Benjamin Fondane, Existential Monday: Philosophical Essays. Translated by Bruce Baugh. New York: New York Review Books, 2016.
Watching the rise of Nazism and the fires of the Spanish Civil War, Benjamin Fondane, a Romanian Jewish philosopher living in Paris, wrote in 1936 that “it is no mystery to anyone that our world – ideas, structures, economies, values – is at this moment waiting in line in front of the bankruptcy trustee’s office, and that man has never been under such insistent demands as he is today to find a way out within History and to link his fate to the passionate modification of the world as it now exists.” Fondane moved to Paris in 1923 and spent most of the next ten years in the company of avant-garde Romanian artists and French surrealists. But the most profound influence on his life was Lev Shestov, a Russian existentialist philosopher who rejected Hegel’s dictum that “the real is rational”, and urged his readers to embrace the Absurd as the only way of confronting a world bent on crushing the poor and the weak. In the four essays translated here by Bruce Baugh, Fondane applied Shestov’s philosophy to a world gone mad. In the last of them, written in February 1944, just seven months before he perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Fondane looked hopefully toward an “existential Monday” that will arise after the hegemony of History – that monotonous force that rolls mercilessly over individuals as it rumbles steadily onward – has been defeated. Freedom, said Fondane, is to refuse to accept that History has the last word over one’s life. Freedom, he wrote, is “the refusal of everything that tends to enclose him forever in his own imminence and offers him only false existence, false transcendence – of the self over the self, of his knowledge over his existence, of universal reason over his knowledge, of a God parallel to his imminence who in turn cannot go out of himself. Etc.”
Fondane reflected more and more deeply on Baudelaire’s poetry as the Vichy regime and wartime hardships took away his work, his civil liberties, and even his food. Only his friends remained, along with his defiant personality that refused to wear a yellow star whatever the risks. According to an unfinished manuscript that was posthumously published in 1947, what Fondane learned from Baudelaire was that his world was being destroyed by boredom. Fondane defined a bored world as one which “collapses for lack of interest, although it continues to exist; an invisible Maya deprives us of real things one by one and transforms them into appearances while leaving them intact”. Not quite anticipating the Situationists, Fondane’s quarrel was not with spectacles and simulacra but with allowing rationality to dictate all of one’s actions. A society that is completely rational is a boring one. It is one that allows drones to bomb far away schools, that tortures children in detention centres because their parents had the tenacity to try to seek safety in a country that was not their own, or that pollutes the land of minorities to spare the drinking water of the middle classes in the name of rational governance and the greatest good for the greatest number. A rational society is one that outsources suffering to keep stability and prosperity close at hand. The consequences of such boredom can be horrendous. “It is boredom that is the source of sudden changes, of wars without reasons, of deadly revolutions”, Fondane wrote. “A need arises, the need to feel oneself existing, to break the monotony of being, of the purely thinkable. Murder, vengeance, the joy of destroying for the sake of destroying are given free rein in a people who a short time ago seemed peaceful and wise, the supreme flower of a fully realized civilization”.
Albert Campus told us in The Myth of Sisyphus that in the face of such absurd cruelty “we must imagine Sisyphus happy”. Such resignation to reality, for Fondane, was the antithesis of existentialism: “That Sisyphus imagine himself happy is all that Platonic, Stoic, or Hegelian thought could ask for; that he consent to “imagine himself” happy is all that nous, Spirit, or universal reason – or whatever – asks of him”. Fondane thought that Sisyphus should have resisted rather than accepting his fate as inevitable. “The more natural tendency of the mind is to seek a tool or a support,” he wrote, “a means of fighting against the scourge”. For Hegel philosophy was about understanding the world, for Marx it was about changing it, but always in accordance with what is reasonably possible. When reality became intolerable and there seemed no alternative, Fondane turned to Kierkegaard and Shestov, who taught him to grasp the impossible through faith, and to hold onto it no matter what the cost.
The fate of the existentialist, of one who embraces the Absurd in the face of a cruel and heartless reality, is a tragic one. Existentialism, Fondane concluded, required profound humility. “Not the kind that consists of training the will and self-mastery”, he said, “but the kind that consists in recognizing that one has no power, that one does not amount to much, that one amounts to so little that one can, without shame, be afraid, and tremble, and cry out, and call for help. There is more true humility in praying to God for one’s own flesh, in asking him, for example, for deliverance from a terrible toothache (as Saint Augustine did, Confessions, IX.4) than to ask him to reveal his intelligible essence or confuse his will with ours in the delights of [mystical] union.” Reason tells us that such abject humiliation achieves nothing, but for Fondane being brought to one’s knees meant coming before a God for whom nothing is impossible. After watching Germany invade what was left of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, he concluded that “if this [existentialist] metaphysics has come into being, it is because Physics, having completed its task, could no longer answer our anxious questions. Whoever needs these answers, no matter what the cost (and not bowing before the inevitable), will continue to demand them, even if they will have to be given to him in a form that repels his human reason. But when man has failed everywhere, it is no longer up to him to set the conditions”.