Printer Friendly

The Exodus of Benjamin Fondane.

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 lettres, was visiting our campus. I mentioned Fondane to him in one of our discussions about literature. "Ah, yes," said Lastra, "a tragic figure. Like Desnos." This comparison indicates the twin poles between which Fondane is generally discussed, if he is discussed: poetry and martyrdom. Like the better-known Robert Desnos, Fondane was a poet. And, like Desnos, Fondane was deported by the French during World War Two.

Lastra's recognition also indicates Fondane's greater renown in those countries which have assimilated the tradition of French surrealism, that is to say, beyond the English-speaking world. I offer here an introduction to a poet little-known in this country, and to the last collection of poems he wrote. L'Exode (Exodus) was completed by a Jew living under a virtual death sentence in German-occupied Paris. My focus on this work and its terrible finality places us under the twin stars of art and death which I mentioned. Yet I hope that this introduction will also show that Fondane's creative energies manifest themselves not only in poetry, and that the exuberance of his life, so particular and yet so emblematic of the artistic and philosophical quests of interwar Europe, cannot be subsumed in its tragic end.

Fondane was, above all, a citizen of Paris, a condition he prepared himself for by being born in Rumania. Rife with antisemitism, Rumania was hardly the ideal place for a young writer who happened to be Jewish. Moreover, the cultural capital for most Rumanians of Fondane's generation was Paris; the extensive Rumanian contribution to French intellectual life in this century is indicated by a list which begins with such names as Tristan Tzara, Constantin Brancusi, E. M. Cioran, MirceaEliade, and Eugene Ionesco. In 1923, the year the Jews were grudgingly granted citizenship in his country of birth, the 25-year-old Fondane emigrated to France. [2]

A true Parisian, Fondane was on good terms with many of the key figures in the Dadaist and Surrealist schools, though he remained aloof from their avant-garde orthodoxies. Rather than subscribe to any aesthetic or political creed, he went about the serious business of making art, meeting people, and pondering questions. Already a noted poet in Rumania-born Benjamin Wechsler, he wrote in Rumanian under the pseudonym Fundoianu, which he then gallicized as Fondane-he published two collections of French poetry, Ulysses and Titanic, between the wars. Yet this is only part of an extraordinary output which includes philosophical works, book-length studies of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, his Fake Aesthetic Treatise, plays, and numerous articles and reviews dealing with philosophy, cinema, art, politics, and literature. [3] (Many of his short pieces were published in the Marseilles journal, Cahiers du Sud, whose editors were also receptive to the work of Walter Benjamin.) Fondane visited Argentina in 1929 at the invitatio n of the literary patroness Victoria Ocampo, lecturing there on philosophy and cinema. He made a second voyage there in 1936, to direct a film, Tararira, never released and now lost. [4] From Jassy, Rumania to Buenos Aires, Fondane traveled from one end to the other of the extended artistic empire of Paris.

A constant through these myriad activities was the deep influence of the philosopher Lev Shestov, a Russian-Jewish emigre who taught at the University of Paris. Shestov's thought is less a philosophical system than a thunderous polemic against his arch-enemy, Reason, which he allegorized as Athens. Capital of intellectual hubris, Athens is ever engaged in the Sisyphian attempt to reduce the absurdity and unpredictability of life to formula and system. To Athens Shestov opposed his Jerusalem. His philosophical studies divide the minds of the West into these two camps: the absurdists of Jerusalem (including Shakespeare, Pascal, Dostoevsky, and Paul) struggling valiantly against the universalizers and systematizers of Athens (Plato and Spinoza, for example, and especially Hegel). [5]

Fondane met Shestov not long after his arrival in Paris. Their relations, a mix of friendship and near-filial devotion, lasted until Shestov's death in 1938. (Shestov and Brancusi were the witnesses at Fondane's wedding.) Fondane considered Shestov the central thinker of his time and was his most indefatigable exegete. He transposed Shestov's thought onto the topography of French culture, waging a Shestovian battle against Athens in own studies of Rimbaud and Baudelaire, and updating his teacher's polemics against Plato and Hegel with his analyses of Freud, Heidegger, and the Surrealists.

