Gottfried Benn by jermainedayvis

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									                        THE POET GOTTFRIED            BENN
                                by Walter Sommer
                      TRANSLATION      OF SELECTED POEMS

                                by Antony Tat low

I — The disputed personality —
       "Much admired and blamed as much", as Helena says of herself in Goethe's
Faust, is the man, whose personality and work we are going to discuss now:
 Gottfried Benn. It would be hard to find in the last fifty years a case in which the
 discussion of a writer's political opinions has so influenced the evaluation of his
      Very soon after his first poems appeared in 1912, terrible simplificators
classified him as a degenerate poet. From the beginning the label of "pathological
nihilist" was attached to him by the bourgeoisie and this reproach has obstinately
      In the years of the Weimar Republic, literary left-wingers repeatedly attacked
the "disgusting aristocratic mentality" of this dermatologist "intoxicated with
Nietzsche". The communists called him fascist, the brown-shirts dubbed him a
middle-class communist. Wolfgang Willrich, Sauberung des Kunsttempels — eine
kunstpolitische Kampfschrift zur Gesundung deutscher Kunst im Geiste nordischer
Art1, Munchen 1937, classified him finally as one of the so-called degenerate poets.
      After 1945 the controversy over Benn became still more violent. In the
meantime he had grown used to defamatory attacks.
      Enough of this! Let us choose from the catalogue of post-war insults and
labels an especially significant example: In the "Deutsche Schriftstellerlexikon
von den Anfangen bis zur Gegenwart2", Volksverlag, Weimar 1960, Benn is
listed in the bourgeois group. The term bourgeois as it is used in the eastern part
of Germany is a great stain on a man's reputation. And now the problem becomes
interesting: Within this bourgeois group the demands of alphabet and ideology
result in the following arrangement: Benn — Bergengruen-Carossa. The literary
antipodes cheek by jowl. The thesis Benn, the antithesis Bergengruen leads hi
a daring dialectical leap to the appelation bourgeois. This passage in the literary
Who's Who is unintentionally comical.
      And Benn's admirers you will ask? Their battleline is drawn up too. Above
all, the younger generation which staggered through the holocaust of two world
wars belongs to it. Yes, but that is just the problem, said the late Walter Muschg,
prominent representative of German studies at Basel University. Poor German
youth, they have been lulled to sleep by a "master of lyrical hypnotism". At
least he calls him a master! Several pages further on, he says of Benn: "His
later poems are for the most part superficial journalism or nonsense-poetry". Then
again, "Benn remained a poet until his last breath". And furthermore he speaks
of the "corruption of language of an enervated Romantic" and of a "Manic-
depressive drug addict". But he also concedes him "magical poems", "metaphors
of unheard-of beauty" — and all in the same essay whose title is based on one of
Benn's works " 'Der Ptolemaer'—fare well to Gottfried Benn".2a
     This man however cannot be dismissed so easily. Let us first note that even
his most biased adversaries among the literary professionals are forced to concede
him poems of fascinating beauty. And now I invite the reader to cut through the
Gordian knot of these contradictions and to explore the biographic and poetical
landscape of this controversial man.
 II — The doctor and the poet —
       In the epilogue of the first edition of his collected works Gottfried Benn wrote
 in 1922:
       "Born in 1886, in a village of three hundred inhabitants, approximately half
 way between Berlin and Hamburg, son of a Protestant minister and his French-
 speaking wife from the district of Yverdon, grew up in a village of the same size in
 the Mark 3 . Went to grammar-school, then to the university, studied philosophy
 and theology for two years, then medicine at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Academy, was an
 active army-doctor in regiments in the provinces . . . , increased my medical
knowledge, travelled to America, inoculated lower-deck passengers, went into the
 war, stormed Antwerp, had a good time in the rear lines, stayed in Brussels for a
 long time, live now in Berlin as a specialist, consultation hours in the evening from
 5 to 7 p.m.
       I got my medical licence to practise, took my doctorate, passed the degree
examination, wrote about diabetes in the army, inoculations hi cases of gonorrhea,
peritonitis, cancer statistics and got the golden medal of the University of Berlin for
work on epilepsy; the literary works I have composed were written in spring 1916
in Burssels with the exception of the "Morgue" which was published in 1912 by
A.R. Meyer."4
      Here we find expressed in the concisest possible way what Benn really was:
doctor and poet, and both with complete dedication and without compromise.
      He liked to stress his origin in a Protestant rectory and he considered his own
combination of intellectual and poetical talents"5 to be the result of this special
      Benn's mother was a French speaking Swiss. This is important too. The
Romance influence or "the Mediterranean" as he calls it, imposed upon his poetical
talents a rigid will for form. He despised any kind of amateurism. He always
took great care to stay up to date in medical science and published hi medical
journals works in his special field of dermatology. As a poet he would untiringly
file his poems down to a fine point, dedicated to "the tender slow pace of the
creative process". He was totally convinced of the validity of this: "If something
is finished, it must be perfect."6
      Therefore he produced only a slim oeuvre in four volumes after almost fifty
years of poetical endeavour. Writing poetry was an inescapable compulsion for
him, lust and toil at the edge of despair.
      In the epilogue of his collected works of 1922, which we have just mentioned,
he confessed: "Thirty-seven years old and totally finished, I write nothing more."
Of course he continued writing, but outside opposition to his work was growing.
As an opponent of the positivist and materialist bourgeoisie of the era before and
after World War I, he had in his two essays "Der neue Staat und die Intellektuellen"
and "Kunst und Macht" assented to the national-socialist takeover as "national
revolution", but very soon he came to realize that his poetry did not suit the new
   regime and that his person was suspect.
          His lyrics were put under an ideological magnifying glass. The inquisitors of
   the Board of Literature of the Reich asked themselves: Poems like this? What
   is this man's name? — Benn, Benn, oh yes, the name accurs in "Ben Hur" in this
   novel by an American, Benn is a Jew! One 'n' more or less doesn't make an
   Aryan of him, this is camouflage. Benn got a Professor of Linguistics of Berlin
   University to marshal conclusive proof for the Celtic origin of his name. He
  himself set about proving his origins with embarrassing haste. But consider what
   was at stake: a poet who would have been condemned to silence, a doctor who
  would have lost his practice and with it the basis of his material existence. He
  could not make a living after all of D-Mark 4.50, which Benn once calculated, was
  his profit from his poems.
         Why did he not emigrate like Thomas Mann, Werfel, Doblin and so many
  others? When this question is discussed, Benn's seemingly irrelevant remark about
  the translation of lyrical poetry is in my opinion always swept under the carpet.
  He considered poems to be untranslatable. "The word is nationally rooted, paint-
  ings, sculptures, sonatas and symphonies are international — poems never. You
  can define poetry as the untranslatable". 7 He feared that if he left his native
  soil, he would become uprooted and the springs of lyrical creativity would dry up.
  Compare with this the statement of such a well-known poet as Heinrich Heine in
 Aphorismen und Fragmente8:
         "In France my spirit feels itself in exile, banished to a foreign language."
         So Benn stayed, but by 1934 he had already lost his political illusions.
 Presumably still under the impression which the Rohm affair 9 made on him, he
 wrote to Ina Seidel: "I live completely tight-lipped, spiritually and socially. I
 can't understand any more. Certain things were the last straw for me. Dreadful
 tragedy! The whole thing gradually gives me the impression of a third-rate theatre
 where 'Faust' is always announced but the cast is only good enough for
 'Husarenfieber'10. How nobly it began, how dirty it looks now. But there will be
 no end for a long time."11 Benn gave up his practice in 1935 and chose the
 aristocratic form of emigration, i.e. he entered the army as a doctor. Then began
 what later became known as his "Schreibtischliteratur"12
        In March 1938 when he was excluded from the Chamber of Literature of the
 Reich, he was almost forgotten by the German public. Right up to the time he
entered the army Benn made concessions to the Nazi regime, tried to adjust and
find his way through the vicissitudes of policy. But on one point he never yielded:
his poetry.
        Nowhere in his works do we find lyrics of "blood and soil". Whispering of
oaks around the runic stones, daring voyages of the Vikings, Krimhild's revenge,
and possibly "Graf Richard von der Normandie"13 were very popular after 1933.
However already in November 1934 Benn declared his committment to expression-
ism which for the Nazis was the equivalent of decadent art. By doing so, he
stood by his own expressionist poetry of which two examples follow:

