In the Current State of War, it is Our Most Inner Selves that We Must Save

Appeared originally in special edition of L’Arche, no. 681, May/June 2020 entitled “The Day After”


Paule-Henriette Lévy (L’Arche):

A significant number of elderly people died during this pandemic. What should one think of a society which, in the event of a crisis, has not planned to bother with the fate of its elders?

Julia Kristeva:

The inability to foresee, to plan, is one of the scandals the pandemic has revealed. Ever since the beginning of humanity, religions have taken up the question of human finiteness, of mortality, but it’s not part of today’s general discourse. So, yes, we know how to foster palliative care, manage nursing homes, study the biology of the mechanism of apoptosis, the continuous process of cell death and regeneration. But we seem unable “to pay” the ultimate price of old age, no doubt because, in our secularized societies, death, the ultimate boundary of human experience, is hidden. A health provider from a nursing home recently became angry on TV when he spoke about how, “there are no staff to talk with our elders…”

I would like us to go one step further. It seems to me that, more insidiously and more violently, this viral surge that we have just experienced has revealed to us the inescapable vulnerability of the human condition, beyond old age. I’m talking about the vulnerability that is in us, that lives in us, and which our ideologies of performance and win-win turn out to be incapable of assuming.

The question of accompanying and supporting old age directly challenges the model of neoliberalism. Some say this health crisis is tipping liberal neo-capitalism into digital capitalism, which would mean organizing direct budget support from the government and finding digital tools capable of “tailoring” cost decreases while increasing remuneration in certain undervalued professions, in particular in health, education, or security. And so on … But this human disaster that the pandemic is causing seems to me such that it cannot be resolved with political, economic and health measures only, essential as they are. We urgently need to change the paradigm and put individual personhood at the center of our data. At the essential levels of the social pact: the ethical, educational, religious, political levels. That is where issues of old age, mortality, and boundaries become the main topics for “the day after.”


This crisis has taught us a lot about isolation:

For obvious health reasons, the government has compelled everyone to stay home, but what is left of “home,” of the “self”? Quarantine has revealed the ravages of loneliness into which anthropological acceleration has led us, driven by unrestrained neoliberalism and hyper-globalized networks. The latter would have us believe that we are not isolated as long as we are connected. Mistake. Hyper-connection has not made loneliness disappear, far from it. The virtual screen has only compressed and trapped it in social networks. Messages, likes, emojis–this implosive and explosive “word-foam” has, on the contrary, revealed and emphasized emptiness. It has not restored what I, listening to my patients, call “the flesh of words.” That is to say the affects and passions, desires for love, life and death desires that are shared in the transference between the analyst and the analysand, such that sharing the primary affects that the one can offer to the other allows the latter, in confidence, to put them into words, into a narrative, into history. To elucidate, evaluate, and recast their ties-to-others.


Analysis and containment: a major agenda!:

In pre-Covid times, we used inevitable smartphones as “barrier gestures”: tools for distancing ourselves from impulses, avoiding close physical contact, protecting ourselves from regression and trauma. We feared that quarantine would further empower these devices. But instead the pandemic has unleashed fears so acute that they call for unexpected inner resources, at least among the men and women who have wagered that it is possible to rebound. That is how I define the women and men who have undertaken an analysis. And so, a breach breaks through their quarantine. This same object, their smartphone, set down, as if forgotten, on a table or the bed pillow of a stressed and stuck internet surfer, in fact facilitates the need and the desire to strip down, to drop one’s mask, to speak “one on one,” “for real.” There follows the unlocking of guilt, of pretense, of worldly defenses. Each person discovers their “intimate/extimate,” “inside/outside” dug up from the fragile zones of their lives, calling out to the analyst’s vitality. As we wait for a vaccine, it is not an antibody that thus develops, but rather a genuine psychosomatic buttress that can repel the collapse fomented by viral attack and confining desocialization. A kind of ethics, transversal to the moral borders and prohibitions it remains aware of, but which in our specialized analytic language is an “inter-diction” [an “in-between-what-is-spoken”].  In my work, I call “reliance” this nuclear mutuality of speech that constitutes the speaking being and that we must rediscover. In a new world to be invented, we need to be able to push the links between words all the way to the “flesh of words,” failing which survivors will be zombies who in the end will be able to adapt but will no longer be humans capable of remaking themselves.


