The Individual Person at the Center: An Interview with Julia Kristeva

The Individual Person at the Center: An Interview with Julia Kristeva
This conversation with Julia Kristeva has been translated by Patsy Baudoin.


GEORGES NIVAT: Let’s go back to the tough case when French and American newspapers in March 2018 reported information from an official commission of the Bulgarian state security archives, which seemed to indicate that you had been recruited as an agent in the 1970s by the Bulgarian secret service. How can we make sense of the fact that these archives have resurfaced in this manner and, especially, that newspapers like the Nouvel Observateur and The New York Times picked them up without any further ado?

JULIA KRISTEVA: This “case” is indeed important because it reveals that an accelerating media prefers embalming the memory of totalitarian Europe — a Europe which is certainly having a resurgence today in the form of nationalist revenge — rather than taking on a real reassessment of that historic disaster. I was very shocked that a newspaper like the Nouvel Observateur would pounce on these so-called revelations without at least questioning the maneuvers of the Bulgarian secret police. The editors of Le Monde, having reprinted the story published in the first accusatory articles, also published an article written by the historian Sonia Combe, in which she warned readers against making hasty conclusions about these doctored and falsified files.

The attack was terribly brutal. One day I received some messages from an unknown person, introducing himself as a reporter from the Nouvel Observateur, telling me that I was the spy Sabina. Stunned, I replied that this sounded like a bad joke, and I rejected it indignantly. It was too late; they were publishing the story. Many people today are attaching their anger to obsolete ideologies, but it is unacceptable — in so-called advanced democracies — to ignore, and thus validate, the functioning of the Stalinist police, under the cover of an alleged purge-“purification,” even when undertaken by post-communist regimes. Solzhenitsyn warned against totalitarian systems, where it is lies, he wrote, that are more pernicious than the suppression of freedoms: these lies permeate the whole social bond, beginning by sucking dry, defaming, and abolishing the very existence of a person.

Two “case-files” were subsequently disclosed. One of them, about which no one says anything, upset me deeply, turning this unbelievable story into an intimate wound. It is about 32 letters, most of them sent to my parents (in addition to two letters from Philippe Sollers’s family), purloined by the police without me knowing whether they were extorted from my parents while they were alive, or simply intercepted before they received them. A psychic rape, difficult to explain to those who have not experienced this sort of violation of one’s childhood and familial intimacies. The other file was put together by state security agents, with no fewer than 16 collaborating agents who claim to have interrogated me, although my signature is nowhere to be found, and none of my comments on general topics have been authenticated: on Aragon, the Prague Spring, Palestinians … Nor was any intelligence mission or task ascribed to me.

As I said in my interviews denying these reports — most of which were published shortly after the attacks in the Journal du dimanche, Vanity Fair (France), and Marianne — this so-called “affair” began in 1971, the year in which Sollers and the Tel Quel group founded the Movement of June 1971, which was fervently inspired by Maoism. The case-file ends up concluding that I am useless as a spy, but that my husband is someone to keep an eye on, given his relationships with the embassies of China and Albania: we were the first delegation of intellectuals invited to China in 1974 after its admission to the United Nations. Even though the file is obviously a surveillance file, neither the Nouvel Observateur nor The New York Times has questioned its validity. This is a Kafkaesque machination of the Stalinist police creating reports to justify their mission. At least until a superior officer in the end concludes: “Empty file.”

GEORGES NIVAT: These were indeed common practices at the time. Between 1956 and 1959, I often wrote to my parents. Much later, a French friend of mine suffering from cancer sent me a letter saying, “I need you to know. I was the one who translated all your letters into Russian for the KGB.” Even so, how does one explain such benevolence in the left press in the face of these types of denunciation?

JULIA KRISTEVA: It is true that there was not a single word regarding this defamatory case in the right-wing press. Aren’t some people perhaps nostalgic, lulling themselves with the revolutionary promises of the past, suspicious of “elites,” discrediting [certain] personal paths in life? “She,” in this case me, I chose France, so I am either an “enemy of the people,” or a potential agent of the KGB — such would be the syllogism of these epigones of the Stalinist police. So-called “sectarians,” impervious to the “system,” constantly claiming their insubordination and endorsing a very mechanical, not to say totalitarian conception of personal liberty. My freedom cannot be reduced to a simple choice. As a reader of de Beauvoir, I understand freedom, rather, as the capacity to transcend oneself with the help of others: within the complexity of one’s ties to others, one’s thoughts, and one’s actions. At the time of the last presidential election [in France], I was asked in an interview what I would do if I were president. I replied: “Put the individual person at the center.” That’s a utopia that can still be advocated and supported in Europe. Not the ego, not an image, not the power or the desire to purchase something, but the person: we will come back to this often. From within the debris of post-communism, this way of putting things can’t really be heard. There is still too much resentment (in the Nietzschean sense of the term: reaction where there should be action, envy instead of desire) vis-à-vis Western democracies.

