May 2012

Josh Zajdman

nonfiction

Hatred and Forgiveness by Julia Kristeva, translated by Jeanine Herman

In his introduction to this stirring, challenging, but always compelling collection of Julia Kristeva's essays, Pierre-Louis Fort, her translator, describes what thought means to the theorist, and the ways in which it influences her life, that of her patients, and, lastly, that of her readers. "Thought, as Julia Kristeva understands and practices it, is a sharing, a generosity, a promise, and a proposal of human, spiritual, and intellectual opening." It's best to begin and continue reading the book while bearing this in mind. Kristeva breaks through the notion of thought or intellect being a solitary practice and espouses the value of a shared, if not downright communal, growth toward and engagement with it. This idea of intellectual engagement and a shared involvement in matters of the mind is especially refreshing when read in a world where discourse is predominantly limited to status updates and 140 character bursts of self-aggrandizement. Though each essay offers a plethora of opinions, insights, quandaries, and other thought-stimulating points of entry, reading the entire book straight through is overwhelming. It serves as an excellent introduction to Kristeva's work if read piecemeal, but a far-reaching and somewhat straining mental exercise if read from cover to cover. Divided into six subjects: "World(s)," "Women," "Psychoanalyzing," "Religion," "Portraits," and "Writing," Hatred and Forgiveness serves as an incredible gathering of the issues and texts which have dominated Kristeva's writing life and intellectual career. In Fort's estimation, these six sections are "in the image of their author: daring, inventive, kaleidoscopic, iridescent."

Kristeva is a fantastically dynamic and erudite author, with each of these essays stemming from talks given, or edited from previous publications released, between 1987 and 2005. This variety of forums makes for a reading experience that is equal parts fascinating and frustrating. One minute, it's articulate and stimulating musings from your smartest friend, but the next, it's almost unbearably complex and nuanced psychoanalytic considerations it'd take many a mental sailor to untangle the knots from. The collection's inaugural essay, "Thinking About Liberty In Dark Times," aside from being one of the most fascinating, did a great deal in making immediately clear several of Kristeva's most pressing interests. It's an almost microcosmic look at what is to come in the following three hundred or so pages. Kristeva gave the speech after winning "this first Holberg prize for research in the field of the human and social sciences, law and theology." The sheer variety of fields, which fall under the Holberg umbrella, make the wide-ranging and intellectually agile Kristeva an ideal first recipient.

As the speech progresses, she elaborates on the complex nature and background that motivate her to engage with thought, as previously defined. "You have in front of you today a European citizen, of Bulgarian origin and French nationality, who considers herself a cosmopolitan intellectual; this last quality alone would have been enough to merit persecution in the Bulgaria of my childhood." The cosmopolitan intellectual -- Trilling, Sartre, et al. -- seems to be a construct of the past, but thankfully roars again, and forcefully, from within these pages. Fear, oppressive governments, and social restraints may have forced Kristeva elsewhere, but they just as powerfully molded her intellectual approach. As the essay continues, she swings easily from talks of "national depression" to "the contribution that women have made to contemporary thought" -- a guiding light for her work regardless of field or approach. This was specifically manifested in her frequent attempts "to address the following question: 'Is there a specifically female form of genius?'" Unwilling or perhaps unable to answer the question directly, Kristeva simply remarks that "this question is not a new one, but it still retains much of its mystery." The work she has done in service to it is considerable, as illustrated in the variety of essays in part two ranging from "On Parity, Again: or, Women and the Sacred" to "From Madonnas to Nudes: A Representation of Female Beauty," and of particular personal interest, "Beauvoir, Presently."

Kristeva doesn't shy away from a plethora of involved questions. As "Thinking About Liberty..." draws to a close, she moves from questions of gender and genius to a lamentation of the present state of both Europe and America. "At present, instead of this liberty, humanity is betraying itself in a process of increasing technical and robotic uniformization." Part of this reduction is the limiting of what Kristeva coins the "psychical life." It's an entity shared by humanity, with varied degrees of proliferation and atrophy from person to person. Without a psychical life, there is no life at all. It's "the intimate dimension of our existence (what in French we call our for interieur), which allows us to shield ourselves from internal and external attacks on our being... The imaginary metabolizes them, transforms them, sublimates them, works through them, and in this way keeps us alive." One of the ways Kristeva strengthens it is through engagement with literature. It "offers a refuge for our loves and insomnia, our states of grace and crisis." After all, isn't that why everyone reads?

With ample attention paid to the first essay in the book, I briefly turn to the last selection -- a discussion of Kristeva's novel Murder in Byzantium between the author and Fort, a translator. With Kristevan ease and ability to swing from vine to vine in her intellectual jungle, she categorizes the book "at once a metaphysical detective novel, a historical novel, a lyrical narrative, and a social satire: the ego is broken down into multiple facets, and familial images are present but disseminated in a historic framework..." This could serve as a way to consider this collection of essays. It's hardly qualifiable, and if you try, it will elude you. It can always be broken down further, or differently. Parts of it can be smashed into little swallowable baubles of thought while others splinter and fragment into sharp, painful truths. Anybody interested in thinking (as both cognitive science and art), psychoanalysis, women, men, sex, religion, politics, and anything else best avoided in polite discussion ought to pick it up.

Hatred and Forgiveness by Julia Kristeva, translated by Jeanine Herman
Columbia University Press
ISBN: 978-0231143257
336 pages