Pablo Neruda, Chris Brown, Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen. They all have one thing in common: they’ve been ‘cancelled’. ‘Cancel Culture’ or the practice of withdrawing support for public figures in response to their objectionable actions or words is a buzzword that has recently garnered much attention on social media platforms. The less discussed aspect is the more personal and individual process of how to deal with the shock of seeing your ‘heroes’ suddenly and spectacularly fall from their pedestals. In this article, Stuti Pachisia takes up that very question: how does one (if at all) reconcile the public contribution of these celebrities with the atrocities they have committed in their personal lives.
The first time I heard of 20th century French philosopher Louis Althusser, it was as though the world had finally fallen into place. At the age of 18, I spent a semester extensively reading about state apparatuses and the cult of personality. I would cite him relentlessly: in response to trolls, in classroom discussions, in explaining the civil war in Sri Lanka. Louis Althusser was a puzzle piece with four edges, always at the center of every grand mystery I was trying to solve.
That it came from a man who looked like the poster child of modern French philosophy was important to my younger self—it validated him beyond critique. His photographs have him in black and white (even as colour photographs were in fashion at the apex of his popularity). His profile is angled to foreground his strong jawline, his salt-pepper-hair and his tilted pipe. He is always unsmiling, as though he has more important things to do (think?), and the photograph is an irritating distraction. It is the image of the professor I grew up reading about and viewing, made bittersweet by the fact that this was a professor I could never be: I was not white, not French, not smoking, and not male.
A year after I discovered Althusser, my best friend told me that the influential Marxist philosopher had murdered his wife.
Helene Rytmann is rarely photographed without her husband. Most photos of her are captioned “wife of Louis Althusser”, “murdered by Louis Althusser”. There are perhaps two accessible photos of Helene Rytmann without him. Both are unstaged. In the first, she is photographed, seated awkwardly by the water. She was then a young woman on holiday, vaguely looking into the camera. At this point, she has already joined the French Resistance against the Nazis and is a fierce communist at university. In the second, she stands by a doorway, multiple woven bags in her hands. She is looking pointedly at the camera, smiling, as though she has been caught in the middle of a funny story. The only staged element of the photograph are her ankles, which are crossed. The effect is not elegant, but humorous. She laughs, aware. By this point, she is in a relationship with Althusser. She has influenced his communist politics, finetuning his work and by some accounts, often ghost-writing for him. Althusser’s students describe her as humourless and militant, where they describe Althusser as self-effacing, and therefore open, and maternal. A strange description for a woman who is always photographed laughing, and a man who is not.
I am purposely choosing to leave undetailed the description of her brutal murder, the controversial court case that followed, the tell-all 1985 autobiography of Louis Althusser, and his mental illness: enough is available should you want to explore that.
What troubles me is public memory.
We have a full volume from Louis Althusser, explaining his declining mental health, his self-abnegation, besides his volumes of work, which have never been out of print. Rytmann’s legacy is largely kept alive through a few archives, some blogs—several of which heavily insinuate she was to blame in part for her murder, because of their tumultuous marriage. What troubles me is that I would have gone a full lifetime, unaware of Althusser’s violence in the private, as I used his rhetoric to explain violence in the public—had my friend not stumbled upon a Tumblr blog.
Instead of focusing on Althusser, I could have easily chosen a Pablo Neruda, or Woody Allen, or Louis C.K. or Chris Brown—the effect is the same. The reason I chose Althusser, however, is the profound personal loss that came with the identifying of my idol as a violent man and how it directly destabilized my worldview. There is heartbreak. In Hannah Gadsby’s iconic stand up, Nanette, she talks about being influenced by Bill Cosby as a young comic—only to later discover that he had sexually assaulted minors. In a brilliant essay in Electric Literature, Olivia Giovetti speaks poignantly about how Peter Handke’s meditation on mourning and loss helped her grieve through her own father’s death, until, she says, “she f***ing Googled him”.
