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(n. 1941)



Queensland University of Technology


John Lechte, Julia Kristeva, (London, Routledge, 1990)

 1994 Clare O'Farrell


The name Julia Kristeva usually evokes the image of the quintessential "French intellectual" and all that conjures up in the Anglo-Saxon mind of the labyrinthine excesses of "French theory". Indeed as John Lechte suggests in his excellent book on Kristeva she is almost "too French". But as he and a number of other commentators are quick to point out, she is not quite what she seems. Kristeva is in fact a "foreigner", having arrived in France as a young doctoral student from Bulgaria in 1965. (1) The extraordinary ease of her insertion into the Parisian intellectual milieu can perhaps be at least partially explained by her education at a French school in Sophia. This combined with her exotic knowledge of Russian linguistic formalism (her first article published in France was on Mikhail Bakhtin) allowed her to make an important and valued contribution to then fashionable structuralist currents of thought. (2) Indeed, so rapidly was she assimilated that she is now not only seen by Anglo-Saxon readers as the archetypal French intellectual, but she also - at least on most occasions! - sees herself as such. (3)

Outside France, as Lechte notes, Kristeva’s name is most commonly associated with that phenomenon known as "French feminism". But there is in fact a sizeable "other dimension" to her work and it is this dimension which forms the main focus of his treatment. Taking what is now perhaps a fairly standard approach, Lechte divides Kristeva’s work into three distinct if interrelated phases. The first period includes the writings of the 1960s and early 1970s during which Kristeva concentrated on semiotics, linguistics, logic and mathematics in an attempt to develop a theory of the poetic dimensions of language.


Julia Kristeva


The second period of her work marks the increased influence of psychoanalytic theory and the development of various theories of the "feminine", the avant-garde and an unarticulated, pre verbal, "pre-symbolic" realm. Since 1980, Kristeva has moved further away from semiotics towards psychoanalysis increasingly using works of art as illustrations for her psychoanalytical theses rather than the reverse as had been the case in her earlier work.

Lechte’s aim in writing his book, he says, is "not to read Kristeva for someone else; it is rather to help people read Kristeva for themselves" (xiii). It is perhaps this approach that accounts for the curiously bland almost neutral tone of much of the book. Yet this self effacing style is highly deceptive, as on occasions the author will explain Kristeva’s ideas more clearly than she does herself. Rather perhaps than being notable for its point of view or sustained arguments concerning Kristeva’s work, this book makes its contribution in the subtle brilliance of its formulations and insights into the ideas of a number of French thinkers including Kristeva. In one short sentence Lechte will often provide a new and unexpected angle on some aspect of an author’s work or clarify an idea that had previously languished in unintelligible obscurity. The effect of this presentation is to encourage the reader to hasten towards Kristeva’s own works but unfortunately these do not always deliver: Lechte’s intriguing summary of the last (untranslated) section of La révolution poétique, is for example, far more accessible than the original.

The question of the difficulty and lack of accessibility of French thought is, as Lechte remarks, the subject of an almost obsessive concern amongst English language critics and Kristeva’s work is by no means exempt on this front. Although her recent work is fairly readable (if one excludes certain psychoanalytic excesses), the earlier work often places a wall of impenetrable technical jargon before the reader. Lechte draws attention to this perceived difficulty but argues that it has as much to do with the difference between the French and Anglo-Saxon intellectual mentalities as with any intrinsic difficulty of her work. Some knowledge of the context of Kristeva’s work, he says, could go a long way towards resolving this issue. Indeed almost half the book does not deal directly with Kristeva’s work, but rather with its intellectual antecedents. The first chapter which sets the "intellectual scene" in France borrows its title - "Too French"- from a short item by new novelist Philippe Sollers. Sollers' piece was originally published as a response to an article by the Leisure and Arts editor of The Wall Street Journal in 1983 which portentously announced the "nullity" of contemporary French culture. (4) This somewhat rash assertion stirred up an instant hornet’s nest provoking an outraged reaction from virtually the entire French literary and intellectual establishment. The French, as Lechte emphasises, have a very strong sense of national identity. To attack the "intellectual" and the culture they promulgate is to attack the honour and very heart of French cultural integrity. Indeed, according to Kristeva, it is precisely this sense of French cultural identity and its resistance to assimilating the foreign within its own boundaries, which paradoxically fosters the production of new thought. As she says, "French cultural life as I have come to know it has always been marked by a reserved but generous curiosity, one that is reticent but, everything considered, receptive to the nomad, the outlandish, the implant and the exogamous of all kinds"(14). In respecting the other and the foreign in its difference, rather than simply absorbing it without comment, the Same produces an illuminating spark in the shock of its contact with the Other.

