Possessions: A Novel

Possessions: A Novel


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This sequel to Kristeva's celebrated allegory The Old Man and the Wolves returns to the corrupt, seaside resort of a mythical town, where the boundaries between East and West, civilization and barbarism, and good and evil are erased.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780231109987
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Publication date: 01/27/1998
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.34(w) x 9.36(h) x 0.85(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Julia Kristeva, internationally known psychoanalyst and critic, is Professor of Linguistics at the University de Paris VII. She has hosted a French television series and is the author of many critically acclaimed books published by Columbia University Press in translation, including Time and Sense: Proust and the Experience of Literature and New Maladies of the Soul.

Read an Excerpt


Gloria was lying in a pool of blood with her head cut off. The ivory satin evening dress, the rounded arms, the long manicured hands, the Cartier watch, the diamond on the ring finger of the left hand, the sun-tanned legs, the shoes matching the dress--no doubt about it, that was Gloria. There was nothing missing except the head. "My sexual organ," as she laughingly used to call it, referring to the cerebral pleasure she got out of her work as a translator and the equally intense pain she suffered from her headaches. Sometimes she'd amend the description and call her head "the tool of her trade." And now here she was, bereft of her organ or tool, and so made almost anonymous. But only almost. For, head or no head, Gloria Harrison was easily recognizable. True, her auburn hair and sea-green eyes were no longer there to prove who she was, but the strong fingers, the shapely gymnast's thighs, the slim ankles, and above all the arrogant breasts that she flaunted so openly, even if they had started to sag these last few years, were evidence enough that it was she. And that unmistakable bosom was encased, perfectly as usual, in the bodice of an ivory satin evening dress, on the left side of which spread a crimson stain. It looked like a knife wound.

Nothing is heavier than a dead body. And it weighs even more when the head's missing. A face--whether peaceful, purple, or distorted by death--gives meaning to a corpse and so makes it lighter. Eyes, even if they're dull, staring, or protruding; lips, even if they're twisted, bloodstained, or swollen; hair, even if it's torn out, plastered down, or disheveled--all necessarily convey what we suppose to be the expression of death. But without eyes or mouth, head or hair, a corpse is no more than a hunk of butcher's meat. Its once erotic contours, pinned down implacably by gravity and lacking the only means that could have given acephalic distress a voice, are reduced to mere pragmatic pointlessness. Deprived of a death mask's baleful exuberance, the dead are dead twice over. It's not that the victim has lost his or her humanity or even personality; on the contrary, humanity and personality both survive, minutely present even in the headless trunk, the crooked limbs, the frantic disarray of the body. But the madness that is the mark of what is human, and that is revealed in the face, becomes literally invisible when that vital clue is missing. A decapitated corpse is a substance that has thrown off its own consubstantial insanity. Or rather retracted that quintessence into an anatomical and visceral landscape hitherto concealed by clothing, which is a continuation of the face. Yet here, either because of or despite all this, the cropped neck and the bleeding hole within it were evidence that a genuinely, if horribly, human act had been committed--an act inspired by dementia in another human being very similar to the one whose canceled flesh now lay before me so cruelly shorn of the signs of its own insanity that it presented a woefully inadequate idea of the human condition. In short, all that remained of Gloria was a motionless heap lying on the ground, bereft through some mysterious catastrophe even of the expression of terror she must have worn as she saw a deed of madness about to be performed on her by one of her fellowmen. A deed all the more human because it was anonymous and therefore universal. As you can see, I was completely baffled.

"And of course nobody's seen the head!"

The grumble came from Northrop Rilsky, who always expressed himself in platitudes. But he failed to attract my attention.

A decollation--that's what it was: the word's at once broad and precise. There are natural examples of the phenomenon. Dione and Aphrodite, both beloved by Phidias, both lost their heads, though they did so when they left the pediment of the Parthenon for the cavernous recesses of the British Museum. I prefer them to the Winged Victory of Samothrace, another decapitee: she'll never fly away from the Louvre. How could she, without a head? Anyway, that particular beauty richly deserves both the place she has landed in and her punishment; she's so ardent and self-important--quite different from Gloria. But those now headless mistresses from the past appeal to my imagination; they don't move me. Their mutilation, at the hands of History, was relatively bloodless. Premeditated violence is the prerogative of human beings. Doomed to be ruled by time--or at least so they think--they do their best to abolish it, and often they do so through hatred, which belongs not to time but to desire. Or to revulsion, its shameful obverse. Disgust and passion can cut short hours of happiness: you have to be out of time to scheme someone out of life.

