Josefina Ayerza with Julia Kristeva- Flash Art
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The Old Men and the Laws

JA: With all these Eastern Europeans arriving in Western Europe and the USA, what do you think may happen to local regional cultures?

JK: I have talked about this problem in my last novel The Old Man and the Wolves. The shock, the starting point of this novel was the killing of my father in a Bulgarian hospital, which is an example of what happens in these cultures. My book is about the power of evil. In those countries what succeeds for the communists so called "culture" is the eruption of evil, and I think that unfortunately those people will pass a long time through hell, before arriving at a culture. Will it be national or cosmopolitan, or some new kind of graft between European culture and local tradition? The question now is: we are in front of something that has never happened in Europe since the end of the Roman Empire, which is the bankruptcy of human links — this has of course to do with culture.

JA: The word "bankruptcy" brings up quite an image — since it concerns economy — are you saying it involves wrong administration of the libido, of erotism, of good and evil... and were there links before that aren't there now?

JK: It involves all kind of links: affective links — age, cultural links, and hope projects, love — especially those which make up social tissue. You and me, we are together because we have this ability to exchange something, and we exchange something because erotism is a link. Evil is the break in the link but now there isn't a break, or cut...

JA: How will this bankruptcy effect engage in relation to Jacques Lacan's theory with his emphasis on Kant's ethics?

JK: We have been through two thousand years of christianity and utilitarian philosophy, we are aware of the problem of desire, of sublimation, and of groups and ideal objects... I hope we will remain in this phase. However, what we are experiencing now is something very dangerous — an apocalyptic moment — and I'm afraid that European or American intellectuals have not noticed the radicality of the crisis of this tradition.

JA: So it is a Kantian world which is in crisis?

JK: But desire survives beyond the Kantian world. The whole European tradition is going back to the Bible, to the Gospels, and to Greek philosophy — all those means to sublimate the death potions that writers have elaborated into philosophy and religion — this tradition is threatened now.

JA: Could you be a bit more specific? We are talking of the Russians coming in to the Western world, would that be a reason for this apocalyptic moment to happen?

JK: There is this project of the Western world to see Russians coming, but when you go to Russia, when you go to those Eastern countries, you see them just in a position of passivity, they are stone like, they are depressed and they are stuck.
In a sense I am questioning the question. Intellectuals and others in the Eastern countries like Western culture, they are very willing to join in, but this, for now, is utopia. This is what happened with my hero, the old man who is professor of Latin, but he is the only one from this standpoint to react against the failure of his civilization; to be a dissident. He was killed because they did not allow him to revolt. There were very strong forces in those countries that drive back the ambition of other people to join Western culture. There was an unwritten law in Bulgaria against giving expensive medicine to older people. You cannot speak about Kant and objects of desire when you are on such levels of brutality.

JA: Too primitive a level?

JK: Too primitive, yes: you make operations, but you do not have surgical tools, so part of it is economic crisis and part humanitarian crisis: a loss of value.

JA: A loss of value in reference to human life?

JK: Human life has been transformed into something which does not have any value.

JA: Now, did you see for instance what happened with Andy Warhol? He was in one of the most sophisticated places one might think of; nevertheless he died due to neglection at the hospital.

JK: There are two answers to this question. First I think that the dominance of evil and lack of value is not only a phenomenon in the East; unfortunately it also happens elsewhere. When I wrote this book I wrote it as a metaphor for our civilization also. There is an important difference: here, such kinds of things happen but there are oppositions, while in the Eastern countries we cannot see who are the forces that can struggle against this lack of values.

JA: In your article "The Abject: Powers of Perversion" you wrote about the outrageous Fascism of Céline. Did you, at that time, foresee the actual racism happening in Europe today?

JK: Yes, I am frightened by the strength of nationalism and racism — xenophobia — in European societies. We see this for instance in Germany, but also in France where it can sound more subtle. We have a very strong rejection of foreigners and a sort of withdrawal of the nation, of its own origin and values, and I look at it with concern. I am really envisioning the problem to maybe leave France and to establish myself as an immigrant... to be more accepted.

JA: So you're thinking of coming to America?

JK: Maybe not America. I get the impression that Canadian societies may be more tolerant. But I know that France now is very hostile against immigrants and foreigners and Europe in general— in my mind, I belong to the tradition of French enlightenment. Instead what I see in this country is fragmentation and confinement which does not go in the sense of finding a common ground; you have to bring all those particularities together at the same time as you recognize them. There are two logics to be reconciled.

