Jacqueline Rose. Credit: Faber

Why Jacqueline Rose wants you to embrace the unknown

The feminist thinker on the violence we ignore in everyday life—especially against women—and why we need to plumb the depths of our disordered minds to stop it
June 5, 2021

As a child, Jacqueline Rose’s bus ride to her grammar school would take her from a middle-class home in Hayes on the outskirts of west London through the working-class south Asian immigrant communities of Southall, where New Zealand schoolteacher Blair Peach would later be killed in 1979 while protesting against the National Front; it would then wind past a famous asylum in Hounslow, over whose thick walls Rose peered. 

Racism was common. A classmate’s parents advised her to “just cross over to the other side of the road” when the Asians “come at you in their hordes along the pavement in Southall.” On weekends, Rose would be driven to North Finchley for meals with her grandparents, a strictly observant Jewish couple who had emigrated from Poland. “I was brought up in an atmosphere of silence over the Holocaust,” she remembers. Her grandmother’s family died at the extermination camp at Chelmno.

Her upbringing was an early education in race, class, mental health and the ghosts of history, Rose remembers. It also demonstrated how people could be wilfully blind to their own prejudices and how silence, however well meaning, did not wipe away historical pain. A further revelation came when Rose, as a graduate student in Paris in the 1970s, was advised to read Ernest Jones’s biography of Sigmund Freud, as well as the Viennese psychoanalyst’s works. “I can’t describe how that transformed completely everything in my life,” Rose tells me over Zoom, describing the experience as “scary, and utterly enabling.” It made her realise “what is hidden and unspoken is having a very profound effect on how you think, how you feel, what interests you, what attracts you, what repels you, what persuades you, and what wins you.”

Since then, Rose has become a renowned scholar of psychoanalysis in her own right, commenting widely on feminism, Israel and Palestine (she is sceptical of Zionism), literary criticism, South African politics and film. She moves fluidly between academia—teaching at Birkbeck—and public engagement as a regular contributor to the London Review of Books. Admirers of her writing and work range from Judith Butler to the late Edward Said. 

She co-founded Independent Jewish Voices (IJV) and just before the last election she, along with other members of IJV, signed a letter to the Guardian defending Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn against “unsubstantiated allegations” of anti-semitism. The group is made up of British Jews who share the belief that “the interests of an occupying power should not count for more than the human rights of an occupied people.” In a 2005 interview, Rose spoke of seeing refugee camps in Ramallah in the 1980s as having been a “political education in a split second,” which has “never left me.” She observed that “no fortification in the world has ever succeeded in defending what it wanted to defend,” and hoped that “the non-viability of the solution means that something must change.” 

Her recent books have included Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty and Women in Dark Times. This spring, she published On Violence and On Violence Against Women, a timely essay collection. In her introduction, Rose describes the rise of populism and how strongmen have spectacularly failed to bring the pandemic under control, as well as national reckonings with racist pasts. “Nothing prepared me for the timing of this book,” Rose tells me. We’re speaking in April, in the aftermath of police crackdowns against vigils memorialising murder victim Sarah Everard and Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd. Central to the notion of violence, for Rose, is thoughtlessness—the unwillingness to confront violence as it manifests both in society and in the mind. (Freud observes that silence can be thick with meaning.) 

The nine essays in On Violence address sexual harassment in universities, violence against transgender women (which, she writes, got worse in the US under Trump), modernism and feminism in fiction and the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa. Rose cites Hannah Arendt’s notion of violence as the result of “impotent bigness”: the eruption that occurs when an individual comes up against the limits of their own power—when they approach the realm, in Arendt’s words, “in which man cannot change and cannot act and in which, therefore, he has a distinct tendency to destroy.” Rose does not believe it is only men who can be violent, though “impotent bigness” maps easily onto some of the cruder iterations of masculinity and its demands. (One thinks of Jair Bolsonaro’s assertion that Brazil will control the virus “like fucking men,” quoted in On Violence, or Boris Johnson’s conviction that after Brexit the UK will “take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing.”) 

At the heart of all this is an inability to tolerate frailty, either in the self or the other. Speaking of the documented rise in domestic violence (official figures suggested a 7 per cent year-on-year rise last spring) during lockdown, Rose observes “what we’re witnessing at the moment is a hatred of women for not protecting human subjects from mortality, and this then brings flooding up to the surface anxiety and rage.” 

Some on the left are sceptical of psychoanalysis, she tells me, deeming it “bourgeois and self-indulgent.” What use is plumbing the human subconscious when the consequences of inequality rage daily? For Rose, it is precisely because such material problems are so persistent that it is so urgent to ask what in the human mind permits them. “I think after Brexit and Trump and Vox in Spain,” Rose tells me, “to say psychoanalysis doesn’t have political resonance is to deprive ourselves of a key form of modern knowledge.” 

Even in the most institutional settings, the mess of human life leaks in. In her essays on the trial of Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner who killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, and that of disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein, she shows how the supposedly rational world of the law conflicts with the chaotic spectre of human sexuality and the mind’s unknowability.

