Overrated: Jacqueline Rose

Daniel Johnson compares two sisters, one a vociferous campaigner against Israel, the other a towering figure in Judaeo-Christian thought

According to The Jacqueline Rose Reader (Duke University Press, £16.99), “Jacqueline Rose is a major public intellectual of and for our times.” Her mentor, the late Frank Kermode, describes her in his memoirs as “an academic celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic”. Is an academic celebrity the same as a public intellectual? Jacqueline Rose certainly attracts public attention. A fellow of the British Academy, she holds a chair at Queen Mary, University of London, and has made a TV documentary, Dangerous Liaison, attacking America’s relationship with Israel. Indeed, whenever Israel is on trial, she is one of the public prosecutors. A darling of the Guardian and the London Review of Books, she co-founded the lobby group Independent Jewish Voices, which claims to be more representative of British Jews than the Board of Deputies. Jewish she is, but in her distaste for Israel she is anything but independent: hers is the voice of the Left-liberal establishment. She and her partner, the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, are among Britain’s (or at any rate North London’s) most fashionable intellectual couples. 

On what, though, does Jacqueline Rose’s reputation rest? A period in Paris enabled her to be among the first British academics to abandon literary criticism in favour of “theory”, which she proceeded to spice up with feminist and Freudian jargon. Books followed on two curiously disparate writers, J.M. Barrie and Sylvia Plath — enough to impress her peers in the intellectually insecure world of Eng Lit and to make her the high priestess of the cult of Sylvia Plath. All these, like her books about psychoanalysis, fantasy and politics, are hermetic works written for a coterie.

One of the claims made on behalf of Jacqueline Rose is that she is not merely a critic but also a novelist. This is true, but only in the sense that Winston Churchill, Joseph Goebbels and Sylvia Plath were novelists. That is, she has written one novel, Albertine, which revisits Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu from the point of view of Albertine, his narrator’s lover. It takes some chutzpah to invite comparison with perhaps the greatest novelist of the 20th century, but Professor Rose persuaded Chatto & Windus to publish her pretentious prose by (literally) fleshing out the passages in which Proust hints at Albertine’s lesbianism. But there is something else going on here besides Sapphic fantasies. Proust’s Albertine is an anti-Semite; Rose’s Albertine is not. Proust has her say of Bloch: “I would have betted anything he was a Jew-boy. Typical of their creepy ways!” Later she sneers at Bloch’s sisters: “I’m not allowed to play with Israelites,” and the narrator suggests that she is “quite ready to believe that the Jews were in the habit of massacring Christian children”. Apart from her sexuality, Albertine’s anti-Semitism is the most interesting thing about her. The novel turns on the Dreyfus case, which encouraged both anti-Semitism and Zionism. To excise the anti-Dreyfusard prejudice that even a young woman like Albertine has absorbed is to render Rose’s novel not only parasitical but pointless, too. Proust’s Albertine is a flawed but fascinating character; Rose’s Albertine is just a bore.

When asked about her decision to bowdlerise her portrait of Albertine, Rose protests: “To enter into the skin of an anti-Semite would have been very, very difficult for me. It would have just felt like an act of self-brutalisation.” If she is too fastidious to identify with fictional anti-Semites, why does she make excuses for real ones? 

One can only speculate about her motives. Jacqueline Rose admits that she never wanted to set foot in Israel and only did so for the first time in 1980. That visit, during which she was reproached by Palestinians, seems to have left her a militant anti-Zionist. Though she does not appear to know a great deal about Israel or Judaism, she does know her Freud, and she takes it upon herself to psychoanalyse the Jewish people. Her argument is that the Holocaust has traumatised Jews so deeply that “the most persecuted people in history” has become “the violent oppressors of another people”. For her, the Palestinians are the new Jews and the Zionists are the new Nazis.

This argument would have appalled Gillian Rose. Yet Jacqueline constantly   invokes her elder sister’s name. Just as she is in denial about the gulf between them in intellectual and moral stature, so she is in denial about the resurgence of anti-Semitism. “It is imperative for Jews to speak out against Israel’s actions against the Palestinians. Not to do so,” Jacqueline Rose declares, “fuels anti-Semitism today.” So Jews who support Israel only have themselves to blame for the hostility they encounter? What of the academic boycott of Israel, a tactic made notorious by the Nazis, which she supports? It has always been more socially acceptable to blame the Jews for anti-Semitism than those really responsible. Jacqueline Rose would rather exonerate Israel’s enemies than admit that their hatred has nothing to do with Israel’s actions, but everything to do with its existence.

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