The morbid poet: Gottfried Benn, the morgue and the mysterious postcard

Annette Tuffs
Heidelberg, Germany (Spring 2017)

 

The poet Gottfried Benn in 1951
Drawing by Tobias Falberg

“Worst of all: not to die in summer, when everything is bright and the earth is easy on the spade.”

So wrote the German poet Gottfried Benn (1886 -1956), three years before his death, in the poem “What’s bad”1. But if the wrong timing of one’s death is the very worst thing, what is merely bad? To hear a good English crime story and not to master the language, was Benn’s suggestion. Or to long for a beer in a heat wave and have no money.

When he wrote these unusually light-hearted verses in 1953, Benn was at the height of his fame and having the time of his life. Seemingly uninhibited by any thoughts of his mortality and freed from his tedious practice in dermatology and venereology in Berlin, he was at last able to fully enjoy his life as an esteemed poet.  He received honors from academies and statesmen for his literary achievements, which were bestowed despite his shady past in the early years of the Nazi regime. Benn was on the short list for the Literature Nobel Prize and his work was frequently broadcast on the radio. Private life was just as enjoyable, enlivened by the companionship of young mistresses and made comfortable at home by his wife, the practicing dentist Ilse Benn.

But death, and its grim forerunner named disease, had accompanied him ever since he gave up theology in favor of  medicine at the military “Kaiser Wilhelm Akademie” in Berlin. Military medicine did not suit him, so he turned to pathology, dissecting hundreds of dead bodies. However, all he really wanted to be was a poet.

It was Benn’s expressionistic outburst after a visit to the morgue in March 1912 that set him on the successful path to fulfill his real destiny. The scandalous poems published in a lyrical flysheet with the title “Morgue and other Poems” became a roaring success. Benn later described their genesis: “I was at a postmortem in Moabit Hospital. A cycle of six poems all ascended within one hour. They were thrown up, suddenly existed, whereas before there had been no sign of them.”2 The Morgue collection starts – like a flash of lightning – with the disturbing verses of “Little Aster”3:

Little Aster

A drowned beer-hauler was heaved onto the slab.
Someone had wedged a lavender aster
between his teeth.
As I reached through the chest
under the skin
with a long knife
to cut out the tongue and palate
I must have bumped the flower, for it slid
into the brain lying alongside.
I packed it into the chest cavity
with the sawdust
as we sewed up.
Drink your fill in that vase!
Rest in peace,
little aster!

Lyrics about morgues were nothing new, even constituting a literary tradition followed by Rainer Maria Rilke (published in 1906), Georg Heym (1911), and other poets. But “Morgue and Other Poems” – a thin volume containing thirteen poems – broke with all traditions and rules, with aestheticism and decency. The collection was put together by the Berlin publisher Alfred Richard Meyer without consulting the author, much to Benn’s dismay since he  abhorred scandal.

Dr. Benn’s “Morgue” was breathtaking. It was outrageous, disgusting, and spectacular. And it catapulted the twenty-six year old poet, who had just begun to move within the inner circle of Berlin Bohème, to sudden fame and notoriety. The idyllic little aster surviving on blood, and the savaged body in one horrendous picture are difficult to bear, even for hardened readers of the 21st century. In 2011 there were massive protests against posters portraying the text of “Little Aster” displayed in Berlin’s Public Transport network as part of an initiative to make  poetry popular. The posters were withdrawn.

Benn’s verbal expressionism was by no means confined to the dead. Three poems in “Morgue” take the reader into the depths of a hospital seen through his cold naturalistic eyes. The poem “Man and Woman go through the Cancer Ward”4 virtually conveys the smells of the cancer ward in the Charité Hospital.

Man and Woman go through the Cancer Ward4

The man:
Here in these rows are wombs that
have decayed,
and in this row are breasts that have
decayed.
Bed beside stinking bed. Hourly the
sisters change.
Come, quietly lift up this coverlet.
Look, this great mass of fat and ugly
humours
was once some man’s delight,
was ecstasy and home.
Come, look at the shrewd scars
upon this breast.
Do you feel the rosary of small soft
knots?
Touch it, no fear. The yielding flesh
is numbed.
Here’s one who bleeds as though
from thirty bodies.
No one has so much blood.—
This one was cut:
they took a child out of her
cancerous womb.
They let them sleep. All day, all
night.—They tell
The newcomers: here sleep will
make you well.—But Sundays
one rouses them a bit for visitors.—
They take a little nourishment. Their
backs
are sore. You see the flies.
Occasionally
the sisters wash them. As one
washes benches.—
Here the grave rises up about each
bed.
And flesh is levelled down to earth.
The fire
burns out. And sap prepares to flow.
Earth calls.—

Morgue und andere Gedichte
Original Title of the lyrical flysheet in 1912 Klett-Cotta

