This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
“It is blind acquiescence to collective madness, the twisted appeal to the common good, that propels citizens into fascism,” writes Jacqueline Rose in the May 11 issue of the Review. Her subject is Good, a 1982 play by C. P. Taylor that was staged at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London last winter. The main character, Halder, is a professor of literature in 1930s Germany whose slow acquiescence to Hitler forms the play’s central drama. “However drawn to Nazism,” Rose writes, Halder “will surely manage to make a last-minute escape. (Good will always triumph, as in the well-worn and discredited cliché.)”
Rose has in recent years written regularly for The New York Review, on subjects ranging from Boris Johnson and Donald Trump (“All the detritus of racial capitalism, trailing without inhibition its paltry, intimidating boast while the world burns”) to Jia Tolentino (“Her entire diagnosis of the ills of the world would be invalid if she pretended, like a bad psychoanalyst, to be immune to what she describes”). Her essay on Simone Weil has now been collected in her new book, The Plague: Living Death in Our Times,out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in August.
Rose was educated at Oxford, the Sorbonne, and the University of London, where she earned her doctorate under Frank Kermode. She codirects the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London. Last month we spoke via Zoom about three of her abiding preoccupations: fascism, Zionism, and psychoanalysis.
Sam Needleman: In Good, Halder suggests that Nazism is the fault of the Jews for pushing Germany toward a “Jewish, moralistic, humanistic, Marxist total fuckup.” This, you write, is “as good a formula as any for how C. P. Taylor saw himself.” How do you see him?
Jacqueline Rose: I think that’s a brilliant description of him. And I think he would see that as a compliment, because he believed in aberrant vision—in not being in the mainstream, in having a greater ability to see and understand by being unprivileged and outside. He was a real contributor to what in England the Conservative government refers to as “leveling up,” which is the idea that social, economic, and cultural advantage should not simply be the property of the London middle classes (an empty promise in the Conservatives’ case). He was from Glasgow, and for most of his life he worked in the northeast of England, where he played a key role in a major cultural renaissance. He was interested in Glasgow’s Gorbals Jewish district and indeed wrote a play about it. It was very important to him, and it figures quite a lot in Good, not just in the background of the Shoah but also in the snide remarks about Freudian Jewish culture.
Taylor was a real radical. He believed in working-class culture. In most of the plays I’ve read by him, that’s where he immerses himself. But there’s also an examination of the proprietorial farmland-owning class, which he presents as degenerate, as actually destroying itself. He is interested in people who lead what would be called normal lives in the midst of a crisis. His other most famous play is A Nightingale Sang, which is based on “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” I think it’s such a gifted play because entirely through dialogue it evokes the British experience of World War II, the excitement and the desolation of a certain lower-middle-class family.
You argue that Taylor dramatizes “the power of fascism to pluck the strings of the unconscious.” It’s clear that one of your motivations in writing the review, and one mark, you argue, of the play’s merit, is its political relevance during a global “slow burn” toward authoritarian rule. But your investment in Taylor seems more complex. What else drove you to write about Good?
My cousin Braham Murray was a distinguished director at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre who had very strong feelings about Nazism on the stage. He, in fact, believed it was impossible to represent, although he did a production of Macbeth set during the Holocaust, in which the inmates decided to put on a performance of the play. They enacted the evil of which they were the victims. An absolutely remarkable achievement, as if to say, “Unless we all understand this could be us, then we’re getting nowhere.” Obviously, this is what Good is doing. “It could be anybody” is one message of the play. You never know exactly to what extent you might be seduced by a kind of fascist belief system that claims to make so crystal clear who is in and who is out, who is good and who is bad. Your goodness depends on a preceding moral distinction which relegates one whole set of people to the nonhuman, and therefore all the rest become washed in a false form of virtue. I was intrigued by how Taylor did this. How do you theatricalize a euthanasia program? It’s little moments, like the mother coming onto the stage and losing her mind, that give you a sense of what might be at stake. But mainly it’s a discursive, argumentative play about human values. I was struck by that balance between something very mundane and something absolutely chilling.
