Relecture du Faux Traité d'esthétique N° 10

Disjointedness at work

Ann Van Sevenant

One of the underlying elements of Fondane's literary theory and aesthetics can be resumed as follows: poetry and critical thinking are irreconcilable. Fondane refers to the fact that once a poet has worked out an abstract and theoretical program, poetry is transformed into the servant and confirmation of the conceptual theory, which means the end of his intuitive and direct contact with lived reality. Didn't the fact that Baudelaire started to write theoretical essays influence his poetical experiences for the worse? Hadn't Rimbaud simply stopped writing poetry because he couldn't keep up with the theory of the voyant? Didn't so many romantic poets commit suicide because they couldn't cope with the theory of the genius?

Initially, Fondane himself worried about not being able to reconcile activities, poetry and theory. But as he started studying philosophy, he discovered to his great astonishment, that he found numerous elements which helped him even better to defend poetry against its most dangerous enemy, namely the hegemony of the rational and conceptual mind. Within the domain of philosophy itself he re-encountered the same antagonistic forces ruling poetical practice and theory: on the one hand, Cartesian and Hegelian thought which represents rationalistic and idealistic generalization; on the other hand, the existentialist defence of the particular, individual and lived experience against philosophical conceptualization. [1] Fondane considered himself as a philosopher of the second category, which meant that he found a way to make poetry and philosophy coexist.[2]

          It is one of the reasons why his thinking, rather than being designated as a kind of existentialism, can more accurately be described in terms of coexistentialism. Indeed, the expression existentialism implies a universalized concept of existence, while Fondane focusses on the individual, irreducible experiences that are so characteristic of the life of each human being, on the coexistence of so many experiences inside one single person, in other words, on the coexistence of different kinds of beings inside each individual. Coexistentialist thinking, unlike existentialist thinking, implies that existence cannot be understood as a compact unity and stresses the fact that the fabric of existence is made of a multitude of irreducible components.

          In focussing attention on coexistence and conflict instead of on conciliation of irreconcilable faculties,[3] Fondane found himself at the crossroads of an age-old discussion that he succeeded in redirecting to what he held dear: artistic and poetical experience. Fondane's aesthetics is first of all characterized by the idea that art is consubstantial with life. All artistic creation is to be considered as an essential activity to man, even if it remains true that man is partially excluded from it; when it comes to art, nothing can change the fact that the artist is the creator but also a stranger in relation to what he produces. In that way, Fondane stressed the heteronomous character of art and poetry with regard to rational discourse. Aesthetic experience realizes a kind of communication that is inaccessible to the logic of reason. It is one of the most repeated ideas that Fondane firmly held onto: the fact that reason is limited, that the valuable things of life are unattainable by rational thinking. His criticism of reason, however, has been interpreted as a paradox that lies at the very heart of his struggle against conceptual and rational thinking: he has been accused, from a logical point of view, of inconsistency or inconsequence: is it possible, indeed, to accuse the other of transforming everything into a conceptual playground which leaves no room for other experiences, while using concepts oneself, concepts that are indispensable to formulate the accusation to start with? That was exactly the criticism uttered by Benedetto Croce, who wondered "if it was really necessary, in the attack of unreasonable rationality, to offend reason, the same reason which makes of us reasonable beings?"; similarly, Raymond Aron stated that he would have had nothing against the protest of Fondane, if "it had been lived and realized in silence".[4]

But from another point of view, it is precisely that paradox, that conflict, inherent in lived experiences, that Fondane tried to listen to and give shape to, artistically and philosophically. According to him, it seemed unjustifiable to gloss over the paradoxes of life by means of simple rationalization. The ambiguous situation man happens to find himself in at times does not necessarily lead to a lively and hypocritical conciliation or a submissive state of despair, but constitutes the fundamental human condition from which a creative energy can arise. That is the Nietzschean and Kierkegaardian aspect of Fondane's work. The insolvable contradictions of life cannot be overcome unless one believes that one can choose not to be "the battlefield of absurd phantoms".[5] According to Fondane, we have "to accept wilfully the double affirmation that a thing is white and black at the same time", which is of course an absurdity, but it is "the form itself in which being presents itself to man".[6] Fondane would have agreed with Merleau-Ponty that the philosopher disposes of an "unalienable sense of ambiguity", while for the greatest among them "it becomes a theme, it helps to found certitudes, instead of threatening them".[7] It may be one of the reasons why daring constituted the main issue of his aesthetics: he urged the poet to dare, to dare to believe in poetry, in his own, so-called primitive, chaotic or naïve activity, without letting it being overwhelmed by what Heidegger would have called calculating thought.[8]