OLIVIER MONGIN: Nowadays one looks for well-known people in order to break them. This is an unprecedented phenomenon. And, of course, you have always worked on abjection, starting with the book Powers of Horror. And in Intimate Revolt, you ponder this new system of destructive representations at work in journalism.

JULIA KRISTEVA: Hyper-connectivity [of the internet] seizes the destructivity as it is launched by those who, in their pernicious laziness, have initiated some kind of movement [in the hyper-connected system which is the internet], and the targeted person is then sucked up by and into it. One can see today the level of extremism to which this new kind of communion of “likes,” this communitarianism of anger, can lead: it can lead to a truly insidious eroticization of demolition. In a state of morbid jubilation, one just simply annihilates the other.

Jihadist extremism spreads, as a political religion, this eroticization of violence, which consists of mobilizing the death drive inherent in the speaking beings that we are, pushing it toward jouissance: rapes and beheadings ensue. At a political level, there are claims of frustrations and anger, as consolations, even as rewards. The religions that preceded us in the knowledge of the soul’s folds, its paradises as well as its hells, seized upon [these extremes] for better and for worse. Some humanists have straddled these abysses: death and mortality being barely good enough for the officiants of religious cults. Others realize that the death drive awakens energies and applaud jihadist enthusiasm — but only in order to regret the fading of the Christian and humanist faith. Strange polemicists! What ensues, of course, is that death, the mortality inside of us [handicaps], and the death drive that seizes upon the anger, the anguish, or jubilation that they arouse, are referred to only as pathology. Yet they all inhabit [all of] us.

You evoke my clinical experience as a psychoanalyst. It was that practice that helped me discover that abjection is present from the earliest mother-child relationship. Neither subject nor object, but ab-jects, the two protagonists of the first human bond, are under the influence of the horror and the fascination that I call “abjection.” Catholic saints know all about this. In adolescence, young drug addicts, anorexics, delinquents, all prey to these impulsive motions, have been led to the Maison des Adolescents (Cochin Hospital) directed by Professor Marie Rose Moro. Now we have added young people tempted by jihadist extremism. That’s why I moved my seminar on The Incredible Need to Believe from Paris University 7 to the Maison de Solenn [a clinic for adolescents at the Cochin Hospital], in order to help train the staff.

Communism and the Revolution

GEORGES NIVAT: Solzhenitsyn took some time to understand the nature of the Soviet regime. For a long time, he remained optimistic, despite disappointments. In your own trajectory, to what extent did belief in the Revolution play a role?

JULIA KRISTEVA: Your reading of Solzhenitsyn taught me a lot about his withdrawal from communism and especially about his immersion in the Russian language and the Orthodox faith in order to achieve it.

My story is quite different, as I try to bring it to light in my memoir in the form of an interview with Samuel Dock. Between a Darwinian mother and an orthodox father, I was brought up in the spirit of discussion and debate. My Oedipal rebellion opposed my father’s faith, but I was troubled by this single man’s rebellion against the [communist] regime — as confirmed by the motto he used: “Get out, my daughters,” he would say, “out from the guts of hell” (our native Bulgaria). One way to do this according to him: learn foreign languages — Russian, of course, that was compulsory, but especially French, and then English. The Revolution [for me] was and still is the French Revolution, and I still have my school notebooks, in which I copied and wrote about Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot. And Dostoyevsky, of course — my father’s favorite. He would advise me not to read him though, so as not to disturb the Cartesian spirit which, according to my father, I needed to acquire. My dissident friends devoured Dostoyevsky’s work, and I tried to read him secretly in the beginning. I was astonished, reading you, dear Georges Nivat, to learn that the young Solzhenitsyn had not read Dostoyevsky, finding him “cloying”; he came around to him only later. In my Bulgaria of the thaw period, my mind turned toward the so-called “revisionist” communism of Pierre Daix and Aragon’s Lettres françaises: toward the surrealist “revolution” in language and then toward that of the New Novel — the topic upon which I was beginning to write my doctoral thesis. And it was my article on the book of a communist journalist, Albert Koen, dedicated, precisely, to the communist thaw, that earned me his welcome when I arrived in Paris with only five dollars to my name while I awaited the scholarship that would allow me to write my thesis.

