It’s Just Not My Life — Julia Kristeva Responds

If I Had to Choose, I’d Prefer Mata Hari

That day I was working on Dostoyevsky. I was starting a book about him for “Les Auteurs de ma vie,” [a Buchet-Chastel series], and I was thinking of his life: a revolutionary, a convict, loving his Holy Russia, enraged against nihilism, but especially a novelist of the general carnival, capable of probing the death of God and absurd crime including Stavrogin’s pedophilia in The Possessed. I was wondering how to restore its bewildering resonance with contemporary times and what it brought me day after day. From time to time, a message alert lit up my cellphone. A friend advised me “not to worry” without specifying why. Another proposed to “discuss all of this” as soon as possible, without specifying what. Not enough to distract me from Dostoevsky’s sinuous sentences, which meander through the true and the false.

In early evening, I can see that the same stranger has called me several times before sending me this text by mistake: “Kristeva unreachable, let’s drop it.” Intrigued by this error, I dial the number. He is a journalist from the weekly, Le Nouvel Observateur. He is speaking quickly: “Do you know what’s going on? It’s very serious.” I don’t understand. He shares his scoop: in the 1970s, when I was already living with Philippe [Sollers] in Paris, I’d worked as a secret agent for Bulgaria. “Me? That’s a hoax.” But he’s sure of what he’s telling me: the authorities in Sofia have just unearthed my recruitment record, he says, it’s very clear. Now he would like my reaction. As I remember it, I sweep it away ironically: “Someone probably wants to make me feel good.”

Shortly after, I see the article at the Nouvel Observateur’s web site: “Julia Kristeva was agent Sabina. The famous psychoanalyst, linguist, feminist, French woman of letters of Bulgarian origins was recruited in June 1971 by the top management of the Darjavna Sigurnost (State Security), the foreign department of the secret services of the Bulgarian communist regime.” That my past “is resurfacing today,” the author continues, is because I have apparently “recently made the mistake of wanting to work for a Bulgarian magazine.” I would have thus “fallen under the aegis of the Commission to the Archives, which must verify and then make public the past of any journalist born before 1976.” Specified briefly in a postscript: “Two hours after the publication of this article, Julia Kristeva denies it; ‘someone wants to do me harm,’ she declares.” Period.

I am flabbergasted. This is not the first time that I am introduced as a spy but until March 28, 2018, the process was clearly fiction, if not burlesque: three years earlier, the novelist Laurent Binet had this strange idea in The Seventh Function of Language. The dedication said something like this: “All of this is pure imagination, I hope you will laugh at it.” (I do not remember the exact wording because I threw out the novel.) This time, it’s more serious: according to the magazine that once published Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida, I’m Sabina. In the moment, I try joking about it with Philippe and David, our son: I don’t like this name at all: “If I had to choose, I’d prefer Mata Hari.” But deep down, I’m hurt, and I do not really want to laugh.”

The notorious Bulgarian commission posted a 380-page file designating me as a former agent of the regime. Over the following days, the media is abuzz. The New York Times solicits me, then the British at The Guardian, the Germans at Der Spiegel and Die Welt; they all want to know what ghosts I’m hiding deep inside me, what dark secrets I’m concealing. Social media is laced with insults, a sad unleashing of the death drive: all my research is attributed to “my friends at the KGB;” some purported house of mine stands “in front of the Eiffel Tower;” they don’t like my “face.” I talk to my lawyer, Jean-Marc Fédida, the son of Pierre Fédida, the eminent psychoanalyst with whom I once studied the link between neuroscience and cognitivism. What to do? It might be enough to read the file to demonstrate its falseness, but obviously the media has little time or desire to go into it in detail. It’s long; it’s written in Cyrillic … And anything I say sounds like a denial. Only patient and meticulous work could follow the thread of such manipulation. Bulgarian editorial writers, whose French and English translations I have posted on my website, have already described the files as “empty,” denouncing the bad faith of the Commission. But who reads Bulgarian?

I repeat: I have never belonged to any Bulgarian secret service. Neither French nor Russian nor American. I also know the power of the repressed so as not to fall into this trap myself. After the first “revelations” relatives called me to persuade me to confess: “It’s not so bad,” they said. “If it’s true, you should acknowledge it. There’s a bit of romance in double lives.” An Israeli friend, with his unchanging sense of humor, even congratulated me: “Hat’s off! Even the Mossad who has spies everywhere did not know it!” I’m sorry to disappoint them: I’ve probably had several lives, but not this one.


