A Gentle Remainder: Anne Dufourmantelle’s Power of Gentleness

Striving for Gentleness. — When a vigorous nature has not an inclination towards cruelty, and is not always preoccupied with itself, it involuntarily strives after gentleness — this is its distinctive characteristic. — Nietzsche, Daybreak [238]

In many ways the notion of advocating for the radical nature of gentleness, of its potential as a force of refusal, is an easy enough one to comprehend. Faced with the ever-expanding subsumption of all forms of social being and socio-cultural activity into the accumulatory logic of capital — one whose neoliberal mode of governance is predicated on endless precarity, flux, intensification and opportunism — gentleness appears distinctly out of place. Its mention immediately calls to mind associations of the softness of touch, ideas of kindness and care, and a slower, more considered, approach to time: a decelerated temporality.

Power of Gentleness: Meditations on the Risk of Living by Anne Dufourmantelle (translated by Katherine Payne and Vincent Sallé) New York, Fordham University Press, 2018

Gentleness however, is a difficult term to define. How can we conceptualise gentleness? What philosophical import, what potential for human action and thought, does gentleness contain? These two questions course throughout Anne Dufourmantelle’s Power of Gentleness: Meditations on the Risk of Living, translated into English by Katherine Payne and Vincent Sallé. In short, the answer to the first question is that it cannot, not completely, it eludes capture, but this failure to be identified, to be concretised as concept, is part of the very operation of gentleness, ‘gentleness appears first as a failure’(54). This failure is the starting point for beginning to answer what power may reside in gentleness, where sweetness [douceur] might turn to resistance.

What Dufourmantelle does is to develop gentleness through a constellation of overlapping ‘scenes’ and short essays, pulling threads of gentleness from an array of sources including: Tolstoy, Gandhi, Melville, Chinese philosophy, Nietzsche, Hildegard of Bingen, and the Christian Saints. In doing so the text draws on everything from philology and philosophy to literature, theology, and psychoanalysis; presenting a gentleness always softly formed, repeatedly escaping the hardness of conceptualisation. As Catherine Malabou remarks in her foreword, the book is not only written about gentleness (and in some sense written by gentleness, a gentleness revealing itself) but is itself gentle.

Part of this process of gentle revelation is an attempt to illuminate gentleness in contradistinction to, not brutality or violence, but and a kind of false gentleness or mawkishness. The gentleness which Power of Gentleness wishes to bring to light, as an elusive force bearing distinct philosophical and political potential, is one radically opposed to the proliferation of saccharine, infantilising mysticism, commodified mindfulness and ‘well-being’ pervasive in contemporary capitalism (3). In this way, Dufourmantelle attempts to think of gentleness as a mode of resistance to these mollifying forces, of a gentleness suffused with potential: a power of transformation (5). Gentleness then is not a palliative; something to salve the wounds of brutalising modernity, a coping strategy for helping increase productivity. Those who are truly gentle can only be at odds with social relations that reinforce antagonistic power dynamics and organisational structures of domination.

Gentleness then is not weakness, though it may appear as such.[1] One writer who Dufourmantelle finds herself in dialogue with in this regard that, on first appearance, might seem incongruous is Nietzsche. She notes that though the will to power ‘seems to be the antithesis of gentleness’ Nietzsche recognises the potential of gentleness as a force of dissolution, an ‘ambivalent force in a world sick with weakness’ (19).

It is this understanding of gentleness I wish to develop; a gentleness that both refuses and diffuses power, including the very power of diffusion and refusal by which it works. In other words, gentleness cannot be harnessed: it does not work by accretion or accumulation, only by dissolution. Dufourmantelle describes this instability when she says ‘the highest point of gentleness is its possible erasure — and that is precisely what frightens us’ (42). For gentleness, dissolutive power and fragility are inextricably one. This exteriority to power relations, this threat to the established order of things, brings gentleness in proximity to madness, and indeed the two (both in reality and in literature) are often conflated. In trying to think about this closeness in more depth a quote which came to mind (and which, indeed Dufourmantelle quotes in the text) is the following:

But there is, in my view, no grandeur except in gentleness” (Weil), I will say rather: nothing extreme except through gentleness. Madness through excess of gentleness, gentle madness. — Maurice Blanchot, Writing of the Disaster

Madness and gentleness challenge the power of conceptualisation, the subsumptive power of reason, they are a pathway to something outside but it is not a path that can be simply taken. Thinking of gentleness in this way, as something which eludes the institutional structure of thought (and power), returns us to Nietzsche, one for whom madness and uncertainty were not desperate flights from the truth of reason, rather, it is reason which is revealed to be the deception which seeks to comfort us from the deeply uncertain nature of the world.