Like Shestov, Fondane never sought a productive relationship with Marxism, and his philosophical works also suffer from the lack of a developed political dimension. On the other hand, he thereby avoided the contortions of so many of his contemporaries who warped their art and thought in order to be sufficiently engages. Nevertheless, Fondane's anti-rationalism does not avoid the political constraints of such a position during the interwar period. Fondane wished to escape the dehumanizing influence of rationalism, what he calls "the critical climate." Yet, as he admitted, to jettison reason was fraught with danger at a time when irrationalism of the most violent sort was seemingly ubiquitous. In his Fake Aesthetic Treatise, a defense of poetry against reason, he writes of the dangers of his own rhetoric:

At one time its use would have made us sound merely crude; at present, as the world is divided politically between the idolators of culture (meaning Reason) and the idolators of Blood (meaning Race), one risks the distressing sting of being hastily classified. If Holderlin wrote today: "Empedocles, having long been pushed by his instincts and his philosophy to the hatred of culture..." we wouldn't see anything here other than an advocate of Force, as if there couldn't be profound motives for hating culture--motives other than stupidity and hysteria. [6]

Shestov had impressed upon him the need to transcend Enlightenment rationalism. Yet it increasingly seemed as if the fascists were doing this better than anyone else. Like so many intellectuals in interwar France, Fondane never found a way beyond this impasse. [7]

Such philosophical ambiguities were resolved brutally in the aftermath of the German invasion. Fondane was turned over to the Gestapo in 1944 and sent to Drancy along with his sister, Line. Jean Paulhan, the editor of the Nouvelle Revue Francaise, and the Rumanian writer E. M. Cioran managed to obtain his release from the camp, but not Line's. Fondane refused to leave his sister, and in May they were deported to Auschwitz. Neither survived; Fondane was gassed in Birkenau on October 30.

Fondane began L'Exode: Super Flumina Babylonis in 1933, and continued to work on it up to his internment in Drancy. He calls it a "poem of many voices" (his emphasis), and this applies to its varied formal structures (sonnets, terza rima, quatrains, and free verse), its alternating speakers, and most of all to the several tonal registers in what is nevertheless a unified work. These registers expand a lyric mode ranging from playful to gnomic, pushing it into prophetic declamation, and ultimately into a prophecy-without-audience: a "scream." [8]

His most Jewish work, Exodus is the form taken by Fondane's confrontation with his singular fate as a human being and his communal fate as a Jew. It is bounded at both ends with poetic sequences titled with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the model being the Bible's aleph-bet acrostics, particularly those in the lamentations of Jeremiah, who weeps over Jerusalem as Fondane does over Paris. Within, Fondane employs various Biblical motifs, which he reworks and intermixes, as in the title, which unites the Exodus from Egypt and the Babylonian Captivity.

The title (Super Flumina Babylonis) also indicates the degree of Fondane's assimilation; Fondane's Bible, like Shestov's, is more often Greek and Latin than Hebrew. Yet this is not peripheral to the poem; Exodus is precisely the expression of an assimilated Jew, fumbling toward self-understanding with the materials at his disposal. The poem's pathos is heightened, not reduced, by Fondane's desperate appeal to fragments of Yiddishkeit recollected from childhood:

I fall to my knees and I sob and cry

in a language that I've forgotten, but which

I remember in the stormy nights of Your Wrath:

"Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echod!" ("Meantime")

In the night of his affliction, the Parisian turns illusory. The cosmopolitan is stripped away, layer by layer, until only the Jew remains. [9]

As a philosopher Fondane may have "denied the evidences of reason" (his phase for Shestov), but his poetry is decidedly bound up with historical details and circumstances. Eugen Weber calls the French 1930s "the Hollow Years," and L'Exode vividly conveys the dispirited, foreboding quality of the times, particularly in the aleph-bet sequences, which appear to have been composed earliest. Beneath the day-to-day reality of Paris, Fondane senses the coming catastrophe, "a growing crack / like the pressing of a shadow / like a river underground" ("He"). Europe disintegrates in these poems:

I saw the clouds massing

our blood full of clouds

they were in our eyes

on the tablecloth before us. ("Yud")

Nations covered the earth,

armored, hairy, verminous,

and the earth nourished them

on dead scales,

meat boiled in tears,

murdered, bleeding herbs

miserable incantations

with ripped-off faces. ("Zayin")

The poet, who has known one World War, now readies himself for the "same meat factories" and "massacres," Europe now a "shipment of mannequins / for the perfected accident" ("Tzadi").

