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The Greatest Ex-Nazi Writer

Never heard of Gottfried Benn? It's because of his politics

Imagno/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

The phenomenon of writers ignored, abused, cast out, disgraced, not for the disaster of their writing but the disaster of their politics, is one contribution the twentieth century has made to the history of literature. Cioran, Kipling, Gorky, you name it: the history of literature has become natty at its particular version of kashrut. We’re therefore now accustomed to the general map of literature being marked by weird absences, small oblivions, fuzzy silences. Mostly, I guess, these oblivions are now so usual that their existence is hardly noticed. Who, for instance, is exercised by the absence in their iBooks library of the German poet Gottfried Benn? And yet Benn—along with Brecht, Celan, and Rilke—is one of the great German poets of the twentieth century, the equal of Eliot or Montale. And the reason for this absence, as usual, is not the work but the life.

Outwardly, Benn’s life was the usual Prussian thing (even down to the Mensur, the dueling scar, by his left eye). Born in 1886, he became a notable and successful doctor. He studied at the Academy for 
Military-Medical Instruction and was attached to an infantry regiment. In 1912, when he was 26, he was discharged, but in 1914, he returned to the army and worked in occupied Brussels as a doctor in an army brothel. But inside, Benn was volcanic. In 1912, he published his first collection of 
poems—a pamphlet called Morgue and Other Poems. It is one of the most disabused debuts in literary history. The tone of this small collection is pure garishness, in a mode that could roughly be summed up 
as medico-expressionist:

The mouth of the girl who had lain long in
   the rushes
looked so nibbled.
When they opened her chest, her
   esophagus was so holey.
Finally in a bower under the diaphragm
they found a nest of young rats.

In this era of his first fame, Benn was all shock value and lurid precision:

Flesh that went naked.
Tanned unto the mouth by the sea.
Deeply ripened for Grecian joys.
How far along the summer, in sickle-
Penultimate day of the ninth month!

Athirst with stubble and last corn-shocks.
Unfurlings, blood, fatigue,
Deranged by dahlia-nearness.

Man-brown jumps on woman-brown.

The intellectual background to this early work is not, let’s say, unsketchy. Benn is not the poet you want if you are craving intellectual lucidity. In a text called “Epilogue,” published in 1921 to accompany a collected version of his poems, he offered this vision of his “contemporary”: “the most committed individualist to the dirt under his fingernails, and forced to social compromises from feeding to sexual habits; always that mediocre balance, and that tediously positive latency.” His vision of the world was very simple: a medical nihilism—the 
human, in Benn’s early work, was a swarm of dark instincts, with a fragile set of manners trying to restrain him. And that swarm was always Benn’s subject: the exposed self, a mass of neurons and nerve-endings, registering its billion impressions: “I lived on the edge where existence ceases and 
the self begins.”

Theatrical, macabre, exaggerated: this was the nature of Benn’s dark thinking. It was instinctive, rather than considered. And therefore Benn was vulnerable to a certain kind of social or intellectual temptation when, in the 1930s, the Nazi ideology emerged. It seemed to offer some kind of analog to his own gleefully manic expressionist thinking: a eulogy of blood and 
science and earth. At which point, of course, he made himself disgraced.

Benn was elected to the poetry section of the Prussian Academy in 1932 and appointed its head a year later. In response, the novelist Klaus Mann wrote Benn an open letter, attacking him for his perceived collaboration with the emerging regime. Benn’s own response took the form of a radio talk, “Reply to the Exiles,” where he argued that no exile had the right to make moral accusations against those who remained in Germany. Only those who stayed could understand the true nature of Nazism: “There you sit, in your seaside resorts and take us to task, because we work together on the reconstruction of a state.” It was not a document of any great intellectual distinction. In October 1933, Benn was one of the eighty-eight signatories of the Gelöbnis treuester Gefolgschaft, the oath of most faithful allegiance to Hitler.

