Cinepoems and Others by Benjamin Fondane
Translated by Mitchell Abidor, Marianne Bailey, E.M. Cioran, Marilyn Hacker, Henry King, Andrew Rubens, Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody, and Leonard Schwartz
240 pages – NYRB / Amazon
I have put into port in cities
With companions whose names I did not know
We must burn, tear out, and destroy in ourselves everything that stupefies, petrifies, crushes, and draws us towards the visible world.
Cinepoems and Others, the collection of poems by Benjamin Fondane out now from NYRB Classics, arrives with the force of a major literary event.
Collection editor, Leonard Schwartz, describes Fondane as: “That rarest of poets: an experimental formalist with a powerful lyric poetic voice; a renegade surrealist who was also a highly original existential philosopher; a self-consciously Jewish poet of diaspora and loss, whose last manuscripts made it out of Drancy in 1944 just before his deportation to Auschwitz- Birkenau, where he was murdered, yet his poetry speaks of an overflowing plenitude. This bilingual selection is the first volume of Fondane’s poetry to appear in English, and it includes a broad sample of his work, from the coruscating and comic cinepoems of his surrealist years, to philosophical meditations, to poems that in their secular and mystical Judaism confront the historical calamity—and imaginative triumph—of European Jewry.”
Benjamin Fondane was born in 1898 in Romania, and with his emigration to Paris in the 1920s he joined the ranks of other Romanian avant-gardists like Tristan Tzara. He published poetry and criticism, including major works on Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and worked in early avant-garde cinema.
In order to understand the work of Fondane, his long-time friend E.M. Cioran recommended in a 1985 interview that Leonard Schwartz begin with philosopher Lev Shestov. Fondane was a student of Shestov in Paris, and was highly influenced by his thinking, especially with what Shestov calls “[t]he tearing sensation that is tragic experience, when being and knowledge fall way from each other completely, [which] is both the beginning and the end of philosophy; it is also, however, the starting point for freedom, for an ‘I’ that is subject to no reason, limitation, legislation, or rational law.”
Lev Shestov was born in Kiev in 1866. And although he is often described as an outsider, he follows a clear trajectory through Western Philosophy that rejects empirical absolutism. Citing the historicity of reason, Shestov generally denounces scientism, acknowledging that empirical knowledge is a partial knowledge based on culture and history, grounded in a very limited window of perception, and emphasizing that empirical language should not be held above all other language cultures as absolute. For Shestov, intersections and ambivalences of systems of proximate cause create multiplicities of meaning across systems. As Dostoyevsky writes in Notes from the Underground, most people, “faced with an impossibility…immediately capitulate” before “the laws of nature, the conclusions of the natural sciences…Reason is a fine thing, there’s no question about it, but reason is only reason, and satisfies only man’s rational faculties, whereas desire is a manifestation of the whole of human life.” Shestov uses the example of “A dog has been poisoned,” compared with, “Socrates has been poisoned,” to problematize facts. This fact is historical, in a diachronic sense that after a chain of events, Socrates was poisoned. Shestov asks, “[W]hy does philosophy, which knows that everything that has a beginning must also have an end, forget this ‘eternal truth’ and grant everlasting existence to a truth which did not exist before the year 399 BC?” Facts are necessarily reflective of specific contexts and moments, the systems from which they emerge, synchronic time. There is another context in which the poisoning of Socrates has other specific multiple proximate causes and effects. There is an unaccounted level of contingency. Shestov argues that “facts” are projected backwards through history, but synchronic history gets lost. And there is a deeper, irrational level of meaning to “Socrates has been poisoned,” outside of any logical progression, endowed with context and signification. This cannot be understood through logic.
Shestov rejects any absolute knowledge that comes through rationalism and intellect. He reaches the possibility of human freedom and utopia as did Spinoza and Kierkegaard, through the love of god. Shestov, stresses immanent causality, and the importance of a universal substance. And for Shestov, freedom comes through faith. It’s easy to find closeness with Wittgenstein on certain points of his inquiry: human animals remain wholly incapable of understanding the universe. He also follows certain aspects of Spinoza. The social codes and laws that govern our human experiences emerge from the one substance but are not descriptive of any essential aspect of this essential substance. Outside of this essential aspect is the interplay of proximate causes. Shestov reflects Spinoza’s epistemology, rejecting the process of reasoning based on human perception, favoring the third kind of knowledge, based in a love of God that promotes a freedom for the individual human drive towards life and death (conatus) that overlap in social amplification. Bodies dedicated to faith and the love of god inform systems of proximate causes that ultimately promote more emancipation and less oppression.
Shestov and Fondane reject the utopianism of objectivist modernity, anticipating the 20th century violence enacted in the service of “objective” projects. Both Fascism and Stalinism sacrificed bodies for the greater good. Modernist city planner razed blocks for the promise of increased legibility. But Fondane, like Debord and the Situationists, rejected this movement towards objectivist rationality. In a philosophy founded in the impossibility of certain kinds of knowledge, he advocated for systems that recognize the sacred in every body. Fondane’s philosophy prioritizes freedom of bodies above all. Here again, we find parallels with Spinoza, who argued for joy through the dismantling of structures that limit the expression of conatus. In the introduction to Fondane’s book of essays, Existential Monday, translator Bruce Baugh writes, “Fondane’s chief contribution to the movement was his uncompromising insistence that existential thought express the experience of the living, feeling, sensing, and passionate individual.”