                        The Negro's Bride
            Then bedded in cushions of dark blood
            the blond neck of a white woman.
            The sun raging in her hair
crawled down the brightness of her thighs
and knelt around the browner breasts,
still virginal to lust and birth.
A nigger lay beside her — forehead and eyes
smashed by a horse's hoof. Two toes
of his dirty left foot punctured
the hollow of her small white ear.
Yet she lay sleeping like a bride
at the hem of first love's happiness
hesitant before many ascensions
of the young warm blood.
      Until they
sank the knife into her white throat
and flung about her hips
a purple apron of dead blood.14

     Man and Woman walk through the Cancer Hut
     (Mann und Frau gehn durch die Krebsbaracke)

The man:
This row here is decayed wombs
and this row decayed breasts.
Bed after stinking bed. The nurses change hourly.

Go on, lift up the blanket.
This lump of fat and putrefaction
was once a man who lived
for ecstasy, for love.

Come, see this scar on the breast,
Can you feel the garland of soft nodes?
Yes, touch it. The flesh is soft and painless.

This one here bleeds enough for thirty more.
No one has so much blood.
First of all they cut a child
out of this cancerous womb.
We let them sleep. Day and night. We tell
the new ones: sleep and you'll get better. On Sundays
for visitors we let them wake a little.

They hardly eat at all. Their backs
all sores. You see the flies. Sometimes
the nurses wash them, just like benches.

