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This article is taken from PN Review 114, Volume 23 Number 4, March - April 1997.

Goethe and the Natural Sciences (translated by Iain Bamforth) Gottfried Benn

Translator's note

Gottfried Benn (1886-1956) is generally considered to be the most important German language poet of the early mid-century in the Rilke-Celan line (the latter's Sprachgitter is partly a response to Benn's drastically limiting notion of the 'Gitter-Ich'). His poetry continues to be influential: a certain brain-doggishness is apparent in the recent work of Durs Grünbein, born in 1962 and Germany's brightest poet-phenomenon for years. In English, aside from E.B. Ashton's compendium Primal Vision (1961) and fitful translations of the poems and mootings of interest from writers such as T.S. Eliot and Michael Hamburger, his work has received very little notice. This is surprising since Benn, for all his hyperborean aloofness, was representative of one intellectual response to the middle of Weimar Germany.

On the centenary of Goethe's death in 1932, Benn - along with a number of other writers including Thomas Mann, Gide, Hauptmann, Ortega y Gasset and Hesse -was commissioned to contribute to a special edition of the periodical 'Neue Rundschau'. 'Goethe and the Natural Sciences' is only one in a long series of essays Benn wrote while working in his rooms in the Belle-Alliance Strasse, Berlin, as a private specialist for skin and venereal diseases. Like his poetry, Benn's prose is jazzy, aggressively self-absorbed and dandyish -less logical and more vehement than that of Valéry's M. Teste, to whom he himself bears some comparison. His language rebuffs ready translation into English, veering from what we might call Biological-Ciceronian into long riffs ...


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