Table Of Contents
- About the Author
- About the Book
- This eBook can be cited
- Introduction: Life: A Provocation to Transcendence
- Chapter 1: A Garden East of the Oder: 1886–1912
- A Wound Opens
- The Wings of Knowledge: Education
- Pathology and the Poetic Muse: the Morgue Cycle
- Chapter 2: “A Troop of Vagabond Sons did Cry”: Gottfried Benn and Expressionism: 1912–1914
- Expressionism: A Cultural Network
- “We Have Become Haters, Beyond Redemption”
- “One Heart is too Small a Hill to Rest On”: Gottfried Benn and Else Lasker-Schüler
- Chapter 3: Art by other Means: Benn at War: 1914–1917
- Bürgerliches Trauerspiel: Gottfried Benn and Edith Osterloh
- The Call of Duty: Officer Benn
- “What is Your Soul”?
- The Doors of Perception: the Rönne stories
- Chapter 4: “Moi haïssable”: The Late Self: 1917–1930
- Under the Skin: Dr. Med. Gottfried Benn
- A Terminal Sensibility
- “Through the Night the Scales That Fall”
- In Search of Integration
- Politics and Memory: The Case of Miss Edith Cavell
- Life Seeks to Go Under
- Chapter 5: A Public Voice: 1930–1933
- The Music of Nihilism
- A Literary Season
- The Call to Unreason
- Chapter 6: The Crisis of the Spirit: 1933–1934
- A State Official
- Another Voice
- “Un espace intime”
- Persona non grata
- Chapter 7: Into the Night: Inner Emigration: 1935–1945
- Renuncio Berlin. Renuncio mundi: Hanover, 1935–1937
- “Refinement, Decline, Sorrow”
- “Open Your Eyes Only to the Night”
- “You Are My Only Companion”
- “Walls of Stone, Walls of Glass”
- Domestic Resolutions
- Finis Civitas Germanicae
- “And Mocks All Action and the Spite of Time”
- Gottfried Benn: Phenotype 1944
- Chapter 8: Selah, the Psalm is Ended: 1945–1956
- A Broad Grave of Silence
- “Das Come Back”
- Mea Culpa?
- “Aprèslude”: Phase II
- New Poetry: New Readership
- Losses and Gains in the Material World
- Notturno: Final Love
- Gottfried Benn: Chronology, 1886-1956
- Primary Sources
- Secondary Sources (on Gottfried Benn)
- Secondary Sources (General)
I would like to thank the friends and colleagues who supported me in the writing of this book, most notably J. M. (Hamish) Ritchie and Joachim Dyck. Both may be disappointed with the final outcome; the former, possibly because I say so little about certain crucial areas in Benn’s life; the latter, because I say too much. But I thank both of them, nevertheless. The biggest debt, however is owed to my wife, Ann, who, as the person responsible for editing a seemingly forever expanding manuscript, may well have concluded that too little was also too much. My gratitude goes to her and to my daughters, Isabel, Charlotte and Lucinda. ← ix | x → ← x | 1 →
In October 1949, Gottfried Benn wrote to the journalist, Frank Benseler, who had complained that the poet had got certain biographical details wrong in a recent radio talk. Benn replied saying (in so many words): you are, of course, right, but does it really matter? “Home towns, family, growing up. Everyone has a private life. It’s totally unimportant. Let’s have done with the novel of development, all the fuss about individuals and the commotion about personal and psychological things. These are mere experiential details”.1 Such sentiments were not new. In a letter to his friend, F. W. Oelze, written during military service in the Second World War, Benn offered the following caustic comment on human kind: “all of this is complete filth: humanity and society, with its bio- and sociology”. And as if Oelze may not have quite understood, Benn went on:
There are only two things: lonely suffering life and filthy humanity – let there be no fudging of boundaries here! The latter is an odious, mindless, child-producing, house-seeking, bus-catching, self-improving, female-chasing, chit-chatting, educative, honourably-striving, upright, opinion-expressing, charlady-employing, holiday-enjoying, beach-loving, factually-connecting rabble.2
