A new book thinks clearly and creatively about violence against women
By Parul Sehgal
What a pair they made: Marcel Proust and his Papa.
Adrien Proust was the renowned epidemiologist who pioneered the use of the cordon sanitaire to sequester infectious disease — the 19th century’s version of social distancing. He was a man who boasted about how well he washed his hands.
His son, meanwhile, became the laureate of licentious trespass (on the page, at least), the great interloper of consciousness. No other writer has dedicated himself so exuberantly to “the porousness of boundaries between self and other, both as pleasure and as danger,” critic Jacqueline Rose has written.
Proust is totemic to Rose. See, too, her fondness for the words “cobweb” and “tangle,” and her deep suspicion toward anything touted as “natural” or “sanitized.” Rose has written widely: on psychoanalysis, motherhood, the cult of celebrity, Sylvia Plath, Israel and Peter Pan. Every one of her books could be subtitled “In Praise of Shadows” — cribbing from Junichiro Tanizaki, another writer important to her.
“Rather than the idea of light triumphing over darkness,” she wrote in “Women in Dark Times,” “confronting dark with dark might be the more creative path.” She champions a “scandalous feminism,” an embrace of all the shameful, derided aspects of our nature, a refusal to fear or shun our own thoughts. Without it, we will continue to outsource our anxieties and aggression onto other people, onto entire other populations (today’s chief targets, she argues, include mothers, migrants, trans people, Palestinians).
Rose’s new book “On Violence and On Violence Against Women” arrives at a moment marked by a “visible increase” in violence against women in countries like India, Brazil and South Africa. The COVID lockdowns have also unleashed a “shadow pandemic” of domestic violence and femicide according to the United Nations. Rose asks how violence first takes root in the mind; what problems does it seem to solve?
Can we even recognize it? Rose begins her book with a photograph. “A group of identical-looking white men in dark suits” flank President Donald Trump as he signs an executive order: the “Global Gag Rule,” which banned American funding to any organization in the world offering abortion or abortion counseling. The men look distracted, a bit bored. “These men are killers,” Rose writes. Their actions would increase illegal abortions by thousands. “But their murderousness is invisible — to the world (illegal abortions belong to the back streets) and to themselves.”
It is on this point that her book turns: how elaborately we conceal our violence from ourselves; how efficiently violence flourishes in those blind spots.
Rose has written about the “Global Gag Rule” photograph before, in “Mothers.” From book to book, she revives certain themes — testing, twisting, dilating them. She thinks alongside Proust always, as well as Rosa Luxemburg; Hannah Arendt; Toni Morrison; Freud, inescapably; Marilyn Monroe, somewhat unusually. Through Luxemburg she again explores the violence that goes unseen — the “quiet conditions” of suffering, which testify, Rose writes, “to the skill with which capital cloaks its crimes.”
Rose also examines here the relationship between violence and blindness that she has narrated before in her own story. Her grandmother’s family was killed in the Chelmno concentration camp. She was raised in an environment with a strict cordon sanitaire of its own — a“ defensive form of Jewishness closed in on itself,” she has said. What does such defensiveness occlude, she asked in “Proust Among the Nations,” her analysis of the Israel-Palestine conflict — what “makes it perhaps uniquely hard for Israel as a nation to see itself ever as the agent of the violence of its own history”?
“Victimhood is something that happens, but when you turn it into an identity you’re psychically and politically finished,” she has said.
Rose roves widely in this book. She considers sexual harassment, Harvey Weinstein, student protests in South Africa, depictions of violence in contemporary fiction. Her centerpiece essay, on the murder trial of Oscar Pistorius, weaves in disability politics, South African gun culture, apartheid-era architecture, the shower scene in “Psycho” and, again, the price others must pay for our belief in our own innocence. (“Expelling dirt is as self-defeating as it is murderous. Someone — a race, a sex — has to take the rap.”) She returns frequently to violence’s encroachment on the inner life of the victim. “Harassment is always a sexual demand, but it also carries a more sinister and pathetic injunction: ‘You will think about me,’” she writes. In a close reading of Anna Burns’ Booker Prize-winning novel, “Milkman,” Rose quotes the protagonist, who is being stalked by an older man. “My inner world had gone away,” the girl says.
It is an incalculable loss, this theft of mental freedom. Rose cites the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s beautiful concept of “epistemophilia.” The infant’s strongest impulse, our native impulse, is to know.
For all that Rose reveals, her book might be most intriguing in its strictures and refusals. She will not, for example, list examples of atrocities — “feminism is not served by turning violence into a litany” — or add to the spectacle. She shies away from cheap pathos and struggles to avoid turning victims into figures of timeless suffering and “raw pity,” thereby obfuscating “human agency, the historical choices and willful political decisions.” What does it mean to report on violence, she asks, when it only “itches” the consciences, offers titillation or, worse, spurs support for the perpetrator? Donald Trump, Rose writes, “was adulated in direct proportion to the wrong which he clearly could do.”
These questions aren’t purely ethical. Rose searches for the modes that allow us to think more clearly and creatively. Literature becomes critical: “It is for me one of the chief means through which the experience of violence can be told in ways that defy both the discourse of politicians and the defenses of thought.” Unspeakable violations force new words and forms into being: Toni Morrison’s concept of “rememory”; what Burns in “Milkman” calls “numbance”; the broken, nursery rhyme horror-patter of Eimear McBride’s novel “A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.”
For all her attraction to unruliness, Rose’s own sentences are cool, almost enameled in their polish and control. It’s in the movement of her prose, the way she seizes and furiously unravels ideas from her previous books that we see the vigor and precision of her mind, the work of thinking, of forging new pathways that she holds up as rejoinder to the muteness of violence.
Despite drawing on Luxemburg’s “quiet conditions” of violence, Rose primarily attends to individuals, not systems. It’s a disposition that can invite charges of solipsism — thus sailing past her entire point. Where Proust dedicated himself to the “the porousness of boundaries between self and other,” Rose examines the porousness of the self and the state. She points out that the French technical term for the forcible repatriation of migrants is “refoulement” — “pushing back” or “repulsing” — the very word used for the concept of psychological repression.
“Reckoning with the violence of the heart and fighting violence in the world are inseparable,” she writes. To read Rose is to understand that there is no border between us and the world; it is an invitation to a radical kind of responsibility.