Puissance de la douceur. Anne Dufourmantelle. Paris: Manuels Payot, 2013. Pg 146.
By Evelyne Accad, University of Illinois, Lebanese American University
Recently in Beirut Lebanon to help with various humanitarian projects (abused women shelter, refugees, children at risk), the stress, the violence, the explosions, the suicide bomb attacks, the anxieties, a mixture of dangerous excitement, fear, love and hate were everywhere tangible; a volatile condition caused by the war next door being dragged into Lebanon was felt very strongly. There was a feeling of Apocalypse, the end of the world approaching surely, indiscriminate violence was shaking the country once more.
One day that nothing seemed to work, I was feeling very depressed, asking myself why I had to be born in that part of the world, having lived mostly war in my life, even if I had often been far away from the direct mess, I would go back as soon as I could to try to help. I picked up Anne Dufourmantelle recent book Puissance de la douceur (The Power of Softness) a book I had wanted to review and bring attention to the English speaking public. While rereading it, a feeling of great peace and harmony settled within me and I realized, once more, that the message this book was expressing with so much strength and softness could change the course of spiraling hatred, war and destruction our wounded world was falling into.
The principal thesis of the book is to show the symbolic force of softness and tenderness, there is so much strength in tenderness that it holds the power to transform things and beings. Some of the key components of softness examined are: compassion (to feel the wounds and hurt of others), the strength to look at what causes violence to destroy without passing judgment, the harmony between the carnal and the spiritual, softness which resists perversion, how philosophers see softness as civilizational even if Plato had a hard time with indulgence, his thought is centered on justice and truth, Aristotle and his “tender man more apt to pardon than to vengeance,” Saint Francis of Assisi exemplary life of repentance, his asceticism, his fraternity with all human beings including animals being rare in the Western world, tenderness as an attribute of God first of all, Sanskrit where one finds the link between spiritual goodwill, physical softness and tolerance of the heart, Chinese culture with its seeds for a sensitive life, sensitivity as an agent of freedom, Gandhi risking his life without ever risking that of his opponent, trusting the symbolic strength of tenderness, tenderness in connivance with truth, being political and holding its own light.
Difficult questions are asked around this notion: Could tenderness be conceived without brutality? Is it sublimation? What about cruelty and “jouissance”, the pleasure of hurting others as expressed in Dostoëvski for example? When does softness fall into horror? Could it have started in one’s childhood? What about the hell our civilization holds with its genocides, massive destructions, deportations, traumas all of us carry in our memory? What happens to softness when survival so close to death is at stake?
Softness presents itself not only with Christic characteristics but also as an instrument of stupidity, like the servant in Flaubert’s Un coeur simple. Christ never departed from tenderness and was therefore always able to put power into a state of failure, its a different way of living; softness without desire can transform itself into games of possession, “depression” today is the expression of lack of tenderness, it has the power to undo the intimate feelings of terror. The Christ-like component of tenderness is expressed in accepted servitude, like when Christ washes the feet of his disciples. “Tenderness opposes passion in a narcissist play of mirrors that helps bring it out … a fervor that is another name for ecstasy.” (p. 96)
To listen to other people’s traumas cannot happen without tenderness. It allows one to hear the unspeakable, a psychoanalyst tries to get to the unsaid, the hidden, what has been hidden, it is done with softness even when there is an element of abruptness necessary to bring out what hurts. Tenderness has the power to turn a traumatic refraction into creation. “Softness can come back when traumatic pain ends. The return to the freedom of a body not violated, of a sane speech, is already a creation.” (p. 120) Tenderness belongs to childhood, one would not be able to survive one’s childhood without it because everything at the beginning of life is exposed, sharp, violent. In melancholy there is the attraction of deadly softness; anxiety is a threat of death.
Historically, tenderness has not been looked upon positively because it inevitably holds an attraction to live against the norms, the obligations and the imposed judgments. I found this to be one the strongest message of the book: how to change our era so the power of softness will give us not only a feeling of wellbeing towards ourselves but also a spiritual and carnal enthusiasm towards it. It allows revolution to take place inside oneself, one can dance along a cliff without fear or dizziness because when one reaches the other side, everything would have been changed without violence. How I needed to hear and listen to such words that day in Beirut!
Dufourmantelle has an eye opening analysis about our world: Christ, being born in a manger changed the course of History. He could have come into the world as King of the Kings in all of His Glory, but no, He chose humility and was born in the margins/manger. It is a great lesson to all of us and to the world. It gives us the freedom to accept our margins as strength within ourselves and within the world.
The author relies on appropriate sources to present her arguments, thesis and analysis. Her contribution to our present knowledge of the subject is remarkable in her analysis of the new generation and marginalized voices, but also in her arguments. I recommend this book for anyone looking for alternatives to our depressed and depressing world; I would also recommend it for purchase by University libraries as well as city libraries. The writing is quite easy and does not use jargon making it understandable to general audiences, classes (psychology, sociology, political science, religious studies, women’s studies, etc.) and individuals lacking guidelines and understanding of their inner selves.
The English speaking world would strongly benefit from reading such a book and I hope it can soon be translated and published in that language as well as in others. As for myself, reading it that day in the midst of the violence and chaos of Lebanon and the Middle East opened a window of fresh air and a horizon filled with light and hope.
Name of reviewer: Professor Evelyne Accad