BY Nina Power in Profiles | 31 OCT 14
Featured in
Issue 167

Rare Minds

The dark, unsettling feminism of Jacqueline Rose

BY Nina Power in Profiles | 31 OCT 14

Charlotte Salomon, Leben? oder Theater? (Life? Or Theatre?, detail), 1940–42 Courtesy Collection Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam; © Charlotte Salomon Foundation, Charlotte Salomon®

In times of crisis, what is the political efficacy of dwelling in shadows? Of remaining with the fine line that separates doubt from certainty, sanity from mental oblivion? Jacqueline Rose’s work has always tarried with the ambiguous. Her Sexuality in the Field of Vision (1986) provided a highly influential and admirably clear account of the fraught theoretical and political entanglement between psychoanalysis and feminism. While in The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991) she fathomed the ambiguity of literary identity, writing: ‘Plath hovers between the furthest poles of positive and negative appraisal; she hovers in the space of what is most extreme, most violent, about appraisal, valuation, about moral and literary assessment as such.’ Rose has also written on Palestinian struggles and Israeli violence. In 2007, in response to the common charge of being a ‘self-hating Jew’, she claimed: ‘I hate neither myself nor Israel when I criticize the policies of the state. I hate what the Israeli government is doing, and has been doing for a very long time, to the Palestinians and to itself.’ With Albertine (2002), Rose published a book of fiction imagined from the standpoint of Marcel Proust’s captive; and she has examined children’s fiction in The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (1984).

The stylistic paradox of Rose’s oeuvre as a whole is played out in the enjoyable tension between a crystalline lucidity, clear political conviction and a deeper desire to adhere to what is most difficult, most unsettling, most recalcitrant. Rose remains that rare mind: as at home in academic prose as in fiction, public intellectual debate or, especially, in the gaps that usually – and unfortunately – separate these spheres from one another. She is, above all, an essayist who seeks not to tidy away but to expose ‘the overlooked, the rejected, the unseen’, as she puts it in her new book, Women in Dark Times (2014).

Rose’s latest work, at first glance, contains a rather bizarre collection of themes – some historical, some artistic, some political. There is a chapter each on three ‘stars’, as she calls them: Rosa Luxemburg, the artist Charlotte Salomon and Marilyn Monroe; a section on the so-called ‘honour killings’ of Shafilea Ahmed and Heshu Yones in the UK, and Fadime Sahindal in Sweden; and a final section, entitled ‘Living’, that discusses three contemporary female artists: Yael Bartana, Thérèse Oulton and Esther Shalev-Gerz. It is a book clearly written from the standpoint of magisterial self-confidence, not only in the material but also in the not initially obvious connections between these figures.

Rosa Luxemburg addressing a meeting in Stuttgart, 1907. Courtesy: Universal History Archive / Getty Images

What binds these stories together is a kind of conceptual, two-component glue: firstly, Rose’s urgent declaration that we are in dire need of ‘a scandalous feminism’, which embraces ‘without inhibition the most painful, outrageous aspects of the human heart, giving them their place at the very core of the world that feminism wants to create’, and, secondly, that these are all stories that refuse victimhood at the very point at which oppression and death are most intertwined.

That all of Rose’s three ‘stars’ are murdered or pushed towards death (Luxemburg was shot alongside Karl Liebknecht by the Freikorps in 1919, Salomon – five months pregnant – died in Auschwitz, and Monroe’s death is still shrouded in mystery) does not make them, for her, ‘victims’. Instead, they are ‘truth-tellers who lay bare the ugly secrets of the consensus’. In Luxemburg’s case, this is achieved through revolutionary enthusiasm. Rose quotes her prison letter that contains the line: ‘To be a human being is the main thing above all else […] And that means to be firm and clear and cheerful, yes cheerful in spite of everything and anything because howling is the business of the weak.’ In Salomon’s case, truth is laid bare through ‘painting against terror’, as Rose writes in regard to Salomon’s epic Leben? oder Theater? (Life? Or Theatre?, 1940–42), which consists of over 700 gouaches that intertwine text, images and musical scores. Salomon’s ‘counter-fascist ethic’ is her ‘hymn to freedom’, not only against the rising Nazi threat but also against the many suicides of family members, including her mother and grandmother, and her own fear of madness. Rose is at her strongest in the Salomon chapter, weaving together art criticism with political history, biography with detailed analysis of individual sections of the work. She notes, for example, that there is no black in any of Salomon’s paintings, so that the painted darkness forms a continuum with colour, rather than setting up opposites: ‘The most sombre moments are in visual continuum with the rest of her life.’

The chapter on honour killings might appear to be something of a leap, were it not for the fact that, as Rose points out, the same question applies: ‘How to think of women as subjected but not – solely – the victims of their lives?’ Directly confronting the horror of these killings, as well as the opportunistic use made of them by racist media narratives, Rose seeks to go to the heart of the difficulties inherent in explaining and punishing these kinds of murders: ‘The problem goes deeper [than the law],’ she writes, and ‘into the darkest sexual recesses of the mind where – historical evidence suggests – neither love nor reason has ever found it easy to follow.’ Rose’s part-etymological, part-political discussion of the concepts of ‘shame’, ‘honour’ and ‘purity’ in a variety of languages does much to move the discussion on and away from reactionary tropes of ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ Islam and purely ‘cultural’ non-explanations.

The final section on the three contemporary artists Bartana, Oulton and Shalev-Gerz, is both an original contribution to art-historical scholarship and an opportunity to reiterate the claims Rose has been making throughout the book. Indeed, often she will repeat a phrase from one of her ‘stars’ at various junctures – for example Monroe’s perhaps surprising claim that: ‘Everyone has violence in them. I am violent.’ – as if unable and unwilling simply to have done with the idea at hand. That these notions circulate around violence, a lack of innocence, ambiguity, madness, emotional existence and creativity testifies not only to Rose’s long-term psychoanalytically inflected passions, but also to the complexity of the world as it really is, and not how we might optimistically want it to be. Rose’s dark, unsettling feminism does not turn away from injustice but cuts into its deepest, most troubling core.

Nina Power is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Roehampton University, London, UK, and the author of One Dimensional Woman (2009).