Primal Vision: Selected Writings

Primal Vision: Selected Writings

Gottfried Benn

editor EB Ashton

here's a review from Amazon of this volume (with considerable background on Benn) from a man who is translating more of Benn's into English:

At present I am translating for an English publisher a collection of poetry and prose by Gottfried Benn. So I am familiar with the title piece Primal Vision or Urgesicht. It is one of the pieces I have excluded from my collection, and here is why: It is very hard to translate. As a linguist, I am not afraid of the sheer difficulty, but there is also an other aspect. Translating imaginative literature is not like translating for the United Nations. There are 2 major barriers: an unfamiliar language and unfamiliar conventions of style. The problem is to translate faithfully without producing something too outlandish to be acceptable for the English/American reader.

Benn's Primal Vision is hard to categorize - it is not a story, but it also is not like the explanatory prose for an essay. At best we should think of it as a verbal collage or a prose poem in Rimbaud's vein. There is a line of thought behind it - or rather an obsession, one of Benn's pet-hates. It is a powerful expression of the author's disgust with the empirical realism of modern science (written by an extremely well trained scientist) and also expresses a for the time very common sentiment of disappointment with rationalism and neo-Kantian idealism. Plenty of '-isms.' But none of this shows on the glittering surface created by one of the great linguistic geniuses in his language.

Benn had a small but devoted following in France, way back in the nineteen twentieth. He was credited to be one of the 4 major poets of his time in the whole of Europe. In his own country he was less appreciated, but still acknowledged as one of the leading intellectuals before 1933. Then came Hitler and Benn fell into the trap of his own irrationalism. He found the vulgarity of the Nazis despicable, and he certainly was no anti-Semite, but he agreed on a particularly nasty point, little debated, if at all, that made him a Nazi-sympathizer even after 1945: Benn was a physician by profession, he had a profound understanding of genetics and at least since 1930 his work is laced with approving remarks on eugenic policies, policies which in the hands of the Nazis meant 'mercy killings' of the mentally impaired and mandatory castration of carriers with hereditary diseases. Benn himself had a sister suffering from hereditary glaucoma and he was convinced that even his own family had to be cut off from the gene pool.

The result was Benn's very public commitment to the Nazis after 1933. It immediately ruined his international reputation and alienated him from most of his friends, of which many had fled into exile. However the new masters smelled a rat. Benn was too intellectual, too sharp, too 'cynical' for their taste; his publications before 1933 contained passages of what could be interpreted as 'liberal' (read his essay on abortion) and lax on morals. Benn's unflinching view on the facts of biological life earned him the denigration of a 'pervert and sodomite.' As a doctor he was stricken from the list of G.Ps. entitled to write subscriptions under the national health insurance act - which was tantamount to professional suicide. As an author he was still able to publish until 1938; then official censorship put an end to his literary career as well. Benn retreated into army service in the rank of a colonel in the medical corps. In this function he produced a study on the causes of suicide. Had this study sent the wrong message, widows of war veterans who had committed suicide could have lost their pensions. Benn knew this, and he argued therefore, that suicide is a completely spontaneous act out of a moment's inspiration. The widows continued to receive their pensions.

After the war Benn regained part of his literary reputation, but he never recanted the views that made him commit his political boo-boo in the first place - a fact conveniently glossed over by his admirers. 'Primal Vision' contains all the seeds and intellectual props which led to Benn's downfall, but they are so thoroughly embedded in Benn's dazzling rhetorics that it passed unnoticed. It is a brilliance that obscures the real issues under a veneer of an elitist but hollow art-philosophy which in its days had been influential for more than half a century. Benn was a great talent and the living example that even genius is no protection against flaws of character.

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Primal Vision: Selected Writings