One of the hot topics right now in Victorian studies is the fate of “symptomatic reading.” Part of this has been initiated by Sharon Marcus’s Between Women, where she suggests a model of “just reading” in place of “symptomatic reading.” (Another point of departure is Eve Sedgwick’s suggestion in Touching Feeling to look for alternative methods of interpretation that do not rely upon a “hermeneutics of suspicion” [Ricouer’s phrase].)

At a panel earlier this year on “The Way We Read Now,: Symptomatic Reading and its Aftermath,” several of the panelists went back to the theorist who started all of this “symptomatic reading,” Louis Althusser.

What no one mentioned, at least none of the speakers on the day that I attended, was Althusser’s relationship with his wife, Hélène Legotien. You don’t have to be too hermeneutically suspicious to wonder how what he did to his wife might have impacted his work. Dude strangled his wife, and got off on insanity.

When I first found out about this, I was shocked that I hadn’t heard about it earlier. I mean, I’m by no means an expert on Althusser, but I had read the “Ideological State Apparatuses” essay, and had heard his work cited a lot. I just did a search on Althusser and Legotien/Rytman on JSTOR and Project MUSE, and got all of 2 non-review hits. One’s an article by Hortense Spillers, who mentions the episode in a footnote, and the other’s an article by a psychoanalyst in American Imago. Surely this silence is symptomatic of something. I mean, why does everyone know that another criminal who was mentally ill at the time of their crime tried to kill Andy Warhol? (That’s actually how I got started thinking about this. I mentioned the SCUM Manifesto to my fellow office inmates, and my love for the work, and the only response I got was “But she shot Andy!” And what about the whole De Man thing–why is that so much more publically scandalous?)

How can one discuss this episode in Althusser’s life without dismissing his work completely, as Tony Judt does here? Judt’s article has these juicy bits that suggest one way to approach the philospher’s biography. Althusser’s only major work after the murder was a memoir, The Future Lasts Forever. Judt describes the memoir as follows:

Althusser would have us read [his memoirs] as Rousseau- like confessions, but that is hard to do, and the comparison is embarrassingly unflattering to their author. They are clearly an attempt on Althusser’s part to make sense of his madness, and to that extent they are indeed revealing; by his own account he wrote them “to free myself from the murder and above all from the dubious effects of having been declared unfit to plead” (it is ironic that their posthumous impact on any unprejudiced reader will surely be to confirm the original forensic diagnosis).

But here’s the fun part:

The young Althusser had an utterly uneventful early career. Academically promising, he was sent to the lycee in Lyons to prepare for the entrance exam to the Ecole Normale. He passed the exam, but had to postpone his higher education when he was drafted into the army in 1939. Like many French soldiers, he had a futile war; his company was rounded up by the Germans in 1940, and he spent the next five years in a prisoner of war camp. About the only interesting thing that seems to have happened to him there was that he learned, somewhat belatedly, the pleasures of masturbation. (He was not to make love for the first time until he was 29.)

Rousseau’s Confessions and “the pleasures of masturbation”? Would anyone like to comment? Anyone? Anyone? Ms. McCarthy?