Julia Kristeva’s New Humanism

“Julia Kristeva’s New Humanism: Imagining Teresa of Avila for the Twenty-First Century,” Santa Teresa: Critical Insights, Filiations, Responses, eds. Martina Bengert and Iris Roebling-Grau, Tubigen: Narr/Francke/Attempto, 2019.

This essay elaborates and evaluates the critique of contemporary life Julia Kristeva develops in her 2008 novel, Teresa, My Love—An Imagined Life of the Saint of Avila, and in recent critical writings. Kristeva suggests contemporary subjects, in Europe and beyond, suffer psychical trauma because they are caught between hollow secular and violent transcendental discourses. According to Kristeva, both of these positions fail to satisfy what she calls a fundamental human “need to believe.”

Given this crisis of belief and the disturbing psychical consequences Kristeva believes it produces, the feminist theorist recommends contemporary artists, intellectuals, and others, working across disciplines and cultures, invent for the twenty-first century a “new humanism.” This new humanism would, first, recognize that humans create fictions over time, and it would affirm the creative and hermeneutic activities by which we do. Then, humanists would be better placed to invent out of these activities of language new and superior secular fictions that might replace, on the one hand, ruthless and indulgent Enlightenment rationalism, and, on the other, brutal transcendentalisms.

This essay elaborates how Kristeva enacts a “new humanism” of this kind in Teresa, MyLove. By narrating in the first-person her protagonist’s deep and ongoing psychoanalytic engagement with St. Teresa’s writings and raptures, Kristeva demonstrates how a secular mind, freed from “secularist” limitations, might open up resources sacred traditions offer when we view them as part of the history of human fiction-making. It also evaluates more broadly the political commitments that animate Kristeva’s view of fiction-making, finding them both valuable and troubling. Kristeva’s “new humanism” complements other left affirmations that call us to reinvigorate creative, historical human activity and makes a dynamic case for humanism’s significance at a moment when dominant economic and political discourses at once threaten and strategically monopolize its practices. At the same time, however, Kristeva’s secular fiction reproduces some of the viciously Eurocentric and willfully transcendental ways of thinking for which older humanisms are known.