Feminist psychoanalytic philosopher and literary critic Jacqueline Rose had a visiting professorship at Cambridge last year which coincided with the release of her latest book, Women in Dark Times. Rose describes the book as ‘a series of love letters’ to exceptional women of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It has chapters devoted to the Polish-Jewish socialist activist Rosa Luxemburg, Marilyn Monroe, and Charlotte Salomon, an artist of exceptional talent and verve who produced a visual memoir of the rise of Nazism and its devastation of her family, before she was interned and murdered in Auschwitz.
During Rose’s residency, I had a chance to interview her with my friend and colleague Ina Linge. The full text, followed by Ina’s and my personal responses, can be found on the King’s Review website, where this interview was published. Below are some excerpts.
“Idealisation is always punishing.” Jacqueline Rose on the burden of womanly perfection, as embodied by Marilyn Monroe.
Ina Linge: 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?
Jacqueline 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.
Katrina Zaat: 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.
From my letter to Ina, reflecting on the interview:
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 suggested in her reference to Christopher Bollas’s essay on incest trauma. 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 aren’t given the status of full subjects), and this 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.
From Ina’s reply:
Rosa Luxemburg’s rejection of the idea of the universe as a sphere [discussed in the book] 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 … There is such potential in opening yourself up to 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.
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.
Feature image: a candid photograph of Rosa Luxemburg looking like the bad-ass she was.