As if a first thought, grasped (saisie) in having been read, persisted in
us through other unforeseen thoughts, as if phrases, reunited in our
memory, combined into new groups, producers of new meanings, as if
from one chapter to another, like the landscapes of that great walker, new
perspectives opened before us: all the more gripping (saisissantes) for
not having been perceived earlier. . . . There, the word has slipped out:
gripping (saisissante). Machiavelli grasps (se saisit) us, but if by chance we
want to grasp (saisir) him, he escapes us: ungraspable (insaisissable).
lOuIS AlThuSSER, Machiavelli and Us
I have often thought that this description of what it is to read Machia-
velli simultaneously captures the experience of reading Althusser himself,
the philosopher who shocked a generation of readers by asking a question
that had all the hallmarks of sheer sophistry, as if it were designed to divert
thought into infinite regression: What is it to read?1 In fact, we can go fur-
ther and say that every one of Althusser’s most arresting (or gripping) ac-
counts of the conflictuality specific to political thinkers and philosophers,
Marx and Lenin, of course, but also Montesquieu and above all Machia-
velli and Rousseau, remind us inescapably of the conflictuality of Althus-
ser’s own work. To admit this is to acknowledge that the very activity of re-
flecting on the antagonisms proper to the work of others must produce its
own antagonisms and that, in a very important sense, more profound than
any intention, every one of his commentaries also represents an attempt
to grasp the uneven and contradictory development of his own work. This
is not to say that he simply projected upon others’ texts the image of his
own disorder, but rather that his awareness of the necessarily contradictory
character of his own work taught him to be attuned to the dissonances in
even the most harmonic of texts, to hear the silences in their loquacity and
the asides they whispered over the head of the reader. And these experi-
ences in turn enjoined him to return once again to his own project in order
more precisely to grasp its constant detours and divergences. As he liked to
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