Fondane was also heavily influenced by Shestov in matters of aesthetics. His break from the surrealist group reflected the manner in which he viewed certain interpretations of “the unconscious” as overly reductive and constraining. Of course, he sensed there was a complex interplay of social codes and systems that emerge during “unconscious” moments, but he rejects the notion that the expression of these codes is anyway “truer” than “conscious” speaking and thinking. In his words, by emphasizing a kind of holy allegiance to “the unconscious,” the surrealists created, “an aesthetic doctrine that is merely Dada once removed.” Claiming the surrealists attempted to remove “the aspects of the Dada spirit that flowed through the veins of surrealism,” he mocked their dogmatism. The “official” surrealist group, of course, quickly became a non-entity, as individual members were ex-communicated, famously, or evolved, perhaps less famously. Breton himself remained a student throughout his life, never adopting any one single formalism or dogma in aesthetics.
Fondane’s ultimate aesthetic, expressed in Baudelaire and the Experience of the Abyss, reflects a general rejection of rote literary devices and constraints, suggesting that these constraints ultimately create the hierarchies they seek to escape. He envisions a context for freer language that isn’t preoccupied with bourgeois affect, and conveys the sense that there can be truth through various means of expression, but that hierarchies enter art through conventions of tradition and genre. People always tell the truth even as they tell multiple truths.
Cinepoems and Others traces Fondane’s work from 1928-1944. As an active voice in the Paris avant-garde of the 1920s, his cinepoems imagine unfilmable dream sequences. He was close with the French Surrealists, and collaborated with Argentine Silvina Ocampo on a film project. Although there are clear cinematic influences on Fondane’s work, it is not the stuff of major motion picture. His pieces defiantly wander and digress, never quite reaching the finish line. In his work, there are clear echoes of the Imagists, of Baudelaire, Zukofsky, and Pound. But he avoids the bravura of certain high modernists.
Reading the digressive Cinepoems, there is a sense of imagist parataxis, the way the imagery morphs in Rubin Vases, sliding through systems of representation. Fondane employs the surrealist imagery of Lautreamont, and some of the hallucinatory effects that he would later disparage:
81 a hand wipes the photos with a sponge on a shiny slate
82 on which are seen starfish
83 the play of flashing signs (without the head)
84 the window with the telephone number inverted
85 the starfish
86 the men seated at the table throw balls at one another’s heas (the same in slow-motion)
87 the woman gets up—blurred—heads towards the door (the rhythm changes becoming rapid)
88 the crowded coatroom allows itself to be all at once stripped baked by a large number of hands and
is left bare
89 the woman runs out of the café and into the street
90 five pairs of shoes run along a glass sidewalk
91 the young man behind
92 but is dwarfed by a vehicle bearing some of the characteristics of a bus and some of a ship
93 he begins to run
94 but a car cutting across the road looms up until it precisely touches the two walls
95 he begins again to run but stops frightened; the woman
96 is it really that bleeding animal turning in all directions dangling inside the doorway of the butcher’s?
97the window of a railroad car in motion, behind which the young man
98 he rows desperately in a gondola
99 he is perched on the mast of a ship
100 his eyes blindfolded he runs
101 on the moving escalator of a large department store
102 runs before a distorting mirror slender and very tall
103 in a second mirror squat obese
104 in a third mirror, etc
105 climbs a staircase an alpenstock in his hand
106 three by three vaults the steps
107 the staircase uncoils from bottom to top segmented and infinitely long
108 the young man on the terrace of Notre-Dame
109 he leans on the balustrade straining to see
110 a woman in the road walks toward the camera
111 superimposed over her the face of the drowned woman
112 repeat of the woman moving towards the camera
113 she stops before the window of a gun shop
114 the window
115 a single Browning
116 a hand pulls the trigger of the Browning, fires
117 she lies on the ground surrounded by five men
118 to their astonishment she rises
119 looks at the window
120 where the guns are hazy and begin
121 the ballet of the Brownings
Through the collection, Fondane’s poetry becomes less representational, often employing the imagist evocation strategy, generating moods and sensations, and coming up against language as ritual. In his poem, “Case Dismissed,” Fondane writes in wry analytic: “Something stronger than me, more deliberate, drags me back, propels me forward. Something more powerful than me rises within me, invades me, consumes me, leave my most secret plans in disarray, and compels me to use a medley of the most unrelated, and leftover, and disparaged lyric forms to express the confusion of a mind haunted by such a commotion of vows, superstitions, puns, shadows, and pure essences.”
The mystical Exodus, framed as a kind of chant through acrostic, cycles through the Hebrew alphabet. It’s an uncertain work. And Fondane celebrates the general impossibility of knowing:
I see something without sight
In the shadows where I flit
My tongue cannot speak it
My ear cannot make it quiet.
To your cohering,
Beyond the limits
The group of translators for this collection is a kind of monument in its own right. It includes E.M. Cioran and Marilyn Hacker. And throughout the collection, there is a genuine sense of commitment and love to the work of Fondane. It’s a fitting testament to the work of a complex and enduring poetic voice.
Featured image is by Benito Quinquela Martin