The Story Reteller

The Plague: Living Death in Our Times By Jacqueline Rose. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 176 pages. $27.

The cover of The Plague: Living Death in Our Times

WHEN A DEER, A DOE, STEPPED INTO THE ROAD perhaps a hundred and twenty feet ahead of the car I was driving, it seemed for a moment that she would die, even though, during the same moment, I did not feel afraid that I would hit her. I was calm; I returned my smoking hand to the steering wheel; I braked. The deer seemed to be looking at me. There was a chance she might actually run toward me. I switched off the high-beams. All of this happened in two and a half seconds, before the deer continued across the road, safely to the other side, in a single bound. It was then that, exhaling, I realized the extent to which I had felt for—on behalf of—the animal, and for days after I dwelled on the feeling.

Why, in my memory of the moment, was my thought so precisely that the deer would die? Without being afraid, I had made a leap. I had ascribed to her something like a death wish, or, in more properly psychoanalytic terms, a death instinct. Becoming roadkill is not as common a fate as movies make you think, is way down on the list of causes of deer death, after hunting and starvation and disease. Most deer in the region (I googled it later) die of a sickness transmitted by flies, causing them to drop like the same. Possibly this one wanted to “die its own death,” as Freud said of the organism’s wish.

One answer to my question relies on a form of projection that is more specific, and even more inappropriate, than anthropomorphism. The road on which I was driving was a country road, a two-line tangent I had taken from a highway that had become the whole plot. There were few streetlamps, capriciously placed. Going fast wasn’t safe. But it was late and we were late to the summer house and there were no other cars, and so, barely slowing from highway speeds, I was going fifteen miles over the limit. Rather than admit fear of my own dangerousness into my headspace, I transmuted my lack of care for other living things into this one living thing’s desire, putatively, to be destroyed.

Or, I believed about myself that I was murderous, either because of my particular nature or because of my membership in the world’s most deathful species, that of the human. Confronted with the chance to destroy, some part of me wanted it; no part of me could admit to it. Instead, I had enlisted the straying animal in service of my own suppressed, unmanageable worries about myself, my species, or both. I was behaving at the very least negligently, considering (in fact failing to consider) the twists and turns and the nearness of the woods to the road and the yellow signs, unheeded, more numerous than cars.

Or, I myself wanted to die. This answer seems like the obvious one, because it works through both identification and projection—a pair of processes that are never definitely at odds. To accuse someone of projecting onto you is sharing the error, assuming that the thing someone looks for, then sees in you—because it’s too dark to see inside herself—is something you would not possibly fail to recognize as yours. Or yours, too. There is no reason the deer and I couldn’t both have a death wish, under the circumstances. But I don’t think I did. During the early, destabilizing stages of the pandemic in 2020, I one day realized how long it had been since I felt anything like “feeling suicidal.” Though I am naming the pandemic in recollection, what, at the time, I credited with the cessation of the symptom was some degree of acceptance of both aging and climate change. Either the world or society was rotting and expiring, and suicide all of a sudden seemed redundant.

I want to be clear that the deer in my story is not a metaphor; it is a mother. Perhaps this is why, from another angle, it seemed like she had chosen me for the purpose of accomplishing her fate. Everyone knows what “doe-eyed” is supposed to mean: innocent, even though deer of all genders have strenuous lives and, partly to cope, behave in ways that are endangering and chaotic. Would I have had all these feelings for or about a deer with antlers, do I think? I really can’t say.

Only—saying that the deer is a “mother” brings me to the ur-answer, which helped make all the other ones. This answer is the presence, in a tote bag in the backseat of the car, of a galley copy of Jacqueline Rose’s new book, The Plague, which I had read and which of course I am writing about, and which is about nothing more or less than the necessities of pausing for recognition and stopping for death.

