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!