Strangers to Ourselves

by Julia Kristeva
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 296

Strangers to Ourselves is a reflection on foreignness and foreigners. It sympathizes with the problems and thoughts of the foreigner as well as those of people who live with foreigners and even with the troublesome discovery of finding the foreigner in oneself. Because Julia Kristeva was born in Bulgaria and settled in France, she herself in some ways reflects the foreigner, and she sympathizes with this point of view. She expresses concern that France is becoming a kaleidoscope of nationalities in which immigrants do not give up their particularities and in which a new homogeneity is not likely or desirable. This book received the Henri Hertz Prize, awarded by the Chancellerie des Universités de Paris for the best book by a faculty member.

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The title of the first chapter, “Toccata and Fugue for the Foreigner,” refers to the idea that a foreigner is never completely at home in a new country even when he or she has been there for a number of years. A musical form, the toccata rushes from here to there, briefly touching on each note. The foreigner is a wanderer who never feels a sense of belonging. Possessed with a driving ambition, the person will take any and all jobs and try to be the best at whatever that may be. The foreigner lives with a sense that those at home have been abandoned, and although one’s mother tongue has been forgotten, there is an awkwardness in speaking the new language. Worst of all, the foreigner feels that no one is listening and no one deeply understands. Kristeva uses an example from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). Knight wanders; he cannot find a home, a partner, or a language. Even his memories are constantly changing.

Ancient Views of Foreigners

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In the remaining chapters of the book, Kristeva traces attitudes toward the foreigner throughout history. The Greek author Aeschylus tells of the Danaides, women of Egypt who fled their native land, became foreigners in Greece, and married Greek men. Thus, Greece is in part built on exogamous relationships. The foreigner in Greece, however, was not a citizen but a suppliant, under the protection of the law.

In Homeric times, the ancient world closed in on itself, and foreigners were greeted with suspicion and hostility. Classical times gave birth to the word “barbarian,” which is believed to have originated with people who were inarticulate in the Greek language and whose efforts to speak sounded like “bla-bla” or “bara-bara” to the Greeks. In the writings of Euripides, the barbarian is already portrayed as an enemy of democracy.

The Stoics had a sense of the cosmopolitan. The king Menander said, “I am a man, and nothing human is foreign to me.” The Stoics believed that all humankind is bound in concentric spheres that include the entire universe, from citizens to the stars. Distinctions faded between Greeks and barbarians, between free persons and slaves, and even between men and women. However, this idea remained a utopian one. Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, wrote a cynical piece in which he imagined a world with no distinct states. There were no marriages, schools, courts, money, or temples, and cannibalism, incest, and prostitution reigned. The Greeks remained a closed society. Even in Alexandria, Greeks married among themselves.

Jews and Christians

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In her next example of attitudes toward foreigners, Kristeva notes that even though the Jewish people think of themselves as chosen by God, chosenness does not mean exclusivity. She cites the example of Ruth, an ancestor of David, who was a Moabite, but who was dedicated to the fulfillment of a divine global design.

Christianity was founded on the principle of hospitality. In accordance with the cosmopolitanism of late Hellenism, Saint Paul preached that Jesus came as a stranger, and the church was to include all people. No distinctions were made between Greek and Jew, slaves and free people, and men and women. Saint Augustine spoke of two cities: Babylon, representing selfishness, and Jerusalem, representing community. The people of God were to be united not by erasing differences but by forgiving them. A whole industry sprang up around the welcoming of foreigners, which gradually turned into hospitality for Christians only. In the late Roman Empire, Rome became concerned with protecting itself from outsiders. Pagans were mistrusted, and heretics became foreigners, even in their own country.

In her fifth chapter, Kristeva pauses in her historical survey to suggest that a foreigner can be defined only in negative terms. A foreigner is one who does not have the same nationality, one who is outside of a social group. She questions whether one is fully human if one is not a citizen. In many countries, the foreigner is excluded from public service, has no right to own property, and is more easily subject to arrest. When one is denied the right to vote, one is reduced to being a passive object, having no control.

