December 18th, 2014
Today’s fiction corner features Julia Kristeva’s new novel Teresa, My Love: An Imagined Life of the Saint of Avila. While Kristeva first made her name as a philosopher and critic, she has also written several novels, including Murder in Byzantium and The Old Man and the Wolves.
In her newest novel Teresa, My Love, Kristeva mixes fiction, history, psychoanalysis, and personal fantasy. The novel follows Sylvia Leclercq, a French psychoanalyst, academic, and incurable insomniac, as she falls for the sixteenth-century Saint Teresa of Avila and becomes consumed with charting her life. Traveling to Spain, Leclercq, Kristeva’s probing alterego, visits the sites and embodiments of the famous mystic and awakens to her own desire for faith, connection, and rebellion.
In today’s post, we are happy to present the recent New York Times book review of Teresa, My Love, written by Carlene Bauer:
Imagining a Saintly Life, Some of It Not So Holy
‘Teresa, My Love,’ Julia Kristeva’s Latest Novel
By Carlene Bauer
It is hard, even knowing just a few facts about Teresa of Ávila, not to fall in love with her. This 16th-century Spanish mystic, saint and doctor of the church could sigh over her own limitations with the precision, earthiness and wit of a born writer. “I could be bribed by a sardine,” she once wrote. Nor did she muffle her sighs over the sisters in her care. “Believe me,” she wrote, “I fear an unhappy nun more than many devils.”
The French psychoanalyst and literary critic Julia Kristeva has not been immune to the charms of this holy woman. She has put Teresa on the couch before (most recently in “Hatred and Forgiveness”), and in “Teresa, My Love,” she, or rather her alter ego, the clinical psychologist Sylvia Leclercq, analyzes Teresa and her historical, spiritual and sexual significance.
This book is billed as a novel, but there’s not much story here. Sylvia, a restless sleeper, picks up Teresa’s writings by chance and decides to spend her “submarine nights” reading and researching her new love. Sylvia sees some patients, engages in some romance and travels to Ávila. She’s a somewhat rickety device — more docent than protagonist — through which Ms. Kristeva presents a mix of biography, history, theorizing and even a three-act play. Yet the pieces work together to create a kind of wisdom literature for what Ms. Kristeva likes to call the third millennium.
Descended on her father’s side from Jewish converts to Christianity, this girl who grew up to have raptures was the very pretty daughter of a woman who loved to read novels, a 16th-century Emma Bovary. Her mother passed that love on to her daughter, who might herself have become a thwarted dreamer like Emma, save for a thirst for glory and independence. At 7, Teresa persuaded her brother Rodrigo to run away to “the land of the Moors,” so they could be martyrs. At 21, she ran away again, despite her father’s wishes, to the Carmelites, partly to avoid an unwanted marriage, partly to heed a call.
Sylvia reads Teresa as a woman who needed a Father to love her without judging her for her passions, and a woman who needed to be one with the Son to assure herself she was not solely female, because to be female meant to be sentenced to motherhood. Teresa is also considered, not as explicitly, an exemplar of the feminine genius that Ms. Kristeva has contemplated in books on Hannah Arendt, Melanie Klein and Colette. Teresa did not imprison herself in an interior castle of mysticism but reformed an order and founded 17 monasteries, traveling all over Spain. In Ms. Kristeva’s interpretation, Teresa isn’t “the patron saint of hysteria,” as Freud’s mentor Josef Breuer called her, but the patron saint of passionate pragmatics.
Why Teresa again and why now? “What’s left of that universe of faith and love, what’s left of the windmills?” Sylvia Leclercq asks. “Chimeras, TV soap operas for avid women and their partners. Or God’s madmen, the suicide bombers, who pretend not to realize that he (the Almighty, the Master, the One and Only, the True, the Beyond) has mutated into pure spectacle, and twist their alleged faith into murderous nihilism.” Teresa’s life and her writings could be one antidote to this malaise, because, according to Sylvia/Ms. Kristeva, she “ventures as far as possible along the route that beckons the person who doesn’t give up on believing, the person who talks as a way of sharing, and who loves in order to act.”
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Does Ms. Kristeva really need nearly 600 pages to expound on the reading she has given the saint elsewhere? At many points, especially in its breathless description and redescription of Teresa’s divine union — a song, like the Song of Songs, that many spiritual seekers might find hard to make their own — Ms. Kristeva’s excess doesn’t lead to illuminating insight. Lovers do run on, Sylvia says, their talk meaningful only to each other, and some readers may experience the book as just that kind of chatter.
“Teresa, My Love” is perhaps strongest when Ms. Kristeva sets her characters in dialogue, particularly a three-act play in which Teresa, on her deathbed, converses with figures like her confessor and friend John of the Cross. Here, Ms. Kristeva’s affection for her subject finds effortless expression in a vibrant and persuasive imagining of Teresa as she might have sounded off the page. Her ebullient exegesis will probably most delight those who think that faith and love need more spokesmen and spokeswomen than just Pope Francis — and more than just believers to speak of them.
Ms. Kristeva’s book may also be particularly appreciated by readers seeking feminist Augustines but who are unfulfilled by contemporary confessions of female wandering that can seem to radiate more self-regard than spiritual wisdom. Those readers will have to tolerate more than a little of what one of Sylvia’s friends calls “Freudian-Lacanian mumbo-jumbo,” but they may also take that mumbo-jumbo over E. L. James any day.
In the end, Ms. Kristeva’s aim is a simple one: Through reconsidering the life of this saint, she is calling those of us “trapped between secularism and fundamentalism” to reconsider what we think we know about love. More specifically, she asks us to rethink our Western resistance to the idealism and loss of self that love involves. Teresa wrote that God “doesn’t give himself but to those who give themselves entirely to him,” and love itself, Ms. Kristeva seems to suggest, might need us to lay down the arms that we have been fashioning since, she argues, Cervantes taught us to snicker at knights errant.
Because Ms. Kristeva is suggesting such a very simple thing, it may be easy to mock her. But at a moment when many seem to think desire is at its most liberated when it’s at its most emotionally detached, we may need a radically simple reminder that the body can be conversant with the soul. And if Ms. Kristeva’s exhortation remains just that — an exhortation, without directions for implementation — that may be the point. As her alter ego says of her efforts, “But that’s also a part of my role: to plant a seed for later, or never.” Frustrating, perhaps, but as her fellow psychoanalyst Adam Phillips might say, sometimes frustration is more productive than we think.