JA: Could these two logics reconcile through Lacan's idea of alterity? In this sense, isn't love based on differences, moreover on the mutual recognition of these differences?

JK: This point of view, this alterity is not only a Lacanian one.

JA: But the word alterity... I would say it's so Lacanian.

JK: No, alterity is Hegel's word, and in my mind it means that one has to recognize the other in order to bring him in a link with you. Love is a link, which means recognition of an otherness.

JA: We seem to be talking of something that's going on now, in America. Have you seen this extreme division in other countries?

JK: No, even in America it was not the case some years ago, but it is stronger and stronger now. These groups grow separated in separated cultures, you know how much Chinatown is a little piece of China... Somebody told me that many new immigrants do not even learn the English language.

JA: As for the sake of language I think it's even poorer what comes about when people speak their own language at home and go to school in English. Since they are not taught to read and write in their own language, English expressions get translated directly. Then Spanish for instance, this beautiful language which remits to Cervantes, to Borges, has turned into a monstrous deformation... it even has a name, it's called Spanglish.

JK: I have been told also that some of them, Spanish or Asian because they are big communities, can satisfy their needs: they have shops, they live in groups but they are split from what is supposed to be the American community, which means that they can survive but never will a child from this community be a representative of the American society, in the parliament or the senate, or a judge.

JA: Since you are often compared to Simone de Beauvoir, I would like to talk about her and about her novel The Mandarins in relation to your book: The Samurai. Simone de Beauvoir makes a woman the witness of men's intrigues. In your novel instead, at least one woman, if not two, become the core of all the intrigues. Are you saying men are no longer the ones in power, can we see this as a feminist attitude?

JK: I don't know if it is a feminist attitude, but I would hope so, anyhow it's not a feminist attitude in the dogmatic sense of the word. I am not a feminist militant. You are right to say that the main characters are all female. It's funny that no one noticed this before. What our generation wrote about the complexity of this feminine experience escapes cliché and militarist positions. The creative profession of life is deeply connected with the sexual and body experience, more strongly in women than men.

JA: In Desire and Language you allude very much to color through Giotto's paintings, then you write about Bellini and say that his Venus has the face of the Virgin Mary. Is there a vague allusion of this in The Samurai?

JK: Oh, yes, I love Bellini. I put some aspects of this into The Samurai. Contemporary or past art, you can refer to this experience in the course of interpretation. I think the lack of words during the interpretation is important to help people represent their depressive state, natural lack of words, so natural that it's called language. You can refer to some painting or music or literary style and get this usage of beauty into the psychoanalytic interpretation.

JA: But always through words?

JK: Yes, I translate them into words, but when I refer to painting the person sees through my words on the painting, and so it has a sublimatory semiology in order to heal the depressive wounds.

JA: Who are the painters you choose for this? What art do you select, isn't it very subjective?

JK: Yes, it's very subjective. I am very interested in Holbein's The Ambassadors, and the Dead Christ. In my book The Black Sun, the image on the cover is also a child in one of Holbein's paintings. All the portraits of Holbein are of depressed people.

JA: When you talk of this depression, can you say this is the castration concept in Lacan?

JK: No, I think it's something more archaic, and deeper than the phallic stage and the problem of desire. It's mere narcissism, it's a narcissistic wound, which is more how I can relate it to the impossibility of the mother to become an object.

JA: To change the subject, how do you like Jean-Luc Godard? Do you know there is a show in New York at the moment — at the PS1 Museum — which includes works of different artists who have been inspired by Godard's films? Simultaneously his films are playing at the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art).

JK: There is a project about making a film on The Old Man and the Wolves. I am thinking very much of Godard as a possible film maker. Precisely because I think he has very strong feelings about evil. Although this bankruptcy of humanity would prefer something less neat and more postmodern than Godard, I think he is able to go beyond his actual modernism and rejoin something he has done with Pierrot Le Fou and things like that, and in a postmodern style represent these kinds of values. It would be an interesting achievement if we could work together.

JA: Oh! So he is one of the chosen ones.

JK: There is an intention to make him work for this. I have written things about Godard in Art Press years ago. I am very interested by his intensity and cutting, and his lacunar elliptic art. I think in The Old Man and the Wolves there is a treatment of the evil through the paintings of Goya: the old man is dreaming in some visions that finally I find out are very close to Goya's vision of human life. I think Godard could be the right person.


This article was published in Flash Art Jan/Feb 1993.