GEORGES NIVAT: Later you took this great trip to China with Roland Barthes and Philippe Sollers. What did you expect to discover there, and what did you retain [as important] from this trip, at the time? Unlike Gide, you never wrote a “Return from China” …

JULIA KRISTEVA: I was interested in Chinese thought, and I registered at [the University of] Paris 7 to get a degree in Chinese. I was curious about how the promise of communism could be realized differently than in Europe, within such a different national tradition: the project of the trip to China for me was one of ethnological, even anthropological observation. My political disappointment was all the greater. Those whom we met (rebels were in prison, and universities were closed) were rebelling against Soviet dogmatism … using Soviet arguments and rhetoric. We were not able to go to Tibet, or to meet students … But our hosts, who were very polite, introduced us to many women. Starting with Taoism and under the influence of the suffragettes, a feminism had taken root in China with the movement of May 4, 1919, which then was developed by the Guomindang, onto which Mao’s feminism would be grafted.

Upon my return, I wrote a book on Chinese women. There was a bourgeois, nationalist feminism in China, onto which Mao’s feminism was grafted, and which incited women to emancipate themselves against the Party bureaucracy during the Cultural Revolution. Through “Work,” certainly, and some “Command Posts,” but this amounted to a valorization that was in contrast with the submission to work in certain other political regimes with other religious memories.

About Chinese Women is my “Return from China,” not really like Gide’s, indeed. This book marked a turning point: I became disinvested in politics and became committed to psychoanalysis. I say committed because there was at the beginning [of my life in France] a desire to transform exile, which is a sort of challenge that is also an opportunity — [especially] in that it is a redefinition of the Self that risks loneliness in [making] new ties. But the only commitment that could not be frozen into a belonging (into a “being of”) seemed to me to be psychoanalysis. It was Philippe Sollers who brought it to my attention, in the company of Nietzsche and Georges Bataille: a psychoanalysis shaken up by surrealism, namely Lacan’s psychoanalysis. But it would lead me to its source, to Freud. Psychoanalysis as a transfer onto … openness. Raising questions about sexual identities, and moral values, ties and languages, through new investments. Teresa of Ávila summarizes this state of mind of a person in exile by embracing the psychoanalyst that I was: “I see it as impossible that love is content to remain stationary” (Interior Castle).

My concern to accompany [the process of] becoming a subject, the process of becoming oneself, along with self-exile, became essential to my research as a linguist and semiotician, even before I became able to accompany my patients on the couch. My work initially took the shape of what would be called “poststructuralism,” by introducing the structure of language and languages ​​into a socio-historical context but simultaneously and especially into intersubjective contexts. Later I developed the neither Cartesian, nor phenomenological concept of a speaking subject who integrates the Freudian unconscious: the drives composed of energy and meaning, at the borders of the biological and the psychic. Such a redesign of metaphysical categories (such as psyche/soma, same/other…) went hand in hand with a consideration of socio-historical themes, symptoms that focused my interest: women, people with disabilities, foreigners, those who are fragile, and the underprivileged. Of course, I did maintain contacts with dissidents in the East. But my dissidence, my “revolution,” was my research.

Strangers to Ourselves

GEORGES NIVAT: You’ve just made the connection to my next question, about foreigners. You mention St. Paul to emphasize the place the stranger occupies in his thought, and you see the relationship to the foreign as one of the foundations of Christianity. When did your own foreignness in France become central for you?