Changing Attitudes

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Kristeva next looks at the Renaissance, the era of explorers and discoveries in the New World. She examines Italian writer Dante Alighieri’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), which he wrote while in exile. Deprived of a homeland, Dante imagined a Christian universalism. He envisioned a political monarchy in which small communities would be harmonized within a spiritual design. Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli envisioned a balance between the individual and the state, but he advocated that the state use terror and strength to occupy conquered nations. He had no concern for international justice. French writer François Rabelais wrote of an expedition to China in which water was a symbol for the course of psychic investigation into myth, dream, ideal, wealth, and happiness. English statesman Thomas More’s De Optimo Reipublicae Statu, deque nova Insula Utopia (1516; Utopia, 1551) illustrated a place in which people abhor tyranny, share wealth, abolish private property, and respect culture and religion. French essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne advocated that people respect the strangeness in others because they sometimes find strangeness in themselves. He condemned the forced conversion of the Jews to Christianity and defended other religions and races. In the Renaissance, Kristeva says, a natural human universality was taking shape. Geographical publications increased, atheistic principles were discovered, and the goodness of the “savage” was idealized. Supranational bodies were beginning to be conceived.

During the Enlightenment, attitudes toward the foreigner took a different direction. French political philospher Montesquieu believed that humans would join together naturally, but that government policies should guarantee this. He held a kind of borderless philosophy in which human rights superseded citizen’s rights and higher political systems overshadowed the nation. All people had rights whether or not they were citizens. The freedom of the individual was more important than the unity of society. During the Enlightenment, the “savage” or stranger became the alter ego of the philosopher, the figure onto which one projected one’s inner self.

Kristeva then gives three examples from the Enlightenment. First, in French philosopher Denis Diderot’s Le Neveu de Rameau (1821, 1891; Rameau’s Nephew, 1897), the nephew is the stranger who wants to challenge, invert, shock, and contradict. He is, however, expelled from the gathering because of his outrageousness. The second example is from the writings of Fougeret de Monbron. A cosmopolitan, he said, has no fixed abode, and is nowhere a foreigner. He said that “the universe is a kind of book, of which one has read only the first page when one has seen only one’s country.” His tone, however, is negative and hateful. He can only appreciate his own country because he has seen the incivilities of others. The third example concerns the German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. According to Hegel, because culture is foreign to the natural human body, it forces everyone to take into account what is strange and other. All three of these views take a somewhat ambivalent tone toward the strange, the other. The foreigner is fascinating, but somewhat dangerous and threatening.

The Revolution and Nationalism

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In the last section of chapter 7, Kristeva gives three examples of French attitudes toward foreigners during the French Revolution. In 1790, the National Assembly declared that all foreigners who had lived in France for five years could be naturalized. It also proclaimed that it would never declare war against any people. During the Revolution, however, “foreign agents” were held responsible for losses. In 1793, all foreigners were asked to leave France, and foreign generals were asked to leave the army. Nationalism became paramount. In 1794, a new law forbade any former nobility and foreigners to stay in Paris. The possessions of the English and the Spanish were impounded, and all were excluded from public service.

In contrast, Anacharsis Clootz, who took his name to show his rejection of Christianity and joined the Revolution in 1790, wanted to do away with the idea of “foreign” and ceaselessly proclaimed his cosmopolitan ideas. However, he failed to object when steps were taken against foreigners and when the political winds shifted against cosmopolitanism. He was guillotined in 1793.

