Time of the Assassin

Michael Wood

  • Proust and the Sense of Time by Julia Kristeva, translated by Stephen Bann
    Faber, 103 pp, £20.00, July 1993, ISBN 0 571 16880 9
  • Le Temps sensible: Proust et l’expérience littéraire by Julia Kristeva
    Gallimard, 451 pp, January 1995, ISBN 2 07 073116 2
  • The Old Man and the Wolves by Julia Kristeva, translated by Barbara Bray
    Columbia, 183 pp, £15.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 231 08020 4

‘And so,’ Bréhal said, ‘love would be time become available to the senses.’

Julia Kristeva, Les Samouraïs

The genuine charm and considerable strength of Julia Kristeva’s writing are inseparable from a certain solemnity and excess of diligence, a heavy shadow that dogs her like an obligation. In her novel Les Samouraïs (1990), her young alter ego is called ‘a bull-dozer’. We don’t have to go as far as that, even if it is said to be ‘the best of compliments’. Kristeva arrives at elegance, even brio, but only after cautious preparations, as if a plane were to need the length of several runways to get off the ground. In the English version of her Proust book, demonstrating an obvious point in a particularly lumpy way, she remarks: ‘You may be right in seeing my determination ... as the fantasy of a mischievous or well-informed reader.’ Well, no, that wasn’t quite how we saw it. But then the French text, seeming to say much the same thing, strikes a different note: ‘On a le droit de prendre pour une fantaisie de lectrice espiègle et savante cette obstination.’ The argument ain’t espiègle either way, but obstination suggests an awareness of the problem of tone, and savante allows us to think of Molière’s Femmnes savantes if we want to. Kristeva is confessing to pedantry, and engagingly persisting in it.

The self-consciousness, indeed the bravery of this move becomes clear if we persist with her book. One section is called ‘Losing Impatience’ – the way one loses one’s patience. She mounts a brilliant defence of the pedantic and pretentious Bloch, a schoolfriend of the narrator’s in A la recherche du temps perdu. Of course he’s a pain, entirely unbearable; but he’s a serious and courageous Dreyfusard when others are frivolous or timid, and Kristeva thinks, I’m sure rightly, that Proust’s narrator has more sympathy than he shows for this grotesque figure. ‘Perhaps he deserves to be treated badly,’ she writes of Bloch, ‘but if he is treated badly, I immediately find he doesn’t deserve it.’ Thinking of Roland Barthes’s defence of jargon (between jargon and platitude, always choose jargon), she sees Bloch’s pompous and allusive language as the weapon of the outsider against the condescension of the clan, and thinks that if he had lived a little later he would have been a structural anthropologist or a psychoanalyst (or a student of linguistics, or stylistics, or rhetoric). Kristeva is not defending herself in defending Bloch, but she is saying that she knows how he feels, and she is gratefully apologising for her moments of gracelessness. ‘I know from experience and from observation that one has to be rather limited and stubborn to be a militant.’ Wittily commenting on what she can’t after all forgive in Bloch (his mispronunciations of English: ‘laift’ for lift and ‘Venaice’ for Venice), she says, on the model of noblesse oblige, ‘pédanterie linguistique oblige.’ She doesn’t like the way Bloch treats his sisters either, and there she says: ‘féminité [sic] oblige.’

The English text is that of the Eliot Lectures, which Kristeva gave in Canterbury in 1992. She explores what she calls ‘embodied time’ in the drafts of Proust’s novel and in his affective life; tries to reawaken our interest in the too often cited madeleine; looks at Proust’s implied theory of metaphor; at his debt to contemporary French philosophers and what he did with that debt. It’s a disappointing book because it seems so skimpy, often obvious, even crude. I thought the easy equation of Proust’s fictional Albertine with his real-life chauffeur Albert Agostinelli had gone for good, but here it is again, trotted out as if it had never raised a question. Of course Agostinelli had something to do with the way Albertine was, but the fact that she was a woman, however fictional, was important too. In her French text Kristeva takes 16 pages to work this out (‘Albertine n’est pas Albert’), and says some very interesting things about Albertine’s complex and shifting sexuality on the way. Elsewhere in the same book a simple bracket points entirely in the opposite direction – ‘Albertine (ou Albert)’ – and in English this simplicity is all we get. Do these different degrees of sophistication represent different stages of the work?

