Julia Kristeva, Teresa of Ávila, and the Specter of Christianity

A specter is haunting Europe–the specter of Christianity. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance . . . 
—Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto [slightly modified]

It could be said that the work of Julia Kristeva (b. 1941) equally rebuffs and embraces Catholic theology and its intellectual tradition. She is perhaps someone like the speaker in the seventh of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, whose ambivalent gesture of welcome is also a warding off—and whose extended, open palm is held up at the same time as a sign of defense and of warning.

Don't think that I'm wooing!
Angel, even if I were, you'd never come.
For my call
is always full of "Away!" Against such a powerful
current you cannot advance. Like an outstretched
arm is my call. And its clutching, upwardly
open hand is always before you
as open for warding and warning,
aloft there, Inapprehensible.

It is certainly true that Kristeva—the Bulgarian-French philosopher, psychoanalyst, prolific author (of essays, monographs, detective novels, and historical fiction), and professor of linguistics at Université de Paris VII—quite often favors religious themes and texts in her writing. She has suggested in interviews that it was the influence of her father Stoyan Kristev, particularly his formal study of theology and consistent practice of his Orthodox faith, which prompted her own academic interest in the phenomenon of religion. She herself is not a believer and her treatments of religious themes and texts are from the decisive perspective of secularity as a given. She does, however explicitly recognize the value of Christianity, especially in the West, for being the cultural well from which humanism springs, saying that,

Unlike Freud, I don’t say that religion is merely an illusion and source of neurosis. The time has come to recognize, without being afraid of "scaring off" either the faithful or the agnostics, that the history of Christianity is a preparation for humanism . . . Is it not from within Christianity that Dante wrote his prayer in the form of a "divine comedy?" Even humanism will only avoid the dead ends of rationalism if it allows itself to interpret such antecedents in depth.[1]

And she is always stalked by the sound of her own name, Kristev, which can be translated “of the cross.”[2]

Kristeva’s work has engaged seriously with biblical texts (Genesis, Leviticus, Paul), sacramental and liturgical practices (Eucharist, confession), and figures who loom large in the Catholic theological tradition (Bernard of Clairvaux, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Eckhart, Teresa of Avila). One of her more recent works of fiction, for example, is a novel of over 600 pages called Teresa My Love: An Imagined Life of the Saint of Avila, which traces the journey of fictional psychoanalyst Sylvia LeClerq on an obsessive quest to Spain in order to come to know the life and work of the saint and mystic more closely.

The novel itself is a marvel of mixed genres, intertwining history, theology, psychoanalysis, artwork, musical compositions, and a delightfully anachronistic four-act play in which the likes of Leibniz, Montaigne, James Joyce’s Molly Bloom, and Kristeva herself make cameo appearances.[3] Though this curious and experimental novel is not quite hagiography, the invested reader of whatever (or no) confessional affiliation will come away from it with a tremendous sense of St. Teresa as a complex religious genius consumed with and by a manifestly erotic desire for God while at the same time a canny foundress of institutions and orders.

Kristeva’s descriptions of the saint are sympathetically and sumptuously wrought as she ventures to depict her as our dynamic, insistently paradoxical contemporary. “Why do I feel so sure,” she asks, “that this Carmelite nun has slipped the leash of her time and her world, and stands beside us in the third millennium?”[4]

Teresa becomes for Kristeva’s protagonist an intimate acquaintance, “the roommate of my submarine nights,”[5] a rapturous mystic whose innermost center is inscribed and impressed, even ravished, by the presence of Christ. In the novel Teresa is represented as a deeply textured and nuanced character, droll, poetic, and passionate. Yet, the novel is laced always with a certain air of skepticism that there is really a transcendent divine behind Teresa’s narrative accounts of mystical union; the existence or non-existence of God is simply not Kristeva’s question.[6]

