The Old Man and the Wolves

About this essay

Julia Kristeva’s The Old Man and the Wolves details the gradual degeneration of the fundamentally corruptible community of Santa Varvara. As described by the novel’s namesake, the Old Man Septicious Clarus, in terms of singularity, morality and—both metaphorically and palpably—humanity, each individual’s marked decay is seen as the horrific transformation into a wolf with regard to both physical and psychological form.

While the Old Man, he denotative of a purer set of morals, remains in adamant opposition to the wolves—which themselves represent a society built upon materialism and unscrupulous innards—all others, including even the most hopeful of his understudies, Alba, find themselves overwhelmed.

Ultimately, when faced with the realized futility of his resistance and eventual loss of any uninfected audience to hear his soapbox pleas, the Old Man accepts a death indirectly caused by the wolves.

The novel as a whole provides and analytic lens through which the reader may begin to understand the Kristevan concept of abjection as it applies to the perceived “evils” of the world.

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As defined by Kristeva in The Powers of Horror, “the abject refers to the human reaction…to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of distinction between subject and object or between self and other”(Felluga).

This concept, of Kristeva’s own design, implies both the severance of object and subject, such that two insubstantial entities remain, the physical object and its purely representative signifier, as well as the loss of distinction in terms of one’s self.

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The abject refers not markedly to the actual “breakdown” of an entity but rather to its systematic redefinition as something more banal, specifically noted by a distinct lack of previously existent individuality among surrounding entities.

Existing in direct contrast is Lacan’s objet petit a, or “object of one’s desires,” which by title alone implies a physical object coordinated around a subject’s select desires, “thus allowing for [an]…intersubjective community to persist” (Felluga). Lacan’s entity is one without standardized meaning; characteristics such as one’s moral code and attractions are singular and self-defined. Kristeva’s abject “[draws] towards the place where meaning collapses” and definition is achieved through somewhat deterministic processes, the result of which is singularity (Felluga).

The application of abjection as a concept is seen in Kristeva’s dynamic descriptions of her characters—each an object to be fleshed out with a chosen, iterated subject. Whether intentionally or not, Kristeva constructs her characters with specific regard to semiotics, or more specifically, about her communicated definition of the discipline, which falls again in opposition of, or put more mildly, as a variation of Jacques Lacan’s concept of symbolic order.

Symbolic order is described as a part of Lacan’s attempt “to distinguish between those elementary registers whose grounding [was] later put forward in these terms: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real…” (Lacan 65). In terms of characterization and descriptors, however, a focus upon “the symbolic” is all that is explicitly necessary. This subunit has been compared in many ways to “Levi-Strauss’s order of culture” which posits that “Man speaks…but it is because the symbol has made him man’” within a culture defined particularly by the restraints of language (Lacan 65).

Likewise, in accordance to Lacan’s order, “the symbolic dimension of language is that of the signifier, in which elements have no positive existence but are constituted by virtue of their mutual differences” (Macey xxii). Through a lens which views characters as nothing more than individual objects possessing individual definitions vis-a-vis each other, Lacan is essentially defining “the symbolic” by this definition or, all that is not a component of the physical object but still viscerally integrated.

With these two individual devices, any character can be systematically created. By contrast to Lacan’s use of “the symbolic,” Kristeva employs a semiotic-based design which puts description in the scope of “an emotional field… which dwells in the fissures and prosody of language rather than in the denotative meanings of words,” that give “the symbolic” a rather rubrical construction. “In this sense, the semiotic opposes the symbolic, which correlates words with a stricter, mathematical sense” (McAlister).

In constructing her characters through description and imagery, Kristeva emphasizes a focus on the semiotic specifically through a series of metonymic elements that, combined, provide each character a unique conglomerate of a profile. The Old Man is described early on in the following way: “Fancy old stick-in-the-mud like him enjoying that inspired, suggestive, flesh-and-blood, milk-chocolate voice…his body, in its shantung suit, was already heading for the sweet-smelling oleanders on the other side of the garden, for the darkened lobbies and their shrouded furniture” (22,25).