JULIA KRISTEVA: From the first evenings of Christmas 1965, at the midnight mass at Notre Dame, when I [first] met French people wrapped so tightly in their minks and cashmeres — so impenetrable. On the other hand, on the street and in the metro, I encountered extreme poverty, people who were fleeing, fleeing from themselves, fleeing from me. I would always be a stranger in that [French] world. It was not painful because in Barthes’s and Goldmann’s courses, I made many friends among foreign students: the university was beginning to open up, with an emphasis on thinking that somehow preceded globalization. I wrote my book on foreigners later, as Le Pen’s xenophobia was emerging: “Nowhere is one more foreign than in France; and nowhere is it better to be foreign than in France.” The centralized monarchical state, the Jacobin Republic, the cult of language replacing sacred cults, these few constituents among others of French identity, make the foreigner more foreign, if not forevermore unassimilable. But at the same time, political debate is more intense and more open than elsewhere, and this appetite for thinking that disaggregates while opening up horizons and utopias, makes French secularization the right place for one to think, in one’s universal singularity, about the “civilization’s discontents” that Freud foresaw. It is here, in France and with Sollers who added Meister Eckhart to my reading of Freud, that I became interested in theology.

I consider myself an atheist. And I always say that there is no humanism that is not a permanent transvaluation of Catholicism and, by extension, of Greek thought and Judaism. The re-foundation of a humanism for the 21st century is possible only with the transvaluation (Nietzsche’s Umwertung aller Werte) of Christian thought while relying on philosophy, the human sciences, psychoanalysis, and the arts and letters.

GEORGES NIVAT: Your interest in Christian thought and orthodoxy in particular can be seen throughout your work. But you seem to say that Christ’s beatitudes are the way to relieve suffering, which may offend some believers … You also sometimes seem to consider psychoanalysis as “superior” to religious experience. Can you enlighten us on the links you draw between psychoanalysis and religion?

JULIA KRISTEVA: I do not believe that psychoanalysis towers over religious experience, and I am sorry to have given that impression. Nor do I think Christian faith to be reducible to justifying suffering. More radically, faith can change a person’s psychic structure — and if sensations and emotions such as suffering are not denied, they are likely to also find immeasurable sublimations. As for suffering itself, it seems to me that orthodoxy gives a more important role than Catholicism and Protestantism to kenosis, that time of Christ’s death before the resurrection, which invites believers to an experience of death and emptiness like no other. Yet, as an atheist, the experience of psychoanalysis gives me access to it, when I read Dostoyevsky or John of the Cross, and then more soberly through my own trials and tribulations, or those of my analysands.

I really want to come back to the decisive event that took place in Europe and nowhere else: we broke with tradition. But I am trying, from this break, to provide an interpretation that can enlighten internet consumers of the 21st century. Can there be a religious resurgence or an ecological pact that might reverse the tendencies toward automation and devastation? What is clear is that there has indeed been a break with tradition, borne by a technological boom and a decline of institutions.

[The question is] how to respond to a humanity in danger without recourse to faith — as advocated in the well-known Ratzinger–Böckenförde–Habermas encounter in 2004? What “faith,” what “unifying bond,” what “normative consciousness” [is possible] faced with billions of egos animated by a desire for power under the influence of spectacle and finance? From research in psychoanalysis, I try to go back to the fundamentals of the hominoid bond, among which are: desire with its catastrophes and the anguish of emptiness; the need to believe; investment in ideals.

“I believed; therefore I have spoken,” St. Paul says in Psalm 116. Two experiences confront the psychoanalyst when encountering this “I believed” with this “I have spoken.” The oceanic feeling that Freud points out in the mother-child symbiosis: a fullness but also a begetting. And the primary identification with the loving father, the “father of personal prehistory,” who recognizes the subject as it is in the process of being built, dawn of the ideal of self: does the Christian faith not celebrate this loving father? This “reciprocal investment” (the term goes back to the Sanskrit root of Indo-European languages, hence the Latin credo) is, for the psychoanalyst that I am, a universal, anthropological dimension.

GEORGES NIVAT: Kenosis is important in orthodoxy, but the strongest moment for believers is Easter. It is not the oceanic mother or the loving father, but the community of believers, which Tolstoy describes very well in Resurrection.

JULIA KRISTEVA: In Hatred and Forgiveness, I insist on the intimate exuberance of orthodox joy that does not represent the spiritual excellence of hesychasm, but welcomes it into the preverbal, mystical register of the sensitive— just as much as on the paradoxes of Per Filium and Deus absconditus, which makes an orthodox man unified with him [that God] a homo absconditus. We know about the pitfalls of these depths, which can fuel nihilism as well as revolution. Solzhenitsyn himself notes the “the elements of pathos” (pathos stihii) in orthodoxy. Othodoxy did not have St. Thomas’s Aristotelian moment, a debate with Duns Scotus, and the emergence of the ecceitas, and so on. The orthodox connection prevails over kenosis, but a free singularity always seems to me to be in pain [in the process]. The materialist revolution that followed and [still] accompanies it today is “pagan” and seems only to want to tip over into the market economy, whereas it is the resurrection of what is Unique that emancipation movements resulting from Christian humanism are, in theory, striving for.

