"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Notes on Julia Kristeva, Psychoanalysis, Eastern Christianity, and Today's European Refugee Crisis

More than twenty years ago now when I was studying psychology and thinking of training as a psychoanalyst, I came across the name of Julia Kristeva, but never read much beyond a few sentences in some textbook or other purporting to describe briefly who she was and what she was on about.

More recently, however, I have had a chance to dive into her works more deeply as part of some on-going research I'm doing on the uses and abuses of memory in Catholic, Orthodox, and Islamic contexts and inter-relations. So consider this a brief note for those who may be interested in learning more about Kristeva.

Kristeva's book In the Beginning Was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith shows some familiarity with the Christian East as Kristeva recounts part of her early adolescence in which she tried to see if she could will herself to faith, which she found strangely attractive after spending some time contemplating a Byzantine icon of the Mother of God. (Her interest in Byzantium, perhaps motivated by or connected to her birth in Bulgaria, has generated Murder in Byzantium: A Novel, which I have not read yet.) She describes herself as not successful in trying to have faith, but it didn't leave her bitter or hostile but instead genuinely open to learning what she can about both the particular teachings of Christianity, as well as to the whole phenomenon of faith.

The rest of In the Beginning Was Love is a rather anemic and staccato series of reflections on faith, including two chapters that move systematically through each line of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. She shows herself far more open to the idea of faith, and far less convinced that it simply fulfills some kind of infantile neurosis--a position usually attributed to Freud, though I would also note here that I found a copy of Sigmund Freud: Psychoanalysis and Faith, Dialogues with the Reverand Oskar Pfister in a wonderful used bookstore in Indianapolis over Christmas, and I have been very impressed with the correspondence, most of which is from Freud's side as many of Pfister's letters have been lost. Freud's tone is consistently extremely gracious and kind, and he here evidences a sincere openness to trying to see faith as something more than a wish fulfillment or neurosis. He is unfailingly polite and modest, and recognizes the hermeneutic limits of psychoanalysis when it comes to metaphysical and theological questions. In fact, I detect in this book something approximating an inchoate desire on the part of Freud to have faith as Pfister has it. (How much faith Pfister himself had remains open to debate. He seems nothing if not an early proponent of what the contemporary sociologist Christian Smith has memorably called moralistic therapeutic deism, which perhaps explain's Freud's attraction to him and subsequent friendship with him.)

Kristeva's other book, which I have just begun, will be of obvious interest to Eastern Christians and our perpetual problem of ethno-nationalism or phyletism: Nations Without Nationalism (Columbia University Press, 1993).

It is striking to me, reading this book in 2016 with the on-going European refugee crisis, just how much relevance it still has after it was first published in French in 1990, and translated into English three years later. She asks such questions as "Will France be able to welcome without too many clashes the flow from the other side of the Mediterranean?" Little did she know a quarter-century ago how that flow would become a flood today into Germany, France, and elsewhere.

She notes, in 1990, the increasing mania then of "discovering one's origins" and then using the founding mythologies of my group or nation as a source not only of personal identity, but also of a collective ideology with which to exclude if not destroy others who are not pure laine, who become objects of hatred that may well be little more than a projection of my internal self-loathing.

Like In the Beginning Was Love, Nations Without Nationalism is clearly an essai in that form which French writers use so well but many others find frustrating: not as a finished product tightly wrapped up, but as a somewhat discursive and almost playful place in which the author seeks essayer disparate ideas. Thus after only a few brusque paragraphs contemplating French immigration and struggles, she moves on to consider how America has historically handled questions of immigration and identity; how the United Kingdom did; and how the ancient Greeks did. She then returns to France, noting that "Nowhere is one more a foreigner than in France." Looking towards the year 2000, she predicts that "the matter of Arabian immigration in France" will remain the most pressing problem--a prescient argument indeed seen from today's perspective!

Then, curiously, she suddenly lurches to considering the life and work of St. Paul, noting how his writings challenged the ancient ideas of nation and kinship, giving Christians and the world a new definition: "there is neither Jew nor Greek for all are one in Christ Jesus." Though Christians, as she recognizes, have often failed to live up to this vision of a universal community transcending all our particularities, nonetheless we must "bow, in passing, to Paul's psychological and political sensitivity."

Returning again to France, she sounds what seems an appropriate call for France--and perforce the rest of Europe--to assume a greater confidence in its own ways of life, and a greater willingness to defend those ways of life in the face of Arab-Muslim immigration and the latter's very different cultural mores. How little that call seems to have been heeded in the intervening quarter-century! In this regard she wants a return to what she sees as the ideals of the Revolution: the creation of a pact among sovereign individuals freed from other attachments, including the hateful shackles of nationalistic identity in which I am at war with all those who are not part of my family, clan, and nation. She seems to suggest that such a pact, such an ideal from the Revolution, has commendable Christian origins--though, of course, many Christians, pre-eminently Catholics in France and Western Europe--saw the revolution as nothing more or other than "demonic," as Joseph de Maistre unsparingly put it.

After a brief foray into ancient Jewish laws about foreigners, she then considers--as many others have, perhaps especially Paschalis Kitromilides, not least in his essay "The Legacy of the French Revolution: Orthodoxy and Nationalism" in The Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 5, Eastern Christianity--the pivotal role played by the French revolution in developing theories of nationalism and the "sovereignty" of the nation-state, theories which have, as I've demonstrated elsewhere, proved to be so pivotal in the rise of not just the modern nation-states of, e.g., Greece, Romania, and Russia, but the concomitant rise in their Orthodox national churches as well.

If time allows, I hope also to read Kristeva's Hannah Arendt. Arendt's famous studies of the banality of evil, and of The Origins of Totalitarianism retain important explanatory power for Eastern Christians--especially in Russia--still struggling to find ways of dealing with the communist past. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Anonymous comments are never approved. Use your real name and say something intelligent.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...