The name of Rose entwines lovingly with whatever is moribund, whatever is misunderstood. Roses reek of their meanings. In 2020, Jacqueline Rose delivered the annual Freud Memorial Lecture—not on the May day of his birth, as scheduled, but on the September day of his death, as rescheduled due to the pandemic. Also due to the pandemic, there was no audience in the flesh. Rose stood alone in Freud’s consulting room in what was once his house, now a museum for him in London. She looked paler than in photographs. She wore a low-cut top, a blazer, a pencil skirt, boots—all black or very dark, and her nails were painted dark if not black. Rose’s whole manner and appearance, so suited to the Victorian setting, goth-like and sensitive, made it seem impossible that she should be saying the word “livestream.” Her subject was Freud’s conception of the death drive, which she argued had more to do with the passing of Freud’s favorite daughter, Sophie, from Spanish flu in 1918 than with anything else happening that year, including World War I. At one point, she glancingly likened the marginalized status of the psyche in public life—her bête noire; without it, what she would write?—to that of “death in the time of Walter Benjamin.” When she didn’t elaborate, I felt thrilled. I needed no explanation, I knew exactly what she meant. I knew it from her. 

Rose also stands for Gillian, older sister to Jacqueline. Gillian Rose, a political philosopher whose texts exalt difficulty and plunder spiritual, moral, and relational unease, died of cancer in 1995, age forty-eight. Jacqueline was forty-six. When The Guardian first profiled Jacqueline in 2003, the interviewer asked whether she felt guilt to do with her sister’s untimely death. Jacqueline, in lieu of answering, pointed to one of the essays in the collection she was promoting, On Not Being Able to Sleep. (This reticence allows for the description of Jacqueline, at the start of the piece, as “fervently private.”) The essay, “Virginia Woolf and the Death of Modernism,” is in part about a disagreement Rose seems to be having, uncharacteristically, with Freud or with Freudianism. The work of mourning can—should—never be finished, says Rose, no matter what he says in his 1915 paper “Mourning and Melancholia.”

I imagine the person with whom she is really arguing is Gillian, who, months before dying, gave a radio interview in which she plainly, approvingly, cited the same bit of Freud: “Freud says if you complete the work of mourning, you return to the fullness of being. If you don’t, you remain melancholic.” Gillian diagnoses not only post-structuralism but even “the whole of recent French philosophy” with melancholia, because of its non-erotic or derealizing fixation on lack and on absence. (Here it may help to know that Gillian, a strange Hegelian but a Hegelian all the same, moved to Berlin after graduating from Oxford. Jacqueline moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, and when she returned to London it was to get her doctorate under the supervision of the foremost sympathizer with French theory in English academia, the scholar and critic Frank Kermode.)

To return—it is in the Woolf essay that Rose for the first time cites Benjamin’s “The Storyteller”:

In the words of Walter Benjamin, the storyteller used to “borrow his authority from death” (“there used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not once died”). But in the course of modern times, dying has been pushed more and more out of the perceptual world of the living. “Though almost all her novels are dominated by a death,” writes Lee, “in almost all the death is not written in.” This makes death the absent-presence in Virginia Woolf’s writing, turning it Janus-like back as well as forwards through literary and historical time.

Rose is writing on carbon paper. Tear away the analysis of Woolf, and below, on a sheet of pale pink, you have the heavy trace of self-identification. “It seems so inexplicable,” says the character Evelyn in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out, about the protagonist’s absence. “Death, I mean. Why should she be dead, and not you or I?” For a mourning Rose the appeal of these lines is clear. “Evelyn,” says Rose, “is the character who is left with the question. She carries forward into the rest of Virginia Woolf’s fiction, as a matter of principle, the open-ended uncertainty we have come to associate with Woolf’s later texts.” (Meaning, all of her novels.) So too is Rose the character to whom questions are left, as if bequeathed.

Rose’s second citing of “The Storyteller” is in a passage about violence and representation in Proust and the Nations (2011):

When Walter Benjamin said that we have pushed death from the center of our experience, he was not writing specifically about war, but the inability to countenance death which he attributes to modernity takes on a new resonance in the context of the twentieth-century violence that he did not live fully to see. It is, Freud wrote, impossible to imagine one’s own death (which is why we like to attribute death to accident or disaster, as if it were something we might, if we are lucky, be spared). Today, we are witnessing a technocratic perfection of violence, together with a flood of images of disaster on our screens, whose paradoxical consequence seems to be the idea that death is history. 

The third citing is very like the second. It’s in the essay called “Life After Death” in the new book, The Plague:

Freud once stated that no one believes in their own death. In the unconscious there is a blank space where knowledge of this one sure thing about our futures should be. If the pandemic changed life forever, it might therefore be because that inability to countenance death—which may seem to be the condition of daily sanity—was revealed as the delusion it always is. . . . “There used to be no house, hardly a room in which someone had not once died,” the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his 1936 essay “The Storyteller.” On the other hand, he argued that in modern life dying has been pushed beyond the perceptual realm of the living.