          The acceptance of the limitations of reason, that undeniably goes hand in hand with the conception of a fundamentally powerless reason, didn't necessarily, as a result, lead to a state of submission and despair. One could indeed argue that the determination to make reason and paradox, intelligence and absurdity coexist, implies after all that one refuses the advantages, the conciliatory solutions that reason may offer for the benefit of a confrontation with a rather obscure reality in which arbitrariness rules. Apart from the fact that these allegations already attest to a dominantly rational point of view, Fondane seems to have been especially interested in the particular moments when reason fails and reveals its incapacity to deal with reality, when something other than reason takes over. One can refer to man's confrontation with accidents, with illness or injustice, better even, to intuitive knowledge and to artistic creation, an activity that requires much more than just rational thinking. If Fondane dreamt of a society in which everybody writes, it was not because he saw in every man an artist, but because of the possibility writing offers to experience the extra-rational power living in the state of creative activity.[9]

          This important realization can be explained as follows. Fondane enjoyed reading the Bible as a philosophical essay and was attracted to the metaphorical use of certain expressions, of which the two most interesting are: "The spirit blows wherever it wants to" and "The law is made for man and not man for the law". The first saying emphasizes that the wind blows freely, that we can hear its sound, but neither know where it comes from nor where it goes to. It is an image for the general condition of man: he doesn't know his destiny, he is governed by forces greater than himself (death, uncertainty of all kinds). The second saying denies that things happen to us in a most arbitrary way, that man goes down on his knees before fate, that he has no say in what happens to him. Sometimes he has the power to intervene - Fondane refers like Shestov to Job in the Old Testament - and that power comes from the belief in what seems impossible to rational reason.

          Both expressions are joined in Fondane's reading of Byron's verse: "To feel me in the solitude of kings/ Without the power that makes them bear a crown". Fondane paraphrases the verse as follows: "Il est impossible de supporter la solitude des rois tant que le pouvoir nous fait défaut, d'en pouvoir porter la couronne!", thus playing with the double meaning of "bearing" (supporter/porter) the crown.[10] He comments that "it is impossible to bear [to tolerate, to endure] the solitude of kings as long as the power fails us, the power to bear [to wear, to carry] the crown". This polysemic notion of bearing reflects indeed the manyfolded aspects of human existence.[11] Fondane's line should not as much be read as an empirical statement, but as an attempt to affirm the coexistence of both states: the solitude, which should not be considered as a totally helpless situation, and the strength to bear the solitude without changing it into something else, without running away from it, by considering it as a an equal component of existence. Poetry for Fondane had the "function" of assuring him of the power to bear the crown. This does not mean that poetry granted him that power, but that it is the place where these experiences can be lived; he strove for a kind of poetry in which man "is totally wanted, with both his extremes and not only the 'middle' ".[12] That again is a Nietzschean element in Fondane's philosophy: to conceive of man WITH the power to bear the crown and to remain king even in the most abyssal solitude. The fundamental difference between both, however, is that Nietzsche, according to Fondane, conceived of art as a necessary lie, necessary to endure existence, whereas he considered art as equally necessary, but not as a remedy against life. The last thing he wanted to do is to reduce art and poetry to a kind of cure against reality, to a lie or a fantasy, turning them inevitably into something less real than reality, into a product of the imagination, which is often considered as a second-hand reality. Professing the limitations of reason should least of all lead to a legitimized instrumentalization of art.

