Julia Kristeva: Humanities Can Help Thwart the Destructive Depression That Feeds Fanaticism

The Bulgarian-French philosopher talks to Haaretz about Europe’s existential crisis in which economics has supplanted the humanities

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A woman wearing a burkini takes a selfie on the Cannes beach, May 27, 2017.
A woman wearing a burkini takes a selfie on the Cannes beach, May 27, 2017. Credit: Eric Gaillard / Reuters
Gaby Levin
Gaby Levin

A conversation with Julia Kristeva, one of France’s most prominent intellectuals, is a fascinating journey between current events, various disciplines, ideas and languages. It’s clear that Kristeva is a psychoanalyst, linguist, author and philosopher receptive to her environment who connects all the disciplines and worlds in a process she calls “Je me voyage” (using a reflexive verb that can mean “I am my journey” or “I travel myself”).

'After all the achievements, the woman of our day is required to endure impossible burdens. She achieved equal rights, holds key positions in all fields and also deals with births, motherhood, etc. The 'Wonder Woman' more than once ends up broken on the psychoanalytical couch. '

Kristeva, who is esteemed around the world, coined the term, which also serves as the title of her 2016 French-language memoir written as a dialogue with the writer and clinical psychologist Samuel Dock.

Julia Kristeva at the Rome International Literature Festival, June 21, 2010.Credit: Tiziana Fabi / AFP

Kristeva says the exact translation of this concept — which defines her more than anything — challenges translators in many languages: English, Italian, Hebrew. Kristeva is constantly on the move, both intellectually and geographically as one. Even in a phone conversation with her you get the impression of the flow and crossing of bridges that she often mentions – bridges between identities, religions, historical and cultural periods, and especially people.

'Understanding the uniqueness creates relationships between the cultures and deepens them. In the end, ‘respecting’ uniqueness is the basis of human rights, the genius of each that can be shared with the other.'

A conversation with her demands maximum alertness in order to follow the transitions from idea to idea, from topic to topic, and to be convinced that in the end her thinking is coherent and sharp, packed and rich with contexts taken from European culture, history, philosophy and the rest of the humanities that are so close to her heart. And despite my alertness and excitement — because after all this is the celebrated Julia Kristeva — she radiates warmth and is pleasant and open, perhaps thanks to her Slavic roots, perhaps thanks to the humanity that characterizes her worldview.

She was born in Bulgaria in 1941, studied French literature at the University of Sofia and received a scholarship in 1965 that French President Charles de Gaulle awarded students specializing in French culture. She arrived in France on Christmas Eve with five dollars in her pocket and the desire to complete her thesis on a post-World War II, avant-garde style of novel-writing in France.

She studied under literary theorist Roland Barthes. With his encouragement she joined a group of prominent intellectuals of the day, Tel Quel (a pioneering group in literary criticism), of which Barthe was a member. The group also included Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and the author Philippe Sollers, whom she married in 1967.

Versatile mind

Over the years, Kristeva developed her ideas by synthesizing disciplines like philosophy, theology, linguistics, semiotics and psychoanalysis. She also developed a theory of semiotic intertextuality, which views texts as an open symbolic system that relates to another system of symbols. She is a professor emeritus at Paris Diderot University and a tutelary member of the Paris Psychoanalytic Society. She has long been a visiting professor at Columbia University, where she first taught in 1970, and where she shared a chair with Tzvetan Todorov, a fellow Bulgarian expatriate, and Umberto Eco. (Todorov died last year and Eco died in February.)

Kristeva has published many books on philosophy, theology, literary criticism and politics, but also novels like “The Samurai,” which is her reply to the 1954 novel “The Mandarins” by Simone de Beauvoir. Other Kristeva novels include “Murder in Byzantium,” “Teresa, My Love” and “L’Horloge enchantée,” which is due out in English as “The Enchanted Clock” this December. Many of her works have been translated into Hebrew as well.

The cover of 'Je me voyage: Mémoires,' by Julia Kristeva.Credit: Courtesy

I have a disagreement with Muslim women from the left who contend we have to honor women’s free choice to cover their faces or not to work.