"What a lousy setup, boss! I've never seen anything like it in all my goddam days!"

The chief of police and his assistant had drawn up outside the gate in a black unmarked car, its ceiling light switched on. The garden was full of cops, but as yet no one had alerted my colleagues, the press. I loathe that mob with their notebooks and tape recorders, drawn like flies to wounds and blood, so to avoid being taken for another salacious reporter I mingled with the medics and the forensic experts. All too soon the dazzle of TV projectors would join the red and blue flashes pulsating from the patrol cars, and poor old Gloria would become a media star. Served up on the news by way of dessert; for a few seconds, perhaps a minute or two. For a decapitation you can hardly do less. Was it the work of a serial killer? A crime of passion? I was there to try to solve that bizarre problem, a task clearly beyond the scope of the worthy Rilsky.

Amid all the hassle that follows a crime, a sensitive soul like me likes to pause for thought. For two thousand years the gory neck of St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner, has been advancing toward us from the shores of the Dead Sea. The preparer of the way of the Lord is wearing a camel-hair tunic and carrying a lamb that bears a cross. He himself holds another cross made of reeds--and sometimes too his own severed head. He was arrested by Herod but was really destroyed through the machinations of Herod's wife, Herodias, who when her daughter, Salome, had pleased the king with her lascivious dancing told the girl to ask for the prophet's head on a charger as a reward. Centuries later Mallarme, before his own life came, so to speak, to a glottal stop, took pleasure in--as he put it in an elliptic and prophetic pun--imagining an end to his "former quarrel with the corporeal" that would reenact John the Baptist's fate in his own body. Then there was the master of mosaic in Venice, delighting in his work as he illustrated the same story in the baptistery at St. Mark's, using the pallid gilt tones so apt for severed Byzantine heads. He developed the Gospel magic further by showing the saint putting his head in an urn with his own hands, while further on in the same strip cartoon Salome puts the jar on her head to perform a tete-a-tete dance that will remain unique forever, unrivaled by even the steamiest cheek-to-cheek.

Venice reminds me of Tiepolo in Bergamo, depicting the saint's gaping neck like an overturned pitcher spilling a flood of red paint at which the bystanders pretend to be terrified. Not to mention Caravaggio! Or Leonardo da Vinci! Or Raphael!

Painters' eyes, whether like pitch-dark silk, or green with flecks of ice, or misty, fierce, and brown, or a frankly timorous blue, are, unlike most people's eyes, covered with a sensitive skin made up of receptive dots like tiny satellite dishes. Emanations from external objects or other living beings converge on the dots' damp surfaces, as do pulsations of sound, touch, smell, and biological cataclysms of all kinds coming from within the orb itself. And the painter's eye transmutes all these minute, chaotic stimuli into little visual correlatives. It is at once mouth, skin, ear, penis, vagina, anus, throat, and all the rest: for a painter's eye covers first the five senses, then the incalculable rest of the body, with a thin film that makes visible what cannot be seen. A moral wound, for example, or a dagger blow to the heart, or a breath or a hope cut short, become, through the luminous membrane of the artist's slightly narrowed or boldly staring eye, a tempest of red paint, a shattered face, an unnaturally long limb, or better still one that has been lopped off. And because it transforms sensation into spectacle, the felt into the seen, the painter's eye doesn't merely reach but flies swift as an arrow to the invisible heart of the spectacle of murder--murder of a man or a woman. It is through a kind of hypersensitivity that the greatest artists have a taste for anatomy and butchery. Gloria's own sea-green eyes, flecked with black and narrowed shortsightedly, used to shine with the tension characteristic of painters or great readers. And there, then, standing by her dead body, I could easily imagine she might have seen herself as one of them would have felt, then seen her: as a challenging headless shape, perhaps by Caravaggio.

