Words like Windows and Nettles
Essays Culture Poetry

Words like Windows and Nettles

Aaron Cummings

Postmodern Poetry and the Crisis of Reality

In 1929, the Romanian-French poet and essayist Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944) had recently lost his young brother-in-law Armand, with whom he was very close, to tuberculosis. Shipbound to Argentina to present the latest in experimental French cinema (including Un Chien Andalou), a heartbroken Fondane began his long poem Ulysses, lines of which resonate with our pandemic time:

At the hospital, the whiteness of dread, and yellow.
So many boats here, driven by some typhoon
Their tender scrap iron battered,
Have sunk to the bottom.
Visitors sometimes come in diving suits,
They hold in their hearts the cord that ties them
To the world outside: they think of that world
The whole time they are here, bent over a bed
And the dying think of it too and bubbles rise
To the surface. But what are the living up to,
What are they waiting for to start the pulleys?
Is it so captivating, the film, the film
that death projects on the screen of life?[1]
(Translated by Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody’s.)

In words that call to mind antiviral PPE, Fondane depicts hospital visitors as deep-sea divers. Secure in their diving suits (perhaps mistakenly) the healthy explore the alien world of the dying, the aura of dread given visible resonance by the hospital’s sickly white-and-yellow lighting. “But what are the living up to?” Fondane’s question still pushes us toward the liminal spaces—hospitals and so on—where death is projected “on the screen of life.”

Fondane understood the power of the screen; author of several quasi-surrealist experimental screenplays (Cinepoems), he also wrote the screenplay for the 1934 film Rapt and later returned to Argentina to direct his own film, Tararira (1936), judged too shocking to distribute to theaters and lost to history. In the decades since Fondane’s poem, the screen has gone from metaphor for life to the medium in which life is lived. A white-collar worker looks through the windows of a laptop and a smartphone, while at the same time families are unable to see their dying grandparents in person, and teenagers experience their friends as figments of their screens. The old traditions surrounding grief and friendship demand hermeneutic disentanglement, recategorization, in this brave new world. So we look to our culture’s assigned meaning-distilleries: ethics, art, even religion, but these too seem slow to adapt to our world of windows.

Yet in its essence, our technological pseudo-reality is almost a century old; the “aura” of personal presence was already fading when Walter Benjamin put the feeling into words with “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproduction” (1935). The problem of the aura is not limited to art; a certain immediacy has evaporated from the cultural phenomena to which we turn for meaning, including ethics and religion. The same year as Benjamin’s famous essay, the Belgian writer Gaston Derycke depicted art, religion, and ethics as so many “false windows painted on the naked wall of the real.”[2] If Derycke is correct that art, ethics, and religion are, conceptually speaking, false windows, then—materially speaking—our twenty-first century now views these false windows through a second layer of digital windows.

In our century, poetry remains implicated in the crisis of reality both represented and brought about by the screen. Perhaps uniquely among all the arts, poetry has melded into the new media landscape so effectively that in 2015 the New Yorker could speculate on whether poetry has already entered a “post-internet” phase—not that poetry has abandoned the internet, but that poets have already taken for granted the movement from paper to pixel. Yet poets also participate in our culture’s general sense that screen-life builds a pseudo-reality. Thinking along with Derycke and Fondane, screens, I want to ask: can poetry break through our screens and false windows to recapture some hint of reality?

Gaston Derycke’s article, which took for its epigraph Nietzsche’s aphorism “we have art to cure us of truth,” was written as fuel for the literary firestorm that followed Roger Caillois’s Art on Trial by Intellect (Procès intellectuel de l’art), published after Caillois’s break with André Breton’s surrealists.[3] Reviewing Caillois’s pamphlet, Derycke left open the question of whether art, “which has been pleading ‘not-guilty’ for centuries, would be able to resist the arguments of its intellectual accusers.”[4] Derycke grasped that the underlying question transcended Breton’s and Caillois’s idiosyncratic theories of poetry. Art (as aesthetics), religion (as basic commitments) and ethics (as first principles) depend on certain claims about reality; Derycke wonders whether any of these, grouped under the heading “metaphysics,” amount to anything more than a “game for dupes.”[5]