Swell of the soil around each bed.
Flesh levels into land. Fire yields.
Juices prepare to flow. Earth calls.15
Ill — The lyrical themes —
       These two poems appeared in Benn's first work, "Morgue". It is obvious that
such poems, if only because of their subject-matter, did not suit the germanic-
nordic mood of the era after 1933; but before World War I they had a startlingly
unconventional and modern tone.
       They were as far removed from the then popular imitative lyrical poetry of
men like Geibel and Heyse, which reached 60-100 editions, or from the "stained-
glass lyrics" which fervently glorified the Germanic heritage, as they were later
from the blood and soil lyrics of the Third Reich. Benn's type of poetry meant an
end to fair damsels, rushing fountains and the sweet perfume of the lime-trees;
"Herz" and "Schmerz", "Lust" and "Brust" did not rhyme any longer. In the
dissection-room scene with it's sober enumeration of clinical diagnoses of the
terminal cancer ward, vibrates the compassion and emotion of a young doctor,
struck by human pain and death as a metaphysical reality. Many of Benn's verses
focus on the idea of human being as "existence stretching towards death".
       In "Man and Woman Going through the Cancer Ward" everything leads up to
the metaphors of death in the last three lines. Most striking is Benn's mastery of
the final lines of his poems which concentrate in a single comprehensive metaphor
the poetical images of the preceding verses. This control of imagery reveals a
great poet. In the "Cancer ward" there are no reflections about human dis-
integration and death in the manner of a philosopher but both phenomena take
shape as concrete images.
       There is nothing woolly or sentimental about these verses. Poetry for
edification has given way to avantgardistic lyrics with insight into the human
condition. What were Benn's intentions in writing this kind of poetry? In these
verses Benn tried to strike out at culture and society in the era before World War
I. This type of lyric challenged the world of superficiality and beautiful illusions
of the Wilhelmenian Epoc with its wishful thinking, naive positivistic belief in
progress and flat utilitarism. It is directed against .the average mentality and the
"Kloterjahns" of Thomas Mann's ironic short novel Tristan, who do not tire of
talking away the dark side of human nature in complacent self-deception. In
1920 Benn once more comes back to that typical figure of the age in his essay
"Das moderne Ich"16: "The compagnion, the mediocre type, the little easy-going
skip-Jack who shouts for Barrabas who wants to have a good tune, on the table
the sucking pigs, the dying gladiators to the hospital —, the big client of the
utilitarian —: measure and ami of the age."17
       Criticism of society and culture of his time gradually intertwines in Benn's
work more and more with a negative assessment of the historical evolution of men.
History becomes for him a maelstrom of senseless irrational activity, which is
incessantly repetitive. It is a completely chaotic process. Historicism of the 19th
century which culminates in Wilhelm Dilthey's famous word, "history alone tells
man what he is", is transformed in Benn's case into radical antihistoricism. His
political experiences have without doubt contributed to this attitude, but to an even
greater degree the experience of two World Wars with their great words, betrayed
belief, perverted dedication of the young generation and its senseless sacrifices.
One of his two most bitter repudiations of history was written immediately after
the First World War, the other in all probability in 1943.
 1) "The contents of history — For my information I open an old text-book
       the so-called "Kleiner Ploetz": Auszug aus der alten, mittleren und neuen
       Geschichte"18, Berlin 1891, publisher A.G. Ploetz. I open at any page, it is
       337, it is the year 1805, there I find: one nautical victory, two truces, three
       alliances, two coalitions, somebody marches, somebody concludes an alliance,
      somebody unites his troops, somebody reinforces something. Somebody ap-
      proaches, somebody conquers, somebody retreats, somebody takes a camp,
      somebody goes into retirement, somebody gets something, somebody inaugur-
       ates something brilliantly, somebody gets captured, somebody pays indemnities
      to somebody else, somebody threatens somebody, somebody advances towards
       the Rhine, somebody marches through Ansbach Territory, somebody towards
      Vienna, somebody is pushed back, somebody is executed, somebody kills
      himself — all this on one single page. The whole is without any doubt a case
      history of lunatics."19
 2) "Or who read Plutarch? Who even remembered all the kingdoms surging
      from the hands of the one Demetrius, like grapes from a bunch until they
      were thrown into the barrel by a Syrian or a Scythian? Who isn't yawning
      already, who hasn't escaped yet? Who doesn't yet see the casuistry of battle,
      the rhythm of catastrophy and the manic depressive madness of the history of
      Wearisome da capo! The idea in history! You saw them indeed, the
      pneumatic tyre and the stereoscopic telescope, first class, nothing to add!
      once again an opportunity to demonstrate achievements, all chemistry, food
      as well as gases. What activity in the technical arts, whole teams of sub-
      marine welders, what splendid progress from the jacketed bullet to the lyddite
      Those who believe that the principal thrust of history is progress in civilisation
have their attention directed towards -the double-edged nature of the development
of the natural sciences. The "century of reality and systematic knowledge" as
Benn calls the 19th century21 has enriched the political world, this world of
coercion and force, with new means of destruction. The so-called progress in
natural sciences is no evolutionary ascent, it neutralizes itself.
      In his essays, Benn has endeavoured again and again to understand himself
and his place in the world. Recognize the human situation and again: recognize
the situation. This is the motto of one of the exemplary figures in Benn's Berlin
novel "Der Ptolemaer"22. The poet has himself followed this maxim. His essays
form the raw material, which he distilled into lyrics. Benn's antihistoricism in
lyrical form looks like this:

                           If you survey the years
                          (Uberblickt man die Jahre)
               If you survey the years
               form Ur to El Alamein,
               say where the truth appears,
               Cabbala, black stone.
               Persian, Laskar, Hun,
               arrows, flag and swords —
               crossed the seas and gone,
               destroyed by the sea's hordes.
               By sun and water told,
 but what hour is meant?
 Headlong stars unfold,
 but to what intent?
 Water cascade appears,
 penetrates our dreams:
 dryad's falling tears
 are the clock it seems.
 Weapons laurel wreathed
 and the victory won,
 forehead and laurel fused
 heroes rest begun,
 marble, laurel, pylon,
 Gordon and Prince Eugene,
 golden cities, Zion —
 thanatoid gene.
Christian, heathen palms,
early creation's rest,
willow myrtle psalms
for Tabernacle feast,
tall and pure and royal
palms on coasts and bays
then the sand's despoil
ends Palmyra's days.
If you survey the years,
turbulence of the flood,
the dark ship, the biers
for heroes, armies, blood,
water and sun-kept hour
shadows running on:
all this in your power,
Cabbala, black stone.23

soul's sputum,
blood clots of the twentieth century —
Scars — circulatory disturbance of early creation,
the religions of five centuries shattered,
science: cracks in the Parthenon,
Planck with his Quantum theory flowed
darkly into Kiekegaard and Kepler —•
but there were evenings that walked in the colours
of the Father, loosely gathered, billowing,
                 irrefutable their silence
                of streamed blue,
                 introvert's colour,
                people came together
                hands propped on knees
                peasant-like, simple
                given to quiet drinking
                to the farm-hand's harmonica —
                and others
                the prey of inner convolutions,
                pressure in the arch,
                the compulsion of form
                or the pursuit of love.
                 Language in ruins, sexual paroxysms:
                 that's man to-day,
                 a vacuum inside,
                 the preservation of personality
                 a matter of one's jacket,
               , if the material is good it lasts ten years.
               The rest fragments,
               half sounds,
               suggestions of melody from neighbouring houses,
               negro spirituals
               or Ave Marias.24
      The first of these poems centers around the enigmatic uselessness of the
historical process. Using a technique of summary synopsis common to Benn, the
second poem hints at the creation of a fragmentary, incoherent and contradictory
world from the stream of history. For Benn, history becomes the typical example
of fragmentation from which the introverted man can sometimes escape. In view
of this fragmentary chaos he asks anew the old question of Walther von der
Vogelweide: How should one live243? And this question leads straight away to
a further central topic of Benn's poetry. Benn didn't find a patent answer to this
question, capable of retaining its validity for his whole life. In his early writings
the answer differs from that given in his later works.
      In Benn's early writings the thirty years old doctor Werff Ronne is his model.
Ronne suffers similar to Rilke's Malte Laurids Brigge and Hofmannsthal's Lord
Chandos under the experience of disintegration of reality, which he cannot reinte-
      Ronne is the "flagellator" of objects in isolation, the representative of the
naked vacuum of factuality, who could not bear reality nor grasp it either"26. A
trip by train from Brussels to Antwerp becomes an insuperable problem for him.
      In a series of exemplary situations Ronne seeks an answer to the question
of human existence in an absurd world. In an alienated world he creates for
himself a surrealist imaginary world. Dionysiac intuition bridges the gap to buried
archaic irrational layers of reality and one's own personality. The conquest of
the absurd world in the dionysian dream or the longing for it takes shape repeatedly
in the poems. Characteristically the collection of early poetry takes its title from
 one poem of this period named "Trunkene Flut"27. An example of this is the
 well-known poem "Karyatide" or the following: "Ikarus". Thematically both
 belong together, having in common the same ecstatic impetus:

