Gillian Rose - Love's Work
The memoirist seeks to allow free converse between memory and desire, between mere happenings and the inner carnivalesque. Less circumstantial than self-exculpatory, such writing can seem wilful and freighted with occult significance that the reader is obliged to decode. Straight autobiography tells it as it happened – with the usual elisions and contractions and skatings-over-the-truth. The memoir shares more with the prose poem, formally and substantively: it can possess a beautiful perversity, a lyric finesse, that might not compromise its truth-claims too fatally.
Gillian Rose died in 1995 of ovarian cancer. A specialist in German metaphysics (with a twist of Adorno), her work explored the possibility of an erotics of the ethical. The ferocity of her intellect can seem self-consuming, and, in Love's Work, it is put in service of articulating the agon – her own stark term – that provided the motive force for all her activities. Candour and obscurantism are tightly inwoven in this book. We're compelled to make (perhaps unwarranted) inferences from certain of the lines Rose pursues with her customary intensity. The book is populated by a number of individuals brought to the fore and utilised emblematically, almost. Rose asserts their importance to her without strictly illustrating it. The first we meet, Edna, a nonagenarian whose life-gourmandise is undiminished (cancer had destroyed her face, and she wore, without vanity, a prosthetic jaw and nose), she is Rose's 'Intelligent Angel' – an exemplar of one who'd found an ideal orientation towards life and death. “She has not been exceptional,” Rose concludes. “She has not loved herself or others unconditionally. She has been able to go on getting it all more or less wrong, more or less all the time, all the nine and a half decades of the present century plus three years of the century before.” Rose bids to identify her peculiar glamour – in the etymological root of the word: “..the kind of magic which Edna believes in: the quiet and undramatic transmutation that can come out of plainness, ordinary hurt, mundane maladies and disappointments.”
But Edna doesn't seem quite so 'unexceptional' to me. Nor does Rose isolate the quiddity of the woman so attractive, so enabling to her. The personae who by turns haunt and vitalise the book remain somehow radically enigmatic – or Rose's language renders them so. This may simply be a matter of tact – the memoirist is duty-bound to spare the feelings and preserve the privacy of those she describes, chiefly because this form of discourse trades on a powerfully amplified exposition of feelings often contrary and disreputable. The honesty topos determines the reevaluated bounds of the sayable. When Rose mentions in passing that another of her friends, Jim, '..had been asked to leave Bennington on the charge of corruption of students..”, the circumstances of this expulsion are left unstated (although Rose makes the predictable association with the fate of Socrates). When discussing Yvette – a woman d'un certain àge whom Rose befriended during her tenure at the University of Sussex – her erotic idiosyncrasies are admiringly set forth (instancing that naked vitalism that Rose, facing death herself, cleaves to), but Rose displays an odd coyness over the question of whether certain of this woman's instincts (her blitheness with regard to childhood sexuality, for example) mightn't be subject to a more critical scrutiny. This votary of the 'universal and sacred spirit of lust' could, viewed from another perspective, come across rather more as a reckless sexual raptor – whose instincts shade into the pathological – than the ardent maquis of love – a kind of post-feminist Jacobin - that her portrayal connives in.
Love's Work is peopled with such human trouvailles, such outliers of eros. Rose places herself among them as a kindly anthropologist, forgiving them, absolving them by the lights of her own secular covenant. Their courage in the face of bodily dissolution draws from her a guarded admiration. But we're to take them as somehow exemplary, for the boldness of their negotiations with death.
The poet Geoffrey Hill, in a pained, exasperated elegy for Rose, hints at her intransigence, at her absolutism: “You/do, of course [understand him], since I am using your three primers...”:
Mourning Becomes the Law, Love's Work, Paradiso:
a good legacy which you should be proud of
except that pride is forever irrelevant
where you are now. So it continues,
the work, lurching on broken springs
or having to be dug out or jump-started
or welded together out of two wrecks
or donated to a good cause, like to the homeless
in the city that is not just, has never
known justice, except sporadically:
Solon, Phocion – and they gave him hemlock
and burned his body in an unhallowed place.
And his ashes were taken up and smuggled
into his own home, and buried beneath the hearth.
['In Memoriam: Gillian Rose', A Treatise on Civil Power]
Rose's thought pivots on the axis of Love/Law; yet, in contention here are not simply abstract données that yield their own measure of intellectual marrow. “I find love's work,” Hill goes on, “a bleak ontology/to have to contemplate; it may be all we have.” For Rose, it is only when we admit our primal wounding that the 'work' can begin.
The book represents among other things a fleshing-forth of these concepts – a companion-piece on praxis to set beside the theory of her academic work. Rose has set herself to tutor us in our physical vulnerability, and nowhere does she do it more magnificently and terrifyingly than in the chapter detailing her cancer treatment: “My interest is in the uncharted; my difficulty that I will inevitably enlist, by connotation and implication, the power and grace of the symbol. I need to invent colostomy ethnography.” Incarnation is the severe central armature of the book. Rose botanizes her cancer. She sweeps aside the iatrogenic niceties of the medical profession, searching instead for a thematic hook on which she can hang her experience – something novel, an idiolect new-minted; something distinct, on the one hand, from the complacencies of the 'screwtape spiritualism' she deplores, and, on the other, the language of systematic depersonalisation made use of by Medicine and its functionaries: 'the esoteric but fatal language of clinical control'.