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.”

 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, though you will need to suurf wider to find many. 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.

If there are multiple threads connecting Kafka's metaphors with Gottfried Benn's, there are just as many between both of theirs and similar figures in the writings of Fernando Pessoa. Kafka, for example (June 21st 1913) comments on: 

“The tremendous world I have in my head. But how free myself, and free it without being torn to pieces. I would a thousand times rather be torn to pieces than retain it in me or bury it. That, indeed, is why I am here. That is quite clear to me.”

This in a sense repeats the birth image referenced in my previous entry on Kafka ("A Chinese Puzzle"), just as it does the one quoted earlier on this page. Its precise opposite is found in Pessoa's "The Book of Disquiet", Fragment 179, entitled "Zenith":

“In my writing I linger over words, as before shop windows. I don’t really look at them, and what remains are half-meanings and quasi-expressions, like the colours of upholstery that I didn’t see, harmonies on display composed of I don’t know what objects. In writing I rock myself, like a crazed mother her dead child.”

And in Fragment 365:

“When I write, I solemnly pay myself a visit. I have special chambers, remembered by someone else in interstices of the dramatic portrayal, where I take delight in analysing what I don’t feel, and examine myself like a picture in a dark corner.”

Writing as therapy, in this case not for the neurotic scribbler but for the compound schizophrenic. But it also begs again my question about Kafka: the extent to which he has created a literary persona named Kafka, as Proust created Marcel in "A La Recherche du Temps Perdu" and Dickens created his own multiple manifestations as Pip, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, and D.H. Lawrence the same as Paul Morel, Rupert Birkin, Richard Lovatt Somers.

So strong is the link between Kafka and Pessoa, the former could well have inspired this paragraph (Fragment 358):

“When I laid my hands on the desk and looked at what was there (with a glance that must have reflected a weariness full of dead worlds – the first thing I saw, on really seeing, was a blow-fly poised on top of the ink-stand. I contemplated it from the bottom of the abyss, anonymous and alert…) who knows for what supreme forces, gods or demons of Truth in whose shadows we roam, I may be nothing but the shiny fly that alights in front of them for a moment or two? Trite observation? Unoriginal idea? Philosophy without thought? Maybe, but I didn’t think: I felt. It was physically, directly, with a profound horror that I made this ludicrous comparison. I was a fly when I compared myself to one. I felt like a fly when I imagined feeling like one. And I felt a flyish soul, slept flyishly, and was flyishly withdrawn. And what is most horrifying me is that I felt, at the same time, like myself. I automatically raised my eyes towards the ceiling, that no lofty fly-switch should swoop down to swat me, as I might swat the fly.”

Another of Pessoa's metaphors echoes my comment about disappointment in regard to Kafka, and even more so a passage in Hofmannstahl's "Conversation About Poems":

“The landscapes of the soil are more wonderful than the landscapes of the starry sky; not only its galaxies are thousands of stars, but its shadowy charms, its darknesses, are thousandfold life, life that has become lightless through its crowding, choked by its fullness. And an instant can x-ray these abysses, in which life devours itself, an instant can release them, it can make galaxies out of them. And these instants are the births of the perfect poems, and the possibility of perfect poems without limits, as is the possibility of such instants.”

Pessoa, like Kafka, like Benn, is less optimistic, but struggled through, and eventually reached the same point:

“For me to write is to disdain myself, and yet I cannot quit writing. Writing is like the drug that I abhor and take, the addiction that I disdain and depend on. There are necessary poisons, and some are extremely subtle, composed of ingredients from the soul, herbs collected from among the ruins of dreams, black poppies found next to graves, the long leaves of obscene trees that sway their branches on the audible banks of the soul’s infernal rivers.” (Fragment 157)

To write is to become Dante! Or, as Rilke once commented, and it so impacted on Gabriel Garcia Marquez that it inspired the title of his memoir ("Living To Tell The Tale"), "If you think you are capable of living without writing, do not write."

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