Yale French Studies, 1955, No. 16, Foray Through Existentialism (1955), pp. 111-117 [PDF]
Merleau-Ponty has entered the College de France, Existentialism has become quite fully accredited at the Sorbonne, and even in this country the fog of logical positivism and Dewey’s comfortable words seem at last to be slackening their grip. Some find this upsetting – how can Existentialism, a shocking philosophy, lend itself to the tedious nugacity of academic life? Should the fire of the absurd become the firecracker of the classroom? Comfort may be found in recalling the extremist school of Existentialism, those who found even Heidegger a bourgeois thinker – Shestov and his disciple Fondane – and in remembering that the first held a chair at the Sorbonne long before Existentialism became the object of the sincere quest of Protestant college study-groups. At least Shestov and Fondane are largely out of print, dead, unread, uncompromised and uncompromis- ing. Shestov fits well in this study, for he was a foreigner; born in Kiev, he fled to France at the Revolution. Of course, at the Sorbonne he taught Russian literature and not philosophy. Fondane, as far as I know, left France but once, to meet his death at Dachau, which was appropriate enough for one who had always maintained that an individual’s death is not properly for that individual a subject of epistemological examination. Hiroshima and Dachau have given some force to Fondane’s contention that comfortable optimism will no longer do, that the gouffre does indeed engulf us, and that in man’s rage, if nowhere else, men can find dignity. It is as if Fondane, in dying, had added final proof that Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Shestov were necessary, or even right. We are here primarily concerned with Fondane, a faithful, admitted disciple of the master; his works are largely an effort to destroy Shestov’s isolation as a thinker.
“Je pense, donc je ne suis pas.”Blanchot, Thomas l’obscur
La Conscience malheureuse, published in 1936, contains separate studies of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Shestov and others. The preface defines the situation of man as a metaphysical being qua citizen of human misery. Philosophy is the act by which this existent proposes his existence, seeking within and outside him- self, for or against all evidence, the very possibility of living. Whereas injustice is only an ethical category, misery is a metaphysical one, and our conscience cannot help but suffer metaphysically in front of necessity and death, that Fatum which alienates all man’s powers. Hegel’s dialectic, like all historical dialectic, fails to consider the misery of singular man in front of his metaphysical tragedy. Our crisis being outside the “reality” the dialectic apprehends, how could the dialectic hope to resolve this crisis? The fact that existence imposes itself on us, and not we on it, has never kept man, or at least a few men, from proclaiming, by faith or by suicide, by poem or by outcry, a mad, absurd irresignation to fate… [PDF]