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The Hour That Breaks

Gottfried Benn: A Biography

Martin Travers

The Hour That Breaks is the first biography of Gottfried Benn to appear in English. The author of this study charts in impressive detail the complex paths of Benn’s life, through the demands of his medical practice and military involvement in two world wars, his brief political advocacy of Hitler and Nazism in 1933, to his final «comeback» in post Second World War Germany. The author also engages with Benn’s extensive body of poetry which, inventive, challenging and formally wrought, was the product of mind that was both radical and conservative. The same propensity to invention and transformation also informed Benn’s personal and professional life, giving rise to a practice of role-playing and dissimulation that the poet termed a «double life». As Travers shows in this well-written and informative biography, this was a strategy of survival of which Benn, ultimately, was as much the victim as the master. This biography also offers fresh translations of many of Benn’s poems, a number of which appear here in English for the first time.
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Chapter 4: “Moi haïssable”: The Late Self: 1917–1930

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Chapter 4

“Moi haïssable”: The Late Self: 1917–1930

Under the skin: Dr. med. Gottfried Benn

“Diesterweg was deemed to be sick, and was sent back to Berlin”.1 And Benn went with him. But after that both disappear from sight. We know that in March 1917 Benn was still active as a doctor in the army; indeed, he had added to his practical role treating sexually transmitted diseases at the hospital of Saint Gilles in Brussels that of a medical researcher. In that month he participated in supervised tests on medication for soldiers suffering from these diseases, the results of which he wrote up the following year in a scientific paper, “The Secondary Effects of Arthigon” (“Nebenwirkungen bei Arthigon”).2

Within weeks of writing this paper, Benn had left the army and had returned to Berlin, but we know little about his activities there. The account that he left in his “autobiographical” “Diesterweg” story (in German a term that connotes a “gloomy [“düster”] path”) is minimalist, impressionistic, introverted. The singular personality of Rönne stands behind it. Benn returned to his home city, but it was a room, a private space that he was seeking rather than people. The narrator gives us the details of his homecoming in a laconic fashion, describing a simple daily routine that is punctuated by moments of epiphany:

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