Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Why the Western Rebellion Against the Jews Produces Bad Art and Bad Politics

Julia Kristeva on Céline

Blake Smith
June 04, 2024

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

This article is part of Tablet in Paris.
See the full collection →︎

Transgression—moral, political and aesthetic—became over the past decade distinctly right wing. This alone ought to prove how boring it can be. If once, even recently, breaking sexual norms, flouting strictures of civility, or inciting riots against bourgeois institutions might have had radical, leftist connotations (and thus been, according to the consensus of the commentariat, somehow commendable), now, with one Trump presidency behind us and another likely on the way, no such excesses excite sympathy in the range of publications from The Atlantic to Jacobin, which have ranged themselves, smugly or sullenly, behind that semi-animate embodiment of an ailing normalcy, Joe Biden.

The right, in turn, has perhaps learned that transgression, on its own, offers nothing more than misbehavior’s passing fun. From Trump’s failure to deliver on his original campaign platform (his economic populism dissipating on contact with oligarchic reality) to the limp, derivative, adolescent “art” associated with Dimes Square and right-wing Twitter, the transgressive right has achieved nothing, politically or aesthetically. Not that there haven’t been some tasteless pleasure along the way—with Donald Trump as our first drag queen president.

I am myself by no means above such enjoyments. I learned recently from a young acquaintance, who fresh out of college is already set in a high-paying, culture-industry sinecure, that his father, longtime politics editor of a major national publication, had been crushed by Trump’s 2016 victory into a depression from which he has never recovered. I had to laugh. “Good!” I burst, “that’s what he won for.” I cannot manage to have been born a scion of one of our elite media families, but I can at least enjoy their suffering.

You might object that I’m a terrible person and that Trump made the wrong elites suffer—the culture-making class, who are after all only the court jesters and eunuchs of the real (i.e., economic) power holders, and you’d be right on both counts. No one since FDR has said of those elites, the ones that actually matter, I welcome their hatred—only shadow-boxed with their relatively unimportant goons in the arts-and-letters departments. But I’ll take what laughs I can. As for being a resentment-driven psycho, well, in this respect, if perhaps in few others, I am—doesn’t the state of our national politics confirm it?—a typical American.

At its best, in the wild diversity of its polycentric cultural and civic life, the United States once had what Americans recognized as a peculiar genius for political compromise, for turning our identitarian loathings and embittered envies into the sublimations of an explosive and globally seductive culture, while keeping politics boring. Column A: Chinatown. Column B: Gerald Ford. Somehow—can the formula be rediscovered?—we managed then to keep our aesthetics thrumming with barely channeled obscene energies, and our politics plodding grayly and dully along in an uninspiring, tolerable routine. Disastrously, it’s now the other way around.

The former disjuncture between our cultural vibrancy and political mediocrity struck many foreign visitors, not least the literary theorist Julia Kristeva, who in the mid-1970s celebrated America—which at the time looked grim indeed to many of its inhabitants—as a polytopia, a place where, eschewing a monolithic state-directed political project, the dynamized members of a variegated civil society generated countless voluntary ideals. Here, she argued, “the United States has found a way, the most effective one there is at present, to resist totalitarianism.” Unlike Western Europe, its culture remained, “not depressed, enthusiastic,” still animated by excitingly transgressive energies that kept, harmlessly, out of political life, leaving America “an anti-totalitarian space of real survival.” A reassuring thought in the years after Watergate and Vietnam.

This was, on one level, nonsense—or Cold War propaganda. Kristeva (born 1941), who had left Bulgaria for France as a graduate student in 1965 (not, critically, as a defector—indeed Kristeva, whose family remained in Bulgaria, would over the following decades periodically report to Bulgarian intelligence about intellectual trends in Europe—which, since its revelation a few years back, has been a continual embarrassment to her remaining fans), was a key member of the French avant-garde literary and political group, Tel Quel. By the early ’70s, after a phase supporting the Soviet Union and French Communist Party against the student radicals of May ’68 and the Prague Spring, followed by a phase of anti-Soviet Maoism (culminating in a trip to China with her mentor Roland Barthes, who records in his book-length diary of the three-week trip that he was disappointingly never allowed to see “a single Chinese cock”), Kristeva and her friends were ready to be recuperated by the capitalist West. Columbia University gave her a teaching position and began publishing her works in English. Marxism, the left, and politics itself, she wrote accordingly, were over.