          Contrary to the current avant-garde ideas Fondane thus didn't underscore the autonomy of the aesthetic experience in order to grant it the ability to transgress the extra-aesthetic discourse, or even to discredit the domination of discursive reason. If art represents a danger to reason, this knowledge shouldn’t be transformed into a utilitarian principle. Fondane was opposed to the idea of exploiting the critical potential of art. Art should least of all serve the ideal of proving the limitations of reason even if it is capable of producing that effect. He advised not to implicate art in such an enterprise and run the risk of nourishing exactly - even if it were in a negative way - the claims of the extra-aesthetic discourse. Only by remaining loyal to artistic creation can one confirm the importance of the aesthetic experience and at the same time confer it the role of an example: to show to reason that it isn't omnipotent and self-sufficient, in other words, to demonstrate indirectly the importance and the existence of an extra-rational intelligence. Fondane felt supported in this view by the studies of Lévy-Bruhl on primitive thought.[13] He was delighted to hear that the so-called primitives can affirm two opposite ideas, x and not-x, at the same time. For them a contradictory proposition isn't immediately ruled out, but explored in different possible lights; in short, they don't have to force everything into either/or opinions to be able to deal with life. It is a way of thinking that has much in common with that of children; for example, a girl of five knows her shoe is not a doll but will gently put it to sleep. That kind of thinking is worthwhile because it implies a way of getting in touch with a reality that has not been absorbed by rationality. Poetry offers the chance of experiencing these other dimensions of reality that aren't even taken into account by conceptual thought.

          Aesthetics has, in the end, little to do with beauty or even with beautiful objects, but rather with the experience that accompanies creative activity. This explains why Fondane showed little interest in the production of a so-called not yet existing reality. It is without any doubt the reason why one doesn't find a sign of what has become so typical in the post-war aesthetics of reception: he didn't particularly stress what Maurice Blanchot called l'espace littéraire or the theory which Heidegger treated so accurately in the Origin of the Art Work, that the author or painter disappears behind the work and the work itself ever again becomes origin. Rather than an aesthetic object, art is first and foremost an activity, an act; it is neither a contemplation nor a representation of reality or an imagined reality, but reality itself, an affirmation of reality in all of its aspects.[14]

          This means that Fondane conceived of the artist or the poet as being in the first place, as he put it, a "battlefield", the place where disjointed forces are at work. The notion "disjoint" usually has negative connotations, because of the prefix "dis" which opposes it to "joint". What is disjointed, however, is not completely antipodal to what is jointed; it is not as disjointed from what is jointed as one would assume. In identifying something as "disjointed", one always already reads the "jointed" into it; one can only speak in terms of the "disjointed" when one knows what "jointed" stands for. Paradoxically, the word expresses the separation through the connection. It expresses the obscure state of jointed disjointedness or disjointed jointedness that Fondane opposed to false conciliations: "The conflict, the tension, there you have something more true than the false unity, the false peace of knowing!".[15] Disjointedness forms one of the unspoken experiences so characteristic of this violently interrupted poetical-philosophical work. Fondane's writing, in its different manifestations, can be read as one continuous sign of disjointedness at work, as if it were the only possibility of getting in touch with reality.

          The creative activity that stems from this particular condition, however, is not to be interpreted in a romantic way: the art work is not the place where antagonistic values are joined together, the happy expression of disruption or the sublime experience of tragedy; according to this conception, each manifestation of disjointedness is being considered as an absence, as a lack or loss, and is to be absorbed into the unity of the artwork, thus becoming the represented aesthetic object. To Fondane, disjointedness is not a theme, not even a philosophical concept. But it is without any doubt what finally brought him to a remarkable attitude, coming to us in the shape of a statement that is to be rephrased each time again: "It is only at those exceptional moments that don't always depend on us, that it depends on us however ...".[16] Fondane never stopped emphasizing the "relation between our powerlessness and something that can". It appears to be the key to what Fondane considered as the only possible attitude - rather than knowledge or information, philosophy is an attitude and a creative activity - in the confrontation with a certain appel, a certain call, which is always there and calls upon us to write, which pushes us forward and makes us believe, as he would have said in the words of Kafka, that we "are reserved for a great monday", even if Kafka added: "Well said, but the sunday will never come to an end".

          The coexistence of different voices inside one person, of more than one passion and many discontinuous "truths" inside one man, was the particular experience Fondane was so familiar with. Poetry, the arts and philosophy arise indeed from a difference. One could consequently be inclined to believe that Fondane is to be designated as a thinker of difference "avant la lettre". When placing his ideas, which are mostly existentialist, against the evolution of poetics and philosophical thought since the sixties, one has the impression, on the one hand, that they belong to a long-lost tradition. For example, the poet and the philosopher are supposed to have a mission; Fondane explicitly reveals his mission, tries to formulate as well as he can his message. To this end, he practises a rather conventional form of argumentative thinking and is very eager to convey his personal viewpoint; even his poetry is quite conventional, that is to say, mostly expressionist, especially when it is compared with his theatrical plays and cinematographic work that are more indebted to the Dadaist movement.