For Derycke, humans still sketch cartoons of art, religion, and ethics on life’s wall because “the prisoner is no longer certain of being released, [and] so dreams of unknown spaces, of promised lands. Humanity, prisoner of what simply is, feeds on the impossible (we say: the possible). We invent opium, eroticism, which we baptize: love. We invent art.” For his part, Benjamin Fondane grasps the implications of Caillois’s and Derycke’s conversation: as art, poetry embodies the human need to invest our deepest lived experiences—love, faith, right, and wrong—with the aura of meaning. The problem is not with our screens, but the impossibility of the possibilities we long for. We project fantasies and even sketch elaborate theories onto our screens, but the problem would persist if the false window were removed; meaninglessness remains an issue out there in reality itself.

Fondane, Derycke, and Caillois all wrote for the same magazine—Cahiers du Sud—so Fondane responded with two articles of his own, which were subsequently folded into his 1938 Fake Treatise of Aesthetics (Faux Traité d’esthétique).[6] Here Fondane took on the demand that poetry justify itself before intellect. In other words, what value inheres in the word-pictures poetry projects on the screen of life?
As a philosopher in his own right, having been mentored by the Russian émigré existentialist Lev Shestov, Fondane keenly felt the problem of relating his poetry to his more rigorously intellectual projects. Fondane himself worked on the philosophic concepts of knowledge, abyss, and history. His final project before his untimely death was a chapter for an existentialist anthology; Fondane’s contribution appeared next to Albert Camus’s. Further, Fondane was poetizing in a Paris in which Koyré and Kojève’s Marxist Hegelianism had given philosophy a patina of usefulness—the dialectic might lead to Progress, even to Revolution! Philosophic concepts (or their knock-off version, ideologies) are harder than art to identify as false windows, because concepts take the form of elaborate schemata that pose sub specie aeternitatis. Philosophy, in Deleuze and Guattari’s much later definition, is precisely “the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts.”[7]

So, as Fondane puts it: “Should we think that the role of the poet is only to second the philosopher in the factory work in which living reality (le réel vivant) is constantly transformed into chemical reality, into intelligible concepts?” Fondane thought not, because the products of philosophy achieve their historical duration at the cost of the ordinary human lifetime; insofar as philosophy becomes political ideology, as in Fondane’s lifetime it tended to do, the history of ideas parallels the graveyard. Despite an ongoing political crisis that eventuated in hundreds of millions of deaths—no, precisely because of that crisis—Fondane assigned the poet a different task.

“The leaf yellows, the fruit falls, the beloved woman is no more than a nasty cadaver on a bed strewn with stones, and will the poet dare to make us forget all of this, in order to profit off a leaf that remains eternally green, a fruit that never rots, a woman made forever marble?”[8] This is what screens do: they capture reality as it was at one point, and then betray reality as it has been and will be. The poet instead captures the “essence” of the contingent to “lend eternity to the historical.”[9] For Fondane, poetry captures the rose not as “a rose among roses,” “not as a dead rose, or a rose pure and simple,” but as “this particular rose which is even now currently dying.”[10]

Elsewhere, Fondane explains that even his philosophizing emerged from his poetry, from the need to find the shards of real experience precisely inside art’s false windows:

It is precisely in order to be able to remain a poet—and not a philosopher—that one must become a philosopher and fight, in order to snatch poetry out of a definition that would make of it a “false” experience and restore to it the right (that Pascal demanded for pure philosophy): to be “a search made while groaning.[11]

A search that remains open to the personal pain of the researcher—this is poetry. That is, the material out of which the poetic art’s fake window is built is the poet him- or herself: a person’s creative response to life, death, love, faith, and loss.

Such poetic interiority has been criticized as an abdication of social responsibility. Yet Fondane’s poetry protests eloquently against the mistreatment of immigrants and refugees, the evils of anti-Semitism, and even the U.S. abuse of Black Americans. Fondane attempted to stem the spread of fascism among students in his native Romania; in 1940, he joined the French army, fighting the invading Nazis; and, throughout the Occupation, he refused to wear the yellow star (Fondane was Jewish). Fondane simply refused to outsource his philosophy to any of his era’s prevailing narratives. While soldiering, Fondane read Pascal’s three-century-old Pensées.