A biography, therefore, on someone who regarded life as “a lower form of madness!”/ a dream for boys and serfs”?3 What redeems Benn from the one-dimensionality of his misanthropy is one important saving grace: when he says he does not belong to humanity, that it is pure filth and he will have nothing to do with it: he did not mean it. Or, to be more exact, he did mean it, but largely on a gestural or theoretical level. These were sentiments that were part of a personal rhetoric that belonged to Benn when he was at his most introverted, looking inwards and seeking clearly to demarcate his sense of selfhood and to secure a private space for his life and writing. It is undeniable that Benn shared ← 1 | 2 → the odi profanum stance that was cultivated by many Modernist writers such as Stefan George, Paul Valery and T. S. Eliot. These were solitary prophetic voices (they would have us believe) speaking in the wilderness of mass modernity. And yet in Benn’s case things were complex. For, far from relegating reality to circumstantial irrelevance, his poetry was hard won in the face of the demands that life (quite ordinary life) imposed: the many problems regarding finance and health (he suffered frequent bouts of depression), the complications of his often messy personal relationships, his continual frustrations as a doctor, and even tax problems. Such exigencies plagued him throughout his life, and he bemoans them in his letters with world-weary repetition. The same exigencies, however, provided a central core to his writing, and allowed him to produce some of the most intimate and personally engaging poems in the German language.
Born in 1886 into a family of a humble Lutheran pastor in Mansfeld, West Prussia, Benn remained all his life acutely aware of his modest background. The “louse from Mansfeld”, as he called himself, would never rid himself of his identity as a modest “Kleinbürger”. “What a bourgeois I’ve always been”, he noted towards the end of his life, when he had finally acquired fame and modest prosperity, “when I didn’t have any money, I stayed at home. I was never in debt”.4 As he later wrote, “I am a sickening example of how the possessor of a modest gift is condemned to pass over great and wonderful things in order to cultivate his meagre vineyard”.5 It was self-deprecation that often took axiomatic shape: “on the outside, you earn your living; on the inside you give the monkey a piece of sugar”, he wrote in his autobiography, Double Life (Doppelleben), “that is all there is. That is your lot”.6
In the face of what he saw as the bleak reality of life, Benn advanced the value of art, absolute art. Throughout his writings, we encounter time and again the axiom (taken from Nietzsche) that the world can be justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon. Art alone is formally complete; everything beyond it is random and valueless. Art and the spirit: they occupy transcendent realms. “It has to be recognised”, he wrote to Oelze, “that only the spirit lives, can speak of the future, commuting itself in us in accordance with distant images”.7 It was an uncompromising aesthetic that was reflected in both the style and the content of his writing. From his first book of poetry, Morgue and other Poems (1912), Benn chose to publish in small format, producing ← 2 | 3 → books of often less than fifteen pages. As in the Division (Spaltung) and Anaesthesia (Betäubung) volumes of the 1920s, this was concentrated, sharply focused poetry, which made no compromises with the reading public. It spoke of an artistic integrity that attracted many readers, such as the young Klaus Mann, for whom Benn’s poetry represented the “embodiment of the highest standard of absolute fanatical purity”.8 Others shared this high opinion. Max Hermann-Neisse was just one who came to Benn’s defence in 1929, when the poet was attacked by writers from the radical Left for not supporting the cause of committed literature, describing Benn as “one of the most independent spirits of his age”, as someone who has followed the absolute call of his poetry, holding himself distant from the “swamp” of contemporary writing and its “miserable community of adherents”.9
But there was a second way in which Benn’s absolute art engaged with his life: as a principle of self-stylisation. When he wrote that he viewed the aesthetic as “an organising, forming and anti-naturalist phenomenon”, or argued that “art was the construction of reality”, he was not simply promoting “l’art pour l’art”.10 The process was existential as well as artistic. Benn’s dedication to form was something he applied to himself. He invested his life, and most notably his conduct with others, with the same degree of fabrication that informed his writing, adopting an ethos of dissimulation and role-playing that he described as a “double life”. This was an ethos that was, particularly in his private life, not without its problems, but it nevertheless allowed him to keep his inner self alive in hostile environments such as the Third Reich, when he was compelled to rejoin the army (the “aristocratic form of emigration”) in order to survive. Benn became an officer in a reserve division and recognising that “good camouflage means being inwardly to act with freedom” did his best to maintain that role, “continuing to wear the mask therefore, and never taking it off. My position, which is a mixture of practical and theoretical knowledge, requires”, as he wrote to Oelze, “that I continue to wear it, until it falls off by itself”.11
