One of the most touching compliments I received, a long time ago, was when a shy young man blurted out: ‘You look like the young Kristeva!’ This happened on a Theory Summer Camp, at the Cornell School of Criticism and Theory (SCT). The compliment was flattering, to be sure, but also sincere and welcome, a warm blanket when I needed it. Being compared to Kristeva struck a chord because it involved both beauty and brains: Kristeva was an iconic European female intellectual, an ideal to aspire to. The SCT was intense: I was staying with a serious, budding author, S., in a huge dormitory on campus. We both had our own wing of empty dorm rooms and a matching load of troubles, dealing with grief, love and an uncertain academic future. We were enrolled in a six-week seminar on psychoanalysis and affect, taught by Mary Jacobus. The reading was heavy and when we did not have class, there was a full programme of public lectures and social activities. In the hothouse atmosphere of the summer camp, heavy with gossip and intrigue, we – a bunch of privileged, predominantly white PhD students or postdocs from around the world – were allowed a glimpse into the heated debates and outrageous behaviour of the academic elite.
All this happened in the early 2000s, no longer the heyday of Theory in the sense of French, poststructuralist theory, but its aftermath. The older generation of structuralists, poststructuralists, deconstructionists and trauma theorists – who is still running the summer school to this day – was being challenged by newcomers from postcolonial theory, affect theory and queer theory. Julia Kristeva was not present that year, though she could have been, as an honorary fellow of the SCT. But she was there in my discussions with S., who harboured a somewhat creepy fascination with death and images of the dead. I knew Kristeva’s work quite well by then, it was thanks to Kristeva that K. had become one of my best friends at the end of the 1990s. While she was making her thesis about Black Sun (1987), Kristeva’s book on mourning and melancholia, K. and I spent hours on the phone discussing melancholia, the semiotic, the chôra and the abject, if not our not-so-successful love lives.1 When I started teaching myself, I devoted a seminar to Kristeva’s work.
It was a time when theory and psychoanalysis opened up a window to a new world, a passionate discovery, with as much impact as the first discovery of music, literature, art and sex in high school. I read voraciously, took seminars and participated in reading groups. I went to lectures whenever famous people came to the university. Many defining memories and lasting ties are related to this period, when Theory and life were intimately intertwined.
A LEAGUE OF HER OWN
Julia Kristeva was one, if not the most prominent, of the not so many female stars at the firmament of French Theory. Although she dealt with questions of femininity, she always kept her distance from feminism. She moved in a world of the great, male authors and thinkers of poststructuralism – Roland Barthes, Lucien Goldmann, Emile Benveniste, Jacques Lacan. She was one of them, and although her husband was the crown prince of the nouveau roman and founder of the legendary journal Tel Quel, her fame soon eclipsed his. Kristeva had star quality, including an unusual background in a communist regime – which continues to re-emerge as a shady spy plot – and a stellar academic career, with 500 people present at her PhD defence.
Still, the figure of Kristeva as an intellectual star never completely coincided with my reading experience of her work, which is more ambivalent. Her thoroughness and scholastic spirit – the product of a traditional Francophile, religious education in a totalitarian communist system – sometimes sit uneasily with the poststructuralist spirit of her work and appear to belong to a bygone era. Starting out as a linguist, with a penchant for the avant-garde, Kristeva, like most Parisian intellectuals at the time, became heavily influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis. By the 1980s she combined an analytic practice with two academic careers (in Paris and New York) and a family, while entering the most prolific period in her writing.2 Her work is marked by a knack for great and timely subjects: the revolutionary potential of the archaic layers of language, motherhood, the abject, melancholia, the stranger, revolt and female genius. Incredibly erudite, Kristeva goes for the big picture, combining evocative, poetic reflections with exegeses of Freud and Lacan, case studies from her practice, and close readings of the Western canon and avant-garde literature.
The style of her theoretical work is both abstract and beautiful, especially when read in French, but also demanding, verging on turgid. Her turn to fiction at the end of the 1990s – leading to a series of metaphysical detective stories, interspersed with barely veiled autobiographical elements and hardcore erotic scenes – was a disappointment, the erudition now coming across as elitist and lacklustre. And so, over time, I – as many of my friends, including K. – stopped reading her work, although she remained prolific. I saw her live, for the first time, about ten years ago, at a literary festival. She spoke in a chapel, about Saint Teresa and mystic love. Obviously older, dressed in expensive clothes, composed and charismatic, she was still impressive. At the same time, her unwavering belief in psychoanalysis, humanism and Eurocentric cosmopolitanism felt out of touch. Like many of her avant-garde contemporaries from the 1960s, her position had shifted into conservativism and elitism, rendering the ardent revolutionary claims not entirely untrue, but uncomfortable in their supposed universality.