Kristeva's constant preoccupation with "exile" and "foreign-ness", whether on the physical or psychic planes, is the subject of an extended discussion in Lechte’s book. All artistic activity, Kristeva says, depends on some kind of exile, the existence of a distance in whatever guise from the routine and the everyday. But if exile produces positive outcomes in the forms of art and freedom from the crushing monotony of the familiar, it can also produce far less desirable outcomes in the forms of rejection and a terrible alienation. One does not need to be in a strange land to be an exile: women, for example, are already exiles in their own country, alienated by a masculine language and culture which only recognises the feminine in its divergence from a masculine norm. The categories of alienation are proliferating endlessly in our late twentieth century culture and the condition of the "foreigner" has become endemic to our time: we are all exiles, "we are all E.T.s". (5) As a solution to this "radical foreign-ness" Kristeva suggests a cosmopolitanism (6) and love which recognise and welcome the stranger in all his or her difference. But in a world left void by the failure of a belief in a God who is love, the only site where a true "amatory code" or discourse is possible, is psychoanalysis: "the analyst’s couch is the only place where the social contract explicitly allows a search - albeit a private one - for love". (7) Love by-passes ensnaring games of seduction and power, (8) it allows the subject to freely choose the Other, to open itself up to being changed by the "outside" and that which is different. It enables the subject to become an "open system" capable of adaptation and change - and happiness. Love is actually premised on an initial separation or exile - a separation from the mother (to use Kristeva's psychoanalytic jargon) and can only exist in the recognition of the radical difference and value of the Other. It is through love that the individual becomes a subject in the modern sense of the term, (171) or in other words, an entity that recognises its own uniqueness and separateness in relation to others.

Love, psychoanalysis and literature are all inextricably linked in Kristeva’s system. They are all ways of facing and dealing with the frightening void of disorder and non meaning. Like love, writing creates the subject, which means that rather than simply "expressing himself", the artist in producing his art is at the same time creating himself. So much so, that "if the artist doesn’t work, if he doesn’t produce his music or his page or his sculpture, he would be quite simply, ill or not alive". (9) The work of art is a "work in progress" capable of modifying the psychic structure of both artist and consumer (217). (10) This is a recurrent theme which emerges in various guises throughout Kristeva’s work and again is one that Lechte traces with detailed attention.

Nonetheless, after all the author's thought provoking invitations to read Kristeva, the final chapter which assesses her importance is a little disappointing in its very partisan appreciation of her work. In particular, the treatment of some of the problems raised by Kristeva’s extensive reliance on psychoanalytic modes of interpretation are less than convincing. In this connection Lechte cites a very interesting passage from a book by Stephen Frosh: The Politics of Psychoanalysis. Frosh argues that not only is the analyst patient relationship entirely saturated by power, but that everything is done within that context to accentuate the power imbalance (211). Nothing escapes from the psychoanalytic grid; there is no "outside" or alternative to the psychoanalytic interpretation. In Kristeva's defence Lechte asserts that because psychoanalysis is dealing with "non-meaning", rather than with a "hidden meaning" confessed by an "essential subject", it is not therefore claiming a superior truth. (212). Unfortunately, as Foucault has shown, psychoanalysis is more than capable of inventing an "essential subject" of its own for purposes which have much to do with processes of control and normalisation. Far from allowing "non-meaning" and the "other" to speak, psychoanalysis filters that chaotic voice through a very rigid conceptual and linguistic order. In Foucault's words, "the confession has become in the West, one of the most highly valorised techniques for producing the true ... The obligation to confess has become so profoundly incorporated within us that we no longer see it as the effect of a power which constrains us; on the contrary it seems to us that the truth in our most secret depths is only "asking" to see the light of day." (11)