It’s easy—and right—to mock the ideological tergiversations of intellectuals, especially French intellectuals, and especially when they so clearly follow changes of paymaster. But even the most cynical or facile thinker, insofar as they are a thinker at all, may disclose, in their thinking, truths of vital importance (after all, it’s not like I’m writing this for free either).

During her phase of greatest enthusiasm for America in the mid to late ’70s, Kristeva also gave Americans an urgent warning. In a series of writings on a figure apparently of little relevance to us, the fascist antisemitic French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894-1961), which she first prepared as talks at Columbia and Yale, she directed our attention to the dangerous proximity between the transgression of aesthetic, sexual and social limits, on the one hand, and, on the other, fascism and antisemitism. Those who apparently derive the most intense and vitalizing enjoyment from violating norms—and whose violations remind us of the freedom and energy from which unthinking obedience to norms excises us—are often the greatest dupes of ideological illusions that deliver them, and us, into still more stupid, stifling, and violent forms of unfreedom.

Our contemporary challenge, Kristeva argued, is to learn to transgress rightly, tactically, unsystematically—and to know how and when, having broken taboos, told shocking truths, and overcome the rule-bound torpor of hypocritical do-good-ery, to reassume our responsibilities to each other in a common world. Whenever we fail in either direction, by clutching at deadening norms or thrashing too unthinkingly against them, we risk, in her account, not only making bad art or doing bad politics, but falling into the murderous antisemitism that she found at the heart of Western culture’s fraught relationship to every either/or, every binary whose tensions we lack the strength to bear.

Kristeva’s analysis of Céline unfolded over a series of conference papers, essays, interviews, and, finally, in her most famous book, Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection (1980). She gave little explicit sense of the connection between this topic and her concurrent shift in political allegiance from the left, and the Soviet or Maoist regimes, to the United States, but the link is crucial. If what made America seem—in that increasingly distant era—like a desirable model was its citizens’ capacity to route thrilling but dangerous anti-normative energies away from potentially oppressive political projects and into new works of art and forms of life, then the obvious danger was that those energies might either falter or overrun their proper channels. What could provide, Kristeva asked again and again in her work of that period, a “counterweight” or “guarantee” that Americans would not seek in political life the things that only the life of the spirit can provide—and what could keep the latter really living?

Dazzled by New York’s cultural scene in the 1970s, particularly by contemporary dance and visual art, and the militant subcultures of minorities like gays and Blacks, Kristeva came to suspect that this diversity was only a superficial protection against totalizingly polemical political fantasies. There was a latent fascism in American life, as in modern Western culture generally, one that had by no means been overcome by the Allied victory in 1945.

Those who apparently derive the most intense and vitalizing enjoyment from violating norms are often the greatest dupes of ideological illusions that deliver them, and us, into still more stupid, stifling, and violent forms of unfreedom.

This was not an uncommon opinion at the time. In New York, one could have heard it from Hannah Arendt, or from Susan Sontag, as elaborated in her 1974 essay “Fascinating Fascism.” Focusing on the reviving reputation of Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl, Sontag argued that the aesthetic aspects of fascism continued to appeal because their associations with transgressions of bourgeois liberal norms (by which individual freedom is hemmed in by tolerant respect for the opinions of others; a mutual commitment to unruffled mediocrity and mendacity) were thrilling, akin to the pleasures of sadomasochism then increasingly in vogue in hetero- and homosexual pornography. From the opening sequence of Visconti’s The Damned, with Nazi beefcake idling sportively in scenes that must have inspired the Abercrombie & Fitch look of the ’90s-’00s, to Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, the gleaming leather-and-chrome, the stern looks and fit bodies—and of course the Satanic wickedness of getting off on it all—might get out of anyone a rise or a wet spot. Indeed, in Sontag’s reading, it was not so much that Nazis made otherwise good liberals horny as that, as the latter tried to excite their ever more surfeited sexualities, they were arriving at the “furthest reach of the sexual experience,” sadomasochism. Where the “fantasy is death” of oneself or one’s partner, the perpetrators of the Holocaust must be the ultimate masturbatory aids.

