyas ensembles without a center. Marxs discovery of the dialectical opposition of classes had undermined the metaphor of society as a seamless fabric, while Freuds conception of a decentered subject, riven by an unconscious, refuted the idealism of a unified self. The ego is not master in its own house, as Freud had proclaimed and Lacan amplified. Yet Althusser was forced to admit that Freuds therapeutic effort was focused on strengthening the egos control over its destiny. Freuds determinism and commitment to uncovering causal factors clashed with Althussers philosophy of the aleatory. Despite Althussers antideterminism in theory, he accepted the importance of early life experiences in shaping the person. He understood how drives and early mothering work together to create an embodied subject, and he was more interested than either Lacan or Freud in the impact of family relationships. This inconsistency is reflected in his quotation

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(1985) from Gramsci that if we cannot predict, we can in a certain measure foresee (526). This statement is another example of his fudging of a crucial issue. As de Marty (1999) has noted, Althussers autobiography portrays him as a victim of forces outside his control, as though his life were the unfolding of an implacable destiny. Yet in a strange postscript, he reasserts the indeterminate nature of existence, demoting the murder to the chance eruption of an event devoid of real meaning. Although de Marty trenchantly analyzes Althussers evasions, he is too quick to dismiss the way in which he exemplifies the inevitably paradoxical conceptualization of the subject or self in psychoanalysis. As Allen Wheelis (1973) wrote years ago, there is a realm of freedom and a realm of determinism, depending on ones point of observation, both being necessary to any useful account of human experience. Individuals are responsible for what they have become, yet they are at the same time caught in unconscious patterns of repetition. Clinical psychoanalysis aims at enlarging the scope of freedom through a reconstructive reliving of early experiences and the subjective assumption of a path already taken. This ambiguity is criticized by Sartre in Being and Nothingness (1943), where he attacks the Freudian unconscious as a form of bad faith. He proposes instead the concept of the for itself, a self that takes responsibility for its ethical choices: Man being condemned to be free carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders. He is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being (55354).9 Although Althusser shared the structuralist antipathy to the bourgeois idealization of the individual and regarded traditional humanism as an ideology serving class interests, he concluded For Marx on an almost Sartrean note: Men live their ideologies as their world itself, as a mixture of relation to the real and an imaginary relation (men are free) (1965, 246). He justified the Communist Partys usage of the notions of individual freedom and socialist humanism as a game of words (243), but claimed that this appropriation was not cynical because history would eventually provide the terms with a new content. He thereby postponed the problem to an indefinite future, which he still believed was being constructed in the Soviet Union.

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Althussers self-analysis in The Future Lasts Forever founders on the shoals of his hostility to the individual person as source of meaning. The presentation of his tragedy as due to a historically determined lack of a personal self contradicts both the extreme antihumanism of his early Stalinist politics and his later fantasy of a history without subjects. Even at the end he could not accept that, whatever deficits he might have suffered as an embodied self, his actions had consequences. If the category of man as individual subject were nothing more than a bourgeois illusion, then the man who never existed could be only a virtual murderer. Contrary to Althusser, I would submit that psychoanalysis, perhaps like Marxism, sits ambiguously between humanism and science. A narrow version of Freudian determinism is obviously untenable, even though we have a sense of character as a destiny that unfolds outside our command. Likewise, there is no entity we could label as the subject or the self, and yet we are bound to fall back on such constructs, and even on the notion of conscious agency. As Althusser (1955) recognized, the debate is ultimately about how a philosophy of realism can be applied to history or, analogously, to psychoanalysis. That is, for the realist or scientist, there must be a truth beyond ideas. Althusser (1985) was fond of quoting Spinozas aphorism, The concept of the dog does not bark (244). For Lacan, what lay beyond conscious experience was the materiality of language, the signifier that carries the subject helplessly in its wake. Although Althusser initially accepted this formulation, in the end he found the source of human actions in the conjoncture, the accidental association of events at an unpredictable moment. Although he admired Lacan, Althusser did not choose a Lacanian analyst, a fact cited by de Pommier (1998, 135) as evidence of his ambivalence. He came to see Lacan as a fraud, yet his autobiography is saturated with Lacanian interpretations. Something made Althusser keep his distance from Lacan, despiteor perhaps because ofhis initial idealization. His choice of therapist may have been influenced by Diatkines specialization in child analysis, as well as by the recommendation of Nicole Alphandery, a Communist psychoanalyst alleged by Althusser to have been in love with him after

