Jacqueline Rose: a life in writing

'Victimhood is something that happens but when you turn it into an identity you're psychically and politically finished'

One day, Jacqueline Rose came across a troubling passage in Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu. The narrator, Marcel, lies beside his sleeping lover Albertine and masturbates against her. "It seemed to me at those moments," writes Proust in Carol Clark's recent Penguin translation, "that I possessed her more completely, like an unconscious part of dumb nature." Professor Rose, feminist and psychoanalytic critic, bristled. "I thought 'This is ridiculous – she'd have woken up by now!' I had my feminist reaction – which is not my most obvious default position – which is just let the woman speak."

So Rose decided to awaken Proust's lover from her implausible slumber. In her 2001 novel, Albertine, the protagonist was not, or not merely, a wronged woman needing feminist liberation from a suffocating male neurotic's dismal sex act. Rose says: "The postcard version is: 'Poor girl falls in love with rich, sick aesthete. He traps her in his apartment. She dies.' There's a real feminist gothic narrative here – a horror story in a way."

She didn't want to tell that story. Rose's aim, as Alex Clark put it in her Guardian review, was to "return to Albertine her intelligence". "It's not that I wanted her to be innocent," says Rose. "I wanted to unravel her from the inside." But there was a limit to how much Rose could unravel. "People have been very cross with me for not representing her as an antisemite. But I couldn't do that. I couldn't enter into the skin in that way."

That compunction is both understandable – what Jew wants to ventriloquise an antisemite? – and mystifying since Rose's vocation is that of fearless critic, ready to fight with Ted Hughes over her interpretation of Sylvia Plath's poetry and to battle against those who hate her for daring to psychoanalyse Israel. In Proust, to whom she returns repeatedly in her work, Rose found a Jewish writer of greater imaginative ruthlessness. It is Proust who goes right into the psychic space of his enemy. For instance, Proust writes about the Baron de Charlus who, in one incendiary passage of antisemitic sex fantasy, imagines a Jewish acquaintance's mother being beaten. "It would make an excellent show," salivates Charlus, "the sort of thing we like, eh, my young friend … to thrash that non-European bitch would be giving a well-earned punishment to that old cow."

Rose quotes this passage in her new book, Proust Among the Nations: From Dreyfus to the Middle East, as an example of "the logic of projection". It's the European baron, not hated, exoticised, Jewish (m)other, who, Rose writes, "truly deserves, longs for, a thrashing".

"This is Melanie Klein stuff," she says. "You project on to the other the bits of yourself that you can't stand, but the function is to utterly purify yourself of the feeling. So your innocence is a form of violence against others." Proust got to this thought before Freud and his successors; indeed, Rose teaches an MA seminar at Queen Mary's College, London, to test her idea that there is no thought Freud had that Proust didn't have with greater complexity.

What will scandalise some about Rose's new book is that she uses psychoanalysis on Israel. But isn't putting the Jewish state on the couch shaming? Rose retorts: "I think it's Nietzsche who says somewhere that it's the people who are walking around happy, as if everything's perfect, who have something to be ashamed of. For psychoanalysis, psychic difficulty is your birthright and it's our attempt to repudiate it that makes it worse. So the point for me in using psychoanalysis to understand why a traumatised people might find locking themselves into a traumatised identity is to treat them with the greatest respect."

Not all Zionist positions warrant psychoanalytical critique. "The strand of Zionism I'm interested in is the one that seems unable to see the Palestinians and seems unable to recognise the darkness of its own history." It is the strand that won't recognise what Jews did to Palestinians in 1948 and Israel's role in facilitating the Sabra and Chatila massacres in 1982.

Rose denies she's anti-Zionist. "It more than makes sense as a nationalist movement. A wonderful Russian formalist thinker called Victor Shklovsky, talking about the aesthetic choices facing the avant garde under Stalinism, said: 'There is no third way and that is the one we're going to take'. I don't see myself as an anti-Zionist or a Zionist: I see myself as a reader of Zionism trying to understand why it's so powerful and why it does seem to find it very hard to look at its own past."

Critics, especially those who oppose the Independent Jewish Voices group she helped establish in 2007, doubt Rose's third way. Mail columnist Melanie Phillips charged Rose with being a Jewish persecutor of Israel who implicitly suggested that "the Jews are responsible for their own destruction", while a Jerusalem Post review of books about Zionism, which included Rose's 2005 The Question of Zion, suggested that "Iran's president is not alone in wanting to wipe Israel off the map."