A Feminist Synthesis

OLIVIER MONGIN: In 2015, you published a book on women, written in collaboration with Catherine Clément, The Feminine and the Sacred. How was this book born? How is it related to the rest of your work?

JULIA KRISTEVA: “The feminine” is an essential theme in every woman’s life. Our revolution, in the wake of May ’68, this third wave of modern feminism after the suffragettes and Simone de Beauvoir, attempts to probe the transformations that have come about under the transhumanist pressures of the third millennium.

In my lecture on “the feminine” at the 51st Congress of the International Association of Psychoanalysis (in London on July 24, 2019), I call the feminine “the boson of the unconscious.” Indeed, at a time when identities are in crisis and are disintegrating, it is hardly a question of essentializing the feminine, as some feminists have thought. I investigate the feminine in the singular, in the uniqueness of each individual woman, but also in the singular of man — because there is a feminine in men. And I try to address the specificity of jouissance as well as particular feminine creativity, hence the hyperbole feminine genius.

In my correspondence with Catherine Clément the theme of jouissance led us to the religious and the sacred. Beyond pleasure, jouissance alters sexuality without desexualizing it, because it opens it up to one’s internal conversation with oneself and with the other, and in this sense transcends both: a connection and communion with otherness and “the flesh of the world,” to which Colette's writing attests. We also exchanged quite a lot about motherhood, about which Beauvoirian feminism is suspicious, seeing in it only a constraint imposed by patriarchy and phallocrats. Catherine insisted on India and Buddhism, and I preferred Christian mysticism as well as the pivotal role of the Virgin who bridges the body and the spirit.

In my research on what I call maternal reliance, I detect a maternal eroticism, which rubs shoulders with the sexuality of the female lover, but unfolds in the passion of the mother: pregnancy as a “state of emergency of life,” where the pregnant woman folds herself into intimacy at the risk of being depersonalized (attested to by the painters of Madonnas in the Renaissance). Before cracking open [her] narcissism and establishing an encounter with the first other — much more altering than the fusion with the loving partner — that is the Infans. [The infant in turn] will access its “mother tongue,” sustained by the mother’s ability to play with language as if it were … a witticism — a mixture of enigma, frustration, withdrawal, disappointment … and a recreation of the maternal message through the initiative left up to the creativity of the child.

This maternal reliance, a delicious and stressful mix, is indispensable to the social compact, which however ignores its complexity. “What does a woman want?” Freud asks Marie Bonaparte again, suspecting that beyond desire, feminine will, its ideals, and its achievements are yet to come. “Eternal irony of the community,” as Hegel diagnosed it. For sure, in the sense that a woman is foreign to the phallic code, with which she is nonetheless able to play. In order to transmit, across and through codes, the flesh of words: their sensual latency, their creative potential.

Women’s freedom is still in question today and in new ways. Feminist demands and achievements have caused many men some difficulty: are they becoming the second sex? At the same time, other males abreact their anxieties with sexual and sexist maltreatment and abuse. In France, a woman dies every three days under the blows of her spouse. The #MeToo movement has given voice to the victims, and now all of society is paying attention to these crimes. But making men feel guilty and the trivializing of relationships should not prove Alfred de Vigny correct in his prophesy about “the two sexes, dying each one on its side.” When [as today] heterosexuality is no longer the only or the most secure means of reproduction — anonymous fertility treatment and surrogacy are being legalized. And heterosexual couples, with their frailties and hardships, despite being the stars of globalized American TV “soap operas” and the focus of both heterosexual and homosexual fantasies, are once again the problem. As long as the family remains the core of social bonds, metamorphoses of parenthood depend on our ability to think through both male and female eroticism. And psychoanalysis asserts itself as the privileged space for adjusting these new intimacies.

