O.O.P.S.Sex & Gender

Kristeva on Maternal Self-Mourning

This post is part of the Gender and Domination Course in OOPS.

In her 1977 essay “Stabat Mater,” Julia Kristeva prominently states, “A mother is a continuous separation, a division of the very flesh. And consequently a division of language — and it has always been so” (all quotations from essay reprinted in The Portable Kristeva, Columbia University Press, 2002). With emphasis on the woman-as-mother, it is through silence that a woman is detached from her voice as subject. The subject, for Kristeva, is the construction of identity that is assembled through language.

Through an act of speaking, similar to the Cartesian cogito, the self becomes self-aware and realized. Highlighting a woman’s “weakness of language,” however, Kristeva describes how a woman’s only true expression as an actualized entity is found in fulfilling her duties of being-as-mother through the release of milk and tears. Kristeva positions the fate of woman, as experienced through medieval art depictions of the Madonna, as the figure who must suffer the detachment of self for the sake of the promulgation of the human species. Woman, thus, becomes alienated from herself, from her body as such, to the extent that she must produce another body within her own body — only to then have that other body removed from her.

The product that is formed is a baby born to operate and function to satisfy the demands of a social structure over which woman, as silent and muted mother, has no command. Her life actions are encouraged to conform to the “biological necessity to become mother” (p. 307). She lives to reproduce, bring new life as appreciation for the life that she gained from her own mother when she was brought into existence — a life that will end and thus requires a re-production. Kristeva’s account exemplifies the pain of mother committed to an eternal separation of self, an alienation without recovery, as when the Virgin Mary weeps at the feet of her crucified son, a part of flesh that once belonged to her within her womb, to see a part of her-self die: this is the pain felt by woman, conveyed in Kristeva’s poetic sentence, “My heart: a tremendous pounding wound” (p. 321). A life reduced to nurturing and mourning — milk and tears.

The depiction of this “love,” which the Virgin Mary had for her son, ought not to be confused for Kristeva’s veneration of a God-as-man born through woman as a product of her own biological mechanisms. Instead, the sorrow she expresses, which the Church appropriated to both humanize the messiah and make him welcomed into the wounded bleeding hearts of all mothers and sons, is a dialectic of creation and destruction: the Virgin Mary as mother has witnessed both the creation and destruction of her product. Yet, her production is never recognized. Instead we find depictions only of her muted suffering and the labor invested for its proliferation.

The installation of morals and teachings — the framework for receiving language as such — was not lamented, even by Jesus upon the crucifix. Jesus did not thank his mother, who was with him at both the entrance and exit of his existence. The silent and unacknowledged tears of the Madonna at the feet of her son must be analyzed.

Why did Jesus in his moment of weakness, that moment of acknowledged finitude, cry to his Father, “Why has thou forsaken me?” Why did he not, instead, thank his mother for all that she had suffered throughout her life for him? The Virgin Mary, the Mother, receives no such acknowledgement, her life a result of the division between mother-as-self and mother-as-other to herself and to her child. As Kristeva notes, ”there is an abyss between the mother and the child” (p. 324). Recognizing this abyss, we might ask, does the Virgin Mary mourn her son at his crucifixion, or is it possible that she mourns the loss of herself to the constant production of her child?

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