Out Of The Ivory Tower
Why should an intellectual leave the safety of academia and enter the unpredictable world of public political discussions? Jacqueline Rose, a private professor of English Literature at Queen Mary’s College London, has taken this risk in the past year by participating in forums and making a film on America’s relations with Israel. She will also be giving the Christian Gauss seminar at Princeton University next year. In the past, her work focused on analyzing literature in relation to psychoanalytic theory, and her book, The Haunting Of Sylvia Plath, delves into the passion that Plath’s work arouses in readers and what it says about us. Rose believes that psychoanalysis can help people understand the sides of themselves that drive them, yet are too painful to face alone.
Rose acknowledges that academia and psychoanalysis are institutions with their own languages and methods of negotiating authority. She questions whether theory can provide practical solutions to real-world problems. Despite this, she believes the role of an intellectual is to offer dissenting views that challenge the common ideals in politics. She wants to live in a world where shame is accepted instead of being suppressed. Shame is the common theme in her new book, On Not Being Able To Sleep, which comprises essays on literature, psychoanalysis, and politics written over the past decade.
During a conversation with Jacqueline Rose, I posed a question about the potential risks she faced by garnering more attention as she moved from the seminar room to the lecture hall and finally onto television. These actions would create a vast audience for her work, increasing her exposure and, as a consequence, susceptibility to criticism. Unfortunately, her response failed to provide a direct answer to my query. She instead said that her intent was to be heard beyond the confines of academia as an intellectual, with a modest desire to express her views more broadly. However, she clarified that there was a distinction between her actions, and the type of celebrity she examined in her pieces.
My concern does not lie in the critique of what could possibly be considered narcissism coupled with moral conviction, but that I would be blamed for being sadistic. Isn’t it paradoxical that Jacqueline, who endeavours to highlight the parallels between the psychosocial and political facets of our inner and outer realms, refuses to discuss her personal life? My point is, by doing so, she may be inviting antagonism. Interestingly though, this is precisely what Jacqueline points out herself in an opening statement in her film addressing Israel/Palestine and America. She quotes an insightful observation, "Whichever side kills last says it is the fault of the one before," pointing towards a move away from assigning blame to a more diplomatic approach. This thought resonates with what Cordelia once said in an effort to dissolve the past to her father King Lear, "No cause, no cause."
It is typical for most of us to move through life without observing in detail. It is commonly when we confront adversity and crisis that we reassess our lives to make the present more bearable. In the mid-90s, it appears that Jacqueline faced two significant crises that led to a complete self-evaluation. Firstly, she found herself in her mid-40s, childless and saddened as she had always hoped to become a mother. Secondly, her elder sister Gillian was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which proved fatal. Gillian authored Love’s Work shortly before her death. It was an extraordinary book, both emotional and abstract-intellectual. In Love’s Work, Gillian shared various stories on the personal lives of the Rose family, stories that Jacqueline has requested I exclude, which may evoke subjective responses. She wrote with such candour perhaps knowing that death was imminent, which then serves as a valuable reminder of the proximity of death, leaving nothing undisclosed. While talking about Gillian’s work and her emotional attachment to it, Jacqueline stated, "I admire her book and I love it for what it did for Gillian in the writing of it, but it is not my story and it is not a story I would have told." While I sense Jacqueline drew back here, conscious of admitting too much, I agree with her unspoken sentiments.
Jacqueline Rose, born in London in 1949, comes from a Jewish liberal family belonging to the middle class. Her parents divorced when she was young, and her father, whom she refers to as "my first father," as well as her stepfather, who she calls "my father," were both doctors. It is from her mother and "father" whom she describes as "incredibly loving and warm," that she picked up her strong social conscience. They resided in Hayes, Middlesex, and drove through Southall, witnessing the highest density of immigrants in London at the time, all working in factories for jobs that the white population did not want. At her grammar school, racist comments were pervasive, yet her parents disagreed with the remarks and would say, "These are the nicest, cleanest people." Her mother encouraged both Jacqueline and her sibling academically, despite having limited education herself, as her parents prevented her from attending medical school. Her parents had other plans for her as they wanted her to marry instead. The school removed her offer, and she remained uneducated. She married young, and at 20, had two daughters in quick succession, Jacqueline and Gillian, only to have a third daughter, Diana, seven years later after her mother’s remarriage. Jacqueline keeps to herself the possible sibling rivalry that may have existed due to their age gap, stating, "Seven years is a long way apart."
During our conversation, I approached the sensitive topic of guilt with Jacqueline, in regards to her sister’s untimely death. Survivors often feel guilty, and Gillian was only 48 when she passed – just five years younger than Jacqueline is now. She declined to discuss her personal feelings on the matter but directed me to an essay she wrote about Virginia Woolf, Freud, and modernism. Jacqueline frequently detours into theory, seeking outside authority. The essay examines Freud’s paper "Mourning and Melancholia," where he mentions that mourning can be triggered not only by the loss of a loved one but also by an abstraction, such as one’s country or an idea. Rose and I both found this concept confusing.
Psychoanalysis, in particular, has been criticized for being too focused on individual problems and not political or social issues, but in the 1970s, the intellectual climate in Paris was dominated by psychoanalysis, feminist literary theory, and the idea that "the personal is political." Jacqueline Rose believes that culture and literature have a significant impact on people’s beliefs and must be analyzed. As part of the politicized generation that embraced Marxian ideals, she feels that feminism played a crucial role in bringing psychoanalytic and political discourse together and adding complexity to discussions about sexuality and gender relations.
However, Jacqueline does take issue with some feminist ideas that portray women as victims of male power. Although she still identifies as a feminist, she believes that some discourse tends to turn relations between men and women into a gothic horror story. For example, Jacqueline wrote to a newspaper remonstrating with Germaine Greer, who complained about the invisibility of women in obituaries despite Gillian Rose’s full obituary being published. While the invisibility of women was an essential issue historically, Jacqueline believes that feminism should not overlook the vibrant and brilliant presence of accomplished women like Gillian.
I was aware of her separation from Adam Phillips, her partner of 10 years, which took place 18 months prior. I pondered upon the situation and questioned the possibility of two sensible individuals, who are devoted parents, failing to resolve their conflicts. When I inquired her about it, she responded by saying that separation does not imply a dearth of understanding. This time, I am certain that she was not side-stepping the question. We are separated, but we strive towards gaining clarity and understanding.