The Novel as Writing-While-Trembling

GEORGES NIVAT: What is the link between your novels and your research? I queried a computer at the École normale supérieure (ENS). Julia Kristeva: researcher, philosopher, but not a single novel [was mentioned]. Yet, reading Teresa, My Love, one is struck by your power to split yourself, to add fiction to Teresa [of Ávila]’s history and story, including erotic episodes. What is this doubling about? About the exchange between the person on the couch and the person sitting behind it?

If one is to believe the ENS’s computer, then I do not have the imagination that one expects of one of its graduates! A compliment, I presume.

JULIA KRISTEVA: Writing imposed itself on me in order for me to stay standing, to survive existential and psychic shocks, a continuation of analysis by other means. My father was murdered in a hospital in Bulgaria, where experiments were being conducted on elderly people. We were unable to bury him appropriately because graves were only for communists in order to avoid religious assemblies. I offered to pay for his grave in dollars, but I was told I would have to die first to get one [for both of us because I was “well known”]. The only possible way for me to speak while mourning seemed to me to be through a metaphysical mystery, pain and distance, The Old Man and the Wolves.

My novels are not meant to rank in the canon of French letters. They are appeals to existence, in the midst of surviving, when thought is not sufficient unto itself but joins the a-thinking of fiction. And language along with narrative can sustain while one is being ripped apart.

The psychoanalyst that I am, like the character of Sylvia Leclercq in the novel, can neither put Teresa on the couch and apply “psych” interpretations, nor adopt the posture of these autofiction novelists, who present their fantasies as biography. This is neither the biography of a saint (how pretentious!), nor an essay that “understands” her through the grid of some model. I wanted to weave a dialogue between the woman of the third millennium that I am, along with the culture of our time, and my reading of Teresa as she offers herself to me in her writings. It’s an infinite dialogue, which took me 10 years of living with this Carmelite nun — and a [process of] writing that was difficult to bring to an end.

GEORGES NIVAT: But the reader assumes your tale is true. The mosaic of biographical facts and documents make up a life of Teresa, a magnificent book, a kind of mystical thriller …

JULIA KRISTEVA: Perhaps not the same life of Teresa as that written by another writer, or the one that the ENS students think they are discovering by reading only the writings of Teresa … According to some sisters, she flogged herself with nettles, on her wounds. Is this true? Did her companions deliver her testimonies the better to sanctify her? My character wonders. The novel sets in motion historical representations as well as interpretative readings.

Sylvia Leclercq is not Julia Kristeva. A character is not a universe. Academics in universities become a universe when they blend into the world of their discipline. But individual persons are multiverses like Picasso’s portraits. The plurality of facets reflects the life of the Spirit. It is this life that I am trying to convey. What a psychoanalyst might take as a real symptom — can you imagine!? — 700 pages of endless proximity! With the feminine [side of] faith! The novel as a trembling between the two …

Multilingualism, the Future of Europe?

GEORGES NIVAT: On the topic of multiverses, you have also been very interested in the diversity of languages. To what extent can multilingualism serve as a remedy for Europe and its current problems?

JULIA KRISTEVA: I am European by birth. All my life I heard from my father that there is only one culture, the European culture. Today, Europe is threatened by splits between “pro-sovereigns” and progressives; liberals and ecologists; the situation is chaotic to say the least. But without Europe, there’s a risk of chaos — real chaos. Because Europe, fragile as it is, is the counterweight caught between a self-sufficient America, a hardening China, and a more and more confrontational Middle East.

Europe’s major asset is the notion of the “individual person,” [the topic] which mobilizes us here today. It goes back to the Declaration of the Rights of Man, but it is often forgotten that this supreme humanist value goes back even further, and whose biblical source I often refer to as “ehyeh asher ehyeh” (Exodus 30:14) [I am that I am], spoken by Jesus (John 18:5): an unrepresentable identity, an eternal return to one’s very being … evoking also the silent dialogue (“two in me” of Plato) … to the voyage of St. Augustine, (In via in patria). And especially there is the uniqueness (ecceitas) of Duns Scotus in his debate with Thomas Aquinas … I cannot list all of the declensions of this paradoxical European identity: not the cult in the name of which good souls engage in fratricidal wars, but a perpetual questioning. There is an identity, mine, ours, but it is constantly re-constructible in the face of certitudes; it is a relentless love of the question mark, which is a condition necessary for creativity.

