If only Mr Blair were a bonobo

On Not Being Able to Sleep
March 28, 2003

I cannot make up my mind about this book. Is it about writing or the nature of shame or the relation between them? Jacqueline Rose poses a problem for the reviewer. To discuss this in many ways wonderful and indeed moving collection of essays in so narrow a confine as this, is to give it a definite character when the experience of reading is more elusive.

The refrain of the essays, covering topics as diverse as the poetry of Anne Sexton, Freud and Jung's attitude to Australia, the nature of celebrity and South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is that the significance of a piece of writing lies less in its subject matter than in how it deals with it. Sylvia Plath's poem "Parliament Hill Fields" should not be read with reference to a miscarriage that Plath suffered before writing it since that ignores how the poem "offers the experience which can only be reached indirectly, which the speaker can only circle in words". Rose argues that, unlike ordinary language, poetry should not be expected to make things "unequivocally clear", rather it should leave the connections between them "wide open". There is a danger of being ensnared by the illusion that writing itself is more important than what it illuminates, and Rose's repeated claim that we should not judge words by the reality to which they apparently refer brings her perilously close to such a position.

Nevertheless, she raises an important issue. What exactly is the status of writing in a visually dominated world? Rose regards it as variously a creative act, a form of compensation or freewheeling fantasy. Sexton forged a new language inspiring other women who longed for a new sense of themselves, and Christina Rossetti used her poetry "to explore the lives she never lived". The case of fantasy is more controversial since it touches on Rose's dispute with Ted Hughes over her book The Haunting of Sylvia Plath . Hughes objected to Rose's discussion of certain fantasies at work in Plath's poetry, which he claimed reflected badly on his dead wife and their children. Rose argued that fantasy was "a realm of poetic exploration" that has little to do with how we actually live our lives. But if creativity, compensation and fantasy are linked, as they surely are, then they have everything to do with how we negotiate the world.

My one reservation about this collection is that Rose ultimately locates the value of language in what it cannot articulate. She celebrates the unravelling of syntax, the waywardness of words and the collapse of distinctions as inaugurating new beginnings. If only it were that simple.

All writing begins with a recognition of the anarchic power of language, which has to be harnessed if you are going to say anything, let alone say it well.

It is this libidinal quality of language that connects it with psychoanalysis. Rose begins by looking at guilt, which "always arises in relation to others", and shame, where "it is your narcissism, the ideal that you like to nurture about yourself that you betray". She focuses more on shame that is at once a civilising process and a block to creativity.

She notes how, in traditional psychoanalysis, mothers bear the burden of shame because they have been held responsible for all that is "irredeemable about human desire". That is why she is drawn to the work of Christopher Bolland who regards mothers as beings who put us into play rather than weigh us down with the curse of Oedipus. To free the mother of the role of scapegoat is to go a long way to removing at least the classical element of tragedy from our culture.

And speaking of sacrifice, that is precisely why we need celebrities. We make a mystery of them to penetrate that mystery, and in doing so we feel shame. The bonobo monkey does not feel any shame. It is a female-centred species that uses sex to resolve clashes of power. Rose chastises Natalie Angier for arguing that the bonobo may have something to offer to feminist politics. But maybe the world would have done better with some bonobos to sort out the crisis over Iraq. Perhaps then we would not need to be ashamed of Tony.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

On Not Being Able to Sleep: Psychoanalysis and the Modern World

Author - Jacqueline Rose
ISBN - 0 7011 6977 X
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Price - £20.00
Pages - 246

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