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Gillian Rose was a rebel with many causes. Her lifelong rebellion began in Oxford when she heard Jean Austinher tutor at St Hilda's College and widow of the apostle of "ordinary language", J.L. Austin — declare: "Remember, girls, all the philosophers you will read are much more intelligent than you are."

Looking back, she mythologised her misery amid the dreaming spires in her delightfully indiscreet memoir, Love's Work (just republished by the New York Review of Books). Angry, agoraphobic and so cold that she "had to clamber into the bath with the top half of my body fully clothed", she stuck it out until her degree, then fled to New York. There she took up with a bisexual milieu in which Camille Paglia — still unknown but already "hoydenish" — was queen of queens. There, too, she encountered Hegel and the Frankfurt school in the persons of Dieter Henrich and Jürgen Habermas respectively. When she returned to Oxford, it was to work on the "melancholy science" of the Frankfurt patriarch, Teddy Adorno. She preferred the advice of Ulrike Meinhof, whose nihilistic terrorism turned Adorno's theory into practice, to the scorn of her supervisor Leszek Kolakowski, who said: "I, too, wrote my    thesis on a second-rate thinker."

Teaching sociology at Sussex in the Seventies, Gillian could have contented herself with the second-rate, but she gradually found herself revolting against the "radicalism" of the day. Marxism may have been de rigeur on campus but it was not rigorous enough for Gillian Rose. Like Cleopatra, she had immortal longings in her.

In Hegel contra Sociology (1981), Dialectic of Nihilism (1984) and The Broken Middle (1992), Gillian exposed the inadequacy of Marxist and post-structuralist solutions to the meaning of life. Unlike many of her contemporaries, who remained in a state of denial after the demise of the Communist utopia, she took an active interest in the changes that followed, and especially in the presentation and preservation of Auschwitz by the Polish authorities. Conscious of the fate of her mother's family, Gillian saw her practical concern as a belated act of mourning.

 After moving to Warwick in 1989, she applied her formidable analytical powers to rediscovering the Judaeo-Christian origins of our "crisis of self-comprehension". The first fruits of this theological turn were the essays collected in Judaism and Modernity (1993), which reinterpreted thinkers from Benjamin and Rosenzweig to Simone Weil and Derrida, not as secular figures who happened to be Jewish, but as Jews first and foremost. Of them all, it was perhaps Simone Weil whose agonised introspections prefigured Gillian's own tension between Jewish roots and Christian yearnings. She reiterated a mantra from Weil's Gravity and Grace: "The tree is really rooted in the sky." It is a metaphor for Gillian's own leap of faith — a leap that Weil never quite took.

In that year, Gillian Rose was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. She submitted to all the indignities of her treatment, but refused to suffer silently. Love's Work (1995), with its shameless account of hair loss and colostomy bags, bore witness to her own indomitable will to survive. "I am living my death," she told friends, and so she did. The slim volume into which she poured the best of her life and thought, her wicked sense of humour and her righteous anger, became an unexpected success. 

She revelled in the limelight, embraced new friends, places and experiences, and began Paradiso, a fragmentary sequel to Love's Work. During these last months of her life, she developed her urban metaphysics, and particularly the contrast between Athens and Jerusalem, with Auschwitz lurking in the background as the very antithesis of civic life. In this connection, she corresponded with Sister Wendy Beckett, one of several nuns she befriended, about Poussin's The Ashes of Phocion Collected by his Widow. Sister Wendy saw the picture as an allegory of love and self-sacrifice; not so Gillian. "To acknowledge and to re-experience the justice and injustice of the partner's life and death is to accept the law, it is not to transgress it — mourning becomes the law." This phrase, with its play on the double entendre of "becomes", gave Gillian the title for her posthumous collection of essays, Mourning Becomes the Law. It marked the terminus of her incessant odyssey — "I follow the urgent and haunting voice of our dead from Auschwitz"  — which ended not with rebellion, but with an affirmation of the law and the prophets.

 She died in 1995, aged 48. Her deathbed conversion scandalised many. But this secular Jew, who ended as — of all things — an Anglican, believed she was not abandoning Judaism so much as embracing a Jewish Messiah. She loved the words of Newman: "The Saints are ever failing from the earth and Christ is all but coming." 

The Sixties bohemian with the erudition of a rabbi and the ecstatic vision of a nun, whose insights have inspired theologians and poets from Rowan Williams to Geoffrey Hill, Gillian Rose deserves to be compared to Edith Stein, as one of the great Judaeo-Christian figures of the last century. 

 
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Mark Brassington
March 11th, 2017
6:03 AM
I was fortunate enough to be taught the famous Modern European Mind course by this incredible, brilliant, challenging, difficult woman. I remember a couple of my co-students couldn't take her occasional asperity - their loss. I still remember some of the conversations I had with her and I'm still working my way through that bloody reading list! She, or more specifically, her thoughts and ideas, have been with me at some level of consciousness ever since and I wish she were alive so that I could express my gratitude.

Jorge Giannareas
September 5th, 2013
7:09 AM
Simon, you are absolutely right. We both know what Gillian Rose was; however, her last two years of friends and acquaintances have produced a somewhat slanted interpretation of her work. Perhaps, it all started soon after the move to Warwick. 20 years on I still think about it all, and read her books. If you would like to be in touch, do not hesitate to drop me a line to my email.

ovaut
March 16th, 2012
10:03 PM
Simon, are you accusing something published in a magazine of being 'journalistic'?

Simon Speck
June 22nd, 2011
11:06 PM
As a former student of Gillian Rose, I shudder to think how she herself might have reacted to such a trite, sentimental and partial account which - beyond the autobiographical details of 'Love's Work'- shows little more familiarity with her thought than might have been garnered from a publisher's blurb. The tendentious and distasteful attempt to set her up as a defender of Judaism against her sister (and critic of Israeli state policy) Jacqueline Rose, is - apart from its crass opportunism - redolent of the sort of philo-Semitism and "Holocaust piety" (her coinage)that Gillian so keenly suspected. I am reminded, however, that "journalistic" was one of her most damning terms of criticism - evoking all that was most conformist, complacent and instrumentalising of critical thinking and culture.

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