The Hidden Work of Moravian Wives

The Hidden Work of Moravian Wives:

A Conversation with Anna Nitschmann, Eva Spangenberg, Martha Spangenberg, and Erdmuth von Zinzendorf

Moravian Archives, Bethlehem

February 13, 2018


Katherine Faull, Bucknell University



Thank you for the invitation to talk this evening on the subject of Moravian women’s work and how it has been “hidden” in the records and from the eye of those who study labor history. I am going to talk tonight about the concept of “labor” in the colonial period of the Moravian Church, with a special focus on where women’s work was deemed to occur, how it was described and valued, and how in the historiography of the church this work has been described. I am going to look at the role that female leaders of the church played in defining what constitutes work in the church and how that contribution was later obscured.

The notion of concealed labor or hidden work is nothing new to scholars of gender and race where in the historiography of knowledge making and invention, the work of women and minorities has been regularly elided. One only needs to look at the history of discoveries in the field of science to repeatedly come across the trope/meme of the white male scientist working with a lab team that is remarkably male and white in a Nobel Prize winning discovery. See, for example, the discovery of the structure of DNA at the Cavendish laboratories at Cambridge University in 1953, credited to James Watson and Frances Crick which in their own relations of the discovery, hid the contributions of Rosalind Franklin’s earlier research into the crystallography . Or the case of the discovery of the Epstein-Barr virus that can lead to lymphoma also leaps to mind, where the hours of work done by both microbiologist Yvonne Barr and Trinidadian electron microscopist Burt Achong in the laboratory also go without recognition.

Within Moravian historiography the contributions of Zinzendorf’s first wife, Erdmuthe Dorothea, have certainly been recognized, probably a product of her class position coming from the nobility. Her contribution to the history of Pietism is investigated in the thoroughly researched, if dated, work of Wilhelm Jannasch. This 1915 biography of the Countess tells the story of her life, marriage with Zinzendorf, her mostly hands off approach to the establishment of the early Gemeine, her willingness for numbers of the Moravian exiles to be employed in her household, her gradual assumption of a working role in the leadership of the congregation, her growing role in the financial management of the church, her assumption of fiscal leadership during the time of Zinzendorf’s exile from Saxony, her assumption of leadership during his time in America, with the travels to London, Denmark, and the Baltic states and then her withdrawal, as Jannasch terms it, upon his return and the ascension of Anna Nitschmann to the role of “Mutter” in the church. etc. Although Jannasch’s work has been more recently supplemented by the appearance of Erika Geiger’s short volume (translated by Julie Tomberlin Weber) it is heavily derivative of the earlier work.

Of far more significance to the revised appraisal of the Countess’s work is the scholarly focus on the correspondence networks and the importance of the Reuss family that is being carried out in the University of Jena by Martin Prell; and also the research being carried out on the Countess’ and Benigna von Watteville’s correspondence, performed by Marita Gruner at the University of Greifswald.

Erdmuthe von Zinzendorf’s willingness to open her household to the members of the fledgling community directly benefited the three other leading women of the early Church I am discussing today. Best known is her support of Anna Nitschmann, who was employed in the Zinzendorf household as a servant and errand girl and then as companion to Benigna von Zinzendorf with whom she later travelled to America. At the same time as Anna Nitschmann is in the Berthelsdorf household, both of Spangenberg’s future wives are also in the fledgling Herrnhut community. Eva Immig, as she was then, was already widowed, was employed as nursemaid to Christian Renatus, and was counted among the first “Laboresses” of the community among the widows. Like Anna, Martha Spangenberg (or Miksch as she was then) came into the service of the Zinzendorf family in 1727. It is interesting to imagine all four of these leading women in the Moravian church living and /or working under one roof in the late 1720s.

As I have outlined in several of my other lectures in Bethlehem last year, evidence of Anna Nitschmann’s work was, after 1760, deliberately hidden by destroying records that pertained to her central role in the leadership and development of the church. Anna’s work consisted of both labor in a material and spiritual sense.

In a series of miniatures, presented to Anna to celebrate her 30 years as Eldress to the Gemeine, Anna is depicted as spinning while also receiving the visitation of several leading male theologians of the time. As I discussed in my Zug lecture, this trope is significant as a representation of the intersection of both material and spiritual realms of work. The image of Anna receiving the two prominent churchmen at the spinning wheel and in front of the floor loom encapsulates the idea, promoted by Zinzendorf, that the choir houses were the workshops of the divine. In the SS choir houses the spinning and weaving of cloth were two of the most prevalent economic and artisanal activities. I would also argue that in addition to producing vital goods (and income) for the Gemeine and the Choir, spinning and weaving as traditional tropes of women’s wisdom, also were imbued with spiritual worth.

