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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 18.2 (2004) 161-164

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The Feminine and the Sacred. Catherine Clément and Julia Kristeva.Trans. Jane Marie Todd. European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism. Ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. 190 pages. $29.00 h.c. 0-231-11578-4

This text unfolds within the space of unresolved questions and tensions, between the sacred and the religious, the feminine and the masculine, East and West—and not least of all, between Clément and Kristeva themselves. It is a collection of letters sent between the authors over the course of a year, from November 1996 to October 1997. According to the preface, geographical distance led them to collaborate in this asynchronous way (Clément was living most of this time in Sénégal, and Kristeva in France), but this format also interestingly mirrors some of the major themes discussed in their letters on the topic of the feminine and the sacred.

The correspondence format leads to a somewhat disjointed discussion, a sense of two individuals moving along their own trajectories while trying to locate points of connection along the way. Though each at times raises questions and issues to which the other responds, as a reader I felt less that I was overhearing a conversation than that I was looking over the shoulder of each writer as she thought and spoke in solitude (which, of course, is what they did). What is lost in foregoing an otherwise more integrated engagement between the authors and their views is made up for in the productivity of the space left open in between, a space of inquiry that invites, and even to some extent requires, the engaged reader to continue the discussion beyond the bounds of the text. Because the approaches of Clément and Kristeva differ, because they do not fully answer each other's questions, because they do not come to any ultimate conclusions regarding the feminine or the sacred, the reader is urged (by Kristeva herself, in her last letter) to "hold on to the imperative for permanent questioning" (178). The text both partially satisfies and frustrates the desire for answers in regard to the relationship (if any) between the feminine and the sacred, and in so doing resembles the movement of a "tension toward" that Kristeva suggests may characterize our search for truth and meaning: a reaching toward answers that remain always "indefinite, always 'to come'" (142). [End Page 161]

Not surprisingly, each author writes from her own experiences and expertise, and thus the content, methods, and metaphors used by Clément and by Kristeva differ between their letters. Clément's letters often focus on her experiences in Africa and India, relating myths, stories, and beliefs from Hinduism, Buddhism, African animism, and her own experiences with Judaism. She connects the sacred to social and political struggles against oppression in developing nations, and criticizes certain Western values and behaviors for their oppressive tendencies. Kristeva, on the other hand, often speaks of experiences with analysands in her psychoanalytic practice, of maternity, love, and the psyche as she has observed these operate in and through individual subjects, and of Catholicism—the relationship of the Virgin Mary and female saints to the sacred. At times it feels as if they are speaking at one another, responding to each other's questions and comments by reworking and reinterpreting them according to their own frameworks. This is perhaps not very different from how intellectuals often speak to and with each other. Yet there are common themes present in what each writes, even if their explanations and approaches differ.

Both speak of the sacred as a kind of transition, a movement between order and disorder, the body and the law, inside and outside, self and other. Clément connects the sacred to the "transitional zone" theorized by Winnicott as the "zone of creativity, of freedom even, . . . that space of formidable potential that is established between the baby and the mother the moment she withdraws from the child" (50). The development...


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