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Gottfried Benn (1886 - 1956)

Gottfried Benn
Books by this author: Selected Poems and Prose
  • About
  • Biography
  • Gottfried Benn was born on 2 May 1886 in Mansfeld (a village in Westpriegnitz, North Germany). He went to Marburg University to study philology and theology, but after two years changed to the study of military medicine at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Akademie in Berlin. His first small collection of poems, Morgue and Other Poems, was published as a pamphlet in Berlin in 1912 and created a sensation: Benn became known as a leading figure in the new movement called literary Expressionism. During the First World War he worked as an army doctor in a hospital in Brussels. In 1917 he was discharged and returned to Berlin, where he opened the private practice for skin and venereal diseases which was his often meagre source of income for most of the rest of his working life. In 1932 he was elected to membership of the Literary Section of the Prussian Academy of Arts, and remained in place after the Nazis’ rise to power. Although he never joined the NSDAP, his prose writings from the period incorporate Nazi terminology and support elements of Nazi ideology. He rejoined the army in 1935, but was attacked by the SS as an exponent of 'degenerate' Expressionist art and forbidden to publish while still a serving soldier. After the war Benn began to publish new work and his reputation as a poet rose quickly in West Germany. He died in July 1956.
    In a short text translated by Michael Hofmann, recalling 'Rilke 1940' and his grave 'among the bronze hills of the Rhone valley', Gottfried Benn quotes 'the line my generation will never forget: 'Who speaks of victory - survival is all''. And Benn knew about survival. Many of his Expressionist contemporaries - Alfred Lichtenstein, Ernst Wilhelm Lotz, Ernst Stadler, August Stramm, Georg Trakl - died in the course of the First World War. After the Weimar years, which were sympathetic to the modernist departures in poetry that occurred in the period before the war broke out, such radicalism was suspect. Aside from his involvement in the taking of Antwerp in October 1914, for which he was decorated, Benn had a quiet war as a military doctor in Brussels. And later, apart from his brief but enthusiastic months as a fellow-traveller with the Nazi regime, he was denounced as culturally degenerate, but survived in what he regarded as aristocratic exile back in the Army. Finally, in West Germany after 1945, his reputation even survived his own engagement with the Nazis. Benn became one ambiguous model for the radical renewal of German verse among a new generation of writers.

    Born in 1886, Benn leapt to fame in pre-war Berlin with a pamphlet of five poems under the general title Morgue: one about a drowned drayman ('Bierfahrer') with a vivid blue aster stuck between his teeth; another in which a post-mortem examination reveals a nest of young rats 'in a pocket under the diaphragm' of a drowned girl. And so it goes on - the gold filling from a dead whore take a mortuary attendant out on the town 'because, so he said, / only clay should revert to clay'; bodies of men and women lie in close physical proximity, stripped of erotic interest or moral concern, beyond the reach of religion. Benn trained as a military doctor at the Kaiser Wilhelm Academy in Berlin, but within a year of qualifying he had left the army behind and moved into pathology. In the Morgue poems, the unflinching objectivity of the pathologist is tempered by a note of quiet amusement, cool and distant, but not always unsympathetic. The tension between the medical facts and the irony or cynicism of his detachment points to an underlying nihilism that threatens deeper values and, even, deeper feelings.

    In his last years, Benn made a kind of ars poetica of his own cool objectivity, in the poem 'Verhülle dich' which David Paisey translates as

    Muffle yourself with masks and with cosmetic
    screw up your eyes as if your sight were bad
    never let them see that you're a sceptic
    and sadly deep beneath the easy lad.

