Benjamin Fondane 1898-1944
(Born Benjamin Wechsler; also wrote under the surname Fundoianu) Romanian-born French poet, filmmaker, essayist, and nonfiction writer.
A poet with strong interests in philosophy and film, Fondane produced a variety of works, including film scenarios, essays, plays, and poetry until his career was cut short by World War II. His life and works remain of interest to scholars of filmmaking, Jewish literature, and the Dadaist and Surrealist movements.
Fondane was born in Iassy, Moldavia, in 1898 and moved to Bucharest in 1919, where he joined a Dadaist group centered there. He immigrated to Paris in 1923, changed his surname from Wechsler to Fondane, and immersed himself in French culture, mastering the language and becoming acquainted with the Parisian Surrealist community. Biographers have recounted that Fondane's efforts to meld his chosen nationality with his Eastern European Jewish birth culture caused him considerable distress; consequently, he wrote very little during his first few years in Paris. “Uprooted, lonely, facing practical and moral problems and struggling to forge a new poetic instrument,” Monique Jutrin has written, “Fondane experienced a deep psychological and creative crisis, later named ‘the experience of the abyss.’” In 1938 Fondane became a naturalized French citizen, but was nonetheless arrested by the German Gestapo in May 1944 and sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp. Fondane was reportedly approved for release due to the intervention of his non-Jewish wife and several friends, but his sister, the actress Linie Pascal, had been arrested at the same time and Fondane refused to allow her to go to Auschwitz alone. He died in the gas chamber on October 30, 1944.
Fondane wrote in an eclectic mix of genres, including poetry, political commentary, film criticism, and philosophy. “Fondane's major objective was to expose the uses to which academic discourse was put in modern society,” R. M. Stanton has observed. He showed an early interest in Dadaism and Surrealism, but he eventually rejected both groups for their approach to poetry, which he found simplistic. He turned his attention to silent film; when the genre perished, he asserted his mistrust of sound films, which, he believed, presented a dangerously convincing yet false reality, and began to focus more heavily on philosophy. Fondane's Trois scenarii—Ciné poèmes (1928) is a series of three “unfilmable scenarios” in which he combines the disciplines of poetry and cinema. Screen contributor Eric Freedman has noted that the three scenarios, “Paupiè mûres,” “Barre fixe,” and “Mtasipol,” “take the form of numbered brief visual sequences or flashes, similar to today's video clips.” Fondane's sole film was Tararira, an absurdist musical comedy produced in Argentina in 1936. It was never distributed, however, and appears to have been lost. Le mal des fantômes, a collection published in 1980, contains three long poems: “Ulysse” (“Ulysses”), “Titanic,” and “L'Exode” (“Exodus”), in which, as Jutrin has asserted, “Fondane follows the path of an existential odyssey.” Fondane lived with the fear that the war would find him for many years before it did. On June 18, 1939, he gave his manuscript for Rencontres avec Léon Shestov to his friend Victoria Ocampo as she left the country, asking her to guard it in case of war. Ocampo complied, and the work was eventually published in 1982.
Fondane is noted for both his approach to, and his unusual perspective on, the creation of poetry and film, drawn from his varied personal and professional backgrounds. Examining Fondane's poem “Exodus,” which takes as its subject the biblical exodus of the Jews from Egypt and also the exile of Fondane's own people from their homeland, William Kluback has observed, “Fondane revealed not only what he experienced, but what lay quietly and abandoned in experience, the silent suffering, the inaudible pain, the dreadful degeneration and distortion of the human reality.” Scholars of Jewish literature and experience have often examined Fondane's Jewish heritage and its effect on his writing, especially during the World War II environment of Jewish persecution. “The poetical works of Benjamin Fondane represent the ambiguous relationship between the Jewish writer and Western literature,” Jutrin has noted. “Through his works, we can retrace the course followed by the Jewish poet in the Western world.”
Trois scenarii—Ciné poèmes (film scenarios) 1928
Privelisti (poetry) 1930
Rimbaud le voyou [Rimbaud the Hoodlum] (essay) 1933
La conscience malheureuse (nonfiction) 1936
Tararira (film) 1936
Titanic (poetry) 1937
Faux traité d'esthétique (nonfiction) 1938
Baudelaire et l'expérience de Gouffre (nonfiction) 1947
Le mal des fantômes (poetry) 1980
Rencontres avec Léon Shestov (nonfiction) 1982
*Ecrits pour le cinéma (film scenarios and essays) 1984
*This work includes the three scenarios originally published in Trois scenarii.