Fondane loved France as perhaps only a Jewish immigrant can; the poem, "I reckoned you all," in the selections which follow, trumpets this idealization of cosmopolitan, liberal France. He became a full French citizen in 1938 and fought in the short-lived resistance to German invasion, the pathetic debacle that is the subject of the middle section of Exodus. Fondane describes the routed army of 1940, fleeing "in a heavy storm of vans and trucks,"

sleeping upon our horses like kings of bronze

--a flash of tattered rage in our faces...

The depiction of the French collapse extends through an eighteen-poem sequence, titled "Intermede," which I translate as "Meantime." (Thinking of Holderlin: "and what is the use of poets in a mean-spirited time?") As in some apocalyptic vision, Fondane witnesses the flight of the refugees, the "women / carrying their lives in wheelbarrows," their "naked children," and their husbands, "shadows without arms" (IX). Fondane's surrealist idiom becomes a kind of naturalism in the war's wretched aftermath:

At the end, one was only

a huge, solitary nobody, fleeing,

trailing a heap of eyes, legs, and heads

a monstrous nightmare, perhaps the dream

of someone sleeping

peacefully on a desert island. (XII)

Interned as a POW in 1940, Fondane escaped, was recaptured and then released for reasons of health. Now he lived in a different sort of prison: Vichy France. In the poetic strata that date from this period, images of the hunted and the fugitive appear again and again. Fondane responds to his situation with outrage and horror, with hounded weariness, and yet often with a remarkable, sorrowful serenity:

--what good would it do to run away?

He is at the end of his discovery of the world... ("Chorus")

Here Fondane has finished with his lament for Europe. In "this France that I learned of in books," he finds himself surrounded by enemies, not fellow-citizens. His community is now Israel. His sense of a collective Jewish fate is expressed poetically through the repeated motif of the river in Psalm 137 by which the Jewish captives pine for Jerusalem. [10] "By the rivers of Babylon," below, shows one avatar of this river, which irrigates the book, metamorphosing from spring to maelstrom, from river of Paradise to Nile to (echoing a connection seen in American folk traditions) the Mississippi of the slavery-era South. (One is reminded of Fondane's contemporary and fellow Rumanian, Mihail Sebastian, who called himself a "Danube Jew."

Fondane finds himself standing with the Jewish people, but this means standing as well before their God. The poet's ambivalence has Biblical precedent. He argues, cajoles, and rants just as the patriarchs and prophets at their unruliest. "Lord, I have not forgotten you!" he cries, though neither can he conceal his bitterness and outrage at a God who will consent to be mocked through His people's suffering. More astonishingly, Fondane does not relinquish his rending honesty. Even from the belly of the whale he refuses to promise a full tshuvah:

You know that when all is made peaceful

on the earth and in the heavens

we will have forgotten You. You know that henceforth

only the secret memory of my prayer

will fill me with shame. I'll blame You, You see,

for having listened. And I'II blame myself

for having spoken. ("Meantime")

Fondane's embarrassed prayer, expression of the conflicted religiosity of modernity, is the best testament to his devotion.

The "Preface," written in 1942, shows Exodus at its endpoint, beyond prayer and beyond prophecy:

A day will come, no doubt, when this poem

will find itself before your eyes. It asks

nothing! Forget it, forget it! It is nothing

but a scream, that cannot fit in a perfect

poem. Have I even time to finish it?

