Kristeva’s plumb line, part 1

From The Feminine and the Sacred (New York: Columbia, 2001).

Julia Kristeva, letter to Catherine Clement. Ars-en-Re, July 15, 1997 (p. 140-1).

“But, of all the other possible connotations, I would like to privilege three meanings of the plumb line, which seems unavoidable to me in this digression, after the impasses of the duty of my modest Agnes [psychoanalysis patient] and the magnificent Catherine of Siena [fourteenth-century mystic]: rectitude, secrecy, and depression.

Everyone is familiar with that line: it becomes taut because it is pulled down by the attraction of the earth, manifested by the lead bob, but also because it is suspended from the ceiling. Uprightness is a tension between a point of attachment and a weight: uprightness is a maintained contradiction, it requires an up and a down, a roof and a weight. That taut line unfailingly calls to mind the erect postre – the verticality of the spinal column; and, metaphorically, in the figural sense, the perpendicular evokes soundness and justice. It seems to me that the erect posture is too easily considered natural to the human being. No, it is a constantly threatened achievement, which we must readjust – to which we must stretch – endlessly. “Stand up straight!” my father used to say. My father, the foremost being of uprightness – of an exceptional uprightness – that I ever had occasion to meet. People cannot imagine who unnatural it is to stand up straight, how difficult it is to stand up straight. Especially is one is a woman, with a husband, child(ren), lover(s), male and female friends, work and home, the list is infinite. People cannot imagine how difficult it is to stand up straight when one is a woman with a husband unlike the others, a child unlike the others, a profession unlike the others – and when these various points of attachment are as much elevations as handicaps (it being understood that each of us is “unlike the others” and that she has her own plumb line “unlike the others”). They can’t imagine!

Myself, Agnes, Catherine, and the others – we can try to imagine and realize that. I might manage to maintain the rectitude of my body (of my spinal column, which I have so much trouble not curving) and the rectitude of my mind if I fashioned myself in the image of the plumb line: never forget the plumb bob of my handicaps, never unhook myself from the ceiling. Yes, it is only in that way – pulled between its dangling weight and its fixed point – that my tension is not necessarily a tightrope that runs the risk of breaking. On the contrary, it can have the precise suppleness of a perpendicular. In sum, I get my rectitude from my weight, I would not be so upright if I did not have all these weights. But, even so, I must be properly hooked up above.”

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