Philosopher, linguist and literary critic Julia Kristeva’s little book on the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky juxtaposes vignettes from her own past with observations about the writer who influenced her from an early age. Dostoyevsky or the deluge of language should not be approached as an academic analysis. Rather, it is a polymath’s plunge into a world of words, savoring their emotional and psychological significance as well as their semiotic importance.
Growing up in Bulgaria under Soviet rule, Kristeva was warned against Dostoyevsky by her father, who described the writer as “destructive, demonic, clingy”. He wanted for her something brighter, something clearer, which is why he guided her towards the French language and French thought. At the same time, Dostoyevsky was also out of favor with the Stalinist regime, which considered his work too religious and obscure.
“Of course, and as usual, I disobeyed my father’s orders and plunged into Dosto. Dazzled, upset, engulfed. His first reading of Crime and Punishment affected her deeply, but at the same time, she says, “I was in over my head.”
Kristeva then studied philology and comparative literature in France. There she re-read Dostoyevsky in French, and once again she found him moving. For Kristeva, the key to deciphering the mysteries of the great Russian novelist is not to be found in the “lucid sublimation” of French thought but in the writings of post-formalist critic Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin’s critical study Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics was of considerable importance, not only for introducing a whole new way of approaching literature, but also because it signaled a new possibility for freedom of thought. As Kristeva writes, Bakhtin made Dostoyevsky a “social phenomenon, a political symptom”.
From a young woman reading forbidden novels, Kristeva has become one of the most influential and important thinkers in the field of postmodern critical analysis, which questions the relationships between social orders, psychology, art and meaning. She was influenced by French structuralists such as Ferdinand de Saussure, who sought to understand culture through structures of meaning in the relationships between ideas and reality. For structuralists, meaning can be explored scientifically and systematically once you master its basic objective structures.
But Kristeva, like post-structuralists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, criticizes the assumption that meaning is fixed and complete. She is known for her theory of intertextuality, which characterizes texts and meaning as fluid due to the interactions of multiple signifiers and subjects. She has developed her own treatment of semiotics called “semianalysis”, which engages texts as continuous, developing over time. Thus, for Kristeva, a literary work is not a block of consumable product. It is something moving and alive. In simpler terms: the ideas and associations you bring to the text are important. You change it by reading it.
The influence of Bakhtin’s reading of Dostoyevsky is significant here. One of his most important observations about the Russian novelist’s poetics is that his work is “polyphonic,” a term derived from a style of music that interweaves independent melodic lines. Bakhtin’s portrayal of Dostoyevsky’s polyphony—many voices woven together in dialogical rather than monolithic narration—helped Kristeva move beyond structuralist assumptions and further develop her ideas about subjectivity and textuality.
Some of Kristeva’s reflections on Dostoyevsky’s motives might puzzle a reader unfamiliar with Bakhtin’s theories or those of Kristeva. Its first chapter is titled “Can you love Dostoyevsky? and that’s a question she doesn’t answer. Rather, she describes her own stages in deciphering Dostoyevsky’s work, from Bakhtin’s identification of the polyphonic and the carnivalesque, to the exploration of complicity and manipulation by his mentor Tzvetan Stoyanov, to the psychoanalytical angle of Sigmund Freud about a writer whose characters are plagued by neuroses and obsessions.
Kristeva devotes a chapter to Crime and Punishment, perhaps Dostoevsky’s most widely read novel, in which the reader follows the unraveling conscience of Rodion Raskolnikov, a murderer driven by a desire not for gain or revenge, but to rise above the simple human, to become a “great man” for whom everything is permitted. Kristeva identifies in Raskolnikov’s murder a fundamental repulsion for the primordial feminine – what she calls “maternal abjection”, another important idea in Kristeva’s thought.
by Dostoyevsky The idiot focuses on the Angelically innocent Prince Myshkin, who suffers from epilepsy and comes across as an insufficient Christ figure. In this novel, Kristeva identifies a “primary homoeroticism” between Myshkin and her rival, Rogozhin, whom she describes as a “taciturn bad boy”. In the relationship between the two men, she writes, the beautiful and doomed Nastasya Filippovna has no right to be “other than the other of the other.” While her observations shed light on how the male gaze objectifies women, linking it to homoeroticism is indicative of a homophobic streak in Kristeva’s thought, which scholars have criticized. This tendency is also apparent in his discussion of the rape of a child in demons. There are limits to the post-structural “play” on language and text. One of them is an insufficiency of moral seriousness, which we find in Kristeva’s reflections on pedophilia with her unfortunate phrase “irresistible infantile sensuality”.
In The idiot, Prince Myshkin declares that beauty will save the world. It’s a quote that inspired Dorothy Day but has since acquired a well-worn edge in circles where conversations about the “Christian imaginary” abound. It’s become the kind of phrase you’d expect to see accompanied by a hashtag, announcing something.
But in The Karamazov brothers, the most polyphonic of Dostoyevsky’s novels, beauty is presented as something not salvific but ambiguous and terrible. The story follows the agonies of the three sons of a depraved and wealthy old man who is mysteriously murdered. Suspicion falls on the eldest son, the sensual Dmitri. In one scene, Dmitri laments to his youngest brother, Alyosha, that “man is too broad”: humanity contains too much, both the best and the worst. How is it that beauty can inspire devotion to the highest ideals but also incite humans to the worst depravity? Kristeva sees a similar extent in the global world we currently inhabit, where “everything goes” in the marketplace, and “the Madonna ideal is displayed, without any shame, side by side with the Sodom ideal.” This isn’t the first time Kristeva has linked Dostoevsky’s polyphony with the textual abundance of our extremely online existence.
In this infinitely intertextual world, Kristeva can be read as a trustworthy dispatcher from the terrain of Dostoyevsky’s imagination, but that does not mean that she is easy to understand. Still, you don’t have to be a post-structural scholar to appreciate how a reading of Dostoyevsky’s many voices can help navigate the “unresolvable tensions” of this world.