She recently published with Sollers “Marriage as a Fine Art” in which they discuss the connection between them, friendship, honesty and each’s independence. They also discuss the dialogue they’ve conducted for 50 years and time as the real hero of intimacy.

Sollers, an esteemed author in France, is a colorful and amusing character. The couple have a 40-year-old son, David, who suffers from motor problems. Kristeva has become involved in the issue of caring for special-needs people and promotes the cause by publishing articles and participating in forums meant to influence decision-makers at all levels.

Ahead of her upcoming visit to Israel, where she will receive an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, she spoke to Haaretz about the lecture she will deliver at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on whether there is such a thing as European culture. As expected, my order of questions changes with her explosions of ideas, and the answer to one question can actually be found in the answer to another — constant movement, flow and renewal.

Kristeva calls herself “an energetic pessimist,” so I go to work based on this assumption. “I also derive inspiration from the novelist Colette, who wrote, ‘To be reborn has never been too much for me,’” she says. Despite Colette’s pessimism and depression, she was attentive to plant life, to the world of animals, and followed the constant renewal of nature and the possibility of starting everything over.

You call yourself a European citizen of Bulgarian origin, a French citizen who was adopted by the Americans and sees in herself cosmopolitan intellectuality. Despite this, you say you still partly feel you’re a stranger in French society, similar to Hannah Arendt, who felt she was a stranger in American society. How do you explain this?

Young people walk behind a banner that reads 'Neither Macron Nor Le Pen: The Uprising Is Now,' Nantes, France, April 27, 2017. Credit: Stephane Mahe / Reuters

“I explain that in France you can feel you’re a total stranger and simultaneously not a stranger. I explained it in my book ‘Strangers to Ourselves.’ I’m lucky because I studied French in a Dominican nuns’ school in Bulgaria and I knew French by the time I arrived in France at age 24. And despite this, in France — which is a country proud of its heritage — even my kind of people, who speak the language well, can feel they’re strangers. And yet there is a heritage of enlightenment, the public discourse in France, and this lets you feel involvement, belonging.”

Historic vote

How did you experience the recent elections? Did you feel danger, urgency?

“Of course, there was no room for a choice in the recent elections, rather a need to oppose the threat of the National Front. It’s not an exceptional situation, but rather the global situation in which the old, traditional parties are disappearing and crisis is at the door.”

The theme of the meeting at the Tel Aviv Museum will be “Is there a European culture?” What is the image of Europe now? Can one define European identity before speaking about culture?

“Identity is a dominant part of shaping a person’s personality; so it is with shaping a nation. The person on the psychoanalytic couch doesn’t know his identity. He is hurt, destroyed, defeated, and I, as a psychoanalyst, try to help him define his identity — female, male, Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, homosexual, heterosexual, and so on.

The cover of 'Pulsions du temps.'Credit: Courtesy

“In certain cases, identity can also turn into an absolute value, into a dogma, but we have seen that Europe overcame the worst examples of identity like the barbarity that begat the Holocaust, the destruction of human beings by other human beings who viewed them as superfluous. Europe knew to ask itself questions about its deeds and identity; it knew to judge the crimes that it committed and to recover.

“Today, European identity is comprised of many national identities. Europe needs to be federal — made up of different nations that are open to one another and respect one another. I believe that there is a need to highlight the uniqueness of each nation and make it feel self-confident. Self-respect is an antidepressant, and it as important as it gets in building identity, but on condition that it doesn’t turn into arrogance but rather openness to the other. That national self-respect will allow nations to create a rich, heterogeneous European identity in which each has its own uniqueness, language and culture.”

Besides heterogeneous identity, how is it possible to create a joint European culture?

“Culture — although it does not appear in the 1957 Treaty of Rome — is Europe’s advantage and lifesaver in the face of all kinds of storms striking it. The European space is the only place in the world where identity is not a cult but rather a question: Who am I, who is the other, who am I relative to the other?