Illustration by Ivan Solyaev

But it would be unfair not to record that Benn’s Nazism was only fleeting. By the beginning of July 1934, following the Night of the Long Knives, his allegiance to the 
regime was over. The Nazis were not, he now realized, the savage cultural pessimists he admired: instead they were criminal 
politicians, with no art in them at all. He was replaced as head of the Academy’s poetry section, and in response chose once more to go into the army: the “aristocratic form of emigration.” His career from then on was a deep spiral into his self—culminating, in his work after 1945, in poems of an extraordinary, spare, broken beauty. He 
died in 1956.

Consider his great poem “1886,” in 
which he surveyed the year of his birth. In this poem, you find the entire panorama of Benn: a strange outbreak of expressionist craziness among the Finanzbourgeoisie and the Prussian establishment. The inventions and the theater, the advances in science and industry! The innocent nineteenth century! Until finally this broken, sly, brilliant poet brought his almanac of the year’s events to its broken, encoded conclusion:

birth year of certain expressionists,
also of state councilor Furtwängler,
emigré Kokoschka,
General Field Marshall von W— (†),

doubling of equity
at Schneider-Creusot, Putilov, Krupp Steel.

That list is not an innocent list. The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler was only a “state councilor” because Göring had forced the honor on him, as part of a power game between the state and the musician. Furtwängler’s refusal to leave Germany, and his simultaneous refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Nazi regime, made him internationally notorious. Just as that final trio of companies is not a random selection from the stock market: all three were arms manufacturers. Schneider-Creusot made the first French tank, the Schneider CA 1; Putilov manufactured the Soviet T-34 tank; Krupp Steel was the Nazi regime’s first-choice arms manufacturer, making use at one point of around 100,000 slave laborers, of whom roughly 25,000 were Jewish. We should therefore linger over Benn’s mini-line, “emigré Kokoschka.” For Kokoschka’s career was an upside-down version of Benn’s. Just as Benn had been a leading expressionist poet, Kokoschka was one of the great expressionist painters. But Kokoschka left Vienna in 1934, a year after resigning from the Prussian Academy of Art in protest at the expulsion of Jewish artists. Kokoschka’s emigration was moral. Benn, of course, chose a different trajectory in the terrible 1930s—even if, very soon, his work too, like Kokoschka’s, was condemned as 
degenerate. In the end every expressionist was to be shunned by the Nazi regime—just as Benn would then be shunned forever, for his year of Nazi temptation.

In other words, the career of Gottfried Benn is a case study in disgrace. And now the international reader, whose acquaintance with Benn might have otherwise been as fragmentary as a mention in an essay by T. S. Eliot or in a poem by Frank O’Hara, can finally examine this case study with voracious comprehensiveness, owing to this virtuosic, acidic selection of translations by the poet Michael Hofmann. Benn’s late style is one of literature’s great inventions, and the composition of this selection conditions its reader to concentrate on that phenomenon: from 1912 to 1947, a period of 35 years, Hofmann offers just twenty-four poems, while from 1949 to 1955, the last six years of Benn’s life, there are a lavish forty-eight.

This is not, it should be said, the obvious mathematics. To the average Berliner, I imagine, it is the pre-war poetry that is best known. So this book is not just an introduction to Benn: it is also a small guerrilla tactic of exposition and understanding. But I think this imbalance is also right. Sure, Benn’s early work was splashy, brilliant, malign. Hofmann translates an early prose text on Paris, from 1925, which is typical for its delight in the world’s theatrical appearances, where the Moulin Rouge becomes a metaphysical object of contemplation:

dance, dance, dance. Gradually become insufferable in the rest of Europe, here thrilling, off-color and elegant: Buck Dance, Flicker Dance, Peacock’s Mirror Dance, Jazz Dance, Leopard Dance, Danse des Gigolettes, Danse des Candélabres.—And pictures, continents, cultures; things rising up out of trapdoors, other things spilling out of bonbon boxes, riding, driving, leaps into the Nile, family scenes, Black Masses, ball on the roof of the Astor, Temptations of St. Antony, Panther Column of the Queen of Sheba: Apaches, magicians, standard-bearers, lotus wearers, catamites, amazons, and—“ah, viens dans mes bras”—slaves.