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the War (1985, 141, 169). There were also parallels between his ideas and Diatkines. The latter, for example, opposed psychic determinism by declaring that a psychotic break had something aleatory about it. Still, Althussers relationship with Diatkine repeated his attempt to become father to the father (1985, 193). Thus, he noted his analysts problems of countertransference, notably in being too accommodating to him, though Althusser also conveyed his love and appreciation for Diatkine. Diatkine was justly criticized after the murder by Boutang (1997) for agreeing to treat Rytman concurrently, and also arraigned by de Pommier (1998, 13537) for failing to address the underlying structural deficit in Althusser. But it is doubtful whether any analyst could have severed the Lacanian knot of a symbolic past, an imaginary present, and the real of a serious illness. The Man Who Didnt Exist Althusser manifestly suffered from a severe form of bipolar disorder, yet most persons with this condition do not share his painful sense of nonbeing, become murderers, or develop a bleak version of materialistic philosophy. So psychiatry in the end does not take us very far in understanding his case. If the sense of a genuine existence derives from the connection of the desiring subject to a set of ideals that gives coherence and meaning, Althusser was unable to sustain such a bond. No doubt psychosis can produce a disruption of the symbolic world, but Althusser did not exhibit overt paranoid fanaticism or delusion. Above all, he was an intellectual, committed to rigorous thought and the careful investigation of reality, values that likely helped him to preserve his grasp on sanity. To make more sense of Althussers struggle with his ideals and the ambivalent way he related to people and institutions, we need to look once again at the emotional dilemmas with which he was confronted and the context in which they unfolded. Abundant evidence points to Althussers narcissistic vulnerability and sensitivity, and supports the notion that he sought the position of a sphere within a sphere as a solution to his difficulty in sustaining a cohesive self in the face of his

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own desires and those of others. I believe that Althussers early self-diagnosis was correct. He required his religious faith to survive, as well as living people to represent that faith. He found many such icons or idols, yet the faith did not hold. As we have seen, he moved from pious Catholicism through militant Christian-Marxist humanism to hard-line Communism. Along the way, psychoanalysis, via the charismatic figure of Lacan, played an important role. None of these movements was able to bear the weight Althusser placed on them. His idealistic visions of Christianity, Communism, and psychoanalysis went beyondand even at times contradictedtheir ideologies; and he became in the process a subversive adherent, working to transform the institutions in question into something they could not become. Of course, the world is not lacking in disillusioning experiences, and many people have lost their political and religious faith without catastrophic consequences. World War Two and the ensuing Cold War-period produced a crisis of disillusionment that stimulated an efflorescence of creative thought throughout Europe. Althusser was caught up heart and soul in this upheaval, which spurred his most original work, but perhaps in the end he was broken by it. Althusser was one of those comparatively rare individuals who in their discomfort with what exists want to change the world. This aspiration is associated with intellectual brilliance, a touch of grandiosity, and coming of age at a particular historic moment. In Lacanian terms, we might speak of the necessity of locating for oneself a place within the Symbolic order. In times of upheaval, some individuals seem called to represent or articulate the forces at play and to influence the passage of a society from one era to another. What summons them to come forward must be quite complex; perhaps Althussers philosophy of the conjuncture is as satisfying an explanation as any other. For all his antihumanism, Althusser was paradoxically attracted to the individual genius as a mover of history. He was finally not to become such a major figure himself, but, in retrospect, appears rather as the symptom of an age filled with utopian and revolutionary ferment, but which failed to produce a substantial change in ideology or