How the choleric Caravaggio likes lighting up his theatrical faces a giorno! To say he loves severed heads is putting it mildly; he adores them, worships them. He deserves a prize for gruesomeness with his series of waxwork horrors: heroic Judith recoiling from a Holofernes whose gaping maw emits a skein of stiff red wool; Isaac, innocent as Bluebeard, shrieking in the grip of an Abraham deaf and blind to the finger of the Angel as it points in vain to the providential ram. And though the melancholy head of his Baptist, beginning to lose its freshness as it lies there on the salver, may leave Salome cold, it still strikes terror into the artless slave girl clutching at the holy man's locks. Nor does the vagabond Caravaggio, when depicting dread Goliath's head in David's dismayed hands, shrink from giving the giant his own features, modeled on a criminal's mask hired from the commedia del-l'arte's prop department.

The only exception to such antics is the beheading of St. John in Malta. I breathe again: the killing itself occupies only the left half of the huge picture, while the shadowy right holds the spectators--you and me--imprisoned behind the bars of their curiosity. And as the executioner turns to show off his manly torso, and the blood of the Baptist, his body limp, is transfused into the painter himself, who has seen fit to write his name in the crimson stream--whose head are you really cutting off, Signor Caravaggio?--an old peasant woman stops her ears. But a decapitation is meant to be heard, not seen! All painting ought to be heard. But how?

A decapitation marks the limit of the visible. The show is over, ladies and gentlemen, move along, please! There's nothing to see! Open your ears instead, if they're not too sensitive. The deepest depths of horror can't be seen, though perhaps they may be heard. Put away the palettes? Hear, hear!

In a word, there's nothing like a good beheading for showing the bad taste of an artist fretting over his impotence, or perhaps over the impotence of art. Rodin is an exception of course. His Walking Man, with both hands over his sex organs, is a supreme example of how to lose one's head--the opposite of The Thinker. I make another exception of Degas, a sculptor in love with the bosoms of his dancers, who after the show have discarded their heads as unnecessary. It's a well-known fact that it's perfectly possible for a man to walk and a dancer to do her tricks without a head.

Right. Despite the similarities between the Santa Varvara carnage in its luxurious setting and the famous images jostling in my mind to try to shelter me from the horror before my eyes, I'm doing my best to keep a cool head. The present situation is more urgent than ever. So I concentrate on the differences.

John the Baptist was a saint, and a man, and he began the Christian era before Jesus Christ himself, having baptized him in the waters of the Jordan. All the more reason for understanding, though of course not excusing, the pleasure Herodias and the rest derived from the episode. But Gloria was a woman. Not a "mere" or "poor" woman, because she was wealthy, or rather her family was. But all the same she was just a woman, a translator living in Santa Varvara. Easier said than done, for what's the point of translating when no one (except computers) writes any more, and no one reads any more (except women alone at the seashore, and there aren't all that many of them)? Aggravating circumstances, no doubt, but not enough to make a modern Herod, Herodias, or Salome commit the crime of decapitation, an act that mingles sophistication with a kind of crude enjoyment. A gross, low pleasure, with no conceivable future. I can't imagine any ambition that could have been punished, let alone furthered, by such a vile crime. All it did was present poor old Captain Rilsky with a first-class headache!

I admit my pictorial reminiscences might strike some readers as literary and irrelevant, perhaps to the point of obscenity. But what use is art if it can't help us look death in the face? My purpose in remembering museum encounters with painters and sculptors is to be able to draw on them when I'm confronted with macabre experiences. Such ordeals aren't all that rare in Santa Varvara, and here more than anywhere I need art to help me see my way, to retain my common sense, and, if you'll forgive the expression, to keep my head.

For the present just one thing is sure: It is Gloria Harrison. No one has expressed the slightest doubt about the identity of the corpse, with or without its head. Poor Gloria, whom life humiliated so much and who was proud only of her head--according to what she herself said, ironically but with a certain amount of reason. The black humor of destiny willed that at the fatal moment she should be deprived of her ultimate fetish and depart bereft of any consolation.

"No head of course!"

