Benjamin Fundoianu – the unknown face of Romanian modernism

Benjamin Fundoianu (1898–1944; originally Wechsler) is a Romanian poet, publicist, essayist, dramatist, and avant-garde director of Jewish descent. After he emigrated to Paris in 1923, Fundoianu became a French artist, known under the name Benjamin Fondane. It is well worth making oneself familiar with at least some of his works, as this is a good starting point to get a better understanding of the position “the great Romanian threesome” – Emil Cioran, Mircea Eliade and Eugène Ionescu – take up in the literary-political hierarchy of the first half of the 20th century.

Settling in France in the 1920s, Fundoianu had already contributed to the literary trend characterised by the phenomenon of cultural interference and identity dilemmas of Romanian authors writing in other languages. He became a model, so to speak, for his younger colleagues from Bucharest1.
Despite a growing interest in Fundoianu’s works in France, Romania and Israel (the three “homelands” of this Romanian author of Jewish descent)*, a comprehensive study of his literary legacy is still lacking. At the same time, as literary research shows, his works constitute an important part of both Romanian culture (whose evolution was soberly and harshly commented on by Fundoianu on the eve of the 20th century) and French culture (in Paris Fundoianu met Lev Shestov whose existential philosophy had an influence upon the former’s art; he became one of the most outstanding heirs to Shestov’s work). Contemporary readers pick his texts more and more often also because of the writer’s friendships with Emil Cioran, Constantin Brâncuși and renown Romanian avant-garde authors such as Victor Brauner and Ilarie Voronca. Currently, Fundoianu is making a comeback in Romania – where for years he existed on the margin of national literature (from which he was excluded due to his affiliation with the Jewish intellectual circles) – and is now recognised by some critics as one of the most outstanding Romanian poets, endangering the position of such literary aces as Tudor Arghezi or George Bacovia. Undeniable proof of his growing popularity is an increasing number of new editions of his texts on the Romanian market. The first volume of the anthology of poetry written during the author’s Romanian-language period has been already published;** it was premiered in the Bastilia bookshop in Bucharest in March 2012. The book was promoted by important names of modern Romanian intellectual circles: Nora Iuga, Mircea Martin, Paul Cernat and Geo Șerban. As part of the same series, a Romanian translation of a French text by Fundoianu called Baudelaire et l'expérience du gouffre (Baudelaire and the Experience of the Abyss) was published in March of this year. In June, in turn, a volume entitled B. Fundoianu – Benjamin Fondane: o nouă lectură (B. Fundoianu – Benjamin Fondane: a New Interpretation) published by A.I. Cuza University Publishing House was premiered at the French Institute in Jassy. This is a collection of critical texts (Romanian, French and English) concerning the writer’s works, edited by Michael Finkenthal, Claire Gruson and Roxany Sorescu.
Fundoianu’s modernity is visible in his aspirations to create an interdisciplinary “total work of art” – his artistic achievements comprise poetry, essay writing, journalism, film and theatre works. Fundoianu also readily took part in artistic experiments of the Romanian avant-garde; for example, he was the inspiration behind Brauner’s picture Capul lui Benjamin Fundoianu (The Head of Benjamin Fundoianu) painted in 1930. What also seems essential is his attempt to combine elements coming from Judaic philosophical thought with those from the Central European tradition in the context of Western intellectual thought. At first he wrote his poetry in Romanian – the volume of verse Priveliști (Landscapes), published in 1930, is dedicated to the provinces of Moldavia, where the author grew up and which shaped his artistic imagination. Fundoianu’s poetry is far from idyllic descriptions of the mythical land of his childhood. In this collection of poems the writer uses such stylistic devices as decomposition, turpisation, and “depoetisation” which undermine the traditionally affirmative approach to landscape. In Romania, Fundoianu wrote his first poems drawing on the Jewish tradition – a series of so-called Biblical sonnets: Scara lui Iacob (Jacob’s Ladder), Eva (Eve), Moise (Moses) and Psalmul lui Adam (The Psalm of Adam). These themes were further developed by the author in his later French-language poetry that, by then, was strongly influenced by existential thought. The main idea in such poems as Ulysse, Titanic, or L’Exode – which come from the collection Le Mal de fantômes (The Phantom Pains) – is wandering and the eternal quest for a place where one can be yourself as a person – in Fundoianu’s case – a poet and a Jew. These poems were written while the author was travelling by ship to Argentina, which throws more light on the immigrant character obsessively returning in his poems, as well as on the identification of the lyrical subject with the character of the miserable outcast, the Wandering Jew. The reason why Fundoianu travelled overseas was, among other things, to make his avant-garde film Tarira (1936) – a combination of “phantasy and commedia dell’arte”, as he himself claimed. Unfortunately, the film got lost on the author’s way back to Europe. In its last scene, which was supposed to be the most controversial, four musicians – the main characters of the film – destroy a villa in which they had just played a concert. This act of destruction is performed to the accompanying tune of Ravel’s Boléro, wailed by the voice of a female member of the quartet.
Fundoianu became famous in Romania for the series of essays Imagini și cărți din Franța (Images And Books from France) published before 1923. In this series he provides a very critical analysis of the condition of Romanian literature at the beginning of the 20th century, emphasising its – almost colonial – dependence on French culture and too fast pace of “transplanting” Western European political, literary, and historical ideas to the local territory. What’s also worth mentioning is a series of 11 mini-essays Iudaism și elenism (Judaism and Hellenism) from 1919, which was Fundoianu’s first book of truly philosophical character. The writer starts his dissertation with a reference to Martin Buber’s Vom Geist des Judentums published in 1916 and attempts at his own interpretation of Jewish and Greek cultures, analysing different ways in which they perceive divinity, philosophy, morality and art. Aside from that, Fundoianu is also a literary critic, he runs art columns in the Romanian press, comments on Zionism and writes articles on cinematography. He continues with his journalistic work after he emigrates to France, although philosophical essays undoubtedly remain the most essential part of Fondane’s French-language writing. He analyses philosophical views of the philosophers important to the 19th and 20th centuries: Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bergson, Shestov, Husserl, Freud and Heidegger. The most important texts he writes in that period are: La conscience malheureuse (The Unhappy Consciousness), Faux traite d’esthetique (False Treatise of Aesthetics), Rimbaud le voyou (Rimbaud the Hooligan), and the already mentioned Baudelaire et l’experience du gouffre (Baudelaire and the Experience of the Abyss).
This short introduction to the works of Fundoianu shows that this artist’s project was a large-scale, multilayered artistic activity. Thanks to its inspiring complexity, it provides a great topic for discussion and broadens our knowledge on the history of Romanian literature.

Translated from the Polish by Agnieszka Rubka-Nimz

* See: Benjamin Fondane, 6 rue Rollin, in: Emil Cioran, Ćwiczenia z zachwytu (Exercises of Admiration), Warsaw 1998.

** B. Fundoianu, Poezia antumă, ed. by P. Daniel, G. Zarafu, M. Martin, București 2011