Horizontal Bar by Benjamin Fondane

A cinepoem—introduced by Leonard Schwartz.

Benjamin Fondane Bomb 1

Man Ray. Portrait of Benjamin Fondane, 1928.

What needs to be understood about the following text is that Benjamin Fondane wanted it to disappear. Let me explain.

Benjamin Fondane was born in 1898 in Romania, the second child of a Jewish family of German descent. At the time when his poems first appeared in Romanian in the avant-garde literary reviews of Bucharest and his native Iasi, Fondane believed that poetry represented “the sole reason for being to persevere in being” and that “only poetry could succeed where morality and metaphysics had failed.” But by the early ’20s poetry as it existed (after the war years) seemed as much a lie to him as everything else, and his belief in an aesthetic justification of the universe crumbled. In a statement in which much of his later writing and thought is already prefigured, Fondane wrote of this break that “dans la nuit, jai commence a crier sans mots“—”in the middle of the night, I began to cry, without words.” From this point forward Fondane’s abiding interests would be the absurd and the contradiction between human liberty and all forms of rational thought and language.

Attracted by the destructive spirit of Dadaism and by an interest in French poetry in general, Fondane moved to Paris in 1923, but found that Dadaism and its spirit of absolute negation had already been supplanted by surrealism. Though Fondane was in profound sympathy with surrealism’s affirmation of the irrational, he found the movement itself to be too caught up with its own sectarian interests. Moreover, insofar as Breton and Aragon wanted poetry to traffic with Marxism, Fondane felt the irrational had been betrayed. Instead Fondane began to develop a notion of the singular individual—a notion which Francis Jeanson and others have seen as an important forerunner of French “existentialism”—and in 1926 he became the friend and disciple of the Russian philosopher Lev Shestov.

Fondane’s first book in the French language was, however, Three Scenarios, Cinepoems, published in 1928, with a photograph taken of the author by Man Ray: “Horizontal Bar” is one of these texts. The so-called cinepoem is a poem written in the form of a film script, although Fondane unequivocally states that these films are not meant to be made. (“Let’s kick off the era of unfilmable scenarios”, he says in a preface.) Rather, the promise that each numbered line represents a camera-shot and thus a physical image, the utilization of screen directions, the photo of Fondane by Man Ray, all are intended to subvert the word to the illusion of the directly visible. Of course the real perpetually eludes us and proves itself over and over again to be the unreal. But silent film proposed to its champions a triumph over language of the kind Fondane had sought even earlier. The cinepoem expresses the form of physical images in words, undermining both language and physical images in the process. Fondane used the framework of the film to minimize the logic of language, the better to give us access to the individual in his comic absurdity, which he felt lay beyond words as rational discourse.


Horizontal Bar

1        a wall lettered: LIBERTÉ ÉGALITÉ FRATERNITÉ

2        the three words play about on the wall the first in large print the others blurred

3        with a miraculous suppleness the letters come apart to form words half-intelligible half-absurd

4        a head attentively follows this ballet

5        the head of an elegant young man—a valise in his hand—

6        portrayed on a poster advertising a dance

7        on a sidewalk a worker reads a newspaper

8        the head of the young man leans out of the ad and peeks over the shoulder of the worker in order to read

9        “LA LIBERTÉ”

10      the worker throws his newspaper to the ground walks off

11      the young man descends from the ad picks it up

12      briefly leafs through it

13      wants to go back where he was

14      but a man—seen from behind—takes pains to occupy the space before the wall in front of the poster

15      happy to be freed the young man pirouettes runs off along the first sidewalk to his right

16      which begins to roll at such great speed

17      that the young man falls several times

18      he grabs ahold of the beard of a gentleman walking past

19      who lets him do it without a word

20      grabs the breast of a young woman

21      that remains in his hands with a scrap of fabric

22      grabs a little kid

23      of whom only a skeleton with a school satchel under one arm remains

24      he puts all this in his valise; rings at the first door he happens to find leaves the valise with the concierge and she shakes his hand at the door

