Jacqueline Rose on Women in Dark Times

Jacqueline Rose portrait by Jonathan Ring.
Jacqueline Rose portrait by Jonathan Ring.

For three decades, Jacqueline Rose has worked at the nexus of psychoanalysis, literature, and feminist thought. She has written critical monographs on Proust and Plath, reflections on Zionism and war informed by Kleinian psychoanalysis, and, in collaboration with Cambridge’s Juliet Mitchell, a groundbreaking revision of Lacan’s writings on feminine sexuality. She was resident in Cambridge in autumn 2014 as the Diane Middlebrook and Carl Djerassi Visiting Professor at the Centre for Gender Studies, writing and lecturing on the subject of ‘women and the abomination of violence.’

Katrina Zaat and Ina Linge met with Rose to discuss her most recent book, Women in Dark Times. She describes it as ‘a series of love letters’ to exceptional women of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It is also a clear-eyed critique of the sadistic perfectionism to which women are held in imperfect societies. Katrina’s and Ina’s reflections on the interview follow in the form of letters.





Ina Linge: In your chapter on Marilyn Monroe you observe that Arthur Miller realised men venerated Monroe’s sexuality as something innocent and natural. And yet, over the course of their marriage, Miller fell into exactly the same trap. Indeed, throughout the book you tell us to be suspicious of “innocence”, “naturalness”, and “perfection.” What is the danger of this “perfection” for women?

Jacqueline Rose: I felt that Monroe was being asked to carry the can for a post-war America that both wanted to believe it was perfect and knew that it wasn’t. It knew it was already violent—not just in a redemptive way, as in World War II, but with the beginnings of Korea, of Vietnam & McCarthyism. Monroe was being asked to represent a social and political illusion, and that’s why she excited the mania she did. Women are often asked to carry the weight of what is wrong with the social body. The danger is, first of all, that it is such a punishing demand. Anything less than perfect and you’re hated. Monroe knew about this, too. She said, “If they love you that much without knowing you, they can also hate you the same way.” All idealisation is punishing and sadistic. The second risk is that they’ll believe it themselves. That slight outsider-ness of being a woman can turn from a form of political irony and vision, as it is for Hannah Arendt, for example, into a redemptive vision of womanhood, in which you think it’s up to you to make things right.

IL: I want to ask about the idea of creaturely life, which comes up especially in your chapter on Rosa Luxemburg. You write: “You can only be a genuine revolutionary if you are in touch with the creaturely, microscopic cruelties of an exploitative, nature-blind world.” So there seems to be an interesting tension: creatureliness as being close to precarious “bare life,” but also as a starting point for activity, a state full of potential.

Rose: Obviously Judith Butler has written about “precarious life” and Eric Santner has written about “creaturely life,” so I want to acknowledge a debt to both of them. But I was guided throughout this book by the people I was trying to understand. My terms come more or less from them. With Rosa Luxemburg, her interest in the subjectivity of ladybugs and birds has to be considered alongside her critique of [British astronomer] O.R. Walkey’s concept of infinity as a sphere. She finds it fatuous, because it turns infinity into something self-contained and manageable. Whereas, for her, the whole point of infinity is precisely that there’s no bounding it or mastering it. Out of that notion of an unpredictable and spontaneous universe, the logical consequence arises of being connected to things you don’t realise you’re connected to.

I think Luxemburg believed our main political task is to step over into an understanding of people, things, classes, races, that are not our own. She hated Polish nationalism, for example. But once you open yourself up beyond the limits of identification, then there’s no end to whom or what you might need to see yourself as. If you have the capacity—and this is socialism, for Luxemburg—to identify across class and national boundaries, then there will be no limit to what you find yourself in touch with, even if it’s unsettling.

IL: Could it be then that this “creaturely,” inner life is very close to the “dark times” of the title?