                0 midday, easing with warm hay my brain
                to field, plain, pasture, flocks,
                soft dissolution, as with flowing arm
                1 draw the poppy to my brow —
                still winging over curse and grief
                of growth, great arched one
                extirpate eye's mind.
                Through mountain scree, through dusty carrion,
                through beggarly serration
                of the rocks — streams
                the ubiquitous mother blood,
                Animals live for the day
                the udder has no recollection,
                the slope holds out in silence to the light it's flower
                and is destroyed.
               But I, with watchman between blood and claw,
               brain-consumed carrion, curses
               hurled in the void, bespat with words,
               aped by the light —
               o great arched one
               let drop into my eyes one hour
               of the light eyes never saw —
               melt colour's deception, brandish
               the mud-crushed lairs in the thunder
               of the prancing suns, plunge of the double suns,
               O all suns' ceaseless falling.28
Here we find a Schopenhauerian belief of a breakthrough to a transcendent
world by means of art, specifically of poetry. Working with concepts the brain-
consumed self cannot find its way back to the irrational stream of creation. It
longs for extirpation of the brain which leads it back into the river-like gestation
of natural life and lets it participate again in totality of life. Benn's Ikarus leads
us automatically to Goethe's hymn Ganymed:
     Here also, the nostalgia for identification with the "hen kai pan", the One
which is All, finds its poetical expression.
     If we compare the contents of the three following poems with this flight from
the waste land into the supernatural world of myth and dream we come upon a
further nuance in Benn's answer to the question of the possibilities of human
existence in an absurd world.
                        The Young Hebbel
                        (der junge Hebbel)
             You chip and cut: the supple chisel
             in smooth delicate hands.
             I wrestle with the form,
             my forehead on the marble block,
             my hands work for bread.
             I am still a long way off.
             But I shall become myself.
             I nourish someone deep in the blood,
             who cries for the earths
             and heavens of his own creating.
             My mother is so poor,
             you would laugh if you saw her,
             we live in a small stable
             rebuilt at the end of the village.
             My youth is like a scab
             over a running sore,
             a daily trickle of blood.
             This has disfigured me.
             I need no sleep; and just enough
             food to keep me from starvation.
             The struggle is merciless
             and the world bristles with swordpoints.
             Each one hungers for my heart.
             Each one I, weaponless,
             must melt down in my blood . . . 29
                     Songs of Praise
                     (Eine Hymne)
             That's the mark of the real fighter:
             stand up to the blows
             without flinching,
             rinsing the throat with fire-water
             sub and superanatomic
             Empedocles sandals
             on the crater's edge
             then the descent.
             don't say: return
             don't think: perhaps,
             abandon molehills
               to growing dwarfs,
               able to throw away the victory —
               Let me praise such a man.30
               Man — on earth alone,
               the world unmasked again,
               the heros, the herds are gone:
               endless Trojan plain —
               always those clouds of fire,
               always the flames of night
               around you, dark and dire,
               guarding the last light,
               no more gods, no pleading,
               no lap for rest — your fate
               is silence, enduring,
               suffer and be great.31

      The isolated individual faces a world bristling with sword-points. No gods
 to pray to any more. No mother's lap to rest in any more. How does he survive
in such a. world in which according to Nietzsche's merciless saying "God is dead"
and where man must face Nothingness. The way out Benn hints at in lyrical
verses is Nietzsche's way out of the nihilism of values. Man redeems himself
through his own will and his own ability for suffering.
      The poem dedicated to the titan of voluntarism Friedrich Hebbel, written in
 1913, emphasizes Nietzsche's "heroic affirmation of life" most consequently.
      "Mann" dating back to 1933 and the "Hymne", published 1951, underline
the strength to live one's life by virtue of ones capacity for suffering. History is
not the stage where man heroically stands trial. Thinking means suffering and
hence the intellectual man, especially the artist is the epitome of the overconscious
suffering individual.
      Benn's work contains a number of poems dedicated to artists, which evoke
the genius marked by suffering under a secularized passion. Nietzsche and Chopin
stand as exemplary figures for this kind of existence.
                            Still hold the swords
                       (Dennoch die Schwerter halten)
               The social bond that binds,
               down the sleeping years,
               a few great minds
               and their bitter tears.
               The Sils-Maria32 wind
               for a few silent hours,
     fulfillment's heavy wound,
     if fulfillment lours.
     A few dying warriors,
     tortured at death's gate
     today, tomorrow the victors:
     why did you create?
     Striking of snakes fangs
     venom, tooth and pain,
     Ecce-homo pangs
     throughout limb and vein.
     So many ruins call,
     the races wish for peace,
     let yourself sink and fall
     to what does not cease.
     Then duty and no words,
     knowing of it's decay,
     still hold the swords
     before the world's day.33

     Not really forthcoming in conversation,
     opinions are not what matters,
     when Delacroix propounded theories
     he grew restless, for his part he could not
     explain the Nocturnes.
     Poorish lover;
     a shadow in Nohant,
     where George Sand's children
     ignored all his advice
     on education.
     Consumption, the kind
     that kills slowly,
     a gentle death
     compared to paroxysms
     or rifle bullets:
     they moved the piano (Erard) to his door
     and in his last hour
     Delphine Potoshka sang a song
     about violets.
     He went to England with three pianos:
     Pleyel, Erard, Broadwood,
                and played before the great,
                Rothschilds, Wellingtons, in Stafford House,
                twenty guineas for fifteen minutes:
                exhausted, marked by death
                he returned home
                to the Square d'Orleans.
               Then he burnt his rough drafts
               and his manuscripts,
               there must be no remnants
               to betray him —
               saying finally:
               'What I attempted, achieved the perfection
               of which I was capable.'
               Each finger should play
               according to it's strength,
               the fourth is the weakest
               (joined to the middle finger).
               When he began, they lay
               on e, f, g, b, c.
               Whoever heard him play
               certain preludes,
               whether in country houses
               or in the mountains
               or through open terrace doors
               in a sanatorium perhaps,
               cannot forget.
               Never wrote an opera,
               nor a symphony,
               just these daily progressions,
               artistic conviction
               from a small hand.34

