Kristeva’s ‘Motherhood According to Giovanni Bellini’

Dru Farro

I think maybe the hardest part of getting into Kristeva’s essay ‘Motherhood According to Giovanni Bellini’ is reconstructing the arguments she frequently draws from and takes for granted that we’ll detect. This essay in particular, published in 1975, seems to me to want to take a big stab at Lacan, particularly what Lacan has to say about the infant during the mirror stage (though there is much beef to be had with Christian mythologies as well). Again, since these posts are supposed to be aides-de-comps­, I’ll construct this synopsis with its connections to other readings in mind.

At stake in this reading is the complex situation of the (pregnant) mother along the axes of subject-object and self-other determinations. At the essay’s outset Kristeva writes

within the body, growing as a graft, indomitable, there is an other. And no one is present, within that simultaneously duel and alien space, to signify what is going on. ‘It happens, but I’m not there.’ ‘I cannot realize it, but it goes on.’ Motherhood’s impossible syllogism (237, page numbers refer to the collection Desire in Language).

What Kristeva claims neither science nor religion (nor certain forms of psychoanalysis) can apprehend is the human mother, that which distinguishes her from any reproductive mammal as well as from the cultural-religious symbolisms of the Mother-as-Supreme-Comforter, Mother-as-Always-There, etc. Her claim is that these gestures on the part of biology and religion are essentially methods of avoiding the labour of acknowledging a new limit to primal regression, a space where both biology and culture begin to grasp at straws for justifications of their own foundations. Kristeva claims that the maternal impulse stems from a memory preceding even those of the traumatized (aculterated) infant. ‘How can we ever verbalize this prelinguistic, unrepresentable memory?’ she asks, then notes that

Heraclitus’ flux, Epicurus’ atoms, the whirling dust of cabalic, Arab, and Indian mystics, and the stippled drawings of psychedelics — all seem better metaphors than the theories of Being, the logos, and its laws (239).

Foregoing, then, the strategies of various rationalities Kristeva posits a source of the maternal instinct that consists in the mother’s desire to reunite with the body of her mother, a body that is all the more appealing ‘simply because it lacks a penis’ (ibid.). ‘By giving birth,’ Kristeva writes, ‘the woman enters into contact with her mother; she becomes, she is her own mother; they are the same continuity differentiating itself’ (ibid.). The ideologies of science/culture/religion seem very anxious to domesticate the maternal experience via some sanctioned semiotic that would denude the mother of her asignifiable experiences, essentially covering the experience of the Mother over with a cloak of pre-packaged and acceptable rationalities. This produces, in the mother, a feeling of extreme isolation — an enceinte woman (both pregnant and immured) — an isolation, however, that produces a kind of insight. At this moment of pregnancy ‘alterity becomes nuance, contradiction becomes variant, tension becomes passage, and discharge becomes peace’ (240). This is the space, according to Kristeva, upon which the distinguishing characteristics of identification are based even as identification itself is called most deeply into question. She writes

before founding society in the same stroke as signs and communication, [the (maternal) instinctual drives] are the precondition of the latters existence, as they constitute the living entity within its species, with its needs, its elementary apperceptions and communications, distinguishing between the instinctual drives of life and death. It affects primal repression (ibid.).

The act of giving birth, entailing as it does the split symbolization of the instinctual drive on one hand and the entry into language on the other, approximates, for Kristeva, the practice of art. The so-called biological and cultural impulses are so deeply impressed in the act of giving birth, a sort of festival of drives and symbols, that birth itself comes to be seen as the prototypical act of creation, that act upon which all artistic representation is founded. Kristeva writes,

at the intersection of sign and rhythm, of representation and light, of the symbolic and the semiotic, the artist speaks from a place where she is not, where she knows not. He delineates what, in her, is a body rejoicing (242).

This stance is what compels Kristeva to perform her analysis of Bellini’s work, which she initiates via an opposition to somebody called Da Vinci. She notes Bellini’s consistent emphasis on a separation between mother and infant, ‘the faces of his Madonnas are turned away, intent on something else that draws their gaze to the side, up above, or nowhere in particular, but never centers it in the baby’ (247). This distance resists the narrative tendencies apparent, according to Freud, in Da Vinci’s works and illuminates instead

a shattering, a loss of identity [in the mother], a sweet jubilation where she is not…an infinitesimal division of color and space rhythmically produc[ing] a peculiar, serene joy. To touch the mother would be to possess this presumed jouissance and to make it visible. Who holds this jouissance? The folds of colored surfaces, the juxtaposition of full tones… (247-248).

Kristeva sees Bellini’s work as above all an effort to ‘reach the threshold where maternal jouissance…is arrayed’ (249) by means of, or perhaps as a reflection of, the development of the separation with the child. Kristeva follows this motif in Bellini’s work over the course of nearly 40 years indicating how, in the early paintings, the fascination with the mother’s overwhelming indifference bordering on a kind of melancholic ecstasy is a sign as well of a ‘definite pleasure, unshakable in its intimacy, her cheeks radiating peace [and constituting] a strange modesty’ (254). ‘This split character of the maternal body,’ writes Kristeva, ‘has rarely been so clearly brought forward’ (ibid.). As Bellini’s relationship with this motif develops, complicated perhaps by his own transformations regarding his relationship with his mother and family (biographical details that are, Kristeva admits many times, difficult to obtain or corroborate), the mother’s relation to the child shifts, modulating from an emphasis on peaceful intimacy to one of near hostility (indicated best by the Saõ Paolo Madonna with Child, where the young Jesus appears to be choking his mother). In all of her analysis what Kristeva seems most interested in articulating is the way in which the mother resists figuration and becomes instead a tending toward pure light and color (262), allowing Bellini to ‘approach the ineffable jouissance transcending the mother’ (259). This endeavor takes Bellini late into his career where he seems, according to Kristeva, to suffer a kind of crack, a move away from the asignifiying jouissance of the mother toward depictions of ecstasy in the light of the (paternal) Law. The instructive painting here is ‘The Ecstasy of St. Jerome’, produced ‘as if paternity were necessary in order to relieve the archaic impact of the maternal body on man’ (263).

The ‘split’ experienced by the mother — the loss of the child, her pregnancy as science and religion, the ease with which her position is symbolized, etc. — is never remedied, as Kristeva makes clear in her analysis of one Belinni’s latest works, Venus. Kristeva writes:

The Virgin has come down from her clothed exile in an elsewhere that racked her. But the uncovered woman nevertheless remains split. On the one hand, there is the nude and passably erotic body; on the other, its fundamental entrapment by the mirror image, certainly her own, but whose slack, motherly stomach reminds us that she is only one point of view, an interplay of lights, unrepresentable, fleeting (266).

For Kristeva, the moment in the mirror is not the beginning of identification, the source of the split, but rather its consequence. Primary narcissism is the threshold at which pictorial representation, perhaps art general, ceases. Bellini’s work seeks to reclaim the space prior to figuration or symbolization that allows the maternal jouissance to reveal itself in the bodying forth of color and light. Pictorial representation is the play between primal repression and primary narcissism, articulated in Bellini’s work via the relation between mother and child, and provoking this play between repression and narcissism is the cause of jouissance, which ‘can only result in a shattering of figuration and form in a space of graphic lines and colors, differentiated until they disappear in pure light’ (269). This, according to Bellini and also to Kristeva, is what motherhood is.

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