Is this idea put into practice within the congregation? Let us turn to Spangenberg’s first wife, Eva Maria. Maria, as she known within the Gemeine, had been born in Dresden and married her first husband Dr. Christoph Immig, a lawyer, before coming to Herrnhut in 1727. They had two children, one of whom “went astray” and the other died. Eva Maria was one of the first 12 Laborers in the new community and then became the nursemaid to Zinzendorf’s son, Christian Renatus. When her first husband died at the age of 77, Eva Maria became the Pflegerin of the Widows Choir for 12 years. During Zinzendorf’s exile Saxony she became the Vorsteherin of the whole Gemeine, assisting Martin Dober for two years. In 1739, she left Herrnhut and went to Wetteravia, where she married Spangenberg in 1740.

Alongside Spangenberg, she was central to the foundation of the Moravian congregations in London and Yorkshire, and worked extensively in England and then in America where she was General-Ältestin from 1744-1749. According to her memoir, which was written by Spangenberg, she was much loved among the mission populations in America, and in the mission diaries and travel journals, Spangenberg is repeatedly asked by members of the Iroquois and Delaware nations alike, where his wife is and how she is doing. When Eva Maria and Spangenberg left Bethlehem in October 1749, the Brothers and Sisters bathed the streets in tears (to quote from her Ll). Eva Maria died in 1751 in Herrnhuth. Before she died, her lost child, the daughter, came back to her and tended to her in her final illness. She was in her 55th year.

So what would have made Eva Maria so beloved to the Bethlehem congregation (although there are signs that this was perhaps not such a universal emotion)?

The Spangenbergs arrived in America in October 1744 and came straight to Bethlehem. Anna Nitschmann had left at the turn of year 1742-3, so the memory of her work at the Forks of the Delaware was still strong, and had been regularly kept alive by the reading of her letters from London and Yorkshire. According to the Bethlehem Diary for 1744, Eva Maria immediately travels to Shekomecko (following in the footsteps of Anna) and celebrates a Love feast with the mission workers (the Büttners and Macks) with rolls and chocolate (which we presume she had brought with her from Bethlehem/New York). Upon her return to Bethlehem on December 2, Eva Maria conducts her first Married Sisters ¼ hour service, and then a blessing for pregnant sisters and nursing sisters, and finally a ¼ hour service for the German and English sisters in Bethlehem. Eva Maria’s work also includes conducting the Speakings for the sisters (of all marital status’), leading Lovefeasts for the children, married sisters, and widows.

All of this is quite expected for a woman leader in the Moravian church at that time. However, Maria also conducts Lovefeasts for specific groups of women workers. Sisters who work in the laundry, or who spin, or weave, or knit, or sew also have a lovefeast dedicated to them respectively, and this appears to have been Maria’s own idea. In Oerter’s translation of the 1745 diary he states, “Mary made some orders and regulations for the Sisters spinning wool, cotton, flax and tow.” (Jan. 4 1745) At these lovefeasts for the different forms of women’s work, Maria apparently speaks so powerfully that the Sisters’ production is significantly increased (for example, on January 29 1745 50 sisters at a spinners lovefeast produced record amounts of yarn and also volunteered to strip feathers for the beds of the newborn).

Putting to one side the resonant echoes of Ernst Troeltsch and Max Weber’s appraisal of the Moravians economic activity, (Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) for one moment, I would like to think about the spiritualization of women’s work not in terms of how to produce more for the community but as a foregrounding of the work that the SIsters did. This work, noted in the Diary, is seen as a form of “Gottesdienst”, a service to God and is valued as essential to the mission of the whole community as spiritual work as well as encouraging the ethic of production.

Does this concept of women’s work operate outside the choirhouses? What effect does it have on the missions, for example? I would now like to draw on the manuscript material that informs my work on the Shamokin mission diary. Shamokin, on the forks of the Susquehanna River, was a strategically important point for Native Americans, colonial agents and traders, and Moravians alike. Zinzendorf, Anna Nitschmann, Benigna, and Spangenberg had all visited this place, not least to foster a relationship with Shikellamy, the vice-regent of the Six Nations.

