‘I have always believed I was a Byzantine’

The influential philosopher, psychoanalyst, feminist and novelist Julia Kristeva was in Athens in October for the First Translation and Interpretation Conference at the Hellenic American Union and she spoke to Kathimerini. Ancient Greek thought has set its mark on your work. What is your view of modern Greece? I’ve always had a sense of familiarity with Greece, which began in childhood when my father used to take me to the Black Sea, to the Greek city of Mesimvria. There are many Byzantine churches where I used to play and hear my father and his friends speaking Greek around me. That experience influenced me and I always carry it around inside me. I’ve always believed I was a Byzantine. I learnt to speak Greek a little, not very well. Ancient Greek thought has always been with me, that basic component of European civilization which has still not had the recognition it deserves. The Greeks and the Europeans are to blame for that. I think contemporary Greece is a country that is seeking its cultural identity in relation to a burdensome past that it has not managed to bring up to date, either to present it in its ancient glory or to adapt it to the modern world so that Greece can attain a place that is appropriate. Doubly foreign Roland Barthes gave his article about you the title «The Stranger.» Is a foreigner fragile and vulnerable or strong? I consider being foreign a dual fate: tragic, because when you break away from your roots and move into a new society, you are more or less an outsider. But it is also a divine gift, because we always begin to think when we start from the outside. You have to be an outsider to have a critical eye, both in relation to yourself and the world around you. The good side is that you get moving; you work; you innovate; you are active. Some who find this hard to accept suffer from depression. Some are haunted by nostalgia and compare the host country with their homeland. I consider that extreme notion nihilistic, disastrous. It hinders you from opening up to your new world. What significance do you attribute to the words and meanings with powerful religious connotations – such as love, hate, forgiveness – on which you focus? I belong to a generation that wanted to cut any ties with tradition and build from zero. But we soon realized that we lacked values. Some tried to fill this gap by returning to religious values – in the West, with the resurgence of nationalism, Protestant Puritanism in the USA, and with Islamic fundamentalism, which is supposedly resisting «Western decay.» I take a dialectical tone. I believe that there must be a moral foundation for the modern world, with the dire effects of globalization, new genetic technology, artificial reproduction and cloning. I think that establishing that foundation is in fact a re-establishment. Nietzsche’s concept of «eternal recurrence» must be a recurrence translated into new needs. We must take words from the past and imbue them with new meanings. Hatred, for example, to a psychoanalyst like me, refers to aggression, and self-destruction. Nowadays we have more means of understanding the roots of this violent act of destroying the other and the self as an alchemy. As for forgiveness, Hannah Arendt said that forgiveness is given to a person who wants to change. In the modern world, people can change their mental map through psychoanalysis. They can find new meaning in life, forgive themselves. Forgiveness doesn’t wipe out evil. We understand its alchemy and transcend it. Take the Holocaust, for instance. We don’t forget the crimes of the Holocaust but we understand the mind-set behind it and try to have a new relationship with those who were involved, as long as they repudiate their actions. This is no forgiveness in the empty, Christian sense, even though Thomas Aquinas said that forgiveness is a new beginning. Church texts contain very deep meanings but in practice, for religion, forgiveness means blotting out. The psychoanalytic experience aims to improve our relations with others. Psychoanalysis ends when we leave behind our old, oppressive bonds, our isolation, and come out of our shells to form new ties and become creative. Women You have written extensively about the paternal relationship: God-believer, father-son. What is your position on the maternal relationship? I have referred to motherhood in religion in my book «Tales of Love.» And I differ from some feminists who condemn it. Besides, I am an not a classical feminist. In America now it seems that motherhood is being upgraded, but based on a commercialization of the mother as consumer. By contrast, I write about the the desire for a child as a desire for personal rebirth and transmission of symbolic qualities. To help a child to speak, we have to be silent ourselves, transcend ourselves, let the child be free, acknowledge its individuality and not project our own unsatisfied desires onto it. Literature You are a novelist. What is the place of the art of the word in your life and in the world today? Writing fiction is a way of saying things more directly, more spontaneously, through my heroes, than I can express otherwise. And crime fiction, which I went in for after my first novel, «The Samurai,» in which I told the story of my arrival in France and my involvement with the innovators, is our only hope of finding the root of evil. In my last book, «Murder in Byzantium,» I wanted to highlight my beginnings, my Byzantium as I call it, the Balkan world which is the poor relative of Europe and asks to be recognized, with its impassioned culture, its sentimentality. They say that Greece is the land of rational discourse, but it is all passion. I wanted to highlight that through the modern, technocratic world. These days literature is facile, stereotypical. But there is some literature that goes against the mainstream. It may influence the dreams of some people, some individuals. And in the future we must rely on individuals first of all, and then on groups. Philosopher, psychoanalyst, feminist, novelist Julie Kristeva was born in 1941 in Bulgaria, where she studied philology. In 1965, she moved to France and has lived there since. She began contributing to the legendary journal Tel Quel, published by Philippe Sollers, who later became her husband. Kristeva branched out from her early interests in language and linguistics to psychoanalysis – as both practitioner and scholar – philosophy and feminism. She has also written a series of detective novels. In 1990, the French government made her a Chevalier de l’ordre des arts at des lettres. In 2004, she won the Holberg International Memorial Prize for her «innovative explorations of questions on the intersection of language, culture and literature.» Kristeva teaches at Paris University VII Jussieu and is a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York.

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