(The entire section is 68 words.)
SOURCE: Stanton, R. M. “When Logic Turns Lethal.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4044 (3 October 1980): 1109.
[In the following review of La conscience malheureuse, Faux traité d'esthétique, and Rimbaud le voyou, Stanton notes that Fondane's philosophy and criticism were highly original, and anticipated later French intellectual debates.]
Benjamin Fondane's work contains the aspirations and defeats of a lost generation of refugees. His life took the same course as those of so many hundreds of thousands of others—flight from his native land, Romania; an uncertain interim existence in Paris, expecting the worst; and finally, arrest by the Gestapo, deportation and death in the gas-chambers of Birkenau-Auschwitz in October 1944. The anonymity, though, the banality of the suffering, freed him from old ties to polite formalities, academic manners and artistic “savoir faire”. Once exiled, no holds were barred. Beautiful illusions, neatly constructed thought-systems, were swiftly axed. Awkward emotions—anger, despair and frustration—were no longer censored. The result, as the three volumes now reissued show, was some of the most controversial and original poetry, philosophy, and film and political commentary of the period.
Fondane's major objective was to expose the uses to which academic discourse was put in modern society. He believed that ideal, rationalistic...
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SOURCE: Schwartz, Leonard. “The Forgotten as Contemporary: Benjamin Fondane and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte.” Literary Review 30, no. 3 (spring 1987): 465-67.
[In the essay below, Schwartz discusses how the relatively obscure surrealist works of Fondane and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte are newly relevant to contemporary French writing.]
Literary activity and literary history need not be divorced from one another. Why include two writers from an earlier epoch in an issue devoted to contemporary French writing, if the relationship between the contemporary and the historical were not significant? Indeed, one of the most striking aspects of writing in France is the way older texts are suddenly revived, taken seriously, and assigned fresh critical significance in the presence of a particular contemporary interest or mood. This sense of an active fertile past that informs the language of the present can be traced back to both an acute self-consciousness in France about predecessors, and to the fact that Paris remains a place of discovery, where, somehow, poetic works escape being put “under glass.”
How and why writers long forgotten reappear years later may seem to be a mysterious process. Often, it is a question of the concerted effort of one or more persons being convinced of the importance of a particular oeuvre, and working to revive it. But there are also larger forces at work in the process...
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SOURCE: Christensen, Peter. “Benjamin Fondane's ‘Scenarii intournables.’” In Dada and Surrealist Film, edited by Rudolf E. Kuenzli, pp. 72-85. New York: Willis Locker and Owens, 1987.
[In the following essay, Christensen examines three of Fondane's film scenarios in an attempt to place them within Dadaist and Surrealist film theory of the 1920s.]
In 1928 Benjamin Fondane published his Trois Scenarii—Ciné-poèmes in Brussels through Esprit Nouveau. These scenarios were not reprinted until they appeared in 1984 along with five essays on film in an edition, Ecrits pour le cinéma, edited by Michel Carassou, the chief instigator of the Fondane revival.1 These scenarios, “Paupières mûres,” “Barre fixe,” and “Mtasipol,” have not yet found their way into a history of Dada/Surrealist film practice and theory. This essay will try to correct this situation by providing a background to the scenarios, an analysis of them, and a comparison of them with other avant-garde films and scenarios of the 1920s.
The best introduction to Fondane's career as a poet and existentialist philosopher is still John Kenneth Hyde's Benjamin Fondane: A Presentation of His Life and Work (1971). However, Hyde does not consider Fondane's scenarios or essays on cinema.2 Michel Carassou's introduction to Ecrits pour le cinéma [E] is too brief...
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SOURCE: Freedman, Eric. “Benjamin Fondane: Philoctetes and the Scream of Exile.” Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 6, no. 2 (spring/summer 1994): 51-62.
[In this essay, Freedman traces Fondane's history and influences and examines their impact on his dramatic poem Philoctetes, which was not published in his lifetime.]