All of this—typical Sontag—is really a bit much. Most of the era’s play with Nazi imagery, from Bowie heiling Hitler to Gainsbourg’s album Rock Around the Bunker was at worst in bad taste. Nor can it be clear to anyone except Sontag’s lovers (or shrinks) why sadomasochism is the far end of sex, and death the far end of sadomasochism.

Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Olympia exercise brilliant technique, slashing audiences with cut after cut of disciplined masses submitted ecstatically to the vision of a triumphant dictator/director. But is the political unconscious of America really like that? Our compatriots, even at their most alluringly oppressive, are hardly decked out in Hugo Boss and goose-stepping in perfect coordination. If we are drawn to fascism through an aesthetics of transgression, it’s an aesthetic that must be, like our built environment and bodies, terribly ugly. We are, ever more tragically, a lumpy and ungainly people, addicted to Uber Eats. Our deteriorating national prestige in the global pageant for good looks depends now solely on a few impossible Hollywood physiques (unless … in a Hail Mary pass of pharmaceutic hope, we spike the national soda supply with Ozempic). When it comes to America (if it hasn’t already) fascism will come, of course, wrapped in the flag, but, more importantly, it will come obscenely out of shape, wearing a ball cap, riding a Rascal scooter.

Here Kristeva’s analysis was sharper. The fascism she learned to fear in America was aesthetic not because it had an immaculate, darkly masterful style, but because it systematically broke aesthetic (as well as moral and political) norms with gleeful shapelessness and bad taste. Its style was vulgarity and malice passing itself off as honesty. In content it was abject, taking up the aspects of life hidden by normal decency: filth, sex, hatred. This was the fascism of Céline’s novels—and, Kristeva warned in a 1977 roundtable with other members of Tel Quel, the “diabolic” force of America culture that threatened constantly to topple over into politics. On this hung her claim “that Céline is, in so many ways, an American writer.”

This is, in a literal sense, bonkers. Céline was French and his novels, although still well-known in France and indeed part of the French canon, are not generally read even by the sort of Americans who (mistakenly) attribute a wry sociological insight and literary talent to Michel Houellebecq. Céline also wrote, in the years before the Second World War, a series of notorious political pamphlets, in which he called for the genocide of Jews (and similar grim fates for Freemasons, foreigners, etc.).

From 1940 to 1944, while many French intellectuals collaborated to various degrees with the German occupation, they usually presented themselves as making historically necessary concessions; Céline, in contrast, raved that the Reich wasn’t going far enough. In his autobiographical postwar novels such as North (1960) he fumingly recounted how he had fled from France with the retreating German army, appalled by the Nazis unseriousness and corruption. Writers out to shock, like Jean Genet, were luridly fascinated by their occupiers’ inhuman evil (making the war and Holocaust a sort of Grand Guignol routine); Céline merely complained that the top brass were eating oysters and drinking champagne when they should have been out committing more mass murders.

As a person, and as a political thinker, Céline is so stupidly evil that he hardly seems worthy of horror. He should have been shot in the back of the head by partisans with no further to-do. This in no way contradicts the fact that his fiction (a good deal of which we would be deprived of had justice been done to him) represents, in the eyes of many French critics, some of the most significant experiments in avant-garde writing in the modern era. His novels were characterized by a number of distinctive features by which he established himself in the company of Joyce and Beckett. His prose was richly, slangly, savoring of the idiolects of a wide range of social classes and types (posing a challenge to his English-language translators). His sentences were structured, early on, around forms of inversion typical of badly spoken, rather than written French, turning on formulations like C’est que … which sound in English like “so I says to her, I says …” Over time, they broke down still further, into short fragmented phrases separated by ellipses, in which thoughts stop and start, interrupt and turn back in on themselves, address the reader, get confused, effuse, explode, err and fall away. Céline violated, in other words, all the conventional limits and purposes of literature, refusing to grant it decorous, delicate word choice and phrasing. It took a lot of work to write that badly.

His content was incandescently indecent—scatological, pornographic, racist, hateful, and dizzyingly multiple in mood. In his postwar novels catastrophes like the razing of Europe’s cities by aerial bombing are enacted with hilarious gleeful rage. More intimate misfortunes—vomiting, head traumas, sexual failures—likewise make for memorable tableaus. Take for example a scene of, as Kristeva put it, “war with the bowels,”—an attack of Colonel Entrails:

It’s a dizzy spell! … A sickly feeling! … I am a prey to fever! … I sit down! … I close my eyes hard … I can still see … red and white … colonel Des Entrayes! … raised on his stirrups!