The metonymic and synecdochic descriptors, such as “old stick-in-the-mud” and “his body in its shantung suit” in place of Septicious’s name offer a more complete metaphor that stimulates emotional responses and definitions marked by imagery within the reader’s mind as opposed to the less invocatory adjectival descriptors that offer signature to “the symbolic. ” Thus the characters maintain an early realism composed of the real objects off of which their semiotic metonyms are based.

At times a further depth is achieved, such that even the characters’ intrinsic elements may be defined in this way; the “milk-chocolate voice” that represents Billy Holliday implies a positive emotional response from the Old Man to a musician whose avant-garde style is fairly opposite that which would be expected from the disciplined academic that is Septicious. Thus an implicit depth is given to this character that could not, but through explicit exposition, elsewise be affixed. A significant advantage to this brand of character production is the effect of undoing it.

Indeed, as the novel nears part II, at a time in the plot concurrent with Santa Varvara’s mass metamorphosis from a society of people to one of wolves, so do Kristeva’s descriptions shift their emphasis from the metonymic to the verbal. Vespasian, who had earlier been defined by images of his mutating visage, is now described in terms of his actions: “It is hard to say what was most shameful about his marriages: the way he entered into them, the way he ended them, or the way he kept them up” (42).

This definite shift away from the semiotic, Kristeva’s “emotional field,” represents on a textual level a general loss of signification by the characters as they become wolves (McAlister). No longer are they considered patently human and no longer are they composed of invocatory imagery; rather they have become typically “symbolic” as the lupine metastasis results in a loss of distinction. At one point, narrator Stephanie Delacour offers her view of those around her: “There, outside. There, all around the Old Man.

Lycaon, Vespasian, Alba, the nurses, the Face-lifting colleague, Gulliver’s wife’s fountain, wolves, werewolves, wildmen, waste, muddle, mess. All was lucre, lugubriousness, Where was the light? ” (120). By this point in the plot, all aforementioned characters have evolved into such an homogenous group that Kristeva takes no issue in presenting them as such. All about the Old Man is a singularity including the wolves, character, and even the glum environment that composes a world in which he cannot coexist.

Interestingly though, Kristeva maintains one metonymic conceit that offers distinction to the concept of “the ordinary and the obvious. ” Indeed this is what one might term the homogenous group synthesized of the Santa Varvarians by the wolves. “When something is ordinary, it is nondescript, devoid of all specificity: an empty shell…nothing exceptional or individual left…but [it] still reflects the primal, minimal conditions of the human animal…” (45).

Such is practically an explicit portrait of the wolves and their humanoids—human but no longer specific, no longer individual. This is Kristeva’s abject: this breakdown of meaning on both textual and allegorical fronts. On a textual front, the Old Man is the only exception to this singularization and preaches persistence “against the ordinary…against the pact of domestication” (46). As such, he is the one exception to the abject loss of signification. Septicious alone attempted repudiation of the wolf pandemic but it had penetrated his world and colored it wholly in rem.

In the end, he was killed not directly by the wolves, but by a final vision of “the unconscious ‘overturning the policed spectacles of being, and revealing us in all our barbarity, a prey to death’”(Jones 8). He essentially describes abjection of individuality and the naked decrepitude that results. Kristeva expands into the global significance of her abjection abstract, writing that “there [is] always crime if there are no more frontiers” (183).

Her sentiment here coincides with that of Fredric Jameson who, after the fall of the Berlin Wall had posed the question of how “the prospect of olitical and economic autonomy [can] be held out…when cultural autonomy proves there also to be so dismal a failure” (Jones 12). Having lived during the period of the Berlin Wall’s persistency, it is perhaps not unreasonable to view her characters’ loss of “frontiers” as an implicit denunciation of those real life figures who too have submitted their (cultural) individuality. The result of this submission is “crime,” as Kristeva had written; subsistent crime that spawns from the world evils.