The English translation “Cancer Ward” does not really fit since Benn used the German term “Krebsbaracke” – cancer barrack. The hospital barracks were not, as the term might suggest, auxiliary buildings, but compact one-storied houses, either for male or female patients. They were modern assets to hospitals at the time, not least because of their better airing (“Bed beside stinking bed”). The three cancer barracks belonged to the first specialized Cancer Hospital in Germany, founded in 1903 by the eminent Charité physician Ernst von Leyden. In 1911, Benn was working in the barracks as an “Unterarzt”, a military rank in the German army. The smelling decomposition of tumors was just one of many problems the Charité doctors tried to tackle with radiation or other innovative therapies. Much to the disappointment of Benn enthusiasts, the historical cancer barracks on the old Charité campus are now gone, demolished by bombs in the Second World War, or making room in 1956 for a modern research institute.5

Apart from his lasting fascination with flowers, the author who wrote these shocking early poems can hardly be recognized as the one who,  twenty-five years later, wrote transcendent melancholic rhymes about the same flower as a reminder of a golden dying summer (“Astern”); or as the author of the 1950 work “Travelling”, which describes futile attempts to escape the inner “void”, always ending up with the “self defining inner self.” But no wonder! Benn had travelled through four decades with two world wars and a fascist regime, which although fascinating him at first, later drove him into inner exile and precarious life situations. He had experienced two marriages, several liaisons, and some friendships and animosities. And after all this, nothing was left, save for “the void and the branded self”, as he wrote in his 1953 poem “Two Things Only”.

Was poetry his survival kit? Possibly, but Benn had other ways of opening his defined self and channeling his compulsive outbursts of thoughts, even at difficult times. He was a master of letter writing, maintaining a prolific dialogue with the Bremen merchant Friedrich Wilhelm Oelze, a fervent admirer who had first approached him in 1932 and became his lifelong intellectual sparring partner. About 1.500 letters were exchanged between the pair. In 2016 the publication of the complete correspondence brought a secret into the public eye about a mysterious postcard and Benn’s death, which the German feuilletons pounced upon as a scoop.6

In May 1956 Gottfried Benn celebrated his 70th birthday. The grand festivities were overshadowed by his indisposition. He was suffering from backaches due to rheumatic disease, or so he thought.  He sought treatment and recreation in the Spa Schlangenbad near Wiesbaden – in vain. Benn was fighting for his life. He wrote to Oelze on a postcard, which only survived as transcript: “That hour will not fright me, I can assure you, we will not fall, but we will rise.”

Benn’s pain had become unbearable. He may have remembered the early and painful death of his mother from breast cancer. Back in Berlin with his wife Ilse, Benn sought hospital treatment. On the 6th of July 1956 the fatal diagnosis of cancer was established. The doctors gave him six months to live. He died the next day, on the 7th of July, a fine summer’s day.

An unexpectedly swift death? The Benn-Oelze correspondence has shed new light on this question. There is a valid amendment to the transcript of Benn’s last postcard from Schlangenbad that had been kept secret for decades, presumably in order to protect Ilse Benn, who died in in 1995. Benn wrote : “There cannot be any doubt about my situation, but I am quite indifferent. However, I do not want to suffer, pain has something degrading. I have made my wife, who is very close to me these days, promise me that she will relieve my last days. It will all come quickly to an end. That hour will not fright me, I can assure you, we will not fall, but we will rise.”

Did Ilse Benn keep the promise and make use of morphine, which as a dentist would have been at her disposal? She presumably did and kept him from the worst, which was: “Not to die in summer, when everything is bright and the earth is easy on the spade.”

 

References

  1. Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/53050. Accessed 31st of January 2017.
  2. Sämtliche Werke, Band IV, 178, Lebensweg eines Intellektualisten
  3. Poetry Foundationhttps://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/54403. Accessed 31st of January 2017.
  4. Poetry Explorer http://www.poetryexplorer.net/poem.php?id=10037929 Accessed 31st of January 2017.
  5. Peter Voswinckel: Erinnerungsort Krebsbaracke, Deutsches Ärzteblatt, Jg.112, Heft 29-30, A 1284-1286
  6. Florian Illies: Wir werden steigen, DER SPIEGEL, Nr.11, 2016: 122-126.
  7. Holger Hof: Gottfried Benn – Der Mann ohne Gedächtnis, Klett Cotta, 2011, ISBN 978-3-608-93851-7
  8. Gunnar Decker: Gottfried Benn – Genie und Barbar, Aufbau-Verlag, 2006, ISBN-10:3-351-02632-3

 


 

ANNETTE TUFFS, MD, studied medicine at the universities of Giessen, Wuerzburg, Cambridge (UK), and Bonn. She wrote her doctoral thesis (Bonn University) on the effects of UV light on eye lenses and has worked as a science journalist and hospital communication director. She lives in Heidelberg, Germany.