The murder of Hélène Rytman

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If there is one thing that anglophone intellectuals know about Hélène Rytman, it is that she was strangled by her husband, the famous marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, on 16th November 1980. Althusser was massaging her neck when he crushed her larynx and killed her. 

It has been, as Scott McLemee put it, a “morbid punchline” for a lot of pundits. At the time, it was crudely instrumentalised as part of the ongoing anticommunist reaction on the Parisian Left Bank, with pundits suggesting that the murder was a good reason to put the reds to bed and forget about all that abstruse theory. Hélène Rytman, a lifelong communist militant, was reduced in this purview to a kind of scarecrow of red-baiting dramaturgy.

The murder was never properly investigated. The court ruled in January 1981 that, due to his mental illness, Althusser had “diminished responsibility” and was unfit to stand trial under article 64 of the French penal code. He had been diagnosed with manic-depressive psychosis in 1947, and had been in and out of hospital, and undergone drug treatment and psychoanalytic psychotherapy ever since. 

The murder seems to have been committed during a psychotic episode triggered by drugs. The three psychiatrists who argued for the invocation of article 64 said that the strangling had been committed “in the course of an iatrogenic hallucinatory episode complicated by melancholic depression”. ‘Iatrogenic’ means that the hallucination had been brought on by his treatments. Thus, the court decided, he was not responsible for his symptom, his hallucination, or his act.

In a manner of speaking, the ruling summed up his psychosis. Depriving him of responsibility for his actions, it also stripped him of legal personhood. As he’d suspected throughout his whole adult life, he simply didn’t exist as a subject. His autobiography, written in 1985, displays the characteristics of psychosis. The experience of subjective emptiness, of having no intransitive reality, of his existence being in effect a kind of ruse, is enacted in his (false) claims to intellectual charlatanry. He, for example, described how he had never read any of the authors he cited. Like much in the text, which includes some truly surreal moments, this was easy for those who had read his works to disprove: but it was taken at face value with guffawing cynicism by anglophone journalists.

According to Elizabeth Roudinesco, had Althusser been given the option of testifying, he would have stated that he was guilty of murdering his wife, that he felt and bore full guilt and responsibility for the act. He spent the remaining years of his life drugged and hospitalised, and his biography is notable for its eschewal of responsibility for the act.

It is important to say about Hélène Rytman, a Jewish woman of Russian descent from a poor family, that she was a communist militant before meeting Althusser. She had fought in the French Resistance and been drummed out of the French communist party (PCF) for having evinced “Trotskyist deviations”, despite being a loyal member. Althusser had started out moving in Catholic conservative circles before being drawn to the left by the Catholic workers’ movement. Although he was moving in that direction already, Rytman probably played a role in Althusser becoming a communist. She informed his politics all the way through to his break with the PCF during the crisis years of the Seventies. In fact, Rytman may have contributed to some of the political pieces published under his name. There is more than a suggestion that his withering polemics against the PCF leadership during the Seventies bore her stamp of mordant scorn -- although K S Karol, in his personal account of the Althussers, doesn't credit this claim.

Rytman had been sexually abused by her father as a child and despised by her mother. When her parents were ill and dying, she had, under the doctor’s instructions, administered the lethal doses of morphine — thus killing the father she loved and the mother she loathed. She suffered from her own manic-depression, though one gets the impression from the literature that in addition to being a good ten years older than him, she was more psychically robust than Althusser. There is very little in the literature about the specifics of her symptom, other than the strong implication that she suffered from psychosis like Althusser, and had paranoid tendencies like him, but she made her own way through struggle. She had studied literature and history, and refused to wear the yellow star during the Nazi occupation, instead opting to fight with the Resistance. In the postwar period, she was a social scientist at the Research Institute for Economic and Social Development until her retirement in 1976.