On the other hand, all of his philosophical essays are written with the intention of inserting more modesty into philosophy, of deconstructing the self-sufficiency of metaphysics and of injecting it with some postmodern subject and some poststructuralist discretion. In this respect, Fondane's work can be read as a criticism of pretentious western ideological and rational thinking, an express revaluation of what is being oppressed by reason, eminently comparable to the postindustrialist findings of Marcuse, or the ones of Adorno, although Fondane didn't stress the negativist aesthetic experience, the fact that the idea of harmony can only be expressed in a negative way. While it is the same idea of false harmony that is being rejected, contrary to Adorno, Fondane held that the paradox of modern art is not expressed in the fact that it embodies a negative utopia.

          Fondane would for that matter have applauded the different deconstructive movements since the seventies or eighties, for having confronted philosophy with what it usually denigrates as nonphilosophical, for having given so much credit to what is hidden behind the written text, for having emphasized the importance of poetic thinking, and no less for having freed philosophical thought from the hermetic, metaphysical box in which it had locked itself up for ages, for having succeeded in what Heidegger announced but failed to accomplish according to Fondane: for having disturbed the idealistic and rationalistic tradition silently from the inside. Fondane refused to recognize existentialism as the embodiment of a new thought, because it limited itself to the description of existence and its paradoxes, its obscurities, its ambiguities, in order to put forward anticipated solutions. He understood that the only way to weaken dominating ontotheological reason consisted not in presenting metaphysics as the origin of all problems, but rather in posing the problems differently.

          Fondane focussed on the proportion of reason's domination in one’s argument, more precisely on whether reason has the last word or whether a thinker shows an openness to what remains secret to him. Less important was whether an author was interpreting correctly or wrongly since that would only have been a synonym for giving the last word to moralistic reason. Fondane, without any doubt, would have asked his readers to read his texts in a similar way, not only according to the letter, but also according to the spirit, and even according to the spirit of the spirit. When he observed that "no character is authentic", he referred to everyone's duty to pick up whatever is already there and to continue the many discontinuous meanings that haunt not only texts, but also each individual experience.

Fondane's aesthetics is one of finitude and failure; it makes us sensitive to artistic creation as being an irremediable shortcoming. Once again, this doesn't mean that Fondane resigns himself to fate, that he turns to a nihilistic vision of man, without illusions or hope - which would only be another version of a certainty - but more correctly that he underlines the fact that man finds himself each time again before new challenges. The power of the singular always takes priority over knowledge of the general. And if the relation between power and powerlessness is discontinuous of nature, both are joined, in a disjointed way, in creative activity. Fondane's philosophy begins with disjointedness, which has nothing to do with negation or denial, but is to be related with the idea that thinking is equal to starting anew, leaving behind the illusion that one has found a philosophy without error for all times to come. Since Fondane places man in a position of having a certain control over things and the way they happen, but at the same time stresses that this control is never an isolated fact, that it is always included in a greater perspective, he is undoubtedly a precursor of twentieth century philosophy of difference.


L’esthétique de Benjamin Fondane est marquée par ce que l’on peut désigner par l’irrémédiable ou l’irréconciliable. Fondane part de certaines expériences vécues, ‘propres’ à notre existence, lorsque nous sommes confrontés à des situations sans aucun recours, à des questions sans réponse. Ces expériences forment le tissu de la vie de tous les jours, et il importe, selon lui, d’y prêter attention, de ne pas les transformer en solutions trompeuses. L’art et la poésie ne sont pas des remèdes au mal de vivre, mais ils en sont les porte-parole. Ils révèlent les secrets indicibles dont l’homme lui-même est exclu, mais dont il témoigne néanmoins. L’art n’est pas porteur d’un sens caché, mais il donne sens, lorsqu’il dévoile la séparation avec ‘ce’ qui donne sens, dans les tentatives de la surmonter. Le disjoint qui est à l’œuvre dans les différentes expressions artistiques et philosophiques reflète ainsi l’incontournable condition de la création, qui se révèle être moins esthétique que profondément existentielle. 

