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  • Julia Kristeva: The Berlin interview!


Julia Kristeva: The Berlin interview!

Julia Kristeva is one of the few contemporary intellectuals one can't mention without a bit of humble respect or downright awe. Find out for yourself why.

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Julia Kristeva is one of the few contemporary intellectuals one can’t mention without a bit of humble respect or downright awe.

Analyst, essayist, novelist, honorary degrees from eight universities including Harvard, a lecturer at New York’s Columbia and New School, her life’s work straddles many disciplines and has inspired academics and feminists on both sides of the pond through a sharp, original philosophical and psychoanalytical approach, the density of which might deter some but to many hungry intellects is cause to rejoice.

Kristeva will be in Berlin to discuss “The Need to Believe” (Tue, Mar 8 @ HKW) and “European culture” (Sun, Mar 6 @ Renaissance Theater), a topic she knows first-hand from her childhood in communist Bulgaria to her intellectual blossoming among the post-structuralist Paris intelligentsia.

You say that we’re not proud enough as Europeans. Your Berlin lecture with the Berliner Festspiele will specifically tackle the issue of European culture. Are you worried? Do you believe that European identity is undergoing a crisis?

Identity is always in crisis, and that’s a distinctive characteristic of European thought: to say that identity is not a cult but a permanent questioning. So if it’s in crisis it’s all for the better; it is an open idea – it can evolve, it can be creative, that’s the good side of our conception of identity – which was transmitted to us by the Greek philosophy of dialogue, by biblical thought, Christian mysticism and philosophy, all those issues tackled by the Enlightenment: freedom, women’s freedom, sexual freedom, slaves’ freedom, that notion of the liberation of singularities which we see now exploding in Arab societies. All that is very positive. This crisis is very productive, as permanent crisis, as eternal renewal.

Sounds really difficult to sustain.

Of course, one can also see how this situation can weaken Europe’s ability to react fast. Getting swamped in endless debates, losing its efficiency – that’s the kind of trouble Europe goes though if it doesn’t have the enthusiasm to carry its tradition proudly and to get involved in current conflicts while being proud of that idea – identity as free questioning.

What are the dangers of not being proud enough? Can nations, like human beings, experience existential crisis and sink into depression? How relevant is psychoanalysis to helping nations in crisis?

I do believe that analysis can be exported from the individual to larger groups like nations. What does it mean? The depressed individual is someone who has lost his or her self-confidence. He or she can start asking him or herself about her shortcomings, limits, problems, see trauma and find new creativities only if she find in herself some confidence, and the analyst’s primary job is to help restore that confidence.

Right now many European societies are in the midst of economic crisis: unemployment is soaring while banks keep raking in the profits; in the meantime traditional cultures have been challenged by the arrival of waves of foreigners from other cultures and continents and with other traditions. Not to mention the changing contours of the family, the new social, sexual and behavioural norms, the ecological crisis, etc. So of course we try to understand all that in order to face up to problems. But we have trouble coming to terms with the national identity problem of European nations and of Europe at large, mainly because we still experience guilt from past errors and failures.

Such as?

Colonialism, the Inquisition, the European man’s machismo, the Shoah, many well-known phenomena. Particularly the Left, which I belong to, has been made extremely uncomfortable by such historical weight and have failed to see the progress and achievements of European culture, which could help us think and overcome these errors and these horrors and also to invent new relations.

How do you reconcile European universalism and its particular traditions and cultures, spreading the idea of freedom without imposing it upon people?

We’re not only spreading universalism to those in other countries and other continents who recognize themselves in that the aspiration to liberty, for example, but we have also arrived at the point where we don’t speak of a universe, but of a multiverse, just as what we have in cosmogonies and what’s going on in the sky, to integrate other worlds into our idea of universalism and to respect those different worlds but without forgetting there are general rules which were conceived by the European tradition in particular, in a more firm way than in other traditions. More firm, more clear but which are sharable, shared by others. We took the idea of freedom. We know how risky this term is because that term can expose us to a lot of crimes and excesses in its name. But it’s also in the name of that freedom that the things that happened recently in the Arab world have happened, the toppling of those dictatorial regimes.