Having met Althusser in 1946, she was his first sexual lover. Prior to meeting her, he had avoided women in an almost phobic way. He didn’t even dare masturbate until the age of 27. Althusser bears certain similarities to the case of ‘Bronzehelmet’ described by Jean-Claude Schaetzel in this respect — 'Bronzehelmet' suffered terrifying anxiety regarding sex and when he attempted his first sexual encounter it provoked a psychotic episode. Likewise, his first sexual encounter with Rytman resulted in a spiral into depression and his first trip to the hospital.

Althusser, who wrote insightfully about his illness, claimed that his mother, Lucienne Berger, had adopted him as a replacement husband, and disapproved of him meeting or showing sexual interest in women. Berger’s lover had been a young man named Louis Althusser, who died in Verdun during the war. In deference to a Mediterranean tradition, she married his brother, Charles Althusser, and gave the name of her dead lover to her first son. Louis sounds like the French ‘Lui’ meaning ‘Him’; as though when young Louis was being addressed, it was always someone else who was being hailed. Charles seems not to have been a particularly present father, and so Althusser claimed, “I endlessly played the game of ‘father of the father’ to give myself the illusion of having one … and that was only possible through conferring upon myself the fatherly function par excellence: domination and mastery of any possible situation.” 

In fact, this analysis seems to have come from Rytman herself, who offered it in a 1964 letter having read the works of Melanie Klein. Lacking a symbolic ‘father’, he created one at an imaginary level: himself. His idealisations (religious, political and personal), and investment in institutions embodying ideals, could be seen as an attempt to introduce the paternal ‘third term’ enabling him to separate from a depressed mother, for whom he seems to have been ‘mother’s little phallus’.

But idealisation in psychosis has a particular quality. As Annie Rogers (herself a diagnosed psychotic) points out, psychotic delusion is not ‘belief’; it is experienced as objective reality. One’s thoughts are objects. In the case of Bronzehelmet, his ego-ideals were literally ‘the best of him’, objects that could be taken from him, leaving him impoverished. Althusser’s ego-ideals were always institutionalised: the Church, the Ecole Normale Superieure (“a maternal ambience … like am amniotic fluid”), the PCF. And the same goes for marriage. They provided a degree of continuity and stability, a framework of meaning in which one could live. But they would never achieve the separation (‘castration’) they were supposed to, in part because Althusser depended on the delusion of being the ‘father-of-the-father’ and had no desire to be castrated: his depressions were often linked to castration anxiety. This partly accounts for his ambivalence toward these institutions, his tendency to oscillate between loyal humility and resentment or maverick contempt.

Certainly, the delusion worked for him, enabling him to produce some of the most original and brilliant philosophical work in the twentieth century. It would be merely tendentious, at best, to say that his theoretical antihumanism, his conception of history as a process without a subject, was reducible in some way to his symptom, his intense experience of non-being. Part of what kept him sane for much of the time was that he was a rigorous and logical thinker. Nonetheless, the production of knowledge always has psychic conditions -- if not, in the context of psychosis, unconscious conditions -- as Althusser knew all too well.

In his relationship with Rytman, he had been dazzled by her and tried to return her love “as a religious offering, as I had done for my mother”: an idealisation that, of course, was profoundly ambivalent. He wanted everything of her:

“She loved me as a mother loves a child...and at the same time like a good father in that she introduced me...to the real world, that vast arena I had never been able to enter....Through her desire for me she also initiated me...into my role as a man, into my masculinity. She loved me as a woman loves a man!”

It is not necessary to believe that Rytman was ‘nicer’ in the relationship than Althusser, which would just be a version of the patriarchal lie that ‘women are nicer than men’. By all accounts they tormented one another, and bore the brunt of one another's illnesses. The things that couples put one another through, the lies that they collude in, the mutually assured destruction, are not in the least gender-neutral, but nor are they conformable to simple political fables. But it is absolutely clear that no one would be able to bear up under this kind of idealisation, which is always violent and demanding and always disappointed: and his passionate, guilty affairs outside the marriage are an absolutely predictable consequence of it. 

