On the morning of Sunday 16 November, Hélène Althusser, wife of philosopher Louis Althusser, was found dead in their Ecole Normale flat in the rue d’Ulm. The philosopher, in a state of complete delirium, accused himself of strangling her. The college doctor, Etienne, and the deputy director had to overpower him with the help of a caretaker and have him interned in Sainte-Anne Hospital. No one, either at the rue d’Ulm or among his personal friends, wanted to believe that Louis could really have killed his wife. And yet the first verbal autopsy report did show that Hélène’s larynx had been crushed, proving that she had been strangled.
This ‘private’ drama, which plunged their friends into grief, inevitably became a public affair as a result of his fame and stature. It was natural that the press should take hold of it. But not that it should commit a twofold injustice towards Althusser and his wife. First, it was unjust to make a link between Althusser’s philosophical thought and the Ecole Normale tragedy. Some are already hinting that he did not have the qualities required to teach. Others, more odious still, are implying that his communist ideas made him a potential murderer. In reality, the tragedy of 16 November brought to a head the appalling torture of a man who for eighteen years had been fighting against a grave psychological disorder. That Sunday, he was evidently no longer capable of ‘comprehending or willing anything’, so much so that, forty-eight hours later at Sainte-Anne Hospital, the examining magistrate had to give up the idea of serving an indictment upon him. Indecent, then, is the insinuation that he has enjoyed special treatment because of his public name. For while a philosopher should not be above the law, nor should he be deprived of the protection of the French Penal Code, which states that ‘there is no crime or offence when the accused was in a state of insanity at the time of the event’. Another injustice has been the exploitation of Althusser’s wife, Hélène, who was not merely the victim of his madness, but a human being with her own personality, her own work, her own life-history. In most cases, however, I have looked at the papers in vain for a few lines recalling the character and individuality of Hélène’s life.
Hélène was seventy at the time of her death, ten years older than Louis Althusser. Small and frail in appearance, she had remained elegant, very alert and sometimes sharp of tongue. She came from a very poor Jewish family, and had made her own way by studying literature and history, and then trying her luck in the world of cinema (she was Jean Renoir’s assistant). Then came the black night of the Occupation. Hélène never wore the yellow star, but immediately chose the Resistance where she became ‘Mademoiselle Legothien’. She was linked
It is possible that Hélène’s investigations among the workers influenced Louis Althusser’s political attitudes over the last few years. However, contrary to what some people claim, he has never been a docile follower of the party line: his ‘orthodoxy’ is based on fidelity to Marxism, not to the pcf. But he was cautious by nature and took his time, as if he thought that, by influencing young people through ‘the class struggle on the theoretical front’, he could win a highly complicated game of chess against the pcf leadership. Hélène, by contrast, never beat about the bush. Thus, when in April 1978 Althusser ‘opened fire on pcf headquarters’ with his Le Monde series of articles on ‘What can last no longer in the Communist Party’, some people thought they could recognise Hélène’s plain-speaking as much as the philosopher’s burst of anger. As for myself, who only became friendly with the Althussers five years ago, I above all had the impression that Louis was merely saying aloud what he had long been thinking and, indeed, had already expressed in his way in a number of more theoretical texts less accessible to the broad public. In order to be convinced of this, one has only to read the long interview on the question of the State which he gave in 1978 to the Rome daily Il Manifesto—a text which is in sharp contrast particularly with his 1973 pamphlet, Reply to John Lewis. Althusser now extended this critique to the Party itself, seeing it as an institution modeled on the State and therefore incapable of grasping and expressing either the collective spontaneity of the masses or the dimension of the individual.
It is not easy, then, to retrace the interwined paths of two such different persons. In the domain of ideas and political struggle, Hélène always remained in the shadow, off the political stage. But her role became of prime importance in everything that concerned her husband’s psychological illness. Many of Althusser’s students, as well as many friends in the world of culture and politics, preferred to ignore this distressing part of his life—either in a spirit of discretion, or because they did not wish to be inconvenienced by it. It was known, however, that since 1962 the philosopher had been subject to periodic bouts of depression which eventually led to ever more frequent periods in psychiatric clinics. Each time he would come out through a huge effort of will; and once again he would start to write, hold seminars,
Early last July, Louis Althusser went into a more serious depression than ever before. Only a few of us were there to follow the torture which he and Hélène endured throughout the summer. Paris was empty, most of the university staff having left for their holidays. In his clinic, Louis knew no respite from spectres of death, a feeling of complete loss of identity, and lack of any reason to live. He had become a man without any defence, obsessed with the idea of suicide. I had seen him in other clinics during previous depressions, and I remembered that he had been capable of interrupting his melancholic talk with perfectly coherent and, at times, quite brilliant remarks about Gramsci (one of his favourite targets) or about current affairs. But this time he was cut off from everything. It was explained to me that if his illness had assumed alarming proportions, this was precisely because he was about to overcome it, to throw back the final assault of the malady . . . The prognosis was not confirmed. In early October, Louis and Hélène went to the South for a few days before returning to the Ecole Normale. Things went better than during the summer, but that is not to say they were all right. He received virtually nobody, read nothing, spoke little and planned to go back into the clinic. His state worsened just before that last weekend, so that Hélène decided to cancel all the engagements she had made for him. She was evidently anxious, but no more than during similar crises in the past. One thing is certain: she was afraid only for him, not for herself, since she had never felt threatened in any way.
Sunday morning she was dead, her face calm, her eyes shut. The ending had no witness, and we shall never know what happened on that fatal morning. Louis Althusser is in too disturbed a state to say anything at all. For her we can do no more, except not to allow her to be erased from our memory, and remind ourselves of the role she played alongside Louis Althusser. For him, however, we can still do something: we can make every effort to ensure that in addition to his despair, he does not have to suffer an internment that would not provide any conditions for a cure. We, his friends, who, in one way or another, for a long or short period of time, have known the benefit of his intellectual lustre and moral integrity, can only hope that beyond the tragedy itself, inner peace will one day return to him.