No one seemed to think that the Arabic world was capable of freedom…

Yes, European governments were backing those regimes because they thought they couldn’t do otherwise, but that was the Europe of the status quo and bureaucracy. And now they are rebelling against that Europe and their dictators. The youth and the other revolutionaries claim our values for themselves. So see how diverse and multi-layered European culture and how our calling is to continue what Nietzsche called the “transvaluation of tradition”, to go further in the realization of that spirit.

So, the Arab crowds give us forgetful Europeans a wakeup call. They recognise themselves in this European idea we tend to forget about…

Yes, the idea of human rights. It’s a great encouragement for that self-searching humanism as an endless construction site.

So, for you, is there is only one Europe, one European identity?

What I’m trying to say is that Europe is diverse. It has multiple identities. It’s a question-mark identity because its very identity is already made of many different nations. The European is a kaleidoscopic individual who at the very best speaks 25 languages, maybe not so many, but any student nowadays speaks 3 or 4 languages and to speak those different languages is already a way to belong to different modes of thought. This Europe is united in its very aspiration to diversity, but it’s not uniform.

Right now you’re working on a conference organised by the Vatican, a meeting between philosophers and believers. How important is Christian heritage in the definition of humanism?

The conference is an initiative of the Vatican, a meeting between believers and humanists, which will be called The Court of the Gentiles (Parvis des Gentils). I am thinking about a way to present that humanism borne out of Christianity, which broke away from Christianity, which kept quite a few Christian values, but which totally changed them, deepened them, while totally rejecting some of them. The names of Erasmus, Diderot, Marquis de Sade in his radicality, but especially Freud help us to rethink other notions of humanity which are plural, complex and which include not just men, but women, youth, the teenager, the child, old people, the handicapped, etc. All that plurality is already in our conception, which is permanently being rebuilt again and again.

There is no such thing as stagnant humanism. That’s what I hear in those calls from the other side of the Mediterranean. I see all those people dying under Kaddafi’s bullets, all those people who aren’t bearded fundamentalists. Of course the main problem now, which is far from being resolved, is to find the structures that can replace those old corrupt regimes. Perhaps organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood and other para-Islamist organizations could take over. But one should nonetheless trust this spirit of freedom so that it doesn’t sink into Islamism and find new forms, new expressions.

What is the place of religion in this quest for freedom and how can our modern, ‘disenchanted’ (in the words of Weber) societies reconcile themselves with people’s need to believe?

I don’t believe religion can be called enchantment. That’s a vision that calls religion the “opium of the people”. Enchanted is what? To give false illusions, to stir up enthusiasms, to give solace or to push to exterminate people who don’t think like you. No, enchantment is not the nerve of religion. Religion is the receptacle of some truths of human experience. Looking at the Jewish and Christian religions, which I know better, their experience of emotions, of passions, which builds itself an inner space: who am I, what is the meaning of life, what is the relationship between life and death?

My emotions, my desires, my sensation, my languages, my interpretations, all this inner life, here is that wealth that religions have transmitted to us and that social sciences are trying to understand better today, whether in anthropology, art history, religious history, psychology, inner life which is linked to that of the other and which makes society. Without that inner life, society would only be banks or the internet, not made out of individuals, but dots or points that would communicate through Facebook and that wouldn’t be very interesting and that could actually sink into chaos. The counterpoint to hyper-communication, to the excess of new technologies can only be that inner life as enlightened by today’s sciences and by tradition as well.

Are you referring to that “need to believe” you famously coined in an eponymous book?