      In this magnificently constructed short lyrical biography of Chopin Benn
alludes to the isolation and alienation of the artist. The words "self-sufficient
indivisible" in the poem "Eine Hymne" hints at the so-called static metaphysics,
which Benn developed in his later work as the basis for existence.
      "Above all the Asiatic—static perspectives—: by means of such allusions
one should attempt to describe the nature of the existential — conclusions, tenden-
tious results lie outside its sphere", so Benn says in the "Roman des Phanotyp"35.
      It is not a question of action which aims at external achievements, but of
static existence which is indifferent to the outside world.
      Living in this manner means understanding reality merely as the artificial world
of appearances. But you cannot avoid life, this fragmentary chaotic juxtaposition
of things: Benn of course knows this. There are the daily problems of personal
and professional life. The question is how to bear these and at the same time live
a meaningful life? Benn's answer is: split up the mind, lead a double life, live in
two worlds, conscious of the fact that that which lives is different from that which
thinks and it is not possible to unify them. Play your social role without engaging
yourself, adapt yourself to the situation. But behind this life opens up the vast
domain of freedom: In Benn's words there the bunker lies, where the poet digs
in, from which Minerva's owl, history, is banished. There the word laboratory lies
in which the contents of the mind are reviewed and the fascinating montage of
words takes place. Here arise "verses of stone and song of the flute", the artistic
structures which can be bequeathed.36
      The static poem is the equivalent of the static metaphysics. The title of his
late work is "Static Poems" and no longer "Dionysian Flood".

                         Static Poems
                       (Statische Gedichte)
               Alien to evolution
               knowledge of the wise,
               children and children's children
               do not disturb,
               do not penetrate.
               Advocating views
               taking action
               going on journeys
               is the mark of a world
               that does not understand.
               Before my window
               — the wise man says —
               a valley lies,
               where the shadows gather,
               two poplars guards the path,
               you know — where to.

               another word for his static world:
               the design of lines,
               extending them
               by coiling tendril law —
               tendrils sprayed —
               as flights of crows
               cast to the winter red of early skies,
               then slow descent —
               you know — for whom.37
     Benn is often seen as a "homo ludens", a poet who merely plays with words
and juggles with a profusion of disparate material. Passages from his essays like
the following seem to confirm this image of >a technician of words, of a formalist
and still more that of a nihilist and representative of 1'ait pour Fart:
         "The modern lyrical mind enters . . . its laboratory, the laboratory of words.
   Here it moulds, fabricates words, opens them, explodes them, smashes -them in
  order to fill them with tension, whose essence may last for a few decades. The
  modern lyrical mind saw everything fall apart: theology, biology, philosophy,
  sociology, materialism and idealism, it clings only to one thing: the work on the
  poem. It precludes any thought which had any connection with faith, progress
  and humanism, it limited itself to words uniting them into poems.
        This mind is completely ahistorical, it knows no historical mission whatsoever,
  neither for half a century nor for a whole century, prospects and promises of
  alleged intellectual connections and influences, ramifications, integrations or resur-
  rections are useless to it; it describes its alloted course — Moira, the fate which has
  been determined for it — it does not look beyond itself, it denies itself this un-
  burdening. At its utmost it reaches the age of seventy, by that time it must have
  described its morphology and must have found its words. Six to eight perfect
  poems — more than that even the Great did not leave behind — the battle is for
  this half dozen."38
 "Hence the poem is absolute — dedicated to Nothing."39
        But this work on the absolute poem, the poem as such is not a mere technical
 mastery of words. It requires a maximum of concentration and must also be
 based on the tragic experience of suffering. "It requires the utmost tragical inside,
 otherwise it is not convincing. But if the man lives up to this requirement the
 first line can be taken from the railway time-table and the second line can be a
 vers from the hymnbook and the third a Mikoschwitz and the whole is nevertheless
 a poem. And if the man does not live up to this requirement, then husbands can
 compose long poems about their wifes and mothers about their sons, and grandsons
 about their grandaunts in an armchair or in the quiet of the evening and even a
 layman will notice very soon that this is not poetry at all."40 And why, asks Benn,
 is this poetry 1'art pour 1'art? It is not 1'art pour 1'art, it is Fart pour tous. He
 asks the reader not to close his mind before the difficulties involved in this kind of
poetry. Static poems simply exist and stand their ground against the instability
 and uncertainty of all values of life. Art, proclaimed by Nietzsche "as the last
metaphysical activity of European nihilism", overcomes this nihilism because it
 allows men to participate in the transcendental.
       Not politics, but art reaches deep into the layers of the soul in which the
great changes of society take place. Works of art postulate order and achieve
form in the face of European decay. Even if the poet must not succumb to the
illusion of improving mankind, poetry is not amoral or indifferent. It is on the
contrary extremely educative because it offers cognitive insight into the world,
because it reveals the world by metaphors and because it lays bare the cracks in
social life.
       Thus Benn affirms the function of poetry, to criticize civilisation and society.
       "Moira: I describe my alloted course." We have examined the course of
Gottfried Benn's life as a poet. In his later works this course had described a
circle, well-rounded, self-sufficient complete, hardened in the flames of an ancient
conception of fate and a Stoic pessimism.

