Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Gottfried Benn: Poetry and Nihilism


The other evening it was in the upper 30’s: cold, but not cold enough to snow. Instead, it drizzled as I walked home from the train—without an umbrella, of course.

An Anglophile would have found the cold rain bracing and a welcome reminder of London. I just felt miserable, and given my Germanophilia and general pessimism, what came to mind was not of a thick mist lying low over the Thames like in a Sherlock Holmes story, but rather a poem by Gottfried Benn (1886-1956).

Benn first rose to prominence as an expressionist before World War I with a morbid series of poems based on scenes from the morgue where he worked as a young doctor. Benn wrote many of his early poems in free verse and, even more unfortunately, wrote some of them to shock his readers for shock’s sake. Later in life he dropped this adolescent pose, though not his grim outlook on life, and concentrated on well-crafted verse. Benn’s later poetry is often marked by a stark contrast between his beautiful language and his frightening, nearly nihilistic Weltanschauung. I say "nearly nihilistic" because for Benn there were perhaps two things of value in life: beautiful language and flowers, which figure in many of his poems.

The following poem is a perfect illustration of the contrast between beauty and emptiness in Benn’s poetry. Perhaps because German is not my first language I am able to dissociate the sound of words from their meaning more easily than I can with English, which would explain why the contrast between the language and the content of this poem has always made such a deep impression on me. The very literal and very rough translation below the original German should give some idea of why this poem came to mind the other night as I trudged home through the rain, as well as give an impression of Benn’s nihilism:

In einer Nacht

In einer Nacht, die keiner kennt,
Substanz aus Nebel, Feuchtigkeit und Regen,
in einem Ort, der kaum sich nennt
so unbekannt, so klein, so abgelegen,

sah ich den Wahnsinn alles Liebs und Leids,
das Tiefdurchkreuzte von Begehr und Enden,
das Theatralische von allerseits,
das niemals Gottgestützte von den Händen,

die dich bestreicheln, heiß und ungewaschen,

die dich wohl halten wollen, doch nicht wissen,
wie man den anderen hält, an welchen Maschen
man Netze flicken muß, daß sie nicht rissen –

ach, diese Nebel, diese Kältlichkeit,

dies Abgefallensein von jeder Dauer,
von Bindung, Glauben, Halten, Innigkeit,
ach Gott – die Götter! Feuchtigkeit und Schauer!

—Gottfried Benn, Sämtliche Gedichte (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1998), p. 299

One Night

One night, that no one knows
Made out of mist, dampness and rain,
In a place with no name,
So unknown, so small, so out of the way,

I saw the madness of all love and sorrow,
The futility of desires and purposes,
The theatrical on all sides,
[I saw] how the hands had never been supported by God,

[Those hands], hot and unwashed, which want to caress you,
Want to hold you, yet do not know
How one should hold the other, on which stitches
One must sew nets so they don’t tear—

Ah, this mist, this coldness,
This falling away from all endurance,
From all bonds, faith, support, intimacy,
Ah, God—the gods! Dampness and shivering!

The final line expresses Benn's despondence over the failure of love, but the language provides a faint glimmer of hope. The soft sounds of ch, g, and sch in Feuchtigkeit und Schauer is a wonderful contrast to the hard guttural sound of ach Gott: it initially softens the exclamation of disgust, but gives way in the end to a silent, morose despair. Yet, the fact that Benn thought it worth the trouble to express his sorrow with such care and so much attention to the richness of the sounds in this poem and so many others, as if in an attempt to transfigure his sorrow, would indicate that he thought there was ultimately some meaning worth giving voice to.

One can only hope so, for Benn's sake.
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