Yet the poems that Benn wrote in the 1920s and 1930s, which settled his reputation, represent another kind of achievement—an achievement the reader will not find here. These poems were small sculptures, little audio contraptions, in which Benn enclosed his expressionist instincts in intricate quatrains. In his introduction, Hofmann explains the problem: “I am conscious that the poems of this period are underrepresented here. I’m afraid they were too difficult and idiosyncratic for me to carry them into English in any important way. I preferred to go, more or less directly, from the shocking early to the weary late.” I am not sure I begrudge this absence, because it is in the poems published after the war, in the full desolation of his isolation and defeat, that Benn’s true grandeur emerges. In a “Letter from Berlin,” written in July 1948 to the editor of the literary journal Merkur, Benn described his position: “I am in the rather unusual situation of having been banned since 1936, excluded from literature then, and still and again on the list of undesirables today.” That word “excluded” is the clue to Benn’s late style. It is what makes Benn so unusual, and so necessary, in this sprightly neon era. This is not a time for language with gravity—for distressing, unsavory moral terms like “cowardice” or “corruption.” Yet such terms cannot be dispensed with, after all. And it is Benn who speaks from inside this moral gray zone. He gives disgrace its aesthetic form. He experienced life as total defeat, and in this disgrace, he discovered a kind of nihilistic truth. In Benn’s poetry, the real meaning of disgrace was not remorse. No, its real meaning was isolation. In disgrace, he discovered how easily one can be severed from every community. From this isolation, his conclusion was an absolute disillusion. The only truth in which he could believe was the truth he had always relied on: the swarming, isolated self.

The reader of his selected works, therefore, can trace the answer to a dark question: what does disgrace sound like? These late poems are extraordinary exercises in bare, forked writing: slouchy, polyglot, nicotine-nervous. They are as splintered as a pile of pick-up sticks—all dying cadences, where the rhythm falters or disintegrates. True, Benn was always a master of crazy tone-shifts. But in the early poems it was all flesh and tropicalia: “The violins green. The harp plinks of May. / Palms blush in the desert simoom.” Now the shifts were smaller, more like the quivers of 
a heart monitor.

The late poem “Impromptu” gives this book its title, and it is a small version of Benn’s exposed fragility, and of Hofmann’s own brilliantly delicate transformations. The first verse is a moment of nostalgia:

On the radio someone was singing
“Die Drosselgass’ zu Rüdesheim”—
I was stunned:
thrushes, that seems to imply a spring
who knows what dangling over the walls,
unbundling, twittering, something in light
   green for sure—
my heart leapt, not the old one of today
but the young one, tired and exhilarated
at the end of a day’s hike. 

From this pastoral opening, Benn then free-associates, zigzagging into his past: 

with your rucksack jammed under your
neither of them with anything in them
except what you needed
for the morrow.

Until the third and final stanza then simply pauses, suspended in its own reverie:

A pair of shoes. A son of the Muses.
Back then, Liliencron was my God,
and I wrote him a postcard.

The poem ends in a kind of smudged, muted hiatus. (Liliencron was a German lyric poet, who died in 1909.) But there are two moments where Hofmann has converted Benn’s talkiness into something even more appealing and casual: the lovely speechy repetition of “them” in that line from the second verse: “neither of them with anything in them,” for Benn’s “die beide nichts enthielten.” While the last line, with its rickety prose, is even more conversational than Benn’s own last line: “ich schrieb ihm eine Ansichtskarte.” Benn is still based on an iambic meter. Hofmann has made that meter disappear. In the process, he has written a great poem.

