In Philippe Claudel’s novel “Brodeck,” an oblique commentary on Nazism translated, from the French, by John Cullen, a mysterious stranger referred to as De Anderer (“the Other” in the local Germanic language) arrives in an unnamed European hamlet, which was subsumed in a recent war that engulfed the continent and beyond. During that conflict, most villagers collaborated with the brutal invaders. In a series of shocking paintings, De Anderer re-creates scenes in which the villagers rounded up and massacred “foreigners” among their own population.
Jacqueline Rose, the British intellectual and author of — among other works — “The Haunting of Sylvia Plath,” would find a kindred spirit in De Anderer, whose art confronts the villagers with their ghastly deeds. In her new book, “Women in Dark Times” (which takes its title from Hannah Arendt’s “Men in Dark Times”), Rose argues that “women should see it as one of their tasks to bring to the surface of history, both private and public, what the heart cannot, or believes it cannot, withstand.” Relying in part on a psychoanalytical approach, Rose delves into the lives and work of six women from whom a new generation of feminists might take its cue: socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, painter Charlotte Salomon, actress and beauty icon Marilyn Monroe, and contemporary artists Esther Shalev-Gerz, Yael Bartana, and Thérèse Oulton.
What do these women have in common? Not nearly as much as Rose seems to think. Yet she has a knack for pinpointing instances in which “they invite us into the gutter, allowing — obliging — us to look full on at what they, in their dreams and nightmares, have had to face (unspeakable thoughts unspoken, in Toni Morrison’s famous phrase).” Consider Luxemburg denouncing the dark, Soviet side of the socialism she was fighting for in Germany, or Bartana’s mockumentary film about a movement calling on Jews to return to Poland en masse, or Oulton’s paintings depicting civilization’s despoiling of Earth.
“Everyone has violence in them . . . I am violent.” The words are Monroe’s, taken from her personal notes, and the author’s decision to quote them on two separate occasions is instructive. For Rose, inner demons beset women no less than men. Crucially, however, women seem more amenable to grappling with them.
In Claudel’s “Brodeck,” irate villagers who don’t care to be reminded of their crimes, let alone peer into the darker recesses of their souls, murder De Anderer. Some of the women Rose discusses here met a similar end. Take Luxemburg, for example, executed by right-wing paramilitaries in 1919 for helping to lead the “Spartacist” workers’ strike and uprising in Berlin.
Rose’s heroines also include ordinary women, some of whom were slain in “honor killings” because they refused forced marriages or chose their own spouses or romantic partners, and in certain instances even went public with their defiance, thereby shaming their families. The author devotes a chapter to these often conflicted women and their painful, sometimes fatal, struggles.
However, Rose exhibits a worrisome desire to police the debate about honor killings. Not content with pointing out (correctly) that violence against women isn’t the exclusive preserve of Muslims or people of non-Western origin, she imperiously demands adherence to the notion of a neat separation between Islam and a modern yet twisted subculture that bears responsibility for violence targeting women. This overlooks the possibility that cultural attitudes among some Muslims toward women’s honor as well as adultery and “fornication” derive from religion. Rose also sanctimoniously considers it unacceptable that certain political parties seize on honor killings to call for a halt to immigration. Isn’t such opportunism very much the business of politics?
Upon reading this book, whose somewhat abstruse final chapter (focusing on Oulton’s paintings) is followed by an outward-looking but weak afterword on the global condition of women today, one cannot but conclude that it lacks cohesiveness. “Women in Dark Times” also remains too vague and theoretical to lay the foundations for that elusive “scandalous feminism,” at once introspective and activist, that Rose yearns for. Yet this should not blind the reader to the book’s intellectual virtues. Even if Rose fails in her ambitious quest to proffer a blueprint for the next wave of feminism, she succeeds in shedding light on the unsettling yet profound work of several women — some famous, some unsung — who have searchingly explored, and fatefully confronted, humankind’s murkiest instincts.
WOMEN IN DARK TIMES
By Jacqueline Rose
Bloomsbury, 352 pp., $28
Rayyan Al-Shawaf, a writer and book critic in Beirut, can be reached at calaboose@gmail