THE FUTURE OF A REVOLT
The French Body
Mixed in with the crowd of students who were tearing up cobblestones, I saw the
barricades appear, I was there, I'm still there. But was I a part of it?
A crowd at Denfert-Rochereau.
Red and black flags. We move toward the École.
[...] Will the police let us through? We cross the Alexander III Bridge without
trouble. Where are we? Where are we headed? What does it matter: all of us
psyched, charged up. Some know the Internationale,
others, stammering, are learning it, casually, looking in-the-know. I wonder if
they really know what they are doing. The Internationale,
exactly. Olga is from there. Ivan was astonished last night to see all these
innocent young people rehashing the doublespeak of apparatchiks over there, for
hours and nights, the overheated auditoriums at Nanterre and the Sorbonne. What
is troubling are these unsuspecting faithful who innocently run towards a world
of oppression. Not quite the same, perhaps: more joyful, more anarchistic. A
carnival with a police contingent, effective and deadpan. Why not? “History
never repeats itself,” say the repeaters of History.
I am Olga. Engaged, jostled, upset, moving. Inside and out: the
drunkenness of participating in the French body.
the French language at my Dominican nursery school in my native Bulgaria, in
Sofia, I never stopped learning it from books, from La Fontaine to Victor Hugo,
from Diderot to Camus. But my knowledge of French bodies was barely two years
old. The French were emerging from the Algerian war with some difficulty. When
I arrived at Le Bourget airport, I was surprised to see cold-averse people not
knowing how to clear snow; elegant, impenetrable gift-packages attending
Christmas mass at Notre Dame Cathedral; dark shadows that crowded the metro and
relied on communism to improve their social achievements. Was that what equality was?
young and less young French people, who had embraced me, practiced desire and
pleasure as absolute rights. I met Philippe Sollers, a young writer of the “nouveau nouveau roman,” whom Mauriac and Aragon had praised, and who was
notoriously attached to a woman older than my mother. Searing sex, my
sensuality’s awakening ... he had me exploring eroticism, and our couple became
a space of thought. Thought as a dialogue between the sexes: is this not utopia itself in action? And for me to
escape the fate of the undocumented, we gave each other the gift of “marriage
as a fine art.” From the beginning and to this day, the love pact includes the
right to say: “I don’t agree with you.” “The stranger”: Roland Barthes had
pinpointed me from the outset. Disturbing, exciting, elusive, other. This word
suits me well; it is still with me. Were we ahead of May ‘68? We did not have
to assimilate or to adhere to it. It was obvious; it was self-evident.
Isn’t sexuality an experience that
does not trouble itself with age, generation, or gender differences? To live
happily, let's live in hiding, those French people said who surrounded me. In
hiding? Not really: everything was already known; secrets leaked; they fanned
desire. Heterosexual-bisexual-homosexual-adulterous-transgenerational couples
flourish or waste away – that’s life; that’s text; Rabelais and the
troubadours; François Villon and the Marquis de Sade; Proust and Colette;
Sartre and de Beauvoir. That is what the French
So I would start a doctorate,
for which I received a scholarship from the French government, which was
beginning to encourage young people “from the Atlantic to the Urals.” Not about
the “nouveau roman” – it was too new,
too abstract; but about the first French novel, Le Petit Jehan de Saintré, by Antoine de La Sale (1386-1462), whose
hero is a young page in love with his noble Lady old enough to be his mother!
For the first time, the Virgin’s maternal adoration leaves the Middle Ages to
be hatched as a novel in this new amorous passion between man and woman, which
will open and establish the new, humanity of the Renaissance itself! Now that
is research that enlightens me about the French body that I married, that
married me; whose polyphony my husband the writer embodied in our union that demystified
Couples – the ultimate religious refuge…. What if this were liberty?
But it was fraternity that associated me forever with these turbulent French
bodies, which continue to constantly fascinate and question anew. I am thinking
of researchers, writers, and academics, beginning with those associated with
the journal Tel Quel and the seminars
of the École des Hautes Études en
Sciences Sociales - mostly men - who received me as their equal and whose
respectful curiosity encouraged me to develop ... my otherness, my foreigness.
Without complacency, assimilation, or rejection, with one’s share of solitude
and risk that is revealing, unsparing of challenges, but opens one to what is
solemnly called a “life of the mind,” of which Greek philosophers taught that
it is a foreign life: to be
astonished and to marvel without belonging, without fitting in. A fraternity of
unique individuals, women included and doubly unique.
Barricades, foreigners ...