And so it goes for so many of these late poems. Their atmosphere is 
always melancholy: 

Listen, this is what the last evening will
   be like
when you’re still capable of going out:
   you’re smoking your Junos,
quaffing your three pints of Würzburger
and reading about the UN as reflected in
   the pages of the Spiegel

As always, his only loyalty is the medical loyalty of a doctor to his case notes, or impressions. No wonder, therefore, that these poems also run through a recklessly unstable range of tones. From the isolation of a café table, Benn enlarges to the isolation of an entire life: “That’s all you are, you’ve no house or hill / to call your own, to dream in a sunny landscape ...” And yet at this point, at the poem’s end, he then performs a small trick of intellectual acrobatics. Sure, that’s all he was, writes Benn:

... but Zeus and all the immortals,
the great souls, the cosmos and all the
were there for you too, spun and fed
   through you,
that’s all you were, finished as begun—
your last evening—good night. 

This is not the normal way of constructing a lyric poem. In one stanza, Benn suddenly balloons nostalgically into an entire classical inheritance—then immediately cancels it out, in the detritus of his café table. And Benn was also agile at performing such acrobatics the other way around. The prickly poem “Thinking,” say, can at first irritably itemize the dead intellectual landscape—“Or take the essay world, / one man stitches up another / while the rest of the brotherhood looks on”—and yet end in a kind 
of stilled wonder:

But there’s one thought that is the reality
   of the gods,
its wellspring may indeed be murky,
but then it’s there
full of memory of her 

who shall remain nameless.

In his “Letter from Berlin” in 1948, Benn had analyzed what he saw as the decline of Western culture. His conclusion was that this decline was due to the “craven crawling of its intelligentsia to political concepts.” And while this might sound convenient for someone whose politics had been so culpable, it also represents, I think, a kind of truth. In the same way as his minimal thinking had made him vulnerable to the Nazi temptation, now this minimalism, this commitment to notation, allowed him to discover something more profound: “Everything else that concerns life is questionable and uncertain; we feel no actual connection to the numinous, not to mention the so-called national; the only actual thing is what is grounded in an expressive aesthetic work.” The only things Benn could trust now, in the postwar world, were particulars: of artistic works, of the self. In fact, there was no need for such a distinction: the exposed self and the exposed poem were the same thing. Minute thinking could trust only minimal notations. And so one hero, or emblem, was Chopin: 

ideas weren’t his strong suit,
ideas miss the point

Rather than thinking with ideas, Chopin thought with formal properties:

He composed no operas,
no symphonies,
only those tragic progressions
from artistic conviction
and with a small hand. 

In this state, Benn finally emerged with a strange kind of apparatus, described haltingly in his poem “Ah, the Faraway Land”:

self-communing there
without taking in anything to hand,
sense of selfhood,
early mechanisms,
totem fragments
in the soft air—

After all, what is an I that speaks in a poem? Benn’s answer was very simple: an I is a recording device. In a prose piece called “Summa Summarum,” in 1926, Benn had happily added up the minuscule amounts of money he had earned from his writing (“the total comes to 975 marks”). But then, he concluded, what did it matter? “A poem is the unpaid labor of the intellect, the fonds perdu, practice with a sandbag: one-sided, inconsequential, and without partners.” It was a reflex of the self’s apparatus. Many years later his intuition was the same, but inflected by a much darker knowledge: the destitution was not just financial, but also philosophical. “At present I am not working on anything, except the gathering of new impressions,” he wrote in 1953, “and testing of the methods and principles I 
have previously followed.”

But if this is true, what is a lyric i 
in another language? Or, in particular, what is one meant to do with the miniature quilts and collages of vocabulary that Benn feeds at high speed through his style? The achievement of Hofmann’s talent in this book is that these poems feel like live poems in English—and one reason may be the strange resemblance between Benn’s poems and Hofmann’s own. Hofmann has always been an expert in a slouchy, weary kind of writing. The collision of registers and languages has always been his thing—the classical poet of 
the suburban burger joint:

Now we’ve arrived at this hamburger
a bright hole walled with mirrors where
   our faces show
pale and evacuated in the neon. We
   spoon our sundaes
from a metal dish. The chopped nuts are

No wonder, then, that when Benn is sitting in a night café there is a kind of overlap, or contamination:

The door melts away: a woman.
Dry desert. Canaanite tan.
Chaste. Concavities. A scent accompanies
   her, less a scent
Than a sweet pressure of the air
Against my brain.