In recent years, quite a lot of new material by and about Kristeva has come out: interviews and lectures.3 More and more fragments of her personal life are brought into the public domain.4
Browsing through her website, I stumbled upon a short video–essay from 2011, titled ‘Reliance’ which unexpectedly moved me quite a bit.5 The video is a fast-paced bombardment of different types of images: blurry close-ups of a birth – in a cheeky answer to Gustave Courbet’s L’origine du monde (1866) – found footage, images of the young Kristeva with her son, paintings and sculptures explored in detail by the camera. The montage is syncopated by strong pulsating flashes and on-screen textual fragments. The soundtrack is a text read by Kristeva, mixed with musical compositions – Anton Webern’s Das Augenlicht and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. Although I’d never actually seen some of them before, the images, the music and the text were deeply familiar, transporting me back to ‘Stabat Mater,’ my favourite essay.
MOTHERHOOD AS PASSIONATE LOVE
Written in 1976 – the year after her son David was born – ‘Stabat Mater’ always struck me as her most daring and brilliant essay. It is included in Tales of Love (1984), which examines and rewrites the history of Western thinking, from the perspective of passionate love. Love, according to Kristeva, is the origin of both subject and culture, not because it is a positive feeling, but because it is so powerful that it has to be perpetually (re)conceptualised in order to handle its destructive force. She takes her cue from Freud’s ‘On Narcissism’ (1914) in which the concepts of narcissism, idealisation and identification are introduced as the main mechanisms at work in passionate love. Narcissism is not a pathology but rather the precondition for object love: the ability to love yourself before you can love someone else. In order to become a subject, libido must be invested (cathected) in the self as object. This process is driven by idealisation, the self as object of love is an ideal self, and it is by identifying with an ideal that the subject is able to develop. What happens in passionate love is similar. The loved object is idealised to such an extent that all libido flows towards it. This explains why, when in love, we feel such overwhelming desire to become one with the loved object in a blissful unity. And why – as in the endless phone calls with K. – we need so many words to come to terms with the inevitable failure of this desire and the loss of the object.
Freud refers to the myth of Narcissus to explain the universal experience of narcissism. Narcissus dies because he falls in love with his mirror image, the desire to merge with a loved one shaped as ideal self is a deadly illusion. In her reading of the myth, Kristeva points out that Narcissus not only falls in love with his image on the water surface, but he is also fatally drawn to the darkness underneath. Kristeva does not link this pull of darkness to the death drive per se, but rather to the negative outlines left by the separation from the maternal. This idea refers back to the process of abjection, which was the focus of Powers of Horror (1980). According to this theory, in order to become a subject, the child has to ‘abject’ (to expel or cast off) the mother, to disentangle from her overwhelming presence and symbiotic unity. The process of separation begins with birth, which is a bodily tearing apart of two biologically connected creatures. This experience is so violent that it unleashes mortal anxiety, both in mother and child. Since we have all been born, all psyches are marked by the primary traces of this separation, as a kind of mould that defines ex negativo the contours of subjectivity, like the imprint of negative hands known from cavemen painting or the dark water on which the mirror image can emerge. Abjection marks the boundaries of the subject as ambivalent and unstable. Later in life, the feeling of abjection resurges whenever we are confronted with liminal phenomena – Kristeva’s examples are the experience of seeing a corpse, the revulsion one feels for the skin on top of hot milk or the open entrails of roadkill – as a mixture of fascination and repulsion.
In Tales of Love Kristeva examines how the ambivalent, potentially lethal origins of love between narcissism and abjection shape three basic Western conceptions of love: Greek eros, Jewish ahav, and Christian agape. Eros and ahav are physical, sexual forms of love. In the work of Plato, eros is associated with a masculine (homosexual) position, whereas the Bible conceptualises a feminine position of desire for fusion with God as the beloved in the Song of Songs. In the New Testament, finally, passionate love is transformed into idealised love through the notion of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice. The ritual consumption of the Eucharist, which is both a symbol but also literally the body of Christ, allows the Christian to identify with God, the name of the Father through incorporation. Within the history of Christianity, Kristeva draws attention to the figure of Mary and to the importance of the mother and maternal love in the chapter ‘Stabat Mater’ which juxtaposes the history of the veneration of Mary to her own experience of giving birth to her son.