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society. We might charitably say that he rode the structuralist wave to its crest and then contributed to its crash. His idealism drew him towards a metatheory, while keeping him grounded in the disastrous politics of the French Communist Party and, for a long time, a posture of sycophancy towards the USSR. It was clear to Althusser that the leaders of the French Communist Party could never really accept him, never see him as anything other than a sometimes desirable, sometimes troublesome, intellectual adornment. Communist ideology, however admirable in its pursuit of liberation and equality, was badly flawed, as he never failed to observe, and even Marxist theory did not hold together very well. To be sure, he remained committed to intellectual work, and the cole Normale Suprieure consecrated that activity, yet Althusser could not resist criticizing the obsessiveness and triviality of his own endeavors. Taking the long view, he wondered, what point did academic study have, notably of philosophy, which he disparaged as blah blah and telling tales? Something more solid, something scientific and anchored in reality, seemed called for, not only by Althusser, but by a generation seeking a new ideological cement after Communism. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, French thinkers were transforming many disciplines, and a revised form of psychoanalysis seemed to offer an ethics and a scientific vision to a society whose institutions were in disarray. Lacan, as the inspired genius behind this shift, may have represented an alter ego to Althussers own grandiose aspirations, as Sollers suggested in Femmes (1983), in which the megalomaniacal character representing Lacan suggests dividing the world between their two domains, the psychic and the political. When Althusser ultimately became disillusioned with Lacan, did his intellect burn through the theory, as the Tbilisi texts suggest, or was the personal factor crucial? Clearly, Lacan did not reciprocate the enthusiasm and warmth of Althussers initial letters in 1963, and he seemed to take for granted Althussers support for the relocation of his seminar to the cole Normale. Althussers later attitude was expressed in his account of the suicide of Lucien Sebag, a brilliant Marxist analysand of Lacans, in 1974. He was appalled by Lacans self-

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protective demeanor when he informed him of the suicide. According to Althusser (1985), Lacan announced that he had been obliged to drop Sebag as a patient for technical reasons because Sebag had fallen in love with his daughter, Judith (212). Althusser did not ask why Lacan had failed to hospitalize his suicidal patient. He added: I have very often wondered what he would have done in my own case had I been one of his patients and whether he would have left me without protection so as not to infringe the slightest analytic rule . . . rules which in the mind of Freud were never imperatives without other recourse. Let me be forgiven, if it is possible, for having accurately reported this, but through the unhappy Sebag, whom I loved a lot, and Judith, whom I knew fairly well, the story also concerned me. (213) Through his account of Sebags death Althusser spells out the imperative to protect his own vulnerable self. Objects of idealization are beacons that can guide and illuminate, but they become blinding if approached too closely. Most of his pupils and patients (including Diatkine) survived Lacan quite well, for which that particular master must deserve some credit. However, I believe that being rebuffed by his hero was damaging for Althusser, just as coming too near might have been. A final disillusioning experience with Lacan came more than fifteen years after Sebags suicide (see Althusser 1980). Lacan had decided for obscure reasons to dissolve his analytic training program, the cole Freudienne de Paris, summoning his followers to a gathering at the Hotel PLM Saint-Jacques at which this decision would be debated. Althussers behavior at this meeting was puzzling. After all, what was it to him that this latest incarnation of a Lacan-dominated institution was about to go the way of its predecessors? No doubt it would be reborn in other forms. Yet Althusser was beside himself, frightened and enraged, as he gained uninvited access to the stormy assembly of psychoanalysts, which, in his agitation, he felt compelled to address. He fulminated against the foolishness of the political machinations of Lacans followers and for the

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welfare of the proletariat of patients. Althusser knew well that individuals draw their sustenance from social systems, and that when institutions or their representatives are discredited, the work suffers and the profession begins to crumble. The fragility of symbolic structures meant that, for Althusser, a great deal was at stake, not least his own well-being as an analysand. If Lacanianism was rotten and Freudianism held hostage by revisionist Americans, what hope was there for himself to be cured? Althusser was torn between two impossible alternatives: the grandiose role of the hero, and the nonperson who is a conjuncture of external forces. The search for a father who could support a symbolic identification brought him to Spinoza, Nietzsche, Freud, and many others. Unfortunately, this attempt to install a symbolic father failed. His successions of heroes functioned rather to sustain an omnipotent ideal self by which Althusser tried to fill the chronic emptiness from which he suffered. In the end, his quest for this imaginary object, and its impossible promise of wholeness and perfection, proved self-destructive. In attempting to make sense of the murder of Hlne Rytman, I suggest that her role as carrier of the Communist ideal that nourished Althusser for so long and that bound the couple together may have been a key. In the void of his depression, she provided both an explanation and a cure. She became, like the Church or the cole Normale, the containing sphere that held Althussers fragile self. Perhaps she replaced (and realized that she replaced) his parents in that role, which was bound up with his Catholic faith. As Modell (1984) explains, overly intense feelings for the transferential object can explode the inner sphere. The subjects tenuous protection against the antithetical threats of loss and merger, and the primitive anxieties these threats arouse, cannot survive the intrusion of emotions into the virtual space that buffers the contained from the container. Throughout his life, Althusser seemed incapable of coping with strong sexual or aggressive feelings. Although it remains unclear whether he came to enjoy sexual intercourse in his adult years, he certainly kept his women at arms length. The initial eruption of passionate emotion after his seduc-