Underwriting these varieties of practical dissimulation was a deeply held conviction that the self was essentially problematic, something inconstant and fragmentary. As he observed to his girlfriend, Elinor Büller, in 1937, “how many identities one has in oneself: past, coming, possible and no longer possible, apparent and obscured ones, empty ones and sometimes all of them at once”.12 As Benn observed of his semi ← 3 | 4 → autobiographical character, Rönne (who gives his name to a series of stories that Benn wrote between 1914 and 1917), “we see here, therefore, a man who does not possess any continuity of personality. His existence […] is indeed a single wound of longing for psychological continuity”.13 And as for Benn himself: where was his centre? He often doubted that he possessed one. Even when he was writing his autobiography (in a genre where so often coherence is imposed upon the inchoate in a master narrative that is a life’s journey), Benn could only find fragmentation. As he once wrote: “disposition? I personally possess nothing of this. I possess periods of fatigue, melancholy, productive surges, hesitations, procrastinations, moments of magic. These I can hold onto for an hour or so. But disposition? What would I do with it?”14
For these reasons, writing about Benn is not easy, and it is made even more difficult by the fact that biographical material is scarce and much has gone missing (his correspondence with Carl Sternheim, for example). Furthermore, Benn was never, except for a brief period between 1930 and 1933, a noted figure on the literary scene. His “big-name” friends were few. They included Else Lasker-Schüler, Carl Sternheim, Klabund, Oskar Loerke and (as an admirer rather than friend) Klaus Mann, and Benn retained very little of his correspondence with them. The gaps in our knowledge of his life are, then, considerable. From the early years alone, we know nothing of his activities at the Kaiser Wilhelm Academy between 1905 and 1910 (although the contacts that he made there were essential to his survival in the Third Reich); we do not know when or where he met his first wife, Edith (the biographers tell us 1913; Benn’s daughter, Nele, tells us 1914); the year that he met Else Lasker-Schüler (1912 or 1913?) and the extent of their relationship. We do not know the reasons for his hasty departure from the army in 1917, a year before the end of the war, or whether he ever carried out abortions (Pierre Mertens in his “Benn novel”, Shadowlight, makes this central to Benn’s profession as a doctor).
Given these gaps in our knowledge, the letters that Benn wrote to the Bremen businessman, F. W. Oelze, in the period from 1933 to 1956 (the year of the poet’s death), are of immeasurable value. It is in this correspondence (seven hundred and forty-nine letters in the standard edition) that Benn ultimately defines himself, describing routines, asserting values and theories that give both shape and depth to his personality, communications that Oelze responded to with insight and ← 4 | 5 → empathy (“you are beginning to become my conscience”, Benn tells him in 1935).15 In the first years of their correspondence alone, Benn writes about Nietzsche, about the life of the spirit, the “Volksgemeinschaft”, the stultifying impersonality of army life, his love for Berlin, provincial women, existentialism, his isolation, and of his shame for his past deeds and the lack of character he showed in 1933.16 Oelze is the alter ego, an external self that both encourages and sustains the inner self. Theirs was, above all, a relationship forged through writing (they rarely met: indeed, there were occasions when each stood outside the other’s house, without seeking entry). It was friendship conducted at a distance, geographical and personal (Benn never uses the familiar “du”, always the formal “Sie” in his letters). But his bond with Oelze went deep into Benn’s sense of identity, and without it that identity would be largely lost to us.