Four words, verbatim: “inability to countenance death.” Previously, Rose seems to take the notion as a point of fact, not conditional but proof of some condition. We (humans, moderns, Westerners) can’t countenance death. Benjamin said so. Now, revising the citation so minimally as to conjure an enviable lassitude, she falls on the kind of double negative that she, being a Francophile, so enjoys. Does the non-existence of the inability mean we are able to believe in the unbelievable? If only . . . ! A vision of life changing because we do nothing new, only shed some old detriment, gleams and beckons. But in the psyche as in the grandparents’ house, the most useless things are thrown out with the greatest reluctance.

Rose wrote “Life After Death” for publication in The Guardian, and it is a tour de force. Perhaps its most impressive feature is the date on which it appeared: three weeks before Christmas, a time at which normal people are not supposed to think about dying. This was also, I recall, a time at which “normalcy” was seen as some kind of gift. Vaccines had arrived in the US and the UK one year earlier. Social distancing rules no longer applied. Masks were coming off. This is all to say that I cannot imagine a worse time to write an essay urging newspaper readers to not only remember, but also dwell on, the pandemic. Rose is like someone going around the house at shiva, tearing the bedsheets from the mirrors, letting in the haunting—for every social injustice a psychic wound. Right away is when you risk forgetting, as all good analysands know.

Hilda Doolittle, the poet who was briefly Freud’s patient, wrote of an analytic session in which she spoke about the last days of the war, which had ended fifteen years earlier. Freud replied by saying “he had reason to remember the epidemic, as he had lost his favorite daughter.” Then he showed her a tiny locket secured to his watch chain. “She is here,” he said. This telling makes me wonder who is analyzing whom. She says war, he hears epidemic, he says daughter. 

A similar slippage—the feeling of a missed step, a dizzy landing—occurs in the second chapter of Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Freud begins by discussing the recurrent dreams in which sufferers from the “war neuroses” (now PTSD in the DSM) get mired in fright. Then, a double line break, as if he is stopping and turning (no other chapter in the book features this kind of paginal schism), and suddenly we are in a very different bedroom. Here, a child is being spied on. Freud observes a “good boy,” aged eighteen months, playing with a spool of thread in a yo-yo-like manner. Throwing the spool under the bed so it disappears, the child cries “o-o-o-o.” Returning the spool to himself, he says “da.” This unidentified child is in real life Sophie’s son, Freud’s grandson.

Freud writes that later, when the child gained the use of his words, he would say to a toy he was angrily throwing: “go to the front.” It was the front where the child’s father had gone to fight. Thus, in a neat bit of back formation, “o-o-o-o” becomes fort, the German word for “gone” or “away,” in whose lonesome vowel Freud hears “go away” and “be gone.” Freud says the child is trying to master as well as make sense of the mother’s goings, to say nothing of her comings, in which the child lacks say. The entire passage is unbearably weighted by a footnote: “When the child was five and three quarters, his mother died. Now that she was really ‘gone’ (o-o-o-o), the little boy showed no signs of grief.” If the long “o” had meant wo, the German word for “where,” the little Ernst might have taught himself object permanence; but then Freud would not have learned about repetition compulsion. I wonder how many times a day he opened and closed the locket, or whether it struck him that the watch chain, busied with keeping her memory from falling out of time, looked like a string.

In the Freud Memorial Lecture, Rose notes how Freud’s first biographer suggested there might be a link between Sophie’s death and the conception of the “death instinct.” The readiness of Freud’s alibi is for Rose a sure sign of guilt. In July 1920, just before Beyond the Pleasure Principle’s publication, he wrote to a friend, Max Eitingon: “You will be able to certify that it was half-finished when Sophie was alive and flourishing.” But it was to the same friend that Freud had first spoken of the “death drive,” in letters shortly after Sophie’s death. The half he said was finished did not include the sixth chapter, in which the Todestrieb, translated as “death instinct” or “death drive,” appears for the first time in his (published) writing. Rose doubles down: “I think it would, therefore, be fair to say that Freud owes the genesis of this unprecedented concept to [Sophie].”