In a conference held at the confluence of the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna River in August 1747, the Moravian married couples, Nathaniel and Anna Hagen and Anton and Catharine Schmidt sat down to discuss how the blacksmith’s shop that was to be established there was to be run. The first article on the agenda that had been drawn up by Spangenberg was the stipulation that “When the Indians bring something for our Sisters to sew, they will accept it with thanks, and willingness and require nothing as payment.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote Five months later, when they were joined by the married couple Joseph and Martha Powell, this same topic appeared as the first item of business in their conference. The Sisters were to accept sewing from the Indians and require nothing in return.

While this might seem like a small incidental detail in the larger artisan economy of the Pennsylvania Backcountry, I would argue that the work and skills of the Moravian Married Sisters who came with their husbands to the “frontier” country of Pennsylvania in the first half of the eighteenth century were central to the Moravian and Native American understanding of how an exchange of services and goods, whether it be sewing, blacksmithing, shoe or mocassin making, grinding corn and baking could take place. The Married Sisters’ participation in an artisan economy both extends the previous notion of “women’s work” that I have outlined and also challenges the long held notion that women’s role in this early settlement period was primarily as part of the “household economy,” in which women were employed in the raising of crops, production of food and clothing, within an autarkic economy of the settlers’ log home.

Because of the Moravian notion of the “marriage militant,” many of these Brothers took their Sisters (wives) with them into the mission field to work with the female indigenous populations .  However, the Moravian mission in Shamokin, Pennsylvania (1747-55) was not set up as a mission village but rather as a blacksmith’s shop to serve the Iroquois and their protected tribes, the Delaware, Tutelo, Conoy, and Shawnee. The Moravian smithy at Shamokin was established because of its usefulness to the Six Nations, and, as such, its existence at the confluence of the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna River, the intersection of eleven Indian paths, offers an interesting and anomalous microstudy of the artisan in the backcountry.

Shikellamy was quite explicit in his expectations of how the smithy would be run. In a slightly earlier conference with Brother Martin Mack in April of 1747 held at Shamokin, the Oneida chief and emissary of the Five Nations, stipulated that the work done at the smith for the Five Nations should be done for free when the Iroquois are travelling down river to war with the Catawba. He stated explicitly, “I desire, T’girketonti (Spangenberg’s Iroquois name) my brother, that when something is done to their flints that it is done for free, because they have nothing with which to pay. However, when they return, and they have something done, then they would have to pay for it.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote

In August 1747, at the conference held at Shamokin to set down the conditions of the establishment of the smithy there Spangenberg prescribed that the Moravians were to maintain themselves there “auf Indianisch Art.”  That meant that only the Three Sisters (beans, corn, squash) could be planted, no wheat, rye, or oats, and nothing that would make the place seem like a European plantation. All accounts were to be held by Brother Hagen or Joseph Powell; the blacksmith Anton Schmidt had to meet with him at the end of every day and go through the transactions of the day. The price of services had to be set so that one Indian does not get charged more than another, and the accounts were then sent on to the Sozietät für die Heyden (the Society for the Heathen), that paid for the blacksmith’s supplies.

At the Confluence, there was also the presence and agency of the Moravian sisters. In the literature on Moravian artisans and missionaries there is plenty of discussion of the role the men played in the development of settlements, a rural economy that goes beyond that of exchange, but almost no mention of what their wives were doing, what kind of work did they have and did it contribute to this rural economy? While the literature on Moravian missions is large, the multiple challenges and opportunities for cross-cultural trade and knowledge transfer that the Moravian sisters enjoyed, has only recently become the focus of study for historians such as Jane Merritt, Amy Schutt, Gunlög Fur, Rachel Wheeler, and Alison Duncan Hirsch.FOOTNOTE: Footnote In the Shamokin Diary we find evidence of Native, métis and Euro American women’s involvement in trade, care, and mission on an intimate level. Despite the dearth of official records of women’s activities, speech, and agency, from mission diaries we are able to delineate women’s experience as moving beyond the traditional notion of them as refugees for financial, religious, or ethnic reasons or as silent companions of fathers, husbands, masters, or maybe brothers. In Merritt’s discussions of Anna Mack, Anna Smith, and Rowena McClinton’s studies of Moravian women’s mission to the Cherokee women, and Alison Duncan Hirsch’s study of some of the women around the Susquehanna Confluence, the discussion focuses on women and cross-cultural communication, the inter-relation of religious concepts, notions of gender, and medical and pastoral concepts of the body.

