On The Sorrow of Ghosts by Benjamin Fondane

Translator’s Note

B. Fundoianu – Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944)
Restitutio Benjamin Fondane
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Recalling a letter that marked the true beginning of their friendship, Benjamin Fondane remembers telling the philosopher Lev Shestov, “[H]ow hard it was to follow him, because to penetrate his thoughts, to understand, it was, in his own opinion, necessary to have gone through some intimate disaster… And I added, what man would, for the love of truth, dare wish such a disaster on himself? Who would willingly accept to be his disciple?” Yet Fondane was to become that disciple. In fact his whole life seems, if not a cultivation of suffering, then at least the self-conscious embrace of it. From his youngest years and his earliest writings he was obsessed by feelings of isolation and estrangement. And as the world seemed to bear out his premonitions, he shaped these sentiments into his identity. So much so that his tragic end in Auschwitz – having refused to leave his sister’s side though friends had procured his release, and before that having refused to flee occupied Paris where his books were and where he wrote The Sorrows of Ghosts – seems almost self-willed, concomitant with the writing of his poetry.

Fondane was born in 1898 in the old Jewish community of Iaşi, Romania. His father was a storekeeper and his mother came from a well-known intellectual family (she recited Goethe and Heine from memory). He studied law but did not pass the bar, as the professor routinely failed Jewish students. He published poems, translations (from German and French) and criticism in the journals that flourished between the wars in his hometown and Bucharest, where he moved in 1919. …this poem in particular was written in occupied Paris in the shadow of the camps. The ghosts, waiting on the quay to embark, crossing the ocean in giant steamers, are fleeing a world falling to pieces. In the capital he was always at the center of a flurry of avant-garde artistic activity. Yet in 1923 he moved to Paris, like so many other Romanian artists and intellectuals, drawn to the city whose literature and culture was their own second language. Eugene Ionesco was his friend, Constantin Brancusi a witness at his wedding, and in later years the young Emil Cioran would visit him for encouragement. He devoted seven years to learning French well enough to write in the language, in the meantime working in an insurance company and as an assistant director and screenwriter for Paramount Pictures. Bit by bit he earned an audience, especially for his criticism; Jean Cocteau called his book on Rimbaud “the only book which could have been written” about the poet. And he met Shestov, who turned his thoughts to philosophy. In the end he became the only disciple and best explicator of the old Russian philosopher known for his untiring attacks on self-evidences.

The Sorrows of Ghosts, like Ulysses (1932) and Titanic (1937), was inspired by two journeys Fondane made to Argentina, once invited by Victoria Ocampo to give a series of lectures and once to direct a film that was never released. All three long poems take as their central image the Atlantic passage, mixing in elements of the wandering Jew, the mass emigrations that brought many of Fondane’s fellow Romanian Jews to America, the isolation of the intellectual young man… But this poem in particular was written in occupied Paris in the shadow of the camps. The ghosts, waiting on the quay to embark, crossing the ocean in giant steamers, are fleeing a world falling to pieces. They are fatally estranged, from that lost world that was never theirs in the first place, from their own past (as both the immigrants and Fondane himself, who was never sure how to confront his own Jewish heritage), and, as seekers of a hard truth like Shestov, from the crowds around them who accepted the world as they saw it. Written in the face of a world out of joint, it is Fondane’s most formal poem (decasyllabic rhyming tercets) since his youth.

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