In both texts Kristeva zigzags between Proust’s fiction and Proust’s life as if they were essentially the same thing (‘Does this mean the return of the biographical subject?’ Stephen Bann disingenuously asks in his Introduction), as if writing were just a feeble disguise for lived experience. Proust evokes the death of a grandmother, but we all know he means his mother. The objection to this kind of stuff is not that we want to deny the biographical subject or celebrate the perfect autonomy of the literary text, but that we want to respect the writer’s work, the long labour that goes into making a world. It’s the realised, fictional world that relates to ours, invites comparisons with history; not a jumble of people and places the writer has casually borrowed from reality, to be returned to their original shelf whenever readers crack the code. Kristeva knows this, of course, and insists on the importance of the fictional world (‘the aim of fiction is to make a world’), but she also forgets about it again and again.

There is a double difficulty for Kristeva here. As a psychoanalyst she needs to recognise the fantasy in the life and the life in the fantasy. And although she says (in Les Nouvelles Maladies de l’âme, 1993) that ‘a psychoanalyst who does not discover in each patient a new sickness of the soul doesn’t understand the patient’s real singularity,’ the stories she tells are (necessarily) very general ones: about the mother and the child, for instance, of whom individual persons are only inflections. These stories are interesting, even compelling, but they are always faits accomplis. The supposed evidence merely duplicates the premise. If you grant the premise, the evidence fits; if you don’t, there isn’t any evidence. Proust and his housekeeper, Kristeva says, are joined ‘in their devotion to the “good mother”, who would fill them both, alternately, with the sublimated love that binds a child to its mother, and no doubt the writer to his work’, ‘No doubt’ (she says ‘peut-être’ in French): it’s as easy to assent to this story as it is to disbelieve it, it doesn’t give us any grounds for going either way, beyond its own rather glamorous coherence. ‘For Mamma’s madeleine is substituted the madeleine of Léonie, the father’s sister around whom Proust arranged his memories of his paternal family, the Amiot of Illiers.’ I think the idea of a shift from mother to aunt, from the mother’s world to the father’s, is really interesting, but Proust doesn’t say anything about a shift – he says that two experiences, in the present and in the past, two tastes of a madeleine dipped in tea, meet up in the mind to cancel time and prove the continuity of the self – and only a blind faith in the psychoanalytic paradigm will allow us to see a tale of substitution here. The problem is the notion of displacement, crucial to Freudian theory, infinitely rich in interpretative possibility, and true to all kinds of baffling moments in our lives, but horribly easy for criticism. If the story doesn’t work on one channel, you just switch to another, and you don’t have to explain the switch, or the rules of the game. Displacement, see. This is bad, because in criticism the explanations are often more exciting than the rules or the game.

The other aspect of Kristeva’s difficulty is that she wants to celebrate writing as opposed to life, at least as opposed to social and historical life, because her story is also about the triumph of art. ‘Art is not social,’ she says, paraphrasing Proust but also seeming to endorse the argument. ‘It shreds the social order into little pieces.’ Proust keeps his options open, she argues, avoiding the lure of religion and the poverty of phenomenology. ‘With him, historical time does not pass us by, but it is pointless. We have however all the space of the timeless to enjoy these sensory reminiscences, which challenge us to go beyond our limitations.’ Proust was spared the ‘political compromises which tarnished the lustre of so many writers and philosophers in our century ... and managed to preserve ... his cult of art’. Very nice if you like that sort of thing. But it does completely unravel Kristeva’s idea that Proust is more contemporary than any of our contemporaries, that he will save us from our splintered time, show us how to put time together again. The aesthete she conjures up is at best the contemporary of Walter Pater. I would have thought that Proust’s claim on us now was something like the opposite: the depth of his sense of historical haunting, his feeling for the saturation of human life in time, wrinkles, ageing, shortness of breath. Redemption through art was certainly what he wanted; what he left us were the brilliant fruits of his affection for the unredeemed world.