There is one final source of information on Benn: his poetry. As one biographer discovered during his own study of the author, “the poems often seem to be those very texts in which Benn really tells the stories of his life, in the only way he found possible, not as narration”.17 This is almost certainly true, but we must be careful about such an approach. Not only must the normal caveat be borne in mind when reading Benn’s verse, and particularly his “autobiographical” verse, that we are, strictly speaking, dealing with a persona rather than an author, but we must also remain alive to the mechanics of readerly manipulation that are often being employed (the special pleading, the half admissions that disarm, the precious avowals of vulnerability). Even when Benn seems closest to confession as, for example, in the poem “Spiritual Survival?” (“Ideelles Weiterleben?” from 1951, a self-depiction of a pathetic Benn in old age), the space between the real poet and the poetic persona is so discursively tight that the line between confession and self-pastiche is impossible to draw. The sincerity of self and its fictional projection possess uncertain boundaries.
Nevertheless, there are indisputably moments when the mask is dropped or, if not entirely dropped, at least worn at an angle that allows enough critical light to penetrate to the face that dwells behind. This is the case in his poems of childhood, such “Primary Days” (“Primäre Tage”, 1930) or “There is a garden…” (“Es ist ein Garten….”, 1949), and in those that he wrote after the suicide of his lover, the actress Lili Breda, such as “You must to yourself give all” (1929). The emotive register of these poems is complex. In “You must to yourself give all”, ← 5 | 6 → confession is edged by pathos, which is directed outwards, embodying a sense of loss for a loved one and a sense of betrayal of the same. When the poetic voice calls himself “the solitary one [who] did the thoughtless deed”, the various modes of self-presentation in the poem come together in the shared intimacy of guilt concerning the morality and integrity of past actions.18 However stylised, these are poems that seem to emerge from a deep core within the poet.
Benn once described the lyrical poet as “a penetrated self, a latticed identity, experienced with flight”. And he added, “in our depths lies the never ending Other, that which constitutes our being, but which, however, we can never see”.19 For that reason, we should not try and unify Benn for the sake of biographical coherence, and certainly not try to unify him on the basis of a humanist reading of his personality or ideas. As he wrote in his dialogue, Three Old Men, “we lived differently from what we were, we wrote differently from what we thought, we thought differently than we expected, and what remains is something different than what was intended”.20 But it is precisely the subtle and manifold nature of his projection of selfhood that constitutes the poet’s continuing fascination for us. What we find in Benn is an openness to experience that is forged both in personal terms and in terms of unsurpassable linguistic subtlety and complexity, in texts, both poetic and theoretical, that allowed life, in its confusion and perplexity, to shine through. As his last wife noted (even in the midst of marital difficulties), “his mind possesses an uncompromising clarity that is without illusions”.21
It is precisely the integrity of his vision, a characteristic stoicism born from a combination of Nietzschean amor fati and the simple Lutheran values that he absorbed as a child in rural Prussia, that compels our attention to his writing. We live in the dark, and in the dark we do what we can.22 In spite of his residual misanthropy, radical pessimism and penchant for nihilism, both Benn’s work and his life are testimonies to a creative mind that celebrated, in spite of the appearances to the contrary, the bright light of the human spirit. For, as the glass blower notes at the end of his narrative in The Ptolemaist (Der Ptolemäer, 1947), “you step back into the shadows, but some part of you will remain. And although what remains of you are merely vases and glasses released by your breath […] may you too endure in the land into which you have been drawn by your dreams”.23 ← 6 | 7 →
We take from the past only what we need. It is largely a matter of self-definition. In September 1930, Benn wrote the poem “Primary Days” (“Primäre Tage”), where he looked back to his childhood east of the river Oder, evoking the comforting sights and sounds of innocent days. It is a world of wonder, and Benn universalises its import: “a horn sounds, the reed sounds:/ it is the song of the elderberry bush/ out of which mankind soft and mortal flowed”. Benn’s favourite sister, Ruth, appears, engrossed in her games and pastimes. Even the all-potent blue asters are present, blowing in from the garden. And Benn asks himself: “on which suns,/ from which sea turned blue, by which sea cooled,/ did this immutable light begin,/ which reaches backwards and early things caresses?” He presses his memory for answers, but equivocation is all that is forthcoming: “perhaps a transition, perhaps the end,/ perhaps the gods and perhaps the sea”. 1
In his writing, Benn often returned to his childhood, and on each occasion a different picture emerged. In October 1921, he published the short piece “Epilogue” (“Epilog”) in the journal Zukunft. (It would provide the postscript to his Collected Writings (Gesammelte Schriften) the following year). The poet had at last been recognised as a major voice in German letters, and this was his first attempt to present himself to the public. He tells his readers that he was “born in 1886 as the son of an evangelical pastor and a French woman from the area of Yverdon, in a village of three hundred inhabitants midway between Berlin and Hamburg, and grew up in a village of the same size in the Neumark”.2 That is all. Laconic is not the word for this early ← 7 | 8 → autobiographical foray; reluctant is a more accurate description. The essay bristles with all the disdain that the Expressionists felt for anything familial, bourgeois. The past persists solely as an uncomfortable presence. We are given no date of birth; the names of the villages, Mansfeld and Sellin, are not worth mentioning (they are anonymously positioned between two cities); and we must wait a further thirteen years to find out the identities of his mother and father. 1921 was a bad year for retrospection.
