The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A famous French thinker’s philosophy was based on taking risks. And that’s how she tragically died.

“If you want to risk, it means you are going to put your life at danger,” Anne Dufourmantelle told a classroom of students at the European Graduate School in 2011, the topic a detour from the usual stodgy lecture hall babble filling university coursework. “But risk is not integrated as a normal path of life itself,” the Frenchwoman continued.

Dufourmantelle’s subject choice wasn’t random. Risk — putting one’s life on the line, and the limited options for doing so in the modern world — was the centerpiece of the French philosopher, psychoanalyst and columnist’s well-respected body of thought.

“The spell of risk is really about what is being in life,” Dufourmantelle said later in the English-language lecture. “Is being in life just being born? Probably not. To me, risking your life is not dying yet, it’s integrating that you could be dying in your own life. Being completely alive is a task, it’s not at all a given thing. It’s not just about being present to the world, it’s being present to yourself, reaching an intensity that is in itself a way of being reborn.”

Dufourmantelle lived by her philosophy last weekend — and tragically died by it as well. On Friday, the French thinker died in St. Tropez. According to the BBC, she was killed in an attempted rescue situation during rough weather. The accident has thrown the academic and intellectual orbits of France and Europe into mourning. Following reports of Dufourmantelle’s death, France’s Minister of Culture Francoise Nyssen wrote on Twitter that the writer “helped us to live, to think of the world of today.”

On Friday evening, Dufourmantelle was at Pampelonne beach when the weather changed, with rough chop and heavy wind kicking in. The BBC has reported lifeguards on the scene changed the flag at the area from orange to red, a signal meaning wave conditions were too dangerous for swimmers.

Dufourmantelle, however, spotted children still in the water — either one or two, depending on the reports. When she attempted to reach them, she was swept out by the current. Le Monde has reported one of the children was the 10-year-old son of Dufourmantelle’s friend, and that the 53-year-old philosopher succumbed to a cardiac arrest during her attempt to save him.

Lifeguards eventually rescued the children, who were unharmed.

The writer’s tome on risk, “Eloge du Risque” (In Praise of Risk) was published in 2011, one of the nearly 30 books she wrote or co-authored in her career. Her thesis argued the “zero-risk” attitude of contemporary existence left a gaping hole in human life. “When there is really a danger to be faced, there is a very strong incentive to devotion, to surpassing oneself,” Dufourmantelle wrote in a 2015 piece for French newspaper Liberation, according to a translation by ABC News. “A life with absolute security — like zero risk — is a fantasy … being alive is a risk.”

She was friends with intellectual heavyweights such as Avital Ronell and Jacques Derrida. Dufourmantelle was educated at the Paris-Sorbonne University and Brown University. In addition to lecturing at universities in America and Europe, Dufourmantelle practiced psychoanalysis.