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tion by Rytman was too much for him to bear, and analogous situations of overstimulationin his affairs with Claire (whose last name has been kept confidential) and with Franca Madonia, for exampletriggered depressive relapses. Similarly, the publication of his works on Marx, which brought him so much attention, left Althusser overwhelmed by fear and self-doubt, precipitating a recurrence of his illness. When Althusser felt exposed either to the critical gaze of the world or to unmediated contact with the other, the effect was a liberating but frightening bursting of his bubble, leaving vulnerable the surface of a shakily bound self. As Modells formulation would suggest, the relationship between Rytman and Althusser oscillated between an insupportable distance and a destructive closeness, compounded at the end by their isolation in their small apartment. Lacans meeting at the Hotel Saint-Jacques occurred in May 1980. That summer, Althusser underwent hiatal hernia surgery. In the fall, he and Rytman disregarded Diatkines recommendation that he be hospitalized and closeted themselves at home. In October, she died at his hands, and another intellectual idol, now floridly psychotic, was about to be toppled by an outraged press and public. If Althussers agitation in the presence of his former hero, whom he now saw in a more sinister light and who treated his interruption cavalierly, was a reflection of the threat to his psychic stability posed by the dissolution of the cole Freudienne, perhaps it indicated the collapse of the structure Freud-Lacan-Marx that, in guise of an ego ideal, had long supported his damaged self. In strangling Rytman, he attacked his ultimate intellectual and emotional container, which could no longer shield him from despair. After the murder, a gravely ill Althusser buried himself once again in a series of psychiatric hospitals for a lengthy period, only to reemerge in a new existence, for the first time having his own independent apartment, on the door of which he affixed the name of Pierre Berger, his idealized maternal grandfather. Althusser died of a heart attack on October 25, 1990. He declared in an optimistic note at the end of the autobiography that he had finally come into his own, found a self, and learned to love and appreciate others:

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I think I have learned what it is to love, not to take the initiative of self-promotion and exaggeration, but to be attentive to the other, to respect her desire and her rhythms, to ask for nothing and to receive each gift as a surprise of life, and to be capable of the same gift and surprise for the other, without inflicting the slightest duress [la moindre violence]. In sum, simply freedom. So life can still be beautiful. I am sixty-seven years old, but, at last, I, who never had a childhood, because I was never loved for myself, feel young as never before, even if this business must soon be concluded. Yes, the future lasts a long time. (1985, 3078) 306 Harvard St. Cambridge, MA 02139 lewis_kirshner@hms.harvard.edu Notes
1. 2. The title of the English translation is The Future Lasts Forever (Althusser 1992), rather than the more literal The Future Lasts a Long Time. For the material in this section I am indebted to the magisterial biography of Boutang (1992) and to the editorial notes of Corpet and Matheron in Althussers autobiography (1985), writings on psychoanalysis (1993), and collected philosophical and political writings (1994a). For example, she referred to the compromise by which his mother accomplished her conjugal duties, preserving a relationship with her imaginary husband, while removing Charles from his function as father (Rytman 1964, 419). Althussers rebellion escalated in 1953 when he delivered a party-line, Stalinist apologetic in the presence of his former mentor in Lyon (Boutang 1992, 486 87). One version of this story, fictionalized in Philippe Sollerss novel Femmes (1983)itself a remarkable socio-historical document of the 1970shas a much-abused character representing Althusser finally striking back against a monster-shrew of a spouse. Borch-Jacobsen (1990) documents the many connections between Lacans thought and Kojves Hegel. The nihilism of Althussers condemnation of the concept of man as illusory and fetishistic can be seen in his Response to John Lewis (1972). This paper, On the Cultural Revolution, in the Cahiers Marxistes-Leninistes, no. 11, is contained in the journal of the Communist Student association of the cole Normale Suprioure. Sartres attempt to reconcile an antibourgeois humanism with a radical individualism was derided by Althusser in a February 2, 1964, letter to Franca Madonia as a happy psychosis. He was appalled by Sartres claims in The Words not to have had an Oedipus complex or a super-ego: I can only see a lash in the face to impose silence on this imposture (Althusser 1998, 51819).

3.

4. 5.

6. 7. 8. 9.

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