March 23, 2005

The Tragedy of

In the suite of Text Festival images available to the media, the one by me most often picked up is the tragedy of althusserianism (here’s a good place to look at it ). The key moment in this visual poem is the following line, he is. One of the things the poem seeks to do is replicate the experience of mystery – the majority of readers (even if they have heard of Althusser) will not know what althusserianism is, or what the tragedy of it is. If that mystery is lived with, the question next is: is ‘he’ Althusser? Or is ‘he’ someone else? This set of questions is actually what the poem is about. You can stop there, you don’t know, that is the tragedy.

Louis Althusser was a fascinating figure and he and his wife Helene are frequent references in my work. In the 60’s he was a major figure in French Marxism. Ten years his senior, Helene had been a communist fighter against the Nazis. Reading his autobiography The Future Lasts a Long Time you get the sense that her real politics substantiated his academic Marxism. She comes across as deeply emotionally dependent on him and it is difficult to find him sympathetic with her low self-esteem battered further by his blatant infidelities. Throughout his adult life, while being this major theoretician of Marxism, he suffered bouts of mental instability resulting in frequent institutionalisation. One night Althusser emerged insane from their apartment at the Sorbonne having strangled the woman he loved. There was some speculation at the time that their relationship had become so sad that Helene had actually wanted him to kill her. He was judged too ill to be tried for murder instead being committed to a mental hospital. From being a public philosopher in the French intellectual mould, he went to being an insane killer. At the centre of the story is the tragedy of the love between Louis and Helene which he destroyed without knowing why. In philosophic terms there is also the lesser tragedy that althusserianism was destroyed with Helene. I found that in the last page of the autobiography he diminished himself even further because he implies a hope that readers will sympathise with him; and there is the actual terrible instant when the love of Helene is lost completely. And so the tragedy of althusserianism… he is.

Manchester’s City Life Magazine used the poem to accompany their coverage of the Festival, but edited down the middle so the word althusserianism is not there! I am delighted: I have been working on ways to represent greater depths of his tragedy and what could be better than complete erasure? Mis-attribution of the poem itself - the caption says it's by Bob Cobbing.

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