Reading Gillian Rose

There is something healing about happening across a volume so intimate, so heteroclite, so linguistically unwasteful and conceptually unselfish, and so intelligently mature – both philosophically and emotionally – that you feel not only that you are reading the world’s only available copy but also safe enough to weep in the author’s presence, to dwell in the broken middle, and then to emerge hopeful of being a better lover. It is, ironically, probably not the kind of book you would ever loan to anyone else, but you simply know that you will spend your remaining days both promoting and betraying its gift. Gillian Rose’s memoir, Love’s Work, is everything like that. Here’s a few lines on the book’s main theme – love:

‘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. Of there being someone who loves and desires you, and he glories in his love and desire, and you glory in his every-strange being, which comes up against you, and disappears, again and again, surprising you with difficulties and with bounty. To those this is the greatest loss, a loss for which there is no consolation. There can only be that twin passion – the passion of faith.

The more innocent I sound, the more enraged and invested I am.

In personal life, people have absolute power over each other, whereas in professional life, beyond the terms of the contract, people have authority, the power to make one another comply in ways which may be perceived as legitimate or illegitimate. In personal life, regardless of any covenant, one party may initiate a unilateral and fundamental change in terms of relating without renegotiating them, and further, refusing even to acknowledge the change. Imagine how a beloved child or dog would respond, if the Lover turned away. There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy. To be at someone’s mercy is dialectical damage: they may be merciful and they may be merciless. Yet each party, woman, man, the child in each, and their child, is absolute power as well as absolute vulnerability. You may be less powerful than the whole world, but you are always more powerful than yourself.

Love is the submission of power …

To grow in love-ability is to accept the boundaries of oneself and others, while remaining vulnerable, woundable, around the bounds. Acknowledgement of conditionality is the only unconditionality of human love.

Exceptional, edgeless love effaces the risk of relation: that mix of exposure and reserve, of revelation and reticence. It commands the complete unveiling of the eyes, the transparency of the body. It denies that there is no love without power; that we are at the mercy of others and that we have others in our mercy. Existence is robbed of its weight, its gravity, when it is deprived of its agon’.

– Gillian Rose, Love’s Work (London: Chatto & Windus, 1995), 54–55, 98–99.


  1. It’s a wonderful little volume, isn’t it? I came to it via Rowan Williams. My copy is dated September 1999. I remember opening to the epigraph by Staretz Silouan — “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not” — and thinking (having come across the Staretz as Christ was invading my life in the mid 1970s — the translation of the Russian in those days being “Keep thy mind in hell, and fear not”), this is going to be a no bullshit book that is going to speak to me. And it was, and it did, and it does.

    I guess you’ll know that Rowan Williams has three short poems entitled Winterreise: for Gillian Rose, 9 December 1995 (the date of the brilliant and eccentric Jewish philosopher’s deathbed baptism) in The Poems of Rowan Williams (2002). Rose was the catalyst for Williams’ revisitation of, and change of mind about, the philosophy of Hegel.

    Finally, a heads-up (though I’m probably taking coal to Newcastle), Andrew Shanks has a pretty good book on Rose entitled Against Innocence: Gillian Rose’s Reception of the Gift of Faith (2008).


  2. Good to hear from you Kim, and thanks for taking the coal to Newcastle re Shanks’ book; I was unaware of it, but, on your recommendation, have just ordered a copy. At this stage, I’m still slogging my way through The Broken Middle, with enormous profit. I’m also reading Joshua Wolf Shenk’s book, Lincoln’s Melancholy. Are you aware of it? There’s a nice summary of it here.


  3. It is beyond my comprehension. Seems a jumble of words trying to convey the meaning of ‘love’
    I am having trouble trying to understand it’s meaning.

    For example “Acknowledgement of conditionality is the only unconditionality of human love”

    What does that mean?

    Is it readily understandable, or does the author need to explain it further?
    It is way over my head, I’m afraid.
    Anyone else having the same problem?


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