On Not Being Able to Sleep: psychoanalysis and the modern world, by Jacqueline Rose

A daughter of Freud gets to grips with shame

Ruth Padel
Wednesday 15 January 2003 01:00
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With books on Peter Pan, Melanie Klein, Sylvia Plath, and war theory, plus a novel rewriting Proust in Albertine's voice, Jacqueline Rose sparkles at the heart of British feminist debate over the roles of psychoanalysis in literary criticism and in cultural and political critique.

The papers and reviews collected here demonstrate brilliantly the delicate links she creates between apparently unassociated fields. A study of lost belief and reason in Virginia Woolf sheds new light on "the death of modernism"; another, on novelists Mary Butts and Elizabeth Bowen, relates English middle-class self-deceptions over class and anti-Semitism to Freud's influence on the novel. An interpretation of Ted Hughes's furious letters to her about Plath sets reviews of Plath's Journals and Hughes's own Birthday Letters in an importantly personal context. Reviewing Adrienne Rich's poems alongside an analysis of women's biology by scientist Natalie Angier, Rose reassesses the questioning feminism still needs to do in relation to scientific knowledge.

The directly psychoanalytic essays interact with a point Rose makes in the literary pieces: the creative mind often "goes beyond" Freudian theory. The title essay, revisiting Freud's Interpretation of Dreams, focuses on the creativity of sleep. Others examine the possibilities for psychoanalysis in Aboriginal culture, and attempts by Freud and Lacan to stop psychoanalysis entrenching itself as established knowledge. Finally, she considers the role of two embarrassing figures in modern society, the celebrity and the intellectual; then she relates South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission to JM Coetzee's Booker-winning novel Disgrace.

"Disgrace", where the book ends, echoes Rose's fascinating introduction, which links all these essays via the concept of "shame". We need to acknowledge and interpret things such as celebrity cults, anti-Semitism, the deeper functions of hormones or the limitation of established "knowledge", which we generally try to hide out of embarrassment. We should re-examine relations between what we write and how we live, public and private, inner and outer ways of knowing. "Perhaps the best way to move forward... is to think about the things of which we are most ashamed." While she is keen to go beyond Freud (who took the embarrassments of everyday life as raw material), in this she shows herself as his true child.

Until she put this book together, Rose did not realise that her literary studies were of women, her psychoanalytic ones of men. Women's words "travel on more unofficial paths"; men "struggle with institutions, often of their own making". Feminism has long pointed out that male psychoanalytic theory was built on female words, lives and secret worlds. The introductory connections between different strands in her own work on gender and knowledge, creativity and theory, may well be a departure-point for innovative work – on how men and women differ in self-hiding and self-display – to which we can now look forward.

The reviewer's collection 'Voodoo Shop' is shortlisted for the TS Eliot poetry prize

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