The same staccato bursts between elliptical pauses feature in his description of the Allied aerial raids on Hamburg—his signature late style works equally well for the explosions of the bowels and of bombs.

These green and pink flames were dancing around ... and around … and shooting up at the sky! … those streets of green … pink … and red rubble … you can’t deny it … looked a lot more cheerful … a carnival of flames … than in their normal condition … gloomy sourpuss bricks … it took chaos to liven them up …

Whether readers find even these small sections tolerable, let alone an enlivening chaos, perhaps depends entirely on temperament, or on their having an ideological commitment to febrile formlessness as a refusal of literary convention. For Kristeva, Céline managed to “grab hold of emotion … to make writing oral … contemporaneous, swift, obscene,” joining the company of Rabelais and Dostoevsky, albeit with neither the joy of the one nor the faith of the other. In his commitment to enact (that is, rather than merely represent, but truly make the reader feel within himself the very rhythms of) his hatreds, disgusts, his lowest bodily processes and least avowable feelings, he worked out a literary style that almost succeeded in divesting itself of every trace of the affectedly writerly, in becoming raw, rough, and authentic, nearly achieving what Barthes had theorized a generation before as the unobtainable “degree zero of literature.”

Kristeva argued that “Céline depicts brilliantly what is repressed and primary (music, drives, the body and so forth)" with an “uneven syntax and a reliance on ellipses that show actual breaks in thought.” Readers today may find that nothing is less unaffected than a previous generation’s attempts to produce the effect of spontaneity. Anyone who for some reason hankers for more of this sort of thing, can, if they choose, read Céline’s present-day epigone Marc-Edouard Nabe or his Russian equivalent, Vladimir Sorokin (as translated into English by Max Lawton, who apparently himself talks like an insufferable Céline narrator gone astray from his text).

For my part—having more than enough manic self-interruption and wrath in my own internal monologue—what is interesting is not what Céline put on the page, but rather what Kristeva made of it. She was, when she began to analyze it, at the culmination of a decadelong fascination with avant-garde writing and its supposed political value (her husband, Philippe Sollers, was then finishing his own experimental novel Paradise, which dispenses even with the crude punctuation of ellipses and exclamation points to arrive at the degree zero of readability). In her Ph.D. thesis at the end of the ’60s, she had argued that radical literary practices, breaking with convention at the level of form and content, had a crucial relation to psychological transformations and social revolutions. They thus, she claimed then, had a vital role to play for the left, which should use experimental art like dynamite to blast through the bourgeois order.

The most powerful forms of art, Kristeva theorized, affect us not so much through what they represent as through their acting out of patterns that have no definite conceptual content. In prose, the to-and-fro of sentence length, the harmonies of alliteration, consonance and assonance, the pacing of breath and sound, allow the reader to play in a set of nonverbal conventions periodically and pleasurably upturned by novelties. Literature, besides whatever it is ostensibly “about,” is made of rhythms of presence and absence—like any game from peek-a-boo to coitus. To be immersed in patterned activity, back-and-forthing with a partner, whose moves we anticipate, imitate, and thus may be pleasurably surprised to find changed by some new trick (we can only be surprised by anything if we expect something) is the delight of pre-linguistic infancy, and still of much of our adulthood.

Kristeva termed the circuits of our rhythmic engagement with people and objects in the world “the semiotic.” This domain—everything from the fun of pingpong and sucking on pens to dancing in the Rockettes—cannot be represented directly in language, or what Kristeva called “the symbolic,” which, however, depends on the semiotic for its very possibility and meaning. Part of the trouble with artists that want to be politically and socially useful, Kristeva argued (think of everything from North Korean posters with workers and peasants to the latest dreary novel about queer diasporic sad sacks heralded by the commissars of The New York Times Book Review), is that they focus on the images and ideas they take to be worth circulating, forgetting the semiotic processes from which art derives vitality. Literature that is truly politically useful, she posited in her early Marxist days, in fact avoids commenting directly on politics through conventional language and representations. The latter, after all, are bound merely to confirm the reader’s existing common sense and understanding of himself as a member of a comprehensible world, the very comprehensibility of which has been conditioned by the enemy, capitalism. Literature should instead throw the reader to the very edge of language, thrusting him out of the ideological constraints fixed in his everyday speech and thinking, disorientingly activating hidden energies now available for transforming himself and the world. Avant-garde art appeared (as do other such “limit experiences” to those who advocate, for example, hard drugs, extreme sex, and travel abroad) as a way to return, for a concentrated moment, to the confused enjoyments and psychic plasticity of infancy.