This is in fact what Kristeva shows us, when she is relishing Proust’s work rather than leaning on it, and the French book is different from the English one in a more substantial way than any I have so far suggested. It’s three hundred and fifty pages longer, it’s not trying to simplify for a benighted English audience; and Kristeva has probably done a lot more work on it since 1992. But the crucial difference grows on you (or grew on me) only rather gradually. In four lectures (or a book of a hundred pages), you need to make points, to say things, and Kristeva’s lectures don’t say much that readers of Proust will not have thought of for themselves. The longer work, you realise, also says things (the same things), but its actual project is something else. This is an immersion in Proust, the evocation of an intimate reading. We travel through the obvious and the original because both are part of the landscape, what there is; they are historical features of this reading.

The book is also a labour of love, the careful trace of Kristeva’s version of an affection she expects us to share, can’t imagine we shan’t. Thus ‘characters’ make their appearance in the English text as if this fancy French theorist had at last discovered what old-fashioned Anglo critics had never forgotten. In the French text the notion of a ‘character’ takes Kristeva back to the 17th century (to La Bruyère, Saint-Simon, Mme de Sévigné), to an art quite different from 19th-century realism. She then shows how Proust managed to tilt the second towards the first, defining a weirdly modern instability of the self in the process. Again, Kristeva’s rather bald appreciation of Proust’s cult of art also appears in the French, but it is followed by a subtle, if still tendentious, meditation on Merleau-Ponty and what Kristeva beautifully calls the flesh of the world, ‘la chair du monde’.

Julia Kristeva was born in Sofia in 1941, moved to Paris in 1966. She worked with Lucien Goldmann, was close to Roland Barthes, married Philippe Sollers. Barthes wrote an article about her called ‘L’étrangère’, playing on the name Balzac gave to the Polish countess he finally managed to marry. Being a stranger (or a foreigner) became part of Kristeva’s legend and identity, in spite of her extraordinary fluency in French as a written and spoken language, and in 1988 she published a learned and at times moving book called Etrangers à nousmêmes. Her massive doctoral thesis, published in 1974 as La Révolution du language poétique, remains perhaps her major work, although her Pouvoirs de l’horreur (1980) has also been enormously influential.

Kristeva is a professor of linguistics at Vincennes, but her interests have moved more and more towards psychoanalysis, and she became a practising analyst in 1979. Like all self-respecting European intellectuals, she is prepared to pontificate and be wrong – in 1979 she announced the end of ‘the nation as a reality’, and as late as 1993 she was reprinting the suggestion that ‘sex is less and less a centre of subjective interest,’ except among homosexuals – but she is tirelessly inquisitive and always lucid. This is especially true, although it may not seem to be so, of her Révolution du language poétique, a difficult but also a patient work, which dots every abstruse i and crosses every arcane t. She doesn’t make Lacan accessible – who could do such a thing? – but she makes him available, puts his theories to work by adding to his concept of the symbolic order that of the realm of the semiotic: not an order of decipherable meaning but a zone of meaning before meaning, a place where meanings are in play but not yet conscripted or socialised. It’s what’s happening between birth and socialisation in ‘this body which will later be a subject’. Her great theme is ‘the subject and its institutions’, but the semiotic in her sense allows for an engaging if erratic resistance to the very idea of institutions. It’s true that the semiotic is imaginary, in the sense that it can only be divined by someone who has already entered the symbolic order; but it would be memory if it could be, and its traces can be found in poetry and painting, in games and dreams and intermittences of language. With this framework Kristeva goes on to study Marx, Lukács, Mallarmé, Lautréamont, arrving at a sense, close to Derrida’s, of the text as the place where language opens up, where the semiotic has a chance. Women don’t have exclusive access to this material, in Kristeva’s argument, but they better situated than men, located between the ‘not yet’ and the ‘not that’ of unrealised or unacceptable languages: ‘woman is the utopian but privileged addressee of the text,’ our best bet against the tyranny of the symbolic.

