My Memory’s Hyperbole
“My Memory’s Hyperbole,” translated by Athena Viscusi, was published in a special issue of the New York Literary Forum on “The Female Autograph” in 1984. This autobiographical essay first appeared as ‘Mémoires’ in 1983 in the journal that replaced Tel Quel, Infini. In this essay Kristeva situates her own work in relation to existential philosophy, linguistics, literature, structuralism, and deconstruction. She describes the most important influences on her thinking and writing, including her involvement with the Tel Quel group and her friendship with Emile Benveniste. She traces Tel Quel’s association with the French Communist Party (PCF). And she describes her movement away from politics and feminism after her trip to China in 1974. In addition, she anticipates some of her latest writing on nationalism.
Hyperbole! from my memory …
—Mallarmé, “Prose pour des esseintes”
When the New York Literary Forum asked me to contribute an autobiographical text for this special issue, I had just finished reading La Cérémonie des adieux by Simone de Beauvoir. One must surely be endowed with the naive cruelty of this exceptional woman to create such a myth or, at the very least, to make it exist by giving it a narrative thread. In spite of the legend that surrounds the author of Mandarins, I am convinced that she has still not been properly evaluated as a chronicler who knew how to construct an entire cultural phenomenon. And isn’t it the same austere and cutting pen of this feminist in search of rationalism that gave Les Temps modernes its true erotic consistency? Before Marxian rationalizing turned this journal into an idol for the international Left, from the postwar period to today, Beauvoir’s cold account of a sexuality more contained than unveiled gave the publication its well-known aura.
My own history and, perhaps most of all, the disturbing abyss that the psychoanalytic experience shapes between “what is said” and undecidable “truth” prevent me from being a good witness. Moreover, making history now appears to me, as I will try to show in the course of this essay, a task that, if it has not become impossible, has now been displaced. Rather than compiling “archives” or “annals,” other questions make us stretch meaning into fiction. I say “us” because it seems to me that a profound turmoil has occurred in the last few years, still barely visible but operating in all spheres of culture.
What follows, then, will be an autobiography in the first person plural, a “we” of complicity, friendship, love. This “we” is the setting commonly recommended by the social contract for illusions, idealizations, errors, constructions. To write the autobiography of this “we” is surely a paradox that combines the passion for truth of the “I” with the absolute logical necessity of being able to share this truth only in part. To share it, first of all, between “us,” so that this “we” survives. To share it also with you, so that an account, a report, a scheme remains (autobiography is a narration), rather than have speech fall into the fervor of dreams or poetry. Being hyperbolic, this “we” will retain from the problem-ridden paths of “I”s only the densest image, the most schematic, the one closest to a cliché. Should I shy away from it? I think of Canto III of Dante’s Paradiso where the writer, having had visions, hurries to push them aside for fear of becoming a new Narcissus. But Beatrice herself shows him that such a denial would be precisely a mistake comparable to the narcissistic error. For if an immediate vision is possible and must be sought, then it is necessarily accompanied by visionary constructions that are imperfect … fragmentary, schematic…. Truth can only be partially spoken. And it is enough to begin…. Common sense notwithstanding, this hyperbolic “we” is, in effect, only a part of “me.” It is merely a temporary stability in which projections and identifications are settled among some and allow the history of a perpetually changing whole to be written. A “we” is alive only if it is never the same. As the chief locus of the image, it thrives only on the change of images. What the “I” loses in delegating itself to the group is partially regained in the metamorphoses of the “we.” It is by transforming itself, by changing itself totally that the collective image, the group portrait, proves it is a momentarily fixed passion. To speak of “us” is not an analysis; it is a history that analyzes itself. But isn’t any autobiography, even if it doesn’t involve “us,” a desire to make a collective public image exist, for “you,” for “us”?
If you watch newsreels from World War II through the Algerian War on French television, you will find the same rhetoric of the image (technical improvements don’t really affect the televised aesthetic of this period). The same verbal rhetoric lasts until 1962–1963: romanticism, bombast, bathos doled out by the slightly nasal voice of an anchorman adept at intoning war bulletins. In the shadow of political events, a fundamental change of outlook was necessary for us to regard this verbal edema as obsolete, to realize it belonged to another era. I see the written trace of this change in the austere paring down of the nouveau roman, in its obsession with precision and details, for example, as well as the whole intellectual trend centered on the study of forms. This formalism was the purging of that subjective or rhetorical edema that our parents had set up to protect themselves against the devastating suffering of wars, or that they had used to construct their martyrdom. Fundamentally, May ’68, despite its romantic airs, functioned like the fever of this process—an analytic process (in the etymological sense of the term, that is, dissolving, abrasive, lucid) that leads us to a modernity that is, of course, mobile, eccentric, and unpredictable, but that breaks with the preceding years and that, or so it seems, must leave its mark on the end of our century.