25      she’s an old bearded goat

26      frightened by her he runs off

27      the sidewalk rolls in the opposite direction

28      he stops before a tailor’s window

29      mannequins in all sorts of colors instantaneously start to walk

30      they enter the store—kill the sole client

31      shot from inside—through the window the young man is seen making off

32      at the police station—the concierge shows the police the valise provides a description

39      repeat shot 15: the young man pirouetting

40      an old man is explaining what he’s seen

41      repeat shot 11: the adventure of the advertisement

42      he unrolls a poster

43      image of a poster offering 100,000 F reward for the head of the young man

44      who meanwhile woos a young girl in a department store

45      she smiles at him

46      he dares to approach

47      she gives him the eye

48      he embraces her

49      a mannequin, she breaks apart in his hands

50      furious he smashes the windowpane of a stockings store

51      a row of mannequin legs begins to dance

52      he runs off pursued by a watchman

53      the chase

54      the watchman catches up with him asks if he can light his cigarette off his

55      the young man enters a dance hall

56      the dancing couples stiffen in the mechanical movements of their dance

57      placards everywhere 100,000 F reward

58      mysterious hands tear them up

59      at the police station several breathless agents report the misdeeds of the young man

60      a child, half kangaroo, arrives to put in a complaint

61      a one-eyed man claims

62      it was the young man who tore out his other eye to set it in a ring

63      close-up: the eye in the ring

64      repeat: the one-eyed man telling his story

65      two individuals explain to the police captain that

66      moving medium-length shot: they were walking in the street together when

67      long shot: the young man followed them and took off their heads and holding them in his hands after thinking about it switched them around

68      in the street someone pulls out a special edition of a newspaper

69      a group of people leaning over a newspaper read: (the newsclip—the caption—then the photo until number 75)

70      a child has been born with the head of the president of the Council of Ministers (the little brat has a beard)

71      an animal trainer has been accused of concubinage with a lioness

72      someone has opened a dance hall in a church

73      the angel of Notre-Dame has peed on a passerby

74      during the previous night’s storm a whale was sighted near place de la Concorde

75      a parade of students have arrived in Paris to shout down God

76      anguished face of the young man

77      who suddenly flings himself into the Seine

78      but is retrieved by a fisherman

79      he fires a shot from his revolver at a statue of Marcellin Berthelot

80      which, struck, collapses to the ground covered with blood

81      he throws himself off the top of the Eiffel Tower

82      but his umbrella serves as a parachute

83      (decidedly the young man is immortal) his face is immensely sad

84      at the corner of a street a florist

85      she offers him a bouquet of violets

86      he takes a cigarette pack takes one out, she offers him a second bouquet

88      he takes out a matchbook takes one out

89      resentfully now without looking at him she offers her scissors

90      he takes the bouquet of violets and fastens them to his lapel

91      throws her some change

92      it is a flame which burns the florist’s hands

93      he enters a pharmacy

94      orders a beer which is served to him

95      inside the bank Crédit Lyonnais

96      from a catalog he chooses a pair of shoes

97      the director with a distinguished beard steps out of his office: notes his shoe size

98      now he is seen entering the Jardin des Plantes and contemplates the cages

99      to the zebra which

100    amuses him he throws a check through the bars

101    to the ostrich

102    he offers an ice-cream bar

103    he throws his bouquet of violets

104    and applauds wildly

105    the hyena (in the cage—the placard right away readable)