[1] See one of his definitions of philosophy: "La philosophie n'est pas quelque chose comme un vérificateur des poids et des mesures - ou comme elle le dit: des évidences - mais l'acte même par lequel l'existant pose sa propre existence", La Conscience malheureuse, Paris, Plasma, 1979, p. X.

[2] In a recent article, I have referred to the "compatibility of languages" in Fondane’s work, which is perhaps a more adequat description of the here commented: "coexistence" of different means of expression, of the different voices inside a person. See "Sculpter le paradoxe existentiel" in The Tragic Discourse. Shestov and Fondane’s Existential Thought, Ramona Fotiade (ed.), Bern, Peter Lang, 2006, pp. 193-203.

[3] According to Fondane, there is no compromise, no in-between with regard to the conciliation of the irreconcilable, "the old dream of the philosophers". Fondane refers to all attempts of reconciling "existence and thinking", or "reason and faith": "Qu'il s'agisse des efforts de Philon le Juif, des pères de l'Eglise, de la philosophie médiévale ou de ceux de Hegel, chaque fois que l'on tenta de concilier la raison avec la foi, l'existence avec la pensée, etc., chaque fois cette conciliation se trouva avoir dissimulé une pensée qui craint d'aller jusqu'au bout, qui a peur, et qui cherche la paix à tout prix", p. 171. In that way, he repeats after Léon Shestov: Athens and Jerusalem, with the accent on "and".

[4] Benedetto Croce, review of Faux Traité d'esthétique in La Critica, XXXVII, 1939 (all translations are mine). Raymond Aron, review of La Conscience malheureuse in Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung, VI, 1937. See also, with regard to Fondane's aesthetics, my introduction to Faux Traité d'esthétique, Paris, Paris-Méditerranée, 1998, pp. 7-22, and my contribution to the special issue of Europe, nr. 827, "Cette intelligence secrètement blessée".Critique de la raison esthétique", Paris, 1998, pp. 90-100.

[5] This last expression is one of the definitions of "l'homme tragique": "Il ne ment pas, il ne sacrifie pas la logique à la foi, ni la déraison à la raison", Rimbaud le voyou, p. 142.

[6] Rimbaud le voyou, p. 142.My emphasis: the expression "à la fois" is the linguistic element that actualizes the affirmation of a contradictory statement.

[7] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eloge de la philosophie, Paris, Gallimard, 1953, p. 14.

[8] That is the conclusion of Faux Traité d'esthétique: "Mais avant tout, que le poète ose! Qu'il descende des catégories de la pensée, dans les catégories de sa propre vie", p. 103. Daring is also one of the main topics of my "Esthétique du discontinu" in Rencontres autour de Benjamin Fondane, poète et philosophe, Paris, Parole et Silence, 2002, pp. 19-28.

[9] Writing was a natural activity to Fondane. He was amazed that journalists asked him why he wrote, and answered that the question should rather be why people don't write. In the end, it was not the production of poems that Fondane pursued; it was not the reign of the poets he dreamt of, but the affirmation of a reality, of a "poetic truth": that we are part of a reality that cannot be dominated by any man-invented mechanism. Faux Traité d'esthétique, p. 104.

[10] Baudelaire et l'expérience du gouffre, p. 369.

[11] The expression bearing is a key notion in my Ecrire à la lumière, Paris, Galilée, 1999, p. 122 and in Philosophie de la solicitude, Paris, Vrin, 2001, p. 183.

[12] Baudelaire et l'expérience du gouffre, p. 29.

[13] He dedicated several articles to "primitive" thinking, e.g. "Lévy-Bruhl et la métaphysique de la connaissance" in Revue philosophique de la France et de l'Etranger, CXXIX, 1940, pp. 289-316 and CXXX, 1940, pp. 29-54.

[14] Faux Traité d'esthetique, pp. 18 and 94.

[15] Faux Traité d'esthétique, p. 104.

[16] Le Lundi existentiel et le Dimanche de l'histoire, Monaco, du Rocher, 1990, p. 65: « Ce n'est qu'à ces moments exceptionnels qui ne dépendent pas toujours de nous, qu'il dépend de nous cependant ... ».