Kristeva’s psychoanalytic grid also produces a highly dehistoricised reading in spite of the impressive wealth of historical documentation contained in her books. Ancient Greek, Medieval and Renaissance as well as more recent literature all become fodder for the psychoanalytic mill which produces a reading true for all times and places. Psychoanalysis as an ultra-modern way of dealing with subjectivity cannot help but produce such an ahistorical reading if one defines the past as something quite separate and different from the present. (12) It also induces strongly terrorist effects as any criticisms of the discipline can be, and indeed are, recuperated and explained in in its own terms. Lechte does concede that there is in fact a marked "danger of imperialism" in relation to psychoanalysis but his argument that like philosophy it is simply another "mode of thinking and interpretation" (213) does little to solve the problem. It is a mode of interpretation which has an unfortunate tendency to voraciously engulf other areas at the expense of entering into any real dialogue with them. In short, this form of theory forms a closed system which, it might be noted, comes directly into conflict with Kristeva’s own notion of love as an "open system" where the subject escapes into the unnameable, the "semiotic" and the different at every point. Even God is infinitely analysable and what more extravagant claim to truth can one possibly make than this? (13)

For all this however, Lechte’s final object is to "help people read Kristeva for themselves" and his extensively referenced study certainly succeeds admirably in this aim. It not only provide valuable insights into Kristeva’s own fascinating œuvre, but also offers a range of enlightening perspectives relating to the ideas of Pierre Bourdieu, Georges Bataille, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan as well as others. The end result is what is perhaps the most useful of books - a book jam packed with ideas and avenues for further reflection.


1. See Roland Barthes, "L’étrangère" in Essais Critiques IV: Le Bruissement de la langue, (Paris, Seuil, 1984), pp. 197-200. This piece, which appeared originally in 1970, is a review of Kristeva’s first book Sèméiotikè, Recherches pour une sémanalyse,(Paris, Seuil, 1969). See also Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory, (London, Methuen, 1985), p. 150

2. See Niilo Kauppi, Tel Quel: La constitution sociale d’une avant-garde, Commentationes Scientarum Socialium, 43, 1990, (Helsinki, Finnish Society of Sciences and Letters), pp. 101-105 for a fascinating account, Bourdieu style, of Kristeva’s arrival and success on the Parisian intellectual circuit. See also Edith Kurzweil, "An Interview with Julia Kristeva", Partisan Review, 53, 2 (1986), p. 218. Kristeva says, "I wrote my first paper in France for Roland Barthes’s 1966 seminar about Mikhail Bakhtin. He soon became an important figure". Cf Kristeva, "Mémoire", L’Infini, 1 (Winter 1983), pp. 42-44

3. Kurzweil, pp. 216-18. However Kristeva noted in this interview that due to her upbringing in socialist Bulgaria, she was less favourably disposed than most French intellectuals to the socialist government in France should not be considered a "French intellectual" at least on this front. p.222

4. Raymond Sokolov, "Junket of the Year: ‘Les Intellos’, The Wall Street Journal, (15 February 1983), p. 32. Sokolov’s announcement that France had "produced no novelist of real importance in 20 years, except Michel Tournier", was guaranteed not to endear him to prominent French novelists such as Sollers.

5. Julia Kristeva, Histoires d’Amour, (Paris, Denoël, 1983), p.356. Cf her remark in "A paradoxical community is emerging, made up of strangers who accept themselves in so far as they recognise themselves to be strangers". Etrangers à nous-memes, (Paris, Fayard, 1988), p. 290.