Nietzsche criticises science, scientific knowledge, as deceptive because of its belief in its own force of stabilisation and security. Scientific work is undertaken on the presumption of the unity and perpetuity of scientific work; it has an institutional character that operates by bringing things to order and understanding. In doing so, scientific work masks the radically fluctuating character of the world, one that is always already becoming and always already passing away. This constant shifting of the world is one where an apocalypse lies buried in every instant: objects and ideas are opening up and being eradicated ceaselessly throughout time. We exist in a vertigo of endings and new beginnings. Where scientific work attempts to build an edifice over the abyss, a structure of natural laws and classifications and truths, the will to power recognises the dizzying transformatory energy, the catastrophic character of existence, and what this means for the potential of humankind. As is typical of Nietzsche, of course it is not simply a case of unmasking this moral deception, for this lie is a lie which is required in order for us to live. It is a lie which shields us from the inconsolable anxiety that plagues us in the face of nothingness, of a death that lies in the shadows of every passing second.[2] One might suggest then, that gentleness and madness share a recognition of the non-generalisable condition of death: the non-relational, inescapable void that underwrites our experience of time. However, where madness plunges headlong into this singularity, ending in a private language of incommunicable speech acts and delusions, gentleness refuses the urgency, the potential power [potenza] offered by such a recognition.

Returning to the present, we do not have to look very far to see how these conceptual modes of understanding experience might exist in contemporary society in a perverted, de-formed form. In capital, the will to power and the drive toward gentleness are reified and commodified into the fluid, flexible entrepreneur of the self striding through the land of opportunism and a mawkish sentiment and ersatz mysticism which seeks to act as a soothing force to improve productive and, crucially, maintain the present social relations. Where one force is more easily recuperated, the other is more easily stamped out until all that is permitted to remain of it is that feeble part which feeds the other.

The question of what this threat of recuperation means for those attempting to articulate a revolutionary Nietzscheanism today is an important one, and one beyond the confines of this article. For gentleness however, and what it might mean to strive for such a thing in the face of the world in which we live, we can return to the quote with which we began. The drive for gentleness moves away from the self and does so against cruelty. Cruelty is what ‘reaches the heart by pretending to attack only the exterior, the skin…otherness is the primary offence that feeds cruelty’ (74). Gentleness instead reaches from the heart and toward the skin, its gesture is a caress but one that that goes beyond the sensible (57). Like Nancy’s notes on the aural and Nietzsche’s vision of the world,[3] gentleness is always already vanishing, always already returning; it is never simply there. Gentleness too recognises the unknown, the individual death murmuring beneath the present, but it meets oblivion with an equally individual gesture, a soft reaching toward the other. Gentleness cannot be rewarded, for its enactment is the very calling into question of any notion of reward. It lies beyond any idea of winning or losing. It is not a will to power, nor even a will to empower, but turns away from that which permits no other precisely towards otherness, it is ‘not an intentionality of disclosure but of search’ (57).

If Zarathustra is written in the language of the wind, Power of Gentleness comes in the language of a breeze, a warm current that carries the whispers of another way of being. In such times as these, there is no greater risk. Power of Gentleness is a book which is difficult to write about, both elusive and allusive, a necessary product of the imbrication of form and content. It is a work of gentleness. Interpretation of such a work risks weighing it down, of approaching the work with all the tools it precisely resists. Like a scientist one might take a single facet of this quietly sparkling text, excavate and elaborate over and around it in the hope of finding something concrete, something useful, something with potential, digging deeper and deeper, when all the while what we thought we saw dissipates into the air. This is perhaps all I have accomplished here. Still, one hopes that amid these heavy, cloying sentences, some facet of gentleness, some sense of it, may have been brought temporarily up from the night and carried over into daybreak.

[1] This recalls Proust’s remark in The Guermantes Way, that it so often it is only the strong who have the capacity for the gentleness which is externally perceived as weakness.

[2] For these insights I am greatly indebted to Krzysztof Michalski’s study of Nietzsche The Flame of Eternity, translated by Benjamin Paloff, (Woodstock: Princeton University Press, 2013)

[3] Dufourmantelle also explicitly connects gentleness and listening.

Yorkshire person. Editor @readysteadybook. Writer @thequietus, @3ammagaine, @gorse_journal, @LAReviewofBooks + more. Communism, literature, philosophy.