These ideas are taken further in Kristeva’s very well known essay, ‘Women’s Time’ (1979), in which she argues for a rethinking both of the linear, historical time of men (which she calls obsessional) and of the monumental, cyclical time of women, which until recently kept them locked out of history altogether. This is an appealing project, although it gets a little creepy towards the end, when Kristeva invokes religion and ‘intrinsic evil’, and calls for us to interiorise our guilt rather than join the Baader-Meinhof gang. I see the attraction of the idea of the ‘singularity of each person’ for which Kristeva repeatedly argues, but I’m not sure how we stop ourselves from slipping into a celebration of the well-off individual, or the notion that liberalism is all there is. How are we to escape the radical privacy this perspective suggests? Assuming we want to. Kristeva wants to, but the best she can do is a leap into allegory, into the sheer assumption of the shared ground she has just given away. ‘We are all ET’ (Histoires d’amour, 1984); ‘these strangers we all recognise ourselves to be’ (Etrangers à nous-mêmes); ‘modern man is in the process of losing his soul’ (Les Nouvelles Maladies de l’âme).

Kristeva’s first novel was an agreeable but slightly stilled roman à clef, recounting the intellectual and other adventures of her early years in Paris. Her second, The Old Man and the Wolves, published in 1991 in French and now appearing in an excellent English translation, is rather different, although the autobiographical traces surface soon enough. An old man, a former Classics teacher, lives in a country besieged by wolves. The wolves devour the inhabitants, on one occasion ten thousand at a swoop, and many of the inhabitants become wolves themselves. All kinds of strategies of denial are in place: wolves are all right, really; at least they’re our wolves; let’s not talk about the wolves. A French reporter arrives, Stéphanie Delacour, who grew up in this country as the French Ambassador’s daughter. She is disturbed by what she finds, scents murder everywhere and turns amateur detective in order to solve crimes that haven’t yet happened. Or have they? Perhaps the poison that will kill the brutal husband of Stéphanie’s friend has already been administered. Perhaps the husband has already killed the friend. How did the old man die? Who disconnected the artificial lung? Who is the anonymous girl found drowned in the lake? Was the wound on her neck caused by a knife or a fang? This is a philosophical novel, so we mustn’t expect answers to these questions. The old man, before he dies, broods on the end of civilisation, gives us pictures from Ovid and Goya. Stéphanie recalls her dead father, the old man’s friend, and the best writing in the book registers her grieving:

Mourning is memory, weeping and catching its breath at the thought of winters past ...

It’s foolish to regret acts of generosity never performed. But I can’t help weeping the unrelieving tears that mourn missed understandings ...

But what is the point of weeping of ever at the forbidden gates of a Law that no longer exists? It’s like the wan fear of orphans, unable to hope for the impossible. It’s said women don’t go in for atheism because they’re always in search of an illusion, namely that of a lover who will be both father and mother. But atheism may be a solution for women living in the wilderness bequeathed to them by a dead father.