An obesity waddles after.

There is an authority to Hofmann’s linguistic decisions that is exemplary. (Hofmann’s volume has been published as a dual-
language edition, with the German text opposite its English translation, which allows the reader to trace the small chutzpah of Hofmann’s inventions.) Not that it is without its problems, of course. The deeply personal nature of this selection is partly conditioned by the cannibal nature of Hofmann’s translation technique—so that the stitched melodies of Benn’s middle poems, as Hofmann admits, are almost entirely lost. Just read this out loud:

Wo alles sich durch Glück beweist
und tauscht den Blick und tauscht die
im Weingeruch, im Rausch der Dinge—:
dienst du dem Gegenglück, dem Geist.

Then compare Hofmann’s slack equivalent:

Everything lays claim to happiness,
Swaps glances, swaps rings
In wine-breath, in the intoxication of
You serve the counter-happiness, the

Finding an English to match Benn’s stately German would certainly not be easy. But Hofmann’s relaxed solution here makes it harder to appreciate the power of Benn’s late style, the dignity of its collapse—
especially when that collapse has been so brilliantly rewritten by Hofmann. Benn, in another poem, sarcastically describes the devastations of human progress: 

Take sheepherding,
an entire continent lives by it,
then along come synthetic fibers
and the mouflons are foutus.

In Benn’s German, the last line is in fact “und die Mufflons sind k.o.” Hofmann has deftly decided to represent a foreign flourish with a flourish in another foreign language. In fact, he sometimes makes Benn polyglot when there is no obvious need: the great poem “Teils-Teils” is translated into the more Frenchly languid “Par ci, par là.” And this does, I admit, worry me: there is nothing less primly sophisticated than Benn’s late style, and I am not sure that casual French is quite right for his art of weariness. But it is true that, in keeping with Benn’s general polyglot mode, the poem itself contains its own moment of French already: “Heisse Nacht / à la Reiseprospekt”: “Balmy night / à la travel brochure.” Hofmann’s polyglot extra, therefore, is an exaggeration, rather than 
a wholesale importation.

The true achievement of these translations is to be the same but different, to be an accurate reflection of Benn’s nervous style while at the same time presenting a unified voice in English:

From the saloon bar the rattle of dice on
   a wooden tabletop,
beside you a couple at the
   anthropophagous stage,
a chestnut bough on the piano adds a
   natural touch,
all in all, my kind of place.

My kind of place! So it should not be a surprise if, in the poem “Orpheus,” Hofmann also allows himself a kind 
of cartoon tracing:

One sends me such meaning looks.
And another, well-built, freckled,
probably mixed-race (“it’s called yellow
beckons demurely, suggests chaste games
and means rampant desire—(“inspect my
   love chalice’s
purple!”—forget it, baby!)

This is translation as free jazz.

In 1954, two years before he died, benn gave a lecture on “Aging as a Problem for Artists.” He began by considering the question of late style, of late work and early work, as it had been examined in the past by other writers. And then, in the middle of this survey, Benn paused and offered a question that he imagined might be forming in the minds of his audience: “is there some personal motive involved?” He had to admit that he represented a particular case: “think for a moment, if you will, an author with a dramatic past, living in dramatic times, emerging among a group of cogenerationists from many countries who 
underwent broadly the same stylistic evolution, call it futurism, expressionism, surrealism, which even today enlivens the discussion, a stylistic revolution really.” Yes, Benn had begun writing in the balmy energy of the modernist moment. Now he had reached a kind of maturity: “Our author has followed various pursuits: he was a poet and an essayist, a citizen and a soldier, a settler moved in from the countryside, and an homme du monde in some of the great cities of the world—usually controversial, usually opposed, our author has reached a certain age, and is still publishing.” But he has a problem: if he continues to write in the garish style of his youth, he is attacked for repeating himself, but if he writes calmly, with spare lucidity, he is attacked for abandoning his essence.

