Book Review: Breaking Out of the Circle of Hell: The Autobiography of Louis Althuss
Wednesday, June 13, 2012 at 02:18PM
Dr. Harriet Fraad

From: The Journal of Psychohistory V. 25, N. 4, Spring 1998

The Future Lasts Forever,1 Louis Althusser, Eds. Oliver Corbett and Yann Moulier Boutang, Trans. Richard Veasey. New York: The New Press, 1992

 Reviewed by Harriet Fraad

The Future Lasts Forever is a major contribution to psychohistory. It emerged from the remarkably fertile ground of twentieth-century French philosophy which produced a group of intellectual giants. Some of the best known besides Althusse, are: Claude Levi-Strauss, Jean Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gaston Bachelard and Jacques Lacan. Each basically transformed our perspective on the area of knowledge he explored as well as the theory of knowledge itself (epistemology). Of his contemporaries, Althusser was the only one who recognized and theorized the power of the family in its contemporary social setting.

The Future Lasts Forever is a theoretical contribution, interwoven with a gripping life story - at once a brilliant illustration of Althusser's theoretical work and an unforgettable case history. Althusser did not know that he was a psychohistorian. Nonetheless, The Future Lasts Forever is a classic psychohistory, meticulously presenting Althusser's formation and deformation in his childhood family. The work represents a passionate plea for recognition of the power of family by one of the world's most prestigious and widely recognized philosophers.2 Althusser's book is at the same time his autobiography and a treatise on the family.

One of Althusser's important theoretical contributions is his theory of "ideological state apparatuses."3 These are analogous to those other state apparatuses, the army, police, and bureaucracies that enforce the socially dominant rules, laws and customs. However, they operate without overtly coercive power. They discipline people internally, functioning as parts of a people's perceptions of reality. Two particularly important ideological state apparatuses are organized religion and the family. They help create a climate of submission before seemingly omnipresent, inescapable truths. In modern times they present institutions such as the isolated nuclear family as "natural," God-given and inevitable. Such institutions are assumed to be the way life must be lived rather than as choices that can be changed. They like everything else are contradictory. They may be sources of liberation and comfort as well as oppression and misery. The family may be a haven in a heartless world and also more more heartless than outsiders have the power to be. Religion too is a prime source for martyrdom, guilt and self abnegation as well as solace and inspiration. Ideological state apparatuses are highly compatible with self-limiting fears.4 In Althusser's words:

Does one now have to point out that in addition to the three great narcissistic wounds inflicted on humanity (that of Galileo, that of Darwin, and that of the unconscious), there is a fourth and even graver one which no one wishes to have revealed? Since time immemorial the family has been the very site of the sacred and therefore of power and religion. It is an irrefutable fact that the Family is the most powerful ideological state apparatus." (Althusser 1993 104-5).

This work is particularly dramatic because it comes from a renowned Marxist scholar who used his powerful intellect to rescue Marxism from its crude deterministic (particularly economistic, applications in the former USSR and in Marxist parties including the French Communist Party. Althusser adapted the Freudian concept of overdetermination to an appreciation of the infinite forces constituting a human being and a society.5 He both bridged and merged the concepts of Marx and Freud in altogether unique and compelling ways.6

Althusser describes the birth of a new theory in a psycho-historical way. When a theory is first conceived it is forced to define itself in relation to the theories that precede it. It is born out of the old and must define itself in those worn terms that came before it. Only after it has created its own concepts and meanings does a new theory begin its own proper childhood and can grow as, in significant part, its own creation. Within Althusser's theoretical framework the childhood of a theory is only possible once it has sufficient time to free itself from its old age, the theoretical frameworks of the past. Its gestation and birth are suffused with the old age of its forbearers. In its childhood, a theory begins its life as its own fresh contribution to knowledge. In the same way, Althusser reveals that his own childhood was only possible once he was free of the constraints imposed by his parents' contorted demands that he, Althusser, live in their distorted past. For most of his life, Althusser lived with one foot in the psychological grave that his parents dug for him.

The Future Lasts Forever is the last of Althusser's books.7 As such it marks the childhood of his theory of the family. It is only when Althusser was 67 that he freed himself from his parents and began to feel young. In his words,

So despite its dramas, life can still be beautiful. I am 67 and though it will soon all be over, I feel younger now than I have ever done, never having any youth since no one loved me for myself (279).

Althusser's theoretical framework emerges in the passionate way he weaves his theoretical insights into the compelling story of his life.

Louis Althusser suffered manic depression for which he was in treatment for thirty years and was hospitalized multiple times. The Future Lasts Forever was his longest work. Most of his brilliant writings were short. They were written quickly in his manic periods before the next onslaught of depression would sap his creativity. For a long time he had been suicidal but never a threat to anyone besides himself. On November 16, 1980, Althusser ran into the courtyard of the Ecole Normale in a demented state of confusion, screaming " My wife is dead." The police found no sign of struggle or violence. The authorities attributed Althusser's ravings to his distraught state of mind. An autopsy revealed that Althusser's wife had been strangled without protest or violence. She had previously begged him to take her life, but Althusser had steadfastly refused.