Where is this country? We are told we could be in New York State, or the Carpathians, or in Northern Greece. The place is called Santa Barbara in the French text, Santa Varvara in the English – to make clear, I guess, that while we could be anywhere, we are not in California. The names of places and people are either Latin or Spanish (Vespasian, Alba, Burgos Aguilar), but I’m afraid most of the signs point infallibly to Bulgaria: icons, Gregorian chants, late modernisation, violations of human rights, a visit from a French president, complete with intellectuals in tow. So the wolves are? The ‘real’ wolves are the Soviets, and the metaphorical wolves are those who have become Sovietised, hard and evil, or those who think things are for the best in ‘the best of all possible vulpine worlds’ (an inspired translation of ‘le meilleur des mondes aux loups possible’): folks with no soul. I confess I liked the book better before I figured this out, but perhaps I can forget it if I try. The trouble with this sort of allegory is that it seems either too specific or entirely vacant, with nothing much in between: if the wolves aren’t the Soviets, we’re all wolves. What’s needed is some work on the wolves in their own right: an Albertine who can’t simply be flipped back into Albert.

For Kristeva, as for Freud and for many of his American readers, psychoanalysis is grounded in a tragic sense of life. But she sees in adult experience (the one that starts when you enter language and ends when you die) not only the ‘compromise and compounding with defeat’ identified by Lionel Trilling but the extreme violence of a severance from which we can never recover – we can only survive it with different degrees of distress or calm. This is the meaning of castration for Kristeva, as for Lacan: ‘the imaginary construction of a radical operation which constitutes the symbolic field and all beings inscribed therein ... in order for this operation ... to appear in its full truth and for it to be understood by both sexes, it would be just to emphasise its extension to all that is privation of fulfilment and totality’. Kristeva also speaks of ‘the implacable violence (separation, castration etc) which constitutes any symbolic contract’. This construction is imaginary (the phallus is what men think they have and women think they don’t have) but, in this view, inseparable from any recognisable sense of civilisation. The trick is to live without cruelly taking out this initial violence on ourselves or on others. Kindness and self-forgetting can be learned, Kristeva thinks. We can admire the dignity, even the moral grandeur of this lurid scenario without accepting its premises. But its very harshness may be cosy in its way, unadventurous. Lukács spoke of modern philosophers as living comfortably in the Grand Hotel of the abyss; the Freudian story can look like setting up house in a rat-trap. Still, we are not going to get out of the rat-trap by pretending it doesn’t exist.

A similar mixture of romance and conservatism appears everywhere in Kristeva’s work, not only in her psychoanalytic tales. I can’t tell whether she insists on the sturdiness, even the viciousness of the norm in order to preserve the idea of the margin, or whether she needs the idea of the margin to preserve the notion of a centre. Le Temps sensible ends with an autobiographical fragment which is in open and fascinating contradiction with one of the conclusions of The Old Man and the Wolves. In spite of all her doubts and questions, Stéphanie finally believes that the old man died because the frontiers came down – between East and West, and between good and evil. ‘He cracked up when he realised there was no longer a Berlin Wall between the wolves and those he loved. This interpenetration of two worlds seen from his own essentially moral point of view as irreconcilable, must, it seems to me, have been the real cause of his death.’ The frontiers, the implication is, are more important than what they divide. We need, not good and evil, but the difference between them. This isn’t ‘essentially moral’, it’s just alarmingly reactionary. Yet the Proust book ends with a wonderful definition of love as a lapsing of frontiers. (Kristeva says ‘refonte des frontières’, a melting-down and a recasting, but the frontiers don’t look as if they are going to come back.) ‘Love is not an interest or a dream, but absolute identification, the recasting of frontiers. No more “I”, no limits.’ She then catches herself, and calls this proposition a banality, a poor thing to have arrived at after so much work on Proust. But it’s not a banality, and she knows it’s not. It’s what happens when you realise how much you needed the wolves, and let go of your need. ‘I see you,’ a Cossack says to a Jewish officer in an Isaac Babel story, ‘I see all of you. You are trying to live without enemies.’ This must be appeasement a pathetic failure to acknowledge and live with the violence and privation of out condition. But what would it be like to live only with enemies, to need our enemies more than we need our friends? All wars would be cold, and there would be only war.