Rose: Well it’s a tribute to Hannah Arendt, Men in Dark Times [1968]. But I rapidly realised that it had other connotations, notably psychoanalytic. On the one hand, it means the awfulness of the times for women. I’m not sure if violence against women is worse now, but it’s more visible. That may be a good thing—we’re talking about FGM, we’re talking about rape as a war crime—but it’s a double-edged sword. The visibility of it also invites the culture to normalise it through moral outrage. As if outrage were enough. I think we’ve got to be very careful with that. But the main argument of the book, I hope, is that there’s a darkness to the human psyche. If you are not solicited by the dominant rhetoric to make the worst forms of social and phallic identification—i.e. if you’re a woman—then on a good day you will have a certain access to darkness. You won’t have to wipe it out, you won’t have to stamp on it, you won’t have to re-repress it in the name of some harmonious form of psychosocial identity. The enlightenment project demands that women be allowed to enter the corridors of power. Mary Wollstonecraft famously said, “let us reason together”—which I don’t discredit for a minute. But it can also be seen as an attempt to deny the complexity of the human mind. “We will enter the citizenship of reason.” It just doesn’t work like that. I like to think that the wonderful women in this book demonstrate how important it is to be in touch with something that is difficult and dark and torn. It’s not precariousness, it’s psychic conflict. At my most affirmative, I like to think this is what feminism has to bring to politics full stop. There are all these blokes rushing around doing terrible things, driven by unconscious fantasies and desires and forms of self-affirmation. I think feminism should say, “One, that’s not who you are; and two, that’s not who you have to be. Man or woman.” That’s what I want feminism to see as its gift.

Katrina Zaat: In recent writings you’ve alluded to an observation of Melanie Klein’s: that the presence of women reminds men, discomfitingly, that they were once part of a woman’s body. As a consequence, Klein says, the rivalry between men and women is more “asocial” than rivalry between men, because it highlights the closeness between the genders that men want to deny. I am also thinking about your comment on the sexual assaults on protestors in Tahrir Square: that “violence against women must not only be done, but be seen to be done.” In light of these two ideas, I wonder if you could comment on the internet trolling of feminists—the astonishing coprolalic excess of these verbal attacks.

Rose: Mary Beard gave a wonderful lecture about this in February. She talked about men’s rage in response to a certain kind of articulateness in women. She’s been a real target of this herself. But there’s something else to be said here: when women step onto the public stage, they give the lie to the delusion that we sublimate our bodies in the words we speak. What men see when a woman stands up and speaks is a woman, with a woman’s body. They sexualise the speaker, and then the awareness of bodily reality rebounds back onto them. They really hate her for that. It makes it harder to sustain the delusion that, in public speech, men are the masters of themselves and everybody else. As for Melanie Klein’s observation, I just think it is astounding. And “rivalry” is the key word. War in the changing room—that’s what boys are meant to do. Men turning on women, that’s worse. Because there’s no socially-sanctioned place for that aggression.

IL: I understand your book as an intervention into the understanding of women as either victims or free agents responsible for all their actions. Would you agree that we need a more situated sense of women’s agency to understand our times?

Rose: Yes. Women’s agency comes out of their capacity to negotiate the darkness of their own lives. Take Rosa Luxemburg: her partner, [activist] Leo Jogiches, was ghastly by any standard. She wanted a family and he wouldn’t hear of it; he wouldn’t walk down the street with her; when she finally asked for the keys to her flat back, he followed her around with a gun. She had warned him that his neglect of the inner life, his obsessive focus on only politics, would destroy both their relationship and their political ideals. After leaving him, she describes lying on her bed and literally being able to see the bruises on her soul. She says, “Those bruises are what gave me the courage for a new life.”

