Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Brains” is the first of Gottfried Benn’s five stories about Rönne. Together these stories portray the disintegration of the character’s ego, whose foundations were built on fragile intellectual constructs, and his gradual return to health as he permits himself to experience emotional and intuitive interactions with the world he inhabits. This story has strong autobiographical roots in Benn’s own disastrous personal experience in psychiatry—which was his first career choice. After losing the ability to concentrate on individual cases, he—like Rönne—was dismissed.

The central theme of “Brains” is the eternal dichotomy of human intellect and emotion: in biblical terms, the fallen state of humanity. Benn was not alone in the early twentieth century in stressing the inherent antinomy in human nature. Following a long trend in German philosophy, the novelist Thomas Mann dealt extensively with the conflict between the Dionysian impulse in human beings, which is characterized by the acquisition of creative, imaginative power, and the critical, rational power embodied by the Apollonian impulse.

Another way of representing this dichotomy in mythology and religion is through the use of the right hand and the left hand, with the right hand representing the intellect and science, and the left hand representing intuition, emotion, the arts, and deep spiritual insight. It was not until the late 1960’s that modern science validated this duality with the “split brain” theory. Intuitively, Benn has availed himself of this symbolism in “Brains.” In the most dramatic gesture, which occurs almost exactly in the middle of the story, Rönne splits open an animal brain, which seconds earlier was alive. This is the repeated motion of his hands witnessed by a nurse, a motion that symbolizes his ongoing preoccupation with the nature...

(The entire section is 761 words.)