When I refer to that “need to believe”, and that is what the psychoanalytical experience revealed to me: it’s a universal, anthropological need that goes through all religions, that is pre-religious and pre-political, and you find it in the ability of the human being to invest him or herself in another human being. What I mean by invest is to give oneself to another human being, to understand his or her emotions, to care for him, and to expect the same for oneself from the other. You find it in the primordial care of the mother for her child. You find it as well in what Freud calls primary identification to the father. And you know what the Sanskrit word is for invest? In German you say Besetzung or cathexis in English. The Indo-European root is “cred” which gives us credo, and words like credit. This ability to live because you invest. Because I invest, I create a link, not a link of submission or exploitation but a reciprocal link, reciprocal penetration. This is the ultimate form of freedom which is a sort of love, which is also maybe the experience that the Christian, Greek and Jewish civilization investigated the deepest, with a maximum of passion and lucidity and, for me, as a writer and a psychoanalysis, this is what is the counterweight to all dangers of technocratisation, robotisation and banalisation of the human.

How does God fit in this picture?

In the form of the rush towards religion. People are looking for that investment in the other, this very warm, affective, emotional, amorous relationship within a community. The word God is a bit opaque, a bit ambitious and sometimes empty. As humanists we tend to avoid it when referring to an unfulfilled desire for this kind of reciprocity.

But isn’t the persistence of religion a consequence of that ‘roboticised’, ‘technocraticised’ society that ignored that need?

It’s only one of the consequences of modern society. From the very time man starts talking, he’s in technology, he Facebooks, he gives himself the means to communicate a part of his experiences. But when man does only that, and economics and politics are put to the service of only that, we totally forget about depth, which is something you need to develop. We do not need to abolish the internet, but to give it meaning. And, yes indeed, when people go into religion, they try to find depth. A deeper, more emotional, more sensual contact. I wrote an article in Le Monde about mystical seduction, how the quest for the mystical shows our society, our secularisation has not been capable of elaborating a discourse of love. Kant said in The Critique of Practical Reason you can’t have a morality without a corpus mysticum of the whole of humanity but how are you going to make that corpus mysticum? Not with the internet reduced to communication through elements of language. Elements of language, this is what we call it these days. They are small signals that give me the illusion of having friends.

No, we can establish that corpus mysticum by going deeper into creative experience, by developing writing, by developing actual encounters, by deepening knowledge of other humans through the sciences, psychoanalysis, etc., but also by organizing encounters between believers and non-believers, not to try to rehabilitate religions – we don’t need that – but to try to understand the wealth they have brought to humanity and what their limits are.

You said that as Europeans we are all foreigners. What did you mean by that?

It means that this bunch of nations that we represent, that we are part of, from one nation to another, from one trip to another, we experience not just as our self, but as foreign to the other. This experience of our foreignness brings us to the idea of difference, brings us to think for ourselves about what is irreducible between beings, to cultivate not the notion that we are all the same, but the notion that we are all singular and that might be the beginning of the morality, as I conceive it, for a new humanism.

And that’s an experience you had yourself when you went to France?

That’s something that was somehow in my destiny but that’s never something that’s given to you by politics and by the chance of history. You’ve got to work a lot on yourself and investigate deeper the condition that life gave you, to try to survive those conditions.

In Meurtre à Byzance (Murder in Byzantium), your main protagonist says “I travel myself,” and that’s an experience that goes through all your work, in reference to St. Augustine’s famous words, “In via in patria.” How do you do that these days?

I continue living between languages and to see the different mentalities that inhabit me, like a Picasso portrait.

Which period?!

Especially the last ones that people don’t like so much, but I think that old man, who managed to make those extraordinary women with multiple facets (sides), saw so well into the depths of the feminine and the human being and I also travel myself a lot through champagne, not in the Champagne region, but in the wine, which I like a lot, because it somehow gives me the image of the multiverse, which means there is the champagne, there is a unity, that is the universe, but this universe is made of so many bubbles, those mini champagne bubbles, they are so many different worlds that are subtle, each one declines the general laws in a very singular way. For me champagne is the perfect example of “traveling myself”. I try to travel myself to taste the endless multiplicity of those champagne bubbles which are like other people’s worlds.

It’s a very gourmet metaphysics.

Totally. But sensation is a world.

I am surprised, because I heard that your favourite sense was touch.

Absolutely. Aristotle said that touch is the foundation of all the other senses. Taste is also a form of touch, using other taste buds than the skin….