6. Kristeva develops her ideas on cosmopolitanism in Etrangers à nous-memes and reiterates these in a text which appeared after the publication of Lechte's study: Lettre ouverte à Harlem Désir, (Paris, Rivages, 1990)

7. Histoires d’Amour, p. 13 Kristeva sums up her argument succinctly on the back cover of this book: "Being a psychoanalyst is knowing that all stories come down to speaking about love ... Our society no longer has an amatory code ... Idealisation, trembling, exaltation, passion, desire for fusion, mortal catastrophe reaching towards immortality, love is the figure of insoluble contradictions, the laboratory of our destiny. Philosophy, religion, poetry, fiction? Stories of love ... Being psychically alive means that you are in love, in analysis or absorbed in literature. As if the whole of human history was nothing more than an immense and permanent transference."

8. Elsewhere with the conscious perversity for which he is well known, Jean Baudrillard declares that he prefers seduction to love. Love is "sentimental" and "pathetic" whereas seduction maintains the form of an "enigmatic duel" "a secret distance" and a "perpetual antagonism", in other words a relationship of power. Les Stratégies fatales, Paris: Grasset, 1983, p. 109

9. Perry Meisel, "Interview with Julia Kristeva", Partisan Review, 51 (Winter 1984). pp. 131-132, cited in Lechte's excellent discussion on this theme, "Art, Love, and Melancholy in the Work of Julia Kristeva" in John Fletcher and Andrew Benjamin (eds), Abjection, Melancholia and Love, (London, Routledge, 1990), p. 25.

10. Similar concerns are also to be found in the last works of Michel Foucault. See Histoire de la sexualité t. 2 L’usage des plaisirs, Paris: Gallimard, 1984 pp 14-15. Foucault asks what point there is to acquiring knowledge and writing philosophy is if it does not modify the writer himself?

11. Michel Foucault, Histoire de la sexualité. t. 1 La volonté de savoir, (Paris, Gallimard, 1976), pp. 79-80

12. On this subject of the difference between past and present (an anti-historicist history) see Foucault, "Foucault répond à Sartre", La Quinzaine littéraire, (1 March 1968), pp. 21-22; Foucault, L’archéologie du savoir, (Paris, Gallimard, 1969). p. 17, Philippe Ariès, Le Temps de l’histoire, (Monaco, Editions du Rocher), 1954, p. 40

13. "Beyond the uncertainties and perversities of analytical institutions, psychoanalysis seems to me to be the lay version, and the only one, of this search for the truth of the speaking being which, from another point of view, is symbolised by religion for certain of my friends and contemporaries. My own prejudice is believing that God is analysable. Infinitely". Julia Kristeva, "Mémoire", p. 45.




The Women's Review of Bookss



The genius Colette

Colette by Julia Kristeva, translated by Jane Marie Todd. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004, 521 pp., $35.00 hardcover.

Reviewed by Julia Balén

"I LOVE THAT WOMAN'S WRITING: it is an immediate pleasure, without 'why,'" opens Julia Kristeva's book on Colette, the third in her triptych on "female genius." Following her analyses of Hannah Arendt, the thinker, and Melanie Klein, the healer, Kristeva seems to feel compelled from the start to defend her choice of Colette as a primary example of the female genius as writer. No sooner does Kristeva proclaim her love "without a 'why'" than she begins her over-400-page explanation--part psychoanalysis, part apologia--all based in love.

Exploring in depth her reasons to love Colette, Kristeva interweaves the details of Colette's life with pieces of her many texts, often mirroring Colette in style, thus producing analysis turned reverie, history turned meditation. In places, Kristeva creates pastiches of quotes from a wide variety of Colette's texts--novels, letters, notes--to present Colette's sensibilities in relationship to topics including sex, politics, femininity, and feminism. In other sections, the identity of the speaker slips, producing a sense that texts and authors have all merged. For example, speaking of Colette's "radical shift" that replaces "the human point of view on the world with that of a sensibility supposedly belonging to a dog and a cat," Kristeva begins with analysis: "Colette wants to describe the extreme destitution of her own sensibility, pushed to the limits of animality" and in so doing

succeeds in taming and excusing the paroxysms of the psyche that, in other people dig hells and promise paradises. For her, the animal brings a touch of simplicity and humor, which, like a modest grace, saves speaking beings both from Gehenna and from ecstasy. (p. 85)