A similar kind of ambivalence vis-à-vis the claims of the Catholic theological tradition can also easily be observed in the text which will serve as our primary interlocutor here: Kristeva’s meditation upon Mariology and motherhood in her 1977 essay “Stabat Mater.”[7] This essay is an initiation into the intimate, nearly numinous core of Kristeva’s thought. Not only does it showcase the interested yet critical mode with which Kristeva engages theological content, but it also provides a representative example both of her distinctive literary style and of some of the most central themes in her work: desire, motherhood, maternality, suffering, human subjectivity, bodily experience, and the discrete but traversable boundary between what she terms the “symbolic” and the “semiotic” modes—where the former has to do with language, law, meaning, and rationality, and the latter is non-verbal, bodily, affective, sensual, pre-conscious, something like rhythm or music or laughter.[8]

For Kristeva, these two modalities of the signifying process are not mutually exclusive: she writes that “because the subject is always both semiotic and symbolic, no signifying system he produces can be either ‘exclusively’ semiotic or ‘exclusively’ symbolic, and is instead necessarily marked by an indebtedness to both.”[9] This double debt to the symbolic and the semiotic gets enacted at the level of both form and content in the text of “Stabat Mater.”

The first-time reader of “Stabat Mater” is immediately confronted with something of a hermeneutical puzzle, as most of the pages of the essay have been divided vertically, with two distinct but thematically connected columns of text arranged in a parallel fashion. The right-hand side of the page is an analytic, academic consideration of the institutions and discourses of motherhood, which includes insights from psychoanalysis, Mariological developments throughout the Christian tradition, representations of the Marian in fine art and music.[10] The left-hand side of the page is stylistically quite different; it is a poetic, impressionistic, lyrical, and unapologetically tactile and bodily account of the ongoing beauty and pain—both physical and psychical—of the subjective experience of giving birth to a child and of mothering. It is not immediately (or ever!) evident how or in what order they should be read, nor is it altogether clear what relationship one text bears to the other. Should the reader complete one of the essays in full, then turn back to the second, or traverse more intuitively back and forth between them? Is one column of text meant to subvert or destabilize the other? Are the two discourses complementary, dialogic, antagonistic, or merely juxtaposed? Or is the essay, like the hymn from which it takes its name, “a duet as well as a juxtaposition of two solo voices”?[11] Does the left hand in fact know what the right hand is doing?

The degree of bodily sensuousness in the left-hand column is palpable in its vivid descriptions of both the pleasures and the pains of maternal experience. Kristeva’s prose, even in English translation, is both lyrical and incisive, at moments approaching pure poetry. Some of the passages utterly relish the experience of inhabiting a maternal body:

Head reclining, nape finally relaxed, skin, blood, nerves warmed up, luminous flow: stream of hair made of ebony, of nectar, smooth darkness through her fingers, gleaming honey under the wings of bees, sparkling strands burning bright . . . silk, mercury, ductile copper: frozen light warmed under fingers. Mane of beast—squirrel, horse, and the happiness of a faceless head, Narcissuslike touching without eyes, sight dissolving in muscles, hair, deep, smooth, peaceful colors. Mamma: anamnesis.[12]

The left-hand text also celebrates the sweet, simple joys of physical contact between mother and son: “he dances in my neck, flutters with my hair, seeks a smooth shoulder on the right, on the left, slips on the breast, swingles, silver vivid blossom of my belly, and finally flies away on my navel in his dream carried by my hands. My son.”[13] In the world of this text, even for a mother to look upon her child is a tremendous gift of astonishing beauty: “A child?—An angel, a glow on an Italian painting, impassive, peaceful dream—dragnet of Mediterranean fishermen. And then, the mother-of-pearl bead awakens: quicksilver. Shiver of the eyelashes, imperceptible twitch of the eyebrows, quivering skin.”[14] Other left-hand passages, however, refer to the darker underbelly of maternal bodily and psychical experience, that which is woven always with tremendous suffering and the now always doubled, split experience of subjectivity:

My body is no longer mine, it doubles up, suffers, bleeds, catches cold, puts its teeth in, slobbers, coughs, is covered with pimples, and it laughs. And yet, when it’s own joy, my child’s, returns, its smile washes only my eyes. But the pain, its pain—it comes from inside, never remains apart, other, it inflames me at one, without a second’s respite. As if that was what I had given birth to and, not willing to part from me, insisted on coming back, dwelled in me permanently. One does not give birth in pain, one gives birth to pain: the child represents it and henceforth it settles in, it is continuous. Obviously you may close your eyes, cover up your ears, teach courses, run errands, tidy up the house, think about objects, subjects. But a mother is always branded by pain, she yields to it. “And a sword will pierce your own soul too”[15]

