As a judge for the 2018 Booker Prize (which went to Anna Burns’ Milkman), the writer and critic Jacqueline Rose argued that dire times required “the dissident, awkward, creative voice of fiction.” Switch out fiction for nonfiction, and Rose could have been talking about her own long bibliography. Ever since she published The Haunting of Sylvia Plath in 1991, she has carved a distinctive path as an academic and writer willing to dissent from received opinion. In addition to Plath the subjects on her psychiatrist’s couch have included Peter Pan, the War on Terror, Marilyn Monroe, and the state of Israel. But of her 12 books, it was The Haunting of Sylvia Plath that served as the touchstone for Maggie Nelson’s devotion to Rose’s work—in 1997 she lined up at a New York Public Library event to ask Rose to sign her copy of the book. Nelson has gone on to publish nine books of her own since then, including four volumes of poetry and her frank and expansive 2015 bestseller, The Argonauts, which considers and liberates our ways of thinking about gender and family. It won the National Book Critics Award for Criticism. As the pandemic reshaped the contours of daily life in 2020 both women were in the midst of writing and editing new books: Rose’s On Violence and On Violence Against Women is published in May; Nelson’s On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Restraint is due in September. Here the two women talk about making time for thought, why revolution is a perpetual, and the end of sexual difference.
Maggie Nelson: As proof of how much that you mean to me, I just pulled my copy of The Haunting of Sylvia Plath off the shelf, and in it I saved my program to A Tribute to Sylvia Plath at the New York Public Library in 1997. I had never in my life had a book signed, but your book was so important to me that I waited in line and then you signed it.
Jacqueline Rose: Amazing!
NELSON: It was a very important night for me.
ROSE: I notice that you quote The Haunting of Sylvia Plath in your book The Art of Cruelty.
NELSON: Yes. Right. I won’t belabor the point, but it’s really hard for me to overestimate how important your work has been for me, from my upcoming book all the way back. It’s so deep. It’s not just what you have said but it’s how you think, and also how you write, how you make sentences. I taught Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty, many times last year in my graduate classes.
ROSE: When I wrote Mothers, I don’t think I’d read The Art of Cruelty. Also, I have to confess—everybody was telling me to read The Argonauts, and I read it and I stopped, and then I started reading it again and literally could not put it down. Of course, if I had read The Argonauts before I published Mothers, I would have quoted you. So, what we’re doing is getting out of the way our sense of not fully-acknowledged indebtedness, which flows in both directions.
NELSON: I agree and I’ve actually had the same experience with your essay on sexual harassment, and your essay on mothers, both of them I read in the process of writing, and thought, I’m not sure I should read this because Jacqueline Rose is going to say this much better than I can. And I’m very close to a similar idea and I’m frightened that I won’t be able to go back to it. But I don’t feel like that about very many writers.
GRAND: I wonder if we can start with a quote from Maggie’s upcoming book, On Freedom, in which she writes that “[James] Baldwin well understood the dangers of focusing on so-called inner freedom at the expense of gaining and wielding political power. But he also sternly warned against ignoring the former in pursuit of the latter.” In this past year, how you have balanced your own internal conversations with those swirling around us?
ROSE: Of course, what Baldwin also says is that freedom is hard to bear. So, I think you have to factor that in, because you can’t have a concept of inner freedom, unless you understand the inner obstacles to freedom. And one of the strengths of your books, Maggie, is that you write about the struggle for freedom, but you’re constantly tripping, in a really interesting way, on the inner resistance to freedom. So, the key bit of that Baldwin quote for me is our struggle with freedom. In terms of the swirling conversation in and out, I’ve had a very split year because I started by getting immediately embroiled in pieces of writing, all of which were implicated in the pandemic. The first was Camus’s The Plague, which has so much to say about the relationship between what is putrefying inside the city walls and what is sick about our social arrangements, the plague for which we are all accountable. I also wrote about living one’s own death through Freud’s concept of the death drive for the Vienna Freud Museum anniversary lecture and other things. But then I just stalled—teaching took over, a real challenge online—but I also think I needed to pause for thought.
NELSON: It’s too boring to go into, literally, but my experience of the past year has been 97 percent dominated by having a child at home 24 hours-a-day by my side. I’m very grateful that I had drafted my freedom book [before the pandemic] but in January or February, my editor sent back the manuscript with many, many queries to revise, and I had to turn it in at the end of August. So, from February to August, I had this huge task that was suddenly being done not alone and under a lot of psychic distress about what was going on in the world.
