Gillian Rose is dying. Her cancer has spread beyond control. She has months to live, not years. Only palliative care is open to her. There will be no cure.
Love's Work is a memoir-collage, to be categorised, according to the back of the book, as Autobiography/Philosophy. In its several chapters, this brief book recounts incidents from a life lived as a struggle to love. It is also a book about dying and those to whom death is close.
There is her friend Edna, who was diagnosed with cancer eighty years ago. At ninety six, with a prosthetic nose and a prosthetic jaw from cancer of the face, Edna still lives. There is her friend Yvette, the one with whom she was going to travel to Jerusalem, who dies in a hospice in Sussex. Cancer of the breast. There is her friend Jim, who dies of AIDS in his apartment, and his lover Lance, who also dies of AIDS. This is a book about dying, about death.
Gillian Rose is dying. But she is also writing. Love's Work is the book she wrote as she died. That, and parts, if not the whole of Mourning Becomes Law and Paradisio. These are books, each of them, of ferocious beauty.
She is dying, but she is also loving. Love's Work is a book, first of all, about love. About the inevitable failure of love and about the comedy of that failure. Writing, for Gillian Rose, falls infinitely short of loving. There is the erotic love which draws lovers to one another. That which allows each to recognise herself, himself, as a Lover. That which will also see a distribution of Lover and Beloved, Master and Pupil, which both become in turn.
Then there is the love of agape, of the everyday, of that shared life that erotic love can become. That love which commences in the hours the lovers spend sleeping with one another. Sleeping and then waking into a world shared. To sleep is to journey, each apart - two selves - and together. A subtle negotiation begins. Love is the third term that interrupts love's folie a deux. Agapic love is not shared egotism, but shared adventure. The everyday is its milieu.
Love is at work; love is working. The world, the fourth term in the love affair, lies beyond. failed love affairs: Gillian Rose claims to be an expert in the failure of love. She has had two affairs with philosophers, she recalls. One lasted for ten years, one for five. In both, she was predominantly the Lover and the other the Beloved. He, the youth, the Beloved became the beautful soul. He withdraws, depressed. She, the Lover worries she blocks his way to the world. She ends the relationship, though not the friendship. The ephebe is set free. Only now, knowing them as friends, she understands them still to be beautiful souls. She was wrong to have left them, but she left them. Did she fail love's work?
She recounts one failed love affair in detail. It will stand in for all the others, she writes. It was with a Priest, a fellow academic. She sees him at a meeting. She doesn't know his name, but his presence is intense, sensually knowing. He is a priest. They go one evening to his rooms attached to a church. They speak of Liberation Theology and eat oysters and turbot. She tells him to read more Hegel to bolster his Marxism; she introduces him to Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus. Later, she will accompany him as he officiates as church; she joins him on his parish rounds. Later still he withdraws from her. She becomes the anxious Beloved; he the withdrawing Lover, rubbing his eyes with thumb and index finger. He cannot give her what she wants.
'Loss' means the original gift and salvation of love have been degraded: love's arrow poisoned and swent switfly back into the heart'.
In the past, she says, she would have pulled out the arrow, and test the wound. This time, she says, she wants to do it differently. She does not ring her sisters in order to draw upon their 'inventive love'. She steels herself to love again. And, true, she will love again. And fail again.
At the time of writing, Gillian Rose is still loving. We know him as Steve, the one with whom she went walking in Wales before the operation that was supposed to remove her colostomy. But he, too, is withdrawing. That week of intimacy is also the last week of their love. She will woo again. She will learn again and fail again; she will grieve and she will trust. This is love's work.
There is the love of friendship. She stays with Jim in New York after her disappointing studies as an undergraduate. It is 1970. She learns German and reads Adorno. She discovers the abstract expressionists and the second Viennese School; she learns of pop music and of homosexuality. She discovers Jim, her great friend, who we meet in chapter when he is dying of what we will discover is AIDS. Jim, tall and erudite, possessor of books of philosophy in their original languages, Jim who nevertheless is no philosopher, who cannot experience it as a stage on life's way and who is made to leave the college where he taught without a Ph.D. Jim through whom in 1991, when he is forty-seven and dying, Gillian Rose meets the irrepressable Edna, one alive, still alive after eighty years with cancer.
Her mother, who refuses to acknowledge that she loved the two husbands she divorced, who denies the suffering of her own mother, who lost over fifty relatives to the Nazis ('children bayonnetted in front of their parents), is substituted by sixty-five year old Yvette, who speaks of her five great lost loves. Sensual Yvette with a tallboy full of pornography and three concurrent lovers, who teaches Gillian Rose ancient and modern Hebrew. Sensual, dowdy Yvette who counsels all on loving, and on not confusing the Beloved with the object of terror.
Her mother and stepfather told the young Gillian Rose of their intention to commit suicide. She develops agoraphobia. She sobs in her cold rooms at Oxford University. Her lecturers - all except one - tell her how much clever than her are the philosophers she studies. Her earlier, joyous discovery of Plato and Pascal saves her from throwing away philosophy altogether. One which reawakens in New York with Jim. And now - in 1995, writing Love's Work - her convinction that postmodern philosophy falls short of love's work - this is another form of love of this book. That it turns, disappointed, from what it takes to be the deficiencies of reason. Philosophy which mourns what it takes to be the end of philosophy, the end of itself. Which can speak only of ashes and the disaster. For what does Gillian Rose call in her last books? For love's work, for the work of love. For what Hegel calls comedy:
The comical as such implies an infinite lightheartedness and confidence felt by someone raised altogether above his own inner contradiction and not bitter or miserable in it at all; this is the bliss and ease of a man who, being sure of himself, can bear the frustrations of his aims and achievements.
No human being possesses sureness of self: this can only mean being bounded and unbounded, selved and unselved, 'sure' only of this untiring exercise.
The mismatch between aim and achievement elicits laughter, the laughter of the comic and the holy, not of cynicism or demonism. Laughter of the work of love, 'to laugh bitterly, purgatively, purgatorially, and then to be quiet'.
Gillian Rose is writing in the face of death. Not tragically and not stoically, but comically. She does not laugh at death, but at the coming of what makes failures of all our works. Only to work is inevitably to fail; it is our condition. Then there is nothing about death's coming which compromises love's work or reveals its truth. Why write this book?
However satisfying writing is - that mix of discipline and miracle, which leaves you in control, even when what appears on the page has emerged from regions beyond your control - it is a very poor substitute indeed for the joy and the agony of loving.
Why write and not love - unless writing is another kind of loving? Jim, dying, is fetched Herzen's autobiography. This passage from that book is what soothes his 'problem of self-representation':
Every life is interesting; if not the personality, then the environment, the country are interesting, the life itself is interesting. Man likes to enter into another existence, he likes to touch the subtlest fibres of another's heart, and to listen to its beating ... he compares, he checks it by his own, he seeks for himself confirmation, sympathy, justification ...
Philosophers should all be made to write autobiographies as well as all those dry pages.
Why write and not love? Gillian Rose writes Love's Work to remind herself of the work of love. To let it abide in her. To give herself faith. But to give us faith, too. She is the Master of faith and the Master of loving, she who has experienced the failure of loving so many times. She who has been reborn from love. She who surrounded by books of alternative medicine which advocate 'edgelessness', yielding to the world-soul, to emptiness and to the no-self, would prefer the edginess and the struggle of love.
Now I understand. I am the Beloved and Love's Work is the Lover. Gillian Rose's book loves me as she could not. Despair yesterday when I could not get past page 88. A kind of laughter as I finished the book and knew comedy would be the cradle in which this book would hold me.