The overall effect is the unrelenting realization that the experience of motherhood—Mary’s to be sure, invoked by the biblical quotation from Luke 2:35, but also the experience of the unnamed protagonist of the left column, an ordinary woman, if there is such a thing—is coterminous with pain, with sorrow, and with the penetrating grief of separation. Mothers “live on that border, crossroads beings, crucified beings . . . A mother is a continuous separation, a division of the very flesh. And consequently a division of language—and it has always been so.”[16]

The right-hand, “symbolic” side proceeds through a psychoanalytic, historical, and theological analysis of various institutions of motherhood and Mariology, considering by turns the Christian ascription of virginity to Mary, the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, the connection of the figure of Mary to power as Maria Regina, and finally, the association of Marian images with courtly and maternal love. The faithful Catholic reader, a category in which I would number myself, will find much in Kristeva’s treatment here that is patently unamenable to traditional theological and magisterial claims.

The essay certainly downplays the tradition of Mary’s perpetual virginity and repeats the criticism that the connection of virginity with the figure of Mary is based solely upon the willful perpetuation of an error of translation between alma and parthenos. “The fact remains,” Kristeva writes, “that western Christianity has organized that ‘translation error,’ projected its own fantasies into it, and produced one of the most powerful imaginary constructs known in the history of civilizations.”[17] She suggests that the cult of Mary is a relic of older mother-Goddess traditions, that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was an invention retrojectively “devised” to model the life of Christ,[18] and seems to suggest an ulterior motive to the formalizing of the dogma of the Assumption in 1950: “What death anguish,” Kristeva queries, “was it intended to soothe after the conclusion of the deadliest of wars?”[19]

However, even given these manifestly secular presuppositions, I find myself moved—not just intellectually, but religiously—as the essay crests at its close identification of the Mater Dolorosa as the birthplace of love, toward the lyrical heights of Pergolesi: Eia Mater, fons amoris / Me sentire vim doloris /Fac, ut tecum lugeam [Hail Mother, fountain of love, make me feel the power of sorrow, that I may grieve with you]. Kristeva writes compellingly (in the right column, perhaps in a moment of traversal) of the milk and tears of the Mater Dolorosa, these bodily signifiers becoming “metaphors of nonspeech, of a ‘semiotics’ that linguistic communication does not account for,” allowing on Kristeva’s telling such discrete openings for non-discursive expressions of Marian piety in forms of art and music.[20] It is likewise telling that the final conclusion of the right-hand side is a return to the music of “Stabat Mater,” to Pergolesi and the others: “Eia mater, fons amoris . . . So let us again listen to the Stabat Mater, and the music, all the music . . . it swallows up the goddesses and removes their necessity.”[21]

This return hearkens back to an earlier moment of the essay in which Kristeva first introduces Pergolesi, who composed the piece when he was dying of tuberculosis: on these two facing pages, there is a high level of thematic cross-over, even a kind of dialogical conversation, between the columns of text which intertwine/twin themes of death and immortality, love and anguish, mind and body, language and silence, the dying Pergolesi and the “immortal” composition of his hymn. “Man,” Kristeva posits here, “overcomes the unthinkable of death by postulating maternal love in its place—in the place and stead of death and thought.”[22] This collapse of body and thought find a precise kind of meeting point, a transgressive point of contact or opening between left and right which is nothing other than maternal love, a love which is “a surge of anguish at the very moment when the identity of thought and living body collapses.”[23] The left-hand column goes on to exhort that verbal signs ought give way to the non-representation of music and modern, non-figural art. The way forward, Kristeva suggests, is the “‘artists’ way, those who make up for the vertigo of language weakness with the oversaturation of sign systems.”[24]

Kristeva’s observations on these pages, in keeping with the broader pattern we have already observed, are theologically ambivalent. On the one hand, she suggests that the divine coincidence of anguish and love (on Kristeva’s reading, the anguish of the passion of Christ the WORD and the love of his mother Mary) is not primary but secondary; that is, it is not itself original but rather derivative of the psychoanalytic reality of the primal human experience of the Mother. Here is a clear rebuffing of the theological claim that would certainly reverse the order of derivation. On the other hand, however, it is unclear to me that her fundamental insight, that at this moment of collapse “only the subtle gamut of sound, touch, and visual traces, older than language and newly worked out, are preserved as an ultimate shield against death,”[25] need itself be theologically bankrupt.

