Julia Kristeva is a world famous semiotician, feminist theorist, psychoanalyst and at the same time an interesting creative writer. She was born in Bulgaria in 1941, but came to Paris in 1965 where she became immersed in Parisian intellectual life. Her acclaimed novel "Les SamouÔs" (1990) analyzes the Parisian intellectual avant-garde to which she has belonged ever since. And though psychoanalysis remains one of the major orienting and formative
An Interview with Julia Kristeva
by Nina Zivancevici
Parisian intellectual avant-garde to which she has belonged ever since. And though psychoanalysis remains one of the major orienting and formativedimensions of her work, especially as regards her reflections upon the nature of the feminine, she has also continued her research on the nature of language and examined the processes leading to the emergence of the work of art. As the theorist John Lechte points out, " because of the intimate link between art and the formation of subjectivity, Kristeva has always found art to be a particularly fruitful basis for analysis. " Since the 1960s, she has
been a leading force in the critique of representation and her most recent book is a critical study of Colette's work and life, that is to say, one of the numerous projects that she has been energetically working on.
Q: When did you start getting interested in the notion of the "feminine"? Was it with the exploration of the notion of “chora”or the female voice in linguistics and semiology? Or rather, from that point on how have you arrived at the so-called feminist studies and writing understood in terms of their sociological and/or aesthetic significance?
J.Kristeva: It is very difficult to trace back my interest in the "feminine". I suppose that at the very moment in which I started asking questions about myself the question of the “feminine” had already been formulated in my mind, so one could say perhaps it started in the period of my adolescence when I became interested in literature which necessarily asks questions about the sexual differences. But, you are right, in my theoretical work, this question is raised in a more succinct manner, perhaps also more discreet one, but which was nevertheless very intense
It must be said that this question is related to the notion of "chora" which directs us back to the archaic state of language . This state is known to a child who is in a state of osmosis with his/her mother during which language manifests itself as co-lalia , a melodic alliteration that precedes the introduction of signs within a syntactic order. The period during which I started developing this notion was that of the writing of my Ph.D on the avant-garde of the 19th century (MallarmŤ and Lautreeamont) and I had understood how much of that, what we call hermiticism in literature, is connected to the rehabilitation, more or less conscious, of that archaic language. By the way, I was also at that time undergoing an analysis myself, and so became convinced that what we have discussed was really true.
Q: Is it difficult to "abandon" or at least to set aside one's mother tongue and write in another language ?
Kristeva: No, I haven't had the impression that I had abandoned my mother tongue by coming to France because I had learnt French when I was four or five and had been bilingual. It is true though that the transition from one mother tongue to the other is a real matricide particularly when one ends up expressing himself only in this second language and one’s rapport to the first one remains extremely limited, which is my case, but it didn’t happen with me in that era (of coming to France). It was quite a gradual change.
Q: Given the fact that you have written a lot about the importance of the so-called "sick" states of mind, could you tell us whether they are related in any way to Art ? Would you see Art as the means of healing them or do you see it as an independent entity? Is Art a sort of "love" for you (the way Freud would have it) and a sort of human cure?
Kristeva: It has always shocked commentators when I affirm my agreement with the ancient Greeks who viewed art as catharsis or purification and I would add that it is a sort of sublimation for the "borderline" states, in the broadest sense of the term, that is, it comprises those characterized by fragility. If we analyze contemporary art, we get the impression that two types of fragility are examined by contemporary artists. On one hand, we have perversion, that is, all sorts of sexual transgressions. To this effect, it is enough to just browse through contemporary books or simply look at the "culture" pages of "LibŤration" which review exhibitions to see that the form and the content of the experience serve as means of overcoming these states. They testify to the existence of these states, as well as that of a certain desire to make them public, or even share them with others, that is, to take them out of their closet which is a soothing action after all despite its commercial aspect since one turns a "shameful thing" into something positive. So you see, here we have something that transcends the notion of "cure" and is at times something gratifying.