Rose is the essence of fair. I wish she were my mother. But there is no such thing as a concept without precedents. A belief that Rose’s writing has engendered for me is that there is always another genesis, another Eve. 

Cecily Brown, Aujourd’hui Rose, 2005, oil on linen, 77 × 55". © Cecily Brown
Cecily Brown, Aujourd’hui Rose, 2005, oil on linen, 77 × 55″. © Cecily Brown

ROSE ALSO STANDS FOR ROSENTHAL, the name once picked by or for a Jewish emigre family to comply with Habsburg decree. Some of the Rosenthals who fled Nazi Germany changed it to Rose, for the purposes of easier transplantation to English soil. One of the Roses became the stepfather to Gillian and Jacqueline, which is how an adopted name became an adoptive one, taken by the sisters to replace the name of their father, which was Stone. Hard to imagine a more signifying change, from totally smooth and closed to totally complex and mysterious. Or, you could say, from the “false telos of masculine logic” to “femininity as body,” these being the terms whose opposition Jacqueline Rose set up, then unsettled, in the Woolf essay, substituting “death” for “femininity” as the foil to reason.

Identification for Rose is a means of testing, questioning, vitiating—rather than proving—one’s identity. She occupies and disturbs the sites of the world’s two oldest prejudices: misogyny and anti-Semitism. I get the sense, while reading her essays about feminism or about Zionism, that the age of the prejudice works against the innocence of those who suffer from it—especially, Rose would say, in the collaborationist realm of fantasy. In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), Rose describes the fantastical worldview held by Ted Hughes in the wake of Plath’s death: “Celtic . . . culture celebrated the female principle. It is the loss of this principle, which survived into Catholicism but was finally destroyed or driven underground by the Puritan revolution, that is responsible for the destructiveness of our contemporary world.” (Two pre-Christian entities, Jews and Celts, marginalized for the same thing: resistance to what would become a totalizing cult of the afterlife.)

There is little more elusive than the meaning of the female principle in Jacqueline Rose’s thought, but if I were to choose a word for it, it would be “boundless”a word that goes either way. In her 2014 book Women in Dark Times, she argues that “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,” something she sees as “both a gift and a task.” (You could call it an inheritance.) Plath, Woolf, Rosa Luxemburg, Marilyn Monroe, Charlotte Salomon: women particularly gifted with intelligence, alterity, and spirit, and tasked with psychic depth and solicitude. 

Sabina Spielrein—intense, strangely attractive, a little mad, altogether hard to get to know, irrepressible and at the same time ill with fate—is the perfect Roseian subject, making it odd that Rose only seems to know of her. Rose’s 1999 essay “Freud in the Tropics,” about the origins of the split between Jung and Freud, briefly cites a letter the master wrote to his protégé after hearing Spielrein present her first paper—“Destruction as the Cause of Coming Into Being”—at the Vienna Conference in 1911: Spielrein, said Freud, is “abnormally ambivalent.” He rejected the paper’s premise, saying that “her destructive drive is not much to my liking because it is personally conditioned.” Freud and Jung’s letters were published in 1974. Three years later, a box containing Spielrein’s letters, diaries, and papers was discovered; I wish it had been delivered to Rose’s doorstep. Freud, in the letter at hand, speaks of the very paper in which the precedent to his conception of the death drive lies, since with its presentation Spielrein becomes the first person to enter the phrase “death instinct” into the annals of psychoanalysis. Ironies abound: it’s funny to hear that her theories are “personally conditioned” from the man who rewrote the myth of the primal father and his sons every time he felt betrayed by Jung and/or Adler. (“I thank Professor Freud for the information that circumcision is a symbol of castration,” reads a note at the end of Spielrein’s paper. I hope she is being very dry.)

After Spielrein’s presentation, a period of comment ensued during which none of the men present evinced much appreciation of her points; most of them took the floor to reiterate their own ideas about death and life. One, Dr. Friedjung, made a statement that was remotely apprehensive, calling the paper “an attempt to find a scientific consolation for the fear of death.” It was on this point that Dr. Frau Stegmann, the only woman present, defended Spielrein. Per the meeting notes, Stegmann said,

during the course of the discussion the term “life” was not always used in the same sense; one must keep separate the personal and the universal (cosmic) life. The death wish makes its appearance as the wish to give oneself to the universe. The fear of love is fear of the death of one’s own personality. Love is indeed to be regarded as a transition from the small individual to the great cosmic life.