Bathtub Torture

My parents lived in Sliven, a small city in central-eastern Bulgaria. I was born two days after the beginning of the war. My father, whose last name means “cross” in Bulgarian, was fervently Orthodox, which was not very well looked upon by the communist regime. After studying medicine, he found a job as an accountant in the administration of the Church. A photograph of my mother reigns over my desk; she was a biology student at Sofia University. We moved to Sofia soon after the arrival of my little sister, Ivanka, in 1945. My father was obsessed with the idea of ​​taking his daughters out of the guts of hell, an expression from the Gospels according to him, but which I actually found in Dante, la burella dell’inferno. I was enrolled in a religious French nursery school run by the Oblates of the Assumption. But just two years later, they were accused of espionage (a classic) and then expelled from the country, and I joined the public school while attending the Alliance française.

The postwar period was a period of intense turmoil. Two images come to mind: one evening, as I was walking with my mother and sister at nightfall, a loudspeaker announced that the leader of the agricultural party would be executed, and that we needed to “get ready.” But ready for what? In that moment, people applaud. But my mother steps up the pace with the stroller; Ivanka falls, grazes her elbow, and I, too, start to run. My second memory refers to my father’s stories. He would tell us that the regime’s henchmen carried out “bathtub torture” on the enemies of the people: they would thrust their heads into a bath filled with excrement. The idea haunted me, and when we went to the Black Sea, I forced myself to dive in to fight my fear.

Vis-à-vis the regime, we were both outside and inside. Outside: coming from a non-communist family, I was not allowed to wear the flag at school, and I had to give up on studying astronomy in Moscow because only the children of the nomenklatura could go. Inside: I belonged like everyone else to the Communist Youth, and since I spoke French I was sometimes asked to act as an interpreter during the visits of the “friends of the regime” — that’s how I met Waldeck Rochet who was first secretary of the French Communist Party at the time. In secondary school, given my grades, teachers also invited me to write for the high school newspaper; at the university I continued, for the daily Jeunesse populaire, where I worked in the “education” department.

At the beginning of the 1960s, there was this strange period called “the thaw.” After Stalin’s death, Khrushchev had suggested the possibility of a peaceful coexistence with the West. Researchers could consult foreign books at the university library or at the library of the Academy of Sciences, Les Lettres françaises, and Aragon’s writings of course. But the former director of the high school newspaper, who became a correspondent for Paris’s communist daily, also sent me Camus, Sartre, Beauvoir, Joyce, and Kafka. I was passionate about the texts of Maurice Blanchot, about the emergence of the nouveau roman. I did have to remain cautious, however, as I was going to learn this at my expense. In 1964 I wrote an article about a book nobody wanted to talk about, signed by a Bulgarian journalist based in New York or Washington, Albert Cohen (a homonym of the author of Belle du Seigneur). He was a communist, his work said nothing nasty about the Party, but he had dared to evoke “cultural openness” by which the “West” was implied. Anti-dogmatism, revisionism — what do I know? A “thaw” perhaps, but not too much of one: the next day, his own newspaper published a violent article against him, where I, too, was presented as an agent of capitalism and Zionism. My father was worried to death; he wasn’t sleeping. At night, as soon as there was the slightest noise in our building, he thought the police was coming to arrest me. This fear lasted weeks, then we learned to live with it.

In 1965, the following year, when I was preparing my thesis in comparative literature, my research director advised me to apply for the “De Gaulle” scholarship to study in France. I went to the embassy. The official looked pleasantly surprised: I was young, I spoke French, and my knowledge ranged from Victor Hugo to Nathalie Sarraute. My application was accepted. Overcome with joy, my parents insisted that I leave as soon as possible, lest a member of the party should steal my place. I flew out on Christmas Eve, with a new suitcase and five dollars that my father had carefully kept and that were meant to get me through a solid month until my first scholarship payment. A friend of friends was supposed to meet me at Le Bourget airport. On arrival: nobody. Night was falling, and I was alone in this city where people looked elegantly gift-wrapped. I took refuge at the Bulgarian embassy ​​near the Alma bridge in the hope of finding the dear friend there. Still nobody. And there, in that moment of despair, whom did I see? Albert Cohen. “Ah, it’s you,” he said surprised when he discovered the fragile thing I was. My nerves got the better of me, and I started to cry. He invited me to dinner before calling his colleague, a correspondent of the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency in Paris. She would host me until the scholarship kicked in.

As I read the “Sabina” file today, I learn that I presumably signed a document before my departure certifying that I would not get married in Paris. This order does not ring a bell. Was this some small print on the back of my visa? Had it been pointed out to me, I would have noticed (the state confiscates private life?); I would have remembered something so preposterous. I had no intention of getting married: I was leaving for nine months, with a scholarship, for the sole purpose of deepening my knowledge of contemporary literature, to perfect my French, and to return to Sofia to defend my thesis. But an unexpected meeting changed this project and my life.