    Not that Benn was ever, in any of his guises, much of an easy lad; but sadly deep he certainly was. His advice to himself here is never to reveal the process and the cost of creativity - not to show the workings: the tears and the rigours that can project remotely beautiful song as if it came incidentally 'from that gondola in the bay'. Benn sees his own poetic as well as his simply human performance here in theatrical terms: conceal yourself behind masks and stage make-up ('Schminken'); and a similar impulse is apparent in his notorious remark that when it comes to affairs of the heart 'good stage management trumps fidelity' (thus Michael Hofmann's punchy translation). In his introduction to Impromptus, which draws on material that has accompanied his many translations of Benn appearing in the TLS, Poetry (Chicago) and the Paris Review over the past eight or nine years, Hofmann identifies not the double life Benn claimed for himself in an autobiography, but 'more like four of him: the military man, the doctor, the poet, the ladies' man'. Among these, the version of Benn as a soldier and a doctor maintaining his professional distance and froideur becomes acutely apparent in his first-hand account of the execution of Edith Cavell by firing squad in 1915.

    After a passage as second medical officer on an emigrant ship to New York, which was no less frustrating than the next job he found as a locum, in August 1914 Benn returned to the Army and spent most of the war in Brussels working in what he called a hospital for prostitutes. He was the army doctor on call during the trial of Cavell, and by chance he was also the doctor present at her death. The execution caused outrage and fury across Europe and the United States, and soon afterwards reports began to circulate that the firing squad had failed to kill her outright and that a coup de grâce had been administered by the officer in charge; or that one member of the firing squad who had refused to shoot had himself been executed and buried alongside Cavell. Some of these myths were revived in the public discussion that surrounded the release of Herbert Wilcox's silent film on the life of Cavell, Dawn, in 1928. In response Benn published his own account in a national newspaper.

    Paisey includes this document in full in his selection from Benn's prose. Over six pages Benn gives a meticulously detailed account of the execution of Cavell and her co-accused, Philippe Baucq, describes the political and intelligence context of their deaths, and offers a clear justification for the decision of the military tribunal: 'How is the shooting of Miss Cavell to be judged? Formally it was correct. She acted like a man and was punished like a man by us. She had taken action against the German armies and they had crushed her'. Benn remains severely factual. Though he clearly felt respect for 'that brave daughter of the English people', he concludes that human beings could not endure the cruel process of history if they were encouraged to expect any kind of pardon. 'No, world history is not a foundation for happiness, and the door-posts of the Pantheon are streaked with the blood of those who act and then suffer, as the law of life demands.' For a moment Benn seems to stake a modest claim to speak as a public intellectual, in terms that more than incidentally recall lines written by the playwright Friedrich Hebbel, whom Benn had celebrated in his 1915 poem 'The Young Hebbel':

    You all carve and sculpt, the deft chisel
    in a soft shapely hand.
    I beat my head against the marble
    to knock it into shape,
    my hands work for a living.
    I am still a long way from myself,
    but I want to become Me!
    There is someone deep in my blood
    who cries out for homemade
    Olypuses and worlds of humans. (Hofmann)

    In Benn's self-identification with the unrecognized young artist who really has to work to earn his crust, Hofmann allows us to glimpse the risk of a vanity piqued and turning to more visceral impulses of self-assertion. Hebbel's Duke Ernst says after the judicial killing of young and beautiful Agnes Bernauer, in the play that bears her name: 'The great wheel has passed over her' - meaning the wheel of some inescapable Hegelian historical process. But at least the medieval framework of the play means that the Duke can believe the dead heroine 'is now with the one who turns it'. In Benn's case, in 1928, the stoicism is unmitigated. Suffering follows action as his bleak 'law of life' demands.

    Paisey has done readers coming to Benn in English a great service by giving access to a wide range of personal, political, aesthetic and quasi-scientific writings, as well as to some of the stories of Benn's alter ego, Dr Rönne, who lives out the psychosis that his author narrowly avoided early in his career. When Benn entered the Expressionist canon through his inclusion in Kurt Pinthus's anthology Menschheitsdämmerung (Twilight of Humanity, 1920), his own autobiographical note rejected any possible interest in his private person: 'Born 1886 and grew up in villages in Brandenburg. Irrelevant career, irrelevant existence as a doctor in Berlin'. And yet from time to time Benn's personal investments and private resentments, in short the private man, suitably concealed by the masks and make-up of his professional status, do put in an appearance.

