Academic journal article Romance Notes

Escaping History: Benjamin Fondane's "Mal Des Fantomes" and Interiority

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Escaping History: Benjamin Fondane's "Mal Des Fantomes" and Interiority

Article excerpt

The author of Le Mal des fantomes has something of the revenant. Until recently, Benjamin Fondane's problematic posterity has relegated him to the fragile margins of the canon, partly due to the relative scarcity of his works. Most of these works only reappeared in the early eighties, almost forty years after Fondane's death at Auschwitz in 1944. The publishers Plasma, which went bankrupt in 1983, and Paris-Mediterranee, which ceased activity in 2009, both helped republish Fondane's most essential works, but with little publicity. In 1989, Monique Jutrin published the second monograph on the work of this poet, existentialist philosopher, and polemist, Benjamin Fondane ou le periple d'Ulysse. (1) In 1997, Jutrin founded the Cahiers Benjamin Fondane, now in their 17th annual issue; Fondane's works have reappeared, this time through the well-established Editions Verdier; and monographs are being produced at the remarkable rate of close to one per year. (2) Alluding to Stendhal's famous remark, Fondane once claimed he might find a readership in 1980; history seems to be bearing out his claim. (3)

Born Benjamin Wechsler in Jassy, Moldavia in 1898, the future Fondane began publishing at fourteen, and soon adopted the pseudonym Benjamin Fundoianu. Emigrating to France in 1923 and gallicizing his pseudonym to Fondane, he became one of Andre Breton's most ferocious critics and a disciple of the anti-rationalist philosopher Lev Shestov. His subtle, original, and deeply sophisticated polemical essays include the Faux Traite d'esthetique (1938), a philosophical pamphlet critiquing Surrealism and Roger Caillois.

Fondane is often read in light of philosophers, as in Bruce Baugh's recent dual study of Fondane and Jean Wahl (Baugh 33-51). But where Levinas is concerned, the most convincing resonances begin, not between the philosophies of the two thinkers, but between Levinas's philosophy and Fondane's poetry. (4) I have elsewhere studied the points of contact between Fondane's most iconic poem, called the "Preface en prose," and Levinas's conception of ethical speech, a kind of discourse that recognizes the authority and fragility of the Other without coercion. Here, I focus instead on Fondane's elegiac long poem "Le Mal des fantomes" (1943). (5) In this powerful elegy, history appears as an oppressive, violent force of erasure. And while the poem cannot itself preserve the singularity of an individual existence, it nonetheless bears witness to that existence, provoking an awareness of the reader's own fragile and transient inner life. That inner life, and human interiority in general, necessarily lie outside of History, according to both Levinas and Fondane. This position opposes, as both Levinas and Fondane consistently do, Hegel's totalizing conception of History. Yet this conception of interiority as extrinsic to History represents a game of qui perd gagne. Levinas and Fondane intend to preserve interiority as a space of infinite possibility or pure potentiality, to safeguard interiority from the closure and fixity of History.

Yet in excluding interiority from History, these thinkers also define it as necessarily lost or missing, as perpetually unrecorded and unrecordable. I argue, in short, that for both Fondane and Levinas, interiority constitutes the elegiac object par excellence.

Fondane discusses Hegel's conception of history at length in his last philosophical essay, "Le Lundi existentiel et le dimanche de l'histoire" (1945, posthumous). Fondane critiques Hegel's notion that History is utterly rational, because it requires that Hegel maintain, for instance, that war can be "necessaire" (Le Lundi existentiel 66). In other words, a rational history implies rationalizing all the evils of history. To make matters worse, for Hegel as Fondane reads him, the finite is inauthentic, a kind of unreality in the face of the infinite Spirit:

"[L]'idealisme de la philosophie consiste en la non-reconnaissance du fini comme etre veritable" [Hegel]; le fini, le dechire, le meurtri existent, sans doute, mais ne saurait avoir voix au chapitre; si, pourtant, ils elevent leur voix, on la tiendra pour une lamentation sterile, une plainte sentimentale, un pur reflet de besoins et d'appetits. …

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