But by the end of the paragraph, Kristeva's voice has merged with author and texts, and it has become completely unclear who the subject of these sentences might be:

Hence, through the "Four-legged Ones," the night of the sensory slips away from vindictive rage, and its strangeness, which brings me jouissance and death, is called my animality. That is also my humor, my irony, my way of not becoming fixed as an écorché [an anatomical figure showing the muscles and bones that are visible with the skin removed], and even less as something sublime, a way of laughing about it with unlikely and, when all is said and done, probable accomplices. That animality, the figure for a sense of humor about oneself, therefore attests to a beautiful optimism. The other is not only my enemy, his beastly jouissance is inside of me: I am the beast. O animal, my soulmate, my brother. (p. 85)

Effectively playing both Colette's lover and her psychoanalyst, Kristeva merges identities with her in much the same way that Kristeva claims Colette does with her mother, Sido, and presumably for the same purpose: to "transmute perversion--père-version, turning toward the father--into mère-version, turning toward the mother, to reconcile herself with her always somewhat humiliated femininity." Such merging of subjects can be dizzying.

The genius of Colette's work, in Kristeva's psycho-poetic framework, is to be found in Colette's "alphabet of the flesh," a synesthetic "interpenetration of language and the world, style and flesh." In Kristeva's analysis, Colette's "alphabet of the flesh" has two aspects: The first is "radiant" or "solar," which "delivers the 'play' of the metaphoric body to us... an alphabet of words, things, and sensations mingling indiscriminately, in which I hear the music in the letters." This "music" renders the language tangible, the text sensual. For example, Kristeva quotes from La vrilles de la vigne, in which Colette writes:

What light, what impatient youth stirred that whole day!... An acidic and urgent breeze cast a mist of rapid clouds over the sun, wilted as it passed over the tender leaves of the lime tree, and the flowers of the walnut fell like burnt caterpillars onto our hair, with the mauve blossoms of the Paulownias the color of a rainy Parisian sky.... The shoots of the blackcurrant you bruised, wild sorrel forming a rose window in the lawn, the very young, still brown mint, the sage, downy as a hare's ear--everything overflowing with an energetic and pungent sap, which I combined, on my lips, with the taste of alcohol and citronella. (p. 204)

Kristeva waxes lyrical in response: "Necessarily, naturally, it is on that palate, in my voracious mouth, that the words live: Colette the musician, who continually hears herself writing, is also an eater of her words; she rolls them on her gourmand's tongue." The second aspect of Colette's alphabet is "monstrous"; it "unveils a nauseous chaos without beginning or end" and, in Colette's words, "turns to liquid, runs down the tree, and, moreover, shrinks back, congealed." In the process, Colette produces a sort of "scopic inversion," allowing the watcher to perceive herself as the watched, "to observe the uncanniness at the site of the other facing her." Boundaries like subject/object and self/other dissolve into Being.

Such creative genius, according to Kristeva's psychoanalytic frame, is due to the way Colette traverses sexual, gender, and even animal identities to transcend the pain of her existence via writing, eventually incestuously mythologizing her mother, Sido, as safe place and grounding for her own individuality and creativity. "In taking root there, the writer crosses the identity boundaries of beings, strips them of their identity, and transfers them to Being. In psychoanalytic terms, that experience could be called a sublimation of psychosis." In other words, through her "alphabet of the flesh," Colette's writing acts as poetry to put the unified subject "on trial/in process." The sensual intensity of sound, rhythms, and textures of language makes palpable the pre-linguistic drives that operate as the (usually invisible) foundation for meaning. In the process, her work renders the fiction of the static subject more obviously fictional and the boundaries between beings fluid. For Kristeva, there are discourses that particularly lend themselves to producing such breaks in identity: poetry, maternity, and religiosity. It seems that for Kristeva, Colette, in effect, engages the ruptures available via poetic language and maternity in order to produce her own earthy religiosity.