Their relationship seems to have swung wildly between tentative distances and destructive closenesses, particularly after 1962 when his depressive periods escalated. Often he had to undertake seminars and public interventions only with a great effort of will. When Althusser and Rytman began seeing the same analyst in 1966, the tendency toward a destructive fusion was accelerated. Althusser played the father-of-the-father, or analyst-of-the-analyst, ‘explaining’ Rytman’s case to her, while schooling his non-Lacanian shrink in the Lacanian ideas about which he himself was ambivalent. It is not clear why Rytman colluded in this set-up with regard to the analyst, or why she remained in a destructive relationship or didn’t try to change it — what, in other words, her symptom was. Nonetheless, the ever-tightening mutual dependency and despair culminated in the isolation of the apartment where the murder would take place, and where they were tearing verbal strips out of one another. 

The background was, of course, the crisis of the ideals to which Althusser had subscribed: the collapse of French communism, the retreat of the working class, the disintegration of the Lacanian school with the dissolution of the École Freudienne. As the psychoanalyst Lewis Kirshner argues, the dissolution of these ego-ideals would have posed their own threat to Althusser’s psychic stability. And Rytman had been, from the start, a kind of hero to Althusser, “his ultimate intellectual and emotional container, which could no longer shield him from despair”. Many people at the time were exposed to the same currents: both Evald Ilyenkov and Nicos Poulantzas committed suicide in 1979, and the following year Fay Stender, a former Black Panther lawyer, killed herself. Others simply retreated from politics. The nature of Althusser’s psychosis, of course, was such that he could not abandon his idealisations without impoverishing himself.

According to Roudinesco, the facts of the murder are these. Following surgery for a hernia, he degenerated into severe depression. He was hospitalised, and subjected to various medications, none of which helped. He was discharged before fully recovered. He was constantly vomiting, losing his grip on language, in a state of mental derangement. He was experiencing suicidal ideation. Their analyst foresaw grave danger, and wrote to Rytman that he urgently needed to be hospitalised again. The letter did not arrive at its destination. In the dawn hours of 16th November 1980, Althusser was massaging her neck as he often had. He entered into a hallucinatory state. He came to his senses, and Rytman was staring ahead, her tongue protruding through her teeth. She had not screamed, and there were no bruises. Nonetheless, Althusser immediately knew what he had done, and ran out of the apartment screaming that he had strangled his wife.

It is important not to elide different registers of responsibility. Legal and ethical responsibility are quite different domains. Legal responsibility assigns blame and justified resentment which must, of course, be mitigated by mental illness. The logic of punishment has enough absurdity in it without also prosecuting people whose state in committing a crime was hallucinatory, and who are already plunging into personal hell. However, as Althusser knew well enough, the ethic of psychoanalysis is that everyone must be enabled to take responsibility for their own symptom, simply because their is no one else who can take responsibility for it. To take responsibility for one’s own symptom is to have some say in one’s destiny. It is to refuse victimhood, a paranoid form of being wherein one is only ever the object of the actions of larger and powerful forces.

Roudinesco’s account gives the impression that prior to the murder, Althusser really didn’t want to change. That, for all the immense suffering it brought him, he was addicted to his symptom. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the norm. In the aftermath of the murder, his non-being confirmed by the court, he was plunged into years of darkness, drugged and hospitalised.

His final act, the post-humous publication of his biography, is a deliberately perplexing compendium of inventions, half-truths, confessions, speculations, self-analyses, all arguably aimed at obscuring the central fact that he was not an absence, but, as his biographer Gregory Elliott puts it, "a man with qualities". That is, a man with a symptom and responsibility for it. But it is a shame that, in the discussion of the murder, Rytman hardly ever appears as a woman with qualities.

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Richard Seymour is a writer, broadcaster and socialist based in London. He is the author of Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics and a founding editor of Salvage. Read and support his work directly at Patreon.