The dogma of the immaculate conception and the deification of the Virgin are relatively late developments in Catholic theology, initially based on an error of translation which led to a confusion of Mary’s unmarried status and her supposed virginity. In the course of Christian theology, Mary is conceptualised as the Virgin-mother of Christ, but she is also represented as his daughter and his wife (and that of God). Ascended into Heaven, she acquires attributes of a medieval courtly Lady and becomes the Queen-mother of the church, endowed with both heavenly and earthly power. The popular image of the mater dolorosa, the mother mourning her child, finally, lays bare the immanence of death and loss at the heart of maternity. The incredibly complex image of Mary thus encompasses love ranging from maternal love, to erotic love, tenderness, power, vulnerability and death; a fitting figure of passion revealed by a scandalous reading of theology.
Kristeva does not sketch Mary’s development just to display her virtuosity. Her aim is to show how each layer of the Virgin can be read as a response to cultural developments (for instance the attributes of the courtly lady added in the Middle Ages or the relatively late dogma of the immaculate conception in the 19th century) as well as to deep-rooted psychological needs in society. The increasing prominence of the Virgin-mother allowed Christianity to incorporate older remnants of matriarchal religions and over time placed maternal love at the heart of human society. Although professing to be an atheist, Kristeva points out that this uniquely powerful female figure at the heart of a monotheistic religion is more than just a theological matter. Mothers not merely give biological life, but they are also at the origin of the development of thinking. As such, Catholicism offers an important counterpoint to the exclusion of women in Western ethics and reading it against the grain – heretically – can be the basis for a new ethics in contemporary society in which the role of women would be fully taken into account: a maternal ethics, so Kristeva hopes, would be a ‘herethics (…) which makes life’s bonds bearable, that which enables us to tolerate thought, and hence the thought of death.’6
Literally opposite to this historical–cultural narrative is a second column which contains a poetic evocation of the shattering experience of pregnancy and giving birth to her son. What emerges here is the notion of motherhood as a benign form of psychosis, one of the few experiences of ego-splitting that can result in a fundamental transformation of one’s subject position vis-à-vis the other. Again, Kristeva proposes that thinking through the extremely complex experience of motherhood and putting it at the heart of society could serve as a powerful antidote to contemporary problems related to love, such as excessive narcissism and idealism and borderline pathologies. She sees the rejection of motherhood by, among others, the feminist movement at that time, as partly responsible for this and as a great loss. Kristeva’s focus on motherhood in the 1980s is very much rooted in biological experience and traditional heteronormative patterns.7 Her attitude towards feminism and gender theory is highly ambivalent to say the least. As Maggie Nelson points out in The Argonauts (2015) – a description of her pregnancy alongside the gender transition of her partner – Kristeva’s statements about lesbian motherhood are in line with those of other poststructuralist thinkers who are ultimately patriarchal and deeply reactionary.8 Still, it is quite striking how Nelson’s visceral and explicit eroticism echoes Kristeva’s autotheoretical passages in ‘Stabat Mater’.
THE RETURN TO MATERNAL PASSION IN OLD AGE
Four decades after ‘Stabat Mater’ Kristeva herself returned to maternal love in terms of passion, emphasising the powerful erotic bond that connects mother and child.9 In her recent writings, she focuses on the maternal task to disconnect and let go of the passionate attachment to one’s child, which is made possible through two mental operations. On the one hand, maternal eroticism can be converted into tenderness, which marks the way in which a mother cares for her child and family throughout her life. On the other hand, the experience of (re)learning language with her child, gives her a new, creative access to language, through bodily experience, which can be used to sublimate her overpowering maternal passion in writing or art. To understand the ongoing, oscillating dynamic of maternal eroticism, Kristeva introduces the concept of ‘reliance’, derived both from the French relier (to reconnect, to tie together again), and the English verb ‘to rely, to depend on’. Reliance is a specific ‘economy of the drive’, neither repression nor sublimation, that retains and fixates the traces of the splitting of mother and child, in the mother’s ties to the other.
Biologically as well as psychologically, motherhood is a sudden experience, a flash, that cannot be symbolised, because it coincides with fragmentation and mortal anxiety. Rather than destroying the ego in psychosis, however, the split leads to a multiplication of the ego that must be lived through and symbolised in culture. In this sense, motherhood is both a passion – an experience on the edge of body and mind – and a vocation, i.e. a cultural dilemma. The in-between space opened up by motherhood-as-split is marked by a fundamental strangeness, but it is also a lasting source of maternal eroticism, which is a pulsating movement of withdrawal (depassion) and reconnection or reliance. This leads to a ‘multiverse’ rather than a universe, a time and place of multiple deaths and rebirths: ‘Always inside and outside, self and other, neither self nor other, in between: the maternal eroticism separated and relies: hiatus and junction.’10 A supreme expression of reliance is the musical and pictorial ‘Stabat Mater’, because it evokes an experience so overpowering that it can only be expressed as movement and pure emotion. The mother holding her dead son, her maternal eroticism so strong that it allows her to do the impossible: to sublimate loss to such an extent that she can hold on to her child not only in life but also in death.
