Underrated: Gillian Rose

Daniel Johnson compares two sisters, one a vociferous campaigner against Israel, the other a towering figure in Judaeo-Christian thought

Academia Judaism Philosophy Underrated

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.