    Benn's lecture in 1920 on 'The modern self' must have surprised its audience of students in the natural sciences, as it shifted from the origins of European thought, between the Presocratics and St Gregory Nazianzus, to a rhapsodic meditation on the ultimate isolation of the modern self, as a Narcissus who has lost the richness and fullness of the Greek world. Through a series of autobiographical fictions, public lectures on the nature of poetry or the role of the poet, strange conceptual-lyrical narratives, and supposedly expository prose, all couched in an intense visionary style, the reader can gradually piece together the components of Benn's imaginative and intellectual world in the late 1920s. The modern self has abandoned the Dionysian and every last shred of the mythic world evoked in so many of these recondite texts. A poem called 'The later I' captures the sadness and the fury of Benn's response: 'With roses' ruins, where the fable / of summer is an old hypothesis - / moi haïssable / still so drunk with analysis' (Paisey).

    In the years leading up to the Nazi seizure of power, Benn seems to flirt with the idea of a greater public visibility for the poet-intellectual than his gloomy Nietzschean solipsism might suggest. Above all, it is the new medium of radio that gave him access to a wider public for his ideas in talks and lectures. He was flattered to be elected to the German PEN Club in 1928 ('Really super!' he wrote to his friend F. W. Oelze); and this was followed in 1932 by membership of the literary section of the Prussian Academy of Arts. He may have been as dismissive of socialist aspirations as he was critical of capitalist vulgarity, but what drives his political and aesthetic analysis, as often as not, seems to have been an underlying personal resentment about his own career, both in medicine and in literature. He was pushed into a new kind of defensiveness by the row that followed a review of his Collected Poems by Max Herrmann-Neiβe in 1929. Herrmann-Neiβe had acknowledged the superiority of Benn's writing over what was being produced by politically committed authors on the Left; Johannes R. Becher and Egon Erwin Kisch, leading literati of the Communist Party, responded with a virulent attack on what they saw as Benn's snobbery. Hofmann's prose selection in the American edition of Impromptus gives more of the substance of his stance than Paisey's; and it's not just that Benn deplores the inadequacy and incompetence of writing on the Left - though he does that, in a scalding attack on the way the Soviet author S. M. Tretjakow was lionized by a new generation of writers when he visited Berlin - but that mere fashionability in the arts hopelessly misses the point: 'The genitals are no longer taken seriously, except their diseases; all that's left of convictions is the dividend they pay'. Hofmann includes this evocation in 'The Season', and the essay gives a sharp sense of what, for Benn, was going so badly wrong in 1930. 'Cracks in the structure, splits in the hymen, a ghost in the Parthenon, the worm in consolidated property; the truth has become a swizz, pale ale; Pilate's washing water has become a rippling rill - but, hey, here's to the new Navy League, Pseudo Galileo, Bogus Copernicus, Peer-Review Newton' (for 'Vorschuβ-Newton') gives us an inkling of just why Hofmann thinks it may be time to return to Benn.

    The argument with the second-rate talents of the Communist Left pushed Benn to develop his cultural and philosophical instincts in ways he came to regret. Though he joined the literary section of the Academy under the presidency of Heinrich Mann, Benn's speech to mark his sixtieth birthday in 1931 carefully avoided any reference to Mann's left-liberal politics or his best-known social satire, the novel Der Untertan (Man of Straw); that omission provoked widespread criticism. Nevertheless it was his membership of the Prussian Academy which provided the forum for Benn's engagement in the Nazi state. Paisey points out that the 'convoluted prose of his 1932 inaugural speech to that body reveals how nervously he was trying to impress'. In the face of the 'progressive cerebralisation', which he had lamented ever since he described himself in the poem 'Underground train' as a 'Pathetic brain-dog, laden down with God', Benn prophesied a return of 'the old still substantial strata' in a great 'hallucinatory-constructive style'. Such chthonic irrationalism proved to be vulnerable to some of the ideological imagery of National Socialism; and Paisey translates the documents of that vulnerability in essays and speeches on 'Eugenics', 'The People [das Volk] and the Writer'; 'Doric World', with its celebration of the hardened male body as the origin, in Sparta, of the whole classical Greek aesthetic, provides, as Paisey points out, 'a model for the 'total state' of Nazi Germany'. And yet Benn's emphasis remains aesthetic: 'the state, power, purifies the individual, filters out his sensitivity, makes him cubic, creates surfaces, makes him fit for art'.

