Book Review: At the Risk of Thinking

Alice Jardine, At the Risk of Thinking: An Intellectual Biography of Julia Kristeva (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020)

Reviewed by John Lechte, Macquarie University, Australia


(This is a prepublication version of this review. You can find the published version forthcoming in Thesis Eleven Journal, on the T11 Sage website)

The ‘Contestatory Intellectual’

This book is about Julia Kristeva, one of the world’s leading intellectuals (whose first piece in English was published in TLS in 1973). It reveals how Kristeva thinks and some of the formative life experiences that may have given rise to this thinking. Written in an accessible style, Alice Jardine takes the reader on a journey to Kristeva’s homeland of Bulgaria (where she was born in June of 1941) and on to Paris, where she arrived on a scholarship in 1965, Paris becoming the thinker’s adopted home to this day and the place of the maturation of her thought and subsequent intellectual triumphs. The latter have given rise to many awards, culminating in 2004 with the prestigious Holberg Prize – equivalent to the Noble prize in the social sciences – awarded by Norway (for a list of awards, see p. 3; pp. 242-244 and p. 294). All of Kristeva’s key works and the context of their genesis and evolution are laid out the better to understand the abiding themes that form the infrastructure of a mode of thought that prizes thinking as such almost above all else in life – hence the title of Jardine’s book: At the Risk of Thinking. What, then, are we presented with as far as Kristeva’s life and thought are concerned, and how is this presented?

To write a biography of any living person is fraught with difficulty if only because the biographer’s narrative might not conform to the subject’s version of things. In this regard, Jardine has relied on information derived from hours of her own and other interviews with Kristeva and on the fact that she has been personally present at a number of key points in her mentor’s life and career. The biographer was, for instance, Kristeva’s research assistant at Columbia University in the mid-1970s and also baby-sat Kristeva’s son, David. She has been to Îl de Ré, the holiday island where Kristeva’s in-laws live and where Kristeva works for two months every summer; in 2014, when Kristeva was awarded an honorary degree, she travelled to Sophia, Bulgaria, where, the author says: ‘I had to learn to walk backward while being filmed as well as to sit quietly, pretending that I understood Bulgarian conversation’ (p. 294). In short, Jardine has personal – even intimate – knowledge of her subject. We thus learn that Kristeva ‘dove (quite naked)’ (p. 102) into the cold Atlantic while on Îl de Ré, swimming being Kristeva’s exercise of choice. We also learn that, ‘unbeknowest to most of Kristeva’s English-speaking readers’ (p. 91), the Belgian writer, Dominique Rolin (1913-2012) was Philippe Sollers’s ‘“other” great love for over half a century’ (p. 91), Kristeva having married Sollers in 1967. To this, Kristeva responds by saying that jealousy is not part of her makeup (‘because her father loved her’) and so she accepts Sollers’s affair. Indeed, she is even grateful to Rolin for supporting the love of her life (p. 110).

Is it possible that Kristeva’s guiding hand is behind what Jardine relates – whether in part or in whole? Well, yes, to the extent that Jardine, for one thing, has recognised that certain intimate facts of her subject’s life are off-limits and will only be known after her death. The biographer addresses the issues here by saying that, nevertheless, ‘this is not a hagiography. This is not an adoring book’ (p. 18). Kristeva is still very much alive so that only after her death will ‘archives be opened’ and her ‘papers and letters will be published’ (p. 18). Our author also notes that Kristeva tends to recall events and issues in ‘vertical time’ and not in a horizontal, narrative form. Jardine has thus had to reconstitute the subject’s reminiscences in a ‘hybrid’ fashion in order to achieve maximum intelligibility. In short, she acknowledges that interpretation has played a big part in the biography (p. 19).

Be this as it may, it is noticeable that the positive far outweighs the negative in this study. The substance of the views of Kristeva’s critics (e.g., those of Sokel and Brickmont who, in 1997, launched a broadside on Kristeva’s scientific credibility (p. 212)) is only referred to in very general terms and not in a way that deflects from the overall positive force that is Kristeva’s life and intellectual achievements. In the end, it does not really matter; for one can find so much that is interesting and challenging in what is presented here that Jardine can only be congratulated for her honesty in her determination to highlight her subject’s undeniably admirable qualities.

