Because it’s not possible to absorb more than one insight at a time, there seems to be a contradiction between the visual or space, and the context or meaning.
– from ‘Forms of Politeness’ by Mei Mei Berssenbrugge
Nothing intensifies an experience but simultaneously nullifies the thinking mind more than pain. Perhaps this is why Jacqueline Rose, the Professor of Humanities at the University of London’s Birkbeck Institute and author of several books whose essential subject can be said to be suffering, so often takes it as her focus. Janet Malcolm, a clear-eyed viewer of anguish herself, wrote that Rose was ‘an adept of a theory of criticism whose highest values are uncertainty, anxiety and ambiguity.’ What Malcolm meant as a slight birching reads instead as an accurate summation of Rose’s body of work.
Malcolm was reacting to Rose’s The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, which remains the single most essential reading of that poet’s work and life, as well as of the biography wars that swirl around her. Rose’s writing – ranging across Jewishness, feminism, psychoanalysis and beyond – has never shown any fear about delving into the murk and testing the boundaries of common debate. Her latest book, Women in Dark Times, is no exception.
Women in Dark Times begins with three biographical essays, each focusing on women who died before their time and in desperate circumstances. German political activist and philosopher Rosa Luxemburg (who once declared ‘I want to affect people like a clap of thunder!’) was shot by a right-wing paramilitary group after a failed socialist uprising in 1919. Painter Charlotte Salomon, who produced over 1,000 themed gouaches of a deeply personal, ambitious nature, was gassed to death by the Nazis at Auschwitz in 1943. Actor Marilyn Monroe, a well-read woman who reflected ‘I can be smart when I want to. But I’ve noticed that most men don’t like that’, died from an overdose of sleeping pills in 1962.
The central section is taken up with a close consideration of three ‘honour’ killings carried out in multicultural 21st century Europe. The third considers three relatively little-known artists.
The book’s most impressive trick is in the way Rose pulls together these seemingly disparate figures. In this fierce, insightful and wide-ranging collection, Rose calls for nothing less than a reformulation of feminism. She suggests an ideology that isn’t exclusively concerned with equality, but recognises that oppression grants intimate knowledge of the very worst that humans are capable of.
The title of Women in Dark Times refers to writer and political theorist Hannah Arendt’s 1968 collection of profiles, Men in Dark Times. Dubbed by Rose as this book’s presiding spirit, Arendt’s book focused on eight men and two women, including Rosa Luxemberg, but made no explicit attempt to link them. The figures in Rose’s book are linked by their Judaism (though in Monroe’s case, the religion was not hers, but her husband Arthur Miller’s), but also as examples of survival and contradiction.
None of Rose’s subjects sit comfortably within liberal feminism. Luxemburg wanted all emancipations to occur at once, but focused on class ahead of gender. Salomon’s highly personal work has not been as widely celebrated as the more openly political, deeply humanist work of Käthe Kollwitz. At first glance, Monroe’s hyper-femininity seems less self-determining than dumb. Yet each was a survivor who produced art of an undeniable significance, and energetically engaged with life until men took it from them.
Shafila Ahmed, Fadime Sahindal and Heshu Yones were each killed by their families, in murders labelled ‘honour’ killings. Rose unpeels the motivations of their killers in an effort to understand this most intimate of horrors. The practice of honour killings, which is often rhetorically flung back at western feminists as evidence of the triviality of their concerns, is central to Rose’s project:
Honour killing – the fact of it, its prevalence in modern times – stands as a glaring rebuke, perhaps the most glaring, to those who would argue that the task of feminism is done, to the idea that women today are free, that sexuality… is something that women today control and dispose of at will.
Honour killings are not a tragic exception or a hollow debating point. They occur on a continuum of misogyny that works to malicious effect across all cultures.
Long committed to psychoanalysis as a tool to prise open (in Toni Morrison’s phrase) the ‘unspeakable thoughts unspoken’, Rose turns to a trio of artists for a different set of articulations. Mixed media artist Esther Shalev-Gerz’s three channel video work ‘Between Listening and Telling’ displays the faces of Auschwitz survivors giving evidence of their experiences, but with the sound muted. This focus on the visual does not silence them, but rather makes their experience more powerfully sorrowful. Similarly, the video art of Yael Bartana and the painting of Therese Oulton both use obscurity and not a little darkness to powerfully depict the underside of life.
Women have a unique capacity to bring the dark side of the unconscious, of history – whatever is bleeding invisibly beneath – to the surface of our lives. I see it as both a gift and task.
In this deliberately awkward, but fascinating and meticulously interwoven book, Jacqueline Rose asks that feminism have ‘the courage of its contradictions’, and that it recognise insensibility and contradiction, along with reason, as necessary to human experience.