Poet and prophet write with a certain confidence in the future, that there will be room at least for their words if not for themselves. For Fondane, this future is literally "antipodal," as he calls the men addressed in the first line. "Hommes des antipodes" can also be rendered as "men of the Southern Hemisphere," which is certainly appropriate for a poet with friends in Argentina. But Fondane's audience, we who occupy a future that he cannot enter, are truly so far from Fondane and his fate as to be conceivable only at the point exactly furthest from him. (Just as an earlier chronicler of Hell positions the mountain of Purgatory, which Ulysses saw in the distance before his final shipwreck, at the antipodes of Jerusalem). Unlike Whitman who will be the nurturing grass beneath our feet, Fondane is a clump of nettles trampled on by the oblivious, remorseless future.

In the "postscript" he affixed to the manuscript just before his deportation, Fondane refers to his readers in necessarily conspiratorial terms. Publication was impossible. Yet, he says, perhaps a small group of friends willing to copy out the manuscript can manage to "spread the secret."

Every translation is a means of spreading secrets. In Fondane's case I have not taken this lightly, though I have hesitated on one count in particular. Fondane will be grist to the mill of those ready to mythologize the relation between Jews and exile, a common occurrence in contemporary discussions of literature. Here we see a lamentable confluence of the hoary Christian myth of the Wandering Jew and the romantic stereotype of the poet as outsider. Many of the most admiring treatments of figures such as Celan and Jabes lapse often and easily into this rhetoric, underwritten by the equation: poet=Jew=exile.

I do not want to contribute to this sort of dubious philosemitism. Of course many of these authors themselves, including Fondane, make use of this equation. But allegory is not destiny, and the shifting metaphors of the author's self-understanding not mathematical certainty. Those who turn their descriptions of the poet's circumstances into an ontological definition of Jewishness echo a verdict that was, in the case of Fondane and too many others, already rendered, despicably and unnecessarily.

selections from

Exodus: Super Flumina Babylonis


It is to you I speak, antipodal men,

I speak man to man,

with the little in me of man that remains,

with the scrap of voice left in my throat,

my blood lies upon the roads, let it not, let it

not cry out for vengeance!

The death-note is sounded, the beasts hunted down,

let me speak to you with these very words

that have been our share-

few intelligible ones remain.

A day will come, surely, of thirst appeased,

we will be beyond memory, death

will have finished the works of hate,

I will be a clump of nettles beneath your feet,

-ah, then, know that I had a face

like you. A mouth that prayed, like you.

When a bit of dust, or a dream,

entered my eye, this eye shed its drop of salt. And when

a cruel thorn raked my skin

the blood flowed red as your own!

Yes, exactly like you I was cruel, I

yearned for tenderness, for power,

for gold, for pleasure and pain.

Like you I was mean and anguished,

solid in peacetime, drunk in victory,

and staggering, haggard, in the hour of failure.

Yes, I was a man like other men,

nourished on bread, on dreams, on despair. Oh, yes,

I loved, I wept, I hated, I suffered,

I bought flowers and did not always

pay my rent. Sundays I went to the country

to cast for unreal fish under the eye of God,

I bathed in the river

that sang among the rushes and I ate fried potatoes

in the evening. And afterwards, I came back for bedtime

tired, my heart weary and full of loneliness,

full of pity for myself,

full of pity for man,

searching, searching vainly upon a woman's belly

for that impossible peace we lost

some time ago, in a great orchard where,

flowering, at the center,

is the tree of life.

Like you I read all the papers, all the bestsellers,

and I have understood nothing of the world

and I have understood nothing of man,

though it often happened that I affirmed

the contrary.

And when death, when death came, maybe

I pretended to know what it was, but now truly

I can tell you at this hour,

it has fully entered my astonished eyes,

astonished to understand so little-

have you understood more than I?

And yet, no!

I was not a man like you.

You were not born on the roads,

no one threw your little ones like blind kittens

into the sewer,

you did not wander from city to city

hunted by the police,

you did not know the disasters of daybreak,

the cattle cars

and the bitter sob of abasement,

accused of a wrong you did not do,

of a murder still without a cadaver,

changing your name and your face,

so as not to bear a jeered-at name,

a face that has served for all the world

as a spittoon.

