Sunday, February 10, 2013

Gottfried Benn

In my last post I discussed an American student of literature who was repulsed by the poetry of Gottfried Benn.

That made me curious to find out more about Benn. It turns out that he was the son of a Lutheran pastor in Germany and that he began to write nihilist poetry in the years leading up to WWI.

What's interesting is that Benn, even before WWI, saw the world he inhabited as being made empty by modernity. In other words, he was not reacting against a traditional order but against the modern one.

Here is how Benn explained the process by which modernity brought about nihilism:
From the glowing darkness of the many churches...there came a trembling, heavy with tears, a drumming and trumpeting; the striving of the human heart is toward evil from childhood on. The steady consonance of this tragic chord, the awareness of being in need of salvation, gave medieval life its depth and boundlessness. Penetrated by the sense of his own limitation, man turned in prayer to a perfection that he could imagine without having witnessed or experienced, an eternal realm beyond the desolation of the earth. And this contrast between a hither and a yon (which, of opposite nature like fire and water, nevertheless interpenetrate) charged the atmosphere with electrical tension, produced deeds like thunderbolts, and illumined the heart with flashes of realization. But now came the new song, Man is good, and its jaunty tune displaced the stern chorale of the past.

Man, then, is good; that is, insofar as he appears to be bad, the environment is at fault or heredity or society. All people are good; that means all people are equal, equally valuable, with an equal voice equally worth listening to in all matters. Just let's not get too far away from the average type; let's not have any greatness, anything out of the ordinary. Man is good, but not heroic; don't make the mistake of conferring responsibility on him; he should be useful, expedient, idyllic - devaluation of everything tragical, devaluation of everything fateful, devaluation of everything irrational; only what's plausible is granted validity, only what's banal. Man is good. This does not mean that Man should become good, that he should struggle to attain to a goodness, to an inner rank, to a state of being good. No, Man is not supposed to struggle at all, since he's good to begin with. The Party will fight for him, society, the mass, but he should live and enjoy, and if he kills someone he should be consoled, for it is not the murderer but the murdered who is at fault.

Man is good, his nature is rational, and all his sufferings are hygienic and socially controllable--this on the one hand and creation itself on the other. Both were supposed to be accessible to science. From both these ideas came the dissolution of all old bonds, the destruction of the substance, the leveling of all values; from them came the inner situation that produced that atmosphere in which we all live, from which we all drank to the bitter dregs: nihilism.


  1. Thanks Mark; very interesting description of moderne times, and of course things have only gotten worse (man believes more than ever in his own "goodness"). It reminds me of Polish philosopher and historian Leszek Kołakowski, who wrote about modern man having fatefully forgotten the original sin. I will add Gottfried Benn, whose name I did not even know, on my list of "authors I have to read".

  2. I'm not mad about the concept of original sin. It seems to imply that you thought people would be capable of more, that they should be "good", not "bad", whatever arbitrary interpretation is placed on those words.

    And of course that's exactly what it means: "If only Adam hadn't fallen we'd be living in paradise!". It's the prototype of the romantic nostalgia shared by anti-modernists of the right and left alike, from Joseph De Maistre (for whom the Revolution was equivalent to the Fall), right through to John Zerzan (an anarcho-primitivist Rousseauian who thinks that we went astray with the earliest social division of labour).

    Personally, I believe in taking people as they are. The kind of Romanticism that is reprobated by reactionary modernists like Benn and Hulme (read his pertinent essay here: seem to me to evince a kind of preformationism: the figure of full-grown romanticism is already implicit in the christian embryo, which is identical with this idea of original sin.

  3. Yannick,

    I'm interested in reading more about Benn too, but from what I've gleaned on the internet he never found his way back to anything - his attempts at a post-nihilism seem lame to me.

  4. Mark, I get your point, and I agree with you; bur I can't help feeling rather sympathetic to a nihilist who feels the world has deserted him as opposed to a nihilist who willingly deserts the world, so to speak, and who "agrees" with nihilism, defends it, promotes it, etc. Without knowing Gottfried Benn, I sense from what you quoted that he belongs to the first category, and on most days, that's the way I feel too, i.e. powerless against a world that forces nihilism into you.