Benjamin Fondane Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.”