Some think that these works are scandal-oriented, others think that they rejoice in ugliness , yes, certainly there are elements of such orientations in them, but, on the other hand, the existence of these works is also a research -- often in a very specific manner -- on the anticipation of difficulty of living.
Q: Does contemporary art have to do with Voyeurism, as is the case with the most recent literature nowadays which purports to describe the most intimate states of the body and the soul ?
Kristeva: Absolutely! This is ever the case with literature and when it does not try to treat perversion, it is deals with psychotic states, that is, the states of identity loss, the loss of language, the borderline cases which cohabit and coexist with delirium and violence, but all of this does not have to bear the imprint of something negative. Some think that these works are scandal-oriented, others think that they rejoice in ugliness , yes, certainly there are elements of such orientations in them, but, on the other hand, the existence of these works is also a research -- often in a very specific manner -- on the anticipation of difficulty of living. And Art can play an important role here since it can contribute to a certain creative assumption of such a difficulty. Nevertheless, I personally remain a bit skeptical of a certain drift or tendency of contemporary art to content itself with such, so I believe, feeble appropriations of these traumatic states. We remain here at the level of the statement of the clinical cases with an almost documentary style photography of these cases wherein the investment and the effort made in the exploration of new forms or new thoughts remains less visible. So, it is something regrettable which every so often leaves me with the impression that when I visit museums or read certain art books, I am looking into psychoanalytic or even psychiatric archives. But, perhaps this is an indispensable experience.
Q: But you haven't always felt this way- we remember the time when you wrote about Bellini…
Kristeva: That's right, I haven't always felt this way -- this is a very particular moment in art history which deepened and probed a certain aspect of a widespread existential malaise and discontent while neglecting the possibility of its overcoming.
Q: Well, along this line, you wrote in "Tales of Love" that "the psychoanalytic couch is the only place where the social contract authorizes explicitly psychoanalytic investigation, but "leaves Love out of it." However, we find this type of investigation in literature and art as well. You have recently analyzed the "investigation" of the writer Colette whose work deals extensively with love and emotions. Why Colette ?
Kristeva: Why Colette? Because in my trilogy on the feminine genius I tried to analyze the works of two dramatic women who represent the tragic aspect of our (20th) century, Hanna Arendt's on "Totalitarianism" and Melanie Klein's on psychosis, especially children's psychosis, and it seemed to me important (not only to me personally but also for the sake of objectivity) to pay homage to the other aspect of our civilization which is notably our century's source of joy, that is, the feminist liberation and "joie de vivre". And Colette excels in that appropriation of the national language in which she delights and leads to paroxysms of beauty that trace a path which goes beyond the scandal of a woman who asserts her liberty and authority. So, for me, she has become indispensable.
Q: In your novel "Les Samoura?s" you have shown a great literary talent and a certain sense of humor which is certainly lacking in your analytic work. Why have you stopped your literary production, that is to say, writing of novels ?
Kristeva: Oh, I haven't stopped it for after "Les Samoura?s" I wrote "The old man the wolves," then "Possesions," and now I am going to write yet another thriller which will be called, as it seems now, "Our Byzantium". I’d like to continue writing in this polar style and with a certain political motivation. It will be concerned with the possibility -- or the impossibility -- of unifying Eastern Europe with Western Europe. It will deal with the Crusades and in it the modern characters would reveal their ancestors who had been in the Crusades, a catastrophic enterprise which eventually failed as you know, but which has been in its essence an attempt at unifying Europe, an unhappy attempt though. So, I am going to ask a question about the tragedy of this Europe which is now divided, and also this would be a way for me to visit my orthodox origins where I'd also attempt to revive some of my childhood souvenirs.
Q: That's right, the area of Eastern or Central Europe really belongs to "Byzantium".