                         I suppose
                       (Tells — Teils)
               No Gainsboroughs hung in my parents' house
     Chopin was not played
     an intellectual world indifferent to art
     my father had been in the theatre once
     at the beginning of the century
     Wildenbruch's 'Crested Lark'
     we lived on this
     that was all.
     Gone long ago
     grey hearts, grey hairs
     the garden is Polish now
     the graves too, I suppose
     but all Slavonic,
     Oder-Neisse line
     unimportant for corpses
     their children think of them
     husbands and wives too for a while
     I suppose
     until they must move on
     Selah, end of the psalm.
     Now in this city night
     a cafe terrace
     summer stars,
     from the next table
     the standard of hotels in Frankfurt
     the women unsatisfied
     if you could weigh their longing
     each over a ton.
     But the atmosphere! Hot night
     just like in the brochures and
     the ladies stepping out of the pictures :
     unbelievable, quelle beaute
     long legged, tall waterfall
     it's better not to think about
     their readiness.
     Married couples are inferior by far,
     don't make the grade, balls in the net,
     he smokes, she twists her rings,
     really worth thinking about
     the relationship between marriage and sport
     paralysis or frenzy.

     Questions, questions. Recollections of a summer night
     swept past, blinked away,
     no Gainsboroughs hung in my parents' house
     now all has sunk
     everything I suppose ,
     Selah, end of the psalm.41

Dann lag auf Kissen dunklen Bluts gebettet
der blonde Nacken einer weiBen Frau.
Die Sonne wutete ni ihrem Haar
und leckte ihr die hellen Schenkel lang
und kniete um die braunlichenen Bruurte,
noch unentstellt durch Laster und Geburt.
Ein Nigger neben ihr: durch Pferdehufschlag
Augen und Stirn zerfetzt. Der bohrte zwei
Zehen seines schmutzigen linken FuBes
ins Innere ihres kleinen weiBen Ohrs.
Sie aber lag und schlief wie eine Braut:
am Saume ihres Glucks der ersten Liebe
und wie vorm Aufbruch vieler Himmelfahrten
des jungen warmen Blutes.

                         Bis man ihr
das Messer in die weiBe Kehle senkte
und einen Purpurschurz aus totem Blut
ihr um die Huften warf.

       Mann und Frau gehen durch die Krebsbaracke
Der Mann:
Hier diese Reihe sind zerfallene SchoBe
und diese Reihe ist zerfallene Brust.
Bett stinkt bei Bett. Die Schwestern wechseln srundlich.

Komm hebe ruhig diese Decke auf.
Sieh, dieser Klumpen Fett und faule Safte,
das war einst irgendeinem Mann groB
und hieB auch Rausch und Heimat.
Komm sieh auf diese Narbe an der Brust.
Fuhlst Du den Rosenkranz von weichen Knoten?
Fuhl ruhig hin. Das Flisch ist weich und schmerzt nicht.
Hier diese blutet wie aus dreiBig Leibern.
Kein Mensch hat so viel Blut.
Hier dieser schnitt man
erst noch ein Kind aus dem verkrebsten SchoB.
     Man laBt sie schlafen. Tag und Nacht. Den Neuen
     sagt man: hier schlaft man sich gesund. — Nur sonntags
     fur den Besuch laBt man sie etwas wacher.
     Nahrung wird wenig noch verzehrt. Die Rucken
     sind wund. Du siehst die Fliegen. Manchmal
     wascht sie die Schwester. Wie man Banke wascht.
     Hier scbwillt der Acker schon um jedes Bett.
     Fleisch ebnet sich zu Land. Glut gibt sich fort.
     Saft schickt sich anzu rinnen. Erde ruft.

                      Uberblickt man die Jahre
     Uberblickt man die Jahre
     von Ur bis El Alamein,
     wo lag denn unu das Wahre,
     Kabbala, der Schwarze Stein —
     Perser, Hunnen und Laskaren,
     Pfeile, Fahnen und Schwert —
     uber die Meere gefahren,
     von den Meeren versehrt?

     Wasser — unl Sonnenuhren —
     welche Stunde gemeint?
     welche Gestirne fuhren
     hauptlings — alles vereint?
     Welche Wasserkaskade bis in
     die Traume erscheint—:
     jene Uhr als Dryade,
     aus der es trant und weint.
     Waffen mit Lorbeer gereinigt
     brachten den Sieg ins Haus,
     Stirn und Lorbeer vereinigt
     ruhten die Helden dann aus,
     Lorbeer, Marmor, Pylone,
     Gordon und Prinz Eugen,
     goldene Stadte, Zione—:
     thanatogen —
     Palmen bei Christen, bei Heiden,
     fruhester Schopfungsrest,
     Palmen mit Myrthen und Weiden
     beim Laubhuttenfest,
     Palmen an Syrthen, an Kusten
     koniglich hoch und rein —
     doch dann wandern die Wusten
     in Palmyra ein.
Uberblickt man die Jahre,
ewig wuhlende Flut
und die dunkle Barke, die Bahre
mit Helden, Heeren und Blut,
und die Sonnen — unl Wasseruhren
schatten und rinnen es ein
alles deine Figuren,
Kabbala, Schwarzer Stein.

Blutgerinsel des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts —
Narben — gestoter Kreislauf der Schopfungsfruhe,
die historischen Religionen von funf Jahrhunderten zertrummert,
die Wissenschaft: Risse im Parthenon,
Planck rann mit seiner Quantentheorie
zu Kepler und Kierkegaard neu getrubtkzusammen —
aber Abende gab es, die gingen in den Farben
des Allvaters, lockeren, weitwallenden,
unumstoBlich in ihrem Schweigen
gestromten Blaus,
Farbe der Introvertierten,
da sammelte man sich die Hande auf das Knie gestutzt
bauerlich, einfach
und stillem Trunk ergeben
bei den Harmonikas der Knechte —

und andere
gehetzt von inneren Konvoluten,
oder Jagden nach Liebe.
Ausdruckskrisen unl Anfalle von Erotik:
das is der Mensch von heute,
das Innere ein Vakuum,
die Kontinuitat der Personlichkeit
wird gewahrt von den Anzugen,
das ist der Mensch von heute,