Freud spoke last, addressing himself not to Spielrein but to the specter of Jung. It was her mentor’s and lover’s—that is to say, Jung’s—fault that she misread, apparently, the story of creation in the book of Genesis. Freud was annoyed that she had “attempted to base the theory of instincts on biological presuppositions (such as the preservation of species).” Spielrein took the floor again to respond, apologizing for all the confusion and seeking to clarify that, for her, sexual instincts belong to “the drive for transformation.” 

Freud had distinguished between the two kinds of preservation before. In his 1909 study of the Dr. Schreber case, he wrote that “the individual has a double orientation, aiming on the one hand at self-preservation and on the other at the preservation of the species.” Yet he had never fed one into the other, as Spielrein wantonly did. As for “the drive for transformation,” had Freud possessed an inkling toward such a thing, he might have read into the case of Schreber—who woke up one day dreaming about having sex as a woman—an enlarging difference. Freud wrote that Schreber was half-asleep, and that this fantasy would have been “rejected with the greatest indignation if he had been fully conscious.” Schreber (in the diaries Freud studied) wrote only of being in bed, adding in parentheses: “whether half asleep or already awake I cannot remember.” But there is no question that the famed schizophrenic was awake when being penetrated all over by “female nerves or nerves of voluptuousness,” as he (“he”) beautifully put it. Freud’s diagnosis of repressed homophobia, which he held to be co-morbid with paranoia, probably would not have helped Schreber’s thinking; it might have helped Spielrein’s. If the preservation of the self opposes—or is at odds with—the preservation of the species, then having sex with a man as a man is a self-preserving activity, whereas doing it as a woman is not

Putting death in the mouth of pleasure takes female nerve, and it may also take one kind of female experience. Remember “the wish to give oneself to the universe.” That the only other person at the Vienna Conference who seemed to grasp what Spielrein was talking about was also the only “Frau” in the room is not a merely sweet instance of solidarity, nor is it incidental that Dr. Frau Stegmann was also, later, in the 1920s, the only member of the Reichstag to argue for legal abortion as a means of bodily—rather than population—control. Only someone at risk of being pregnant could conceive of a death instinct as being conjoined to sexual anxiety and to sacrificial love. Spielrein in 1911 was still a “Fraulein.” When she wrote that “self-destruction can be replaced by sacrificial destruction,” she was being, perhaps, too wishful. 

Simone Weil never made it sound so easy. Two stunning analogies in Weil’s essay on human personality, written in her life’s last year, bracket what it takes to become—destructively, impersonally—“good.” Here is the first: “A stag advancing itself voluntarily step by step to offer itself to the teeth of a pack of hounds is about as probable as an act of attention directed towards a real affliction, which is close at hand, on the part of a mind which is free to avoid it.” And the second: “To put oneself in the place of someone whose soul is corroded by affliction, or in near danger of it, is to annihilate oneself. It is more difficult than suicide would be for a happy child.” 

Weil’s spirit, how it plunged her mind and body into difficulty, is a guide through every essay in The Plague (Rose says so in her foreword). “An ethical principle,” Rose writes in the essay “Life After Death,” “is pushing to the fore, taking on an unmistakable if ghostly shape. Nobody can save themselves, certainly not forever, at the cost of anybody else.” Whether the shape is more unmistakable or mostly ghostly, it is familiar. Gillian Rose wrote about Simone Weil first, in a 1993 essay, “Angry Angels,” which compares the thought of Weil to that of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, Levinas and Weil being each other’s obverses not only in name: Levinas embraced the Torah; Weil forsook it, entering into a mystifying and extreme Christianity. She never converted, except perhaps by dying, aged thirty-four, of self-starvation. 

Gillian—who did convert, almost as if she were joking, ninety minutes before death—argued in her essay that Weil and Levinas each tried to cast out violence into the other’s faith, even as “a residue of violence” piggishly enriched their critiques. Her own iterations or reiterations of Weil’s thought are admonishing and gentle. Listening, says Gillian, is putting oneself in the place of the other while she’s speaking, a suggestion that to my mind describes what Jacqueline does best. On Weil’s difficult concept of decreation, Gillian is perfect: “Th[e] decreation of the self for the sake of justice means the radical renunciation of the possessive relation to the world, but this does not imply the renunciation of relationship to the world itself.”

