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.
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.
Benn ... 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.
I have always admired Benn's poetry, and am glad it's finally gotten a persuasive advocate in English. As Thirlwell points out, Hofmann takes risks with his German translations, but they're smart ones. I've ordered the book, but it's still on its way. Benn, like Emil Nolde, initially favored the Nazi party, but was then sidelined by the cultural commissars owing to the 'degenerate' nature of his work.
The accompanying portrait of Benn, by Ivan Solyaev, is also magnificent: