Christopher Bray on Louis Althusser:

…[S]ince in French “Louis” is pronounced exactly the same as the word for “he”, he had never thought of himself as an individual proper.

Not exactly: the diphthongs in lui and Louis are supposed to be different – but pretty close. Anyway, how could this similarity become central to a philosopher’s self-understanding? The name Louis – both common and royal – had been in wide use for centuries but its bearers hadn’t displayed differential symptoms of deindividualization.

It turns out that Althusser didn’t rely on this cheap worldplay trick to explain away his derangement. The relevant passage from L’Avenir dure longtemps goes like this (in my translation):

When I came into the world, I was baptized with the name Louis. I know it too well. Louis, a name I literally abhorred for a long time. I used to find it too short, with only one vowel, and the last one, the i, ended in a sharpness that kept wounding me (see below the fantasy of the stake). Undoubtedly it also said too much of my place: oui (yes), and I would rebel against this “yes” that said “yes” to my mother’s desire, not to mine. And it said above all: lui (he/him), this third-person pronoun, which – sounding like a call to an anonymous third party – stripped me completely of my own personality and alluded to the man behind my back: Lui, it was Louis, my uncle who my mother loved, not me.

This name had been desired by my father, in memory of his brother Louis, killed in the sky of Verdun, but particularly by my mother, in memory of the Louis she had loved and never in her life stopped loving.

This is way more interesting than Bray’s mocking summation, and gets more interesting further down the line in Althusser’s admittedly self-justifying memoir. However, it’s still a poor explanation for his wife’s larynx snapping under his fingers. Perhaps the key to Althusser is somewhere in this passage by Bray:

During that period [after A. strangled his wife in 1980] it emerged that Althusser had been severely depressed for much of his adult life. He had spent almost as much time in the asylum as he had lecturing at the École. Even after his release, he chose to spend the bulk of the years left to him… voluntarily incarcerated.

Institutionalized would be a better word – the hospitals where Althusser lived out his late years, in the 1980s, were hardly carceres. The places where he had gotten his first taste of psychiatry, in the 1950s (or even the late 1940s?), might have been more Foucauldian. The three doctors who declared Althusser legally insane in 1980 or 1981 concluded that the fatal “hallucinatory episode” was iatrogenic – brought on by the treatment he had undergone. Perhaps he was merely unwell – depressed somewhat but functional – after WWII (he had spent years in a POW camp) but decades of treatment, some of it brutal in the mid-century fashion, rendered him truly psychotic. With this in mind, I wouldn’t take literally his late autobiographical writings, pace Bray:

As he admitted in that posthumously-published memoir… [h]e hadn’t, it turned out, read all that much. “I knew the work of Descartes and Malebranche well,” he wrote, before descending into a more confessional mode: “Spinoza a little, Aristotle not at all . . . Kant not at all, Hegel a little.” …

Above all, though, Althusser was unfamiliar with the bulk of Marx’s work.

Perhaps, but not that likely. Delusions of worthlessness and guilt are common in depressive patients. This verbal self-flagellation shouldn’t be taken literally.

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