New mourn for modernity

Mourning Becomes The Law

October 11, 1996

Gillian Rose's posthumous book is a collection of six essays loosely organised around the themes of death, power and Judaism. Much of the writing is as arid as the Sinai desert though the patient reader will unearth riches too. Whatever can be said should be said in plain English or plain French. But Rose admires continental thinkers who had no sympathy with that motto. If we malign the metaphysical imagination of France and Germany, we do so because the habitual use of exalted phrases of obscure meaning is no guarantee of profundity. The nightmare of nomenclature continues until the last page.

Rose accuses modernity of robbing us of the meaning of both life and death. She counsels us to allow death and sorrow to depart fully until "mourning becomes the law". Modernity is endless mourning that never satisfies. When we moderns die, we are tired of life, not satisfied with it. We die in the midst of progress: the meaning of our lives and deaths is provisional, never final. There is no climax of significance unlike in a death voluntarily chosen - Nietzsche's idea - or a death where one still has faith in the eternal. Faith in the progress of finite knowledge cannot save us.

Rose warns Jews not to permit individual or collective death to become a fetish. She is here close to the spirit of ancient Hebrew culture where death was mourned fully and cauterised through dramatic rituals: rending garments, wearing sackcloth and covering the head with ashes. She also hints that Jews have over reacted to the Holocaust. Most Jews would retort that Nazis killed Jews not for their political pretensions but merely for their existence. What offended Hitler was that the Jews were not a biblical myth. Where are the Hittites, the Amorites, the Jebusites, the Perizzites? Rose does not note that fascist scepticism about Jewish history is scepticism about recent (post-Napoleonic) Jewish history. No fascist historian dismisses the Babylonian exile as a hoax. For modern anti-Semites, Jews are not named (or blamed) as political subjects, rather they are individuated by their very existence. This kind of prejudice led to an orgy of violence motivated by an evil that Jews may well call absolute.

Rose rejects ideas of absolute political evil or virtue. She admires the Athenians for participating in power and its "legitimate violences" for the sake of virtue. She criticises those versions of Judaism where Jews fantasise about "mending the world" while avoiding the moral risks of direct political action.

Fair enough: power invariably limits virtue but it need not destroy it. As for the theological quarrel over the correct understanding of Judaism, everybody is right. There are many texts. The deeper question, however, is whether or not Judaism qualifies as a continuous political tradition after the collapse of the Israelite monarchy in 587bc. The security of modern Zionism has allowed Jews to become less parochial in their relationships with the Gentiles but it has not enabled them to re-establish a distinctively Jewish political tradition.

In her search for consolation in the face of death, Rose looks to mystics, poets and existentialists. "Where there is nothing," she writes movingly, "there is God." But where there is nothing, there is nothing. "The future is the supreme anachronism." But for whom? For us or for God? She praises Jacques Derrida's slogan, "I mourn therefore I am". It passes for wit at a party but it is no consolation. Besides, Derrida's "I" is too confident, too Protestant, to suit Rose's Semitic temperament.

Surprisingly, Rose never looks to the Hebrew bible for consolation. Classical Israelite religion rejects the fantasy of an after-life. We live, we die. Israel lives from generation to generation. The rabbis thought "Children and righteousness shall deliver us from death". They were wrong. Nothing can deliver us from death and that is why death is so worthy of our wonder.

Shabbir Akhtar teaches at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

Mourning Becomes The Law: Philosophy and Representation

Author - Gillian Rose
ISBN - 0 521 57045X and 57849 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £.95 and £9.95
Pages - 163

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