A day will come, no doubt, when this poem

will find itself before your eyes. It asks

nothing! Forget it, forget it! It is nothing

but a scream, that cannot fit in a perfect

poem. Have I even time to finish it?

But when you trample on this bunch of nettles

that had been me, in another century,

in a history that you will have canceled,

remember only that I was innocent

and that, like all of you, mortals of this day,

I had, I too had a face marked

by rage, by pity and joy,

an ordinary human face!

[By the rivers of Babylon...]

By the rivers of Babylon we bent down and we wept

but our jailers said:

Sing for us, Israel!

Your eyelids are already heavy

Your expression already drowned, it rushes away

sing us a song

If you remember the country

where you had songs

for rocking children to sleep

for beguiling serpents

for women at the loom

for the laundresses at work

for the Sabbath candles

for the miracles of bread

for the blessing over the wine

for the works and the days

for the aches and the weeks...

We have songs for drunkards

and songs for our idols

for the sailor's goddess

for the priestess of Fate

soldier-songs if anyone has them

songs as beautiful as eggs are round

Then sing us your songs!

from "Meantime"


I reckoned you all

yesterday's civilians, bookkeepers, shop owners, farmers

and factory workers and beggars whose nest

is under the bridges of Notre-Dame

and vergers of the sacristy and sons of the Public

Assistance, all the French of France, with clear eyes,

and from the Congo, from the Algerian interior, from Annam

with palm trees hovering in your gaze

and the French of the islands of the Caribbean,

French according to the Rights of Man,

children of the barricade and the guillotine,

republicans, the incorruptible front, the free,

and the Czechs, and the Poles, the Slovaks,

and the Jews from all the ghettos of the world,

who love this land and her shades and her rivers,

who have sown this land with their deaths

and who have become citizens, in death.


We lay our swollen faces

--it was over-in the ditch

--it was over-and we slept

like dead men under rancid stars.

There wasn't anything to say

or do or eat or dream

--and the dawn was a dirty stream

that swept a shattered world away.

MICHAEL WEINGARD is a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Washington. He writes on numerous aspects of modern Jewish literature and culture. His article, "Jews (in Theory): Representations of Judaism, Anti-Semitism, & the Holocaust in Postmodern French Thought," appeared in Winter 1996.


(1.) All quotations translated by Michael Weingrad and, unless otherwise indicated, are from Benjamin Fondane's L'Exode: Super Flumina Babylonis (Millau: La Fenetre ardente, 1965), which was reprinted with modifications in Benjamin Fondane, LeMal des fantoines (Paris and Toulouse: Plasma, 1996).

(2.) An overview of Fondane's life, with fascinating letters and documents, can be found in Le voyageur n'a pas fini de voyager: Benjamin Fondane, edited by Patrice Beray and Michel Carassou (Paris: Patrice Thierry, 1996). Three English-language studies of Fondane should be mentioned here. First is John Kenneth Hyde's very good overview, Benjamin Fondane: A Presentation of His Life and Works (Geneva and Paris: Droz, 1971), which does not, however, offer English translations of the poetic material. William Kluback's Benjamin Fondane: A Poet in Exile (New York: Peter Lang, 1996) is both a more detailed and a more personal philosophical overview of Fondane, though I have reservations about Kluback's glorification of the exilic Jew. A third resource for the English language reader is a special issue of Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature devoted to Fondane, with articles by his major exegetes (Spring/Summer 1994). There is also a dedicated international Society of Fondane Studies, based in Israel, which publish es the Francophone journal, Cahiers Benjamin Fondane, and organizes conferences.

(3.) The poems are included in Le Mal des fantomes. For his philosophical and literary-critical works, see especially Rimbaud le voyou et l'experience poetique (Paris: Plasma, 1979); Baudelaire et l'experience du gouffre (Brussels: Editions Complexe, 1994); and La conscience malheureuse (Paris: Plasma, 1979).

