Still from ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ (Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

Summer Readings & Screenings

‘Love’s Work’ & ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’

 

In this installment of our summer conversation, we discuss Gillian Rose’s 1995 memoir Love’s Work and Peter Weir’s 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock. We cordially invite you to join the conversation on Twitter.

And if you’re looking to keep up, we’ll next be discussing Sybille Bedford’s travel memoir A Visit to Don Otavio (1953) along with Fred Zinnemann and Emilio Gómez Muriel’s Redes (1936), with cinematography by Paul Strand. See our previous discussion, on Mouchette, here.

 

Tony,

Greetings from New York City! I’m excited to discuss Gillian Rose’s moving philosophical autobiography, Love’s Work, which begins with Rose’s own arrival in Manhattan.

Originally published just before her death in 1995, Love’s Work was written quickly in 1993-94, just after Rose, a celebrated British philosopher, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Looking back on the ideas, travels, and relationships that shaped her life’s work, in just 144 short pages Rose weaves a complex tapestry that blends everything from philosophical speculation, literary analysis, and cultural criticism to personal memories of family, friends, and former lovers. Many of her anecdotes (especially her discussion of Australian director Peter Weir’s mysterious Picnic at Hanging Rock) defy easy categorization. Blurring the distinctions between the professional, personal, and spiritual dimensions of her life, Rose’s distinctive (and occasionally difficult) prose, now ponderous and slow-moving, now quick and graceful (and sometimes even hilarious), has a remarkably energetic, almost provisional feel. It’s as if Rose, like a skilled explorer methodically wending her way through untouched terrain, is trying to find words for what’s never been said before.

Rose is at heart a philosopher (although as the daughter of a secular Jewish family, she’s also deeply drawn to religion), and thus her investigation into the variegated nature of love, along with its attendant concepts and definitions, proceeds with acute analytical rigor. At the center of her analysis is the notion of “love’s work,” a term she defines negatively (it’s neither an easy life, nor facile optimism, nor spiritual escapism) but also positively (it’s a constant, vital activity, “the work I have been charting, accomplishing, but above all and necessarily, failing in, all along the way.”)

Because “love’s work” involves just about everything, the whole human person—private and professional, intellectual and emotional, spiritual and physical—and the vast world around them, Rose has to grapple with it from multiple, often shifting angles. For me, that’s what makes the genre of the philosophical autobiography—where ideas flow naturally into lived experiences, and surprise encounters open up new paths of inquiry—such an apt, ingenious choice for her subject matter.

Of course, narrating the “life of a philosopher” as a mode of actually “doing philosophy” has a long tradition, starting with Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Eminent Philosophers in ancient Greece, continuing with Augustine and Dante in late antiquity and the middle ages, and on to René Descartes and Giambattista Vico in early modernity. I found it interesting that Rose, just like Vico, adamantly disdains “academic philosophy” for the way it constrains and stifles the search for truth. Like Vico, who thinks and writes in his chaotic household, surrounded by his screaming children, Rose also insists that the “life of the mind” is first of all a life—in her words a messy, unruly “sin of language and lips.” It can’t just be the serene contemplation of “clear and distinct ideas,” as Descartes would have it. Rose’s philosophical heroes aren’t people who use reason to control persons and things around them, but instead those unkempt, itinerant figures, like Socrates, or her friend Jim from New York (who lived just a few blocks from Commonweal’s offices here in Morningside Heights), who are free enough to continuously make mistakes, ask questions, and go on revising and rethinking their understanding of the world.

So, Tony, I’m curious: why do you think Rose begins her text with an epigraph from a Russian monk, the Elder Silouan (“Keep your mind in hell, and despair not”)? How might it shed light on Rose’s fascination with Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock? And what about the poem by Geoffrey Hill that’s included in the NYRB Classics edition of Love’s Work, which you also wrote about for Commonweal a few years ago? How does it illuminate some of Rose’s trickier concepts? I’m eager to hear what you think! 

***

We might think that we should practice pure philosophy: logical, precise, bloodless. But the cleanest ideas are always haunted by the messiness of life, Rose argues, and it’s the job of the thinker to examine such messiness.

Griffin,

As you mentioned, I wrote about Love’s Work for the magazine just about seven years ago. It’s been interesting returning to Rose’s book at a different moment in my life. A lot has happened personally since 2011: many good things (I got married, got a job, adopted two cats), some not so good (I had a health scare and lost my grandmother). And a lot has happened in the larger world, too. On the plus side, the Red Sox won another World Series. On the minus side, Trump.

I’ve been thinking about this gap between then and now in part because Rose is so interested in gaps herself. Late in Love’s Work, she fleshes out a concept she calls the aporia: the gap that exists—in politics, in philosophy, in every human domain—between the ideal and the real. Geoffrey Hill, in his elegy for Rose, puts it this way:

So it continues,
the work, lurching on broken springs
or having to be dug out or jump-started
or welded together out of two wrecks
or donated to a good cause, like to the homeless
in the city that is not just, has never
known justice, except sporadically.

The springs will always break; the car will always fail to start; justice will always be intermittent. Things are fallen, and so are we. But it’s the task of love to greet this constant failure with renewed effort. In other words, “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.”

This sense of the aporia in part explains why Rose’s book troubles the boundaries between philosophy and memoir in the ways that you’ve noted. We might think that we should practice pure philosophy: logical, precise, bloodless. But the cleanest ideas are always haunted by the messiness of life, Rose argues, and it’s the job of the thinker to examine such messiness.

At one point, Rose describes a certain strand of critical thought that, in its sharp critique of reason, “blames philosophy for the ills of civilization.” Such a stance, which dismisses reason altogether because it fails to live up to its ideal form, “would prevent the process of learning, the corrigibility of experience.” What a lovely phrase, the corrigibility of experience! For Rose, experience is defined by its capacity for constant if always incomplete correction—which is to say, experience is defined by its openness.

This brings me to Peter Weir’s famously open-ended film, Picnic at Hanging Rock, which Rose considers midway through Love’s Work. The movie is dreamy, hypnotic, lovely to look at. (Sofia Coppola has cited the film as an influence on her similarly dreamy work, The Virgin Suicides.)

Picnic at Hanging Rock seems structured around a mystery. On St. Valentine’s Day in 1900, a group of schoolgirls visits Hanging Rock in central Australia. While on their trip to this austere geological site formed by ancient volcanic eruptions, three girls and one teacher vanish. Why or how isn’t made clear: they’re there, and then they’re not. The remaining schoolgirls, and the audience, are left wondering what has happened and what it means.

Despite appearances, Rose suggests, the film doesn’t actually tease us with mystery. As she writes, “To me, it is obvious what happens. I know because the central mythic opposition in the story is that of the stone and the rose.” (A little background: at the age of sixteen, Rose changed her last name from Stone, her father’s surname, to Rose, her stepfather’s surname. Again, life and work, biography and ideas, blend.) 

By Rose’s reading, Picnic at Hanging Rock isn’t interested in psychology or the real. Rather, it’s interested in pure symbolism. Hanging Rock, she writes, “denotes a deity who is removed from the natural world,” a figure of the masculine sublime demanding a sacrifice. The girls, by contrast, “are spring roses and romance; they are all articulateness, beauty, inwardness”—precisely the things that Hanging Rock demands for its sacrifice. The film isn’t narratively open but symbolically determined: “Sheer power and vulnerable passion are united in a mystic marriage, the marriage of power and might with grace and love, the Romance of the Rose in semi-modern dress.”

We might think that such an archetype-structured film—the Rock vs. the Rose; the Male vs. the Female—would leave Rose, a writer obsessed with the real, pragmatic work of love and politics, dissatisfied. And we’d be right. She criticizes the film’s “egregiously erotic spirituality,” finding that it “misrepresents the meaning of repentance and redemption in Judaism and in Christianity for the sake of the drama of their iconography.”

What do you think, Griffin? Is Rose right to criticize Picnic at Hanging Rock for refusing to dwell in the aporia? I don’t think so. After all, the film’s girls—ethereal and earthly, lighter than air but also aware of class and sexual difference—draw the eye of the camera and the viewer precisely because they stand on the border between the ideal and the real. More generally, do you agree with Rose that Weir misrepresents redemption in favor of iconography?

***

Tony,

You’ve asked so many great questions, and I’ll try my best to respond!

(Courtesy of Criterion Collection)

As you mentioned, Rose identifies a stark opposition at the center of Picnic at Hanging Rock—the soft, flowery world of the girls’ finishing school against the rough, stony wilderness of Hanging Rock. At first glance, Rose’s distinction seems to hold: Hanging Rock, like the biblical desert, is a treacherous place. It’s full of swarming insects, exotic flora, and strange fauna, all baking in the stifling heat. The rock itself is shot at deliberate angles, where its massive forms resemble totems of human faces, giving the place a pagan, almost demonic feel. Such harshness is at odds not only with the girls’ physical features (one, Miranda, is compared to a “Botticelli angel”) but also with the grounds of their school, with its lush, manicured gardens, stately staircases and colonnades, and wood-paneled walls.

But are the two worlds really so separate? It seems to me that the school itself is almost more oppressive than the wilderness of Hanging Rock. Run by the tyrannical widow Mrs. Appleyard, a stone-faced disciplinarian obsessed with rules and schedules (her dress is literally covered in clocks), the school is more like a prison or, if you’ll recall Marx’s description of despotic bosses in Capital, a factory! The girls are literally trapped “between a rock and a hard place,” without any hope of freedom. That’s the aporia, the gap they must inhabit—a gap which the film reveals and condemns. Viewed in this light, their decision to wander off into the bowels of Hanging Rock signifies not only a bold act of defiance of Mrs. Appleyard’s rules, but a firm step in the direction of life—even if it ends, apparently, in death.

One final point. You mentioned the film’s incredible visuals. I want to highlight its equally stunning soundtrack, which features the famous pan flute recordings of Romanian musician Gheorghe Zamfir. These eerie melodies lend a kind of supernatural charge to the imagery in a way that reminds me of the films of Terrence Malick, especially Tree of Life and To the Wonder. There, the twirling cinematography elicits the viewer’s awe as it gestures toward the divine origin of creation. Weir, by way of contrast, offers us something more archaic and unsettling: long, vertiginous shots of Hanging Rock likewise provoke awe, but in the term’s original sense, that is, terror and dread. It’s this same sensation that Vico (to go back to philosophy) believes to be at the very origin of human civilization: that sudden, horrifying, yet sublime realization of our otherness (and our smallness) before divinity. But there’s grace here: it’s from this terror that all else—language, culture, the vast sweep of human history—flows forth and flourishes.

So, is there room for redemption in Picnic at Hanging Rock? I think so. Vico has a concept—the ricorso (literally a re-running)—which one of my professors used to call “history’s second chance.” It means that after things fall apart—as did ancient Rome, as did the British Empire, as will everything else—civilization can still be regenerated and reconstituted anew. I see a germ of regenerative life in the high ideals and loving actions of characters like Michael, who returns to Hanging Rock and saves one of the girls, Irma, or Mademoiselle de Poitier, who intervenes after several girls attack another. Such characters aren’t perfect, but they act anyway, performing, as Rose might say, “love’s work.” Weir doesn’t tell us the end of their story, but there’s good cause for hope: even with their minds in hell, they refuse to despair.

Love’s Work
Gillian Rose
NYRB Classics, $14.95, 176 pp.

Picnic at Hanging Rock
Peter Weir
Criterion Collection, $19.99, 107 min.

Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal. Anthony Domestico is Associate Professor of Literature at Purchase College, SUNY and a columnist at Commonweal. 

Also by this author
Summer Readings & Screenings

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books
Books
Collections