By the ’70s, as she abandoned Marxism and its aspirations for revolution, Kristeva also revised her view of psychology and literature. It appeared increasingly to her that her contemporaries did not suffer, after all, so much from a mental rigidity that needed to be blasted apart by experimental fiction, as from anxiety, torpor, and aimless worried drifting. In a diagnosis that echoed the work of Christoper Lasch, she became concerned that contemporary Westerners are afflicted with what she called “new maladies of the soul,” like narcissism and borderline personality, in which individuals lack basic capacities for maintaining a coherent sense of self, and a relation to people and objects in the world. Narcissists desperately, depressively try to maintain a self-image in the absence of stable bonds with others; borderline cases swing between cravings for intimacy with others and rage against dependence on them—neither are even well-adjusted enough to arrive at the stage of neurotic over-identification with stifling social norms from which avant-garde literature, in the early 20th century, had been imagined to ally itself with psychoanalysis in delivering us. We need connection more than we need liberation. Or rather, to have either, we must have both.

As part of a more general neo-conservative trend across trans-Atlantic intellectual culture, Kristeva (like Lasch) now saw the task of art (and psychoanalysis) as reactivating semiotic energies no longer in order to tear down oppressive bourgeois normativity, but instead to restore psychological integrity to the worrisomely unwell members of Western societies. Avant-garde literature still had a critical role, she argued, in putting us back in contact with the semiotic and shaking up common sense. The point of this was now, however, to reenergize listless, pacified contemporary subjects nervously fixated on their own images and their fraught, unstable relations with others—to reorient their energies back into engagement with the rhythms of the world from which they were estranged. But now experimental art had a critical second function, of restoring the reader with a new understanding of self and world. The novel, in particular, needed to take on what she called a “positive, affirmative, paternal function,” bringing the reader, after the poses of the rebellious teenager—or screaming infant—to imagine a new maturity, a rewriting of the rules, a better form of life. Where she had seen the aesthetics of transgression as a brick to be thrown at the police, now it appeared more like a wise parent, who tires their child out with play before sending it to bed at a reasonable hour to be well rested for the next day at school.

Céline himself, she judged, “failed” to do this. He had, in his prose, undertaken one of the most exciting—albeit terrifying—assaults on the structure of literary French, opening new possibilities for making the novel almost a performance of the semiotic processes conventional language conceals. He had, in his politics, she insisted, not only a populist, conspiratorial, antisemitic delirium, but “the right to be angry about the aspects of the symbolic institutions that are unjust, repressive, and arbitrary in the name of universalism, goodness, and tolerance.” She had still enough of her Marxist heritage to admit that French liberal democracy—like, of course, our own—was in many ways a cruel fraud perpetrated on the poor and excluded. But in his attacks on the Republic and literary language alike, he became genocidally anti-Jewish—not, Kristeva insisted, merely because of certain prejudices then in the air, or because of some personal quirk, or the misguided intensity of his aesthetic and political campaigns. Rather, she argued in her culminating work on the subject, Powers of Horror, Céline became one might say necessarily antisemitic, or activated in himself the latent antisemitism within every member of Western culture, whenever we fail to hold in the right balance transgression and norms, rebellion and the restoration of authority.

Antisemitism looms, Kristeva warned, whenever we fail to hold on to both ends of any of the difficult binaries that organize our psyches and our culture, because “Judaism” itself remains enduringly at the center of both, and stands in that pivotal place ambivalently for both “the importance of the paternal function” as well as the “right to be different.” We are perhaps used to the vagaries of anti-Jewish rhetoric, which portrays its targets variously as capitalists and communists, as cosmopolitans and nationalists, as God-beguiled fanatics and atheistic subversives—and may, seeing such apparently absurd and contradictory slanders, conclude that antisemitism is not a coherent thing at all. Kristeva, however, claimed that beneath its superficial differences (or rather, precisely in the movement among them) antisemitism is an ever-present possibility for Westerners, who struggle to appropriate, maintain, reject and transform the massive, ineradicable, double influence of the Bible as a book of fatherly authority and necessary rebellions.