Rilsky repeated his irrelevant "of course." I still wouldn't look at him. For my mind, bent on trying to recover from the sight of all that carnage, went on passing in review other images, images closer in time and without allusion to God, that had haunted my imagination when I was a child. Gloria's bloody torso somehow summoned up the guillotine: it too aimed at the head, though it went in for mass production. Terror, Virtue and Terror, Concord! "I shall drink the cup to the dregs." "Do your duty." "One moment more, Monsieur the executioner!" Men's heads, women's heads, heads noble and heads less noble, all whipped off by the blade and sent rolling in the sawdust: Madame Roland, Charlotte Corday, to mention but a few. You'd rather not think about it? Personally, I do think about it. The operator of the guillotine is inevitably some efficient male. The zealous professor of anatomy who perfected the sinister blade insisted until he died on his good intentions. He merely wanted to shorten the suffering of the victims. But the explanation is so reasonable it's hard to believe in it. I find this foretaste of modern times particularly amusing. And I can't understand the women who according to Stendhal were so besotted with their executed lovers that they did their pious best to reclaim their severed heads: one stole the poll of the marquis de La Mole in the sixteenth century, while Stendhal's own Mathilde de La Mole, her descendant in The Red and the Black, caressed that of Julien Sorel. It seems a shrink recently caused a stir at a symposium by claiming that one out of every ten dreams dreamed by women has to do with a severed head; one of his female patients, he said, always dreams she's carrying one through a landscape of ruins as if it were a baby. An illustration of the extremity of desire, perhaps!. But I shouldn't like to be the head on that analyst's shoulders. Are we supposed to believe that women, eternal mourners over castrated corpses, can feel passion only for a guilty (sic) phallus? Maybe. I see what he means. But I must admit I doubt it. Whether seen from the point of view of the cutter or the cut, the guillotine and all that goes with it is foreign to feminine sensibility as I see it. My modesty or, if you prefer, my repression can't go along with it. The topped and gory remains of Gloria Harrison, lying at my feet exposed to the impotent curiosity of the police captain of Santa Varvara, shocked as much as it intrigued me. And try as I might to call painters and sculptors, the Terror and '93 to the rescue, such cultural digressions solved strictly nothing.

Did I hate the monster who'd killed Gloria? Of course. What other answer could there be to the appalling question posed by that act? On the fear emanating from it I had to heap all the hates deserved by meanness, pettiness, slander, jealousy, all kinds of hypocrisy; the treachery of friends, lovers, husbands, and wives; blows below the belt, sly blows, glancing blows, stabs in the back; denunciation, sabotage, censoriousness, malicious criticism, gossip; disparagement, rivalry, humiliation; wrecked passions, children thwarted, loves made impossible. I had to shatter at last the decency that reduced my pain to passive pride and made me what I was, a lonely hunter, a traveler, a journalist.

Hatred works in silence or expresses itself in short, breathless sentences: slang and a line of dots. I knew all about it; I'd experienced it, I felt it so much I'd have liked to be nothing but hate. But in me it was only partial. In me it was mingled with an inexplicable tolerance that loosened hatred's grip and made my loathing veer toward sardonic laughter. In the same way some detective story writers rub your nose in horror while adopting a tone that's gruff, naive, and even dim, as if to apologize for being much more intelligent than the characters, with their paltry tricks, who represent knowledge and the law. Perhaps too to booby-trap the supposed intelligence of the sophisticated reader, condescending to amuse himself with a form of literature often regarded as mindless and stupid. Like such writers I too indulged in hatred, only under cover of the mockery supposed to be appropriate to minor accidents and petty crime as well as to hatred and to those, including myself, who harbor it. This ambiguous and, I assure you, unconscious attitude unfortunately watered down my physical perception of Gloria's murder and turned it into a party piece for which I was the only audience. At the same time it had the great advantage of placing me at a distance from what had happened and enabling me to see it more clearly. A satisfactory hatred is bound to blind you to some extent; only irony may occasionally lead to something worthwhile. Meanwhile people took fingerprints, put hairs and buttons and other bits and pieces away in bottles or plastic envelopes, took photos and videos, were indignant, looked grave, put on professional airs. All this under the gratified and competent eye of Captain Rilsky, though at the same time he was very put out. He took off his glasses with a touch of guile and much solemnity.

"Clues aren't always false--only irrelevant," I remarked cheekily, but with some circumspection.

"Of course," said Rilsky in his musical voice, glad to have got my attention at last; he was basically a humanist. Poor Gloria!

