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Fallen to the Rank of Adjective: On Benjamin Fondane

By Dominic Jaeckle.

Existential Monday

Benjamin Fondane, Existential Monday: Philosophical Essays, trans. Bruce Baugh (New York Review Books, 2016)
Benjamin Fondane, “Cinepoems” & Others, ed. Leonard Schwartz, trans. Mitchell Abidor, Marianne Bailey, E.M. Cioran, Marilyn Hacker, Henry King, Andrew Rubens, Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody, Leonard Schwartz (New York Review Books, 2016)

“Pascal would have preferred a chair to an abyss.”
– Benjamin Fondane, ‘Existential Monday and the Sunday of History’

Benjamin Fondane is, for what it’s worth, often berating of the critic’s craft. His chiding of a tendency towards “chatter” – and a swift dismissal of any narrow definition of originality – pockmarks his poetry, remains a tidal focus of his philosophy and navigates its way as a constant through his work. “We are in a world in which each one of us comes along with his fixed idea, irreducible to that of his neighbour.” The problem, for Fondane, is universalism. “We don’t want a unanimity of agreement, but a defensive unanimity.” At the gut of Fondane’s argument – whether we want to pin him as a writer, thinker, philosopher or poet – is the claustrophobia innate to our verbal categories when it comes to the industrialisation of original thought. Engendered by the anonymity ushered in by the slippage of a statement into the formal trappings of poetry, philosophy or literature, Fondane’s wager is an attack on assigned title. What we want, he implies, is a revolution in culture; to believe that creative activity spins around specificity – that it is turned and attuned on personality. That we look to ascertain an independence of thought that levels the playing field, providing foundation for this “defensive unanimity,” and enjoying the ironies innate to its own argumentation. As showcased throughout these new translations of four key essays that scan the duration of his career, Existential Monday, his philosophy is one of conversation as a sophisticated consumerism – of valorisation as a personal election of value.

Here’s an anecdote as a point of entry – consider the case of Pei-Shen Qian. During the Cultural Revolution, with all the arts under sanctioned state control, Qian painted portraits of Chairman Mao Zedong for schoolhouses and factories; he kept the leftover paint, a scarce commodity, as reward for his efforts and worked fastidiously at the development of his own practice in his off-hours. Self-acknowledging as an artist, Qian arrived in the US on a student visa in 1981 and, based in New York, set up at his easel on a Manhattan street corner – West 4th Street – painting a passerby or a pedestrian at a starting rate of $15 a piece. There, he was discovered by two brothers and they entered into an arrangement. The brothers asked him for an imitation at $200 and, picturing their request, mimicking someone else’s work, Qian began life as a copyist. He painted pictures by figures as diverse as Motherwell, Newman, Francis and Kline – painters he respected and admired – and settled into a quiet professionalism, reworking other people’s expressions as a local economy of mid-century paradigms. Throughout the 1990s, he was often paid several hundred dollars for any given totem of the twentieth century; by the time the market crashed in 2008, he had honed his craft and, working out of a small studio in Queens, began making real money.

Qian used old paint. He aged his canvases. He learned to write other people’s names with all the fidelity called for by a painter’s signature. The brothers were paying him up to $7,000 per painting, and more money traded hands as the work began to circulate. Knoedler & Co., a museum referred to as ‘Gallery #1’ in the indictment papers, is alleged to have invested $20,700,000 in Qian’s forgeries that would then later fetch up to twice that in profit on sale. Knoedler closed its doors in 2011, with lawsuits ushered in from dissatisfied buyers at every angle, whilst the executive front of the gallery insists that they made every effort to authenticate each iota of Qian’s work. Regarded as one of the most far reaching cases of creative fraud in recent American history, Qian can’t portray the scandal as anything other than “a very big misunderstanding.” Unconvinced that anyone would have considered his imitations to be genuine work, Qian espouses a view of all his errors as informing an originality: “It’s impossible to imitate them – from the papers to the paints to the composition. It’s impossible to do it exactly.” Qian would simply comment that “he made a knife for cutting fruit” – his own purposes were equivocal – he couldn’t speak for anybody else – he could barely speak for himself. But the work, in spite of its long legalistic hangover, gave him a tool with which to self-identify. Living in Shanghai, and unable to return to America, he still considers himself “an American painter.”


