Existential Monday: Philosophical Essays by Benjamin Fondane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read this in the aftermath of the 2016 election. These were my thoughts then.
November 11, 2016: I did a strange thing. I downloaded a book to my Kindle that I’d randomly come across at a bookstore near my work a few weeks ago. It’s called Existential Monday, a collection of essays by Benjamin Fondane, a Romanian-French Jewish poet-philosopher who wrote between the wars.
It was a beautiful escape. It was so pure. About reason and absurdity and individual vs absolute truth—it felt so much more essential to life than all this drama.
But even there I couldn’t entirely escape. First off, Fondane (he changed his name from Wreschler) died in an Auschwitz gas chamber. He saw 1933, he served in the French army in WWII and was stripped of his citizenship in 1942. He was detained by the French. He had to find a way for his philosophy to address it all.
January 2017: This is a book I intend to read again. I’ve told myself so many times that I’ve passed the age where it’s fashionable to be existentialist, and then I read something and think how foolish that is.
There’s no better way to describe it than a salve. I read the intro by Bruce Baugh and I remembered how finite politics really is; how finite the present really is. How all year, as everything around me swirled around election politics, I kept searching for the articulation of the smallness of it.
Which, even now I’m not convinced. Because this election will definitely impact the population of the planet and the future of the planet. It will impact me and my friends. It may impact very mundane matters, very immediate matters, and very long-term matters. But somehow even that didn’t feel integral to existence.
I kept saying that the government we have, the institutions we have, I’m not going to say I don’t appreciate them, but if they weren’t my reality something else would be, and that would be fine. But there would still be something fundamental to existence that would be there.
Just the preface alone, which introduces us to Fondane’s quest to undo reason, his embrace of “impertinent uneasiness, this holy hypochondria,” was electrifying. I found someone who understood, and something that made me want to know more, to unearth what he was saying, instead of most things I consume that end when they end.
And it helps that Fondane is what I wish I was: a writer and philosopher and that he became a philosopher accidentally, because he was essentially one, not through training. (Though clearly he ended up adopting the formal way of discussing philosophy.) He loves paradox and the impossible and “thought to the n-th degree.”
He wasn’t immune from politics. He lived between the wars and died in Auschwitz. One of his essays is a defense of continuing to think when the world is going to shit. He argues with himself, presenting both sides. We must do something, how can we escape into thought, and I think that’s the kind of question that doesn’t get resolved. You know ultimately that to think, to attempt to touch all of existence, can’t ever be inappropriate, but it certainly feels that way.
He once told his wife that he’s the exact type of Jew Hitler wanted to get rid of, the most authentic kind, “rebellious. disobedient. nonconformist.”
Is it rebellious/disobedient/nonconformist right now to double down on thought/philosophy/art rather than action/rage/strategy, or is it abdication?
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