I knew some humanists in Paris. They told me one ought to fight against social "exclusion" and that the object of life, now the Wall was down, was "assimilation." They weren't very sure into what, but they were certain that one had to "assimilate" rather than "exclude." They uttered the word exclusion with a mixture of surprise and complacency that lent their love of mankind a force at once gauche and menacing. Rilsky, for his part, was rather cynical. In Santa Varvara the Mafia operated in broad daylight, and he couldn't have cared less about people suffering from too much exclusion or not enough assimilation. Music contained the only beauty he believed in, and then only if it could be shared. "Music ought to be listened to together," he always told me. He regarded painting as a slow art and tried to get me to share the ecstasies he experienced at concerts in between investigations into low-down crimes. As a postmodern humanist, believing everything has its price, he thought the sublimity of Bach amply compensated for a bunch of wretches shedding a few pints of blood. "A necessary counterpoint, human nature being what it is," he'd conclude with some satisfaction between concerts, while busy flushing out some murderers. He rightly regarded himself as an aesthete who was also a lucid yet persevering humanist.

Watching him go about his work I couldn't help reflecting, without undue indulgence but not without some pity, on what a mess Gloria's life had been. Like that of so many women, to put it mildly! Not to put it mildly would be another story. I knew she was hated, a foreigner, almost a writer, and the heroine of some public successes: she had distinguished herself as the translator of Faulkner into Santavarvaran and then fallen back on being the official translator of Philip Roth. Quite a visible life, in short, of the kind that doesn't attract much sympathy in Santa Varvara--or anywhere else, for that matter. Slander, treachery, and gossip were no news to me, and I knew they'd stopped surprising Gloria long ago. I'd even have admitted, despite the humanity mistakenly attributed to human beings, to women, and sometimes to journalists, that the dagger plunged into her chest and then used to cut off her head didn't strike me as far-fetched or even uncalled-for. The deed, carried out, as the forensic expert would demonstrate, by means of a knife with a sharpened blade and point, might well be the natural result of the feelings of rejection that Gloria always caused, in this case in someone who was mentally unstable. The bottle of Rohypnol found lying beside the glass of champagne suggested she was under the influence of drugs at the time of the murder. Was this really true? The medical tests would soon throw light on the matter. But what dark passion, coursing through the veins of what psychopath, could have guided the hand that cut away with such delicate skill the flesh of the neck, the larynx, and the spine and left the smooth wide stream, the red mirror, the dreadful crimson edge outlining the corpse where the head should have been? That was where the mystery lay, at least as far as I, Stephanie Delacour, was concerned, having just arrived yet again in this cursed country. Moreover I'd had dinner at Gloria's house only two days before. And when I'd kissed her good-bye at the door at thirty-five minutes past midnight on Sunday, October 16, she'd still been quite all there.

Who? Who could it be?

Nothing I knew of Gloria suggested any such monstrous technician hovering in the background. That left the possibilities of a motiveless crime, a sex maniac, or one of the innumerable kinds of delectation discussed in the books on psychiatry that Rilsky knew like the back of his hand--and that I was ready to bet he'd secretly consulted again in his office before setting out to confront the enemy. Why that butchery, that pointless ferocity? For I knew enough to realize Gloria had been dead before she was decapitated. The pool of blood was relatively small, the head nowhere to be seen. Who had done this, between 12:35 A.M. on the night when the blue dark bathed my face as I left after the dinner party, Gloria's cheek just brushing mine ("I'll phone you." "Thanks for a lovely evening!"), between then and five past ten today? Today, Monday, October 17, when I'd had the pleasure of being woken up by Captain Rilsky's typical music-lover's voice, telling me how glad he was our paths had crossed once more, and on a case where I was lucky enough to be an important witness. Our shared admiration for Yehudi Menuhin naturally prevented Rilsky from putting it any more strongly for the moment, but from the strictly legal point of view, Ms. Delacour must admit it was a very odd situation, and the last people to have seen the victim alive were always ipso facto suspect. In short, it was between those two points in time that a passion, a madness, or a deranged artist had gone to work.

As Rilsky spoke I thought I could hear the third movement of Bach's Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra in the background: the violins, followed by the other instruments, climbed dizzy heights; the allegro, repeated, swelled up until the strings formed a grid across the sun itself, which exploded in a shower of crystal particles. I was right: when Northrop wasn't actually on the scene of a crime, his staple diet was music.

"See you there in an hour."

As usual I had to interrupt him. Then I showered and took a taxi to the house I'd left only thirty-six hours earlier. Assailed by a reek of salt, ozone, and seaweed, persecuted by dusty flies and bees drunk on privet, I felt as if all the sultry intrigues and criminal passions in Santa Varvara were targeted on me.

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