Benjamin Fondane Essay - Critical Essays

Fondane, Benjamin


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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

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.


R. M. Stanton (review date 3 October 1980)

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 political systems masked extremes of violence, that complex terminology, with narrow, fixed definitions, concealed powerful prejudices. “I call ‘idea’”, he wrote in 1933,

all that has pretensions to unique certainty, infallibility, authority, all that commands, constrains, oppresses and kills, defines truth once and for all, unique truth that forbids doubt, research, abstention, subjugates exceptions to the majority, judges the abnormal by the normal, the individual by the crowd. I call ‘idea’ all in the name of which one makes whites kill blacks, Germans kill Jews, bourgeois kill communists, communists / kill Trotskyists … I don't know an idea which hasn't got at least 100,000 murders on its conscience.

Fondane's basic strategy was to illustrate how logical hierarchies mirrored political and social ones. In some cases he juxtaposed serious arguments with absurd examples. Husserl's eidetic abstraction (epoché), for example, the method by which philosophers were supposed to move from experience to secondary objective meaning, was related to the later view that “primitives” were inferior precisely because they could not perform such a process, that is, they had no philosophers to advise them (cf, Husserl, Der Krisis...

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Leonard Schwartz (essay date spring 1987)

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...

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Peter Christensen (essay date 1987)

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...

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Eric Freedman (essay date spring/summer 1994)

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...

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Michael Weingrad (essay date fall 1994)

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...

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William Kluback (essay date 1996)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 112 words.)