WHILE KRISTEVA IS SENSITIVE TO CRITIQUES of Colette for her failure to speak out against the Nazis or to align with the resistance (even as her best friend, Maurice Goudeket, was imprisoned), Kristeva portrays Colette as operating both within and outside of her times. In a section entitled "The Idol Cornered by History," Kristeva describes an aging and ailing Colette moving fluidly across the lines drawn in the sand of her times, acting as if it is merely sand, trusting that the political winds will change, and all the while manipulating what she could to save those she loved. What seemed most important for Colette was immediate survival and keeping the French spirit alive--not taking sides. While Kristeva does not directly say so, it seems that Colette wagered correctly that her stature as a writer would not be substantially harmed in the end, no matter which side she took. Whether Colette's age, illness, or gender played a role in the public's willingness to let her stand outside of political judgment, Kristeva does not conjecture, but the picture she paints implies this through descriptions of continued, if troubled, admiration for Colette as a writer by the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. That Kristeva would encourage a nonjudgmental approach is not surprising, since her choice to work in the realm of the personal over the political bears resemblance to Colette's.

The book may prove a challenging read for many. Kristeva presupposes familiarity with the language of psychoanalysis throughout, and especially with her own work on poetic language. While chapter five offers a sketch of that framework, it won't be very helpful to those not already in the know. She also assumes throughout the text that her readers are intimately familiar with Colette's life, texts, and characters, freely referring to them without tracing connections or sources, as though she is speaking of a well-known pantheon. But readers unfamiliar with either Kristeva's psychoanalytic framework or Colette's life and oeuvre might nevertheless enjoy the book as the precious reverie of a clearly inspirational writer.

My own desire to read this book was based on my curiosity about Colette, whose work I had not read since graduate school, but whose relatively free play with sexuality and gender identity I felt might resonate with my interest in such boundary crossings, and my curiosity about Kristeva's reasons for considering her a genius. As someone who is reasonably well-versed in psychoanalytic theory and whose dissertation, in part, addressed Kristeva's earlier work, I was also curious to see what recent turns her work had taken. Indeed, many might say that it is about time that Kristeva acknowledges a woman author as producing the "revolution in poetic language" reserved for male authors in her germinal work of the same name. Perhaps her move to address what might be considered a feminist concern--female genius--might produce a broader, more political perspective. I was both pleased and disappointed. Kristeva claims that "Colette finally posited herself as equally monstrous and sublime, of no sex" and that "she stood at the crossroad of all sexes, which is also that of all differences, so that she could write in unison with the elements of Being." This, along with much of what Kristeva quotes from a variety of Colette's texts, suggests that Colette presaged today's gender/sexuality play, thus making it likely that I will return to Colette's texts for more research. As for Kristeva, while her theorization of "incestuous mother-daughter relations" proposes liberatory psychic opportunities, her language vascillates between the revolutionary and the conservative. To ask "Is there a feminine genius?" as she does in her final chapter, is to essentialize "the feminine," even as she argues that "the feminine" is available to everyone. Because she frames "the feminine" in a strictly Western, heteronormative narrative of father, mother, and child, without benefit of any materialist critique, she fails to question "the feminine" itself.

If "to write is to reinvent love," as Kristeva claims, the love that her text proclaims for Colette is as particular to Kristeva as Colette's love, writing, and genius are to Colette. Kristeva's stated purpose in writing her triptych of "female genius" is to stimulate in herself and her readers "the flowering of our singularity" by deciphering the very individual ways in which these geniuses "transcended their respective fields." While she dedicates her book to Simone de Beauvoir, she offers it in contradistinction to "the feminists" whose "totalizing ambitions" and "rebellious negativity.... [have] rigidified into a short-lived militantism" that fails insofar as it ignores "the singularity of subjects"--which she claims her project attempts to recover. It is ironic that she attempts to do so via a narrative as totalizing as the caricature of feminism she describes. Would that her love extended further.