The latter emerge most notably in the presentation of Kristeva as a ‘contestatory intellectual’. In proposing to write an intellectual biography, Jardine does not only – or even primarily – mean giving an insight into Kristeva’s theoretical and literary work. It means showing how Kristeva is prepared to carry on the fight against the evils of today’s world. And so, even more important than outlining the key concepts in the maturation of Kristeva’s academic trajectory are the ideas that fuel a seemingly tireless series of politically charged interventions. These include, but are not limited to: developing a coherent set of guidelines for addressing the difficulties faced by handicapped people in France; bringing the attention of the public to the possible dangers of the domination of digital media, dangers which include the standardising of the imaginary and atrophying of psychic space along with a concomitant loss of singularity and a disincentive to revolt, whether this be intimate or public; the promotion of a feminism that valorises the sharing of singularity over an identity-based politics; the promotion, too, of a psychanalytically informed humanism that recognises the importance – even for an atheist – of ‘the need to believe’. As to the latter, Jardine relates how, in 2011, Kristeva was invited by Pope Benedict XVI to come to Assisi to ‘lead a delegation of atheists to the “Inter-Religious Gathering for Peace”’ (p. 282). When, after her intervention, Kristeva was on her way to the Church of Saint Francis – sanctuary of magnificent Giotto frescoes – Jardine reports that, ‘a huge crowd began yelling “Benito! Benito!” Then, suddenly, with no warning, the crowd was yelling: “Benito! Julia! Benito! Julia! Benito! Julia!” for several minutes’ (p. 286). Seemingly, people were terribly moved by the fact that an atheist and female to boot could speak about atheism with the passion of a believer.

Clearly, Jardine is also moved by this and, more generally, by the boundless energy of the contestatory intellectual in facing the challenges of today’s political, social and religious realities. It is a disposition that accords with Jardine’s own aspiration to ‘change the world’ for the better, but about which she professes a growing disillusionment (p. 20). ‘Contestatory intellectual’ is what, more than anything else, unites the biographer with her subject. Indeed, in a certain sense, from this perspective, biographer and subject are soul mates.

Jardine does not neglect to document the factors in Kristeva’s life that have contributed to, or have at least been subjacent to, the production of a very significant body of published work from 1969 to the present (2020). She shows how Kristeva, the Eastern European outsider, gradually came to occupy a place of pre-eminence in Paris – Paris: the city of intellectual superstars, both for France and the rest of the world. It is an exhilarating story. Almost a ‘rags to riches’ story: the boursier had but five dollars in her pocket when she landed in France at Le Bourget airport at around Christmas time, 1965. The Holberg prize, awarded, as has been noted, to Kristeva in 2004, is worth around 457,000 GBP.

If there have been setbacks to Kristeva’s career, these have been, Jardine shows, largely personal and familial rather than academic or intellectual. In her initial years in Paris, the budding star missed her family enormously and was deeply depressed. She worried about the welfare of her father, whose health had been fragile. Given the state of the Bulgarian health system, she was right to worry. Handicapped son, David, has been a cause of anxiety, as well as a source of joy. Being perceived as a foreigner has at times meant being perceived negatively, while at the same time it has perhaps enabled Kristeva to think more insightfully about issues than one who is totally submerged in French culture. Some might say that husband, Philippe Sollers, is also a public burden Kristeva has to bear. In his public pronouncements, Sollers is a provocateur and polarising figure of the first order, which results in one being either for him or against him. Those in the latter category sometimes include Kristeva in their criticism. On the other hand, on an intimate and material level Sollers has been immensely supportive and a source of inspiration (Sollers worked to enable Kristeva to remain in France after the expiration of her bourse).

Overall, Jardine shows us a somewhat driven woman, one who lives – and has lived – a frenetic life: teaching at Paris-VII and at various clinics in Paris, organising and speaking at seminars and conferences, seeing patients in her psychoanalytic practice, travelling the world on speaking engagements, looking after her disabled son as well as publishing a monumental number of books and articles – all this and more constitute what it means to be Julia Kristeva. Above all, as Jardine says on more than one occasion: ‘for Kristeva life is writing and writing is life’ (p 257), and writing is concomitant with thinking. For Jardine, as for her subject, there is a desire to keep the file open, to avoid hasty over generalisations or classifications. In this vein, the book opens with the statement that ‘Julia Kristeva is the first to admit that she is quite at a loss to know who Julia Kristeva is’ (p. 1). It is, ironically, this incompleteness, this open-endedness – this mysteriousness – that keeps the reader constantly enthralled and thus tempted to hazard an interpretation as to Kristeva’s real identity, a temptation that the author of the biography has the sagacity to avoid.

There is no doubt that this is a book for our time in that it implicitly lays bare, not a call for the renewal of community, but for a life exemplary of the way one can, as Kristeva says, ‘share singularity’.

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