Gillian Rose as Implacable Educator

“By its very nature all philosophy may be said to be a devising of strategies for intellectual transcendence, an attempt to rise above the mere clash of opposing partial truths at the level of ‘opinion’. Thinking at the level of ‘opinion’ is thinking entirely trapped within a given viewpoint, belonging to a particular historic time and place. Philosophy by contrast seeks to penetrate to the eternal: the most comprehensive possible overview. For Plato’s Socrates this is essentially a process of ‘recollection; a turning backwards, to uncover what one’s experience has already, in fact, potentially taught one, but what, for lack of questioning, one has not yet understood.”

– from Andrew Shanks, Against Innocence

I’m amused how Shanks, in his way, attempts to deter a naive reader from tackling his subject, Gillian Rose’s work, writing, “. . . she abandons all pretence of seamless argument. The argument of [her most momentous book] The Broken Middle jumps, in mind-boggling-fashion, from topic to topic. Fragments of philosophy, theology, political theory, historiography and biography, anthropology, literary criticism and theory of architecture are thrown all higgledy-piggledy together. The underlying coherence of her thought is systematically covered by a surface show of randomness.” Shanks goes on to say, “This is difficult writing, not at all because it is inept, but because it is an attempt, in the most direct way possible to enact the intrinsic difficulty of ‘absolute knowing’.”

Furthermore, Shanks adds, ” . . . as an educator she is implacable. Her ambition for us knows no limits. In The Broken Middle, for instance, she discusses Hegel, Adorno again, Kierkegaard, Maurice Blanchot, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, René Girard, Rahel Varnhagen, Rosa Luxembourg, Hannah Arendt, Emmanual Levinas, Franz Rosenzweig, Emil Fackenheim and various others”, and further, “Her book reads like an accumulation of marginal notes compiled originally for herself alone, on these texts – abstruse musings, studded with arcane witticisms.”

For a naive reader, sufficiently curious about Rose and her work, to buy and read Shanks’ excellent book and his elegant warnings–as he is of course all too aware– just serve to take one deeper down the Gillian Rose rabbit hole. His admonitions serve as the sign above another forbidding portal–”All hope abandon ye who enter here.”

Our Desire for Innocence

“Reflection requires that the plain opposition of positive and negative be left behind. Thinking is not content with the abstraction of mutual exclusivities, but struggles to conceive of a structured wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories.”

– Rowan Williams, quoted in Giles Fraser’s foreword to Andrew Shanks’ Against Innocence

” . . . the sort of peace negotiation suggested by Rose and Shanks has a definite strategy: it attempts to dismantle our desire for innocence.”

Most useful in this context is Fraser’s elucidation of Williams’ definition of innocence as “longing to be utterly sure of our rightness”, which is quite brilliant.

[Gillian] Rose’s work is an encouragement to pay attention to the philosophical condition of human fallenness. Human beings are haunted by complexity, compromised by mixed motives, and debased by threads of complicity with cruelty and untruthfulness. We constantly seek to represent ourselves with various fictions of innocence . . .”

– Giles Fraser’s foreword to Andrew Shanks’ Against Innocence

Fra Keeler’s Influences

Reading is pure pleasure for me, without obligation, professional or otherwise. I abandon books frequently after fifty pages or halfway through, whichever comes first. For every book I finish, three preceding books end up in a bag by the front door destined for the local charity shop. It is rare and fortuitous that I read two brilliant books consecutively.

I’m still thinking about Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work. I’ll read it again very soon, more slowly, pencil in hand this time. I’m curious about Rose’s Adorno book so please let me know if you’ve read it and have an opinion.

Next though I’ll reread Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s Fra Keeler, which I finished this morning. I hope to write more about it soon. It is a distinctive, rather special book. I suggest it’s a cross between Lispector, Nabokov, and just a suggestion of late Beckett, which is probably too high a pedestal for a first novel, but I have been enjoying the afterglow all day, and need to ponder and read it again, immediately.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi acknowledges at the end of the book that “Fra Keeler would not have been possible without the following constellation of films and books.” I’m posting the list in full because I love lists, but also because I love Fra Keeler, and, as a first novel, reading some of the books on the list that I haven’t read before and watching some of the films enables me to linger, however loosely, in the world inhabited by this remarkable book. If I read a better contemporary book this year, I shall be surprised.

  1. César Aira How I Became a Nun
  2. Attila Bartis Tranquility
  3. Thomas Bernhard Three Novellas and The Loser
  4. Roberto Bolaño Distant Star and By Night in Chile
  5. Luis Buñuel Diary of a Chambermaid
  6. Éric Chevillard Palafox and Crab Nebula
  7. Brian Evenson The Open Curtain
  8. Max Frisch Man in the Holocene
  9. André Gide The Immoralist
  10. Jean-Luc Godard Breathless
  11. Nikolai Gogol Diary of a Madman
  12. Witold Gombrowicz Cosmos
  13. Knut Hamsun Hunger
  14. Alfred Hitchcock Vertigo
  15. Anna Kavan Ice
  16. Imre Kertész Kaddish for an Unborn Child
  17. Abbas Kiarostami Close-up
  18. Jim Krusoe Iceland
  19. Patrice Leconte Monsieur Hire
  20. Doris Lessing Memoirs of a Survivor
  21. Clarice Lispector The Hour of the Star
  22. Jean-Pierre Melville Le Circle Rouge
  23. Marie Redonnet Hotel Splendid, Forever Valley and Rose Mellie Rose
  24. Eric Rohmer Six Moral Tales
  25. Daniel Pail Schreber Memoirs of My Nervous Illness
  26. Muriel Spark The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
  27. Magdalena Tulli Dreams and Stones and Moving Parts
  28. Lynne Tillman This Is Not It
  29. Trajei Vesaas The Ice Palace
  30. Diane Williams Romancer Erector

Love’s Work by Gillian Rose

Last night, or rather this morning, I stayed up far too late finishing Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work. It was recommended by a friend whose literary judgement I have come to unfailingly trust.

Nick Lezard begins his review of Love’s Work thus, “I struggle to think of a finer, more rewarding short autobiography than this.” I might argue for Woolf’s Moments of Being, but it is autobiography only in a loose sense, and Rose’s work stands as equally singular.

I picked Love’s Work without knowing of Gillian Rose’s scholarship (Adorno, Hegel). Although she writes of her cancer, it is not maudlin in any sense, nor particularly sad. Instead Rose writes of her philosophy, or way of looking at life and intimacy. In doing so, the perspective is fresh, icily frank and genuinely insightful. I’ve thought of her words all day and return periodically to check a passage. It is a book that merits rereading.

Some of Rose’s tenacity is clear at the close of the chapter in which she discusses her incurable cancer with plain style and more than a little wit:

I reach for my favourite whisky bottle and instruct my valetudinarian well-wishers to imbibe the shark’s oil and aloe vera themselves. If I am to stay alive, I am bound to continue to get love wrong, all the time, but not to cease wooing, for that is my life affair, love’s work.