Wednesday, September 3, 2014


Gottfried Benn


Continuing my trawl of Kafka’s self-doubts (see The Book of Days, July 3), on December 19th 1914 (allied airmen were bombing German airsheds in Brussels that day, and the Germans counter-attacking at Givenchy and Festubert; while on the eastern front a desperate sortie by the Austrian garrison at Przemsyl in Poland was repelled by the Russians), Kafka wrote:

“The beginning of every story is ridiculous at first. There seems no hope that this new-born thing, still incomplete and tender in every joint, will be able to keep alive in the completed organisation of the world, which, like every completed organisation, strives to close itself off. However, one should not forget that the story, if it has any justification to exist, bears its completed organisation within itself even before it has been fully formed; for this reason despair of the beginning of the story is unwarranted; in a like case parents should have to despair of their suckling infant, for they had no intention of bringing this pathetic and ridiculous being into the world.”

Gottfried Benn states something remarkably similar – unusually optimistic by his normal standards! – albeit with a different metaphor, in “Problems of Lyric Poetry”:

“The poem is already done before it has begun, only the poet does not know its text yet. The poem can have no other form except the once it has once it is written…You may also say, a poem is like a ship of the Phaeks which, as Homer tells us, goes straight into the harbour without a helmsman.”

Elsewhere in the same essay Benn states:

“Something inside you tosses out (schleudert heraus – “tosses out” is insufficient – "spews out", like Jonah from the belly of the whale, would be better) a few verses, or it ventures forth copiously (another poor translation; bedächtig means “cautious” not “copious” – Kafka would be much happier with that adverb!) with a few verses, something else inside you immediately takes them in hand, puts them into an apparatus of observation, a microscope, assays them, colours them, searches for pathological particles.”

Kafka had used that same birth analogy before, in his diary entry for February 11th 1913:-

“While I read the proofs of ‘The Judgement’, I’ll write down all the relationships which have become clear to me in the story as far as I now remember them. This is necessary because the story came out of me like a real birth, covered with filth and slime, and only I have the hand that can reach into the body itself and the strength of desire to do so.” 

I have no idea if Kafka and Benn knew each other, or even knew each other’s work. They were born just three years apart, Kafka in 1883, Benn in 1886, Kafka in Prague, Benn in the far north-east of Germany, Kafka a Jew who lapsed, Benn a Lutheran who did the same, and both of them highly introverted, with tendencies towards the nihilistic. Benn at first supported Hitler, thinking he would turn around Germany’s economic misfortunes, then rejected him after the Night of the Long Knives when he realised what Nazism was really about; and had the splendid irony bestowed upon him of finding his poetry banned by the Nazis for being “Jewish, degenerate and homosexual” (only the middle of these three was accurate, and even that is in some doubt), and then, after the war, banned by the Allies because of his earlier support for Hitler.
    I have not included any of his Expressionist poetry in this blog, but you can find him on the web, in English, though he is best read in German. As always, start with the Poetry Foundation and PoemHunter. The Paris Review has several, including the most stupendously ambiguous


The solitary molar of a streetwalker
whose body had gone unclaimed
had a gold filling.
All the rest were gone,
as if by tacit agreement.
This one the morgue attendant claimed for himself,
flogged it, and had himself a night out on the proceeds.
Because, so he said,
only dust should revert to dust.

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