The women in this book go looking underneath the surface of their own lives and histories, to find what’s blocking them, but also to find the resources that will help them defy their own predicaments. I do believe that if you negotiate these things as complex aspects of your own psyche then you will not have to subordinate other people to the project of lying to yourself. Women are neither perfectly free agents nor simple victims. In the case of the mother of [honour-killing victim] Shafileh Ahmed, this gets very tricky. She allowed her surviving daughter to stand in the dock for weeks, saying “My parents killed my sister.” She allowed the defence to discredit not only the live daughter but also the dead one. You can say she did it because she was dominated by a ghastly, patriarchal husband, which is true up to a point. But then of course you’ve made her a pure victim of her own life. You’ve taken all agency from her. If you don’t do that, you have to explain how a woman could possibly murder her own daughter. We have to just say, we cannot square this circle. If you go for one or the other, you’ve dehumanised her either way.

KZ: I want to take up this suggestive binary of women as “victims” and women as “survivors.” Your use of it seems to explicitly position your book as an intervention into current feminist debate.

JR: I know one of the book’s most provocative sentences is: “They’re never solely the victims of their histories, even if that history finally kills them.” Charlotte Salomon would be the best example. She certainly was the victim of her history, in that she died in Auschwitz. But in the two years before that, living in the South of France, she painted 1300 gouache paintings in two years—that’s two to three a day—which told the double history of the rise of Nazism and the devastating impact of that history and its pre-history on her family. When she discovers that seven members of her family  killed themselves, she says, “I will live for them all.” That statement takes the worst of what has happened and incorporates it into a survivor’s strategy. I think the book is her way of surviving. I see her as an agent of her life over and over again.

Now, In relation to current debates in feminism, one of the people I am taking my distance from—and she’s receiving fresh attention lately, for good reasons—is Catherine MacKinnon. She’s been talking about violence against women the longest and the loudest. When I decided to research feminism and violence during my time in Cambridge, I thought, I must read MacKinnon again. I hoped I would like it, but I couldn’t bear it. I respect hugely the legal work she’s done, and her demand for a different kind of attentiveness to women’s rights. But the vision of women and sexuality that she produces as an effect of that—the image of women as the permanent victims of their history—is one from which I would seriously want to disassociate myself. When she says she looks at the picture of a 9-11 victim and says, “I want to know who hurt her before,” I think, that’s not all I want to know about that woman. David Simpson has written brilliantly about the hideous affirmative sameness of the life narratives attached to 9-11 victims, and I don’t want that. But neither do I want, “who hurt her before?” Nor, with reference to the archeologically retrieved bones of ancient civilisations, to make the most important question: “Were women’s skulls, backs and legs cracked and broken by blows?” I don’t think that’s ever the whole story. I don’t want all the women in this book—the ones who’ve died—to be only remembered through their deaths. That is a feminist point for me.

KZ: One pang that I feel when I see the word “survivor” being used as you use it is that I want all these women to have lived to be eighty, and to have been happy! I’m thinking, too, of the critiques of the term “survivor” that Susan Sontag, and later Barbara Ehrenreich, made in relation to the discourse of illness: that the woman with the greatest will to live is the one who “beats” the illness, and what does that say about the ones we have lost? I’m troubled by some of the ideas that constellate around the term “survivor.”

JR: Certainly, it’s tricky. I mean, for psychoanalysis, everyone is a survivor of their own story because they can tell it. And in the process of telling it, it moves. My favourite example of that is Christopher Bollas’ wonderful essay on incest. He writes that when somebody walks in and says they’ve been abused, his heart sinks. Of course you believe them and you feel tremendous compassion, but you also know it is all you will talk about, over and over. His insight is that that’s what the abuse did to the person. They were someone capable of reverie; capable of poïesis, of moving around in their minds. And this brute reality came in, and that’s all that’s left. Abuse shuts the mind by attaching it to the moment of violence. So the point of the analysis is to allow the patient to start letting their language and their thoughts move beyond the occurrence of the trauma. And that, for me, is crucial in not getting stuck in a rhetoric of harm, as if that’s the end of the story.

