(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Both poetically and existentially, Gottfried Benn resided at the crossroads of two significant traditions. At the turn of the century, the natural sciences exercised a substantial “claim to truth” and provided influential paradigms of thought. For many of Benn’s generation, however, scientific study had entered a rapid phase of entropy—it was seen no longer to answer questions meaningfully from the humanist point of view. In fact, one could even say that the “scientific approach” was seen by many to “explain” the universe inadequately, precisely because it did not pose the right questions. In Germany, the most significant manifestation of this dissatisfaction with the scientific paradigm took place under the rubric of “expressionism,” which in many respects carried on the tradition of German Romanticism. The tension exemplified in the conflict between Benn’s scientific training and his early intoxication with expressionism came to play an important role in the development of his aesthetic theory and poetry.

A concept basic to Benn’s thought was his conviction that humankind necessarily “suffered consciousness.” He attributed this suffering to modern overintellectualization: “The brain is our fate, our consignment and our curse.” The modern consciousness fragments the totality of the world into its conceptual categories; reality is particled past meaningful comprehension; and the loss of man’s capacity to perceive relationships points ineluctably in the direction of nihilistic resignation. During the years from 1921 to 1932, Benn studied the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Nietzsche, Oswald Spengler, Carl Jung, Ernst Troeltsch, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, and through his study of prehistory, paleontology, and myth, he developed his own notions of art, reality, and the self.

In Benn’s conceptual framework, the inner space once occupied by the premodern sense of harmony and totality is now filled with a kind of nostalgic longing. By somehow penetrating and deactivating the rational consciousness, Benn hoped to return (momentarily) to archetypal, primal, and prelogical experience. Benn identified this act as “hyperemic metaphysics”—that is, an intensified state of perception (such as that induced by intoxication, dream visions, or hallucinations), which he then applied exponentially to derive his “hyperemic theory of the poetic,” or primal moments of poetic creativity.

It is necessary to see how Benn viewed the creative process in order to understand his poetry. According to Benn, the creative process required first “an inarticulate, creative nucleus, a psychic substance”; second, words familiar to the poet which “stand at his disposal” and are “suited to him personally”; and third, a “thread of Ariadne, which leads him with absolute certainty out of this bipolar tension”—that is, the tension between the psychic substance and the “word.” This amalgam constitutes the basic creative situation for Benn.

“Beautiful Youth”

One of his first poems, “Schöne Jugend” (“Beautiful Youth”), perhaps best illustrates Benn’s early cynicism. The poem describes the dissection of the body of a young (and possibly at one time “beautiful”) girl, whose decomposed mouth and esophagus are perfunctorily noted, as is the nest of young rats discovered beneath the diaphragm, “one little sister” of which lay dead while the others lived off the liver and kidneys—“drank the cold blood and had/ spent here a beautiful youth.” A quick death awaits the rats: “They were thrown all together in the water. Ah, how their little snouts did squeal!” It becomes obvious that the “beautiful youth” to which the title refers is not that of the young girl, as the reader is intended to assume, but rather of the rats.

“One Word”

A good example of Benn’s preoccupation with the capacity of language to “fascinate,” and in so doing to give momentary vision to meaning within meaninglessness (form from chaos), is his poem “Ein Wort” (“One Word”). This poem is about the fact that words and sentences can be transmuted into chiffres, from which rise life and meaning. The effect can be such as to halt the sun and silence the spheres, as everything focuses for the moment on the primal catalyst, the single word. The word, however, is transitory, brilliant but short-lived, and already in the second and last strophe of this brief poem it is gone, leaving behind it the self and the world once again apart and distinct, alone in the dark, empty space surrounding them. Perhaps this paraphrase of Benn’s poem gives an idea of how Benn viewed the magic of the poetic word, its unique ability to stand (and consequently place the reader/listener) outside the “normal” conceptual categories of time and space. It communicates truth as a bolt of lightning momentarily illuminating the sky.

“Lost Self”

The radical dissolution of meaning with the evaporation of the word’s spellbinding aura, as this last poem illustrates, aligns with Benn’s view of the disintegration of reality in general. Nowhere are the consequences of...

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