For Gillian as for Weil, individual rights are too finite to matter. Only justice is infinite, or, as Jacqueline rewords it, infinitesimal. Jacqueline explains “decreation” a little differently: “In the moment of creation, God shed bits and pieces of himself, makes human beings the debris of a gesture which leaves neither God nor humans complete.” This amazing precis makes the “creator” sound like somebody miscarrying. Perhaps, for Weil, being saved was a matter of going backward, becoming tiny enough, fetal, pre-fetal, reabsorbed into the womb. 

It was in the year of her sister’s death that Jacqueline Rose adopted a baby out of China. In Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty (2018), Rose recalls a friend with a newborn asking wonderingly how she could give up her lineage. Rose, proud of not being possessive, replies that “to nurture another’s baby is to be part of the DNA of the whole world.” (Compare to Virginia Woolf: “As a woman my country is the whole world.”)

Rose’s excellence as a critic rests on how well she nurtures others’ ideas, how plausibly she treats them as her own. Every written sentence tries to embody an idea, to give it a shape that limns its meaning, as if to recollect something of cave-time signification. Her sentences tend to hesitate and suggest rather than declaim. They are full of pauses and bends, equivocations and even reversals—all on purpose. Giving pause is for Rose an ethical imperative, one she accomplishes in her prose with a lot of soft punctuation. “If there is one thing of which writing about violence has convinced me, it is that if we do not make time for thought, which must include the equivocations of our inner lives, we will do nothing to end violence in the world, while we will surely be doing violence to ourselves,” she says in her 2021 book On Violence and On Violence Against Women. The sentiment is unequivocal. The sentence itself, however, equivocates—practices what it preaches—by virtue of its clausality. 

The open-ended uncertainty that is as native to Rose as to Woolf is what makes her feminism breathable, but also radical as in rooted, earthbound, upsurging. I fell in love with her writing in 2016, when she published—in the London Review of Books—a 13,666-word essay on being transgender, which she is not. For an English non-trans woman at the time to accept such an assignment was slightly insane. Trans-exclusionary “radical” feminism was rising in a nation that, you could say (although you probably shouldn’t), was assigned transphobic at birth: the classism that seems so native to England, formed as it was (or as historians say) out of the feudal system, manifests as a distaste for pretense, for striving, even for straying. At the heart of both classism and transphobia is this insistence on staying put. “When you’re born, you’re done for,” as Arnold Bennett said to Hugh Walpole (I found the quotation in a book on Thomas Hardy, whose heroines rouse the direst fates when they loosen their stays). Rose’s titling the essay “Who Do You Think You Are?” spoke to the heart of the problem. Amazingly, she pulled the whole thing off, a graceful and mind-opening feat. It was a feat of listening: a remarkably high percentage of those words are inside quotation marks, against her editors’ protests.

Rose’s own ambivalence can register as abnormal. Take, for instance, the essay in The Plague called “Living Death,” which is about domestic violence and representation during the lockdown phase of the pandemic. Given the subject matter, it would seem Rose is turning “living death” back from the further-out meaning, in which the transitive verb “living” takes “death” as its wedded object, to the more commonly understood one, in which “living” as a present participle tries to modify “death.” Rose describes a “new femicide” that the “pandemic has brought out of the dark,” which at first sounds slightly oxymoronic, but soon she explains that it is “as if the felt fragility of life [has] released into the atmosphere a new, ugly—and seemingly unstoppable—permission to engage in violence.” Her style risks beautification. I like it best when she speaks sotto voce, or in parentheses, like so: “(psychoanalysis as the opposite of housework in how it deals with the mess we make).” When the sentence began she was standing at the lectern, now she is in the seat beside you.

Here is the concluding—a strong word—line of that essay: “If the hardest task in the struggle for life is to give death its place at the core of being human, then perhaps one reason so many women are being punished during the pandemic is because they are more willing to do so.” Rose’s insinuating syntax has always felt natural to me, even down to her habit of shrinking the last word as a way of shrinking from having it (“it” is one word on which she likes to finish; “so” is another). This line for some reason snagged. Despite how clear the referent should be and probably is, I had to reorder the sentence in order to give it thought. Maybe I was having trouble believing that the subject of the sentence actually was women, i.e. potentially me: “So many women are being punished during this pandemic because they are more willing to give death its place at the core of being human, which is the hardest task in the struggle for life.”

