La cinéma parlant est là pour remplacer le film muet, et toutes nos protestation ne feraient rien contre. – Benjamin Fondane, 1930.
As we are carried forward in great lunging steps by money and technology, we are assured on all sides thaat this is what we want. A magical vocabulary has sprung up to explain it all to us, where the abracadabra is “disruption” or “creative destruction” or the old standby, “progress’. That the destruction could be vast and negative – destructive destruction – doesn’t enter the picture. Nobody, in the late nineteenth century, voted to obliterate the night sky. It just happened, electrical lights just happened, it was all very exciting. There was no discussion of the fact that ever since we were lemurs on the floor of the jungle, we have always had the night sky. It was simply taken away, and replaced with a new paler version. That this act might have untold consequences on our collective circadian rhythm wasn’t even on the ledger, under costs. It just happened.
It is an odd characteristic of the age of democracy and progress that populations have much less choice about the vaster changes in their environment. The slaves of the Romans and Greeks, in their misery, had a freedom they did not know about: the freedom to live in the same environment they were born into, and their parents before them. They were all the more vulnerable to disease and the lot, you’ll say. And you’ll be right! Which only goes to show that costs and benefits are both on the ledger. The freedom I am talking about was assumed into the industrial age. In fact, so deeply assumed that we have no word for it. Freedom to retain our paradigm circumstances? We can only gesture towards it in crippled phrases. And even those will touch on a mass incomprehension, since, though our senses and memories know something is happening here, we don’t know what it is.
However, ahem, to turn from these vast panoramas to my miniature, the purpose of this little ditty: creative destruction in the film industry. About 1930, the silents were replaced by the talkies. This in retrospect has been presented as a kind of repair. Silent films were defective, and Vitaphone repaired them. It is as if movies were born deaf, and an operation gave them hearing.
But there were protests, among which I want to signal Benjamin Fondane’s as one of the strongest and most logical – a protest that puts its finger on the larger issue of the structure that was being ‘replaced’. This is all the more interesting because Fondane has become a cult figure for a very small cult, one of those twentieth century writers that exist on the margins of our consciousness, a ghost of sorts, who lights a fire in certain readers.
The cult goes back, in part, to his end. He belongs among the murdered. When he was arrested by the Nazis, Jean Paulhan, the influential intellectual wheeler dealer, somehow got him a reprieve. But Fondane refused it, because it didn’t include his sister. Instead, he went with her to Auschwitz and perished. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Not a verset we are callled upon to take literally, we all think.
Fondane came from Romania to France in the 20s, and he made films. He made films up to 1936 – as per this Youtube bit, he made an absurdist film in Argentina under the patronage of Victoria Ocampo. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9oFygwg52DY There seems to have been a lovely bit with a man looking like Paul Valery in a ballerina tutu. The whole thing, a sort of mixture, it seems, of Bunuel and the Marx Brothers, never made it past the producer’s ire, who obviously did not sense the hunger in the Argentine masses for a hilarious send up of Paul Valery; and the complete film has been lost.
Fondane is better known to posterity for his essays and his poems. The lament for the end of the silents was published in Bifur in 1930: From Silent to Talking: greatness and decadence of cinema (Grandeur et decadence has a lilt in French more like the English Decline and fall). It is a big essay, and I’m just rollin up my sleeves here. Gonna work on it in a future post.