derRest Fragmente,
halbe Laute,
Melodienansatze aus Nachbarhausern,
oder Ave Marias.
                            Ikarus I
     O Mttag, der mit heiBem Heu mein Hirn
     zu Wiese, flachem Land unl Hirten schwacht,
     daB ich hinrinne und, den Ann im Bach,
     den Mond an meine Schlafe ziehe —
     o du Weithingewolbter, enthirne doch
     stillflugelnd uber Fluch und Gram
     des Werdens und Geschehns
     mein Auge.
     Noch durch Geroll der Halde, noch durch Land-aas,
     verstaubendes, durch bettelhaft Gezack
     der Felsen — liberal]
     das tiefe Mutterblut, die stromende
     Das Tier lebt Tag um Tag
     und hat an seinem Euter kein Erinnern,
     der Hang schweigt seine Blume in das Licht
     und wird zerstort.
     Nur ich, mit Wachter zwischen Blut und pranke,
     ein hirnzerfressenes Aas mit Fluchen
     im Nichts zergellend, bespien mit Worten,
     verafft vom Licht —
     o du Weithingewolbter,
     tra'uf meinen Augen eine Stunde
     des guten fruhen Voraugenlichts —
     schmilz bin den Trug der Farben, schwinge
     die kotbedrangten Hohlen in das Rauschen
     gebaumter Sonnen, Sturz der Sonnen-sonnen,
     o aller Sonnen ewiges Gefalle —

                     Der junge Hebbel
        Ihr schnitzt und bildet: den gelenken MeiBel
        in einer feinen weichen Hand.
        Ich schlage mit der Stirn am Marmorblock
        die Form heraus,
        meine Hande schaffen ums Brot.
        Ich bin mir noch sehr fern.
        Aber ich will Ich werden!
        Ich trage einen tief im Blut,
        der schreit nach seinen selbsterschaffenen
        Gotterhimmeln und Menschenwerden.
        Meine Mutter ist eine so arme Frau,
        laB ihr lachen wurdet, wenn ihr sie sahet,
        wir wohnen in einer engen Bucht,
ausgebaut an des Dorfes Ende.
Meine Jugend 1st mir wie ein Schorf:
eine Wunde darunter,
da sickert taglich Blut hervor.
Davon bin ich so entstellt.
Schlaf brauche ich keinen.
Essen nur so viel, daB ich nicht verrecke!
Underbittlich 1st der Kampf,
und die Welt starrt von Schwertspitzen.
Jede hungert nach meinem Herzen.
Jede muB ich, Waffenloser,
in meinem Blut zerschmelzen.

               Eine Hymne
Mit jener Eigenschaft der groBen Puncher:
Schlage hinnehmen konnen
Feuenwasser in der Kehle gurgeln
sub — und supraatomar
dem Rausch begegnet sein,
am Krater lassen wie Empedokles
und dann hinab,
nicht sagen: Wiederkehr
nicht denken: halb und halb,
Maulwurfshugel freigeben
wenn Zwerge sich vergroBern wollen,
allroundgetafelt bei sich selbst
und auch den Sieg verschenken konnen —
eine Hymne solchem Mann.
     Mann — du alles auf Erden,
     fielen die Masken der Welt,
     fielen die Helden, die Herden—:
     weites trojanisches Feld —
     immer Gewolker der Feuer,
     immer die Flammen der Nacht
     um dich, Tiefer und Treuer,
     der das Letzte bewacht,
     keine Cotter mehr zum Bitten
     keine Mutter mehr als SchoB —
     schweige und habe gelitten,
     sammle dich und sei groB!

               Dennoch die Schwerter halten
          Der soziologische Nenner,
          der hinter Jahrtausenden schlief,
          heiBt: ein paar groBe Manner
          und die litten tief.
          HeiBt: ein paar schweigende Stunden
          in Sils-Maria-Wind,
          Erfullung ist schwer von Wunden,
          wenn es Erfullungen sind.
         HeiBt: ein paar sterbende Krieger
         gequalt und schattenblaB,
         sie heute und morgen der Sieger—:
         warum erschufst du das?
         HeiBt: Schlangen schlagen die Hauer
         das Gift, den BiB, den Zahn,
         die Ecce-homo-Schauer
         dem Mann in Blut und Bahn —
         heiBt: so viel Trummer winken:
         die Rassen wollen Ruh,
         lasse dich doch versinken
         dem nie Endenden zu —
         und heiBt dann: schweigen und walten,
         wissend, daB sie zerfallt,
         dennoch die Schwerter halten
        vor die Stunde der Welt.

     Nicht sehr ergiebig im Gesprach,
     Ansichten waren nicht seine Starke,
     Ansichten reden drum herum,
     wenn Delacroix Theorien entwickelte,
     wurde er unruhig, er sein erseits konnte
     die Notturnos nicht begrunden.
     Schwacher Liebhaber;
     Schatten in Nohant,
     wo George Sands Kinder
     keine erzieherischen Ratschlage
     von ihm annahmen.
     Brustkrank in jener Form
     mit Blutungen und Narbenbildung,
     die sich lange hinzieht;
     stiller Tod
 im Gegensatz mit einem
 mit Schmerzparoxysmen
 oder durch Gewehrsalven:
 man ruckte den Flugel (Erard) an die Tur
 und Delphine Potocka
 sang ihm in der letzten Stunde
 ein Veilchenlied.
Durch England reiste er mit drei Flugeln:
Pleyel, Erard, Broadwood,
spielte fur zwanzig Guineen abends
eine Viertelstunde
bei Rothschilds, Wellingtons, im Stafford House
und vor zahllosen Hosenbandern;
verdunkelt vor Mudigkeit und Todesnahe
kehrte er heim
auf den Square d'Orleans.
Dann verbrennt er seine Skizzen
und Manuskripte,
nur keine Restbestande, Fragmente, Notizen,
diese verraterischen Einblicke —
sagte zum SchluB:
"Meine Versuche sind nach MaBgabe dessen vollendet,
was nir erreichen moglich war."
Spielen sollte jeder Finger
mit der seinem Bau entsprechenden Kraft,
der vierte ist der schwachste
(nur siamesisch zum Mittelfinger).
wenn er begann lagen sie
auf e, fis, gis, h, c.
Wer je bestimmte Praludien
von ihm horte,
sei es in Landhausern oder
in einem Hohengelande
oder aus offenen Terrassenturen
beispielweise aus einem Sanatorium
wird es schwer vergessen.
Nie eine Oper komponiert,
keine Sypmphonie,
nur diese tragischen Progressionen
aus artistischer Uberzeugung
und mit einer kleinen Hand.

