- The Power of Gentleness: Meditations on the Risk of Living trans. by Katherine Payne and Vincent Sallé
It is nearly impossible at this moment not to read Anne Dufourmantelle's prolific writing retrospectively through her death by heart attack while trying to save children from drowning last summer on a beach in Ramatuelle near St. Tropez, because it seems to be a tragic enactment of what she had to say about the "risk of living." This book, originally published as Puissance de la douceur in 2013, was translated by doctoral students (who are also professional translators) and overseen by the author herself (along with Elizabeth Rottenberg, a continental philosopher and translator of French philosophy), although she died before its publication. The book received the French Voices Award for excellence in publication and translation, and the translators' note at the beginning is a work of respectful and, indeed, gentle analysis in its own right, helpfully guiding non-French readers in an understanding of both the terms puissance (power) and douceur (which they translate as gentleness).
I pause on this question of translation because one of the reasons Dufourmantelle's work is little known in the United States is that not much of it has been translated—although that may soon change—and because, especially for French deconstructive philosophy, translation has been a key [End Page 139] issue, suffusing most conceptual discussions and influencing, usually negatively, its Anglo-American receptions. This translation stands out because it enacts the poetico-haptic effect of Dufourmantelle's prose when she writes about gentleness and risk. If these "meditations"—echoing in homage and critique the antecedent philosopher's text by the same name—are simply that, essays (from the French to try or attempt, to "assay" in archaic English), then their work, while plenty cognitive, should also be to some extent affective, and the translation assists the prose in producing a lyrical, quiet, subtle, even "shimmering," as Catherine Malabou puts it in the foreword (xv), insinuation of gentleness into the errant, meandering text.
This small book, a companion volume of sorts to Eloge du risque (In Praise of Risk; Dufourmantelle 2011), is divided into thirty-six short chapters, arranged by topic, but in no particular order I could discern. Like the translators' note, it begins by etymologically exploring what is meant by douceur ("gentleness") and puissance, or "power," which could also be force but which, in Dufourmantelle, is linked rather to the Aristotelian notion of potentiality (6) as a power that is immanent in life and incommensurable with traditional notions of force. In "Approach," she defines the power of gentleness as it operates throughout the work: "It is an active passivity that may become an extraordinary force of symbolic resistance and, as such, become central to both ethics and politics" (5). This definition of gentle power aligns it with satyagraha (and Gandhi, whom she discusses in the chapter on "The Symbolic Force of Gentleness," 43–45) and is familiar to some strains of philosophy. But other discussions of the potentialities of gentleness may seem less so in belonging rather to the domains of literature, psychoanalysis, and motherhood, as in the chapters on Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and much of the second half of the book (the "Listening" chapter is particularly astute about the analytic encounter).
It would be easy, too easy, to dismiss some of the continentalism of Dufourmantelle's philosophical thought as vague, impressionistic, nonsystematic, and rarified. Part of the problem (for English-language readers) is precisely in that word "gentleness," whose etymological associations link it to the aristocracy. "Gentil," the French word from which gentle derives (and not the word Dufourmantelle uses), suggests a quality originally attributed to the nobility, and there are times, reading this text, when it seems written from the perspective of those privileged to engage in and promote a sort of ascetic, sacrificial sweetness, as in Tolstoy's "Master and Man" (65–66), and to understand this power of gentleness, also, in the...