Agent Sabina: On the abjection of Julia Kristeva

Julia Kristeva’s recently released secret service files reveal a similar persona to that which comes through her writing: unruly, witty, courageous. And yet Kristeva is denying the allegations. Is it something other than the truth that she fears?

‘On the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath,
the unintelligible truth showing through’

Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)

‘At the end of March, the Bulgarian lustration commission revealed that Julia Kristeva – the widely admired French-Bulgarian intellectual – worked for the Bulgarian intelligence service in the 1970s. The personal and the operational dossiers on Kristeva, under the code name ‘Sabina’, have been made public and make for a fascinating read. So far, it is impossible to discern fiction from fact.

The story that stands beyond dispute is this: in 1965, at the age of twenty-four, the bright, beautiful and poor Julia Kristeva comes to Paris on a doctoral scholarship of the French government. She joins the influential circle of thinkers around the avant-garde literary magazine Tel Quel (among whose members are Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida). Soon, the French left intellectual elite, and later the American liberal elite, is infatuated with Kristeva. Her highly original work as a literary theorist, semiotician and psychoanalyst makes her one of the most prominent intellectuals of the time, just short of a cult figure.

Experts deem the ‘spy files’ to be authentic but lacking in damning evidence. Yet, Kristeva has vehemently denied any collaboration with the Bulgarian secret service. She even rejects the generous interpretation, namely that she was indeed in contact with the Bulgarian secret service, but without knowing that she was an agent. However, she insists that the files are a complete fabrication, describing the accusations as ‘grotesque’, ‘false’ and ‘defamatory’. She sees her life’s work to have been destroyed and considers herself the victim of a conspiracy. This is indeed possible: it is well-known that officials of the communist secret service scored points by declaring recruitments, obtained professional prestige from ‘managing collaborators’, and surely enjoyed their trips to Paris.

Bulgaria’s lustration process was launched shortly after the collapse of the regime in 1989–1990 and is still unfolding. Julia Kristeva was checked because she was being considered for the editorial board of the reputable Bulgarian literary magazine Literaturen Vestnik. According to the lustration law, every journalist born before 1976 is to be subject to such a check. Did someone deliberately trigger the lustration procedure against Kristeva to bring to light a dossier that had been maliciously fabricated fifty years ago? There is no way to establish the veracity of this story.

The evidence of the collaboration is scarce. Among the 300 pages of reports about alleged meetings between Kristeva and secret service officers, there is a single item in her handwriting – a postcard addressed to the Deputy Chief of Consuls Lukha Draganov, with the words: ‘I am in Belgium just for a holiday’. What if there is some truth to the allegations? What unintelligible truth might show through the intelligible lies of the secret service? In this scenario, three questions arise: What motivated her to collaborate? How did she go about it? Why is she denying it?

In an interview in Die Zeit on 4 April 2018, Kristeva says: ‘The files make me a person I am not! The person in this file looks nothing like me. This person touches me not, yet scandalizes me.’1

I will try to explore the contrary claim: that the persona that emerges from the Kristeva files – agent Sabina, closely aligns with the persona that comes through Kristeva’s writing, spanning from revolution to melancholy, love, time and disgust. The code name Sabina is also fortunate, since it suggests an allusion to a character of the same name in Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being – thereby helping us make sense of Kristeva as agent Sabina.

Much like her fictional counterpart Sabina (a painter who lives under the totalitarian regime and manages to leave it), Julia Kristeva is a person whose artistic vocation and existence is fundamental to her character. She is a spiritual aristocrat with a loathing for kitsch – be it aesthetic (the cliches of ‘socialist realism’) or ideological (communist doctrine as bastardized Marxism) – perpetually searching for originality and individuality. As a university student in Sofia in the 1960s, under the influence of Mayakovsky and the Soviet formalists (whom the party denounced as ‘bourgeois’ and ‘counter-revolutionary’), Kristeva came to believe that individual liberation and democracy should be achieved through a change in style and language. Kristeva retained this aesthetic and psychoanalytical approach to politics throughout her life, most obviously in her The Sense and Nonsense of Revolt (1996), where she explores the perplexities of rebel culture through the writings of Sartre, Aragon, Barthes and Freud. There is nothing innocent or safe about this project: in the official paper of the Bulgarian Communist Party, she is derided at the time as ‘having sold out to the capitalist hyena’.

