Ripened Eyelids: the Cinepoems of Benjamin Fondane

Benjamin Fondane

Each issue we’ll focus the lens on a poet of the past whose work, though perhaps overlooked in its and our time, paves the way for the spirit we wish to capture in All These New Relations. Here, academic and translator Andrew Rubens introduces the innovative work of the early modernist poet Benjamin Fondane.

‘With a miraculous suppleness the letters come apart to form words half-intelligible half-absurd’
Horizontal Bar (Cinepoem no. 2), Benjamin Fondane, translated by Leonard Schwartz

Romanian-French Modernist Benjamin Fondane’s turn to cinema was precipitated by a crisis of language. (Dis)affected by the turbulent culture of the early 20th Century, his faith in the redeeming power of poetry was shattered by the catastrophe of the First World War. Like the Dadaists and Surrealists he associated with, from the ruins of art for art’s sake he began to explore different media, including photography, theatre, word games and philosophical essays. Language could no longer be taken for granted, but he began to reconfigure its broken pieces into new kinds of poetry. His jobbing work as a screenwriter and his encounters with the filmic experiments of acquaintances like Germaine Dulac and Luis Buñuel perhaps made his engagement with cinema inevitable. But it was also the respite from language offered by silent cinema, ‘totally free from rational discourse and the norms and limits which it engenders (Michel Carrassou) which attracted him.

An interest in media is an interest in translation, in the capacity for events, subjective states and concepts to be approached through different modes. As with many ‘avant-garde’ poets and artists, Fondane’s mistrust of the capacity for one set of forms to fully reach what they seek to express led to a breakdown of the boundaries. Finding freedom in the averbal outlet of film, he produced a paradoxical response, engaging with it through writing. His Three Scripts: Cinepoems, published in 1928, comprises three ‘unfilmable’ screenplays, presenting around 180 scenes apiece, each running into the other in a sequence impossible to realise – except ,that is, as the silent film they project on the ‘screen’ of the reader’s imagination.

The book included illustrations by his friends Man Ray and Alexandru Brătășanu, emphasising both the overlapping of expressive genres and the interrogation of their capacities. This critical scrutiny in the midst of artistic practice also informed the draw of film for Fondane the poet: he declared cinema to be ‘the only art that was never classical’, shackled neither by tradition nor doctrine. He wrote several essays on the form, and in 1929, at the behest of Victoria Ocampo, travelled to Argentina to introduce South America to Dadaist and Surrealist film with a series of screenings and lectures.

To his annoyance, his experimentations with the poetic energies of cinema began just at the time talking pictures were making their grand entrance. Synchronous sound, in Fondane’s ears, reduced film to a conservative, conventional medium. Silent films demanded an active, imaginative engagement from the audience. Talkies generated passivity and received ideas. This rejection paralleled Fondane’s disillusionment with his former notions of poetry as clear and pure, distilling essences and revealing truths, a perspective he came to find facile and hollow. In his encounter with Dada, he came to acknowledge the opacity and indeterminacy of words, both the limits of language as communication and its endless possibilities for play. As he wrote the highly original works which came after his cinepoems, his understanding of the reader’s engagement with the poem was informed by the relationship between the cinema audience and the silent screen.

Of course, even ‘silent’ films are usually accompanied by a soundtrack. Music is communication of yet another kind, more or less free of rationalising signifiers. Given his comprehension of the absurdity and abstraction present even in the most ‘concrete’ uses of language, it is perhaps unsurprising that, frustrated by the dawn of the sound film, Fondane sought to harness the power of music when he came to actually direct his own feature. Tararira, produced by Falma Film and shot in Argentina, centred on the burlesque adventures of a group of lutists, played by the celebrated Aguilar quartet. Their adventures were entertwined with the music they arranged for the film, mixing Mozart, contemporary composers like Ravel and the Yiddish folk music of immigrants to the Americas. The film is now lost, and we can only hope that Fondane went some way to achieving his goal. ‘If I was free’, he wrote in 1933, ‘truly free, I would make an absurd film, on an absurd subject, to satisfy my absurd taste for freedom’. Perhaps there is a contradictory freedom to be found in the impossible quest for absolute freedom itself. Fondane’s exploration of the poetry which exists between different creative modes, and at the places they overlap, offers ways to pursue connection and expression. This neverending pursuit is at the centre of all artistic practice, and Fondane’s methods remain inspiring today.

from ‘Ripened Eyelids’

1        along a poorly lit wall runs the shadow of a hand and parallel to it runs a white hand with a pointing finger
2        another shadow on the same wall the pointing finger turns the other way
3        the head of a streetlamp with two candles and two flames whose human gaze
4        lunges desperately into the night: illuminating dim forms with a reflector moving right and left. signs windows hesitating over
5        a long stretch of sidewalk on which
6        a hat rolls
7        the arc of a punch
8        a dangling hand gloved in white
9        another punch
10        a pair of trousers with an impeccable crease sags
11        overalls standing in a boxer’s stance
12        a bloody nose
13        a cap on a silk scarf seen from behind
14        a black eye
15        a flaccid hand tries to catch the end of the scarf grasps nothing but air
16        a sledgehammer falls
17        a hand digging through a pocket on the ground
18        the streetlight, leaning so far that it almost falls, considers
19        the blood-drenched hat demolished by violent kicks
20        an explosion of mangnesium
21        a store window with a pale mannequin
22        wildly applauds

Andrew Rubens is an academic and translator from Edinburgh, Scotland. He is a founding member of the Association Benjamin Fondane and one of the contributing translators to Cinepoems and Others, NYRB Poets, 2016.

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