The connection to the present is crucial, because last month Rishi Sunak ceded to his right-wing backbenchers and agreed that the United Kingdom would give itself the right to overrule European human rights law in order to stop small boats from crossing the Channel. This is surefire anti-immigration sentiment. In the last few years we have watched so-called legal, official governments—governments that are meant to be representative of the law, never mind on the right side of the law—failing at every juncture, whether through corruption or, as in the case of Dominic Raab, bullying. Perniciously, many public officials now act as though they should be able to flout the law to secure their ends. Our home secretary, Suella Braverman, excels at this art. She boasts of it. She has said herself that she knows her policies on dealing with small boats in the Channel violate European human rights law. So there’s nothing better—in a time of a cost-of-living crisis, obscene gaps of wealth between the rich and the poor, and the highest inflation rate in Europe—than to press the anti-migrant button and be racist, and nothing better than to flout the law.
In one of the role swaps in the play, the actor playing Halder performs Hitler saying, “I promise you, I will never do anything against the law of the government.” But what happens if the government itself is illegitimate or is on the wrong side of the law? In Israel, Netanyahu is trying to destroy the capacity of the Supreme Court to overrule the worst policies of the occupation. Israel is being compared in the papers now with the autocratic governments of Hungary and Turkey. There are hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, not to protest injustices against Palestinians but to protest the destruction of the belief in Israel as a democratic country. This is neither Nazism nor fascism, but—yes—it is the “slow burn” toward authoritarian rule.
Your essay was published in the same issue as an article by Joshua Leifer, who argues that the anti-Netanyahu protesters are nonetheless entrenching an ideal of Jewish supremacy. You once wrote, “In its own eyes, Israel is never the originator and agent of its own violence. And to that extent, its violence is justified.” Now, as Israeli settler violence becomes even more extreme, and with it the state’s denials, has Israel reached a breaking point?
We haven’t mentioned the fact that Netanyahu is trying to force through the judicial overhaul in part to save his own skin from legal charges, so the law is implicated on another level. You could also argue that this crisis was inevitable. Israel was created at a moment of drastic emergency in response to the historic persecution of the Jews. But if 750,000 Palestinians have to leave the state that is being created and you grant self-determination to one people and deny self-determination to the other, you’re heading for a crisis of huge legal and ethical proportions. You could say that what we’re witnessing on the streets is part of the “shooting and crying” ethos of Israel where it is Israel’s conscience, rather than the oppression of the Palestinian people, which is at stake: we are the ones who suffer most because of our own acts, because we are being made to behave like this, because we are the victims of the situation. More simply, I agree with you that this is a kind of breaking point. How Israel’s going to extricate itself from this is not at all clear.
I also think I’ve been very naïve to be so dismayed at the idea that one man’s—Netanyahu’s—legal vulnerability, the charges of corruption that he faces if no longer in power, could lead to this. Many Israeli commentators have said that he has made his political deal with far-right groups in order to get reelected, to stop the power of the Supreme Court and place parliamentarians out of the reach of its laws. So against my impulse—which is always to allow masculinity the fragility of its own self-placement and the lie of the ethos it is meant to embody—I look at these dictators, Orbán and Modi and Trump and Netanyahu, and it is impossible not to see their abuses of power as at least partly to do with an inflated, destructive male ego.
You’ve said that you once seriously thought about becoming an analyst. Instead, as a literary critic, you’ve become one of the major exponents of Freud and the analytic tradition in English. How does analysis inform your critical practice?
Well, they’re inseparable, right? I can’t think without psychoanalysis, because I find it so fundamentally liberating to have a discourse that says your mind knows better than you do, and that there are things going on in the unconscious that give the lie to the norms of so-called Western civilization and to the norms of sexual definition. It’s always been an emancipatory discourse for me. There is a direct line that runs from Sylvia Plath to Freud to Zionism: in each case I’m looking for the fractures in the identities that seem to be doing the most harm. Plath was an extraordinarily deft writer of what my sister, the philosopher Gillian Rose, would call ethical equivocation, a realm that is hard to occupy and that can be sensuous and fear-provoking at the same time. I mean, she could move among each of these registers, sometimes in one line of poetry. For example, she could articulate a fine-tuned feminist critique of what men do to women, while at the same time having the ability to look inside herself. She knew how to explore the psyche and simultaneously accuse the world of injustice. I think that takes some doing.
The same thing goes for Zionism. You have to look at the history behind it as well as its relationship to the inner life of the mind. You have to start by talking about the history of the Jewish people and their persecution, lack of self-determination, and lack of rights. In “The Decline of the Nation-State and the End of the Rights of Man,” Hannah Arendt argues that once you become purely human and nothing else you’re dispensable. If you’re not attached to land, state, or property, then you simply don’t exist in the eyes of the world. So you have to start with the urgent sense of necessity attached to self-determination and then look at how Israel as a nation has refused or been unable to acknowledge the violence of that act and the creation of the nation-state. And because it can’t bear to acknowledge it, it can’t resolve it.
Your experience in the theater is quite palpable throughout the review, as when you describe the offstage sounds of Kristallnacht, which “were so loud they pounded in my chest.” Of course, Good is a text, but you’ve written about the performance. How is theater criticism different from writing about a novel?
A novel you can pick up and put down, and your mind can go at its own pace. And obviously you’re being guided and to some extent coerced and controlled—it depends on what kind of novel you’re reading. But in the theater there is no out. The palpable physical presence of the actors was especially important in this play because you knew there was only a whisker between the bodies that were going to survive and the bodies that were going to be destroyed. That was at the core of the friendship between Halder and the doctor Maurice, whom he ultimately betrays.
The theater is very adept at conveying the drama of physical being under threat. There are some people who say that to render the historical horror in any form is obscene, and that the Holocaust should never be represented on the stage: it concretizes something too much and turns it into a form of pornography, because you’re watching bodies in, or on the verge of, pain. I felt that was behind the moment in the play of Kristallnacht: the stage went vermillion red, and the sounds offstage felt as if they were inside you. I was not exaggerating. You thought, “Oh my goodness, is this going to have deafened me? Or shattered my innards? This is so loud.”
Maryland, the very powerful feminist play by Lucy Kirkwood to which I compared Good in the piece, was in a way even more disturbing, because the women were marching in the streets, calling out, “All these women are being— Why are women being—” Every time you got to the word which was going to be “raped” or “killed,” an unbearably loud noise smothered their voices. As with Good,you really felt it pounding in your chest and in your head and in your stomach. And I just thought, “How interesting that these two plays should be onstage within months of each other.” As if what is being said is that there is something going on now that is unmanageable, and to grasp it we have to find a way that exceeds the theatrical space even while taking advantage of it.
You once described your syntax as an “equivalent of a kind of inner hesitancy or even fear of certain directions or pathways, which I nonetheless feel obliged to take.” If you felt obliged to take the path of C. P. Taylor and Good, what were your hesitancies along the way?
How long have you got? My editor persists until she finds the thing that makes me think, “Yes, I want to do that!” That was absolutely true of my review of Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, which also grew from my feeling that a woman of my generation should be reading and supporting new, up-and-coming young women writers. With the London Review of Books, they mostly offer me things that I know immediately are out of the question: suicide bombing, honor killing, Marilyn Monroe. But then what I call the superego of the magazines starts to speak in my ear and says something like, “You’re a feminist, Jacqueline. You should bloody well know what you think about honor killing. You should do your homework!” It is as if subjects are being found which, without the prompt, I would never have dreamt, or perhaps only ever dreamt, of writing about.