Writing a memoir is a challenge. It becomes even more challenging if you are unable to write or type easily, and dictation is hampered by unclear speech.
In late November 1975, Alexandre Jollien was delivered by a midwife in the small town of Sierre, Switzerland. ‘Turning one too many somersaults’ in his mother’s womb, Jollien got his neck entangled in his umbilical cord. An emergency trip to the hospital, cardiopulmonary resuscitation and ten days in intensive care saved his life but left him with cerebral palsy. ‘You are looking,’ he writes, ‘at the fallout.’
Unable to walk steadily, control his movements or speak intelligibly, he was sent to a nearby institution, where he spent the next seventeen years in the company of a hodgepodge of other boys with a vast spectrum of physical and cognitive challenges. ‘Our motto,’ he writes, ‘was: struggle with and against everything … in spite of our caregivers’ and teachers’ rigidity! Struggle – against medical diagnostics, discouragement and the other kids’ cruel and hurtful taunts!’
Jollien’s ‘professional horizon’ was ‘rolling cigars’. And yet the camaraderie of struggle gave Jollien the determination, strength and humour to leave the institution. He entered a mainstream high school and eventually the Université de Fribourg, where he studied philosophy, and then Trinity College, Dublin, where he met his wife. A father of three children, he has received several awards from the Académie Française.
Jollien wrote his In Praise of Weakness in 1999 (it has only recently been translated into English by Michael Eskin) in the early flush of his enthusiasm for philosophy. Know thyself, the instruction written at the entrance the Temple at Delphi, became Jollien’s mantra – it was the driving force for Socrates in Plato’s Dialogues. And so, perhaps, it seemed reasonable for Jollien to write his book of self-knowledge in the form of a Platonic dialogue – a friendly chat between himself and Socrates.
It’s a cute device. But Jollien’s interlocutor is more Sigmund than Socrates; an asker of leading questions rather than a questioner of unexamined assumptions. Jollien uses the device as a rhetorical crutch to help him write his story with grace, humour and hope. As a result, the book feels more like self-help than philosophy.
My own hope is that in the twenty years that have passed since the writing of In Praise of Weakness, Jollien has found the courage to throw away this final prop, trust his own thoughts and bracing optimism, and walk free of the shadows of the cave.
Reviewed by Jonathan Levi
IN PRAISE OF WEAKNESS
Written by Alexandre Jollien
Translated by Michael Eskin
Published by Upper West Side Philosophers, Inc. (2017)
US-born Jonathan Levi is the author of the novels Septimania and A Guide for the Perplexed. A founding editor of Granta, he currently lives and teaches in Rome.
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Photo of Alexandre Jollien © Raphaël Bourgeois