Again, if I know what she means it is only from reading her obsessively. To say that women are more “willing” to participate in “the hardest task in the struggle for life” sounds unnecessary to say, like of course mothers and/or wives are tasked with what’s hard and sort of pointless. And it feels strange to invoke women’s willingness in an essay about women being effectively “locked up,” not just locked down, with “their” abusers. Abuse too is a transitive verb, one for which the object is never a subject. No one abuses another so much as they abuse the power they have over another. (Perhaps that is why Rose places alongside these stories a rather dubious statistic showing that countries with women in power had better pandemics, with fewer deaths and less obvious dishonesties, though she does not say anything about the kinds of peoples who elect female leaders.) 

For Rose, it is not the believability of women’s stories that empowers them as tellers, but the possibility that women as storytellers—she herself is the story reteller—are less in need of borrowing authority. “One reason motherhood is . . . disconcerting,” she wrote in Mothers, “seems to be its uneasy proximity to death.” Perhaps Freud could “conceive” or re-conceive of the death drive because, in the absence of his daughter and in the presence of his daughter’s son, he could identify with Sophie as a mother.

Gillian’s death inspired Jacqueline’s publishers to suggest that she might write a memoir of her sister’s life. But a memoir, which would not do justice to the life, didn’t materialize. Neither did the project that Jacqueline proposed in its stead, a book about the Jewish-turned-Christian philosopher, mystic, and martyr Edith Stein. (This is all according to the interview of Rose by the editors of The Jacqueline Rose Reader, published in 2011.) Stein is—has to be—the original name of Stone, the dispossessed and disowning father of Gillian and Jacqueline. And now, a further substitution, Weil for Stein. Simone comes from the Hebrew “Shimon,” meaning “one who hears.” “Weil” as a German word means “because,” but as a surname for Germans it’s said to derive from the Latin “villa,” as in a country house, a family estate. Historians believe that “Weil” was adopted by families originally named “Levi,” a Hebrew word for “joining.” So we are fully back in place, if not time. 

Cecily Brown, All Is Vanity (after Gilbert), 2006, monotype, 47 1/4 × 36 7/8". © Cecily Brown
Cecily Brown, All Is Vanity (after Gilbert), 2006, monotype, 47 1/4 × 36 7/8″. © Cecily Brown

ON THE GNARLED FAMILY TREE OF THE GREEK GODS, Eros sits higher than Thanatos, while Psyche, next to Cupid, might as well be an apple on the ground. But above—encompassing them and everyone else—is Chaos. Chaos is the third drive, the collective drive. It’s older than anything, mother with no gender. It’s in the heterogeneity of cancer cells, the movement of deer, water falling on rocks, weather, noise. “Chaos,” as Deleuze and Guattari wrote, “is an infinite speed of birth and disappearance.”

A child hears the story of his coming into being, but it is not told to him, it is told to adults, who are asked to “conceive of David vanishing into nothingness.” Before he was David he was a bird, as are all future children in the world of the story. To become born, a baby, he had to be caught by a long string. This is the premise of J. M. Barrie’s 1903 The Little White Bird, a novel for adults that begat the character and the story of Peter Pan. In the story, all that remains of the pre-birth world is the birds’ habit of bringing bread in their beaks to little Peter (Peter can fly because he is secretly part avian). In Jacqueline Rose’s debut book, begun as her master’s thesis under Kermode’s supervision and published as The Case of Peter Pan, or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction (1984), she suggested that writing to the child is a way of knowing the child, while reading to the child requires the child not to know himself. David has to exit the story’s frame, not because the story is news to him (he never tires of hearing it, says the narrator), but because adults are afraid to raise in the presence of children “the question[s] of origins, of sexuality, and of death” that, says Rose, are depicted in the novel as “inherent to the very process of writing.” Birds do not become adults, so neither do they need innocence. The novel’s narrator makes it clear: “That the birds know what would happen if they were caught, and are even a little undecided about which is the better life, is obvious to every student of them.” 

In Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague, a similar indecision besets the fictionalized city of Oran. “Bread or fresh air” is the slogan shouted up and down the city’s poorer streets, where, during quarantine, it is not clear that staying alive actually makes for the better life. “Bread or air” is how Rose quotes it in the titular (twice titular) essay with which she opens her book, and, whether on purpose or not, removing “fresh” from “air” makes it even bleaker. The “or” is facetious. These people want for choice. Like the famous women’s suffrage slogan—“bread for all, and roses too”—the townspeople’s plea speaks of the need not to live barely. Roses only look like the subject of this essay. Air really is.

During the lockdown in New York City, I remember liking how “social distancing” gave everybody—each body—six feet of space: graveyard rules. I could almost imagine us all having breathing room forever. But later, when togetherness resumed, it seemed like more and more people were talking more or newly about “setting boundaries,” often in conjunction with “taking space,” which made even my friends, even me, sound like little nation-states at war. Couples who had seemed unshakable suddenly split. Milieus fell apart overnight, over nothing important. Bonds loosened and frayed with startling speed and even stayed lost, sacrificed, in some cases, to a fearful misconception of boundaries as being enforceably borderlike.

People are collectively traumatized, goes one explanation for all of the above, by the pandemic. That is always the word. Rarely is the virus itself seen as a cause of this social disorder. But I do think coronavirus was—is—a disease of the psyche, because of how, unlike cold or flu viruses, it became able to trespass the blood-brain barrier. This made it drive-like in a twistedly literal way: Freud used the Kantian term “Grenzbegriff,” or “boundary concept,” to describe how the drives erupted right between the soma and the psyche. (“Don’t touch my psyche” is the understandable subtext of every “set boundary,” no matter how inappropriately far outside the physical self the line is drawn.)

It’s hard enough to be accountable to each other, one on one. I do not know how to take Rose’s message that “we are all accountable for the ills of the world,” especially given how unaccountable the development and the spread of the virus and all its chance effects seems to be, to say nothing of the other varietals of death that suffuse our air: fumes, microplastics, wildfire smoke. The “whole world” suffers from the minority rule of the living. People who are comfortable with power love the truism that“death is the great equalizer,” which Rose repeats once disparagingly, once skeptically in the book. If the only experience common to everyone is one we can’t share—the one story that can never be told from the other side—then all you can say about humanity is that it’s fatally flawed.

Rose’s afterword to The Plague begins where her afterword to her 1996 collection States of Fantasy ended, with reference to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 polemic, After Virtue. MacIntyre argued that “we have lost the framework which would allow us to live a grounded or consistent ethical life,” as Rose paraphrased it the first time, when her context was apartheid. In her afterword to The Plague, Rose describes the postapocalyptic scenario with which MacIntyre opens his book: an “imaginary” world where scientists are blamed for an ecological fate, and, as a result, the knowledge of science lies in fragments. MacIntyre wrote that “the language of morality has entered the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world I have just described,” that we have “lost our comprehension . . . of morality” (he seems to equate morality with comprehension), that the “peculiarly modern self . . . in acquiring sovereignty in its own realm lost its traditional boundaries provided by a social identity and a view of human life as ordered to a given end.” 

Rose sounds, by the end of The Plague, a little tired of the idealization of the world as being whole. Disorder need not be grave, she’s saying now:

Nothing is more dangerous than confronting a world full of fear, arms akimbo, with a boast. Or hanging on in the face of disaster to the idea that we each, individually, are good, that our perfection, lamentably unmatched by an imperfect reality, is something into which the ills of the time—pandemic, climate catastrophe, and war—randomly and unfairly encroach. According to such a mindset, the more insecure things appear, the more confident, assertive, and controlling we need to become in order to master both the world and ourselves. . . . Being convinced we have moral ownership of the earth is the best way to make it uninhabitable.

Writing is an airless medium, ill-suited by its nature to chaotic times. A piece requires some ordering, or it is impossible to read. Only at the end is there the choice to disclose, a hard one to make when every cell in the left-front section of the brain is screaming for closure. What could be more frightening for the writer, an ever-precocious child, than the thought of losing the thread? It’s the thread, authorship, which indexes not only one’s differentiation from others (lovability) but also one’s grasp on another (love). Yet every definition—the point not of language, but of text; the end—is a failure of mourning that speaks to the loss of conception. Someone as bound to listen as Jacqueline Rose will not mind if I end an essay about her book with another writer’s words, even a poet’s. “A broken heart stays open,” Alice Notley said. 

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer living in New York.