For a couple of days I’ve been immersed in Jacqueline Rose’s volume of essays, On Not Being Able To Sleep, and mostly reading it at night when, as it happens, I haven’t been able to sleep. Jacqueline Rose is a Professor of English at some exalted establishment in the UK, and has written compellingly and with amazing insight on psychoanalysis, feminism and literature. Rose, born into a Jewish family, is well known for calling a few years ago for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. Her book States of Fantasy, on the role of the unconscious in the histories of Israel and South Africa, is pretty amazing too.
On Not Being Able To Sleep has an essay on Australia, which Rose was supposed to deliver a decade ago to the Brisbane Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies – a body I studied with for several years to great personal benefit – but was unable to. That essay looks at Howard’s victory in the ‘election of shame’ of 1999 and the weirdness of Pauline Hanson, and the place of Australia and Aboriginal culture in the thought of Freud and Jung, who were also both invited to Australia a hundred years ago, but who both didn’t make it here either.
Rose’s views on the place of Australia in the psychoanalytic unconscious, as illuminating as it is, is not what I’m going to talk about though. A subtext in Rose’s book, if I can identify a subtext in a writer who seems only too aware of both what she is saying, what she is not saying and what she is leaving out, seems to me to be on what it is to be human.
In an essay on the poet Christina Rossetti (author of Goblin Market and other poems) succinctly titled ‘Undone, defiled, defaced: Christina Rossetti’, Rose writes, ‘Love lies in the guessing, in granting your loved one the greatest possible freedom, the wildest imaginative and spiritual reach’. Later in the book, in her essay about the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, very dorkily titled ‘Apathy and Accountability: The Challenge of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the Intellectual in the Modern World’, Rose writes:
One of the things for which the Truth Commission has become famous for is the concept of ‘ubuntu‘, a traditional Zulu term which is placed by the Commission at the basis of restorative justice: ‘Ubuntu‘, generally translated as ‘humaneness’, expresses itself metaphorically in umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu – ‘people are people through other people’.
Or as she later writes, quoting Desmond Tutu, ‘A person is a person because he recognises others as persons’.
For the sake of simplicity, there seem to me to be two things at work here: a spirit of generosity, and a spirit and theory of profound interdependence. Of course, psychoanalysis is founded on various theories of human interdependence: the theory of transgenerational-haunting, the theory that we all speak unconsciously for each other and carry psychic states for each other, and so on. In other words, we are connected whether we like it or not, and this interdependence is at the root of human experience. As the great British child therapist Donald Winnicott famously wrote, ‘There is no such thing as a baby’; a statement that can be read many ways, but most basically that without mothering of some description, a baby is doomed, the human being is doomed, and his or her humanity is often irreparably compromised.
Which brings us back to Australia, the place that neither Rose or Freud or Jung could get to, that became a place that occupied their imaginations but not their memory. For me, Australian life took a radical and catastrophic turn when the first Howard government was elected. The current Rudd government is not so much a reaction to the Howard period but a continuation of it by other means, rather like Blair following Thatcher. In this sense, the policies of both governments – the policy of mandatory detention, the Northern Territory intervention, the failure to take decisive action on climate change, the planned income management for those on Centrelink benefits and so on – are a complete denial that any sort of interdependence is possible between human beings, that we rely on each other because each other is all we have.
What the Rudd and Howard Governments have in common is an inability to be moved by suffering, by the fact that life is about living your life, not about working for thirty years in order to pay a monstrous mortgage, or having to slave until you are 70 in whatever employment you can get. The present and previous governments seem to me to be concerned foremost with the politics of control, not with the politics of care. Kevin Rudd making a speech in which he says, ‘A person is a person because he recognises others as persons’, and then developing a set of social policies based on the ramifications of that statement not only seems eminently sensible, but also in the same moment wildly insane, because to say and believe such a thing he would have to stop being Kevin Rudd.
Wherever a politics of care is being developed, if we can find such a thing locally or personally, is where we could think about urgently locating ourselves. To locate ourselves within centres of power because we think that’s where the capacity for change lies, to position ourselves as heirs to that power, is something that could be questioned not only because it is unlikely to serve us well, but also because it provides no service to others either.