Unabashed, Rose writes in her new book that the history of the Jewish people "makes it perhaps uniquely hard for Israel as a nation to see itself ever as the agent of the violence of its own history". Rose provides me with the gloss: "Victimhood is something that happens but when you turn it into an identity you're psychically and politically finished."

An essential part of Jewish history she considers in the new book is the Dreyfus affair, about which Proust wrote and agitated. The wrongful conviction of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew in the French army accused of spying for the Germans in 1894, and its aftermath convinced Theodor Herzl, founder of political Zionism, there was no future for Jews in Europe. "When I discovered that it's not just 'The Holocaust therefore Israel' but 'Because of Dreyfus therefore Israel', my ears pricked up," says Rose. She recognises that either justification of Israel is contentious, and that for many Zionists the state's existence is justified not by the Holocaust but by ancestral rights to Palestine.

Rose was born in London in 1949 into a Holocaust-traumatised family. Her grandmother's family perished in Chelmno concentration camp. Hers was, as she puts, "one type of North London Jewish survivor family who, to survive, internally entrenched itself in Jewish ritual".

"It was observant and desperate that we continue the faith. There was no mixing of meat and milk, there were two sinks in the kitchen and if anything got mixed up it had to buried in the mud outside. It was very powerful but it also went with a set of prohibitions about what we could talk about." The Holocaust, in particular, was never discussed. Non-Jewish boyfriends were intolerable.

As Rose tells me this, in the living room of her West Hampstead flat, I think of what she writes in her new book about Proust's father, the epidemiologist who devised the notion of the cordon sanitaire. Her family similarly erected a post-Holocaust cordon sanitaire, what Rose calls a "defensive form of Jewishness closed in on itself, with no sense of Jewishness as culture, knowledge or history". No wonder she finds Proust so important: it was he who, more than any other writer, thought about, she says, "the uncertainties of hearts and minds and the porousness of boundaries between self and other, both as pleasure and as danger".

But her family's history is more nuanced: yes, her grandparents entrenched the family in Jewish ritual, but Rose's own parents felt thwarted by it. "My mother was very hostile to being Jewish because it had been such a restrictive life for her. It had stopped her taking up a place as a medical student; she was married at 20 – because that was what you did."

The next generation found a Shklovskyan third way of being Jewish between entrenchment and rejection. Rose notes that around the same time as elder sister Gillian was working on Emil Fackenheim's Holocaust theology, cousin Braham Murray (artistic director of Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre) was producing a Holocaust interpretation of Macbeth, and she was working on the Holocaust in her interpretation of Sylvia's Plath's poem "Daddy". "We all three turned to this at about the same time in our lives, and it was an attempt to retrieve those parts of Jewishness and Judaism and Jewish history which, because of the weight of what it meant to be Jewish in that generation, we felt we hadn't been able really to explore."

The brilliant Rose sisters crossed their family's cordon sanitaire. Both went to St Hilda's College, Oxford – Gillian to study philosophy, Jacqueline English. But Gillian was quickly lured across the border from anglophone philosophy to study German idealist philosophy. Wasn't Gillian's embrace of German thought a family scandal? "She would say, rather as I'm using Proust and Freud, that she's working with the tools to predict, dismantle and forestall what happened in Nazi Germany."

After graduating, Jacqueline was lured to Paris. There she did a maitrise in comparative literature and started a doctorate about children's literature inflected with her new passion, Freud. "I loved Paris so much. I loved living in a foreign language." And more than that. The feminist critic Julia Kristeva became, as she puts it, her ego-ideal. "I just thought: 'Oh goodness, you can wear nice clothes and get your hair done and still be a feminist and a serious intellectual.'" When she returned to England aged 23, she passed off the initials on her Yves Saint Laurent scarf to leftwing friends as standing for Young Socialist League. She doesn't say whether anyone believed her.

Why return? "I just thought wouldn't it be interesting to go back and become involved in a dialogue between French theory and English culture and the differences between them. It was like making myself a stranger in my own land. If you're Jewish, you always feel a bit of a stranger in your own land."

