BOOK REVIEW / A trickster pleads guilty: Geoff Dyer considers the dramatic life and dwindling influence of a once-celebrated philosopher, Louis Althusser. The future lasts a long time - Louis Althusser Tr.: Richard Veasey - Chatto & Windus pounds 17.99

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The Independent Culture
PEOPLE often complain about the parochialism of British cultural life. But the original publication of L'Avenir Dure Longtemps by Louis Althusser immediately generated considerable debate in Britain, as did the publication this year of two new studies (both written in English) of Michel Foucault. By contrast, our own homegrown controversy, the Larkin Affair, made barely a murmur in France.

This can be taken as a sign of English insularity: the great national poet turns out to be irrelevant on the larger stage of Europe. But it is also an indication of continental parochialism. As literature the Larkin letters are immeasurably superior to Althusser's confession; as an insight into the personality and mind of a figure at once famous and reclusive, who lived out his life in extremis, they are considerably more revealing.

The gist of Althusser's confession, and the events that led to its composition, are by now fairly familiar: on 16 November 1980 Althusser ran into the courtyard of the Ecole Normale Superieure where he had studied and taught for more than 30 years, screaming that he had killed his wife, Helene. By the time the police arrived le grand philosophe had already been whisked away to a mental hospital where he was declared to be in a state of total collapse and therefore unfit to plead.

Deemed not to be responsible for his own actions, Althusser avoided criminal prosecution at the price of surrendering control of his own life. The next 10 years were spent in hospitals or living alone in the north of Paris. Attempting to shift the 'tombstone of silence' that lay on him, The Future Lasts a Long Time is not so much a plea in mitigation as in abnegation.

Born in Algeria in 1918, Althusser was named after the man his mother loved: his father's brother who was killed in a plane over Verdun. From the start, then, the child Louis was a non-person, a cipher - lui - for a dead man. When, as an adolescent, his mother discovered the evidence of his first wet dreams, he felt she had raped and castrated him. When he and Helene - eight years his senior, ex-resistant, Communist Party activist - consummated their relationship the experience was so devastating that it initiated the cycle of breakdown, hospitalisation and recovery that was to characterise his career.

Sensational though they were, these revelations caused less of a stir in France than the admission that the author of Pour Marx and co-author of Lire 'Le Capital' was actually 'a trickster and a deceiver . . . who knew almost nothing about the history of philosophy or about Marx'.

He exaggerates, of course, but these self-flagellating boasts actually served to refocus attention on a figure whose posthumous existence began 10 years before his death, and whose reputation seemed set to perish on the fringes of limbo. Now, his legacy seems not to extend beyond a handful of initiates.

With The Future Lasts a Long Time we move from the academic to the sales conference and a large potential readership for whom Althusser's name is vaguely associated with a few well-thumbed phrases: ideological state apparatuses, Marxism as 'class struggle in the realm of theory', history as 'a process without a subject'.

So, what kind of book is it? How will it be read? With a lot less enthusiasm, I suspect, than the articles about it. Some hearsay testimonies can be thrown out of critical court immediately. As someone writing about madness Althusser had the advantage of first-hand experience, but renders it less evocatively than, say, Tennyson in 'Maud' or Plath in The Bell Jar.

The suggestion that some remarkable insights are yielded by the fact that the author is both a philosopher and a murderer proves similarly ill-advised. As a piece of writing, in fact, The Future Lasts a Long Time is surprisingly poor. One rounds initially on the translator as the person responsible for the clumps of cliches and homely colloquialisms (always indicated by inverted commas) but these turn out to be reasonably faithful renditions of the French. Part of Althusser's original appeal lay in the unyielding abstraction of his formulations; that he resorted in the end to the idiom of the concierge - 'I shall leave that to those clever people who like to indulge in 'analytic theory' ' - alerts us to how much that was human was sacrificed for the purity of theoreticism.

Other ironies loom if the book is considered in relation to Althusserian theory as a whole. It has often been remarked that ideology, for Althusser, works like the unconscious in Freud. In his hands it became, in two striking phrases of Perry Anderson's, 'an unconscious system of determinations' and 'a lived medium of delusions' from which there is no escape.

In seeking to understand and explain himself Althusser relies on psychoanalytic probings which keep locating the cause of his actions further and further back in his psychic formation. Douglas Johnson, in the introduction, may not be literally correct in suggesting that Althusser murdered Helene in his sleep, but he is metaphorically accurate; for while Althusser seeks to reclaim responsibility for his actions the terms by which he seeks to do so ensure that he can never be more than the passive agent of them. On several occasions he speaks of 'Helene's murder' as if he had played no active part in it, and psycho- grammatically the book is all the time tending towards the passive.

In his famous polemic, The Poverty of Theory, E P Thompson says Althusserianism, the latest form of Marxism, turned out to be 'a very ancient mode of thought: process is fate'. It is entirely characteristic that this irony adds to the pathos of this strangely undisturbing text.