(Shearsman, 2015); pbk, £8.95
This book deserves a review other than this one. I must not be its ideal reader. The author, Gillian Rose (1947-1995) was a philosopher, schooled at Oxford, who last held a position as Professor of Social and Political Thought at the University of Warwick. I briefly looked at her book Dialectic of Nihilism (1984) while researching for my dissertation on nihilism and the postmodern. While at the time I didn’t find it useful, in retrospect I could have used it as a foil for my own argument: while Rose mounts a critique of post-structuralist or postmodern philosophy as a form of nihilism, my dissertation seeks to defend it from this charge, and to develop the resources it harbours for combatting contemporary nihilism. The second reason I am not an ideal reviewer is the prevalence of theology in this little book, a topic with which I am not comfortable. As the title suggests, it is modelled after the third book of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (1320), which leads the reader through the ascending levels of the Heavens to Paradise. Rose conceived the idea for the book after having been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and did not manage to complete it before the disease took her. It was projected as a composition of twenty-one parts, each dealing with a theme personified by one of her acquaintances. The slim volume we do have (edited by her literary executor, Howard Caygill) comprises only four of these, of quite differing lengths. Despite my hesitations, I discovered this book to be a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding read.
As a last testament, suffused with theology, I had expected something as obscure as Jean-François Lyotard’s Confession of Augustine (1998), and as harrowing as Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence (1948). Not so. For the most part, the prose is lapidary and pellucid. The theological elements – Judaism and Christianity in particular, but also Gnosticism and Gurdjieff – are clearly explained, assuming no prior knowledge. Roses’ writing achieves a balance between simplicity and clarity on the one hand, and an elegant beauty on the other (though occasionally over-blown). Nested in autobiography, Roses’ concern is to continue her confrontation with nihilism: what Nietzsche called the death of God and Heidegger the decline of Being, which we might just think of as the fading of tradition and its power to couch our lives in meaningful structures. Rose calls this “exile”. The philosophical argument of the book – the path it traces whereby one might simultaneously find heaven on earth and ascend to a state of grace – is that “[o]rthodoxy embraces exile.” How is it possible, we might wonder, to find solutions to our existential problems in theology when it seems so anachronistic? The figure of Sister Edna, to which the first and longest chapter is dedicated, is instructive. A cloistered Anglican nun, whose appearance is described as coming straight out of a Counter-reformation painting, Sister Edna is not the organic product of a formative religious upbringing. An ex-dancer and fashion model, child of bohemians and student of “new age” teachings, she found an aleatory way to theology. For Rose, orthodoxy is not alien to the experience of exile; rather, exile is a condition from which, like Sister Edna, we might find orthodoxy, and find that orthodoxy embraces our exiled condition. I was surprised at her definition of “faith”: “the capacity of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reasons.” Still pursuing promises of meaning in poststructuralist philosophy and avant-garde art, I remain unconvinced of the redemption of the wordly through mellifluous prose and its consecration with theological thought. Yet even this unworthy reviewer can only regret that this remarkable book was not able to be completed, and be grateful for the very beautiful fragments we have.