I know it’s tricky with Luxemburg, Monroe and Salomon, because they all died before their time. But one doesn’t want to fetishise the deaths—there can be a kind of swamping of the person by their death. Still, of course, having worked a lot on Sylvia Plath, I can’t help yearning to know what would have happened if she’d lived longer. If Sexton and Plath had had feminism, they might have lived to be eighty. But if you crush them into the final moment of their death, then you take away everything that they were. You ignore everything that they did with the suffering that, in the case of Sexton and Plath, was finally too much for them. The whole of their poetry is their continuing work on the project of survival.

IL: Your book concerns itself with the limits of the human—with the misfits, the aliens, the other. You write about the darkness of women and you urge us to make use of it. Do you think that, to some, this could be seen as a mystification? Critiques of Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis come to mind. They have been criticised for glorifying paranoia by using it as a model for their analysis, and thereby alienating and denying the paranoid’s emergency.

JR: I hope I don’t deny anyone’s emergency. I’m certainly not in the business of denying psychic states that border on the unbearable. When I wrote about Dora a long time ago—it was a type of initiation rite for feminist thinkers—and I was very concerned that we should not idealise hysteria as a form of self-affirmation. It is too painful for that. But hysteria may also be telling a certain truth. So that’s the line I want to walk. I’m saying that the darkness that women are in touch with gives them a certain insight, but I have no wish to deny the pain that is attached to it. I said in the lecture that I do believe in heroism, but I don’t believe in idealization. The question, of course, is whether you can have one without the other.

The other thing I might say in answer to your earlier question, Katrina, is that these women survive through our ongoing commitment to them. I see this as one of the tasks of feminism—to keep these women alive. But yes, I’ve been asked that before: aren’t you skirting perilously close to the idea that women are the irrational, or the dark, or the mystic? I certainly hope not, because when you’re talking about psychoanalysis you cannot mystify any aspect of the psyche. The point of psychoanalysis is to stop idealisation, because we see it as punishing, as in the case of Monroe. I hope I’m not glorifying or mystifying women—certainly I’m not relegating them into the category of the irrational. I’m saying they have a certain kind of attunement to something which all of us need, men and women. That’s the key.



Katrina’s Letter to Ina

Dear Ina,

I’m glad this book exists, aren’t you? I admire these women as artists of their own lives. They stood up to totalitarian fictions with such wit and subtlety. In a recent conversation between Rose and Juliet Mitchell, Mitchell pointed out that second-wave feminism was never about the exceptional women—the figureheads, the stars—but about every woman. Mitchell suggested that Rose, in this book, gets the wrong end of the ‘personal is political’ stick—that she elevates (mere) personal details into political significance, rather than showing how ideology works its brute force in personal lives.

In fact, I think Rose achieves both, perhaps especially in her chapter on honour killings. Indeed, I see these two things as dialectically bound together in the process of feminist knowledge-gathering. I need to hear about ten thousand “isolated” instances of violence against women if I am to understand the law of violence on which this society runs. But it’s also my work as a feminist to imagine a different world and bring it closer. In that imaginative work, it helps to have the specifics of how a few very daring, very gifted women risked their lives to defend a few truths they considered important. I want the quotations and the anecdotes, the glittering particulars. They are weapons forged by someone else—Luxemburg, Salomon, Monroe—that I can now use.

Perhaps your politics are closer to Rose’s than mine are. I find MacKinnon, for example, indispensable. She’s part of a strand of feminism that identifies women as an exploited class, with men as the beneficiaries. With feminism back in the public conversation, I think we need this insight more than ever. It explains why merely pointing out inequality doesn’t fix it, and why violence against women is endemic. Hierarchy has to be reinforced—if not by perfect ideological control, then by intimidation. As Rose said in her Djerassi lecture, patriarchy is partially but not totally effective; which accounts for feminism’s necessity, and also for its possibility. We work in the margin between the total control toward which patriarchy strains, and the finite control it actually has. With persistence, we can work it wider and wider. But there will be a pushback.