From a marriage in which we will always remain two
foreigners in tune, through the reestablishment of the University, the
rivalries among “psy-associations” and “psy- institutes,” where this foreign life is practiced - at the
crossroads of disciplines, systems, and styles - this invitation to reach
beyond oneself, through and beyond groups and communities, in the only movement
where excess threatens and where the unknown surfaces: wasn’t that the overture and the range of May
‘68, in the musical sense of the terms? “Sexual liberation,” “feast,”
Anarchist-Trotskyist-Maoist-Marxist-Situationist slogans became, in this spirit
and in their turn, “cobblestones” among others. Borne by the passions of Time
that found body and meaning in France and in French. And I was telling myself:
“Nowhere is one more a foreigner than in France, and yet nowhere is one better
off as a foreigner than in France."
students, were not very numerous - Germans, English people, Italians,
Americans, South Americans, and a few from Eastern Europe – attending the
structuralist and post-structuralist seminars of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland
Barthes, Lucien Goldmann, Émile Benveniste. But we soon spotted each other –
immediate complicities that have lived on – risky adventurers of globalization,
which was unpredictable at the time.
When we mention the “context”
of May ‘68, we all too often forget this intellectual and cosmopolitan
effervescence, which was already rattling universities in France, more, it
seems to me, than elsewhere: it was part of the movement’s passionate
foundations, it chants them, questions them, and moves beyond them just as
readily. To formulate it in the language of The Revolution, made us present in
1789, at the Commune, and before Robespierre, Saint-Just, and Gavroche. And to
those who appeared to be their replicas in the twentieth century. Trotsky, Che
Guevara, and Mao were becoming role models for some. For others, these names
were only bridges in the international push from the unknown to the open.
President Mao’s calligraphy would lead me to take Chinese courses at Paris-VII
until I received my licence, and then
to write a book on Chinese women and Chinese feminism when I returned from my
trip to China.
Was I losing my Bulgarian as I
wrote my semiology-semanalysis essays in French, in the company of Saussure,
Hegel, or Dostoevsky according to Russian post-formalist Mikhail Bakhtin? - I
saw my pen-holding hand as already dead there in my maternal idiom, while I embarked here, improbable resurrection ... Was
it, as a stand-in for this country that had adopted me and vivified me, the
presence of another France that repressed its crimes even more than its genius?
Which meant to me, oh subtly but implacably, that I would always remain a
“foreigner”? And that the youth was shaking up, challenging its elders,
authorities of all kinds, and the “police state” itself, with the fiery
violence of revolutionary myth – thence fossilized in conventionality and
systemic routines, after being distorted, since the Terror and the guillotine,
into compromises, collaborations, colonizations ...
The destructiveness struck me.
Beneath the festivities: the carnival staging in the orgies of Eros at the
Odéon was giving birth to a Thanatos that those “in the seat of Power” denied
or distorted. A desire for renewal, which the young woman discovered in herself
and in current events, was brought back to me imbued with an irrefutable
violence, intrinsic to desire itself, and which Freud (whom I was beginning to
read) named: the “death drive.”
This spawning of the negative,
this work of death, I had rubbed shoulders with them in the history of
philosophy and literature and in a new way among the writers of my generation,
around Tel Quel, in particular in L'Intermédiaire (1963) or L’Écriture et l’expérience des limites (1968) by Sollers. To elucidate it with psychoanalysis and writing made me
cross the wave of May ‘68 without being an activist. The person I was who
understood and questioned became a psychoanalyst, for whom a desire for freedom
is borne as a desire for death, a death wish. On this condition only, “I” can
continue to seek “me,” to find “you” so that “we” can live and transmit in the
openness of time.
Thus I experienced
the explosion of May '68 as a samurai experience, like a certain Yamamoto, who, between the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, thought that only death could compel us to act. This
professional warrior knew how to decapitate; and yet, though faithful to the
rituals of his art, he would not kill himself. His life ended peacefully
writing haikus, short poems. I titled
my novel about the storm of ‘68 The
Samurai. Olga (Julia), Hervé (Philippe), and their friends from Maintenant (Tel Quel) are surrounded by
“masters of thought” of the times: Arnaud Bréal (Barthes), Maurice Lauzun
(Lacan), Strich-Meyer (Levi-Strauss), Wurst (Althusser), Sterner (Foucault),
Edelman (Goldmann), Benserade (Benveniste), who explore the meaning of words,
symptoms and dreams, texts, ravings and infamies, love and madness. To deliver
their own, provocative, smooth, or insane lives to the languages they have
built: to interpretation.
It would be possible for me to
write mine later, only after my father's death and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Meanwhile, my samurai, more or less
aware of their death drives, who “wanted the impossible, that is, the real,”
did not kill anyone (Wurtz's murderous delirium aside...). The Red Brigades
raged in Germany and Italy. I like to believe that the anxiety of thinking and
writing, which accompanied drunkenness, has greatly contributed to diverting us
from violent criminal acts of indignation. To open the way to the endless
demystification of any hold, including that of enjoying to death.