Western fathers, Kristeva insisted, are Jewish. Even Westerners who are neither Jewish nor religious derive from the heritage of the Bible their profoundest and most intimate understanding not only of God—a loving, punishing, powerful, yet often apparently absent or vindictive father—but of everything associated with the “paternal function.” Our sense of political authority, of social norms, of our own fathers and our own fatherhood, is suffused with biblical legacies. A vision of a bearded older man, compounded of God and the patriarchs with whom God spoke, hangs like a superimposed image before every one of our apparently secular leaders, judges, and dads. Whenever we rebel against their authority, and seek to extirpate from ourselves and our culture that authority’s deepest, most hidden foundations, we therefore may easily find ourselves locked no longer in struggle with real, empirical fathers and powers (who may well need to be overcome) but with the abstract, symbolic, Jewish “paternal function” which, never exhaustively embodied by anything, may nevertheless be figured, as a scapegoat, by Jews.

But the Bible contains both Law and Prophets: a power that compels obedience to rules and measures all men’s worth by them, and a power that compels some men to strangely singularize themselves through antinomian acts of outrageous transgression—powers both called God. The prophets marry whores, lay for months unmoving in bizarre positions, eat disgusting bread, report dreams and sightings in which respectable authorities are laid low by vicious pagan foreigners. Here a relation to God seems not to assure the continuity of patriarchal tradition, of sons becoming fathers through adherence to rules and roles, but rather to endanger everything that might make one socially recognizable as a decent person. The prophets, unsurprisingly, are often reluctant, pleading with God that they are not well-suited for such a task, or simply fleeing it.

The traditions of the West, Kristeva posited, since they derive in large measure from the Bible, turn on its central tension between, on the one hand, seeing God as granter of the Law, guarantor of the social order and our place with in it, and, on the other, hearing God’s summons to undo ourself and the world that they might be remade. To hold on rightly both to the “very risky right to be different” as revealed by the Prophets through their bewilderingly personal access to the divine, and “the Law” as given publicly, plainly, to everyone, once and for all, is a difficult venture, and perhaps one bound to teeter endlessly between stifling conformist legalism and reckless individualist fanaticism—except insofar as these are at times contained in creative syntheses, or their rival demands on us ignored in the unthinking compromises that comprise our everyday life.

If Kristeva is right, we should expect to see such teeterings, syntheses, compromises and lapses not only in the religious history of Judaism, but throughout the political and cultural history of the West. In this she followed many modern Jewish thinkers who have done so. This was exactly how Henri Bergson, the French Jewish (and, at the end of his life, Catholic) philosopher characterized the history of all religion and philosophy—as the rhythmic opening (prophecy) and closing (law) of society and spirituality. The Austrian rabbi’s son and scholar of religion Jacob Taubes similarly insisted that Judaism had transmitted to Christianity and to modern Western political ideologies like liberalism and Marxism the enduring dilemma of choosing between legalism and messianism. He called on readers to choose the latter, echoing the existentialist Romanian poet Benjamin Fondane who argued, with antinomian flare, that the real “Jews” are those who reject organized religion for radical prophetic openness to God—including such ostensible Christian (antisemites!) as Pascal.

Kristeva warned, as Fondane’s dubious recuperation of Pascal might already suggest, that any disturbance in the balance of law and prophecy, of social norms and individual freedom, of “the paternal function” and the “right to be different” (of, we might say, the obligation to become oneself by becoming one’s father, and the obligation to become oneself by refusing to become him) shades into being “antisemitic.” For any Westerner, “Judaism” remains the common matrix of, and most proximate metaphor for, both normativity—any system of rules—and of the right to reject such rules for the sake of a calling that might appear insane and immoral to everyone else. Anyone rejecting either pole of this difficult binary may, she feared, fall into antisemitism and all its associated forms of cultural and political insanity.