If she is right that maternal suffering is “at the place of this subdued anguish called love,” and if she is right that it is the saint and the mystic who are able then to dismantle such maternal representation and “to identify with love itself and what he is in fact—a fire of tongues, an exit from representation,”[26] are there not genuine theological insights here to be had, insights which have in other idioms already been charted by the likes of Pseudo-Dionysius (The Mystical Theology), Augustine (de Trinitate), Bonaventure (Itinerarium), Dante (The Paradiso), and T.S. Eliot (Four Quartets)? Kristeva’s seraphic invocation of the tongues of fire brings us to the final page of Bonaventure’s Journey of the Mind to God, a text which clearly bears the influence of both Pseudo-Dionysius and Augustine:

If you wish to know how these things may come about, ask grace, not learning; desire, not understanding; the groaning of prayer, not diligence in reading; the Bridegroom, not the teacher; God, not man; darkness, not clarity; not light, but the fire that wholly inflames and carries one into God through the transporting unctions and consuming affections. God Himself is this fire, and His furnace is in Jerusalem; and it is Christ who enkindles it in the white flame of His most burning Passion. This fire he alone truly perceives who says: My soul chooses hanging, and my bones, death. He who loves this death can see God, for it is absolutely true that Man shall not see me and live. Let us, then, die and enter into this darkness. Let us silence all our cares, our desires, and our imaginings.[27]

Whether the reference to “a fire of tongues” in Kristeva’s “Stabat Mater” is meant to evoke the theophanies of Exodus, or the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in Acts, or the in-folded tongues of flame in Eliot’s “Little Gidding,” or all or none of these at once—Bonaventure’s folding together of desire, suffering, death, love, and the movement toward the non-verbal is marvelously resonant with the direction of her thinking here.

To conclude, we might recur again to the phenomenon of ambivalence in Rilke’s seventh of the Duino Elegies with which we began these reflections. Like the mysterious Speaker of the poem, it seems clear enough even from this cursory treatment of her work that Kristeva’s “call” to a robustly theological reading “is always full of ‘Away!’” In a real and abiding sense, for example, the theological project is for Kristeva fatally compromised by what she understands to be a hegemonic discourse of power and the abuse of power, of rationalistic logocentrism, the exercising of a kind of decisive (clerical or dogmatic) authority that serves to suffocate the playful ambiguities of the semiotic.

She has also strongly intimated that theology’s capacity to broach questions of human meaning has been displaced altogether by psychoanalysis.[28] Could it also be, however, that she might at the same time be a bit like one of Rilke’s terrible angels, that is, an angelos (“messenger”) from another shore, come to communicate in a strange and not altogether friendly tongue a difficult message that we might in fact need to hear? I concede, of course, that this ascription of the angelic to Kristeva is metaphorical and hyperbolic. Yet, Kristeva is the kind of stranger who insists upon theological hospitality, intent on calling the bluff of the author to the letter of the Hebrews: “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (13:2).

First, Kristeva is generally resistant to fundamentalist species of binary thinking; the terrain is far too mysterious, enfolded, ambiguous, and contradictory to allow for dogmatism. While such a posture has firm limits (e.g. most Catholics may be happy enough to dispense with dogmatism, but would certainly want to preserve dogma in a way that Kristeva would not be compelled to do), Kristeva’s chastening of dangerous religious fundamentalisms, especially in the Teresa novel and This Incredible Need to Believe, is theologically constructive.

Second, her attentiveness to literary form and style, especially language which has a lyrical, poetic, playful quality has the capacity to inject a liveliness into theological thought and speech which might otherwise tend towards rational demonstration.

Third, her privileging of the body, tactility, specificity and the corporeal is a welcome reminder of the Incarnational nature of the theological task.