    Benn's appeal to absolute art as the only ground for the state goes well beyond his temporary Nazi affiliations. What does still shock is the intensity of his short-lived commitment: for it was Benn, in March 1933, who drafted a declaration of loyalty that each member of the Prussian Academy was expected to sign. A wave of resignations followed, and Benn presided over the successful Gleichschaltung of the Section for Literature in the Academy when more than a dozen new members were co-opted, several of them, like Hanns Johst and Will Vesper, card-carrying Nazis. It wasn't long, however, before Benn realized that the homemade Olypus on offer simply was not compatible with a truly human world at all. Recognizing his error, he told his friend Oelze that 'infinite shame at my own decline, and my too-long life, my survival [Über-leben], infinite grief at the act of betrayal I had planned against myself, has brought me down', and he returned to the Army. The reprinting of some early Expressionist pomes in a Selected Poems in 1936 drew the outraged attention of the Nazi press, and Benn had to call in some favours from Hanns Johst to support his continued position in the Army. Even the support of Himmler could not prevent his exclusion from the Nazi Reichsschrifttumskammer, the organization of professional writers in the Third Reich.

    In his version of the poem of 1936, 'Einsamer nie', Paisey reminds us of T. S. Eliot's interest in Benn's lyric voice by translating the opening line: 'August is the loneliest time'. The poem gives a characteristically restrained and, at the same time, grandiose response to the exile Benn had chosen in his own country:

    While joy for achievement is unconfined
    in exchange of glances and rings,
    in wine's bouquet, in delirious things -:
    you serve the counter-joy, the mind.

    Hofmann paraphrases that 'counter-happiness' as 'the intellect'. Whichever we may plump for, Benn's withdrawal into interiority is evident. This poem is one of only about a third of Hofmann's translations that even overlap with Paisey's. Their projects as translators are rather different, too: Hofmann makes it clear that he has avoided the 'barely translatable' tightly rhymed poems of the 1920s and 30s, while Paisey heroically takes on even the most unlikely of Benn's rhymed texts, including 'Banane', which Hofmann think is beyond translation. But Paisey is remarkably successful in finding workable equivalents. Even in this respect these two new translations are complementary: Paisey gives us a pretty thorough documentation of Benn's intellectual career as well as a wide and representative selection of verse and prose texts, meticulously and thoughtfully rendered. Hofmann, on the other hand, finds a whole idiom that reflects Benn's mixing of styles, without needing to stick too closely to the original if deviation serves the poem. Shifting amid the clashing registers of classical antiquity and a jazzy, louche everyday language, he does Benn over again, in English. Via 'those beerily misanthropic and magically beautiful mutterings of Benn's last two decades which have always entranced me', Hofmann finds a style close to but not identical with his own, like the 'strange adjacency' he once felt for late Malcolm Lowry (in his poem 'Shivery Stomp').


    These two different emphases perhaps correspond to Benn's double afterlife in the post-war generations of poets. But even then his resentments can be clearly heard. He wrote to the Editor of the literary journal Merkur in 1948: 'if you have been called a swine by the Nazis, an idiot by the Communists, an intellectual prostitute by the Democrats, a renegade by the emigrants, and a pathological nihilist by the devout... it does rather take the edge off a man's appetite for the public intellectual life'. Nevertheless, Benn's experiments with style found their way into the poetry of succeeding generations. Despite their mockery and sheer cheek, for the poets Peter Rühmkorf and Werner Riegel in the 1950s the profane and witty Benn remained an indispensable standard.

    Benn's outrage and satire lived on here and in Hans Magnus Enzensberger, while the meditative monologue and its intellectual aspirations are transmitted to Durs Grünbein, only five years younger than Hofmann and also translated by him. In these new translations, Michael Hofmann and David Paisey have given Benn a different chance to live on, in often sparkling and suitably moody English.


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