Fierceness

Marina Warner

  • Love’s Work by Gillian Rose
    Chatto, 135 pp, £9.99, March 1995, ISBN 0 7011 6304 6

This small book contains multitudes. It fits to the hand like one of those knobbed hoops that do concise duty for the rosary, each knob giving the mind pause to open up to vistas of meditation on mysteries and passions; in the compass of a scant 135 pages it provokes, inspires and illuminates more profoundly than many a bulky volume, and confronts the great subjects – death, illness, reason and unreason, family strife and family bonds, friendship and betrayal, today’s political abdication and philosophical cowardice, the limits of feminism, of happiness – and it delivers what its title promises, a new allegory about love.

‘Love’s work’ here stands defiantly for the life’s work, and the notion of living as an art turned into that harder thing, work, because this book has the best and most radiant qualities of an askesis, a discipline of spiritual exercises leading to understanding. As a testament and a memoir in fragments, its relative in the past would be Dante’s Vita Nuova, with its rigour of self-examination, and in more recent times, Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, which does not flinch either at the constant companionship of pain. The author whispers to her friend Jim dying in a hospital bed: ‘You are surrounded by friends who love you.’ To which Jim pulls the sheet over his face. ‘He was beyond language,’ writes Gillian Rose. ‘But not beyond the discomforts of love.’

Gillian Rose turns her back, again and again, on the invitations to ease and gladness which the well-meaning offer in various forms, consolations, placebos that she will not permit. Her epigraph, from Staretz Silouan, the Kabbalist, ‘Keep your mind in hell, and despair not,’ blazes an oxymoron over her text, a flaming sword at the gate of Eden. ‘Existence is robbed of its weight, its gravity, when it is deprived of its agon.’ By the end she has persuaded us to come with her into this hell, where despair can be bearable, even contained.

Love’s Work begins with a friend in New York who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 16, over seventy years ago. She has a prosthesis for her face, like a Groucho mask from a joke shop, but Gillian Rose comes to prefer seeing her with the smooth hole where her nose has wasted away. The first of many figures in the book who have been struck with disease, Edna fittingly opens it because inside her body, under her face, Edna is undiminished, her brilliance and generosity and vitality undimmed. Without ever labouring the point, Gillian Rose offers here a new map of body’s relation to soul; she banishes all those equations between corruption, material and spiritual, that have flowed so cruelly and thoughtlessly into the prevalent use of illness as metaphor. For she too is desperately ill, and some of the book is about that.

Her revolt against all slackness of feeling and thinking means, however, that before taking up the question of her cancer, before challenging the contemporary obsession with medicalisation as identity, with bodily history as the self’s best narrative, she tells us about some other things. Following her mind as it flashes on one turn and then another is like being with a child, who disregards the rules of polite conversation, and makes instead a sequence of sudden, wonderful confidences, which gradually crystallise into a pattern if only the listener lies in wait. In A Lover’s Discourse Barthes has described this way of writing – though he is more inclined than Rose to disclaim forethought: ‘Throughout any love life, figures occur to the lover without any order ... Confronting each of these incidents (what “befalls” him), the amorous subject draws on the reservoir (the thesaurus?) of figures ... Each figure explodes, vibrates in and out of itself ... Amorous discursus is not dialectical; it turns like a perpetual calendar, an encyclopedia of affective culture.’

In Rose’s book, one of the first figures we meet is Yvette, a promiscuous, passionate, irrepressible friend, mother of five, teacher of Hebrew, who believes in having several lovers at once, and sometimes manages it. For that is one form of love’s work, an energy of desire carrying the subject far beyond the pleasure principle with no shrinking back. These two older women, Edna the survivor of disease and Yvette the survivor of unrequitedness, counterbalance the older men who then enter Gillian Rose’s confession: her two fathers. Both Jewish, one English and Protestant style, the other (her stepfather, Irving) an ‘Irish clown’, a hapless but much beloved gambler, they set up the poles which then exert tension over the life and the loves and the faith of the eldest daughter. The natural father is a guilt-inducing patriarch whose dues, exacted on Saturday afternoons, caused his eldest daughter to vomit weekly in apprehension; because of the bouts of accusation in his car, she has never dared learn to drive. On one of these occasions, he attacks her – for making her stepmother miscarry a son. Such a vengeful relation, grounded in a pitiless belief in accountability for error and catastrophe, inaugurates the challenge that Gillian Rose, grown up into a philosopher and a metaphysician, then mounts against the remorseless and punitive determinism of Protestantism. She expands later, in a fine outburst: ‘If you lead a normally unhappy life, you are predestined to eternal damnation, you will not live ... [but] to grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds. Acknowledgment of conditionality is the only unconditionality of human love.’

At Seder with her mother’s family, she and her sisters try to suppress their giggles as the lackadaisical stepfather intones, liberally sprinkling the sacred texts with four-letter words; later, the same child who stole Hymns Ancient and Modern from school will ask, as the eldest, for a copy of the Torah; later still, when her grandfather reverts on his deathbed to old High German, his mother tongue, she wonders whether her chosen path away from family into German philosophy, into Hegel and Kant and Adorno, has not in the end led her back home. But this home is intrinsic to the work of love she has undertaken; it is made in the mind and the heart, remade, doubled and redoubled: it is found in many places, but rather than scattering it, this uncovers one stratum after another to a great depth.

Mothers, especially real, biological ones, hardly cast a shadow; and though the author remembers her sisters’ ingenuity in love (Jacqueline Rose, Diana Stone), women of the family remain veiled. ‘The Lover waits and watches and men are feminised by this wooing,’ writes Barthes, but Gillian Rose strikes the reader here as a daughter to many fathers, and she strips herself chastely like Perpetua in the arena when she dreamed she was a youth, being rubbed with oil like a wrestler in the games.

Between the return journeys from Judaism and Protestantism and back again, she moors for a while with another father of a kind, a lover who is a Jesuit priest, a pagan who spreads his table with oysters and champagne for her, answers her Rilke with Dante; but when she becomes ill, he covers his face and says he feels old and tired. Perhaps lack of previous acquaintance with the mercilessness of the male Catholic conscience led her to expect too much. Yet no one has put better the purpose of priestly celibacy: as she walks and shops in his parish at his side, she realises that ‘our emanation of eros afforded collective release, whereas the knowledge that we were lovers would have provoked a lynching. Not for the vow betrayed, but for the withdrawing of his gift of sex ... from all to one.’

She remembers her love for this man in the accents of a mystic: Rilke, in echoes, but also Kafka with Felice, and even, Hadewijk and her Beloved, who is white and ruddy, the one whom the soul longs for from the Song of Songs. Yet in the midst of this rapture (always tautly expressed, never mush), the observing intelligence does not fail: ‘Love-making is never simply pleasure. Sex manuals or feminist tracts which imply the infinite plasticity of position and pleasure, which counsel assertiveness, whether in bed or out, are dangerously destructive of imagination, of erotica and of spiritual ingenuity. The sexual exchange will be as complicated as the relationship in general – even more so.’

When the newspapers carry their daily stories of widespread or rare disease, when they show a child afflicted, they cheaply count on emotion leaping from the wellsprings of human fellow feeling; Harold Brodkey’s manifesto (‘I have Aids’) seemed so button-holing: he just assumed we would mind about him, and this induces guilt. He didn’t attempt love’s work, to convey the character of the person who suffers, the individual who is threatened by the named plague. But after inhabiting Gillian Rose’s thought under her guidance for half her book, the reader knows her presence, and cares for her, for her brilliance, her fierceness, the contrast between the authority of her mind and the modesty (it seems) of her claims on others, and so her particular stations of pain and her nearness to death come across in agony when she begins to tell that part of her story. No self-pity, no histrionics; even her reproaches are laconic, and the more effective for it. ‘Medicine and I have dismissed each other,’ she writes after the gruelling chronicle of surgery, chemotherapy, varied diagnoses of her stubbornly spreading cancer, doctors’ disputes at her bedside.

She decides to pioneer an account of colostomy: ‘I want to talk about shit – the hourly transfiguration of our lovely eating of the sun.’ It reveals her stout-heartedness that she frames her unblinking and perfectly scrupulous description of living without a colon with the reflection that the lack of sanitation arrangements at the Nazi camps brought about many unplanned deaths, but that historians who attempt to discuss this cannot get heard: because it makes people more uncomfortable than murder by gassing. This evasion, too, Gillian Rose contests with the honesty gained, she might say, from her passion for philosophy.

In the book’s closing chapter, in its knottiest and most compressed passages, she traces the course of this love and this work. Here she brings to mind Simone Weil, a true precursor in her radiant intransigence, and her engagement from the multiple home territories of Judaism and Christian metaphysics. Gillian Rose gives no quarter to those who have given up on philosophy’s scepticism about its own purposes just because so little in the world is better than it was. She identifies this defeatism with Protestantism’s refusal of hope, and advocates reason as the tool which distinguishes fantasy from reality and makes a theory of justice and political change at least possible. She yields nothing to the Post-Modernist philosophers who withdraw from applying reason to problems; she wonderfully demolishes those who argue that rationality produced the unholy absolutes of totalitarianism, the ruthless efficiency of Nazism, that reason goes hand in glove with tyranny: ‘Relativism of authority does not establish the authority of relativism; it opens reason to new claimants.’

If I have quoted so often from Love’s Work, it is because the book itself conveys better than any paraphrase or criticism could how language can set courage against despair, and look hell in the eye. Gillian Rose calls, like the true love of the Vita Nuova, to the high ground of a daily examined consciousness, and for many this is a hard place and a strait gate. But she’s also on the side of whisky and revels and risk, and against the puritans and their recipes for soul sorrow, on the one hand, and seaweed brews and other New Age potions for health, on the other. ‘Earthly human sadness is the divine comedy,’ she writes, and at times this is a funny book, too: ‘It is love to laugh bitterly, purgatively, purgatorially, and then to be quiet.’