In short, an account of the intellectual path of this period should primarily be an account of change—and for some it was an explosion—of bodies, of discourses, of ways of being. A sexuality freed from moral constraints, an image of the body no longer merely captured in a fine narcissistic surface but vaporized and sonorized with the help of drugs or rock or pop music if need be…. These mutations, these revolutions, contained as many delights as dramas, which had to be confronted, displaced and sublimated at each bend. Women with the pill, free love in broad daylight, assaults on the family, but also, the quest for complicity, tenderness, the security of a childhood always begun a new…. The adventure of ideas should be read against the background of a revolution in the reproduction of the species that attacks the classic conception of the sexual difference, makes women emerge aggressively, and finally leads to erotic ties around a new calm and civilizing secular cult of the child…. Political demands, of course! But also something beyond demands, with their explosiveness integrated into the fabric of time, of ethics.
The Tel Quel Experience As It Was
During Christmas ’65, in a bleak and rainy Paris, I would have been completely disappointed with the “city of lights” had I not attended midnight mass at Notre Dame, the ultimate meeting place for tourists. When I arrived in the French capital, I met people who were rather poor, whereas the elegant little restaurants and the chic little boutiques seemed to me to belong to a prewar movie. Between the technical brilliance of America and the leveling radicalisms of East European societies (which embodied, for me, two aspects of “modernity”), France seemed stuck in a pleasant archaicness, attractive and unreal. However, the social discontent that was brewing reached me through newspapers and conversations I overheard—even among people who seemed to be well off. I then realized that this country of shopkeepers wished to become the most developed of East European countries, as if its occult, unspoken goal was transforming itself into a society such as the one I had just left, a society that was criticized in Paris, only in fascinated, hushed tones.
My scholarship, in the framework of Franco-Bulgarian cultural agreements, encouraged my meeting writers and academics. I was, therefore, immediately immersed in an intellectual universe that both partook of this climate (by its interest in critical Marxism, in détente, in what was to become “socialism with a human face,” etc.) and, at the same time, was wholly outside of it. I saw intellectuals as forming a real citadel within the state, without, however, burning their bridges to politics. They seemed to be engaged in a unique task: a subtle (even esoteric) and generous task, which not only was specifically French in its refinement and predisposition to formulas but also had universal aims and stakes. Having come to France under the auspices of the Gaullist dream of a “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals,” I felt I had found in this territory that stretched from the publishing house of Le Seuil to the EHESS (then EPHE) a cosmopolitanism that transcended the socialist and the European domains and that constituted a continent of thought, speculation, and writing corresponding to the high points of the universalistic legend of Paris.
I had received a francophile and francophone education. Since I had been trained as an intellectual in the French sense of the word, the Marseillaise, and Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Anatole France—authors in no way incompatible, so it was said, with Marxist-Leninism—had been my language but also my moral textbooks. I was then in no way out of my element in the intellectual climate of Paris. I even had the impression, when I wasn’t viewed as a more or less monstrous anomaly, that people saw in me, aside from my Stalinism, a perfect product of the French system projected into the future. Moreover, the Hautes Etudes was the ideal place for me: a structure of meeting and greeting similar to the one that served wandering scholastics in the best periods of the Middle Ages.
As soon as I arrived, I found in this environment a hospitality that, though cold and suspicious, was nonetheless functional and reliable; besides, it never contradicted itself. Despite the xenophobia, antifeminism, or anti-Semitism of one person or another, I maintain that French cultural life, as I have known it, has always been marked by a curiosity, discreet but generous, reticent but essentially receptive to nomadisms, oddities, to graftings and exogamies of all kinds. The great tolerance of the English or the enormous capacity for assimilation among Americans surely provides more existential opportunities. But they are, finally, because of their lesser resistance, less conducive to the production of new thoughts.
The particular climate of France at that time can be understood in sociological terms. The chasm between social archaism and intellectual advances gave the latter an autonomy that helped them grow. Furthermore, the independence of Gaullist nationalism gave freedom of thought a power unequalled elsewhere: outside of France, there was nowhere else in the world where one could, in the heart of the most official institutions and in the spotlight of the media, draw simultaneously on Marx, Saint Augustine, Hegel, Saussure, and Freud. Finally, the genius of French institutions knew how to accommodate safety valves or precarious loop-holes alongside bureaucratic or bureaucratized bastions: the Ecole des Hautes Etudes counterbalancing the Sorbonne, Tel Quel developing despite the NRF or Temps Modernes. It is banal to say that this universalistic cosmopolitan climate belongs to a tradition, one that probably dates back to the eminence of clerks and that established intellectuals of the eighteenth century as an autonomous force, beyond but not outside the city-state. However, this tradition also has an intrapsychic, sexual basis.