Political philosopher Thomas Paine, the son of an English Quaker, violently attacked the aristocracy and monarchy of England. In his Rights of Man (part 1, 1791; part 2, 1792), he spoke of his confidence in humanity and his optimism regarding the French Revolution. While an honorary French citizen living in France, Paine stated that Louis XVI should be imprisoned but not guillotined. Because of his Quaker faith, he opposed the death penalty, and this belief led to his imprisonment when the National Convention of France voted for the death penalty. Paine was saved by U. S. President James Monroe, who declared him a U.S. citizen.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant realized the importance of nations remaining distinct but at the same time working in collaboration, of promoting cosmopolitanism, and of respecting differences. He said that nature separates peoples by language and religion, and therefore only separation and union will guarantee universal peace. French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau expressed the idea that a national community can be tolerable only if it is subservient to the happiness of its members. In the 1800’s, however, nationalism became a political concept, where the supreme good was not the individual but the nation as a whole. German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder said that although all people are brothers and sisters in their origins, they become differentiated on the basis of language and civilization. Therefore, Germany could claim superiority over other nations.

The Stranger Within

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After psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s contributions to philsophical thought, the “strange” lost its pathological aspect. Freud perceived the foreigner as being within each person. One projects onto others what one experiences as dangerous or unpleasant. This results in a loss of boundaries between the self and the other. People all become foreigners to themselves and to each other.

Kristeva’s work, including Strangers to Ourselves, made considerable impact on various areas of study: linguistics, psychoanalysis, political science, philosophy, and art and literary criticism. For Kristeva, in the field of art, human expression of any kind is an attempt to return to the maternal body. Art shows how bodily impulses long for expression and allows people to revisit the realm of the maternal. Feminist authors are particularly interested in this aspect of her philosophy. Although some of Kristeva’s writings concern women, she remains critical of the women’s movement, which she says is negative and reactive and does not take into consideration the complexity of masculine-feminine interactions.


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Additional Reading

Fletcher, John, and Andrew Benjamin, eds. Abjection, Melancholia and Love: The Work of Julia Kristeva. London: Routledge, 1990. Stemming from a 1987 conference at the University of Warwick on the work of Julia Kristeva (which she also attended), this collection of ten explanatory and critical essays deals with a number of her seminal ideas such as the “abject,” the “semiotic chora,” “ primary narcissism,” and adolescence and perversion. The book includes Kristeva’s own article, “The Adolescent Novel.”

Grosz, Elizabeth. Sexual Subversion: Three French Feminists. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1989. This text contains an excellent introductory glossary with some basic terms of postmodern thought, as well as a lucid explanation of several components of Kristeva’s work including the semiotic and the subject. It provides a basic explanation of French feminism as well as additional writings on the work of Luce Irigaray and Michèle Le Doeuff.

Guberman, Ross Mitchell, ed. Julia Kristeva Interviews. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. This diverse collection of twenty-three interviews given by Kristeva covers her intellectual influences, views on socialism and feminism, concepts of avant-garde practice and psychoanalysis, and other issues.

Kim, C. W. Maggie, Susan M. St.Ville, and Susan M. Simonaitis, eds. Transfigurations: Theology and the French Feminists. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1993. Using North American feminism as a foil, this volume of essays introduces characteristic components of leading French feminists, including Kristeva, and the relationship of their thought to the larger context of feminist theology.

Lechte, John. Julia Kristeva. London: Routledge, 1990. Part of a series of books on twentieth century thinkers edited by British scholar Christopher Norris, this text offers a careful reading of Kristeva’s work within the realm of semiotics.

Moi, Toril, ed. The Kristeva Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. This book contains an excellent selection of Kristeva’s work from the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s. The articles are accompanied by brief and insightful explanations that contextualize Kristeva’s work within the larger French intellectual environment.

Oliver, Kelly. Ethics, Politics, and Difference in Julia Kristeva’s Writing. New York: Routledge, 1993. A series of critical essays that generally focus on Kristeva’s works concerning identity within the symbolic and the “ethico-political” subject.

Oliver, Kelly, ed. Reading Kristeva: Unraveling the Double-Bind. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993. A volume that offers myriad ways of interpreting Kristeva’s complex ideas. It provides a succinct summary of many of her notions within the context of those both critical and supportive of her ideas.

Smith, Anna. Julia Kristeva: Readings of Exile and Estrangement. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. An in-depth and accessible reading of Kristeva, this text discusses the concepts of exile and estrangement in relationship to the female intellectual and metaphors of habitation.

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