Kristeva: Yes, we are Byzantium, that is, the Balkans, and I am very proud of the fact that I come from that region. And that's something which is unknown to the West. While it is true that what has survived of Byzantium is in a state of cultural decadence and terrible economic poverty with nothing in it that could seduce the Westerners, it is indisputably the treasure of our rich historical memory that is reflected, as far as I can see, in the dignified sensitivity of people who don’t ask for anything but the minimum allowing them to continue living as the well-educated and highly intelligent men and women who should be less exposed to mentally exhausting pangs of melancholy and the socially debilitating impact of the economic predominance of the mafia that is the case nowadays.
Q: In your novel "Possesions" you started something quite interesting, something that you stopped pursuing after having written the first chapter though, and that particular thing is the psychoanalysis of art which also includes that of the artists and their respective works. Would it be possible to pursue research in this particular field, namely, an analysis of the history of art by following different works of art from different epochs?
Kristeva: I have really enjoyed myself writing about these different works of art, notably, on representations of decapitation, and I believe that the novel as genre, especially thriller which is an open genre and completely renewable allows for this type of digression in writing. But they have severely criticized me for it and told me that the book was too intellectual, very brainy and that the reader who wanted to know how the crime was being developed and the murder had to suffer by having had to wait. That was the malevolent reaction of those who have known me as an intellectual and who did not like the fact that I was going to write novels. So, there is a certain tendency in France, or perhaps elsewhere too, to put labels on people- if you are a teacher, remain a teacher, and if you are a writer, remain a writer, but the two of them at the same time- that you cannot be! So, perhaps I will continue in that direction , that of novel writing, I don't know. I have just finished the book about Colette, and my new thriller is still in notes and scratches, it is not articulated yet, but I am not sure that the fragments which deal with the so-called esthetic problems are excluded from it. It is true we cannot insert a dissertation in a novel, but perhaps we could set a basis there for it.
Q: I believe that one could read your book "The Intimate Revolt" in the light of your dialogue with Hannah Arendt. In fact, she was the one who has spoken of the misery of human beings who are not allowed to have "contemplative" ( read creative) life and who are thus condemned to lead an "active" life, that is, to have a miserable job. Is it the problem of our times that there exist such individuals who revolt against the fact that they cannot realize themselves? That is, who are angst-ridden and end up revolting against themselves?
Kristeva: I believe that you were right to make such assumptions about my eventual dialogue with Hannah Arendt -- I have been reading her work for quite a while and I'd say, in all modesty, that a lot of my writing, consciously or unconsciously, is tied to her thought . The idea of "revolt" was an effort to put myself in relationship with what we hear as "her own thinking" which, following Heidegger's, opposes and relativizes calculative reasoning. As she was very attentive to the work of Heidegger, she conceived of thinking as an inquiry, as an interrogatory process and opposed herself to the calculative framework which structures and characterizes contemporary behavior. My work has found itself a bit within this horizon but I also derived my experience from the psychoanalytical approach which relativizes everyone's identity as well as his/her past. Moreover, I derived my experience from literary works, such as Proust's "Recherche de temps perdu;" for instance, from his flexing of language, metaphors and the syntax. I tried to rethink the mental disposition which helps us carry on, the one which is not a mere repetition of a cliche, something which is like an act of rebirth, that is, rebirth which our thinking re-examines together with our interior life as well as the very opening of the inquiry. This is what I take "revolt" to be. So, it is neither an expression of simple existential anguish nor contesting a socio-political order, but re-establishment of things which we start again. And, in this sense, revolt which engulfs the psychic space is a form of life, be it the state of being in love, or an act of aesthetic creation or a project that could imply a very modest activity but which allows you to re-examine your past, that is, to interrogate it and renew it. And I believe that we have very few occasions in our daily lives which are quite standardized and banalized to work in that direction. The work that we do implies usually a repetition, the accomplishment of a given task. The type of mental functioning which I call "revolt" is something that we lack and it is very dangerous because if it is lacking, we risk confronting two prospective pitfalls: one of them is 'somatization' when the psychic space closes itself off and the conflict manifests itself as bodily illness or, in the other situation, we get into violence, vandalism and wars. So, Vive la RŤvolte !
Interview conducted by Nina Zivancevic, In Paris, March-April 2001