Based on evidence from the Moravian mission diary from Shamokin I argue that there existed an artisan economy of sorts in which the skills of both the brothers and the sisters were sought after and exchanged with the Native American and Euro-American population. From the archival records, it is clear that the Married Sisters participated in an exchange economy, where sewing skills, for example, were vital in order to receive gifts of food and medicine from the local Native population. Married Sisters were central to the mission both because of their knowledge of Native American languages, their ability to communicate with the Native women around the blacksmith’s shop, and also because of their own artisanal skills, such as sewing and baking. These skills brought them into an economy of trade and also knowledge.

So how might this relate to the lovefeasts for the knitters, spinners, weavers, and launderers? In her 1995 book on artisans on the North Carolina backcountry, Johanna Miller Lewis argues (somewhat controversially) that women who practiced traditionally female skills such as spinning, sewing, weaving, or knitting for profit commonly have not been classified as artisans by historians.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote Miller Lewis ascribes this to the fact that women did not receive the same training as male artisans, and if they did, it was within the home, invisible to the historical record of craftsmen’s books, journeymen’s passes, and guild records. Furthermore, many historians considered women’s artisanal skills as “merely” part of the housewife’s duties and therefore not an income-generating skill. However, recent studies of rural populations in, for example, Ireland during the Great Potato Famine, have shown that women’s skills were central to the survival of rural populations in times of crisis and famine (Irish famine and women lace makers, for example).  Challenging the dominant notion of the “household economy” that has held sway over early modern economic history and its autarkic self-sufficiency, Miller Lewis argues for a more nuanced understanding of women’s participation in a backcountry economy where their skills in textile production and repair was also key to the survival of the family and also the community.FOOTNOTE: Footnote I would like to argue that what is presented as a paradigm for women’s work in the image of Anna Nitschmann spinning as she receives the eminent theologians, and in Maria’s institution of lovefeasts celebrating the work of women, provided many of the Married Sisters at Shamokin (and elsewhere) with precisely the model of work as Gottesdienst that women outside the Moravian church might have received within the household economy. The difference in the Moravian training was that women’s artisanal skills were taught not for the benefit of a more nuclear “household,” but rather for the larger “oikos” of the mission settlement; and, as such, these skills were both a form of women’s spiritual knowledge and income generating.

So, how crucial were the women’s contributions to this artisan economy? Did the sewing, the baking, the interpreting and negotiating help the mission in Shamokin?

Towards the end of the existence of the mission at Shamokin, the picture of the place has changed. The Moravians now have livestock, cows and calves, and are thinking about getting a bull. A new mission house has been built further from the river and closer to a spring. Letters between Shamokin and Bethlehem talk of the need for sugar and tea (for the Moravian Lovefeasts), of wine and bread for communion; new trousers and shirts; the skins received in payment (racoon and deer) are being transported back to Bethlehem through intermediaries, such as Michael Schäffer, a shoemaker who lives 5 miles down the Tulpehocken Path.

The Married Sisters have gone. The mission has become a plantation, it services the flints of the traders and white settlers and its original purpose has been lost. Spangenberg wonders if they shouldn’t just shut up shop, sell the house and its contents that are no longer needed to Conrad Weiser, slaughter the livestock and sell the meat.

The end of the Shamokin mission almost coincides with the arrival of Martha Spangenberg in America. In the little literature that exists on her, scholars such as Beverly Smaby and Hartmut Lehmann concur that she understood “women’s work” in a very different manner than her husband’s first wife. Where Eva Maria was seen as a leader, much after the model of Anna Nitschmann and Erdmuthe von Zinzendorf, Martha is described as quiet and staying in Spangenberg’s shadow.

Martha Elisabeth Spangenberg was born in 1708 in Berthelsdorf and came into the service of Benigna von Zinzendorf 1727. In 1730 she married Mattheus Miksch and they had two children. In 1733 Mattheus was sent to St. Croix as one of the first missionaries there but Martha was very reluctant to go and preferred to stay behind with their two children in the congregation in Herrnhut. When Mattheus died in St. Croix in 1734 Martha moves into the Widow’s House as their Laboress for sixteen years until in 1750 she is called to London in 1750 to work with the widows there. Then in 1752 it is suggested that she marry Spangenberg. Martha is initially reluctant because she is very happy living and working with the widows. However, she finally agrees and in 1754 proceeds to work with him in North America. As Craig Atwood has outlined in his article on Spangenberg in colonial America, Martha and Joseph worked here to stabilize and consolidate the community’s affairs through the difficulties of the French and Indian War and after the deaths of Zinzendorf and Anna, the dismantling of the General Economy. They return to Europe via Philadelphia in 1762.