A Rothko; a Qian

Qian’s manipulation by – and, perhaps accidentally, of – the marketplace is something that doesn’t manage to entirely obfuscate the nature of his practice. As a painter, his recourse was to locate a certain form of expression through the imperfect silhouette of the works of others. His work was an act of displacement rather than a more simplistic, cynical mimicry. That he would defame his critics and, instead, argue his work as an organic activity submissive to the pressures of canon is an anxiety that aggregates something of his symbolic reach. Rather than an artist contributing impressions of his own imperfect definitions of any subjectivism, he technologises his points of distractions – he paints pictures of his points of stimulus. Acknowledging the weight of influence, and the anxieties of reproduction, he comes around to rehearse and redress the expressions of others to subtly dispute their ownership. His pictures are other people’s pictures. The view shifts between his own private perspective and a historic record of human expression in plastic form. That the latter comes at a price loftier than his hand could carry, however, allows that the deep pockets of the market drag him in and reconfigure his considered expression as a complex of criminal actions. His was a practical relation to his form rather than a theoretical expression, but the important jump-off is that, through these various acts of unoriginality, Qian co-opted his verbal actions and turned them into a noun. “An American painter.”

Although, at first glance, Qian’s actions look like little other than a more accomplished example of fraudulent behaviour, the implications of this case underpin much of the philosophical outlook of Benjamin Fondane, framed unequivocally in these seminal essays. Fondane was, as showcased throughout both his work and biography, more the idealist than the critic. A brief truncation of his life adumbrates a figure at the forefront of the twentieth century’s absurdist vanguard that, in turn, represents another cultural victim – lost to the heavy, inveighing political right in the early 1940s and the tragedies incurred by fascist power. A Romanian Jew, Fondane emigrated to France in the early 1920s. With a background writing for little monetary recompense in avant-garde literary periodicals of the day, he floated from insurance brokerage to a role as screenwriter for Paramount Pictures – all the while working towards a calcification of his philosophical outlook and developing a platform for his work as a poet. Fondane’s career moved in multivalent or contrarian directions. On the one hand, we have a leading light in France’s existentialist 1930s. Under the tutelage of another émigré, Lev Shestov, he quickly gained a strong reputation; a peer of Camus, a Kierkegaardian inheritor, his translator Bruce Baugh writes (as to Fondane’s calling as a philosopher) that he “arrived in the west in full revolt against rationalism and the reign of logic.” On the other, we’ve a cultural factotum. He worked for the stage, wrote for the screen, played at the critic, read the news and manned a library, walking his wits between some myriad different roles in the socio-cultural life of early twentieth century France.


His poetry, a proxy to his theoretical work, is bled through with a proof of the influential power of his time spent with cinema. Dubbing them his “Ciné-poèms,” a term he knowingly borrowed from Man Ray (and also published in a new translation by NYRB this year), his works convey an experimental formalism: a wringing of some strange brand of authenticity through a carnal, dislocated humanism he read as spreading through cinema. His line is the redistribution of popular images, of common impressions. Through film, here rendered as an abstract formal leap rather than a categorical subject matter, Fondane sought to glean “a part of [himself] that poetry was repressing to be able to pose its own anguishing questions;” an effort to vocalise these questions found, plainly, “an unwavering voice in film.” For Fondane, cinema was more than merely a formal interest; it constituted “un appareil à lyrisme” – “a tool for lyricism” – “it gives birth to the arbitrary, introduces the point of view of the discontinuous, the play of the simultaneous,” it constitutes “a new reality.”

These cinépoems represent a formal envy – a want for cinema’s expediency and something of a mystery he gleaned in the form. This can be directly identified in the details of the work and its consistent play on echoes, reflections, projections and slight removes. “Along a poorly lit wall runs the shadow of a hand” – an echo of “the white hand with a pointing finger” that runs parallel – is burnt on to the wall in silhouette. “Two candles” – “the head of a streetlamp” – are anthropomorphised. Granted a “human gaze” behind “ripened eyelids.” His poetry marks the world in “bas-relief;” it plays on the proposed vitality of his understanding of cinema as nothing other than a remembered scene only rendered valuable when projected away from itself, preserved, received and fed against the specific parameters of our own want for self-recognition. This feels like a comment on cinema, but is persistently remarked, rather, as an extension of cinematic feeling.

The line break, for Fondane, is a cinematic cut, but, he noted, it “should not be understood as oblique reference to film direction.” The inculcation of film upon his poetic practice communicates something of the structural principles at play in his work. He suggests that each break “was merely intended to facilitate the creation of a temporary state of mind that the memory destroys along with the act of reading” – something of his obsession throughout all of his corpus. A reader’s process, for Fondane, constitutes a form of ownership that is affective, urgent, and inevitable – reading either the screen, page or world constantly separates insight from an object of attention so as to constitute something new. Every cut, as though he’s tending a garden, is invariably a germinal gesture; cut it back to grow it again, watch it bud.

