Primal Vision: Selected Writings
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
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.
bring it to light. Now he sang again, the happy tender heart. Winter comes and the fields green; a few leaves fall from the pom egranate bush, but the com shoots up before your eyes. W hat will you have: narcissi or violets the year around, poured into your bath when you rise late in the morning; or do you want to roam at night through little villages along the Nile, when the bright southern moon casts large, clear shadows on the crooked streets? Will you have ibis cages or heron houses? Orange
nothing but the dusk of my heart, an aging heart: vague air, graying emotions, you give yourself only to fall a prey—but giving and falling prey were very remote. Into the other rooms fell the red glow of the city. Not having seen Niniveh on its jasper and rubv foundation, not having seen Rome in the arms of the Antonines, I viewed this, the bearer of the myth that began in Babylon. A mother city, a womb of distant 30 ages, a new thrill by tap dance and injection. W hat the monastic eras
be Egyptian falcons or the novels of Hamsun, means from the standpoint of the artist to exclude life, to narrow it down, yes, to com bat it, in order to give it style. And I would add something else, something historic, since its knowledge is obviously so lacking in those circles. The struggle against art did not start in Russia, nor in Berlin. It runs from Plato to Tolstoy. It always proceeded from the middle forces to the out side, but also from the artist against the higher ones. 42 All the
lunch at the officers’ mess: “His bow in the door acknowledged the individualities. Who was he? Quietly he took a seat. The gentlemen loomed large. “Herr Friedhoff was telling of the peculiarities of a tropical fruit containing an egg-sized kernel. You ate the flesh with a spoon; it had the consistency of jelly. Some thought its taste was nutty. As for him, he had always found it tasted like eggs. You ate it with pepper and salt. It was a tasty fruit. He had eaten three or four a day and never
the bosses of the F ederal Reserve Buildings who hoard the gold. After the song the ice-souffl6 and the soup m ade from the jelly with which the rare Javanese salangane makes its nest. Or yonder: the big brown horses with cockades of violets on their forehead, standing outside the palace, all correct, their four legs stretched out as far as possible, four forelegs and four hindlegs aligned, the hooves clean and shiny, the groom standing at the shaft under the horses’ noses. Dina Grayville gets