When thought admits its indebtedness to language—which was the case of the French “essayist” tradition long before structuralism—the speaking being is thrown into the infinite conceived as the power and cunning of the verb. From this locus, the intellectual acquires a transpolitical and transmoral function. Without belonging to any particular group or sect, yet giving the appearance of belonging to one, he thus reaches, by the very range of his search, the key zones, the most sensitive areas of social understanding. Modern art, madness, subjective experience, various marginal phenomena then became not mere objects of observation but actual fields of study, as well as of implication, which allow for an oblique grappling with “the social.” In this way, the dilemma of “engagement” was reworked and displaced for us. It had become an implication, wholly comprised within the intellectual adventure that we lived as a practice, subverting the distinctions between the individual/society, subject/group, form/content, style/meaning. With Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan we didn’t have to attack Jean-Paul Sartre’s walls. The labyrinths of the speaking subject—the microcosm of a complex logic whose effects had only partially surfaced in society—led us directly toward regions that were obscure but crucial, specific but universal, particular but transhistorical, far from society’s policed scenarios.
In any event, at the end of ’65, I landed at Lucien Goldmann’s and Roland Barthes’s doors at the Hautes Etudes. Lucien Goldmann welcomed me to his seminar on the “sociology of the novel” with fraternal distraction, convinced that I was a congenital Marxist, since I came from Eastern Europe. At the time, he was settling scores with existentialism, which was of little interest to me (I had arrived in Paris with two modern authors, Maurice Blanchot and Ferdinand Céline, in my suitcase), but the immeasurable practical help he gave me ensured my survival in France in the beginning. It was a kind of help that only those exiled from any country know how to give. With much liberalism and understanding, he directed my thesis on the origins of novelistic discourse, a thesis I defended, not without insolence, amid the generalized commotion of May ’68. The atmosphere of a Goldmann seminar was very cosmopolitan: Marxism had already become a Third World matter, but it was also a refuge for young Germans and Italians rebelling against the legacy of families that had been more or less accomplices of the nazi or fascist regimes…. In addition, the Vietnam War was raging, and it simply seemed natural for us to side with the victims, that is, with the Marxists. Invoking this war, I thus refused René Girard’s invitation to work in an American university. I found Goldmann’s objection to my decision candid at the very least: “one has to go there in order to defeat capitalism from the inside,” he said to me.
At the same time, at the Hautes Etudes, located in the same C section of the Sorbonne, the teaching of Roland Barthes attracted me because of its capacity to make formalism, which I had found reductive, extremely appealing. His audience, which was more exclusively French in those days (except for a few, Todorov among them who had come to France before), was astounded by the suicide of Lucien Sebag, which remained a mystery beyond all words, all comments. On my arrival, the only topic of conversation was the presentation on Stéphane Mallarmé that Philippe Sollers had just given. I thus read a few issues of Tel Quel, and I met Sollers in May ’66 through Gérard Genette, who was then attending the same seminar though he was an established literary critic.
Our first conversations with Sollers, in the office at 27 rue Jacob, at the Deux Magots, later at the Coupole, and at the Rose-Bud (Montparnasse soon became our neighborhood) were full of intellectual passion. I can still see us discussing L’Expérience intérieure of Georges Bataille, a still vilified author whom Sollers had helped me discover. We also spoke of nationalism, for a quarrel divided East European intellectuals: should Sovietization be resisted with cosmopolitanism or nationalism? Lastly, there was feminism: “We women, like the proletariat, have nothing to lose but our chains,” I used to say, with a simplicity that could only have been disarming. Soon after, our friend Sarah George-Picot, who was later in the Psychépo group with me, filmed an interview on this theme—a precocious feminist document that I believe is lost….
These details would have a personal meaning only if they did not reveal an important aspect of a period soon labeled “structuralist.”
For us, structuralism (insofar as one can make generalizations about studies that range from Roman Jakobson’s to Claude Lévi-Strauss’s, or to certain works of Emile Benveniste, as well as of Barthes or Algirdas J. Greimas) was already accepted knowledge. To simplify, this meant that one should no longer lose sight of the real constraints, “material,” as we used to say, of what had previously and trivially been viewed as “form.” For us, the logic of this formal reality constituted the very meaning of phenomena or events that then became structures (from kinship to literary texts) and thus achieved intelligibility without necessarily relying on “external factors.” From the outset, however, our task was to take this acquired knowledge and immediately do something else.
For some, the important task was to “deconstruct” phenomenology and structuralism as a minor form of a hidden metaphysics. Among these was Jacques Derrida, whose Introduction to Husserl’s Origins of Geometry had been discovered by Sollers, and who was involved in Tel Quel for a time, when he already considered literature the privileged object of desire and analysis. For others, among whom I place myself, it was essential to “dynamize” the structure by taking into consideration the speaking subject and its unconscious experience on the one hand and, on the other, the pressures of other social structures. I seized upon Saussure’s Anagrammes, parts of which Jakobson and Starobinski had published. From this starting point, I tried to establish a “paragrammatical” conception of the literary text as a distortion of signs and their structures that produces an infinitesimal overdetermination of meaning in literature. From the same perspective, I reinterpreted a writer just republished in the U.S.S.R., whom we often read in Eastern Europe, seeing in his work a synthesis of formalism and history: Mikhail Bakhtin. A postformalist, he had introduced, through the carnival, Rab...