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Gottfried Benn is certainly the chief of the German expressionist poets. He was a controversial figure, a medical doctor who made his name as a man of letters, and as a provocateur. His work is very good, though the critical assessment of it has been uneven. The first works I read were his cycle Morgue and Other Poems and this one, Little Aster, is definitely the best of the series. In any event, I’ve had a hard time forgetting it. I’ve just rendered it into English, so you can have a hard time forgetting it, too.
The piece is a bit of a shocker. You read in the caption about a flower and imagine it’s going to be something quaint and charming. Then, within a few lines, someone’s ribcage is being sawed open with a long knife. It’s splendidly ironic. The shock hits in a series of waves (in my reading: a flower, how nice; followed by human carnage, how repulsive; followed by a realization that this is a clinical setting—of course, a doctor performing an autopsy; followed by the act of morbid internment.) Benn really was a medical doctor, and he wrote this as he was spending an inordinate amount of time dealing with cadavers. He looks at the subject professionally, with detachment, then in a bemused sort of way, and then with irony. It’s very hard to call his attitude precisely. Is it cynical? Nihilistic? Impish? Or is it just the pathologist working hard to preserve his good humor in the midst of inherently ghoulish works, something on the order of the familiar Korean War doctors in MASH?
No doubt he wants to offend bourgeois sentimentality, to shock, that’s a minimum. And he did. When this appeared, in the priggish days of late Wilhelmine culture on the eve of the Great War, society was scandalized. He was viewed as crude, tasteless, insensitive. And he was accused of violating his professional ethic, which commands that the human body be treated with respect. (Benn writes in the first line that the body was “dumped” onto the table, but Benn uses the word “gestemmt” which is very problematic to render into English. It could just be “stemmed,” but this doesn’t make a lot of sense. His use suggests a measure of nonchalance in the movement of the body, and more, that the body involved a person of some substance. But he’s being consciously obscure and coy. He anticipates the ethical criticism, I think).
On the artistic side of the social stage, however, this was a succès de scandale. Benn became an instant celebrity.
The name and the image of the flower are very important, I think. Asters aren’t such a common flower in Europe; they’re more an American thing. They are stout, hardy, rather straw-like. They resist the frost. They don’t come in many colors, and this one, Benn writes, is dunkelhelllila. That’s the German word, which I rendered rather literally as dark-pale lilac-colored. It is of course a completely impossible coinage, breaking the rules at every level. How can something be dark and pale? Benn even struggles to break the rules of German orthography. The Germans notoriously have a love for impressively polysyllabic words and a love of coining new words. There are a few rules, one of which forbids having three of the same consonants in succession. Not for Benn, however. He is literarily decidedly a very bad boy.
What on earth leads Benn to pick this particular flower? Aster is of course derived from the Latin word astra, stars, and it’s common usage would be in the phrase per aspera ad astra (through adversity to the stars). In fact, in scanning Benn’s interviews and occasional writings, I see that he uses this Latin expression many times, for instance in this quite famous interview from 1930. So I see the little aster as a symbol of hope, of an enduring struggle against adversity. To take this symbol and stitch it up in a cadaver filled with wood shavings (evidently used as a sort of embalming agent at the time) is absolutely perverse. Of course, Benn is foreshadowing the cadaver’s own interment. He suggests it will feed off of the fluids in the cadaver’s body. He is pointing to corruption of the body.
So the aster has yet another message, about nature. That aster’s a hideous little flower with a garish color. And nature’s not all about splendor and beauty, Benn is saying. Some aspects of it are gruesome and hideous. Like this body about to be affected by rigor mortis and decay.
The message stands in direct relationship to the art world of this time—the esthetic movement, the symbolists and so forth. Benn’s work is a mockery of those artists and their values. A very effective mockery.
Benn defies the classical rules. He takes the clinical over the beautiful. He despises the old values. He disrespects the sanctity of the human form, turning it into something suspiciously grotesque. All these things are a bit unnerving, and they point whether intentionally or not to a period of brutality, death and inhumanity that was just around the corner. And one thing’s for sure. After reading this poem, I could never see an aster again without a shudder. Sometimes a flower ceases to be just a flower.
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The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt. 352 pages. $28.
The extinction symbol is a spare graphic that began to appear on London walls and sidewalks a couple of years ago. It has since become popular enough as an emblem of protest that people display it at environmental rallies. Others tattoo it on their arms. The symbol consists of two triangles inscribed within a circle, like so:
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