ROSE: I want to just go back to the freedom question, because the awful pain of the last year is that we’ve had so little freedom other than to obey rules, which we’re not even sure that we can trust. And as you say in your book, the freedom discourse has been co-opted by the anti-vaxxers and the anti-lockdown people. That’s to say that it’s been a very upsetting moment of having to watch freedom become a tool in the hands of people who we see as very negative and dangerous and destructive. I think this confirms one of the arguments in your book, which is that it’s not as if there’s this thing called freedom—there’s something having to be negotiated and fought for in relationship to this term every step of the way. There’s never a moment where you’ve achieved it in that sense. Ten years ago, [the psychoanalyst and socialist feminist] Juliet Mitchell, and I were interviewed for Women: A Cultural Review, and the interviewer asked us what we thought had been the successes and failures of feminism. I was like a well-behaved school girl and basically said, “Well, I think we did very well in terms of legislation for equal pay and equal rights, many, many achievements, but on the other hand, we were very blind about different sexualities and race.” And Juliet said, “It’s been 100 percent a success, because it is the longest revolution.” All the setbacks, and all the struggles, and all the backlash, and all the difficulties and all the tripping over is part of the transformational process. It’s never achieved, it’s never accomplished. It’s a form of perpetual vigilance. I feel that is one of the things you’re saying in your book, and it’s never been so true as now.
NELSON: On that same note, you talk about the speed with which a progressive cause can be complicit with, or co-opted by nasty, political agendas. I presume that you were talking about different forms of carceral feminism or TERFs [Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists], and the unlikely bedfellows that they create. I don’t feel in crisis with feminism per se, but I will admit that with the carceral feminism or TERF stuff coming in, I do find myself having miniature driftings away from the word in public forums, just because I’m not always sure what I’m identifying with. And when I read your work, I don’t feel that same drift or anxiety. Denise Riley, in one of my favorite quotes ever, says, “That ‘women’ is indeterminate and impossible is no cause for lament. It is what makes feminism.” When I read you, I’m reminded of that and I feel happy again, but I wonder if you feel any of this drift or anxiety?
ROSE: Well, how long have you got?
NELSON: I’ve been waiting for 27 years.
ROSE: This will be a to and fro, but TERF attitude to trans women, which includes endangering them by saying they’re a danger to women, has made me very despondent at moments, it’s true. It’s so destructive of potential alliances, and doesn’t allow for the fact that any trans woman has rejected masculinity in a certain form, by definition, if they are male to female. There is something so profound about the journey they’ve been on, that it feels to me as if women who haven’t been on that journey, have everything to learn from it. Carceral feminism is a right (wing) agenda which I think is so difficult to deal with, because on the one hand, we wanted Derek Chauvin to go down, right? I know I did. And I wanted Weinstein to go down. So there are certain struggles we are involved in when you want the state to move in and the law to act. But we do not want to be on the side of the carceral state. Sexual harassment must stop, the law must intervene if needs be; but sexuality is lawless. How you move with all those three things at once, knowing that in a sense they contradict each other, has become the task I have set myself as a feminist.
NELSON: In Dean Spade’s Normal Life, as I recall, the argument is that the fight for legal recognition in and around trans rights will fail to benefit trans people. It will fail to benefit them because it’s in the dismantling of systems of state violence more generally, not in any fight for rights, that benefit will be found. It doesn’t get us out of the problem that you name of wanting Chauvin to get 40 years. But one thing I really like about prison abolition as a movement is that there’s so much intelligence around [what it requires]. People say, “Well, if I can’t call the police when they’re killing my mother, what can I do? You’re going to tell me not to call the police?” Prison abolitionists might say, “We’re not advocating taking away all capacity right now, today, to find any forms of safety or redress.” That’s why you have to build structures in the meantime. As the prison state withers away, there will be things that replace it.
ROSE: I think you’ve touched on something so difficult, which is the relationship between demolition and the creation of new forms, which will sustain the lives that we want to protect. I’m thinking of something very different, which is Barbara Taylor’s book, Asylum, which is about the destruction of the mental asylums in the UK in the first half of the 20th century, in favor of reintegrating mentally disturbed people into the community. And she says that was a mistake, arguing not from the right—that these people are dangerous and should be locked away—but from the other side. She says that mental asylums aren’t incarceration, they’re places to breathe, and for people inside them to feel safe. So, whatever you think about the details of the argument, it just makes more complex this idea that there are alternative structures of communal being-ness, togetherness, which somehow could replace the carceral system. And I’m just not sure about that. I think it’s very, very difficult.