Finally, the very fact that Kristeva does generously engage rather than foreclose meaning in “the other”—an other, we should note, with whom she will never come to full agreement—provides a helpful model of interpretive hospitality and receptivity that might well be emulated. In the Preface to her In the Beginning Was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith, Kristeva describes her initial reluctance to address these discourses together since to do so might imply either an abiding antagonism or the possibility of easy reconciliation, both of which are impossibilities.

But, like with the Alexandrian Fathers, hidden meaning can be found everywhere if readers are attentive. “Every question,” Kristeva concludes,

No matter how intellectual its content, reflects suffering. In our subject may lurk the suffering of religion as well as of rationalism, along with more strictly personal discomforts and anxieties. Let us try simply to be receptive to this suffering, and if possible to open our ears to meaning of another kind [un autre sens].[29]

In a way, Kristeva calls into question the entire enterprise of reading and interpretation, demanding that we read, read again, and read anew. And we can bring to this injunction a decisively Christian regime of reading: for example, we can read Kristeva the way we read the text of the Psalms, not with the finality of its explicit anxiety, anger, malice, sorrow, and suffering, but to take her words (and the words of others like her) as rocks waiting to cry out.

[1] Julia Kristeva, This Incredible Need to Believe, (New York: Columbia, 2009), 83-4.

[2] Ibid., 84.


[3] For a recent attempt to draw this long novel into conversation with contemporary Catholic theology, see my, “Balthasar avec Kristeva: On the Recovery of a Baroque Teresa of Avila,” Modern Theology.

[4] Kristeva, Teresa My Love, 20.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] This line of thinking in the novel is prefigured in This Incredible Need to Believe, which Kristeva admits that “the enigma of Teresa lies, to my mind, less in her ravishments than in the tales she tells of them: let’s see, do the ravishments exist outside her tales?” (Kristeva, This Incredible Need to Believe, 53).

[7] Kristeva’s “Stabat Mater” was originally published under the (more provocative) title “Héréthique de l’amour,” Tel Quel, no. 74 (Winter 1977). The piece was reprinted in French as “Stabat Mater” in Histories d’amour (Paris: Denoël, 1983) and subsequently translated as Tales of Love (New York: Columbia, 1987).  

[8] For current purposes this distinction has had to be grossly oversimplified. For a fuller, more complex discussion of the nuances of the distinction and the relationship between the symbolic and the semiotic, see Julia Kristeva, “The Semiotic and the Symbolic,” in Revolution in Poetic Language (New York: Columbia, 1984), 21-106.

[9] Ibid., 24.

[10] Including the various musical settings of the medieval hymn which meditates upon the weeping Virgin Mary standing at the foot of the cross, brought to life in compositions by Palestrina, Pergolesi, Dvorak, Verdi, Pärt, and others from which the essay takes its title

[11] Marilyn Edelstein, “Metaphor, Meta-Narrative, and Mater-Narrative in Kristeva’s ‘Stabat Mater,’” in Body/Text in Julia Kristeva: Religion, Women, and Psychoanalysis (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1992), 27-52, here 30.

[12] Kristeva, “Stabat Mater,” 240.  

[13] Ibid., 246.

[14] Ibid., 248.

[15] Ibid., 241.

[16] Ibid., 254.

[17] Kristeva, “Stabat Mater,” 237.

[18] Ibid., 238.

[19] Ibid., 244.

[20] Ibid., 249-250.

[21] Ibid., 263.

[22] Ibid., 252-253.

[23] Ibid., 252.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid., 253.  

[26] Ibid., 253.

[27] Bonaventure, The Journey of the Mind to God, trans. Philotheus Boehner, O.F.M. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), 39.

[28] “As theology, that once vast continent, vanished between the time of Descartes and the end of the nineteenth century, psychoanalysis (along with linguistics and sociology) became the last of the scientific disciplines to set itself up as a rational approach to the understanding of human behavior and its always enigmatic ‘meaning.’” (Julia Kristeva, In the Beginning Was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith, 1). 

[29] Ibid., xiii; italics added.

Featured Image: Francois Gerard, Teresa of Avila, 1827; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Jennifer Newsome Martin

Jennifer Newsome Martin is Associate Professor, Program of Liberal Studies and concurrent Associate Professor, Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Critical Appropriation of Russian Religious Thought.

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