In his preface to Philoctetes, Fondane wrote that “after all, better it should appear now than in the form of a posthumous work, with an introduction and critical notes. At least, dear reader, this edition has neither introduction nor critical notes—that's something anyhow.” However, Philoctetes, a dramatic poem advertised as forthcoming in 1937,1 did not appear during Fondane's lifetime. …
And yet a time will come when I shall be only a fable, an absurd kind of mythical secret, an existence which existed, where then? in what century?
(Le Mal des fantômes, p. 315)2
I. BETWEEN UNJUST LAWS
Justice! (…) I have seen it nowhere / it has no face.
(Philoctetes, pp. 12-13)
I cry aloud, but there is no justice.
(The Book of Job 19:7)
Benjamin Fondane's life and death were bounded by unjust laws. He was born on 14 November...
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SOURCE: Weingrad, Michael. “The Exodus of Benjamin Fondane.” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 48, no. 4 (fall 1994): 470-80.
[In the essay below, Weingrad warns against classifying Fondane merely in terms of his Jewish faith or his status as exile, preferring to note the power of his surrealist poetry and its reflections upon the World War II era.]
if the cries of human beings fall like chestnuts to the earth, at the mercy of the wind, without altering the peace of Angels, then what is Exodus?(1)
When I began to translate Fondane's L'Exode: Super Flumina Babylonis, Pedro Lastra, the gracious Chilean homme des lettres, was visiting our campus. I mentioned Fondane to him in one of our discussions about literature. “Ah, yes,” said Lastra, “a tragic figure. Like Desnos.” This comparison indicates the twin poles between which Fondane is generally discussed, if he is discussed: poetry and martyrdom. Like the better-known Robert Desnos, Fondane was a poet. And, like Desnos, Fondane was deported by the French during World War Two.
Lastra's recognition also indicates Fondane's greater renown in those countries which have assimilated the tradition of French surrealism, that is to say, beyond the English-speaking world. I offer here an introduction to a poet little-known in this country, and to the last collection of poems he wrote....
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SOURCE: Kluback, William. “Fondane Found His Jewishness.” In Benjamin Fondane: A Poet in Exile, pp. 113-26. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.
[In the essay which follows, Kluback discusses Fondane's role as a poet in exile, closely examining the biblical influence on his work.]
In February of 1944, the poet Benjamin Fondane gave the writer Jean Grenier a manuscript, Le Lundi existentiel et le dimanche de l'histoire (Existential Monday and the Sunday of History). Fondane never read the proofs. He was betrayed by his concierge; he was denounced to the Nazis. At the same time, “his sister Linie was arrested by the French police and transported to the camp at Drancy. His friends, Paulhan, Lupasco, Cioran, intervened with the authorities to obtain his release. They succeeded, but they couldn't obtain Linie's freedom. Fondane chose to go with his sister. From Drancy, he sent his wife instructions for an edition of his writings. In May, he was deported to Auschwitz. There was no trace of his sister” (see the “Préface” by Michel Carassou to Le Lundi existentiel et le dimanche de l'histoire).
L'Existence, the volume in which Fondane's essay was to appear, was brought out by Gallimard in 1945. The other essays were those of Albert Camus, Maurice de Gandillac, Étienne Gilson, Jean Grenier, Louis Lavelle, René Le Senne, Bruce Parrain (ibid., 111). This...
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Hyde, John Kenneth. Benjamin Fondane: A Presentation of His Life and Work. Geneva and Paris: Droz, 1971, 142 p.
Biographical and critical analysis of Fondane.
Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature (spring/summer 1994).
Special issue devoted to Fondane.
Freedman, Eric. “The Sounds of Silence: Benjamin Fondane and the Cinema.” Screen 39, no. 2 (summer 1998): 164-74.
Analyzes Fondane's advocacy of silent films and the film theory he developed.
Jutrin, Monique. “Benjamin Fondane: Portrait of a Jew and a Poet.” In The Jewish Self-Portrait in European and American Literature, edited by Hans Jurgen Schrader, Elliot M. Simon, and Charlotte Wardi, pp. 247-55. Tubingen, Germany: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1996.
Discusses Fondane's search for identity as a Jewish poet.
(The entire section is 112 words.)