NELSON: Something that I value so much in your book, is that you say, “How can we as feminists make the gap between maleness and the infinite complexity of the human mind the beating heart of women’s fight against oppression, against the stultifying ideology of what women are meant to be, and not allow the same internal breathing space to men?” I think this is so important. And it’s also so important, because it extends far beyond just women and men. Going around to talk about The Argonauts, people’s dedication to this idea of the queer and the heteronormative as opposing forces is so fierce, that it’s so difficult to pull people into this idea that everybody deserves the kind of non-stultifying internal breathing space of fluidity or instability that is attributed to queers, or to women, or whatever. But it’s by no means their province only.
ROSE: But you’re now leading into something which I really was hoping we would talk about, because you write beautifully about fluidity and instability and mobility. One of my favorite moments in The Argonauts, which links it to your new book, On Freedom, is when your partner has had top surgery, and you’re sitting and writing, and they’re producing art and you say something like, “I’m no longer sure which of us is more at home in the world, which of us is more free. ” It’s a really beautiful moment where you’re just thinking, Who’s really free here? Am I free? Even if you’re moving the borders of your body around, there’s something that’s very hard to give full space to. The reason why psychoanalysis is hated by some people is because it says that whatever you end up doing, you will always be negotiating the law of sexual difference, because there’s no culture that doesn’t have it, and wherever you end up you will have to inscribe that on your body one way or another. If I’m absolutely honest, I’m not sure that has to be forever. When Julia Kristeva wrote [her essay] “Women’s Time,” she said, “First phase was the struggle for rights; second phase was the struggle for the affirmation of femininity as difference; third stage, sexual difference will be seen as a metaphysical category.” So, that would be a decisive displacement of the fundamental tenet of Freudian psychoanalysis, to say the least.
NELSON: How do you understand the metaphysic? I’m trying to figure out her third phase.
ROSE: I’ll put it much more simply. Her third phase: sexual difference will be seen as a fraud.
NELSON: I feel like my life, even my personal life, is sometimes dominated by feeling like a Sherpa from phase two to phase three that you just described, both for myself and others. I’m thinking of the time I tried to explain to a class parent at my kid’s school that dividing the welcome nights for new families into a “mom’s wine night” and a “dad’s beer night” wasn’t a great idea. It’s not that I disagree with people’s right to self-identify as mothers and have wine together. My point was that if they’re imagining these two nights as welcoming to all peoples, they need to know that not all parents identify as mothers or fathers. The initial reaction is usually to say, “Oh, but people can go to whichever night they want!” And I’m like yeah, but really the whole point is to ask, why are we dividing such activities by binary gender? I try to say, “Look, I don’t know where we will end up after we abolish mom’s night, and I know that there will be something to mourn. But I feel confident that we’re going somewhere better, even if all of its contours are not yet clear to any of us.”
ROSE: Somewhere in all of this, I agree with you, things are getting better. But the virulence that’s coming to meet it, the hostility! I would love to be a fly on the wall when you’re having these conversations with the moms at your school. Are they nice to you? Or did they get cross?
NELSON: Mostly everybody wants to do things right. And sometimes when I intervene, I don’t offer a solution for how they should do it, I just want to draw their attention to thinking about the problem.
ROSE: You’re not campaigning.
NELSON: No, I try to invite people to thought without telling them how I think they should do it, which is sometimes frustrating to them. They would much rather just know what’s the PC way to run our welcome night: just tell us, and we’ll deal with it. But I’m interested in the slowing down—in the thinking. Over and over again in your book, you characterize its aim as to slow the pace, to resist the will to action at any price. You write, “If there’s 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 our world. Well, we will surely be doing violence to ourselves.” And I wonder two things: one, what making time for thought might look like, especially for people who don’t consider themselves, say, intellectuals in the way that you and I might? And secondly: how you conceptualize the lack of doing so as a form of doing violence unto ourselves?
ROSE: Okay. Arundhati Roy gave this amazing interview, which really fed me my line, where she suggests that an understanding of “the density of being human” is the only antidote to the crass, mind numbing, and crushing simplifications of resurgent fascism. I felt that what she was saying was that the way that fascism works, the way that people like Bolsonaro and Modi work, is by offering such a simplification of what is acceptable to be thought. I am of the school that sees the belief that you can master your mind and control the world as a form of narcissistic entitlement that covers over a deeply felt but hidden recognition that nobody can, and therefore an increasing desperation to do so. It is a psychotic delusion that does not work. That’s why for me, such a key moment was when Weinstein entered the courtroom on a Zimmer frame, although it was a complete lie. In court, it also gradually emerged that his sexual behavior was, above all, about the seduction of coercion. The longer the resistance went on, the more he was determined to prove and drive home his point, to put it slightly euphemistically. You say a version of this in, I think, The Argonauts. You start off with primary maternal preoccupation, where you give everything to your baby. And it’s heaven, right? Because all that baby needs is warmth, hugging, feeding, and sleeping, and a bit of smiling and laughing. One’s life is never as simple as when one has a young baby. And then you realize after about a year that if you carry on like this, you’re going to produce a fucking monster.
