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On Not Being Able to SleepReview - On Not Being Able to Sleep
Psychoanalysis and the Modern World
by Jacqueline Rose
Princeton University Press, 2003
Review by Sue Bond, M.A.
Sep 15th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 38)

Jacqueline Rose is an elegant, intelligent writer and thinker, who links ideas and pulls in references from many and varied sources in a way that creates rich and absorbing work. She is Professor of English Literature at Queen Mary and Westfield College at the University of London, and has written several books, including The Haunting of Sylvia Plath.

In On Not Being Able to Sleep: Psychoanalysis and the Modern World, Rose writes about shame and shaming, 'how to understand the link between public and private worlds' and the task of psychoanalysis as 'not so much to undo forgetting, but to put poetry back into the mind'. This is what Rose does in her own work, infuses it with a poetic sense. Sometimes I did find the prose serpentine and a little entangled, and the jumps between ideas could be challenging.

The title relates to that of another book by an artist, Marion Milner, a memoir, written in 1950, called On Not Being Able to Paint. From it, Rose sees the two possible pathways that psychoanalysis can take: either the 'primary madness' or 'uncommon sense' that lies at the heart of painting (and art generally), and which is displayed by the writers she discusses (for example, Virginia Woolf); or the 'fossilising into a set of transmissable rules'. She makes it clear which is the preferable pathway.

The central essay, 'On Not Being Able to Sleep', is subtitled as a re-reading of Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams. Rose is particularly struck by chapter seven of this work, the 'psychic boundaries' that it crossed, its bizarre nature. She notes that it was the most difficult chapter for Freud to write, and is the most difficult to read: he 'shifted uneasily from dream to reason, from inside to outside his topic'. Rose writes that Freud's uncertainty about the unknownableness of dreams was like a 'night-terror', that he was building a bridge into the dark. She postulates that this was the fear of the psychoanalyst going backwards or regressing, turning into the frightened child. She brings the writings of Proust into this discussion, and shows that his thoughts on sleep and dreams challenge those of Freud, and take him 'beyond the point he is willing to travel'. I gained an intense feeling for Freud as an imaginative writer and thinker, and one relevant for us today.

Rose has divided the collection into three sections, in the first of which she includes essays on women writers: Sylvia Plath, Mary Butts and Elizabeth Bowen, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich and Natalie Angier, Christina Rossetti, and Virginia Woolf. Her review of Diane Wood Middlebrook's biography of Anne Sexton points out that, although the poet seemed to be exposing her life through her work, she was really hiding behind her poetry ('I fake it up with the truth'). Rose makes a perceptive observation about the trance states that Sexton experienced in her therapy sessions, that they defied the purpose of the tapes used to record the sessions as a memory tool; a case of the 'canny wiles of the unconscious driving the process of recording to some kind of defeat'. The tapes were handed over by the therapist to the biographer, in a violation of confidentiality, an act which no amount of defending convinces Rose was ethical.

The works of Christina Rossetti and Sylvia Plath have also been obsessively pored over for links with their lives, and Rose comments (in the first essay on Plath, but it applies generally) that to read all of a body of work as biographical denies the 'transformative potential of [the] art'. This is at the core of the dispute between Rose (and anyone who attempts to write about Plath) and Ted Hughes over her book The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, which she discusses. Her review of Hughes' poetry, Birthday Letters, is the epitome of what reviews should be: an examination of the work, not the person, despite her own disagreements with him.          

She presents some of the ideas of Christopher Bollas in the second section, a psychoanalyst for whom the mother is central. This is challenging and requires hard work to understand. There is a chapter on the teaching of psychoanalysis and its problems before the book finishes with two essays in the third section, one on celebrity and one on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.

In discussing what makes us so uncomfortable about celebrity, Rose refers to Gitta Sereny's work with Mary Bell and the book produced from her time with her, Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell. She believes that Sereny becomes somewhat entangled in the ethical complexity of forcing Mary Bell to remember what happened when she killed a little boy when she was only a child herself, and then having to pull back when Bell starts to live the scene in the present tense. Rose has raised the point of how difficult it is to approach this area of human behavior, but I disagree that Sereny was somehow morally wrong in interviewing her so persistently and toughly. In all of Sereny's work, there is a sense of justice, of human complexity, of truth-seeking, and these things are not easily acquired or held. In the case of Mary Bell, Sereny was truly attempting to make those 'cries unheard' audible.

Jacqueline Rose ends her collection discussing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and raises important points about apathy, the decontextualisation and depoliticization of human rights abuses, and the desperate need for that often talked about but not so practiced dictum of 'putting oneself in another's shoes', or the Zulu concept of 'ubuntu', or 'humaneness'.

This is a fine collection of intelligent, thought-provoking writings, intensely relevant to the times.


© 2004 Sue Bond


Sue Bond has degrees in medicine and literature and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. Reviews for online and print publications. She lives in Queensland,  Australia.


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