             Statische Gedichte
            ist die Tiefe des Weisen,
            Kinder und Kindeskinder
            beunruhigen ihn nicht,
            dringen nicht in ihn ein.
            Richtungen vertreten,
            Zu- und Abreisen
            ist das Zeichen einer Welt,
            die nicht klar sieht.
            Vor meinem Fenster
            — sagt der Weise —
            liegt ein Tal,
            darin sammeln sich die Schatten,
            zwei Pappeln saumen einen Weg,
            du weiBt — wohin.
            ist ein anderes Wort fur seine Statik:
            Linien anlegen,
            sie weiterfuhren
            nach Rankengesetz —
            Ranken spruhen —,
            auch Schwarme, Krahen,,
            auswerfen in Winterrot von Fruhhimmeln,
            dann sinken lassen —
            du weiBt — fur wen.

                        Teils — Teils
     In meinem Elternhaus hingen keine Gainsboroughs
     wurde auch kein Chopin gespielt
     ganz amusisches Gedankenleben
     mein Vater war einmal im Theater gewesen
     Anfang des Jahrhunderts
     wildenbruchs "Haubenlerche"
     davon zehrten wir
     das war alles.
     Nun langst zu Ende
     graue Herzen, graue Haare
     der Garten in polnischem Besitz
     die Graber teils-teils
     aber alle slawisch,
     fur Sarginhalte ohne Belang
     die Kinder denken an sie
     die Gatten auch noch eine Weile
     bis sie weitermussen
               Sela, Psalmenende.
               Heute noch in einer GroBstadtnacht
               vom Nebentisch
               Hotelqualitaten in Frankfurt
               die Damen unbefriedigt
               wenn ihre Sehnsucht Gewicht hatte
               woge jede drei Zentner.
              Aber ein Fluidum! HeiBe Nacht
              a la Reiseprospekt und
              die Ladies treten aus ihren Bildern:
              unwahrscheinliche Beauties
              langbeinig, hoher Wasserfall
              uber ihre Hingabe kann man sich gar nicht erlauben
              Ehepaare fallen demgegenuber ab,
              kommen nicht an, Balle gehen ins Netz,
              er raucht, sie dreht ihre Ringe,
              uberhaupt nachdenkenswert
              Verhaltnis von Ehe und Mannesschaffen
              Lahmung oder Hochtrieb.
              Fragen ,Fragen! Erinnerungen in einer Sommernacht
              hingeblinzelt, hingestrichen,
              in meinem Elternhaus hingen keine Gainsboroughs
              nun alles abgesunken
              teils-teils das Ganze
              Sela, Psalmenende.

Preliminary note:
     This paper was originally given as a talk in German in the Goethe-Institut Hong Kong
before an audience of friends of modern German literature.
     The author discusses the lyrical themes of Benn's poetry and attempts to elucidate his
personality. In his selection of Benn's poems he wanted his audience to experience lyrical
poetry as magic of the spoken word.
     This selection is rendered into English too, because in spite of Benn's scepticism who
declared poetry to be untranslatable, the author is of the opinion, that there is justification
and value in such an attempt.
1—Purification of the temple of art — A pamphlet concerning cultural policy for the
   rehabilitation of German Art through the nordic spirit.
2 —German literary Who's Who.
2a—In: Die Zerstorung der dentschen Literatur, List-Bucher, Vol. 156, p 140-159.
3—Means Mark Brandenburg, the heart of Prussia
4—cf. Epilog und lyrisches Ich, Gesammelte Werke (henceforth quoted G.W.), Limes-
   Verlag, Wiebaden 1961, Vol. 4, p. 7.

 5—Lebensweg ernes Intellektualisten, G.W., Vol. IV, p. 23.
 6—Altern als Problem fur Kunstler, GW., Vol. I, p. 580.
 7—Probleme der Lyrik, GW., vol. I., P. 510
 8—Samtliche Werke, Kindler Verlag, Munchen 1964, vol. XIV, p 134
 9—Hitler's bloody purge of the Brownshirts' leader Ernst Rohm, his friends and opponents
    of Hitler's regime on June 30, 1934.
 10—Soldier's love.
 J1—In the epilogue of the editor, GW., vol. I, p. 644.
 12—Writings consigned to the drawer.
 13—Count Richard from the Normandie, a ballad by the German poet L. Uhland.
 14—Gedichte, GW., vol. Ill, p. 9.
 15—Op. cit., p. 14.
 16—The modern mind—
 17—GW. vol. I, p. 17.
 18—The Small Ploetz: Summary of Ancient, Medieval and Modern History.
 19—Zum Thema Geschichte, GW, vol. I, p. 383.
20—Das moderne Ich, GW, vol. I, page 11.
21—Op. cit., 11-12.
22—GW. vol. II, p. 232.
 23—Gedichte, GW., Vol. Ill, p. 438.
24—Op. cit., p. 245-246
24a—Walther von der Vogelweide is Germany's foremost medieval poet. His famous poem
      "ich saz uf einem steine" centers around the above question.
25—Die Reise, GW, vol. II, p. 28 ff.
26—Lebensweg eines Intellektualisten, GW., vol. IV, p. 30.
27—Dionysian Flood.
28—Gedichte, GW., vol. Ill, p. 46.
29—Gedichte, GW. vol. in, p. 21.
30—Op. cit., p. 270.
31—Op. cit., p. 180.
32—Name of Nietzsche's summer residence in Switzerland in 1881 and 1883-1888.
33—Jedichte, J.W., vol III, p. 182.
34—Op. cit., p. 188.
35—Novel of the Phaenotype, G.W., vol. II, p. 158.
36—See Doppelleben, GW., vol. IV, p. 128, 166 and Vortrag in Knokke, G.W. vol. I, p. 544
    and 547.
37—Gedichte, GW.. Vol. Ill, p. 236.
38—Vortrag in Knokke, GW., vol. I, p. 544-45.
39—Op. cit.. p. 548.
40—Doppelleben, GW., vol. IV, p. 164.
41—Gedichte, GW., vol. HI, p. 339-340.


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