I simply do not believe that spotlighting violence against women reduces us to that violence. Telling the truth about the violence men have done to me has not stopped me from moving around in my mind, as Rose’s reference to Christopher Bollas suggested. It has made me more intellectually agile, in fact—more committed; more usefully angry; more curious about the experiences of others. As we share our stories, the data points start joining up. A pattern emerges that links, for example, Shafilea Ahmed, Jyoti Singh, Tuğçe Albayrak, Malala Yousafzai, the Pussy Riot trial, the Isla Vista killings, the Montreal massacre, Cosby, Polanski, Savile, Rochdale, Rotherham. We need some way to understand these situations that does not dismiss each one as a singular, exceptional depravity.

Of course, Rose acknowledges this, and she picks out her own pattern from the noise. I love her insight that women are less forcefully interpellated by the symbolic order (because we still don’t have the status of full human subjects); and that gives us more freedom to work outside its hypocritical values. I agree that this is feminism’s dark gift. Women see—are forced to see—what the dominant culture can’t bear to. I’m not so persuaded by the Arendtian/Kleinian idea she advances, that what men fear most about women is the potential for new life we represent. After all, women too old and too young to be mothers are also feared. I think we are scary because we are exploited, and the exploited are a time bomb (though they try to tell us that ticking we hear is just our biological clocks). Perhaps our incapacitation by child-rearing first exposed us to such forms of control. But it continues now, far beyond biological exigency, because it suits the status quo. An IUD costs five US cents to make, and $500 to buy in America. Women are dying in India because medically-unqualified butchers are performing mass sterilisations for cash. 80% of professors in the UK are still men, which suggests that even the most privileged, educated women in the world are held back professionally by reproducing. I don’t think all this happens because our wombs are atavistically scary. I think it’s because they’re the soft, pink bits where they can still most effectively grab us and squeeze.

In her conversation with Mitchell, Rose explicitly distanced herself from the radical feminist ‘women as exploited sex-class’ position. She feels it has come to dominate over the insights of socialist and psychoanalytic feminism. But I can’t think of a more plausible explanation for the multiple disadvantages we still face. We are subordinated—actively, systematically, all the time—because someone benefits.

This doesn’t exclude talking about the exploitation of the poor by the rich. Multiple hierarchies can co-exist in mutual reinforcement. And it seems to me perfectly possible to square this with Rose’s psychoanalytic reading of men’s fear of women. Oppressors fear the people they oppress. Above all, they fear the suggestion that the exploited group are out of control—that they have obscure, unquantifiable reserves of power that might erupt at any time. We see this in representations of women, of brown and black people, of Muslims. Perhaps women’s subjugation is peculiar in that it is largely managed through idealisation. “Idealisation is always punishing.” That observation of Rose’s has stayed with me. I aspire to be a Lady Lazarus—rotten, uncanny, out of bounds—to honour all the women who resisted before. Sylvia Plath. Anne Sexton. Emmeline Pankhurst. Mary Jane Clarke. Charlotte Salomon. Rosa Luxemburg. Marilyn Monroe. Safia Ahmed-jan. Konca Kuriş. Zil-e-Huma Usman. These women might not have seen eighty, but they live on in our wrath and in our love.





Ina’s reply

Dear Katrina,

I remember a conversation I had with a past lover. They were the kind of person who seemed familiar with the entire canon of gender and feminist milestones and told me about local cyborg communes on our first date. They were also, unfortunately, the kind of person who seemed to think that sexual liberation meant that sexual partners should be treated as accessories to one’s personal satisfaction. During one of our irregular dates (commitment was profoundly uncool) we argued about whether trigger warnings, consensus hand signals and autonomous housing projects run by and for queers were a good thing. I said that I found it important to acknowledge hurt and vulnerability. My lover just said: then what? And I didn’t know.

I don’t think that I was wrong, but since our interview with Jacqueline Rose, I also (rather begrudgingly) admit that ‘then what?’ may well be a useful question. I stand by my opinion that acknowledging vulnerability and pain is an important step that puts into discourse the physical, psychological and structural violence and abuse that women disproportionally suffer from all over the world—but that has to be the beginning of something else.