He adds that there is also a deeper problem particular to him: “If it further happens that this author at some time in his life has expressed views which are later reckoned to be ‘inappropriate’; these views are now trailed in his wake, and people are happy when, like a horse drawing a harrow across a field, the harrow keeps clipping his heels.” And yet surprisingly, perhaps, the example he gives of an “inappropriate” view is not from his season of Nazism in the 1930s, but from a recent dialogue, Three Old Men, that had been 
published in 1949: 

In a conversation, a very serious conversation among three old men, our author had once written the sentence: “To be mistaken, and yet to go on believing in himself, that’s what makes a man, and fame comes to him irrespective of triumph or defeat.” From the perspective of the author, this sentence was a sort of anthropological elegy, a coded melancholy, but his critics saw it differently. They found the sentence alarming: a blank check, they said, for all kinds of political aberrations.

What Benn says here, I think, is both in absolute denial and absolutely true. There is no way of putting this any other way. His greatness is an oxymoron. Why shouldn’t he be attacked for such refusal of remorse—this man who had signed an oath pledging allegiance to Hitler and had not fought against any measures taken against the Jews? And yet that phrase of his, “anthropological elegy,” is also beautiful. There is no end, after all, to the mistakes of the intellect. Every judgment of another person is inevitably fraught with vanity.

It is from this canceled perspective that Benn writes. And in the conclusion of his talk, he offers two images, two autobiographical stand-ins, for how he has tried to proceed. His first is Michelangelo’s astonishing last sculpture, the Rondanini Pietà. In this sculpture, so haunting and so blurred, writes Benn, it seems that Michelangelo has given up on his previous works and styles: “Here, then, one has little alternative but to suppose, is an instance of a great man unable to go on using his established methods and techniques—
presumably because they will have struck him as outmoded and conventional—but with no expressive forms available for his new contents, breaking off, and lowering his hands.” That, I think, was the condition in which Benn found himself amid the wreckage of World War II. His method of continuing and persevering was found in his second example—his image of Flaubert, now old, still sitting in a provincial bistro, noting 
down his observations: “in that state of concentration, in that constant visual and acoustic alertness, to penetrate the object, to go behind the faces, to make once more that tragic, superhuman effort of observation, of finding expressions, of collecting sentences that work—there they are sitting at the bar, all of them after money, all of them after love, and he is in quest of expression, of a sequence of sentences.”

And so there is nobility, no question, in Benn’s lonely exhortation to the young:

Don’t for one moment forget the dubiousness and eccentricity of your enterprise, the dangers and hatreds that attend your activity. Keep in mind that coldness and egoism are part of your task. Your work has left behind the temples and the sacrificial vessels and the painting of pillars, the painting of chapels is no longer part of it either. You are wallpapering with yourself, and you have no alternative....

You are wallpapering with yourself. This was the wisdom of Benn’s desolate last writings. It is a wisdom that he reached only through the after-effects of his political corruption: but it is still a wisdom, after all. The hideous mistake of Benn’s politics had given him access to a place that most people never need to find. That Benn was adequate to this terrible place is what makes him a great writer—a lonely kind of integrity 
that enabled Benn to write poetry as gigantic yet minimal as, say, the poem 
called just “Herr Wehner”: 

This is mine
Herr Wehner
he was our house tutor
died early of phthisis
once he’d infected my younger brother
who died of tubercular meningitis. 

Benn begins the poem with a series of miniature phrases of memoir. It seems like almost nothing. But then, at the poem’s end, without fuss, Benn performs one of his sudden tonal shifts, and this forgotten figure acquires a kind of halo. The amazed reader realizes that somehow, in the arrangement of two or three broken sentences, Benn has found a way of describing what oblivion looks like: 

Herr Wehner,
what makes him mine
is the fact that he is buried somewhere
rotting away in a collective farm in (now)
no one in the village
will remember him
but he sometimes appears to me
gray and isolated
under certain historical aspects. 

Adam Thirlwell’s most recent novel is The Escape (Picador).