Foreignness is My Country

I met Philippe Sollers in May 1966, barely five months after my arrival. He was a young writer of the “nouveau nouveau roman” as I would write later, recognized by Mauriac and Aragon, who was having an affair with a woman older than my mother; he edited the fascinating Tel Quel journal; and since I’d begun to read his books, L’Intermédiaire (1963) and Drame (1965) [translated as Event], I requested an interview for my research. On the appointed day he received me in his little office at Le Seuil at the end of a spiral staircase. We talked for a long time; he took me to dinner; then tried to kiss me. I resisted. He asked me what I want to do in France. I answered by paraphrasing Marx that I had nothing to lose but my chains. A great passion began, impossible for some, a scandal for others. I was neither easy nor uptight; and, because an alchemy of minds had developed, an alchemy of bodies would follow. With my rather unromantic Slavic side, it took me a long while to understand this man who could be angel or a beast, in whom “each piece plays its own game,” as Montaigne said. Our love story would be for life. My nine-month visa was extended twice; certificates from the CROUS and the CNRS did not much please the Bulgarian Consulate, and Philippe gave me the gift of marriage to avoid the fate of the undocumented. On August 2nd, 1967, we stood before the mayor of the fifth arrondissement as a very small group with my sister and two writer friends as witnesses. It will be “a marriage considered one of the fine arts.” He made me Mrs. Julia Joyaux, his family’s actual last name. And my desire for France took root in family life and motherhood with the birth of our son David, accompanied by the thought of research that has never left me: linguistics, philosophy, psychoanalysis, feminism.

The file of the Bulgarian services, which intercepted and archived my private mail, does not mention my family life or my work while for some reason amassing articles about me as well as translations of my publications in the French press. Thus I become an “informant.” What is my presumed mission? A mystery. The informer watching me seems not to know — he never says. Was I supposed to glean information from Roland Barthes and Émile Benveniste, my mentors? Follow Jacques Lacan and Alain Robbe-Grillet? According to one note, I would have let my “processing agents” know that I did not want to write anything myself. Strange complacency on their part … Why did they never solicit me with an offer or instruction to collaborate, which they were imposing on many students with internships abroad? And they embroider a tall story about me, a wholly fabricated narrative, in lieu of the total lack of evidence about my supposed “recruiting.”

Let us examine the important secrets that I have presumably given the mother country: Aragon was depressed by the death of Elsa Triolet (less would be needed), and he was gradually moving away from the Communist Party, getting closer to the Surrealists — that made the headlines. The sales of the magazine Politique Hebdo were not going well because of a rather “provincial” layout (that’s exciting). And right-wing governments are increasing the nominations of bourgeois-reactionary intellectuals heading up cultural institutes (why not). After each alleged debriefing with me, the agent must note the quality of my information: they are sometimes “weak,” often “incomplete,” but never “confidential.”

In short, as a spy, I flunk. Reading these reports, a Bulgarian-born journalist from the prestigious London Review of Books speculated that I was driving these processing agents nuts. The reality is much simpler: I did not linger at the embassy or consulate counters; I exchanged a few courtesies with employees, most of whom were spies (that’s classic), and whose names I did not know. I never worked for or with them, and I still do not know who they are. When I think of it today, I imagine Kafkaesque officials, locked in their offices, forced to churn out paperwork, “intelligence” to justify their salaries, obtain a promotion, get approval from the bureaucratic hierarchy, and better feed their families. They want to create a file but not overwhelm me. They invent that I collaborate but not that much. Were they making fun of me while drinking slivova? Well, what else can we have her tell us on this note? Most of the time, they just copied some news item. Only once — I don’t know what got into them — they completely went off the tracks (too much slivova?): they attribute to me some comment about “the Palestinian cause,” that it would not have the support it deserves “because the press [is] under Zionist influence.” Maybe they were hoping to help me by rectifying the situation following the Albert Cohen affair? The only certainty: I must have stopped inspiring them quickly enough, because in 1974 the Sabina file was closed for lack of conclusive results.

They imputed I had “strategies” with these secret officials. I had none. I knew I would remain a foreigner in France. Foreignness itself now became my country, my destiny. And I discovered a way of thinking of ​​happiness: not to belong, not to “serve,” but to try to be without “being of.” Proust and Arendt had to enlighten me, as I continued, in this choice. Is it not the major condition of being able to think, which means thinking from another point of view, from the point of view of the other? A challenge and an opportunity. I find both in the experience of practicing psychoanalysis, through transferences and investments of traumas and rebirths listening to my patients. So I’d fly through the Consulate hoping to get a parental visit to Paris authorized, and I hastened to leave its offices, to resume my reading, my seminars, and the books I was writing.