Fondane’s ideological independence is notable in an era in which even great thinkers hid behind the Hegelian-philosophic concept of “History” to support Hitlerism or Stalinism. The poet, Fondane argued, must protest against absorption into any ideological schema for history, because no historicizing re-interpretation of lived reality can satisfy the human thirst for the really real:

The performance
of History had already begun,
the beginning, the fabulous origins
were long forgotten
when I awoke to the world
in the thick of the Intrigue
like an event foretold since the beginning
and yet a surprise
a troubling character who could
leave everything untouched, who could change it all
the line of action, the weave of motives,
who had over the long established text
the strange prodigious force of the living
the right to stumble over the best lines
to improvise a world in the margins of the Author
and suddenly, despite the Plan,
to slip himself into the character
shouting furiously to the public in their boxes
‘There is not enough real for my thirst.’[12]

A thirst for reality will not be quenched by the ready-made draughts of the marketplace of ideas; poetry distils homemade experience. How does this help Fondane against Derycke’s claim that his poetic liqueur sits atop a false windowsill?

In the Fake Treatise, Fondane implicitly responds to Derycke’s concern. Fondane’s position is that the status of poetry in modernity is inseparable from that of humankind’s oldest poetizing, the ancient hymns and myths. These were splintered by modern history and science, thus necessitating the invention of separate categories for art, ethics, and religion. The same ratiocination that devoured myth has since dripped skeptical acid on art, ethics, and philosophy. Only a return to “primitive” pre-religiosity can re-unify art and ethics with reality. The canary in the coal mine for this attempt, Fondane thinks, is poetry.

Fondane, however, had read enough Nietzsche and Heidegger to understand that in the eyes of the twentieth century, the gods are dead, and poetry hovers over an abyss.[13] This problem remains in our century. In 2013, the late Yves Bonnefoy summed up the significance of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé for the twenty-first century as follows:

The nineteenth century saw produced one of the great events in the history of spirit and has bequeathed to us the task. . . of taking its measure, of appreciating its danger, of perceiving its possible contributions. This event is the banalization of disbelief and the effect that this has had on the work of poets.

Baudelaire and company, explained Bonnefoy, wrote of everyday experience in which some murky “transcendence” inheres—drugs, death, sex—but for whom “any belief in whatever might be beyond this immediately-given reality is extinguished.”[14] Not coincidentally, as a young student arriving in Paris in 1944, Bonnefoy counted Fondane’s Fake Treatise among the first books he read. He thus understood why Fondane went straight to the rotting corpses in Baudelaire. Fondane meant to combat that “old, old illusion that poets have long shared with philosophers, as witnessed by this verse of Baudelaire’s:
Now, oh my Beauty! Say to the vermin
Who eat you with kisses
That I have kept the form and essence divine
Of my decomposing loves!”

“Illusion,” writes Fondane; “for, otherwise, the poet would never again save the perishable and the decomposed, any more than the logician who thinks of obtaining an immortal essence by sacrificing the contingent reality which [s]he believes to have taken by surprise.”[15] One of Fondane’s more controversial stances is that the logician is the enemy, at least insofar as logic and ideology share a common etymology.

Recall that Fondane locates poetry in myth and its enemy in history: not myth as make-believe but as a story that incorporates transcendence within the everyday. Poetry restores myth insofar as its method resists a wholly secular history in which the human is reduced to no more than the tiny actors caught in a logic of cause-and-effect. In Walter Benjamin’s iconic image, what Fondane opposes is the “Angel of History,” its wings caught in the storm by which Progress sweeps individuals onto time’s rubbish heap.[16] Like Benjamin, who (believing himself trapped by the Gestapo) took his life while trying to escape France, Fondane also succumbed to History, in Benjamin’s Angel-of-History sense, or the sense in which Heidegger used the word in his infamous Freiburg address given after joining the National Socialists and accepting an “unyielding spiritual mission that forces the fate of the German people to bear the stamp of its history.” Denounced as a Jew to French police in March 1944, Fondane and his sister Line were subsequently transported to Auschwitz. Neither survived. In early October 1944, Fondane was brutally murdered in the gas chambers of Birkenau.

