Healing Religion: Aesthetics and Analysis in the Work of Kristeva and Clement

By Young, William W.,, III | Cross Currents, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Healing Religion: Aesthetics and Analysis in the Work of Kristeva and Clement


Young, William W.,, III, Cross Currents


"The Psychoanalyst is called upon to heal: the social command that
justifies his existence is expressed in this way." (1)

Two of the most influential continental thinkers of recent years are Julia Kristeva and Catherine Clement. They have provided important and controversial articulations of the significance of Lacanian psychoanalysis, as well as intensive engagement with both contemporary French philosophy as well as the continental tradition. Both are perhaps most notable for their atopic writing, as neither is easily placed within a specific discipline or school. Given the similarly displaced nature of their thought--what Kristeva calls their "nomadism," (2) as well as their common intellectual heritage and their complex relation to feminism, it is not surprising that Kristeva and Clement see an affinity in one another's work. Recently, in The Feminine and the Sacred, they have corresponded in a shared study that brings their analytical, philosophical, and cultural perspectives to bear on the practice and reflection of religion. Writing on "what is to come," through debate and disagreement, they open a future in their correspondence that is "perhaps the essential thing in friendship." (3) While both see the passage through religion as a central component of the cultural and psychic repair requisite in postmodernity, their different proposals for healing illuminate their respective interpretations of psychoanalysis, subjectivity, and aesthetics. This paper will explore the central aesthetic components of their analytical approaches, and how their valuation of different aesthetic modalities leads them to diverge in their interpretations of religion. In particular, Clement's attention to the syncopative, fissuring effects of music, and the centrality of such fissuring to the possibility of analytic healing, lead her to question the adequacy of a philosophical or theological approach that valorizes language. By contrast, Kristeva's work emphasizes the relational, semiotically infused language of religious discourse, as a language that can lead beyond the constraints of the symbolic towards a poetic, creative subjectivity. In the interstices of their conversation, the narrow path of an analytic healing that leads language to dwell peacefully in the flesh emerges into view.

I. Kristeva: Aesthetics, Language, and Forgiveness

While much of Kristeva's recent work has been devoted to the analysis of the modalities of psychic life cultivated within Christianity, (4) the transformative potential of religious aesthetics is clearest in her reflections on Dostoevsky and depression in Black Sun. Depression is marked by passivity and despondency--an utter loss of speech and signification; it is a living death of the subject. Under the "noncommunicable grief" of depression's black sun, one loses one's being. As Kristeva describes melancholy's origins:

       The wound I have just suffered, some setback or other in my love
       life or profession, some sorrow or bereavement affecting my
       relationship with close relatives--such are often the easily
       spotted triggers of my despair ... All this suddenly gives me
       another life. A life that is unlivable, heavy with daily sorrows,
       tears held back or shed, a total despair, scorching at times,
       then wan and empty. In short, a devitalized existence that
       although occasionally fired by the effort I make to prolong it,
       is ready at any moment for a plunge into death. (5)

In wounding, there is a loss of the loved object, and with that loss goes the signifying relation that maintained one's bond to the object. Speech fails. In the face of such loss, the avenues from despair are suicide, terrorism (or murder), or an artistic sublimation of the abyss. All three are found in Dostoevsky's work, which proceeds in light of Christ's embodiment of the passage from suffering to forgiveness, through the act of donation. …

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