Interview with Julia Kristeva for Corriere della Sera, March 29, 2020
Bulgarian-born French psychoanalyst and philosopher, Julia Kristeva, defines herself as European even though she sees Europe failing at everything, especially healthcare. Virality—she explains—starting from a metaphor has become incarnate in our lives. And yet, there are therein three lessons to learn: that technology has only amplified radical existential solitude; that we have to regain possession of the sense of limit; that we have repressed our mortality. But we can start anew: vulnerability will make us all stronger and more resilient.
J.K.: “We stayed in Paris, but many people from our neighborhood left to spend these days of isolation in other places. So, at 8 pm, when from the balconies comes applause for doctors and nurses, me and my husband (the philosopher Philippe Sollers) bang on pots and pans to make some extra noise” – explains on the phone Julia Kristeva, the great European intellectual (she defines herself as European, Bulgarian by origin and French by adoption), who has recently published a new book on Dostoevsky and with “La Lettura”  attempts to reflect on the individual and society in the time of epidemic.
(Stefano Montefiori, Corriere della Sera) Along with outbursts of solidarity and moments of communion from the balconies, social isolation has also begun to provoke jealousies and aggression. There is hatred expressed against those who have managed to reach their summer houses or against those who are suspected of doing a little too much jogging. Is the corona virus jeopardizing social relations?
It is curious how [before the pandemic] the word “viral” was already being used a lot and for quite some time. “Viral” reactions were already part of our hyperconnected economic and political reality. Everything that proceeds by contagion, precipitation, and then, after a sparkling beginning linked to pleasure, culminates in a deadly explosion. “Virality” is part of our environment, for example where social media exalt themselves only to mistreat and destroy. In the behaviors that you are citing, there is something viral, but we have seen it in action before too: in the gilets jaunes, a movement that urged people to rise up, but also destroyed, in the black bloc that were plundering the streets of Paris. The acceleration of our civilization had already arrived at a viral stage, and today this metaphor overwhelms us and enters into the real, because it is an internal as well as an external menace–perhaps we do not have strong enough immune defenses and the danger is therefore also inside of us. Some have the virus maybe without even knowing it, but will survive, while others will die. This allows us to ask ourselves questions about the world in which we live, its failings and about that which we do not succeed in thinking. Beginning with Europe.
How are you evaluating the role of Europe at this stage?
I am European and in the book on Dostoevsky that I just published, I look for the European and modern dimension. I see Europe everywhere and I want to sustain it, even though it is traversing many difficulties and finds itself in a moment of chaos. But the virus has shown that this Europe is not only a market without a clear political vision, without defense mechanisms, incapable of rethinking our great common culture, but that this Europe is also demonstrating an absolutely frightening healthcare incapacity. The need for medical equipment has been severely underestimated both in Italy and in France, and this seems to me a refusal to think about the fragility of the human species. And this can bring us to the plane of individual behaviors. From the metaphor of the viral, we move on to the reality of the viral, to what the epidemic reveals about the individual, about today’s globalized man.
What are the characteristics of this globalized man?
I see three: solitude experienced as loneliness, an intolerance of limits, and repression of mortality.
How is loneliness manifested?
I am struck by our contemporary incapacity to be alone. All this hyper-connected exaltation makes us live in isolation in front of screens. This has not abolished loneliness, but has ensconced it in the social media, has compressed it in messages and data. People already devastated by loneliness find themselves alone today, because although they have words, signs, icons, they have lost the flesh of words, sensations, sharing, tenderness, duty towards the other, care for the other. We give the flesh of words as a sacrificial offering to the virus and to malady, but we were already orphans of that human dimension that is shared passion.
So the quarantine reveals a state that was already present?
Yes. All of a sudden we realize that we are alone and that we have lost touch with our inner core. We are slaves of the screens that have not at all abolished loneliness but have only absorbed it. This is where the recent anxiety and anger are coming from.
You are a psychoanalyst. Are you still holding sessions these days?
Yes—and now I will allow myself to preach for my own parish as the saying goes—I was afraid that my patients would not want to continue, but instead no, on the contrary. In our sessions of telephone isolation, as I call them, even without the physical presence of the analyst, we call each other, leave the phone open, stretch out and remain in session, and there come moments of archaic collapse: the cancer of one’s own mother reappears, an abandonment one suffered in childhood, the hardships of a daughter. Things that we had not been able to speak about before, now get confronted with dedication, as if the danger forced us to expel our deepest pain. These days, through the telephone, we manage to touch something “nuclear”: certain defenses fall down, we bare ourselves with a new sincerity.
Why is it happening precisely now?
Because the epidemic forces us to confront the other two problems that I mentioned before, besides the question of solitude: limits and mortality. The current situation is making us realize that life is a continual survival because there are limits, obligations, vulnerabilities—dimensions of life that are quite present in all religions, but which the current humanism tends to efface. In the same way, we tend to expel from ourselves the question of mortality, the greatest limit that exists and which is part of nature and of life.
Is the repression of mortality a recent phenomenon?
Since the Renaissance we have regarded mortality as a matter for religion. It was up to the priests to take care of it. We find it in philosophers, in Hegel and Heidegger, but mortality is absent from common, popular, mediatic discourse. We prefer to forget about it. We might take care of the elderly, but we do not confront the fact that death is within us, in apoptosis, which is the continuous process of death and regeneration of the cells, even in this very moment as I am speaking to you. This new virus makes us face the fact that death plays an integral part in the process of life. Art and literature, I am thinking of Proust and Bataille for example, have reflected on these topics: the very act of writing constitutes a confrontation with death, but the most widespread, mediatic, sensationalist attitude towards the human usually avoids this dimension.
Do you think that the epidemic will change our perspective on things?
It could influence our family relations, between parents and children, prompt us to rethink consumerism, the obsession with travel, that political fever inspired by slogans like “work more in order to earn more,” competitiveness displayed like glitter. I am not proposing a cult of melancholy, but a reevaluation of life as a whole, starting with everyone’s vulnerability with regard to pleasure and sexuality.
What do you mean by a cult of melancholy to be avoided?
I am not proposing becoming imprisoned in finitude and in our limits, but only remaining aware of them, considering mortality as part of life. In every religion, there is the element of purification: one needs to wash oneself, one should not touch this or that, there are prohibitions. These are superstitions, they become obsessive cults, but we can still take into account this tradition, criticize it, rethink it, but also preserve the sense of precaution, the preoccupation with others and their weaknesses, the awareness of the finitude of life. We can become more prudent, perhaps more tender, and in this way also more resilient, resistant. Life is a permanent survival. We have all survived, let’s remember that. It is a question of behavior, of personal ethics.
In the end, are you an optimist?
I would say an energetic pessimist. I feel I have experienced three wars: I was a baby during the Second World War, then there was the Cold War and my exile even though gilded, and now there is the viral war. Perhaps this has prepared me to speak about survival. We are ready for a new art of living that will not be tragic, but rather will be complex and demanding.