106    a monkey with the face of an anguished man falls after being hit

107    by the smoking revolver

108    of the young man

109    a pretty woman walking down the alley

110    an empty cage opens there

111    his terror at seeing a woman walking freely about

112    courageously he undresses himself

113    with blows of a whip he forces the woman to enter the cage

114    happily he contemplates her—offers her a vial of perfume

115    she breathes in the scent; offers her lips

116    through the bars with difficulty he risks

117    a long kiss

118    he assures himself anew that the lock is locked

119    goes off whistling

120    advertising signs luminous in the night

121    a woman at the corner of the street makes a sign to him

122    he follows

123    we see the legs of a big bed capsize

124    she sleeps

125    standing beside a bed on the bedstand he notes

126    a set of false teeth in a glass of water

127    some curls

128    an eye

129    he pulls back the sheets seizes the breast of the woman pulls it to him like a rubber band

130    a mouth crying out

131    and out of the mouth come little zeroes becoming ever more numerous and large

132    she sits on the edge of the bed in a bank-note shirt

133    superimposed over the image of the bed in lower case letters that grow progressively larger, wider and cover the shot, the word “love”

134    seated at the curb of the sidewalk his legs in the road the young man cries

135    superimposed: the wheels of cars buses human legs

136    with open eyes he sees himself surrounded on all sides by a herd of cows

137    tries to milk one of them

138    it gives him a kick

139    a watchman gives him a kick

140    he lifts himself up to go but a man with a shining bald spot goes past

141    long shot: the young man follows this bald spot bewildered

142    on the bald spot a neon sign advertising soap that will give you babies’ skin blinks on and off at regular intervals

143    the two of them before the wall with the torn poster

144    the young man hesitates caught between two eternities of boredom; while he’s thinking his image detaches itself from the poster

145    kicks the man in the ad in the middle of the poster

146    poster with the man with the shining bald spot

147    can he really be free? with joy he embraces his double who

148    brusquely turns his head and takes flight

149    at top speed an army of delivery boys appears each sporting a sign advertising 100,000 F reward

150    he hesitates rubs his eyes

151    his double reappears approaches the torn poster steps into it

152    the poster pulls back

153    the young man runs after it

154    it draws farther off

155    he becomes smaller and smaller

156    the poster becomes larger and larger

157    until it covers the entire frame

158    the poster has become a luminous point

159    the young man at the same spot before the torn poster decides to stake everything: takes out a coin tosses it in the air

160    his face looks hopeful but after the coin falls he returns to a state of indifference

161    too bad! he decides to live: the camera follows him walking normally in the street; impromptu he offers a cigarette to the first watchman he meets

162    shot of an anthill

163    classifieds in a newspaper a hand stops at the “Job-Offers”

164    signs (at first in long takes then shorter and shorter): la Gle d’Assurances, Les Assurances Generales, The Insurance Company, L’Assiguratrice Italiana, Winthertur, Yorkshire, Gresham

165    from behind: his ticket punched by a time clock

166    he kisses a hand languorously

167    it’s the hairy hand then the arm the cassock the head of a priest

168    on the steps of a church

169    the young man with a statue of Voltaire

170    the statue of Voltaire decked out in a wedding dress


Translated by Leonard Schwartz and Mitchell Abidor

Benjamin Fondane emigrated from Romania to France in 1923. In Paris, he worked at an insurance company and for Paramount Pictures while establishing himself as a poet and philosopher. He also spent time in Argentina, at the invitation of Victoria Ocampo, lecturing on avant-garde film and directing a surrealist comedy. In 1944, he was deported from France and killed at Auschwitz. In addition to Cinepoems and Others, New York Review Books has just published a volume of his selected essays, Existential Monday.

Leonard Schwartz’s two most recent collections of poetry are At Element and IF, both from Talisman House. He hosts the radio program Cross Cultural Poetics. His The New Babel: Toward a Poetics of the Mid-East Crises is out this summer from The University of Arkansas Press.

Mitchell Abidor’s books include the Victor Serge anthology Anarchists Never Surrender, Jean Jaurès’s A Socialist History of the French Revolution, Selected Correspondence of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff, as well as numerous anthologies of writings from French working-class history. He is currently collaborating with Richard Greeman on a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks (1936-1947) for NYRB Classics.

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