Althusser was a man I had built a worldview around. My turning to him for ideas and understanding is systemic—in how public memory records and synthesizes information. How we, as public memoirists, record and synthesize information. The damning histories of men—often, revolutionary men—are sifted through to leave only their public victories, ignoring their private violence. Their objective lives—the intellectual, performative, public ones; of being public thinkers and performers—are given validity over their private ones, which are interferences in, rather than reflections of, their genius. These images are given mythical power, reproduced before young women, who are told blatantly to aspire to them. We do, building hierarchical temples to them—certainly, most creative arts and academic systems, overtly or covertly, expect us to. And then we find out about their gendered violence.
There is a deep sense of mistrust that surrounds maleness; idolatry gone sour. One of the most culturally popular outcomes of movements like #LoSHA and #MeToo is the mainstreaming of cancel culture. These movements have been geared at altering public memory, fueled by public participation of speaking out, listening, and responding—causing the private and the public to collide. One of the most actionable responses to #MeToo has been cancelling ‘problematic’ celebrities: refusing to engage with their work or their art once they have been outed them as harassers. Most criticism of cancel culture falsely equates it to a vindictive “mob rule” that destabilizes careers—which is shown to not be the case—and it fails to recognize the very real violence that leads to ‘cancelling’ in the first place.
But a legitimate, feminist critique of the movement is that it is a small bandage on a festering wound. It is our collective celebrity or ‘stanning’, as it is known, of successful men gives them absurd power, that allows them to exploit with the knowledge they can get away in the first place, because their misdemeanors will ultimately fade.
Much of literature and the arts is filled with examples of men whose literary genius is only recently starting to be punctuated by a ‘but’. William S Burroughs was one of the most famous Beat Poets but he killed his wife. Pablo Neruda was a brilliant poet but he raped a lower-caste Tamil woman. Indeed, even as I say ‘successful’ men, I mean all the bodies deemed socially normative: whether white/cisgender/upper-caste/upper-class/straight/abled: JK Rowling wrote one of the most famous books of all time but she is transphobic. These ‘but’s do not really change book sales or popularity with startling immediacy—certainly, the continued legacy of Althusser shows that they may hardly be affected in the long run. But they do challenge public memory—and its distant cousin, collective care.
After JK Rowling’s blatantly transphobic tweets and essays, several trans fans responded with “heartbreak”, mourning the safe spaces they found in Harry Potter. Cancelling was not a full answer—because the books had been a source of light for many, and the anguish of that loss cannot be contained in a refusal to engage with the books ever again. Instead, trans readers of the series responded by creating more LGBTQIA+ fanfiction, urging donations to foundations supporting black trans lives and wresting control of the narrative (quite literally) from JK Rowling. This re-furnishing of the story to forefront the public allows knowledge production to exist in the public, without disproportionately elevating the producer. It allows personal experiences of meaning to supersede the author—indeed, it allows these personal meanings to create new avenues of aftercare for affected trans people.
It is not an easy translation from the Rowling-response model to a personal one. Where fiction allows for an endlessness that allows the author to be deleted, academia is hopelessly limited to foregrounding the author through citation and referencing. My personal struggle with killing my darling is not easy: I imagine my relationship with this question will keep changing as I learn. I continue to struggle with using Althusser’s theories. On one hand, that first experience of the world-making-sense set me on the path to academia. I cannot claim scholarly knowledge and not use his work. On the other, Althusser isn’t indispensable. I cannot separate his emotional abuse and murder of Helene Rytmann into a footnote. This may be the specter haunting our generation: one that anachronistically shapeshifts into every artistic engagement we make; one that demands the fearful question—what if this artist I love is problematic; and one we will continue to grieve.
Lalitha Suhasini is a journalist based in Pune. Her bylines have appeared in magazines such as Rolling Stone India and The Caravan, besides news dailies such as The Hindu and The Indian Express. She tweets @lalithasuhasini. Her kitten Chips is the reason she’s behind deadline and pop-eyed all the time.