‘As a form of counter-desolation,’ Ricoeur tells us, ‘consolation can be a lucid manner—just as lucid as Aristotelian katharsis—of mourning for oneself. Here, too, a fruitful exchange can be established between literature and being-toward-death.’footnote1

The consolation which Ricoeur primarily has in mind is that which comes from reading in fiction of the determinate deaths of others as we approach our own unknown and as yet unspecified end—though he also mentions the solace to the believer of the meditation on the Passion of Christ. But autobiography, too, can figure as a form of mourning for the self: both in the sense that it represents an attempt to record—and thus permit lament for—the passing of a life as it was subjectively experienced; and in the sense that it might seem to offer some means of defining and hence controlling the form in which one will be subsequently remembered.

Such consolation is of its nature limited since, just as there is no escape from death itself, so there is no final escape from the judgement of others upon the life—including upon any autobiographical records one may choose to bequeath. We cannot be in attendance at our own wake; cannot hope finally to fix the forms of our own reception, nor avoid the irksome truth that in any record we leave of our lives we shall betray more of our selfhood than we ourselves are sensitive to.

Gillian Rose, writing in the knowledge of her imminent death from cancer, was aware, so it seems to me, of these paradoxes of autobiographical consolation, and chose to deal with them neither by attempting to say everything, nor by pretending to less ego than she possessed, but simply by saying what it pleased her to say, and leaving, as she inevitably had to, the ultimate words of grief, praise, blame or exasperated expostulation to her survivors. The result is a powerful and unsentimental chronicle, which interweaves an uncompromising and acerbically edited version of the self with a pared-to-the-bone ethic of work, love and pessimism owing a good deal to her own favoured mentors, Hegel, Benjamin and Adorno.

Rose does not, in fact, directly refer us to Hegel, but it was he who wrote, in exposition of his ‘Master-Slave’ dialectic, that only work can annul the teror experienced at the threat of death. In Kojève’s paraphrase of the argument, ‘only work, by finally putting the objective World into harmony with the subjective idea that at first goes beyond it, annuls the element of madness that marks the attitude of every man who—driven by terror—tries to go beyond the given World of which he is afraid, in which he feels terrified, and in which, consequently, he could not be satisfied.’footnote2

For Rose, this is, as she explains in Love’s Work—itself an oeuvre, an actual work of transformation in and of the world—a work of love.footnote3 It is so, she implies, firstly in the sense that only a mundane and mortal love will do to keep you going. Only a consuming erotic passion, uneven, untimely and ultimately hopeless as it may well be—and that recounted in this work is of that order—will keep you on the rails, save you from the spurious salvations and their associated forms of narcissism (the kind of ‘works’ on the self recommended by the advocates of alternative medicine, the spiritual healers and their quack remedies for the soul). Only the ongoing engagement in the agon of life, together with all its agonies will allow you—to quote the saying of Staretz Silouan which is the epigram to the book—to ‘Keep your mind in hell, and despair not’. For it is, suggests Rose, the ‘deadly blandishments of the exoteric language of cosmic love’ which offer the more despairing counsel, precisely because they would attempt to keep the mind out of hell:

While presenting itself as a post-Judaic, New Age Buddhism, this spirituality re-insinuates the most remorseless protestantism. It burdens the individual soul with an inner predestination: you have eternal life only if you dissolve the difficulty of living, of love, of self and other, of the other in the self, if you are translucid, without inner or outer boundaries.footnote4