As I have argued in the introduction to my recent translation of the Instructions to the Choir Helpers, it is clear that Martha worked with her husband in the composition of the Instructions for the Single, Married, and Widowed Sisters. In 1764, she is one of the Sisters who is given the task of discussing women’s issues in the synod when they come up. However, Martha’s work with her husband appears to have not always been so welcome to the sisters. For example, in 1771 after the Spangenbergs have returned to Herrnhut, the Single Sisters write a letter to the Unity Elders Conference complaining that Brother Spangenberg and Martha are conducting the monthly Speakings with them rather than their Choir Helpers. Although I need to examine the archival record still to unearth more of Martha’s work, it is already clear from the Instructions and then this letter, that it consisted in implementing the Choir Principles and Instructions that she and her husband were formulating. At the close of her wonderful article on Female Piety in Bethlehem, Beverly Smaby makes the point that the dismantling of women’s power and valued work as spiritual leaders was the work of Spangenberg, and that if it was a man, Zinzendorf, who gave women this power, it was also a man, Spangenberg, who took it away. I would refine this claim somewhat and argue that the positive and vital value ascribed to women’s spiritual and material work was modeled and encouraged by Erdmuthe von Zinzendorf and followed by a multitude of extraordinarily talented women and also integrated into the economic and spiritual economy of the congregations and missions. And it is also a woman who helps to redefine what women’s work should consist of after Anna Nitschmann’s and Erdmuthe’s deaths, and that seems to be Martha Spangenberg.


Genius in Translation


Genius in Translation:

Julia Kristeva’ s Desire in Language and her Love of the Foreign


Katherine Faull

Humanities Institute

Sept. 13 2005


My starting point in this discussion of feminine and genius is one of the most provocative studies on genius and the Western tradition by Christine Battersby, whose diachronic and gendered reading of the notion of genius points, in my opinion, a way forward to the possibility of a feminist aesthetic that is no longer trapped by masculinist linkages of a phallic aesthetics with male virility. In her volume, entitled “Gender and Genius” which indeed adheres to Kristeva’s own notion of the third wave of feminism, Battersby traces the implementation of the notion of the male genius from the Greeks and Romans to the present in an attempt to delineate the contours of an aesthetic of an “écriture feminine.” Genius, I would argue with Battersby, is both etymologically and ideologically rooted in the masculine and not the feminine. So, then, what could Kristeva’s feminine genius be?

The Genius in Stone

Those critics and philosophers who work on genius, for example, Christine Battersby, Jochen Schmidt and Penelope Murray, trace the etymology of the word to two possible roots. One, Latin “genius“ denotes the divine forces associated with and protecting male fertility. genii are thus the spirits that are attached to the land, places, and natural objects that protect and ensure the longevity of the gens, or male clan. The other root is “ingenium,” a term associated with good judgment and knowledge, also talent, dexterity, the skills needed by an artist working in mimetic traditions. Battersby argues that “genius” as the logos spermatikos represents a Greek and Roman Stoic central concept that later enters into the Christian concept of God’s word and is far more influential in the semantic field of the word genius than “ingenium”. That is, the engendering aspect of the virile male is privileged over the idea of talent. If one looks at the usages of the word genius in 17th century, for example in Shakespeare, we find Macbeth complaining that his “genius is rebuk’d” (Macbeth III; 1) because he has been given a barren scepter and others will father a line of kings.
In Romantic and Modernist aesthetics, the notion of genius is central to models of both knowledge and representation. For example, Battersby identifies Kant’s epistemological foundation as built on this aesthetic of genius in which some male (but never female) intellectual beings possess “intellectual intuition” that allows them to bring not only the world as it appears to be into existence but also things in themselves. For Goethe, Fr. Schlegel, Novalis, Fichte, the artistic genius’ imagination is a (sometimes) lesser version of God’s creation of the universe. But for a woman to create artistically, she must, as Anais Nin in the 20th century bemoans, become masculine, that is she must unsex herself as a woman and become a man: to create culturally woman must sever her connections to the womb. (Battersby, p. 45)