OLIVIER MONGIN: But the Enlightenment model no longer works …

JULIA KRISTEVA: To speak of an “Enlightenment model” is to frame a caricature. The Enlightenment bequeathed to us a splendid abundance, which we have hardly finished reassessing: there were Diderot-Rousseau-Voltaire at the same time, but also the Marquis de Sade, Émilie du Châtelet, Madame de Montespan, and Madame de Pompadour … At the interreligious meeting of Assisi in 2011, convened by Pope Benedict XVI and, for the first time, with the participation of atheists whom I represented, I gave an address entitled Ten Principles for Humanism for the Twenty-First Century. The Pope welcomed it with these words: “No one owns the truth,” which led us to create the Montesquieu Project at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris. [With whom do we align ourselves today?] Montesquieu, founder of modern political thought, or Machiavelli, who dove into unbearable passions? [With the Montesquieu Project], we are trying to continue the discussion: how does it all work in the present?

I understand Olivier Mongin’s concern, and, for my part, I have been asking questions about the failure of humanism faced with foreigners and transcendence — the two pillars of the psycho-social and political architecture of our digital age. Foreigners — as feared by nationalism either for real or [mostly] as they are used as scapegoats for the nation’s internal failures. And transcendence — which the technology elites of the nation-state are having a hard time translating [in the new public sphere of the internet], consequently failing to effectively sustain citizen-internet-users in their needs for ideals, in their needs to believe [in something] — both of which remain universal anthropological needs.

Is the nation-state still the optimal container for this new humanity swallowed up by “a country that does not exist”? My answer is “yes”; the nation is an antidepressant, provided it connects — but at what price? — to overarching, regional, and cultural groups (Europe, for example) — an antidepressant that can no longer do without the [entire] “human race.” But it must, with that, take up again and interpret the memory of constituted religions, as well as reestablish the universalist humanism which split from religions, but which questions those religions as it questions itself. Can the “foreigner,” who was the “enemy” in primitive societies, disappear in modern societies? Globalization, turned over to the virtual [technologies], has brutally reawakened that essential strangeness, a foreignness that our various ways of becoming sedentary — from “implantation” somewhere to being in exile — had more or less healed over. The inevitable question of transcendent universality through or beyond the group, the family, the clan, the “system,” and the nation comes up as soon as man reveals himself to be a stranger, i.e., in search of a country that does not exist. A safeguard against nationalist absolutism and prophecy of modern times? French secularism preserves the dissociation between natural universal man (i.e., there’s no “divine” essence, as the American Declaration has it) and national citizen; but it gradually reduces this dualism by guaranteeing the diversity of religious experiences in the private sphere, by developing and actualizing the universal rights of man, based on the triptych: liberty, equality, fraternity.

Long struggles eventually enshrined equality or even parity between men and women, and more recently a recognition of gender rights and marriage for all. But it is not enough to create a list of moral prescriptions out of “our values.” It is important to back them up with the stories of the struggles that have been waged in the history of a nation in perpetual change, so that liberty, equality, and fraternity can make sense to those who lack them. And this is only the first step. To reestablish the universal ambition of humanism, it is important that these values ​​be embodied in the personalized accompaniment of every person’s globalized foreignness.

I have the weakness of believing that the development of the human sciences and in particular of psychoanalysis — which never ceases to deepen knowledge of psychic life — contributes to the reestablishing of humanism in its universalist aim. Psychoanalysis is not a substitute for religion. Freud has no claim on the paternity of the unconscious, and psychoanalysis does not claim that “everything is sexual.” It does not offer a model, nor a “conservative conscience” faced with religious fervor, nor a correlation between faith and reason. In fact, psychoanalysis reveals that radical foreignness which is constitutive of our identities, is transferable. And it detects transcendence in the need to believe, which underlies the desire to know. What does “transferable” mean? Transference is the link that is established between the analyst and the analysand, “through which we learn that sometimes what we believe to be ours is foreign to us, and that what we believe to be foreign is sometimes our own.” That was St. Augustine’s definition of God.


Georges Nivat is a French historian, expert in Eastern Europe, and translator from Russian.

Olivier Mongin is a French writer and the editor of the monthly Esprit.

Patsy Baudoin is a writer, editor and translator living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

LARB Contributors

Georges Nivat is a French historian, expert in Eastern Europe, and translator from Russian.
Olivier Mongin is a French writer and the editor of the monthly Esprit.
Patsy Baudoin is a writer, editor and translator living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


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