In poetry eerily prophetic of the fate that “History” inflicted on him, Fondane hit on an image that replaces the merely mental-visual imaginary of Derycke’s false windows with a metaphor of his own, one that implicates the very skin of the reader in the poet’s reality: a “bunch of nettles”:

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 cancelled,
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, pity, and joy,
an ordinary human face![17]

Suddenly the epistemic status of poetry succumbs to the urgent fact that these “nettles. . . had been me.” Fondane’s scream still echoes, asking (as he put it elsewhere) whether we can “permit the poet to travel ghost-like through a type of ghost-world that [the poet] refuses to take ‘seriously, although all the while [the poet] is the only one to fashion the ‘serious’ things of the world into the very material of their poem?”[18] The poet dematerializes, but, like Charles Dickens’s ghosts in A Christmas Carol, Fondane’s ghosts reach through our false windows to prod us with glimpses of reality.

Like nettles, the best poems stick to the reader and preserve a real memory of the fleeting contingent. Indeed, the final four lines from Fondane’s “nettles” poem are inscribed at the memorial to Holocaust victims at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem. Such poems are verbal thorns inflicting a discomfort that insists on reality. In our utilitarian world, the poet carries “an embarrassed consciousness,”[19] but to stop at the status of poetry would be to miss the point entirely. As Fondane remarked in a letter to a friend, “my book has been read as a simple defense of poetry, but actually it is a defense of the real.”[20]

  1. Benjamin Fondane, Benjamin Fondane’s Ulysses: Bilingual Edition, translated by Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press). Fondane published an early version in 1933 but continued to rework the whole until his death. Rudavsky-Brody’s bilingual edition contains the poem as Fondane left it unfinished. ↩︎

  2. Gaston Derycke, “Art et Métaphysique” pp. 771-773 in Cahiers du Sud (November 1935), p. 772. ↩︎

  3. Derycke, p. 771. Roger Caillois, Procès intellectuel de l’art (Marseille : Cahiers du Sud, 1935). ↩︎

  4. Derycke, p. 773. ↩︎

  5. Derycke, p. 772. ↩︎

  6. Benjamin Fondane, Faux Traité d’esthétique: Essai sur la crise de réalité (Paris : Denoël, 1938. Reprint: Éditions Paris Mediterranée, 1998). ↩︎

  7. Giles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, What Is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia UP, 1994), p. 2. ↩︎

  8. Fondane, Faux Traité, p. 29. ↩︎

  9. Ibid., p. 29. ↩︎

  10. Ibid., p. 29. ↩︎

  11. Benjamin Fondane, Baudelaire et l’expérience du gouffre (Paris : Editions Complexe, 1994), pp. 249-250. ↩︎

  12. Benjamin Fondane, Ulysses, trans. Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody, p. 15. ↩︎

  13. Martin Heidegger, in “What Are Poets For?” quotes poet Friedrich Hölderlin to characterize modernity as a “destitute time” from which the gods have departed. ↩︎

  14. Yves Bonnefoy, « Le siècle de Baudelaire », Revue d'histoire du XIXe siècle, 47 (2013, pp. 29-35), pp. 29-30. ↩︎

  15. Fondane, Faux Traité, p. 28. ↩︎

  16. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, Thesis IX. ↩︎

  17. Benjamin Fondane, lines from “Préface en Prose,” as translated by Michael Weingrad, “The Exodus of Benjamin Fondane,”. in Judaism pp 477-478. ↩︎

  18. Benjamin Fondane, Faux Traité, p. 79. ↩︎

  19. Title of one of the essays that Fondane worked into his Fake Treatise. ↩︎

  20. Letter from Fondane to Denis de Rougement, 20 June 1939, quoted in Monique Jutrin, Avec Benjamin Fondane au-delà de l’histoire (Paris : Parole et Silence, 2011). ↩︎

Featured image: Still life, roses painting (c. 1885) by Emil Carlsen

Aaron Cummings is a doctoral candidate in History of Ideas at the University of Texas at Dallas. You can find more of his work at Renaissance Animal. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.