At the beckon of Victoria Ocampo, Fondane lectured on avant-gardist cinema in Argentina, pedagogically charging this lyrical apparatus; he dabbled in experimental comedy, directing the now-lost film Tararira and collaborating with Dimitri Kirsanoff on the motion picture Rapt in 1934. But through his poetry he views the cinematic form as instigating a philosophy detached from the fog of academic vocabulary; as estranged from the obsession with status, assigned role and fixed disciplinary category that haunt his more scathing indictments of critical thought in the 1920s. In that sense, whether critical attention is expended in a reading of either his poetry or his philosophical writings, Fondane’s corpus represents a soteriological effort. It’s a scrutiny of the possibility of salvation either with, or without, the monotheistic coordinates of his own faith acknowledged. Without the plot of a godhead. It’s a level paean; a playbook aimed like a gun at anything that stands against our ability to self-define – our capacity to maintain a sense of critical autonomy – unimpeded beneath the auspices of an age of technological acceleration, economic determinacy, and, increasingly, fascistic totalitarianism. He aspires after a way in which to self-identify against the volume of an “impertinent disquiet” – against a “holy hypochondria” – that, increasingly, buzzes and purrs in the face of independent concentration and litters his essays with their various emphases.

In Existential Monday, his musings on the various ecologies of the muse display a carnivorous approach to philosophy and its adjacent cultures; the essay enjoys the lack of explanation we look to post-justify. Conversation is decorated as a constant cultural revolution. As “each one of us comes along with our own fixed idea,” looking for little other than “mental satisfaction,” Fondane argues a need to renovate the terms of interpretation. He asks that we no longer strive to embed a thought within the terms of assigned titles, discipline or professional constraint and instead hold it against the world in argument. His is a championship of “refusal,” here an effort to estrange generalisation, and read every interpreter as an “exception” to the wanton determinacies of academic discourse. In ‘Preface for the Present Moment’, he frames that same outlook against the hardships of the Great Depression, reproaching the universalising tendencies of political economy through consideration of the value of individual purchase and actions that prop up an economic machine destined to fail. In ‘Boredom,’ in a manner echoic of Alberto Moravia’s later novel of the same name, he settles on the attachment we have to dynamism – our want for movement, both intellectual and physical, at all costs. That lust for movement – one aped in both his poems and the arguments essayed here – remains a lust, however: an unfulfilled desire. That open feeling turns to malaise, allowing for the influx of “extravagant cruelties” that pin down the trajectory of European history from the medieval to the modern. Baudelaire, Fondane’s initial point of focus here, is thus three times repainted: the poet of “modernity,” becoming the poet of “technology” and urbanism by association, spills over the page as the poet of “boredom.” Fondane’s unfinished manuscript, Baudelaire and the Experience of the Abyss, wouldn’t find its way into publication until 1947 and, by such a point, Fondane would have carried over as a tragic exemplary of his own thesis: boredom isn’t an absence of response, a privation, but rather an absence of parity – an inability to act out against prevailing structures, to affect change. For Fondane, that would be his last line, but his register is typically more defiant.

Benjamin Fondane

Even now, Fondane’s philosophy feels like a look-book of older affronts to ongoing problems – of twentieth century ambitions still resonant in the twenty-first. His is a representative effort “not to let [our] questions evaporate into poetry.” Not to let our answers drift into the ambiguous wash of life behind “philosophy’s borders.” His allergenic relationship with formal demarcation is not a waged assault on poetry itself, and philosophy by virtue of his own extension, but rather a reproach of the accepted idea, of the conception of either “poet” or “philosopher” as an industrial or professional admonition. “Could the role of the philosopher be to unsettle the existent?” Perhaps, for Fondane – but only when philosophy is rendered a thing more ubiquitous. One can (and should, to follow his logic) “refuse to want to be a professional philosopher. One can refuse to submit to this or that technique, rule, or servitude” that “subjects it” to its own disciplinary entrapment. The industrialisation of philosophy, for Fondane, feeds out into a totalised rendition of the shortcomings of common outlook. “It is even probable,” he writes, “that a society completely free of material wants – if it ever comes to pass – will be all that much more suited to give itself over completely and without misgivings to metaphysical anxiety.” On that line, he arranges a litany of sacred cows for slaughter. Sartre. Hegel. Nietzsche. Camus. Leibniz. Kierkegaard. Lavelle. “Witness Plato’s Republic, [Rousseau’s] Social Contract, Kant’s Perpetual Piece, [Marx’s] Capital.” And, from that lineage, he attempts to demarcate the difference between a metaphysical methodology and a metaphor, calling out for an “enigmatic philosophy!” One “without terminology, method, or technique!” One that, although given over to the popular “nothing” of a more generalist, Sartrean feeling, would supplement that “nothing” with a more fruitful sense of “negativity.” In that sense, his work comes with a significant caveat: argument, he proposes, is acknowledgement. “History was made for man, not man for history.” To debate an idea is to accept the touch paper of its terms; to talk it through is to purpose a flame. In promotion of nothing so dramatic as any Promethean ambition, for Fondane interpretation is illumination – and light is designed for nothing other than the enlightenment of our own corner, our own domicile, our own space. Rather than concede to nothingness, rather than let personality merely fall “to the rank of adjective” and epithet, Fondane sought to underscore the possibility of self-awareness, of self-definition, of the personal conditions for insight and outlook. It’s a separatism he’s at work on – a negative romanticism in which other things prove negated so as to better illustrate and affirm what-it-is-we-are rather than what-we-are-not.