“These questions originate in Greek-Judeo-Christian culture, from which European culture is nurtured. In Platonic philosophy, every idea, every value is built through eternal dialogue. The intellectuals bear the biggest responsibility for the current existential crisis, and so we should see culture like a wall against it. Intellectuals have to strive to find that joint cultural treasure and move to build a heterogeneous, rich and vibrant European culture. Europeans feel pride in belonging to that culture, which is a treasure hard to describe, but it’s prominent and recognizable from outside the border of the continent and arouses respect and admiration.”

Studying humanities is a way of preventing a cracking of the foundations of civilization and even humanity.

The glory of languages

You’ve said the way to building a multifaceted, joint culture is multilingualism.

“I am full of admiration for European students who participate in the Erasmus Programme [an exchange program among 25 European countries] who speak many languages. I have a Swedish student who speaks fluent English, takes courses in French about female genius and is also studying Chinese. Having a command of many languages isn’t a utopia but rather a reality, and it’s also one of the characteristics of the constructed European identity.

“Multilingualism — translating the national cultural treasures — is necessary to understanding and appreciating each country’s national cultural uniqueness. Understanding the uniqueness creates relationships between the cultures and deepens them. In the end, ‘respecting’ uniqueness is the basis of human rights, the genius of each that can be shared with the other. We have to translate our values to the language of others on condition that we also recognize their values — and that comes through continuous dialogue.”

As a psychoanalyst and caregiver for the young you dedicate time to youths who go through a radicalization process. How do you explain the phenomenon among youths in France and in Europe in general?

Julia Kristeva.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik

“I think you have to go deep into the history of religions that preceded us and influence our behavior, ethics, discourse and the arts. To enlighten and reevaluate the ancient codes and prevent the creation of radical examples, we have to create bridges between the humanities disciplines: the history of religions, sociology, philosophy, art history and literature.

“Engaging in the humanities develops sensitivity and a deeper understanding of ancient beliefs. You have to teach the students to ask questions about the ideas or the arts that their parents brought – consciously or unconsciously. You have to strive to develop among them the ability to reevaluate heritage in order to defend it against purveyors of radical religions.

“I think studying humanities is a way of preventing a cracking of the foundations of civilization and even humanity. The humanities also have to be found in the political discourse that discarded them in favor of economics and the business world. Modern fanaticism attracts youths with a fragile psychological makeup.

“In contrast to other children who are curious and want to know, these youths look for an ideal to believe in so they can build autonomy and disengage from their parents. When the need to believe in something is insufficient, that boy or girl can feel they don’t belong, rejected and unappreciated, a feeling that can turn into a type of destructive depression that’s the basis of fanaticism. We need educators, teachers and guardians who can create the bridges between humanism and diversity, a kind of Marshall Plan of knowledge and diversity.”

As the writer of a trilogy on female genius — about the author Colette, the philosopher Hannah Arendt and the Austrian-British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein — how do you define contemporary feminism?

“The feminist movement that began with the suffragists in the late 19th century continued with Simone de Beauvoir in the 1950s. She spoke of equality between women and men. And still, after all the achievements, the woman of our day is required to endure impossible burdens. She achieved equal rights, holds key positions in all fields and also deals with births, motherhood, etc. The “Wonder Woman” more than once ends up broken on the psychoanalytical couch. I believe in female genius, in the uniqueness of every woman. She shares with others the special thing that she brings. Sartre wrote in 1946 ‘Existentialism is humanism.’ I say, ‘Feminism is humanism’ – the right to be unique.”

But what about the uniqueness of Muslim women who are required by their religion to cover themselves with a burqa, a veil, in the public space?

“I have a disagreement on this issue with Muslim women from the left who contend we have to honor women’s free choice to cover their faces or not to work. I want to recall here Simone de Beauvoir, who argued that freedom does not end with choice. Choice is the starting point of freedom. True freedom is crossing selfhood borders and opening up to others.”

Of all the fronts on which you’re active, which field is closest to your heart?

“I recently cut back my university activity. I also retired from running the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for the freedom of women, which I founded in 2008 on the occasion of her 100th birthday. The prize took off and I’m no longer necessary. I dedicate myself mainly to psychoanalytical treatments, to patients, to my students and of course to my son David, who’s busy creating all sorts of things.”