I appreciate the point Rose makes about the deaths of the women discussed in her book: Do we want to remember them just by the way they died? Of course that must be part of the story—we should not be silent about the fact that Charlotte Salomon was murdered in Auschwitz, that it makes a difference whether Monroe committed suicide or whether she was killed or that Plath—to point towards Rose’s other important work, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991)—took her own life. But I like Rose’s book for what it is: a series of love letters to women who, despite their untimely deaths, led incredible lives, an attempt to do justice to their personalities and actions.

As I understand her, Rose does not discredit the fact that agency—the ability to rally, to counter-act, to demand change—can be born out of discussions about private encounters with harm and violence, such as Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project. I understand her refusal to spotlight violence as an attempt to shed light on that agency. One of the most striking aspects of Rose’s book is this intervention into an understanding of women as either victims or free agents responsible for all their actions. In our interview Rose talked about the mother of honour-killing victim, Shafileh Ahmed. In her book she also talks about Shafileh’s sister, Alesha, and decidedly turns away from seeing her as solely the victim of, or complicit with, her parents’ murder of her sister. She asks how we can think of women as affected by their history but not merely the victims of it, even if that history finally kills them. And in her discussion of Marilyn Monroe, she does not trivialise her, like so many others would do, for being a movie star, for being a part of the Hollywood machine that subjected her to patriarchal exploitation. Instead, Rose focuses on the critical potential Monroe had because she was deeply embedded in Hollywood’s power structure. This situated sense of agency considers the varying positions from which one can act and speak and offers an answer to a fear ushered in by post-structuralism, that we are the helpless victims of the cultural and social norms that pervade us, that everything we do is out of our control. As you wrote in your letter, it is in the margins between total and finite control that action can take place.

I think this is where Rosa Luxemburg’s rejection of the idea of the universe as a sphere offers a parallel to Rose’s feminist politics. Luxemburg didn’t want us to lock ourselves up inside a closed, rational, self-similar system—neither in our cosmology, nor in our politics. For Rose, the mentality of victimhood is one such system. Luxemburg’s creaturely affinities are turned outwards and towards a sheer endless variety of life: the ladybug, the bird, the plant, the beast, the buffalo, Mount Pele. Luxemburg’s attempts at identifying with those radically other to herself bleed across species boundaries. Of course you can never be the other, as Rose suggests Luxemburg tries to be. But there is such potential in opening yourself up to this otherness, which Rose sees also as a kind of spontaneity, an influence on her messy feminism that has no sharp edges because it is absolutely pervasive and unpredictable. To me, this is also what connects feminism to other kinds of political discourses on race, ability, and human-animal difference. This is where Rose on Luxemburg reminds me of Donna Haraway’s politics of affinity that she laid out in her Cyborg Manifesto: a feminist politics that bleeds across unsavoury boundaries, is partial and without innocence. This is something that Monroe could certainly agree with—she knew like no other that perfection and idealisation are lethal to women.

For Luxemburg, the perfect revolution is not desirable: “The only flawless revolution would be dead.” For Rose, there is a similar principle driving feminism as a powerful form of social critique. I see similarities with her piece on the importance of literary criticism in which she says that “by opening a text to the endless process of interpretation […] it prevents us from thinking that the world can be made perfect by stopping it.” This acknowledgment of the fortuitous loss of perfection and stasis is one that I recognise in the darkness and madness that Rose ascribed to women and, to me, it represents Rose’s incisive contribution to current feminist debates.




Katrina Zaat is researching a PhD in the Faculty of English at Cambridge on American literary travellers in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century. She blogs at katrinazaat.com and tweets @katrinazaat.

Ina Linge completed her Ph.D. with the Department of German at King’s College, University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on the performance of “deviance” in sexological and psychoanalytic life writings.