(4.) Some of Fondane's writings on film can be found in Ecrits pour le cinema, edited by Michel Carassou (Paris: Plasma, 1984). The Autumn 1997 issue of Cahiers Benjamin Fondane contains materials relating to Fondane's Argentine sojourns and filmmaking.

(5.) Shestov's broadsides against positivism merit attention as precursors to postmodernism. What remains (perhaps necessarily) frustrating in his work, however, is the lack of a guide to constructive action, an apolitical passivity which appears increasingly inadequate before the mounting horrors of the 1930s. We see this in a conversation Shestov and Buber had in 1934. Buber, anxious and depressed over the rise of Nazism, lamented the senseless human capacity for self-destruction: "The earth is big enough, its products sufficiently abundant, but look ... what to do? Humanity, despairing, seeks the absurdest things. It's as if we now wanted to set about kslhng the serpent in the Bible." Buber was mystified when Shestov responded enthusiastically: "And that is exactly what is necessary. And so day and night, for years now, I fight nothing but the serpent. What is Hitler, next to the serpent of knowledge?" Fondane, Rencontres avec Leon Chestov, edited by Nathalie Baranoff and Michel Carassou (Paris: Plasma, 19 82), pp. 63-64, my translation. (Rencontres avec Leon Chestov is Fondane's record of Shestov's conversations in the 1920s and 1930s, a manuscript he gave to Ocampo for safekeeping.)

(6.) Benjamin Fondane, Faux traite d'esthetique: essaisur la crise de relite (Paris: Denoel, 1938), p.23, my translation.

(7.) Indeed, the most instructive example of this interwar French critique of Enlightenment is that of another former student of Shestov, the philosopher-novelist Georges Bataille. For an account of Shestov's relations with Bataille, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem, see my forthcoming essay, "Encounters With Shestov," in the Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy.

(8.) On the "scream" in Fondane's poetry see Monique Jutrin, "Benjamin Fondane ou le periple d'Ulysse" and Gilla Eisenberg, "Le cri, le chant et Ia priere dans l'Exode de Benjamin Fondane," both articles in Les nouveaux cahiers 80 (Spring 1985): 10-18 and 19-23.

(9.) Andre Neher has written on Fondane's Jewishness in his book on modem (and modernist) examples of tshvvah, They Made Their Souls Anew, translated by David Maisel (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990). Neher deals with Fondane, Arnold Schoenberg, and Franz Rosenzweig, among others.

(10.) Just before commencing Exodus, Fondane had written a play which takes place in the royal court of Babylon. It opens with an exchange between a jewish worker and the emperor, Balthazar, concerning the place of thejews in his kingdom, which manifests the ambivalences of European assimilation:

Jew: What's really good isn't to leave, but to be able to leave.

Balthazar: Strange distinction! You have forgotten your Zion!

Jew: Who told you that? "If ever I forget thee 0 Zion, let my tongue..."

Balthazar: Yes, yes, we know the text! Answer!

Jew: Okay, then, I'll answer! Sure, I love Jerusalem, but that's a completely different story..."

We've been living here so long... It's a bad arrangement, sure, but all the same it's an arrangement.

(Lefestia de Balthazar: autosacramental, edited by Eric A. Freedman, Arcane 17, 1985, p. 7, my translation.)

In Exodus the time for such irony has passed.
COPYRIGHT 1999 American Jewish Congress
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Sep 22, 1999
Previous Article:The Americanization of Mussar: Abraham Twerski's Twelve Steps.
Next Article:Among Others.

Related Articles
Exodus Accelerates Content Distribution for Global Companies; Customers from Major Industry Sectors Rely on Exodus Network Acceleration Services...
Exodus and Mirror Image Internet Accelerate Content Delivery into Japan Market.
Beatie and Osborn LLP Announces Class Action Lawsuit Against Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc. and Henry Blodget on Behalf of Investors of Exodus...
If the Egyptians Drowned in the Red Sea Where are Pharaoh's Chariots? Exploring the Historical Dimension of the Bible.
From Exodus to Freedom.
A Faithful Heart.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters