“In Praise of Risk” by Anne Dufourmantelle

A Review by Rev. Jim Ryan, PhD  — jimryan6885@gmail.com

Co-pastor of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community

Wauwatosa, Wisconsin 53213

On July 21, 2017 Anne Dufourmantelle drowned while attempting to save two children (who survived) that were swimming in the Mediterranean off the Southwest coast of France.  At the time, the news of her death went global due in part to her having published only 6 years earlier, “In Praise of Risk” (L’Eloge du risque).  In 2019 the English translation (tr. Steven Miller) published by Fordham University Press brought the events of her life as well as her tragic death even closer to mind In the United States.

Anne was a philosopher and psychoanalyst and columnist for Liberation, the newspaper founded in the late 1960s by Jean Paul Sartre and others involved in the revolutionary movements of their day.

So, let’s be clear, the link between her bold and courageous action and her written legacy of this book is, for certain, a no-brainer.  But, lest one think her praise is of taking action in the face of death, of fixating on that which “ends it all,” take a close look at this gift of life from her to us.

In a series of what may be classified as vignettes, case studies, reflective pieces, simple sharings, and thought provoking entries Anne writes of that vital urge – risk – which she presents as “a physical engagement at close quarters with the unknown” (Euridyce Saved, p.7) and later in the book when she asks where risk fits in one’s life.  “How else does human consciousness exit its own condition in order to project itself into a future freedom?”

This series comprises pieces 2-4 pages in length, 51 in all, over 186 pages.  Praise comes in the form of questions in “Risking the Universal?” (164), of reflections in “At the Risk of Being Carnal” (74), of musings in “At the Risk of the Unknown” (72), and of directions in “Taking the Risk of Childhood” (148.)

In her “Zero Risk?” (33) she writes, “It is strange to think that no era has ever been so ‘secure’ than ours and that nonetheless we all suffer from an ever growing disquiet that is incommensurable with any event, or should I say, any risk of event.”  So, we have insurance companies that calculate and monetize risk (thank you, underwriters) until it is no more – except that it isn’t.  In a world averse to risk many CEO’s and upper management types will only attend meetings and (so-called) strategy sessions to which they have already determined the outcome.  It occurs to me when this type of behavior in search of Zero Risk is confronted with social unrest over police brutality, with protesters who may or may not respect property, and with vigilantes who assign themselves to “protect” such property with an actual intent to shoot to kill, when such risk averse individuals face these challenges they are literally at a loss.

In her “Being in Secret” (39) Anne reflects on prayer and the incorporation of spirit into one’s soul.  She writes, “Prayer is a state of waiting for a word that you know will not come, but that, at the same time, is there inside you, deposited there from time immemorial.”  She’s telling me that often enough I require someone else to point to that word within.  Then, with grace, I may gain insight and appreciation for that into which, in immemorial fashion, I am incorporated/incarnated.

In most of these pieces Anne recounts assortments of case notes and therapist-client dialogues.  In this exchange from “Forgetting, Anamnesis, Deliverance” (24) she is amused at an amnesiac who was “sent” to a shrink though maintaining a large amount of skepticism.

Client (C):    “You are asking what I expect from you, right?  That you give me back the desire to invent an identity, not just any identity but almost… provided that I feel something.”

Therapist (T):  If you don’t feel anything, then it’s not just forgetting.  Forgetting manages only memories, not the sensorium, and even less the emotional register.  Whence my first question …..  which chance alone cannot answer.

C:    “And so no more than chance can, you can do nothing for me.  It would seem that you’re a manager of memories, you oversea clearance sales, wholesale and retail.”

T:    I smiled.

Remembrance, for the amnesiac is the risk of just starting over again when forgetting is all you have.  Anne reflects, “Forgetting is deliverance from that which delivers us.”

“At the Risk of Passion” (13) explores the question, “What if passion is actually about intensity rather than anxiety?”  It’s not the loss of identity one risks in passion rather it’s the taking hold of body, soul, and spirit.  Here’s her list:

Passion is acquiescence to an absolute elsewhere.

Passion is a movement that dispossesses and reveals at the same time.

Passion is torturous; abandonment to deeper fears of revelation and gift.

Passion changes identity.

And lest we forget, every passion pays tribute to the Christic scene which offers us the possibility of turning savagery into grace.

“At Risk of Beauty” (158), in part, focuses on the therapist’s notes involving a beautiful man, a young, highly accomplished dancer.  The case notes reflect her immediate reaction to his beauty.  “He possessed an incandescent beauty.  When he showed up at my door I was left speechless.”  It was the case, though, that the young man “spoke of his distress … of feeling exiled in an unbroken solitude.”  As the therapist notes observe, “The incarnation of beauty in a singular being makes it into an object of fantasy and thus the source of all solitude.”  This beautiful being was driven to thoughts, plans even, of suicide – so alone had he become, this object of fantasy.  He became a photographer thus turning the tables on the fantasies so that he could show beauty.

We end where Anne begins.  Her first entry, “To Risk One’s Life” (1) is almost too much a pointer to her own demise.  However, this space she inhabits is of pointing risk not to death, but to life.  It is the very invitation we require to read her book.  She writes, “Does (risk) necessarily mean to confront death?  For risk opens an unknown space.”  If embodied soul indeed requires this union (as she reminds us Descartes’ first question on the way to highlighting the subject was of the union of body and soul) then you will find her invitation a welcome one.  She asks, “How is it possible, as a living being, to think risk in terms of life rather than death?”

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