Julia Kristeva

Article Works
country/territory:
created on:
March 27, 2011
last changed on:
Please note: This page has not been updated since June 8, 2011. We decided to keep it online because we think the information is still valuable.
information provided by:
Other languages:
Julia Kristeva
Julia Kristeva © ZfL

Article

The Need to Believe

Julia Kristeva’s pink blazer is the first thing I see as she opens the Savoy’s gold- trimmed door. Her smile from the foyer tells me she hasn’t finished her first interview of the morning. Can I wait? When we finally drop into our tan leather chairs at the hotel coffee shop and begin our conversation, she looks at me – for the next 30 minutes. The night before, the award-winning psychoanalyst, literary, cultural theorist and author had read from “The Need to Believe” at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. As she leaned over her text, she didn’t once take a sip from her glass of water. She handles the interview with that same dedication. Julia Kristeva is as intense as she is refreshing, much like her Slavic and somehow mesmerizing eyes. When I get up from my chair, my lukewarm cappuccino is sitting there untouched. A thin cloud of foam rising to the top.
Born 1941 in Sliven, an industrial and garrison town in the Balkan Mountains, Kristeva was raised bilingually; her father had enrolled her and her sister in a French pre-school run by Dominican nuns. Because he refused to become a member of the Communist Party, the children were no longer allowed to continue their bilingual education. Their parents sent them to a Bulgarian school in the morning and in the afternoon they took courses at the Alliance Française: "My parents wanted it that way. My father always said, ´We’re in hell here. The only way out of hell is to learn languages."

Kristeva found her path out of hell. Today she no longer dreams in her mother tongue Bulgarian. She says she experienced a kind of rebirth in French, after going through psychoanalysis, "I reformulated some aspects of my childhood in French. I recorded the experience later in my novel, ‘Bulgary ma sufferance’." How such a thing could happen – that’s the stuff of literature – and, along with her courage and language skills, is connected to Albert Cohen. He had published a book of critical essays on Stalin in 1965, which the media in communist-bloc countries refused to review. The 24-year-old Julia Kristeva was the notable exception. Shortly after her review appeared, the publisher vilified her, calling her a spy, Zionist and cosmopolitan. This was Kristeva’s ticket to another world.

Driven by the vision of "a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals," Charles de Gaulle awarded young, French-speaking Bulgarians scholarships. The Bulgarian government awarded them, in turn, to non-French-speaking old people. "Nobody could leave Bulgaria," says Kristeva. On Christmas Eve 1965, she was able to bypass normal procedures and submitted her scholarship application directly to the French Embassy. Surprisingly, she was granted the scholarship.

When the 24-year-old Julia Kristeva first arrived in Paris during Christmas and New Years of 1966, a thick layer of snow was covering the ground. She waited at the airport for the family friend who never came to pick her up. She had five dollars in her pocket. "I was devastated. So I waited at the embassy. I thought, maybe he missed me at the airport. I started to cry. But then a strange thing happened: A man came up to me and said his name was Albert Cohen. He then asked who I was. ‘Julia Kristeva? You are Julia Kristeva? I thought you were an old lady. What are you doing here?´" Cohen, a correspondent from New York, took her under his wing and introduced her to his Parisian colleagues.

The France she journeyed to was in the midst of coming to terms with the shock of the Algerian war. Tension was in the air. Foreigners were being eyed with suspicion. "It was difficult to see what was going on inside because I felt somewhat excluded, at first," says Kristeva. "Ultimately, I came into contact with the intellectual world. I found another France there – a France that was open to Eastern Europeans to foreigners and women. There was no discrimination there, no skepticism because I was a woman. They simply welcomed me." The impressions of her trip to Paris were later expanded on in the novel "Samurai" (1992).

The young woman who was writing her thesis in Paris and deepening her knowledge of semiology and psychoanalysis had met luminaries such as: Roland Barthes, Lucien Goldmann and Philippe Sollers, editor of the literary journal Tel Quel. In 1965, she joined the eponymously named group that dealt with the politics of language and which saw history as a readable, interpretable text. In 1967, she published her first articles, including in the journal Critique. That same year she coined the term “intertextuality” in her essay, “Gep Bakhtin, le mot, le dialogue et le roman,” which was based on the theoretical text by Michael Bakhtin. In 1969, inspired by her linguistic studies and seminars with psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, she published “Séméiotiké: Recherches pour une semanalysis,” in 1970, “Le Texte Du Roman” and her doctoral thesis “La Revolution du langage poetique” in 1974. That same year she was hired as professor in the Linguistic department at the University of Paris. The center of Europe’s intellectual world was at her feet.