The advert for “discontinuous simultaneity” that Fondane claims to borrow from his experiments in cinematic form and criticism is advocated throughout the essays collated in Existential Monday. There’s a positivity inherent to our ability to isolate an idea and, by proxy, isolate ourselves. It is existential, in his own use of the term: an allusion to life that sits outside the skin as informed by the internal machinations of the mind. But, when there’s nobody left there to listen, when refusal is the operative action of philosophy, where are you then? Without answers, Fondane repeatedly settles on the importance of a question – of a consistent and constant interrogation of terms of engagement. His perspectivism reads like a work of bricolage; not so radical as a Duchampian ready-made, but whereby the various potential meanings of a given idea relay the possibility of community. We have our own displacement of terms – a relocation of other ideas as within the terms of our own critical vocabulary. Our understanding is a solidary act rather than a solitary statement, but our cohesive togetherness should never undercut the significance of our capacity to stand as our own, isolated critical category. Debunking accepted definitions and restating the insistence of argument, the worldview he advocates is one of constant cultural revolution, of every outlook as a form of criticism.

The tragedy of his positivism is, however, itself marked by history; on October 22nd, 1944, Fondane is murdered along with seven hundred or so others in the gas chambers of the Auschwitz II–Birkenau, a matter of months prior to the camp’s liberation by the Red Army. But Fondane’s philosophy insists that we do not let the tragedy of political and dictatorial determinacy delimit his work to a scrutiny of the losses registered by that period alone. His subject, in essence, is the possibility of a highly personal sense of progress that doesn’t sequester individual contact to a logic divined by cultural memory; that we don’t rush to a historical retrospection to understand and rationalise a given idea, a given period, a given subject. Such is the ground covered in the specific foci of these essays.

What Fondane poses, throughout his corpus, is a citational aesthetics – a constant renegotiation and arrangement of other people’s work, other thinker’s ideas, that allows a new position to always be struck. “Pascal would have preferred a chair,” he suggests, “rather than an abyss;” the abyssal status of other thinkers, for Fondane, allows us, consistently, to couch ourselves in their argument. To stand knee deep in any void. It’s at such a juncture that the proximity between Fondane and Qian’s positions begin to blur. For Qian, to paint a Rothko was merely to affect an accent for emphasis – pick up a borrowed phrase here or there for stress. Qian knew full well that to pursue his line of argument was to do so against the barrage of complex, interweaving lines and investments that feed in and out of an art world market and its restaurant tables. That his creativity was not a uniquely constructive thing – and rather a constituent demonstration of a step towards an unoriginal act of creativity – was never the issue. He was working on a “defensive unanimity.” The same can be said of Fondane’s philosophy as for his poetry for the cinema that would harmonise thereby. It’s a look for an edge to borrow, alter and renovate: a registration of little more than a slight change that doesn’t incite a contest but instigates a perpetual shift in emphasis as an idea drifts between parties.

It’s a verbal personality Fondane was looking for, an effort to elevate epithetic activity, to enhance the rank of adjective. A recasting of personality as a platform with which we can honestly steal, appropriate and recondition the thoughts of others as parentheses for our own original material. His is a testament to the ways in which our critical consumerism is, for whatever it’s worth, a creative practice.


Dominic Jaeckle

Dominic Jaeckle is a writer living in London. He writes about reading.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 11th, 2016.