Louis Althusser 1978

Letter to Merab Mamardachvili

Source: Multitudes;
Translated: by Mitchell Abidor;
CopyLeft: Creative Commons (Attribute & ShareAlike) marxists.org 2007.

Merab Mamardachvili, who died in 1990, was a Georgian philosopher with whom Althusser maintained an epistolary relationship that began in 1968.

January 16, 1978
Dear Merab,

Your note and the marvelous little coin necklace today in the mail. Very touched. There was your appeal, and news transmitted by this one and that one, among them Annie, seen for the first time in I don’t know how long (she’s always galloping about in other lands) and in general I was told that you were doing “fine.” I take it or leave it when it comes from a third person, but I know you’re quite strong and I said to myself that it’s perhaps true even though everything points to the opposite and I imagine that all the friends are leaving. This time, in your own hand, I arrive at the truth. Of course I’d like to see and hear you, but I imagine quite well, according to what I glimpsed una volta, how things must be around you and you know, as in the past, “the elephants are contagious.” Today everything is communicated, curtains do nothing, only the forms change, which might be important since they allow things either to flow relatively or they pitilessly block. I can’t say how many times I’ve thought of your remark, “ I stay because it is here that we see the heart of things, nakedly.” A duty of the intellect, but which costs dearly. Not to remain costs just as dearly if I can judge by those who left and who I’ve seen. Quite dearly. And few defend themselves against the general assault on them to exhibit them like wolf children who know how to talk about the forests. You perhaps heard about a colloquium in Venice organized by Il Manifesto on the situation in “post-revolutionary” countries; they really had to work at it to come up with this term! I went there “to discuss,” and since there was nothing but a series of speeches, begun by émigrés followed by unionists and politicians, at a certain moment I had to speak since I was there and the fact was known (the pains in the ass of “notoriety”; you know the line from Heine about one of his enemies: “X is known for his notoriety.”), so I more or less pronounced the little exhortation attached to this note. It could cynically be called: “The morality of history or the moral of history.” You will judge between the moral and morality. Of course there are effects of conjuncture and fashion (for and by those who exploit it), and we know that conjunctures are like storks, they pass even when they fly low (unlike storks), but there’s a little bit more than this; it’s the moment to pay the bill. It doesn’t matter who makes it out, it could even be no one, but the day comes when the little accountings we avoided doing are presented in a long list, and in general it’s not the free-spenders who are called on the pay the bill, but poor buggers like you and me (and how many others who are even more lost). Since all bills are either false or falsified they have to be re-done, but at first they must be accepted, all of this in a political and theoretical shit without precedent (unless the worst occurs) which has as its only advantage in not being able to be eluded. And in any event you have to pay both for yourself (which is understandable) but for the others. And what others!

This is some of what I tried to say between the lines of that “masked” talk in Venice, improvised and so lacking in rigor between the reasons, but in an attempt to dam up the waters. The dams which Machiavelli speaks of, but he had rivers at hand and as for us, go know if they are rivers or whatever. I have the impression that it’s as if we never knew this. Yes, this isn’t the first variation in conjuncture, where the accumulation of difficulties goes so far as to change the aspect of the day, you don’t feel it coming, a long time in deciding and then as if suddenly we’re no longer in the same air. But this time, if reality abounds and even repeats itself, it’s the signposts that are lacking. Another impression: that of having fought for so long on a front only to find it fade away, that there’s no longer a front , and that the battle (or what takes its place) is everywhere, and in the first instance right at your back. You have to be a Koutousov and know how to sleep on your horse for the great retreat in the cold. But there are no more horses (at least with us, and without a horse how can you sleep on it?).

It is here that we can see, not in the consciousness which has always been haunted by their existence but, with hindsight, its limits or insanities. I see as clear as day that what I did fifteen years ago was to fabricate a tiny, very French, justification, in a good little rationalism nourished with a few references (Cavaillès, Bachelard, Canguilhem, and behind them a bit of the Spinoza-Hegel tradition) with pretensions to Marxism (historical materialism) which presented itself as a science. Which in the end serves (served, for I’ve changed some since) in the good old tradition of every philosophical enterprise as a guarantee and a down payment. I also see that, things being what they were at the time, the pretensions and counter-pretensions being what they were, and I being what I was things could not have been different, and the lines I spoke were almost natural, as natural as the storms and hail of Spinoza. I half-believed this, like any “good” spirit, but in order to write that half of mistrust was necessary for the other half.. This scaffolding doubtless rendered people the service of being able to climb onto the roof of the house, and go know what they did with the roof and the house and the view of the landscape they got from their climb! Even so, things are a little complicated and, in addition, I’ve acquired another certainty, to wit: that the writings follow each other with a logic which as little as you recognize in general its necessity in order to be at all a philosopher, doesn’t allow itself to be “rectified” as easily as all that. Rectify, rectify, something will always remain behind... The character’s prison remains, even if the “character” who had the imprudence to reveal itself in a text decides to announce that it has changed. I go back to the famous precept: never write the works of your youth! Never write your first book!

Not everything was vain or worthless in this adventure, for the logic of the play of assertions is not that of the assertions themselves. But the question is to know how to “manage” this presumed or presumptive past in a situation like the one we are subjected to. The only answer I find for the moment is silence. And despite all the differences, I understand yours, which has quite other reasons. In the same way as I understand the temptation and the option of a retreat into “the metaphysical depths” which have the advantage of combating solitude. A silence that can be definitive, and why not?. Or a retreat to publish a few little things despite it all on Machiavelli, Gramsci and consorts, or a few impertinences on philosophy, an old idea that I have been dragging around, you remember, but which with the aid of experience I must seriously rectify since the time of our promenades in the pasture, or maybe even about the Epicurean tradition? Nothing of importance in a time when one must be armed with enough concrete knowledge in order to be able to speak of things like the state, the economic crisis, organizations, the “socialist” countries, etc. I don’t have this knowledge and I have to, like Marx in 1852, “begin again at the beginning,” but it’s late for this, given my age, fatigue, lassitude, and also solitude.

Of course there is the possibility of returning to “Capital,” now that we more or else see what doesn’t work in its reasoning, which doesn’t touch on the idea of the factory, but on its arguments. But here too in all logic it wouldn’t suffice to take it apart, but one must put the mechanism back together, which supposes other pieces and something more than the little philosophical culture I dispose of.

You speak of “disgust”; I hear this word around me from among the best of them. And yet here it’s not as it is in your country, but it’s the same word. It’s the word that openly says that we can no longer find our place in all this shit and that it’s vain to look for it, for all places are carried along by the insane course of things. We can no longer bathe at all in a river. Unless you’re a picket planted in the current that silently holds on. To a bit of terra firma. The important thing is to find this bit of earth beneath the waters. After all, it’s the “shaking-up of the world” of Montaigne who, when it comes to conjunctures, saw quite a few of all kinds. But the book is already written; you have to find something else.

If you can write me I am a taker for your “metaphysical depths;” by curiosity and so as to know how you do it and in order to guess from the answers you seek the questions that are troubling you.

I passed a very difficult summer, but I’ve now found a certain equilibrium. I can read a bit and am capable of waiting. The incredible way the problems of the world tie themselves around personal fantasies is incredible and pitiless. I’ve lived this. But I also lived the first denouement of the thing, and this gave me some courage and a kind of “learned” courage. This changes nothing in the mess that is the world, but in the obsessions of the soul... it’s a beginning that is, let us say, encouraging. And so, change the order of one’s thoughts rather than the order of the world...

Forgive this long confidence, dear Merab. Here I keep everything to myself; with you things are different.

I embrace and care about you.