The Imagination in Power
And what about the feminine, in this alchemy of passions?
“We are nothing, let us be
everything,” claimed L'Internationale.
“I'm alone, they're everyone,” corrected Dostoyevsky in Notes from the Underground. In May ‘68, the ground had reached the
surface. One could caulk one’s loneliness with celebratory slogans; explode it
into chaos. Neither one, I was alone with everyone. I examined this vital dynamism that allows a person to reveal herself
to herself through others, and I tried to implement this “inner touching,” this
location par excellence of the imagination.
Great Game, for real. Infantile play, teenage prank, pure poetry? Generous,
spent thought, rather, that does not spread seriousness in tears but laughs at.
And bets on ... infinity. Absent, unfindable.
Since I had to defend my
thesis in Bulgaria, I also first attended Roland Barthes’ seminar, and from my
first months in Paris, Lucien Goldmann's seminar, with a great deal of
With a reputation for establishing an
obviously dialectical relationship between fashionable structuralism and
Hegel's philosophy, which is the foundation of Marxist ideology to which I
would return to re-enter the Institute for Literature in Sofia, Goldmann's
teachings seemed to offer a necessary pathway. Highly prized by foreign
students open to new and therefore progressive ideas and with whom I had bonded
– friendships that last to this day ... it was with Lucien Goldmann that I
enrolled at the École Pratique des Hautes
Études (EPHE), to do my thesis whose theme was to evolve: to be not on the nouveau roman, but as already mentioned,
on the origins of the novel before
Rabelais, with Antoine de La Sale (1385-1461).
Goldmann's thought, his foray
into the world of Pascal, his reinterpretation of Hegel in light of Georg
Lukács, the famous Hungarian philosopher and innovator of Marxism, were closer
to my philosophical training in Bulgaria; his familiarity as a Romanian Jew,
being both fraternal and paternal, in contrast to the usual reserved style of
professors, seduced me just as much. Yet it was Barthes's structuralism,
extending Russian formalism, which was indispensable for me to illuminate the
formality of language and the specificities of literary genres. A rethinking of
these two approaches seemed to me necessary: history and structure.
This was my first, academic, and unfinished sketch of a structural and
historical approach, which takes into account the internal logic of narration
and its historical context as well as its cultural context (courtly poetry,
carnival, religious, and scholarly chronicles). I presented it as a
postgraduate thesis, as intended through my scholarship, as I say, with Lucien
Goldmann as my chair. I defended it in the whirlwind of May ‘68, despite the
fact that universities were shut down and with special consideration of my
status as a foreigner.
In the spirit of the times,
first names were customary; Lucien, who asked students to use the familiar tu-form as he did, broke the
conventional rituals of thesis defenses and said, before any discussion, that
the doctoral committee was going to award me the title of docteur ès lettres, with my dissertation as evidence. For his part,
he would be satisfied to ask a single question: “What do you think of Gaudí?
and would rather open a discussion on substance: “Why give so much importance
to psychoanalysis at the expense of Marxism? Is sex more important than our
stomachs?” I am quoting from memory. AND THEN ADDED A FUNNY QUESTION: WHAT DO
YOU THINK OF GAUDÍ?
He was contrasting
materialism ("the stomach") with psychosexual determinations and
structures inherent in the discourse and gender in colorful terms. Regardless,
these words from my thesis director made me livid. Luckily, I was just back
from a trip to Barcelona, and I had seen the Catalan artist’s incredible
buildings, whose baroque style is not without reminding us of the current
passion for independence, but this other Catalan story did not interest me very
much at that moment. That said, and in the same iconoclastic spirit of my
director, I replied that Gaudí’s dream profusion had nothing in common with the
sober polyphony of Petit Jehan de Saintré;
and that we were here to talk about the carnivalesque in the novel, not in
architecture. And I gave myself up to a real parricidal act, calling Professor
Goldmann a “Marxist moth ball,” who was “overwhelmed by History,” understood
nothing about the Freudian revolution, wanted to impose on us his repression,
and so on. Lucien's eyes blurred with tears; we barely heard the committee
members’ praises. At the end of my Defense, my rapporteur refused to shake my hand when, having discussed my case,
they awarded me the title of doctor with honors. Despite his wife Annie’s
wisdom, who tried in vain to quiet down the psychodrama, Goldmann remained
deeply upset, and I was ashamed. This quarrel did not prevent him from
nominating me for the position he later freed up at the Free University of
Brussels, an honor that Jacques Leenhardt took on with skills far superior to
In hindsight, I find that the
old Marxist Pascal-scholar was not mistaken in pointing to the burlesque forms
that were already exploding libertarian ideology, before hyperconnected finance
exacerbated them today at a time when post-truth politics and “accelerated
immobility,” shape the depersonalization of internet users eager for the
monstrous. From within my solitude-among-everyone, I have kept the conviction
that singularity is shareable. This does not make me an optimist in the age of
permanent urgency and frantic petrifaction, only an energetic pessimist. It is
our “inner touch”—our sense of being alive--that has become the “Archimedean
Point” that could open up new times and spaces adjacent to identities, to
communities, to Big Data, to beliefs and ideologies, including feminist
After the suffragettes' claim
to political rights, after the ontological equality of women with men
proclaimed by Simone de Beauvoir’s universalism,
the explosion of May ‘68 gave birth to a third feminism in search of difference between the sexes and
gender-specific feminine creativity on the part of women both in sexual life
and in the full range of social practices, from politics to writing.