The Kristevan mother that emerges here is different from Winnicott’s ‘good-enough mother’, who is so central to Maggie Nelson’s understanding of motherhood in The Argonauts. More attuned to a later phase of life, it is a mother who has to let go of her children, not only to prepare them for disillusion in later life, but also to inscribe her own mortality and that of her children, revealing her as a liminal figure on the verge of life and death. And it is here – in midlife, entering a new phase with children growing up and leaving the house and taking care of our parents like children, preparing to let them go – that I find myself being inspired by Kristeva again. The pulsating montage of the accompanying video–essay on reliance, touching in its amateurish quality, emphasises a powerful erotic force at the heart of her thinking, that brings together two things that seem antithetical, motherhood and thinking. It shows her as an intellectual who continues to evolve, while remaining consistent with her early work and brings to the centre stage a type of intellectual that I have been missing, no longer as a contradictio in terminis but as a fragmented unity: the mother–intellectual as an erotic being.
Tapping into maternal eroticism, Kristeva’s return to motherhood as an old woman, still living with and caring for her disabled son and husband within a family unit, forcefully reveals how profoundly and lastingly the experience of motherhood shapes her thinking. Both a confrontation with imminent death and a clinging to the world in an outburst of passionate love, the maternal erotic adds a layer of vulnerability and strength to Kristeva’s public persona. It offers a counterpoint to the meritocratic story of intellectual stardom and bourgeois–bohemian avant-garde as well as to worn-out notions of female intellectual pursuit as a recuperation of the Phallus.
Discussing all this in the past weeks with people from different generations and genders, young colleagues and friends, my mother and K., while we celebrated a big birthday, brings me back to SCT and to what has made Kristeva’s thinking and by extension psychoanalysis and Theory so vitally important to me, then and now. At its best, Theory is entrenched in lived experience, in sexuality and the body, in emotion as well as in aesthetic sensibility. Concepts are living beings; they take root in us and reveal things in a fundamentally new light. But as Kristeva, more than anyone, has shown: this taking root is ambivalent. Concepts and theories cannot be mastered, they attract and repulse. And when we think we get it, we want out of the system, to discover new territories, because there is no cure, or dogma, nor magical key to the universe and its problems. But as we try to get rid of concepts, to forget them, and to move beyond, they can creep up again, as questions, as renewed encounters, to make us stop and think, to reconsider old links and new connections, passionately, tenderly, erotically.
- Julia Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
- Famous works like Powers of Horror: An essay on abjection, New York: Columbia University Press, 1982; Tales of Love, New York: Columbia University Press, 1987; Black Sun and Strangers to Ourselves, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, all date from this period.
- Kristeva’s official website www.kristeva.fr/ offers a selection of recent articles, lectures and press articles. Many are collected in Julia Kristeva, Passions of Our Time, New York: Columbia University Press, 2018, and in Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers, Marriage a fine Art, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. Numerous interviews, lectures and photographs circulate on YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest.
- Biographical information and private photographs and videos can be found in two documentaries: François Caillat, Julia Kristeva: étrange étrangère, Collection Un certain regard, Paris: INA, 2005, and Iskra Angelova, Who’s Afraid of Julia Kristeva?, Wonderland Productions and Bulgarian National TV, 2016. There is a memoir in interview form, Julia Kristeva, Je me voyage. Mémoires. Entretiens avec Samuel Dock, Paris: Fayard, 2016, and most recently, Alice Jardine, Julia Kristeva. At the Risk of Thinking: An intellectual Biography, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.
- Julia Kristeva and G. K. Galabov, ‘Reliance’, film presented at the Congrès des psychanalystes de langue française, Paris, 5 juin 2011. www.kristeva.fr/reliance.html
- Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, New York: Columbia University Press, 1987, p.152.
- Margaret Bruzelius, ‘Mother’s Pain, Mother’s Voice: Gabriela Mistral, Julia Kristeva, and the Mater Dolorosa’, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, vol.18, no.2, Fall 1999, pp.215–33.
- Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts, Minneapolis: Greywolf Press, 2015, p.79.
- Julia Kristeva, Passions of our Times, New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.
- Ibid. p.107.