Commenting on the allegations, Kristeva is particularly appalled by the fact that the intelligence agency registered her with a number: ‘As if, like a prisoner, a number had been tattooed on my arm!’ Being numbered is the political equivalent of the abject experience of having one’s skin blemished by a scar. As author of Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, her protests are unsurprising.

Julia Kristeva went to France on a French government scholarship and was therefore in no way dependent on the Bulgarian authorities, especially since the late 1960s were a time of ‘democratization’ in Bulgaria. Under such circumstances, Kristeva is nominally free and immune to pressures to snitch. Yet, her family is in Bulgaria: she cannot put them at risk by refusing all contact with the authorities. So she accepts meetings with the secret service, in which she speaks about her work and her travels, and asks various favours, such as the extension of her sister’s passport, or permission for her parents to come and visit her in France.

The picture that emerges from the hefty dossier is of a young woman with remarkable wit and courage. Julia-Sabina is an unruly agent. She refuses to report on other Bulgarians abroad, fails to attend meetings and disobeys instructions about confidentiality, thereby placing the security service officers at risk. Whenever she shows up for meetings she offers her own views on the French Communist party and about France; in July 1976, she predicts that Jimmy Carter would win the US elections (which he did a few months later). When it comes to her main task – to inform on people or groups hostile to Bulgaria – she declares that she has been unable to find out anything specific. In April 1976, her case officer Antonov writes: ‘She obviously wants her parents to come here [to France], but she tries to act in a manner typical of her – to obtain something from us without giving us anything in return.’

Julia-Sabina even has the audacity to threaten the service with a publication in Le Monde exposing their refusal to allow her parents to visit their three month-old grandson. ‘I don’t think we can count on pressuring her about her parents and sister – this could backfire’, writes Antonov. Another agent reports that, ‘It became clear from the questions that she was asking me that she has been influenced by the anti-Soviet propaganda in France, and that despite my reasoned explanations she was not firmly convinced of our just cause.’ The note closing her file sums it up: ‘On 4 May 1973 […] a decision was made to discontinue operative contact with ‘Sabina’ because she is unwilling to work, does not come to the agreed meetings, declines invitations to meetings, and plans to make our connection public.’ The meetings, however, continue and she remains under surveillance; the file grows further. A summary from 1984 states that Kristeva was ‘undisciplined’ and ‘excluded from the collaboration apparatus at the beginning of 1973’. If this is betrayal, who is being betrayed and why?

Kundera’s Sabina’s can help us make sense of this too. Her predilection for betrayal is another of her distinctive features: ‘Betrayal means breaking ranks and going off into the unknown. Sabina knew of nothing more magnificent than going off into the unknown’. Like Sabina, Julia is no stranger to betrayal: first she betrayed the totalitarian regime in Bulgaria by escaping to the culturally liberal France; then she betrayed the unbearable lightness of her being as a Paris intellectual by collaborating with the Bulgarian secret service; finally, and victoriously, she betrayed the agency by feeding them useless information. This is betrayal as perpetual emancipation.

What a remarkable and enchanting character! A perfect example of one of ‘those females who can wreck the infinite’, in Kristeva’s own words – in this case, the infinite and insidious power of totalitarianism.2 It would be a shame if this story turns out to be untrue.

The puzzle remains that Kristeva still denies her existence as agent Sabina. Yet this denial is itself in line with the elaborate theory of the ‘abject’, for which Kristeva is famed. This is a theory ‘of grossness, of confusion, of what we must reject in order to live’. According to Kristeva, the abject is not just what physically repulses (excrement, urine, saliva, tears), but also more broadly ‘what does not respect borders, positions, rules’; ‘what disturbs identity, system, order’; ‘the in-between, the ambiguous, the composite’. We control these disruptions to the integrity and purity of our bodies in order to maintain the boundaries between the self and other, and to be part of the social order.

Being an agent for a totalitarian regime is the ultimate form of the politically abject. Could it be that Julia Kristeva fears our repulsion? To eliminate that risk, all she needs to do is turn the unintelligible lie into an intelligible truth – tell the story herself. The odds are that she will be admired as a person as much she is admired as an intellectual.

Julia Kristeva, interview in Die Zeit, 4 April 2018:

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, New York: 1982, Chapter 8.

Published 20 April 2018
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

© Albena Azmanova



Subscribe to know what’s worth thinking about.

Related Articles

Cover for: The politics of bones

The removal of Potemkin’s remains from St Catherine’s Cathedral in Kherson was not without irony, given the flimsiness of Putin’s version of history. On the meaning of Russia’s macabre new ideology.