A specific account of “evil” proliferating the world due to this lack of autonomy, this lack of signification, is that which resulted in the loss of Kristeva’s father. Hospitalized in Berlin in 1989, the elderly Stoyan Kristeva became the subject of medical experimentation. Explained by Kristeva: “When old people arrived, one readily used operating methods that were not quite up to date. So, this was an operation that went wrong” (Midttun). The resulting turmoil however, incited Kristeva to compose a novel, specifically The Old Man and the Wolves, “to endure the grief.

It was a kind of grief therapy” (Midttun). The implication of this acknowledgement alone is likely sufficient to establish that the novel’s similarities to aspect of Kristeva’s experience are not merely coincident but intentionally similized for the purpose of providing an analytic view the problem of evil today, such as that which resulted in her father’s death. Kristeva acknowledges, however, “you cannot analyze someone without yourself becoming part of the listening situation.

“Freud compared the psychoanalyst to the archaeologist and the detective;” that said, the juxtaposition of Kristeva, a psychoanalyst, with her female detective, Stephanie Delacour, is in a like manner viable (Midttun). Through this lens, an object of interest presents itself in the temporal form of the novel. Although The Old Man and the Wolves is titled, regarded and advertised as a detective story (“The form that stood out as the natural choice was the crime genre” (Midttun)), the timeline often diverges from the plot in order to account tales from Delacour’s (or Kristeva’s) youth.

Very apropos to is Kristeva’s acknowledgement of “circular time,” as divulged in Crossing the Borders (Midttun). The gift of narration and reflection that she bestows upon her narrator is more though than a circular sense of time—it is downright Tralfamadorian. This method, as described by Anny Jones, exists for the rejection of a ‘naively univocal’ reading, a concept not dissimilar to Kristeva’s use of the semiotic to reject a ‘naively univocal’ symbolism or to reject the ‘naively univocal’ control exerted by her wolves and those without cultural autonomy.

It is her intrinsic method of retaliation against those who were so carelessly responsible for killing her father. Nonetheless, the divergences in the plot are reflective in nature and, as Kristeva has stated, “through reflection, you see that the problems are far more complex, and through philosophy—and to an even larger degree through a novel—you can render a more polyphonic and perhaps more trenchant picture” (Midttun).

That said, such scene as that in which Stephanie dreams of her father being decapitated by a train offer significant possibility in terms of interpretation. Stephanie willingly acknowledges that she, like the others in Santa Varvara, has become a wolf: “I’m one of them. A wolf. A female wolf who knows what’s behind it all and is prepared o talk about it…is there a difference at all? ”(183). Though not necessarily enthusiastically, she accepts her status as a proponent of crime and lax morals, viewing the lupine nature as an affect of modernity.

In direct opposition falls the description of her father, as “out of place everything: uprooted in Santa Varvara, expatriates in Paris, just passing through…” (141). He, like the Old Man—with whom he “grew so inseparable that people often mixed them up”—is of an alternative world to that which houses appendicularly the wolves. It is this world, its dreamscape component within Stephanie’s mind, that subconsciously kills him (153).

It is unlikely though that Stephanie and her counterpart in reality, Kristeva, had actually possessed any desire to kill their fathers; when the wolf’s infection is viewed as an affect of modernity, this dreamed death becomes nothing more than an image of the contention between the old and the new. Her father an old world figure and she herself a symbol of novelty. This is but another set of contrasts presented throughout a novel now so conclusively an image of the compatibility of opposing forces, whether fictitious or actual.

In our real macrocosm of symbolic assignations, meaning is constantly broken down, adopting foreign definition until the original signifier is no longer best suited to represent it. Contrasts are lost and must be adjured and modified, for what should afterwards remain of the signified but its loosely fitting label? Kristeva issues such a cautionary message through the opposition of her own selected subjects: Semiotic vs. Symbolic; Abjection vs. Symbolic Order; Signification vs. Homogeneity; Linearity vs. Annularity; Free will vs. Determinism: they all eventually converge.

Cite this page

The Old Man and the Wolves. (2017, Feb 02). Retrieved from

The Old Man and the Wolves

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