tendencies of all of these militant movements to ignore the fact that freedom
is conjugated in the singular and to lock all women (like all the bourgeois, all the proletarians, the entire third world, all gays, etc.) into a set of demands as relentless as they are
desperate, it is to the uniqueness of each human being that I have addressed
myself, most recently, to feminine genius.
Through life according to Hannah
Arendt, madness according to Melanie
Klein and words according to Colette.
For feminine emancipation not
to sink into a war of the sexes, but favor this exception specific to the human
species, unique among all the living, in which each individual invents one’s
sex by reconstructing one’s psychic bisexuality relying on the infinity of the
world. For such is the genius of which each individual is capable, on the condition of putting
into question one’s thought, one’s language, one’s time, and any identity
Maternal passion is part of
that “genius” thus understood, and Olga in The
Samurai experiences it. Ready to conjure the death drive to give meaning to
life and life to meaning.
To Enjoy Without Chains
“Without” – really? The slogan was absurd. It is by crossing limits,
laws, and authorities that desire and pleasure happen, by overcoming obstacles. Through fascination and rejection, by
cracking and tearing. Incommensurable adjustment between the forces of life and
death – ultimate freedom: “the body takes its own pleasure” (Lacan said).
The social body pushes
ecstatic pleasure away into its heretical, mystical, erotic, aesthetic scenes.
When, on the contrary, the May ‘68 surge provoked politics by claiming the “body
that takes its pleasure” as a right of every man and of every woman, at first
the social body saw in it nothing but spoiled children and smug nihilism.
Fanatics themselves were caught in their roles, which could only fail. Yet,
borne by youth and perhaps for the first time in history so clearly, the
movement was not making a claim against one social setting in favor of another,
but was a pleasure-thrust against the social pact itself. Neither social nor
even just societal, the revolt revealed a universal
and irrepressible anthropological experience that threatens the sleep of
civilizations. But also starts mutations ... later or never.
The social body, sure of its Trente Glorieuses and proud of it
(although the growth curve would have begun to decline and that of unemployment
to climb), did not want to, could not hear this state of emergency of life and
this pleasure, which was emerging among those enraged against consumer society
and its managers who were conflated into “syndicalist-communist-fascists” and
who are not done disappearing, by the way ... Then society undertook reforms,
to improve itself.
In the accelerated
history that has since taken place, the “body that takes pleasure” reminds us
intermittently of its “impossible realness” and searches for respite through
new languages, writings, and theories, debates, restructuring of political
parties, institutions ... A “new
society;” women's rights to the agenda of governments; the left in power; the
fall of the Berlin Wall; the society of the spectacle inflating consumer
society; the digital era; gay marriage; the holy wars; terrorism; security
initiatives... Can one hear these emergency states of life, this
anthropological need? Not really… a little… far from it.
Pleasure remains and will
become the problem of hyperconnected liberalism. The how, which now replaces the why,
and calculus-thought are programming an automated humanity on its way to
transhumanism. Today, the isolation of geeks distills their anxieties into
liquid anxiety; the streaming of tweets flees suffering flesh; and the virtual transparency of each man, of
each woman, of everything and for everyone is settling in: the new opium of a
digitized population. The body that takes
its pleasure and the impossible of May ‘68, have they been absorbed? They aren’t even entering into the
accounting of our impatient global religion, which most often condemns them.
But such denial does not digest pleasure: it can only incubate it in order to
pervert and criminalize it into sexist and sexual outrages, into pornography
and mass killings, into drug addiction and holy wars, suicide bombers and
Against the current of
cultural industries and their universal marketing, the jolt of May ‘68 is part
of a European culture in motion, able to transmute the drive for life just as
the death drive, creating an inexhaustible and contagious anxiety and feverish
bliss. Invisible? Palpable. This culture inhabits us. It asks and leaves open a
great question mark upon the identities and values that structure the human
adventure. Without sparing the movement itself and the postures it bears. The
future of such a revolt is endless.