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Beyond Nihilism

Gottfried Benn’s Postmodernist Poetics


Susan Ray

The ideas underlying Benn’s Ausdruckswelt not only anticipate and parallel many of the assumptions now current in recent trends in literary criticism; they also disclose their ultimate limitations. Benn’s poetics were founded on the intellectual crises of the early years of the twentieth century. Following Nietzschean leads, Benn sought to achieve in his person and his work a return to a primitive, archetypal mode of perception which he felt would restore a purer, more natural mentality to modern man, whom he portrayed as being ‘far ahead of his syntax’. By focusing on Benn’s early Expressionist prose and what this study calls his ‘fictive self’, the author traces the relationship between Benn’s Weltanschauung and later critical theory. Building upon the latest scholarship, she analyses Benn’s poetics as precursor of certain postmodernist ideas concerning language, meaning and polysemy, aesthetics, personal identity, authorial intention versus reader reception, intertextuality, and the role of art in society. By paying specific attention to the concept of the autonomous self and its relation to language, this study demonstrates that Gottfried Benn’s aesthetic theories do not represent the end of German Expressionism, but rather the beginning of the present post-modernist period.
Contents: Textual analysis of the Rönne-cycle – Problem of autonomous self and self as text – Relation of self to language – Nietzsche’s influence on Benn’s poetics – Relationship of Benn’s aesthetic theories to current trends in literary criticism – Deconstruction – Role of art in society.