In many ways, 1974 was a turning-point and pinnacle for Kristeva. The world opened even wider for her, hell was further away than ever. Roland Barthes, the editor of Éditions du Seuil Francois Valle, Philippe Sollers and Julia Kristeva would be the first French delegation to travel to Communist China which was newly recognized by the United Nations. Nonetheless, Kristeva was denied a trip to Tibet, a country she had wished to visit at that time. She also was unable to get a sense of how China dealt with psychosis and mental illness. There was no such thing as mental illness in China, according to the cultural revolutionaries.

She was fascinated by the women in the country and their social situation: "There was a sort of independence there, a kind of wisdom and creativity that transcended their social exploitation." At the same, in Maoist China, she met many women who held positions of authority. Kristeva became inspired by them and saw a long tradition of women´s rights in Taoism and in Chinese Protestant suffragettes. Europe’s leftists were hungry for food from the Maoist revolution, Chinese feminism and its historical background. In 1974, she published "Des Chinoises." 1974 also brought a change in her personal life, she married the French writer Philippe Sollers.

Her obsession with China continues to the present day. In 2009, for the very first time, two Chinese women won the Simone de Beauvoir pour la liberté des femmes award, which she founded in 2007. In 2011, the Chinese translation of “De Chinois” was published. The study of religion, faith, Christianity and humanism has also played a central role in her life and works. To this day, her energy seems undiminished. Later in the month, invited by the Vatican, she will give a keynote address at a meeting for humanists and Catholics at the Sorbonne. During this time, she also has organized a conference for the international psychoanalytic congress of French-speaking psychoanalysts, focusing on motherhood. "You know," she says with a smile and looking me in the eye, "Freud did not entirely delve into this concept. Some people think psychoanalysis does not keep developing, but it does."

Then she begins to glow. "I am also working on a novel. On a novel about female time, about the time in which we live today, about cosmic time and humanity. I will not reveal more than this: a few years ago, I was with my son in Versailles, I saw an astronomical clock in a cabinet of Louis XV. It showed the positions of the planets of the solar system. It was programmed according to the hours, minutes, and seconds of 1749. Can you imagine until when? "She laughs."Up to 9999! It was 50 years before the French Revolution. Everything was in transition, people had lost their belief, there were the libertines, Voltaire, all these things - and this man was imagining eternity, a cosmic and scientific eternity, not divine. So I started researching who the man was, who built this clock.”

Julia Kristeva, Knight of the French Legion of Honor, spoke for half an hour. She has learned a lot about me, too. When I get up and look at the thin cloud of cappuccino, an eternity has gone by. A divine or cosmic one, certainly nothing that could be counted in seconds.


From an interview of the author with Julia Kristeva in March, 2011.
Author: Heike Gatzmaga

Works

Hatred and Forgiveness

Published Written,
2010
New York: Columbia University Press

Murder in Byzantium

Published Written,
2006
New York: Columbia University Press

Hannah Arendt: Life is a Narrative

Published Written,
2001
Toronto: University of Toronto Press

Female Genius: Life, Madness, Words: Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein, Colette: A Trilogy

Published Written,
2001
3 vols. New York: Columbia University Press

Reading the Bible

Published Written,
2001
In: David Jobling, Tina Pippin & Ronald Schleifer (eds). The Postmodern Bible Reader, pp. 92–101. Oxford: Blackwell

Crisis of the European Subject

Published Written,
2000
New York: Other Press

Possessions: A Novel

Published Written,
1998
New York: Columbia University Press

New Maladies of the Soul

Published Written,
1995
New York: Columbia University Press

The Old Man and the Wolves

Published Written,
1994
New York: Columbia University Press

Nations without Nationalism

Published Written,
1993
New York: Columbia University Press

The Samurai: A Novel

Published Written,
1992
New York: Columbia University Press

Strangers to Ourselves

Published Written,
1991
New York: Columbia University Press

Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia

Published Written,
1989
New York: Columbia University Press

In the Beginning Was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith

Published Written,
1987
New York: Columbia University Press

The Kristeva Reader

Published Written,
1986
Edited byToril Moi. Oxford: Basil Blackwell

Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection

Published Written,
1982
New York: Columbia University Press

About Chinese Women

Published Written,
1977
London: Boyars

La Révolution Du Langage Poétique: L´avant-Garde À La Fin Du Xixe Siècle, Lautréamont Et Mallarmé

Published Written,
1974
Paris: Éditions du Seuil

Séméiôtiké: recherches pour une sémanalyse

Published Written,
1969
Paris: Edition du Seuil