NELSON: You will die yourself.
ROSE: And you will also die. So there’s this ghastly moment where the omnipotence you have fostered in your child has to give way to something other than that kind of entrenched narcissism. And the people who feel entitled do not go through that internal correction; they continue to believe that the world will fall to their feet. The only thing is that as you get a bit older, and as that never happens completely, you know it’s a delusion. For me, the most virulent forms of masculine violence are to do with trying to ward off the knowledge of the delusion. I think what I’m saying is that thoughtfulness is the ability to have a reckoning with what you cannot control, master, or know fully. And you write about this a lot. It makes it harder to kill, harder to attack, harder to assault if you’ve had an inner reckoning with the fragility and the precariousness of what it means to be human, with human dependency, with the aggression attached to human dependency. If you’ve reckoned with the complexity of that, then you’re less likely to try violence because it won’t work for you. And, of course I take it from Hannah Arendt who says that violence increases when power is fraudulent and diminishing, which is an account of most men for me.
NELSON: When you say that it makes it harder to kill if you’ve had that reckoning I believe you. But having just lived through these Trump years, I’m curious and worried about something else you describe, which is that when power is diminishing or fraudulent, or illegitimate, that’s precisely when it’s most dangerous. In the United States, people I know would say, over and over again, “Trump is the last gasp, he’s the dying of the patriarchy.” But as they’re saying that, we’re also watching jillions of 17- to 25-year-old men, rising up like zombies to rebirth this thing anew.
ROSE: You’re absolutely right. Trump’s law-breaking was part of the pull. It wasn’t that he got away with it, or could do no wrong. It’s that he was adulated in proportion to the wrong that he could do. This is, for me, one of the most profound insights of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, the analysis of “love thy neighbor” and how difficult it is to do that. And how the voice inside your head telling you to be nice is not a nice voice. It’s coercive, it’s controlling. There is a sense in which we all are lawbreakers inside our heads. And a lawbreaker in the position of power is deeply, deeply attractive, because it exonerates everybody else of the internal guilt. What Trump has done is send the unconscious frog marching in the street: the abuse of women, the right to shoot anybody on 5th Avenue and get away with it. There’s something about somebody who is parading the right to violate the terms of our internal legislator which is immensely attractive. And again, it’s Hannah Arendt who says, under totalitarianism the desire to do good becomes a temptation that has to be resisted. The internal arrangement of what is good and what is bad gets moved around. I haven’t been very clear, I realize.
NELSON: No, I think you have. I think what you see happening in the States right now—all the trials of the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6, is that the psychotic conviction doesn’t work, at least not in the long run. That is to say, a lot of these people are now feeling very broken and vulnerable, and are facing serious charges for what they did. The problem is that the psychotic conviction works until it doesn’t work. In the meantime, a lot of damage can get done, both to the self and others.
ROSE: Yes. I agree. But I think here we have to become a little bit more materialist. I mean, 70 million people voted for Donald Trump this time. This is not going away any time soon. I remember [the feminist theorist] Drucilla Cornell talking to me about canvasing for the Democrats in a trailer park. She ended up spending three hours with a woman who’d had lost custody of her children, she’d been holding down five jobs to look after them. And she just said, “The feminists in Washington have done nothing for me, my life is an absolute wreck, so I’m voting for Donald Trump.” So we have to include the extent to which one of the geniuses of what he did was to capture disaffection, and to promise omnipotence as an alternative. .
NELSON: I mean, as a feminist, one of the most chilling things I’ve heard—meaning I won’t forget it—was a woman interviewed around the time of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings who literally told the reporter, “My daughter was abducted and raped in a hotel room, and it’s been about a year, and she’s fine now. So I don’t want to hear about what happened to you 30 years ago at this party.” She was talking about Christine Blasey Ford, but the image of her daughter that she conjured in this really off-the-cuff interview, was very profound to me, because I also understood her point—which was the deep need and desire for her daughter to be fine now. That was overriding as a need, and anyone who told you that it was going to be scarring and life-changing, and that there was no capacity to move on, to her was not acceptable.
