Jacqueline Rose

Jacqueline Rose is internationally acclaimed as a public intellectual for her writing on feminism, literature and psychoanalysis. She is professor of english at Queen Mary, university of London. In the autumn term of 2014 she takes up the Diane Middlebrook/Carl Djerassi chair in gender studies at cambridge. From january 2015, she will be professor of the humanities at the institute of the humanities, Birkbeck, university of London. Her many books include The Haunting of Sylvia Plath and On not Being able to Sleep, and a novel, Albertine. She is a regular contributor to the London review of books.

Thomas Roueché I wanted to ask what drew you to the three women who make up the first part of your book: Marilyn Monroe, Rosa Luxemburg and Charlotte Salomon?
Jacqueline Rose The book is a tribute to Hannah Arendt’s Men in Dark Times. At the end of the preface, she writes that you never know with people who you really admire and love and respect “whether their light was the light of a candle or that of a blazing sun.” So I was interested in what would happen if you start thinking about the particular contributions that women have made to illuminating what is dark at a particular moment. It started from the fact that I felt for Rosa Luxemburg, Charlotte Salomon and Marilyn Monroe and the more I read about them the more it struck me that something had been missed about the way we think about them. In the case of Rosa Luxemburg it was the idea that her private life was some sort of additional, slightly sentimental addition, to her political and revolutionary struggle that “made her human after all.” With Charlotte Salomon it was the idea that you had to choose between the dreadful trauma of her personal life with seven suicides in her family, the rise of Nazism, and her extraordinary creativity. We’re talking over a thousand gouaches in the space of two years, and it’s an artistic document that has had no parallel before or since. The gouaches are a form of painting that represents everything Nazism hated. And with Monroe it was realising, not just what a brilliant performer she was, but what a canny, politically committed and psychologically self-aware person she was. So if you put Luxemburg and Monroe together the cliché is Luxemburg, all mind, Monroe all body; and it’s wrong on both accounts. Monroe was as much mind as body and Luxemburg was as much body as mind.

TR And how does the rest of the book follow on from these portraits?
JR I felt, Wow, as women, they are all exposing the underside of their cultural moments, and I think they have a very special type of insight. And then that took me into honour killing, because honour killing is really the form of violence against women that gives the lie to the argument that feminism is complete. And it’s right in our midst; it’s not just a problem over there that can be safely assigned to “non-Western” cultures. So I feel the honour-killing chapter is a way of saying the task of feminism is not done, as of course many women are saying today, and there’s a darkness right at the heart of our culture that you can’t just offload onto other cultures. And then my final stream of women artists are just, and this is really a book of my favourite women [laughs], women I love. Esther Shalev-Gerz combs the dustbins of Europe, giving voice to people who most people don’t see, let alone listen to; Yael Bartana is writing the counter-narrative of what it means to be a Jewish exile; and Thérèse Oulton is painting the destruction of the Earth. So in every case, there is something very disturbing underneath the surface, which I feel these women are bringing to our attention and saying, Can we please think about this?

TR I’m interested in your connection between wider forces and these individuals who all seem to be bearing the weight of a generation.
JR I’ll just give you one very simple example. It’s a known fact that Monroe took a lot of drugs, but what has now emerged is that the spread of tranquilisers in America in the 1950s, which she became part of, was the result of the Second World War. It was to do with returning soldiers who had been traumatised. For example, she worked at the Actor’s Lab in Hollywood – before the famous Actor’s Studio in New York – where they wouldn’t use Stanislavski memory experiments because they knew that that would lead the actors, many of whom were returning soldiers, into a confrontation with their own traumatised histories. They felt it was too risky. You hear all this stuff about how Marilyn Monroe took drugs, which she did, but I was absolutely amazed to discover that – and this is at the start of Prozac Nation – this was the beginning of a drug problem that was a legacy of the Second World War. It is not known how politically attuned Monroe was, at least not in a way that cannot be simply and patronisingly attributed to Arthur Miller. For example, she tried to persuade him to grant asylum to Indonesian president Sukarno, who had led his country’s struggle for independence, and she wrote to Lester Markel, editor of the Sunday New York Times in 1960 protesting the US’s failure to support the Cuban Revolution. She was appalled that America had not stood up for democracy: “I was brought up to believe in democracy, and when the Cubans finally threw out Battista with so much bloodshed, the United States doesn’t even stand behind them and give them help or support even to develop democracy.”*

TR I was wondering how, in your work, psychoanalysis plays into this idea of an individual lighting up a period or an era?
JR It’s always been a feminist insight that the person is political. The difficulty is that if you think psychoanalytically, if you go into the realm of the unconscious, you can’t be sure of what you’re going to find. You might open a portal and find something that is very painful or that you simply don’t like. That’s fundamental to psychoanalysis. But far from that being a problem, for me, I think that’s what feminism has to bring to the table of politics. The dark side of the psyche drives us politically. It’s at the core of our most violent political identifications; it’s at the core of our most defensive actions, it’s at the core of our possessiveness; it’s at the core of our inability to tolerate others, racism and so on. It’s one thing to say the personal is political – there’s patriarchy in the bedroom, that our intimate relationships are fraught with the baggage of sexual inequality – it’s another thing to say the personal is political – there are aspects of the mind and of our behaviour that are unconsciously driven. My suggestion is that feminism, having been the political movement that made that move into the personal is in fact able to talk about it in a way that no other political discourse can or wants to. So part of the purpose of this book is to say that the insight of feminism is to say our political identifications, the most intractable conflicts in the world, are driven by psychic processes, which are messy, sexy, complicated and painful. All the women in my book knew that and they all made it part of their political struggle. So all these women, because they’re so in touch with the agony of the psyche, bring to the surface aspects of the human heart that we all – men and women – need to be thinking about, but which, if I can put it very crudely, men are mostly encouraged to blindside or have nothing to do with. So they then perform them, because they’re in denial about them. There is a mantra that accompanies this book for me. 
We are feminists. We fight injustice against women. We are not innocent. We are not in flight from the darkest secrets of the soul. For that reason, we do not have to subdue the world to our will in order to enact them. We are feminists; listen carefully to what we have to say.
“Unspeakable things, unspoken” is Toni Morrison’s famous phrase (she was speaking of the unspoken history and memories of slavery in the US), and Laurie Penny’s new book is called Unspeakable Things. I want to take that literally. The unspeakable things are the most difficult things and feminism brings them to the political table, says, look guys, look what’s being done here, look what’s driving you, look what the identity is, look what the desire is, and look where the fragility is. Because if we can acknowledge the psychic fragility, and the immense complexity of who we are, then there will be less performance, less attempt to control the world and less violence.

Jacqueline Rose’s new book Women in Dark Times (Bloomsbury, 2014) is out now. §

*Marilyn Monroe to Lester Markel, 29 March 1960, cited in Lois Banner, MM: Personal, from the private archive of Marilyn Monroe (New York: Abrams, 2012), p. 182, emphasis original.

  • Jacqueline Rose