Benn, Gottfried (1886–1956)

views updated


Gottfried Benn, the German poet and critic, was born in Mansfeld in Westprignitz, of mixed Prussian and Swiss-French parentage. After studying philosophy and philology at the universities of Marburg and Berlin, he received a military scholarship to the Kaiser Wilhelm Academy of Berlin, from which he was graduated as doctor of medicine in 1912. Commissioned as a medical officer in the German Imperial Army, he served briefly in 1912 and then again after the outbreak of the war in 1914. A close friendship with the poet Else Lasker-Schüler ended in 1913, and in July 1914 he married the actress Eva Brandt. From 1917 to 1935 he practiced in Berlin as a specialist in venereal and skin diseases. After his wife's sudden death in 1922, he befriended Ellen Overgaard, a Danish woman, who adopted his daughter.

Benn collaborated with Paul Hindemith on the oratorio Das Unaufhörliche, which was performed in 1931. Extensive contact with representative writers of the Weimar Republic led to his election, in 1932, into the German Academy of Arts (whose president, Heinrich Mann, the brother of Thomas, Benn had eulogized in an essay in 1931). A somewhat sordid period of jockeying for positions in the new Reich ended in 1935 with Benn's losing the post of municipal medical specialist, and in 1938 all his writings were banned. He rejoined the army in 1935, coining for this move the much-publicized term innere Emigration, in contrast to the actual emigration of his former friends. In 1938 he married his secretary, Herte von Wedemeyer; she committed suicide in 1945, when the Russian armies were approaching the village to which she had been evacuated. After the war Benn's writings were banned, but the publication of Statische Gedichte in Switzerland (1948) marked the beginning of a new creative phase. In 1946 he married Ilse Kaul, a young dentist. Benn gave up his medical practice in 1953. Through his decision to remain in Berlin, he became something of a spokesman for the intelligentsia of the city. At his death he was hailed as the greatest German poet since Rainer Maria Rilke; his influence on the styles and themes of contemporary German poetry, certainly, is second to none.

Benn always insisted on the hermetic nature of his poetry and prose; nevertheless, his work faithfully reflects both the historical events and the intellectual turmoil of his age. His first collection of poems, Morgue (1912), achieved notoriety and success because of its ruthless exploitation of the phenomena of physical decay and disease. The stark naturalism of such a poem as "Man and Woman Walking through a Cancer Ward" lies both in its rhythmically weak form and in the direction of its argument, typical of much of Benn's later work: the poem attempts to designate some bedrock of "reality" that will withstand contemporary skepticism. The "reality" that emerges from behind the clinical details is a representation of life as impersonal, merely physical or biological, and bereft of all spirit.

The major German poets of the twentieth century have expressed an acute consciousness of their historical situation, a consciousness that derives from Friedrich Nietzsche's critique of the historical imagination and from Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West. Benn, in the wake of these works, described the age after the defeat of 1918 as "postnihilistic." In the face of national collapse he set out to formulate an "absolute aesthetic," the aim of which was to "transcend" the actual situation by means of the idea of a "pure poem," the poem of "absolute expressiveness" (as opposed to the poem of communication or opinion with didactic intent). In Benn's poetry, however, there are elements of self-disclosure that seem not to be consistent with his concept of the "pure poem." And his doctrine that art should be exclusively concerned with "style, not truth," raises more questions than it answers.

Benn's ideas on the role of art in life varied. He was able to speak of art as "historically ineffective, without practical consequences," but also to define it (in the wake of Nietzsche) as "the only valid vindiction of life." The "biologism" of Benn's earlier poetry had been morally indifferent, and he had nothing but contempt for every form of social organization and democratic politics, especially those of the Weimar Republic. It is therefore not surprising that after March 1933 he emerged as the most important of those German poets who convinced themselves that national socialism offered an answer to their search for a valid artistic ideologyor, rather, for valid poetic symbols. Benn discerned in Adolf Hitler's regime the rule of "a new biological type [and] the victory of the national idea, the victory of genuine human values, in perfect harmony with the logic of history." His courtship with national socialism was brief, yet even in 1950 (in his embarrassing autobiographical apologia, Doppelleben ) his main criticism of the Hitler regime was that it "lacked style." "Style" was for Benn the product and the justification of an image-making faculty that conforms to certain "absolute" laws; these laws are "autonomous" in the sense of being indifferent to the demands of personal experience and social reality alike. Questions of personal expediency apart, Benn's astonishing expectations for Hitler's regime seem to have sprung from that contemptuous disregard of political realities that had been characteristic of an important section of the German cultural scene for many years. He saw no contradiction in asserting the hermetic nature of poetry while claiming that the heroic virtues of the new regime would be more propitious for its creation. The historicism he cultivated served Benn (as it did Martin Heidegger in 1933) as justification for his collaboration, but it did not lead him to a clear understanding of the total claim of Hitler's dictatorship.

Benn is the only major German poet who felt, albeit briefly, that his vision was realized in the National Socialist ideology, even though his poems soon proved to be incompatible with the party line in art. The elements that form his best poems derive from the cosmopolitan expressionist school that flourished in Germany in the 1920s as much as from French and Italian imagism; even his invocation of chthonic and instinctual values (in his praise of "Quaternary man" and his values) has its parallels in Ezra Pound, T. E. Hulme, and Julian Benda. His poetic style is clipped, paratactic, full of laconic allusions to the natural sciences. Memories are imaged by means of strong and complex sense perceptions; striking physical details are selected, often for their sound values; all mention of "you" and "we" is rhetorical, the solipsistic circle hardly ever being breached; and the situations invoked are almost always related to a self whose isolation is, if anything, underlined by an appeal to primordial memories.

See also Heidegger, Martin; Hermeticism; Historicism; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Rilke, Rainer Maria (René).


works by benn

Gesammelte Werke. Wiesbaden: Limes, 19581961. The most important aesthetic statements are to be found in "Züchtung I" and "Züchtung II," Vol. I; "Roman des Phänotyps" and "Der Ptolemäer," Vol. II; "Doppelleben" and "Ausdruckswelt," Vol. III; and "Autobiographische und vermischte Schriften," Vol. IV.

Statische Gedichte. Zürich: Arche, 1948. These two volumes contain representative selections of Benn's poetry.

Trunkene Flut, 2nd ed. Wiesbaden: Limes, 1952.

works on benn

Hamburger, M. Reason and Energy. London: Routledge and Paul, 1957.

Holthusen, H. E. Das Schöne und das Wahre. Munich: R. Piper, 1958.

Jens, W. Statt einer Literaturgeschichte. Tübingen, 1958.

Lohner, E. Gottfried Benn. Wiesbaden: Limes, 1958. Bibliography.

Loose, G. Die Ästhetik Gottfried Benns. Frankfurt, 1961.

Wellershoff, D. Gottfried Benn: Phänotyp dieser Stunde. Cologne: Kiepenheuer and Witsch, 1958.

Wodtke, F. W. Gottfried Benn. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler, 1962. Biography.

J. P. Stern (1967)