- Head Cases: Julia Kristeva on Philosophy and Art in Depressed Times by Elaine P. Miller
Elaine P. Miller writes on much though not all of Kristeva’s œuvre — most strikingly, she leaves aside the novels — to concentrate in particular on the theme of melancholia. The book is very intelligent; however it is not for the faint hearted. It examines Kristeva in relation to a wide spectrum of philosophers and writers: Freud, Hegel, Arendt, Klein, Proust, on whom she has written; and others on whom she has not, or barely: Benjamin, Guy Debord, for instance. This would matter little if it were clearer what the links Miller is proposing are: such phrases as ‘I am thus taking an interpretive leap in bringing these together’ (p. 115), dispiritingly, are not uncommon. The ‘interpretive leap’ is not always made through a worked-out explication: Miller relies too much on a combination of proper names and very broad-brushed thematic treatment to weave together the points she wishes to make. This method of construction — we could dub it the ‘and then . . . and then . . .’ method — means that the substance of her argument is often difficult to follow. This is a great shame. The book has real qualities: ambitious and widely read, it is linking together instances, both actual and symbolic, of an important theme in the Kristevan œuvre: the severed head. In her chapter on Benjamin, Miller helps the reader see the importance in Kristeva’s thought of a ‘full psychic life’ in an era where fragmentation and anxiety make such fullness an often unobtainable aim. The early work sought a re-eroticization of language through literature, particularly poetry. One of the major themes in Miller’s treatment in fact is that of the role of representation in Kristeva’s thought, but it is a theme that, to this reader’s dissatisfaction, at least, is allowed to remain too submerged, and unworked through. To bring out the major role of aesthetics in Kristeva’s work is to provide an important change of balance in our understanding of what she does. The next chapter, mainly on negativity and Hegel, offers a stimulating discussion of mimesis and what, in the sculpture of Rachel Whiteread (‘House’, for instance), is architecture read in reverse. Here, however, the worries provoked by Miller’s method surface more acutely — the highly suggestive Kristevan ‘humanized transcendence’ applied to Diderot’s account of the face gets blurred when it is only referred to indirectly, and to my mind inaccurately, through the Kristevan text. The Otherness, so fundamental to the Bulgarian woman who became Kristeva, is the subject of the third chapter. Miller summarizes her chapter, excellently, as saying ‘art is a way of accessing [End Page 265] the impossible maternal space, creating a “perverse object” in order to escape from the incapacity to express’ (p. 120). The last two chapters deal with Kristeva on Proust and the Orestes myth, the killing of the mother and the overcoming of trauma that is matricide, real or symbolic. I admire this book for its intelligence and daring. It is a shame that what are most likely socio-professional pressures have meant that Miller has not had the moral or intellectual space to do any more than make a down-payment on some of the intriguing connections she adumbrates.