ROSE: I think we’re talking about something really important here, which is what [the philosopher] Julia Kristeva calls the Phobic Core of Humanity, which is the core of humanity that knows but does not want to recognize fragility, precariousness, mortality, illness, failure. She says that the reason why so many women are being killed during lockdown is because normally it is the task of the mother to tell the world that the world and the baby are safe, and happy, and healthy. There are two things that you know within five minutes of being a mother: one, that the world is not fair, and two, that the inner world is complex and fragile. The reason why women are often hated, I feel, is because the task enjoined on them is one they know they can’t fulfill, and they’re not forgiven for that. What Kristeva was saying is that women are being punished because nobody in a time of pandemic when everybody’s dying, can protect humanity from mortality. That role is just not available to women anymore. Women are also being punished for the fact that men locked in the home feel like women. We’re really touching on something important here, which is that violence against women in the time of pandemic is a response to the collapse of any possibility of holding off those forms of fragility.
NELSON: Maybe that’s why we all feel so bad. I mean, my son’s school’s opening. And it’ll be bad for me to keep him home and keep playing too many video games, and it will be bad if he goes to school and gets sick. Everything’s bad. Everything’s wrong. There’s no right answer. And it’s always like this, but now it’s just on steroids every day, all day. And your child’s still looking to you to tell them-
ROSE: “It’s all going to be okay.”
NELSON: Yes. Which brings me to another question: At the end of your book, or near the end, you called the renewal of hope the only question. What did you mean?
ROSE: The renewal of hope is the ability to tolerate the internal ambiguity of psychic life.
NELSON: I like that very much. Here’s another question: I want to ask about this movement going on across the pond against critical race theory, and against gender theory, that I didn’t even know was happening until I went to France, and other countries, with The Argonauts. It seems almost funny to me, because the theory seems so esoteric, but it’s clearly not being treated in an esoteric fashion, and the reasons for the movement against it aren’t funny at all.
ROSE: But it’s happening in the UK as well. A report was issued recently that said Britain is not institutionally racist, and it’s caused an absolute outcry. What I feel, and you’ll appreciate this because you’ve been in academia for 20 years, I’ve been in academia for more than 40, is that one of the most serious thing in British political life at the moment is the fight over the curriculum: how history is going to be taught, how gender is going to be taught, how race is going to be taught. That is to say, there is a hideous backlash in terms of what we used to call theory—feminism, race, gender—and we’ve all got to be hyper-alert.
NELSON: What does hyper-alertness entail?
ROSE: It entails keeping up the public conversation, insisting that it continues in such a way that as many people as possible have access to it. Wherever we are in the educational system, there is a culture war on at the moment that has to be fought by what you teach and how you teach it. Tell me how it’s affecting you, Maggie.
NELSON: It’s not affecting me in so far as I don’t interface with a lot of haters. I teach at the University of Southern California. I’ve been here for four years, and prior to that all of my teaching has been at the very far corners of American progressive education, namely art schools.
ROSE: Yeah, so you’re fine. Well, Birkbeck is also fine. I’ve been at Birkbeck, Sussex, Queen Mary, they’ve all been radical institutions. So we’ve protected ourselves, at least in terms of what we are permitted to teach and to say.
NELSON: Because I began in poetry, and because I’ve written, for lack of a better word, a lot of books that I would just call literary art, I don’t walk into interviews perceiving myself as someone who’s ready to explain issues, or to be a spokesperson.
ROSE: But that is being laid upon your shoulders, I would say.
NELSON: Correct. You have a line in your sexual harassment essay that you’d never so regretted agreeing to write about a topic. I love that, and I wanted you to say more. I also felt, over and over again while writing On Freedom that it felt like a very bad idea. Unlike The Art of Cruelty it felt much more current. I wanted to have range, and be ambitious, and write what I wanted to write but I was aware of the fact—and now I’m kind of looking towards it, when the book comes out—that I can’t keep saying, “I’m not a social commentator,” when I’ve written a book that’s essentially all social commentary.
ROSE: Indeed. But you could also read The Argonauts as a kind of manifesto. For me, it goes alongside Susan Stryker’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein,” as a representation of trans experience in relation to giving birth. Both are saying, “This is another way it can work out.” It’s not a political statement, it’s an intervention, a type of performance. In On Violence, I am consistently on the look-out for writing that has its ear to the ground, pushing the boat out in terms of what it is possible and impossible to say.
On Freedom by Maggie Nelson can be purchased on One Grand Books here.