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At the Risk of Thinking by Alice Jardine review – the importance of Julia Kristeva | Books


One wintry evening in Paris in 1965, a young woman flew in from Bulgaria to find that the friend of a friend supposed to meet her had forgotten to turn up. She was 24, with “prominent cheekbones” and “almond-shaped eyes”, and she had only $5 plus a couple of volumes of Hegel and a toothbrush. A woman from the plane took her to the Bulgarian embassy; through other contacts, she quickly got to know Roland Barthes, the poet Louis Aragon and the philsopher Lucien Goldmann. There are, Alice Jardine writes in this biography of Julia Kristeva, “a handful of personal stories” that the theorist “has told many times in interviews, films, essays and fiction”, and of those, this one is a favourite. The cheekbones and the eyes come from Kristeva’s highly autobiographical first novel, The Samurai (1990), which also has lots of sex in it and many mentions of the author’s own self-characterised “squirrel-coloured” hair.

Kristeva was born in Sliven, Bulgaria in 1941, the elder daughter of a scientifically trained mother and a father who worked for the orthodox church. They moved into Sofia in 1945, and Julia was put into a French nursery and later did extra French at the Alliance Française after school. When De Gaulle offered scholarships to French-speaking east Europeans, she was a shoo-in. She had only $5 when she arrived in Paris because that was all the western currency she could get her hands on. The friend of the friend was supposed to have brought along more.

There is no doubt, as Jardine writes, that Kristeva is one of the major European writers of our time. Philosophy, psychoanalysis, anthropology, linguistics – she has left her mark on all of them, and if you try imagining an ideal type of the glamorous French feminist intellectual, it’s probably Kristeva that you see. But she is also, Jardine acknowledges, much ridiculed, and the rumours that surfaced a couple of years ago about her spying for the Bulgarian secret service started in France in the mid-1960s, almost the moment her plane touched ground. (Actually, the “Sabina files”, as the Bulgarian records of Kristeva’s spying career are known, largely relate to how often Kristeva’s letters home to her parents were opened and read without permission. “Aggravated surveillance”, Kristeva has called this, and people who know much more about spying than I do, such as Neal Ascherson and Maria Dimitrova, agree.)

But the really great thing about being a Bulgarian in Paris in the 60s was that your Eastern-bloc education gave you access to ideas that the Parisians really wanted to know about: Prague School linguistics, especially the work of Roman Jakobson; Russian formalism and post-formalism. Kristeva knew all about all of it, and sometimes knew the theorists personally: no wonder the French surrealo-structuralists took her to their hearts so quickly. And for the novelist Philippe Sollers, also the editor of the avant-gardist journal Tel Quel, the attraction was also physical, a “coup de foudre”. Kristeva married him in 1967, at least partly for visa reasons – Sollers was already involved with a much older Belgian writer, Dominique Rolin, and would remain so until Rolin’s death – but the couple appear to have kept up a close and affectionate open relationship ever since.

Kristeva’s early work culminated in the massive Revolution in Poetic Language (1974). She agreed with the structuralists that language, myth and ritual can all be studied systematically, as signs; except that such systems are never static. Language is spoken, by particular subjects at particular moments in time, and such “speaking subjects” are themselves subject to a language and history in constant flux. The early Kristeva was known in particular for her interest in what she called “the semiotic”, the pre-linguistic murmuration you can hear, when you listen for it, from infants, dreams, bodies, poetry, the avant garde.

She had barely heard of Freud before she arrived in Paris, but was much impressed by the “church-like mood” of Lacan’s legendary seminars, and went into psychoanalysis herself in 1970. Such decisions were shaped, partly, by the attempts of the Tel Quel inner circle to respond to the political turmoil of France in the late 60s: the journal’s line had already shifted from communism to Maoism, and Kristeva and Barthes, among others, visited China in 1974, to see “the Taoist anarchism” – as Kristeva called it – for themselves. But her shift was also personal, to do with her sense of herself as a daughter, and with a longing she’d started feeling to become a mother herself.

Kristeva’s son, David Joyaux, was born in 1975 (Joyaux is Sollers’s real surname: as well as being a Marxist avant-gardist, he’s also the scion of a factory-owning family with an estate on the Île de Ré). David was tiny when he first became ill with “neuromuscular problems … tremors … comas where the infant was literally balanced between life and death”. Tests found nothing. “They called it ‘an orphan disease’ – and still do today.” Now in his 40s, David is obviously much loved, and seems to enjoy life enormously. But he’s often ill, and he needs support, according to Jardine, “24/7”. If you ever wondered why Kristeva publishes so much, and seems OK with all the silly personality-cultish media she attracts, this is probably a reason why.

It’s also perhaps because of David’s health that for Kristeva, it’s impossible to think about maternity without thinking, too, about the awful fact of death: “the abject”, she calls this “twisted braid of affects” in her best-known book, Powers of Horror (1980). One form of this abjection is what Kristeva calls “food-loathing”, which for her is exemplified by “that skin on the surface of milk – harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail-paring” (interestingly, Jardine’s book reports that Kristeva as a baby was not breastfed but given sheep’s milk). But the big one is the repulsive, antisemitic disgust of the French novelist, Céline: she was on her analyst’s couch, Kristeva remembers, talking about how much she hated him – “Nothing but massacres, horror, abjection!” – when her analyst told her: “That’s the word.”

Jardine first met Kristeva in 1976, when she was 25, a graduate student in French at Columbia in New York. She was wearing a long, blue denim dress, Jardine remembers, and reading a book she held in her hand, with David on her right shoulder and a phone-receiver on her left. “What is a coup de foudre that endures over time? I must ask myself this question …” Her book is “not a hagiography”, she says, although it kind of is. The sources throughout are mostly from Kristeva, and whenever anybody says anything mean about our heroine – in The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet’s “ferocious” (ie, hilarious) comic policier, for example – Jardine takes Kristeva’s part. “Kristeva herself has resisted the internet, only using email to communicate and even that as little as possible,” Jardine writes. “À quoi bon lire en temps de tweets?” I read the other day on the kristeva.fr official website, to which I’d been directed by Kristeva’s official Twitter feed.

But it was thanks to Kristeva’s Twitter that I found “Disability Revisited”, a lecture she delivered in English to the University of Oslo in 2018. In it, she explains how caring for her son has “committed” her to “a gigantic task … neither more nor less than refounding humanism”. To live and love in a relationship with disability in it is of course difficult, she says, but also “a chance”: a chance for both sides to reveal themselves to each other in their fullest singularities. It’s not at all, as usually considered, a case of care-giver and care-object, but something far, far deeper and richer. “How does disability transform our idea of the human?” she asks, going on to talk about mortality and vulnerability. “Every moment I measure the urgency and the utopia of this task.”

At the Risk of Thinking is published by Bloomsbury (RRP £19.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.

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