Friday, March 23, 2018

Psychoanalyst as Sentimentalist: Julia Kristeva's The Samurai

Julia Kristeva in 2008.

Celebrated as the Simone de Beauvoir of our time, Julia Kristeva is a well-known psychoanalyst, literary critic and bi-continental professor whose first novel, The Samurai (Columbia University Press, 1992), a thinly disguised roman à clef, first appeared in Paris just over 25 years ago. Since then the semiotician of desire, as she has also been called, has published five more works of fiction. But this first foray, a not entirely satisfying effort which Barbara Bray translated into English, remains noteworthy for having recreated, in literary terms, the turbulent intellectual atmosphere of Paris in the mid-1960s, along with its pitfalls.

The period of the novel mirrors the time Kristeva, born 1941, first arrived in Paris from Bulgaria as a young research student. Not long after, she became an integral part of the vibrant scene of literary critics, semioticians and psychoanalysts then taking literary theory and criticism in a new, some might say convoluted, direction. Not surprisingly, her novel is steeped in post-modern murkiness. It is deliberately obfuscating and, at times, also obtuse. Kristeva wrote it as a philosophical meditation on the meaning of life, even though, at its heart, it is a love story whose autobiographical elements suggest but never quite deliver on a promise of subjective truth.

A cerebral teaser, The Samurai is populated with literary theory gurus who bear an uncanny resemblance to the real post-modernists of the day. Part of the fun in reading the book is figuring out who is who. The clues are all there: the daring but affable homosexual writer Armand Brehal is clearly Roland Barthes; Strich-Meyer, the curmudgeonly anthropologist, is Claude Lévi-Strauss; the brilliant psychoanalyst Lauzun resembles Jacques Lacan; and the eccentric semiotician, Saida, is Jacques Derrida. Other bright minds make cameo appearances: an American writer named Jerry Saltzman is modelled on Philip Roth, and an Eastern European literary critic named Romanski is clearly Roman Jakobson.

Even in fiction, Kristeva dotes on them, emphasizing their roles in the history of ideas and the impact they had on her own intellectual development. Yet she does little in the way of illuminating their characters. Most are thinly drawn, and with a pen dipped in an ink well of academic gossip. Clichés abound. Women think of their clothes; men think of their desires. Such superficiality mars the book and makes Kristeva come across as embarrassingly schoolgirlish.

If the novel is an homage it has an obvious source. Many years before Kristeva, de Beauvoir wrote a fictionalized chronicle of her own times in her 1954 novel, also a roman à clef, The Mandarins. In it she described her lover, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, and the leading thinkers of Paris who orbited around him in Saint-Germain-des-Près. The title, which refers to the elite within Chinese society, drew attention to the fact that Sartre and his colleagues were intellectual heavyweights destined to lead.

For sure, Kristeva self-consciously borrows from de Beauvoir. But the title of her own novel is more arbitrary, alluding to the cult of oriental warriors who live according to a strict moral, military, literary and funerary code. It’s a joke anyway because Kristeva's cast of characters are either too dissolute or too self-engrossed to follow any rules but their own.

The only one in any way interested in Samurai is Olga, an Eastern European intellectual based in Paris who is the book’s central character. Olga is, of course, Kristeva writ large. But it’s not a flattering self-portrait. In the novel, Olga is often unabashedly narcissistic. But she is also a straightshooter who simply knows her own worth.

Olga is also a free spirit and Kristeva uses her global peregrinations to structure the book's five chapters: "Atlantic" shows Olga's assimilation in the West; "Saint-Andre-des-Arts" traces the rise of civic unrest in the 1960s; "Chinese" shows her and her intellectual mates off to China for an intimate look at Maoist communism; "Algonquin" is about her superstar status as a visiting professor at a New York university, and "Luxembourg" is about her return home to Paris, where she rejects ideology for motherhood.

Kristeva's husband is Hervé Sinteuil, editor of a controversial left-wing literary journal called Now. He is the fictional counterpart of Philippe Sollers, editor of the Parisian publication, Tel Quel, and to whom Kristeva, in reality, was married. Kristeva, er, Olga, worships him. In the novel, he's the principal voice of the Parisian intellectual movement. Like the man he is modelled after, Sinteuil is the scion of Bordeaux landowners, his bourgeois roots lending his leftist ideas a certain je ne sais quoi. Kristeva, perhaps because she can’t help herself, presents him as smart and sexy.

But the bigger vanity project is Olga, whose life Kristeva describes in celestial terms:"The advantage of a life (or a story) in the shape of a star – in which things may move without necessarily intersecting and advance without necessarily meeting, and where every day (or chapter) is a different world pretending to forget the one before – is that it corresponds to what seems to be an essential tendency in the world itself: its tendency is to expand, to dilate." The trouble with this five-point image is that a star, while bright, is also cold and distant. So too is Olga, a character never fully known. Kristeva effectively masks her age, her exact origins and her feelings. She becomes just a beautiful mouthpiece for all the fashionable -isms of the day: structuralism, Marxism, atheism, feminism, hedonism.

What's missing is a healthy dose of irony or humour to set off the ideologies and give them some depth. Yet Kristeva can be witty, especially when playing word games. She writes with gusto and relishes the descriptive powers of language. Clearly, she has read Barthes on the pleasure of the text and her text is, despite the flaws noted above, pleasurable. Alongside ideas and fashionable intellectual movements like post-structuralism, the novel ruminates richly on wine, exceptional painting and cuisine. How French.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic and style writer. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York, the Dance Gazette in London, and NUVO in Vancouver, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press) and AWOL: Tales for Travel-Inspired Minds (Vintage Books). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail for the last 32 years, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic, from 1985 until 2001, before transitioning to the Style section as its senior fashion reporter in Milan, Paris, New York and cities across Canada. Her other accomplishments at Canada's paper of record include stints as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime, a weekly lifestyle columnist covering the Toronto International Film Festival and celebrities, rock critic, business writer and cultural bureau chief in Montreal covering the arts in Quebec and Eastern Canada. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, she has also written for a wide range of international titles, including Marie Claire in London, Elle in New York and Vogue Australia. Recipient of the 2014 Nathan Cohen Award for Excellence in Theatre Criticism (Long Form Category), Canada's most important arts writing prize, she is presently at work on her next book, an examination of The Beatles and their style. In 2017, she joined Toronto’s York University as Editor of the award-winning York University Magazine.

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