Leading the French Enlightenment against the Catholic Church, for example, Voltaire also attacked Jews as a retrograde, superstitious people oppressing themselves with authoritarian nonsense—establishing the semi-hidden secular norm by which being progressive means to oppose the Jews for being conservative. This stubborn people, the secular prophet excoriates, refuses the new light. The light, of course, is always getting newer; the prophets change their points of attack; Jews become symbols of religious obscurantism, of capital, of ethno-nationalism, etc.—but always as the people whose obstinate attachment to some harsh law is said to exclude, refuse, or dominate. They are the emblem of the bad father whose reign must end.

“Judaism,” in Kristeva’s terms, is the innermost content of every Western old regime, since it was from the Bible and its God that our forebears, whoever they were, first learned to obey the law and command in its name. But it is also the essence of every call to suspend or revise the law for the sake of a higher one, of renewed connection to its transcendental—but utterly intimate—source. Thus every old regime is also threatened by the biblical inheritance of prophethood, and the emissaries and propagandists of the former are, in a sense, not wrong to oppose its enemies—refusers, free-thinkers, loners, whoever follows an inhuman appeal beyond the limits of the ordinary and decent—by calling them Jewish.

If all Western fathers are Jewish, so too is every rebel son. And thus “everyone,” Kristeva stressed, is at least potentially antisemitic in our culture, because the figure of the Jew—the Jewish father, the Jewish rebel, the Jewish God authorizing both—is part of our family romance and our civilizational myths, inseparable from either end of the law-prophet binary around which, individually and collectively, we define ourselves perhaps more intensely even than around the (in our days apparently collapsing) binary of sex. Indeed, as I have argued in other essays for Tablet, our attempts to overcome the latter, framed by progressives as an escape from a narrow, violent reduction of human diversity, instead become themselves almost as polemically binarizing and totalizing in their political consequences—almost as fascist—as Céline’s aesthetic transgressions. Learning to live sanely in the tension of the opposites—male and female, fathers and sons, law and prophets, semiotic and symbolic—is our difficult mission, and the price of failure is becoming what we rightly despise.

Kristeva now saw the task of art as reactivating semiotic energies no longer in order to tear down oppressive bourgeois normativity, but instead to restore psychological integrity to the unwell members of Western societies.

This was, let the reader remember, to some extent Kristeva’s self-interested justification for her own abandonment of the left—a neoconservative turn that got her a nice position in the American academy. Every political and aesthetic radicalism, she warned (against her 60s self who had seen an idiosyncratic combination of the two as the very thing most needful) threatened to become antisemitic, totalitarian, a reenactment of the worst of the 20th century. A certain version of such beliefs, which see the slightest hint of cultural rebellion or substantive political disagreement as drawing barbed wire around the camps, has been at the core of the now tottering post-’70s neoliberal consensus, and thus a key contributor to our current crisis. More productively, however, perspectives like the one Kristeva acquired in her American era point us to the need for a rebalancing of both the relationship between politics and aesthetics, and of the relation within the latter between the enlivening force of transgressive experiment and the need to restore norms, roles and meanings to individuals already more than sufficiently disoriented.

Kristeva’s interpretation of Céline, written, in part, as an address to us Americans, can clarify, if not answer, some urgent questions for our national present: How can we recover our individual and collective capacity to ignore, mock, and flout the dumb and deadening pseudo-seriousness, the stultifying cliches (“the most important election of our lifetimes” … “democracy dies in darkness” … “diversity is our strength” … “be kind”) that seem to be the last supports of our shaky political regime—without, in the vivifying pleasure of transgression, becoming, well, Nazis, or at least useful idiots for those who plot to replace liberal democracy with something worse? How can we keep culture alive with oppositional energies, while withdrawing those energies from politics? What would it look like to wage, as it were, a two-front war against the MFA’d officers of our bland, boring aesthetic consensus and against the demagogues who direct Americans’ massive, legitimate resentment at the state of things to stupid, destructive ends?

Given all the good reasons for hopelessness on the political front, such an undertaking might start with a renewal of the novel and literary criticism, with a new attention to what literature is doing for and to us, to what it might yet teach us about how to let art be art—vital, exciting, edgy, transformative … and in the end responsible—and politics be politics, purged of fantasies and longings that the state, and indeed reality, can never satisfy.

Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, lives in Chicago.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.