Althusser was taken to Sainte Anne, a mental hospital where he had several times been a patient. The Future Lasts Forever is a treatise on the family, and his testimony to the world about what led a renowned philosopher, a teacher known for his tender nurturance to his many students, and a deep friend to his wife, to strangle that wife. The book is Althusser's psychohistorical autobiography.

Louis Althusser was the child of a mother whose greatest love was her childhood sweetheart, Louis. When Louis died, hers and Louis' families decided that she should now marry Louis' brother Charles. She and Louis had shared an ethereal, spiritual love. They were studious, loving, religious friends, eschewing the affairs of the body for those of the soul. Charles was a brutal, coarsely sensual man. He brutally raped Althusser's mother on her wedding night, spent her hard earned teacher's savings on food and drink and forbade her the company of her scholarly friends as well as her participation in her cherished job as a teacher. The French word "lui" means him . It is pronounced exactly like the name, "Louis." Louis Althusser was named to commemorate the absence of him (lui), his mother's beloved Louis. She saw through her son Louis to her dead lover. Louis Althusser was the presence of an absence - a concept as central to his reworking of Marxist philosophy as to his personal and theoretical psychoanalytic discoveries.

Althusser felt that he, like his namesake must be dead in order to be loved. Even as a young child he was plagued by fantasies of his own death. Louis was unwanted as himself, a physically alive little boy. He devoted himself to compensating his mother for her wretched life and lost love. Desperate to be recognized and loved as his own person, he tried to be what his mother needed, her dead, ethereal, Louis. Although he longed to exist in his own body, he was the prim, inactive, asexual, scholarly boy his mother wanted. Because he was not accepted as the living child he was, Althusser felt that as himself he had nothing to offer those he loved. His depressions were attempts to destroy any evidence of his own existence as the price of pleasing those he loved.

All his life, Althusser mourned his own death brought about by his mother for whom he could not be accepted as the living child he was. He strangled his wife as part of his project to destroy all evidence of his own existence, his work, his recognition, his position and himself. His wife's loyalty and love had been the supreme proof of his existence.8

Althusser describes the personally maiming conditions under which he became a subject, a human child. Unlike most, he did not want to forget his pain or leave it mute. He transmogrified his deadly memories into a passionate treatise on the family as a crucible of childhood suffering and an ideological state apparatus.

The book is presented as a personal testimony without pretension to being objective or complete. His important discoveries are offered with humility. He does not claim to have eternal truths, but only his own truths. Nor does he claim that his will be the final word, only an element of a vast and ever changing knowledge.

The Future Lasts Forever is crucial reading for anyone interested in the power of the family. In its style of presentation, its intricate psychological analysis and its brilliant ideas, it is crucial reading for us as psychohistorians.

1. This title is an inaccurate as well as inappropriate translation from the French original. The literal translation is "The Future Lasts A Long Time" which better represents Althusser's philosophic views. He did not believe in absolutes.

2. Althusser taught at France's most prestigious philosophy program, the Ecole Normale Superieure, and also served as its rector for many years.

3. See the essay "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" in his book, Lenin and Philosophy. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: NLB, 1971, p. 121-176

4. Althusser was the first both to define ideological state apparatuses and to understand that they could be contradictory as both sources of oppression and liberation. His writings stress the contradiction inherent in all things.

5. For a discussion of Althusser's central contribution to post World War ll Marxist theoretical change see: Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, Knowledge and Class, University of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 81-106.

6. Althusser's Writings on Psychoanalysis (Eds. Oliver Corbett and Francois Matheron, Trans. Jeffrey Mehlman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), a posthumously edited collection of his letters and writings on psychoanalysis as well as his essay "Freud and Lacan" (in Lenin and Philosophy. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: NLB, 1971, pp. 177-203) attest to his creation of a bridge between the crucial discoveries of Marx and Freud. In his capacity as rector of France's prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure, Althusser introduced Lacan to the French intellectual community. Some of the great French thinkers of the twentieth century such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were influenced both by Marxism and by Lacan's reading of Freud introduced by Althusser.

7. The Future Lasts Forever was a best seller in France and has been translated into several languages.

8. This was a peculiar death. Althusser's wife had been terribly depressed and often begged him to help her take her life. As he often did, he massaged her neck when she awoke in the middle of the night unable to sleep. In a dissociative trance while massaging his wife's neck, he strangled her. Had she cried out he would have probably emerged from his dissociative trance and she probably would not have died. There was no struggle, no disturbance not even of the bedclothes.

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