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Thursday
Apr042019

"Artists and Old Age": Gottfried Benn

Somewhat aware of Gottfried Benn (1886-1957) as a poet I've just read his essay, "Artists and Old Age.

A Benn poem reads like it's bandaged--he was a doctor, Herr Doktor, as well as a soldier--and full of thorns, not the kind of thorns (a rose) Rilke died from but the kind of thorns that grow larger and larger from the moment they enter you, ever expanding thorns made of thorny language that thorn their way into the reader. A Benn poem can often seem to last a very long time.

Homestream wells up to hunger and to sex.

O joy of mills! Declivity! Decline

of heat pours from the old sun yet;

are the first three lines of a type of Benn poem, if there is such a thing as a typical Benn poem, titled "Looking Upward."

Benn's essay is quite different from his poetry, it's as if a different person wrote it, though the difference may be nothing more or less than the difference between poetry and prose. 

"Artists and Old Age" is neither short nor long: at 26 pps it's as concise and as prolix as it needs to be. I've just finished reading it for the first time. Benn invokes Kant in the first paragraph, the Opus posthumum, a work of Kant's old age, unpublished during the philosopher's life, transcripts, notes, commentary, much of which contradict his monumental earlier published work, Critique of Pure Reason. Benn writes, "Behind this question of the comparative validity of Kant's earlier or later work, there looms up the problem of early and late works in general, the problem of the continuity of the creatively productive personality," using the philosopher as a springboard to an investigation of a subject that is certainly worth examining but, like so many great life questions, may never be finally understood. 

I like the way Benn uses the phrase, looms up, which may or may not have been what he intended, given that I'm reading an English translation of his German.

I can't imagine the essay making much sense to a young artist, and even less to an artist in middle-age, nor can I believe in the possibility of either artist reading the essay with any real interest or understanding. Perhaps you can only understand Benn's logic if and when you've aged, that is, if you've paid enough attention to the way you are now in the world in contrast to the way you once were.

Besides, who reads essays any more? Only someone aging, like me.

If I read Benn the way I think he wants to be read I see that he's presenting aging as a new kind of opportunity, with statistical information to support his presentation--that it's not uncommon for an artist to eke out from the ravages of time some sort of charmed new perspective that greatly energizes the work. There are many examples in Benn's essay of writers, painters, musicians who've made new work, often their best work, in their 70s, 80's and 90s, art with the kind of energy that no less a German than Goethe wrote of, as he too grew old, "When one is old one must do more than when one was young."  

Thoughts and feelings about one's age are complex and change frequently. Thoughts and feelings themselves age, belonging to that specific realm of being human that may forever be unknowable. I know this is true, I'm aging. Aging, there are two different people in my life who are constantly in conversation: the person aging and the person who is the same person he or she was 20, 30, 40 years ago.

I'm most interested now in seeing if I can see the exact moment when I have grown old, if there is such a time and if I can know it if and when it happens.

_________________________________________________________

The essay "Artists and Old Age" is from Primal Vision, Selected Writings of Gottfried Benn, New Directions, 1971.

 

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