Back home she met Juliet Mitchell whose 1973 Feminism and Psychoanalysis enthralled her. "I remember thinking 'Thank heaven for this book. I can be a feminist and interested in psychoanalysis.'" She and Mitchell later translated some of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's texts into English, and his ideas percolated into the PhD she wrote on JM Barrie's Peter Pan under supervisor Frank Kermode. "I think Peter Pan is about adult desire. It's about the fantasy of a child, of a moment that he will never have to relinquish. But if you think of it as an injunction on the child, Lacan would say you are refusing to allow the child to be released into their desire, which is that they must become this asexual screen of utter purity which is what Peter Pan is. It's a collective passion [Barrie's] tapped into."

Does your treatment of Peter Pan connect with your later work? "I think it does because so much of my writing is about the myth of innocence in relationship to feminism, Sylvia Plath, and Zionism." Rose fell for Plath while teaching a women's writing course at the University of Sussex in the 1980s. She put Plath on the syllabus. "I read the criticism and it was so misogynist, pathologising, overconfident, disgusting. And then I read the feminist response and I thought it was over-idealising her in a way, so I knew there was something going on that was explosive around her."

Plath was a perfect subject for Rose, in that the poet confirmed the critic's conviction that feminism needed to take on board the psychoanalytical project and, in particular, that women's fight for redress of historic injustices must "be backed by an understanding of our own psychic investment as women in everything we engage in, including our own oppression". In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), Rose wrote: "One does not become pure as the other falls into the dirt."

Plath, she says, "had so much to be angry about and she produces the most devastating indictment of a certain kind of patriarchal mindset in her writing. But it never stops her thinking about her own implication in those structures and the complexity of female psychic life. That's why 'The Rabbit Catcher' for me was such an important poem because the trap everybody identifies with patriarchy, with Hughes described as a piece of female anatomy, almost." But that interpretation angered Hughes when he saw the manuscript. He thought Rose was calling his dead wife a lesbian. "Hughes said: 'In some countries it was grounds for homicide to speculate on a mother's sexual identity.' Would I please remove my interpretation of 'The Rabbit Catcher'? And I wrote back saying: 'Look, I'm thinking about Freud here and his critique of civilised normatised identity,' which I thought would appeal to Hughes."

It didn't, but Rose didn't back down. Later she felt more sympathetic: "I think it's impossible for him. If you've had the tragedy that he has had, how can you not read the poetry biographically and how can you not read interpretation biographically? I must say I came to understand the situation better on the publication of my sister's book Love's Work" – Gillian's memoir written as she was dying – "because you can see how difficult it is for a family to deal with a book that touches upon things that are so private."

Gillian's early death from cancer in 1995, aged 48, cast Jacqueline into a mourning that, she says "will never be complete, nor would I want it to be". The first book she wrote after her sister's death was the novel Albertine. "I didn't feel I could write in an academic way. It's exhilarating and frightening letting the floodgates open."

Around the same time as her sister's death, Jacqueline and her then partner, psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips, adopted a baby girl from China. Intially, she thought of writing a book about Mia. "In five minutes I thought this is wrong, it's her story, even though she was a baby at the time. So then I took off with the Albertine project." Mia is now 17 and hoping to study photography at university. Rose's current partner is Jonathan Sklar, the psychoanalyst.

In her living room is something unexpected – a box of Marilyn Monroe DVDs. Rose has been boning up on Monroe for a lecture, which will eventually form part of a book provisionally entitled Women in Dark Times: From Rosa Luxembourg to Marilyn Monroe. It will be her return to feminist theorising. How do Rosa and Marilyn connect? "They both straddle the divide between political and inner life. I read Rosa's letters and the relationship between her political concept of spontaneity and the unknownness of revolutionary life and the unknownness and intimacy of personal life. It seemed her notion of revolutionary and personal lives were inextricably linked."

Why is Monroe interesting? "There's been so much written about her as a screen on to which everybody projects their fantasies. I think that's complicit with her victimisation. I think she knew exactly what was happening to her. I think she was casting herself as a sort of lead in the detritus of postwar American culture. Everything from the commodity to the sexualisation of women to the crass materialism to McCarthyism." Classic Jacqueline Rose feminism: woman as more than victim, implicated in and maybe even conniving at her own oppression.

Enough about feminism. After the interview Rose emails me, hoping I can stress that she isn't done with the Middle East conflict. She's written four books dealing with that conflict and, if she has her way, there will be more. "As Edward Said wrote about getting involved in the Palestine-Israel conflict – once you're in you're you're there for life. I spent five years with Plath and then said goodbye. You don't say goodbye to this."


Stuart Jeffries

The GuardianTramp

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