The Semiotic

There is much more to be said about this, but at this point I would like to turn to Kristeva and her essay “Desire in Language” (1975) to begin my investigation of her notion of the revolution in poetry and the relevance of this notion of revolution for the potential of a feminine genius. In this essay Kristeva begins to concentrate on the possibility of a psychological liberatory moment through the recognition of primary narcissism’s access to the semiotic and the “choric” (chora) moment in poetic expression. In “Desire in Language” Kristeva sets up her philosophical paradigm against the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and the necessary positing of a transcendental ego in the thetic consciousness of the subject in process. This “thetic” consciousness is necessary in that “any linguistic act, insofar as it sets up a signified that can be communicated in a sentence (and there is no sign or signified that is not already part of a sentence), is sustained by the transcendental ego.” (DiL p. 99) Kristeva argues that the Husserlian phenomenological argument can be understood (translated) into the processes of the subject “as operating consciousness” by drawing on the insights of generative grammar and linguistic understanding thereby countering her contemporaries’ deconstructive attacks on the possibility of such a transcendental ego and its communicative object. In other words, the Husserlian move for Kristeva (at this point) allows her to posit the “thetic” nature of an utterance and then move to the problem of the remainder of poetic language which would seem to exceed its communicative purpose and the recognition of the constraining forces of socializing elements.
For Kristeva, poetic language differs from “rhetorical” language because it goes beyond the function of meaning and signification. Its thetic function is only part of its constraint: what makes it poetic is its ability to transcend the Husserlian phenomenology and access what Kristeva at this point calls the “heterogeneity” of language, or the “semiotic.”
This signifying disposition is not that of meaning or signification: no sign, no predication, no signified object and therefore no operating consciousness of a transcendental ego. We shall call this disposition semiotic (le sémiotique), meaning according to the etymology of the Greek sémeion a distinctive mark, trace, index, the premonitory sign, the proof, engraved mark, imprint—in short, a distinctiveness admitting of an uncertain and indeterminate articulation because it does not yet refer (for young children) or no longer refers (in psychotic discourse) to a signified object for a thetic conciousness. (DiL, p. 101-2)
The Platonic “chora,” a maternally connoted place of language prior to naming, prior to entry into the symbolic and the Law of the Father, is the place that gives the infant, the madman, and the poet, the rhythms and syntactic elisions, the intonations and the timbre of poetry. “It is poetic language that awakens our attention to this undecideable character of any so-called natural language, a feature that univocal, rational, scientific discourse tends to hide” (p. 103)
This realization is of course nothing new: poetic language is by its very definition a “poesis”–a creation, something new and original (see, for example, the poetic language of Hölderlin, Nietzsche, Karoline von Günderrode) that moves beyond the boundaries of rational discourse. However, what is revolutionary is Kristeva’s link between psychological process of maturation that would see the access to the semiotic in terms of the subject-in-process, the figuring of the feminine maternal chora as at once a privileged motif and as a disruptive and productive force of revolt and resistance. In contrast to the semiotic, rhetorical writing has been seduced away from the maternal. In Desire in Language Kristeva identifies the problem with philosophical discourse today (and one might suspect the trace of Derrida here) in France as being its narcissistic fascination with itself.
The rhetorician does not invent a language; fascinated by the symbolic function of paternal discourse, he seduces it in the Latin sense of the verb—he “leads it astray,” inflicts it with a few anomalies generally taken from writers of the past, thus miming a father who remembers having been a son and even a daughter of his father, but not to the point of leaving cover. This is indeed what is happening to the discourse of contemporary philosophers, in France particularly, when, hemmed in by the breakthroughs in social sciences on the one hand, and social upheavals on the other, the philosopher begins performing literary tricks, thus arrogating to himself a power over imaginations: a power which, though minor in appearance, is more fetching than that of the transcendental consciousness.” (p. 106)
Counter to the seductions of philosophy, the stylist (Kristeva echoes Nietzsche in describing the writer who accesses the semiotic chora) no longer needs to seduce the father, may even take another name than the father’s but assumes the role of the “permanent go-between from one to the other, a pulsation of sign and rhythm, of consciousness and instinctual drive.” (p. 107) The semiotic for Kristeva constitutes the means to override the constraints of a civilization dominated by transcendental rationality. By avoiding the traps of symbolic language, the semiotic emerges as “musicated” language, poetic language that laughs back (echoes of Nietzsche again) at the symbolic’s drive to the mastery of meaning.
According to Kristeva, the problem with interpretations of poetic language, and the realm it accesses, consists in reading it as rhetoric, as rational discourse, or else, failing that, mimicking it in a kind of academic echolalia. Original interpretation, like original thought (and as we have heard all translation is interpretation) must access a non-symbolic realm of signification. How can this be done, Kristeva asks. She answers, “It is probably necessary to be a woman… not to renounce theoretical reason but to compel it to increase its power by giving it an object beyond its limits.” (p. 113) Therefore, being a speaking woman, beyond the law of the language of the father, allows access to “an instinctual body… which ciphers the language with rhythmic, intonational, and other arrangements, nonreducible to the position of the transcendental ego even though always within sight of its thesis.” (p. 113)
Does this then mean that the speaking/writing woman has privileged access this place of originality, this non-echolalic prelinguistic realm of sense and sound? Could we then understand Kristeva as making the move that Nietzsche most definitely does not? Namely, in that she identifies the creative voice of genius with writing “as” a woman and not merely “like” a woman? To return to Battersby’s work on genius, we are shown the difference between Nietzsche the stylist and Kristeva:

“Nietzsche asks us to listen to him with a ‘third ear’: one that is tuned into the pauses between the music of reality. But he does not write as a woman. Nor will he even allow women to write as women. We should ask whether it is at all revolutionary to locate feminine strength (and Otherness) in the (pregnant) pauses between the words and sentences of the logos spermatikos?
(Battersby, Gender and Genius, p. 125)

Genius in Translation

I would now like to move on to the third part of my talk, namely that on translation. If we understand translation as an act that attempts to move meaning either intralingually or interlingually, then how do you move the remainder of poetic language, that which is beyond signification?   In her important work on translating feminist philosophy and ecriture feminine, both styles of writing that intentionally access the semiotics of the “chora”, Luise von Flotow investigates the complexities involved in translating “sense” language, the semeion, as opposed to symbolic or rhetorical language. In her essay “From Sense to Sound” von Flotow describes how following the tradition of translating nonsense nursery rhymes from French into English, translators have been faced with the task of searching for an equivalence if not in the semantic realm then in the semiotic for the “emotives” that signal pre-oedipal communication. Drawing on the techniques of translating children’s nonsense verse, von Flotow analyses the rendering into another tongue of feminist philosophical texts that challenge the symbolic order of the Father. In order to achieve this, she argues, the translator must face the question of “translating the sensory” to use Kristeva’s phrase, by employing mimetic and enunciative translation, sacrificing sense to sound in the attempt to echo the semiotics of the original.
Kristeva also addresses the possible nature of the sensory in her essay, originally published under the title “L’autre langue ou traduire le sensible” in French Studies (1998) and which appeared in English as Chapter 14 in Intimate Revolt under the rubric “The Love of Another Language”. Here Kristeva approaches this question from the perspective of her own autobiographical situation, that of the foreign writer in France. The writer is always a translator of the sensory universe in its singularity, the writer, like the analyst, lays bare the foreignness of her inner life, and, like the analyst, she translates that which is before language into language. At the turn of the 20th century Freud argues that Übertragung (transference /translation) is the mechanism or process by which the analysand translates hysterical symptoms and dreams into ordinary language and transfers desires that were unacceptable onto an object that is acceptable. Freud regards himself and the analysand as the decoders/interpreters of deliberately difficult, preconscious material in to the conscious realm, Indeed, Übertragung is the transference or translation that Freud refers to as the vehicle for the success of psychoanalysis. For Kristeva, echoing Freud, the function of the writer/analyst is also one of translation. In the essay, “Love of another Language” she writes in the section entitled “France my suffering,”
“They teach me that, even when native, the writer does not cease to be a translator of his unveiled passions, that the fundamental language that he takes pleasure in translating is the language of the sensory. And that this unnamable foundation, this rumor of our fibers and our dreams, never allows itself to be absorbed or reduced in the codes of schools, clans, institutions, or media.” (Intimate Revolt, p. 246)[1]  For Kristeva, then, this translation of desire subverts the rhetorical, as she has termed it. It represents a revolt in language, beyond the realm of the institution.
How then, does the translator reach the “text behind the text” in poetic language? As Susan Bassnett asks in her work Translation Studies, how does the translator communicate what Mallarmé was to call “the text of silence and spaces?” (p. 69) How does one translate this remainder, the connotative and denotative function of language? Does the translator merely translate the linguistic signs literally and trust that the connotations in one language somehow are replicated in another, or does the translator maintain the strangeness, the inherent otherness of the source text in the target language through the use of an artificial, or non natural language somewhere in between the source language and target language text, where the special feeling of the original may be conveyed through strangeness. (p. 70)