Writing on the Pistorius trial, and its frustrating quest to determine whether the athlete really knew he had shot his girlfriend in the bathroom, rather than going for a supposed intruder as he claimed, Rose writes that “we move into the realm of speculation and dream, where the law hits against the buffer of what is at once screaming for our attention and what cannot be known”—the place where “knowing and not-knowing collide.” 

Likewise, Rose points to how photos of Weinstein’s genitals were shown to the jury after a witness claimed that he appeared to have a vagina. “The point is not whether the claim was correct,” Rose writes, but rather how “the unstable, sexually uncertain image of the human body erupted in the courtroom.”

One liberal response to the explosion of populist nativism over the past few years asks us to return to our most rational selves: to read real news to counter fake news, and valorise facts over emotions. When I put this to Rose, she laughs: “Reason is the longing of the dumb,” she says, quoting Israeli philosopher Gershom Scholem. She is sceptical that the mind can ever be reined in (“if only we get rid of this mess of the unconscious, we can master ourselves”). Instead, Rose suggests we accept what we cannot master—ourselves, other people, the world—and what we cannot know. Only then can we build a community founded not on mastery or domination, but rather on a shared recognition of our vulnerability.

And, crucially, this would be a community that acknowledges our complicity. Rose concludes her introduction to On Violence by citing her late sister, the philosopher Gillian Rose, and her notion of the “equivocation of the ethical”: “the importance of not assuming that ethical rightness is something that anybody ever completely owns.” (Gillian, she tells me, is “present everywhere” in her work.) If there is a lesson to be taken from the Pistorius trial, Rose concludes, it is “that we keep human injustice and suffering in our sights, while understanding that we too are the criminals; that we should not expel our own hatreds in a futile effort to make ourselves—to make the world—clean.” 

Rose’s writing often introduces such seemingly counterintuitive twists. In Mothers, she observes how the cultural idealisation of motherhood can double as punishment (mothers are scorned for failing to meet an impossible standard). In Women in Dark Times, she argues that it is precisely feminism’s attunement to human frailty and darkness that gives it the heartening potential to transform public life.

In On Violence, Rose asks us to hold two things in our minds at once: that there are clear forms of harm that fall alongside social lines of class, race and gender which need to be urgently addressed; and also that no one can be severed from the violence in our world. “We are all subjects of violence, not least because we are embedded in a social world,” Rose writes. I was reminded of the work of Frantz Fanon, the postcolonial theorist and psychiatrist, who argued that the ravages of racism are imprinted deep into the self-understanding of black people. To be sensitive to violence is to be constantly aware of how close it cuts in your own mind. 

That is not to say—in another Roseian twist—that you cannot change. Self-awareness might, for instance, make us more conscious of the latent drives that usually push us towards anger, contempt and frustration—which may in turn lead to a more sensitive disposition towards the world. Rose wrote On Violence, she tells me, partly to loosen the hold that radical feminists such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin had over the subject. Contrary to Arendt’s concept of “impotent bigness,” which posits that violence against women is always uncontrolled, MacKinnon and Dworkin’s male violence is fully in control of itself, Rose says. 

The difference may appear academic: in both instances, women suffer. But for Rose, their radical feminist position “puts us on a hiding to nothing”—if violent men are the ultimate embodiment of what men ought to be, then feminism hits a wall. A new path emerges, she says, if we create an “intervention around what a man might himself become.” 

Rose offers the example of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s treatment of Richard, a 10-year-old boy with an abusive father. Richard imagines inflicting violence on his mother. Through their sessions, Klein observes moments when Richard “refuses the invitation to identify with the violent father in his head,” Rose relates. “Ceding his omnipotence at the very moment he is most compelled by it is the only path to a viable masculinity.”

It might seem like a long road between a 10-year-old boy rejecting the impulse to violence and the massive project of overturning misogyny. But the past year has seen more people grappling with the complexity of their mental states, as well as the eruption of long-simmering and indeed locked-down anger onto the streets through the Everard vigils and Black Lives Matter protests. 

Matters of the mind do spill out into our world—lockdown has shown as much. “This is a moment in which the fault lines of the culture, in terms of race, gender violence, domestic violence, inequality have been brought to the surface,” Rose tells me. But she calls on us not to “underestimate the lengths to which vested interests of the world are using this moment to wield ever more power,” noting how the pandemic has widened the gap between the rich and the poor. “As far as I’m concerned,” she says passionately, “Boris Johnson’s government seriously fucked up.” She supports a full inquiry, and fears the introduction of austerity measures down the line. 

On Violence calls for us to pay attention to the world as it exists out in the streets, in governments and homes, but also to turn inwards to ask what exactly it is we refuse to see and therefore what we allow to continue. There are no easy solutions. There will be no glorious state in which we’re finally liberated from the world’s darkness. But to remain constantly attuned, and to act thoughtfully—that is a task worthy of life.  

On Violence and On Violence Against Women by Jacqueline Rose (Faber, £20)