A little over a decade later, Benn tried again. But The Life Journey of an Intellectualist (Lebensweg eines Intellektualisten), written at the height of the poet’s enthusiasm for the Third Reich, simply fills in the gaps with ideological detail in the service of “genealogical justification”. Under the pressure of the times, Benn paints an idealised picture of his early years, celebrating the pre-industrial rewards of rural life and the joys of a childhood lived amongst “peasant boys [and] the sons of the aristocracy [Karl and Ulrich, children of Count Günther Finck von Finckenstein]” in the East Mark (Prussia). We learn that Gottfried grew up speaking “Plattdeutsch”, that he observed old Germanic customs and superstitions, and that he went harvesting in the fields. It is a world that is still with us in 1934, he would have us believe. Continuity is everywhere, as is the past. As he explains, “the Benns still live in the villages of that area, in the old Wende area between Putlitz, Perleberg and Lenzen. This is the area of the Wende battles, such as the victory of the Germans in the year 929 under Heinrich I”.3 Schoolbook history (so often derided by Benn) misses the true object, which is the man and the poet. Fragment is replaced by easy narrative. The first autobiographical account dismisses the past: the second idealises it.
Gottfried Benn was born on 2 May 1886, “Sonntag Quasimodogeniti” (the first Sunday after Easter in the Evangelical year) at 7.30 in the evening, in Mansfeld, a village in Westprignitz (West Prussia), as the second child of the Lutheran pastor, Gustav Benn, and his French-Swiss wife, Caroline. His father was the most recent in a long line of clerics in a family who had given service to the region. As Benn later relates:
He was born the son of a village parson, in the same room in which my own father Gustav Benn, himself the son of a pastor, had been born in 1857. Behind him, my grandfather, comes a series of forefathers who were landed gentry and propertied ← 8 | 9 → peasants, and whose ancestry can be traced in the parish register of their home town Rambow near Perleberg as far back as the year 1704.4
Benn spoke often and with pride about his ancestry in this Lutheran tradition, not only stressing the cultural productivity of this lineage (he cites seminal figures such as Nietzsche, Burckhardt, Dilthey and Mommsen), but also its importance to his own intellectual development. The village of Mansfeld was, however, a modest breeding ground for the continuation of such a lineage. Lying midway between Berlin and Hamburg, and one hundred and twenty kilometres from the former, it possessed in 1886 a mere three hundred inhabitants. It was here that Benn was born in a house “made from clay and beams, built in the seventeenth century, similar to a stall”. Today the village exudes the same air of sobriety and indigence. It largely consists of a single street, a bus stop, a fire station, and a letterbox. The church was built quickly (a ‘Notkirche’) in the wake of the Thirty Years War, from which the mixed agrarian region never recovered. Its population has dwindled, and the remains of its rural infrastructure disappeared entirely after 1949. Benn was for many years persona non grata in East Germany, as a poet who had sold his soul to fascism in the early years of the Third Reich. Things have changed with the unification of the country. Thanks to the efforts of the “Gottfried Benn Förderkreis” (Mansfelder Str. 61, Putlitz) founded in 2002 (the angels of belated recognition), there is now a plaque of commemoration outside his home.5
When Benn was only a few months old, Gustav Benn and his family moved, due to the good offices of his benefactor, Count Finck von Finckenstein, to a better posting in Sellin, some three hundred kilometres away in the province of “Neumark”, West Prussia, on the railway line from Frankfurt an der Oder to Stettin. (It is now, and has been since 1946, called Zielin, and lies in Poland, in the district of Mieszowice. Benn would later muse in half-stoical, half-wounded tones about the Polish fate of his homeland). It was here that Benn spent his childhood. As he was later to reminisce:
When I was six months old, my parents moved to Sellin in the Neumark; that is where I grew up. A village with seven hundred inhabitants lying in the north German plains: a large rectory, with a big garden, three hours east of the Oder that I today still call my homeland, although I no longer know any people there. It is the land of my childhood, a very dear land to me. It was there that […] I received my ← 9 | 10 → confirmation along with the young farm hands, and rode with the harvest wagons into the fields. [He lived] in a large red brick building, near the church. Gardens of flowers with orchids surrounded it, and the parson’s field lay behind the barn.6
Today Sellin/Zielin presents a bleaker visage. Most of its inhabitants have long since left for the more affluent neighbouring towns of Gorzow and Kostrzyn, and there is little of the Lutheran atmosphere that Benn would have been familiar with from his childhood.7 As a local tourist publication tells us:
The parsonage has been made completely unrecognisable through renovations. In 1970, the schoolhouse was entirely rebuilt. The ground plan has been modified to give it more of a classroom structure. Teaching, however, is carried out in the farmhouse. The teacher and his wife have turned the building into a private dwelling. The church naturally is Catholic, and consecrated to the Holy Virgin Mary. An image of the Madonna presides in bright colours over the old war memorial of the Great War. Behind it, on the pedestal, it is said you can still see an image of an Iron Cross. We drove there to find out for ourselves. Only the outline of the village and the lake look the same as they did in those days, when the Benn family was growing up there.8
The guide does not mention that modern-day Zielin is also noted for possessing a railway station without trains.
Looking back from 1934, the poet painted an idealised picture of his childhood, celebrating a homeland where “the famous names of Friedrich and then Bismarck had their estates, and where my father exercised an exceptional influence upon the spiritual well-being of people in those circles”.9 Benn’s retrospect was penned in the early rush of his enthusiasm for the Third Reich, and is clearly influenced by its “Blut und Boden” ideology and its manufactured sense of community (“Gemeinschaft” was the redolent term). Elsewhere, in the margins of Benn’s work, however, we find a more complex and less bucolic picture, as in the short story “Phimosis”, written in 1916 and revised and published in September 1918 with the title “Sectional View” (“Querschnitt”), which gives us a darker, more unsettling vision of the past. Here we are taken back, almost in the mode of a Freudian talking cure, to the origins of Benn’s early identity:
When did it begin? A very long time ago. For the garden of my youth was dark. The little bridges were rotten, and their planks falling apart. Right from the beginning, ← 10 | 11 → everything weighed me down; the misery was all around. I was prepared early in this way for a task that was simply to survive for the moment, where there was no hope.10
When we look at Benn’s other accounts of his childhood, the same tropes of loss and vulnerability appear. The “death-quiet fields leaning towards my village” of the poem, “Autumn” (“Herbst”), published in December 1912 (and hence much closer to Benn’s actual as opposed to imagined childhood) speak, at least metaphorically, of deprivation and desuetude. In a similar vein, the first poem in the series “Private Poems” (“Privatgedichte”), “There is a garden …” (“Es ist ein Garten …”), written immediately after the Second World War, draws its impact from a tension between nostalgia for childhood innocence and a sense of foreboding, of fatality even:
There is a garden that I sometimes see,
east of the Oder, with flat-lands wide,
a ditch, a bridge, and I stand beside
lilac bushes, blue, their colour almost too much to bear.
There is a boy, for whom I sometimes mourn,
who took to the lake and to its reeds and waves.
Then the river that I now fear did not flow:
it promised first happiness and then forgetfulness.
- X, 516
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Softcover)
- Publication date
- 2015 (July)
- Rönne stories 19th century Interwar Else Lasker Schüler Edith Osterloh
- Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, New York, Wien, 2015. X, 516 pp.