The first option might be possible if, as according to the sub-field of semiotics in Translation Studies, we consider languages to be systems of signs, of semiotika. In this case a system of relations between signs might be moved as meanings to a target language. But, as Umberto Eco has pointed out, such a system presupposes a perfect language that both source language and target language mysteriously point to. That is, in order to express in language A a concept that appears in language B one has to refer to a language X in which concepts from both A and B can be expressed perfectly. Walter Benjamin was to refer to this language in his essay “The Task of the Translator” as the pure language, “die reine Sprache,” that lies mystically behind every attempt at translation. It is this pure language that semioticians refer to when they speak of the translatability of the semiotic, the possibility of the entrance into the symbolic of that which lies in the chora.
But Benjamin’s pure language lies beyond the temporal. And our access to language does not. It is also possible that meanings within the source language may become translatable into the target language, given certain changing linguistic and historical conditions. We must move beyond the rationalist tradition where meanings are universal and hence generally translatable into their language specific representations; and we must also move beyond the relativist position, where thinking and speaking are so tightly bound together (and the subjective element in the constitution of meaning is much stronger) to arrive at a third way. This position, mediating between thinking and speaking, and for Kristeva between the semiotic and the symbolic, is represented perhaps most famously by German philosopher and theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher. In arguing that meaning is accessible through a mode of understanding, Schleiermacher terms “sense” or “intuition”, an operation he considers to be a recognition of the incommensurability of languages, as the translator of the sensory (as Kristeva might term it) (See Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies, p. 274)
In her essay “Translating the Sensory” (Intimate Revolt, p. 240 ) Kristeva calls upon this trace of the foreign, the other, the semiotic, to be “jarring to the natives.” Here Kristeva speaks of her relationship to her adopted language, French. It is, she claims, “an act of politeness among people who share the same rhetoric, the same accumulation of images and sentences, the same arrangement of reading and conversations, in a stable society. (p. 243) However, her insertion of the strange, her use of this polished stone of language frustrates native speakers as it reveals the “monster”, it exposes her “who takes pleasure in never being content”. Kristeva regards herself as the metisse, the hybrid monster, the “Blendling” as Schleiermacher termed it in his essay on translation, who straddles two chairs of national reference. And rather than reject this metissage, she embraces it; it signals the death of the maternal tongue, Bulgarian, “this warm and still speaking cadaver” (p. 245), it marks the death of “ the vague plural meanings of the Bulgarian idiom, insufficiently severed from Cartesianism, in resonance with the prayer of the heart and the darkness of the sensory” (p. 246). Kristeva’s relationship to French is a love for the “sensory language, a language not of signs but of marks, quotations, pulsations impressions sorrows, and ecstasies– the marks, as she claims, of true foreignness.
If we are to accept Hjelmslev’s proposition, as set forth in his Prolegomena to a Theory of Language, that ‘a language is a semiotic into which all other semiotics may be translated’ since in a language and only in a language, can we work over the inexpressible until it is expressed” (p. 109), then the question of the translatability of the semiotic, the translation of genius might be best addressed by how the target language, or in Kristeva’s terms, the symbolic will change, how in the future it will be able to express that which is sense. It is in this way that Kristeva offers us a translation of genius, of the particular, the individual in her embrace of her own position of otherness and her act of translation, not of the logos spermatikos, but rather of the chora. The quality of genius then lies not only as Kristeva argues in the transcendence of the sociopolitical context in which the feminine finds itself, but also in the transcendence of the givenness, the thetic quality of the target language and the act of revolt to change, to explore, its linguistic malleability. Such a notion of the futurity of linguistic change might then challenge the walls of ungenius, of the bedint, the quotidian, and as Kristeva urges us, give us the means to express our feminine genius.

[1] Ils m’apprennent que, même autochtone, l’écrivain ne cesse d’être un tradacteur de ses passions dérobées, que la langue fondamentale qu’il se plait à traduire est la langue du sensible. Et que cet innommable fondement, cette rumeur de nos fibres et de nos rêves, ne se laisse jamais entièrement résorber, jamais réduire dans les codes des écoles, des clans, des institutions, des medias…” (Julia Kristeva, French Studies LII October 1998:4, 389).