Had I Died Before Him…

Let’s move to the second strand curiously forgotten in articles on this subject: the surveillance reports of which I was the object. For an alleged spy, I was especially very much spied on. The file reveals that no fewer than 16 officers worked on my case. I remember a former high school classmate who came to my door one day and said that he was bringing me a package from my parents — a jar of jam and some baklava. I welcomed him in; we had tea; he showed me a Bulgarian poem that I found badly dashed off; and then I thanked him because I had work to do. Translated into the language of secret agents, this yielded a note that depicts me as “haughty” and “disdainful of [Bulgaria’s] national poetry.” And this other embassy employee, whom I took to be oafish and a bit too persistent, also went on in his report. One day when he insisted on seeing me, I sent him a postcard from Brussels to ask him to lighten up a bit, signing off with a ridiculous slogan: “Long live the people’s power.” Believe it or not, this missive is now submitted as overwhelming proof of my guilt.

I’m arriving at the last part of this affair, the most intimate, the most chilling: the reading of my mail by the police for years. I discover with horror that my letters addressed to my parents were systematically opened: from our most innocuous exchanges about their arrival dates in France, to the evolution of my father’s health, the birth of my son, and my mother’s worries. Nothing escaped police control, not even a reassuring letter from Philippe to my mother and father; or a word from my sister-in-law following a weekend by the sea. I must admit: this espionage and the online publication of these letters flooded me with disgust, revolt, and retrospective terror. To what pressures were my parents subjected? Were they harassed by the police? Did they not tell me to protect me? In a report about me, one hand noted: “Sabina is obviously very eager to bring her parents to France. But she is behaving as usual: she requests a lot without offering anything in exchange.” I will never forget my father’s last days in this sordid Sofia hospital, cut off from the world, no visiting allowed. In spite of all my efforts, I did not manage to get him out, and the regime ignominiously refused to bury him: burials were strictly for communists, to avoid the religious gatherings. My father would be cremated, contrary to his wishes. “If you had died before him,” I was told, “as you have a certain notoriety, why not? We could have added him to your grave; but, in this case, you understand…” What was this payback for? My mourning took the form of a metaphysical detective novel, Le Vieil homme et les Loups  (1991) [The Old Man and the Wolves, 1995].

Hitchcock used to say he painted the innocent in a guilty world. Today, the media often do the opposite: they paint culprits in a world of innocent people. They no longer observe the world with question marks: they assault and propagate. They are indignant when Facebook uses your personal data, but they disclose your private correspondence on the global Web. Rather than wondering whether a file provided by a totalitarian regime might be rigged, rather than reminding us how lying was an integral part of the culture of these regimes, rather than checking the sources … Are they aware that they are participating in the chain of post-totalitarian abjection? If you have the impudence to dispute their blindness and the defamation they spread about you, they stubbornly reply using this distressing formula: “We stand by all of our information.” This isn’t about information but disinformation, which they spread with the good conscience of the untouchables.

Does history ever teach us anything? Have we forgotten the Stalinist trials? How not to notice that these 29 personal letters extorted by the police of a regime where lying has become a political tool are in the long run an abuse that is at least as devastating as the manifest absence of any public freedom? Such an outrage in itself proves, if need be, that my so-called file is not that of an agent, but of a person under aggravated surveillance.

It will be objected that this story about a spy could be. I came from Bulgaria; my parents stayed in Sofia; I was forced to collaborate with the regime, if only to protect them. Since I sometimes went to the embassy to move along their visa applications, I was not in the clear. Worse, the file manipulators would say, I was taking some distance from my native country to the point of undertaking psychoanalysis in French! I had something to hide. Except that this way of thinking in blocks of likelihood denies the singularity of each. There are no more human beings here, there are only diagrams; and if you fall into one of them, it’s over. Then go explain that the truth is in essence singular, haecceitas [individuality] “this is what exists,” as Medieval philosophy says… Rumors are sticky, and nobody listens anymore.

In this case, I felt like a micron caught up in the death drive that is sweeping through a disoriented planet nowadays. While I continue to “travel” with my family, my analysands, and my friends, all as lucid as they are demanding, I will not preclude bringing suit in order to dismantle this system. In my innermost depths Colette’s words still ring out: “To be born again […] has never been beyond my capacities.”


Translated by Patsy Baudoin. Interviewed by Olivier Bouchara, published originally in the July 2018 issue of Vanity Fair France. Photo of Julia Kristeva by Sophie Bassouls.