We have also faced the impossibility of experiencing many of our religious rituals. How can will they regain meaning now that they have been replaced?:

I am a child of the Enlightenment, “of unbelief and doubt” (this is my Dostoyevskian side),[1] and I think religious facts are rich in meaning, provided they are reassessed, and that we raise questions about them with respect to today’s problems and disasters. But it is Freud, a Jew without God who enlightens me on this path, because he took up, it seems to me, the essence of this religious experience which is precisely the nuclear duality of the same and the Other, as revealed in speech where the mutuality constitutive of the human is invented. The transferential relationship bequeathed to us by the inventor of  the unconscious and which solicits each of two protagonists  (the analysand and the analyst), participates in this ongoing transvaluation of religions; it is one of the remedies for religions’ loss of speed in the contemporary world. There are undoubtedly others, but I privilege the capacity of analysis to rebuild our “inner self” as that which holds up and recasts two pillars of biblical and evangelical religion: otherness and singularity. Thus is the “in-between” and “inter” expressed: between two and within oneself. Only from there is it possible to grasp the meaning of the limits (prohibitions, purifications, retreats, etc.) advanced by religions and to accept that necessary rituals can evolve. Indeed, beyond its health value, spatial quarantine is a normative social and moral constraint, whose subjective and ethical scope of consent should be elaborated,  this free choice that each individual person makes between-two.

Evoking limits, we today have come to understand how our technological and consumerist, relentlessness, without limits, has harmed our planet. If we do not reevaluate the sense of “in-betweenness” and limits that are part of religious and moral history, if we do not rebuild  human “innerness,” our planet, even if cleaned up through ecological rigor, risks being delivered over to the cruelty of its first inhabitants, namely the viruses. It is the inner self that we must therefore save, given the current state of war.


Do you believe in “the day after”?:

Yes, and including what it will require from us. Just a few months ago, the metaphor of things going viral was widely used. I used it myself. It could be broken down thus: seduction, explosion, destruction. Social networks are viral. They seduce you, blame you, and then destroy you. The Yellow Vests, too, who reveal nameless desires, get going and then ransack Paris with the Black Blocks. Was this external virality foretelling what is happening to us today from inside? The pathogenic agents are no longer external to us; they live in the genetic tissue of humanity. There are more bacteria in the human body than there are cells. Some are infectious, others are not! Long live virology! We accuse scientists and politicians of being “uncertain.” But these viruses that befall us reveal the abysmal uncertainty of the boundaries between life and death. (Are these parasites concepts, molecules, or living beings?) We must therefore be ready to live with these threats that are present inside our bodies and with which we have lived for millennia, but which will become more and more invasive. If nothing is done to curb them, politico-economic virality risks turning back on us in boomerang as part of what is now an inevitable global warming. An apocalyptic observation… but I am an energetic pessimist, because I know that we have the resources needed to face these challenges. I am not here to make an apology for melancholy and claustration. I listened with great interest to information about the projects of Stéphane Bancel, Director of the biotech company Moderna Therapeutics, which specializes in RNA-based treatments that are not about injecting attenuated viruses but allowing our cells to produce antibodies. The apocalypse also stimulates the genius of the human mind. Perhaps it is because I have experienced three wars—I was born a day after World War II was declared;  I was a child and adolescent during the Cold War; and now I am immersed in this world health war—I consider myself a “survivor,” and I tend to approach, listen to, and love humans as “sur-vivants” [those who continue to live] But to be able to be one, it is important to soak up this inherent vulnerability that I mentioned at the beginning of the interview (the capacity for solitude, the mortality inside of us, limits and their negotiation through inter-diction). By forcing us to integrate them better, would that the viral challenge prepare humanity for more tenderness in the competition, endurance, and enthusiasm that we will have to reinvent in order to rebuild after Covid. Precisely to be sur-vivants.


[1] See Kristeva Julia, Dostoïevski, coll. “Les auteurs de ma vie,” (Buchet/Chastel, 2020); Kristeva Julia et Marie-Rose Moro, Grandir c’est croire (Bayard, 2020).


Julia Kristeva, born in Bulgaria, has worked and lived in France since 1966. She is a writer, psychoanalyst, professor emeritus at the University of Paris 7 – Diderot and full member and training analyst at the Psychoanalytic Society of Paris. Doctor Honoris Causa from many universities in the United States, Canada and Europe where she teaches regularly. Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor (2020), Commander of the Order of Merit (2011), first laureate in December 2004 of the Holberg Prize (created by the government of Norway to remedy the lack of human sciences awarded Nobel Prizes), she won the Hannah Arendt Prize in December 2006 and the Vaclav Havel Prize in 2008. She is the author of some thirty books, among which: Revolution in Poetic Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), Proust and the Sense of Time (New York: Columbia University Press 1993), Female Genius: Life, Madness, Words: Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein, Colette: A Trilogy. 3 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), Hatred and Forgiveness (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), This Incredible Need to Believe (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011), Impulses of Time, Marriage as a Fine Art with Philippe Sollers (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), as well as novels including The Samurai (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), Murder in Byzantium (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), Teresa, My Love: An Imagined Life of the Saint of Avila (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), The Enchanted Clock (New York, Columbia University Press, 2017)Her last work Dostoïevski appeared in the collection “the authors of my life” at Buchet-Chastel in February 2020.

Her work is fully translated into English, and most of her books are available in other major languages

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