Gottfried Benn in English

The New Republic has a very fine essay on Gottfried Benn by Adam Thirlwell, occasioned by Michael Hofmann's recent book of English translations of Benn's poems:

The phenomenon of writers ignored, abused, cast out, disgraced, not for the disaster of their writing but the disaster of their politics, is one contribution the twentieth century has made to the history of literature. Cioran, Kipling, Gorky, you name it: the history of literature has become natty at its particular version of kashrut. We’re therefore now accustomed to the general map of literature being marked by weird absences, small oblivions, fuzzy silences. Mostly, I guess, these oblivions are now so usual that their existence is hardly noticed. Who, for instance, is exercised by the absence in their iBooks library of the German poet Gottfried Benn? And yet Benn—along with Brecht, Celan, and Rilke—is one of the great German poets of the twentieth century, the equal of Eliot or Montale. And the reason for this absence, as usual, is not the work but the life.

Benn, of course, chose a different trajectory in the terrible 1930s—even if, very soon, his work too, like Kokoschka’s, was condemned as 
degenerate. In the end every expressionist was to be shunned by the Nazi regime—just as Benn would then be shunned forever, for his year of Nazi temptation.

In other words, the career of Gottfried Benn is a case study in disgrace. And now the international reader, whose acquaintance with Benn might have otherwise been as fragmentary as a mention in an essay by T. S. Eliot or in a poem by Frank O’Hara, can finally examine this case study with voracious comprehensiveness, owing to this virtuosic, acidic selection of translations by the poet Michael Hofmann. Benn’s late style is one of literature’s great inventions, and the composition of this selection conditions its reader to concentrate on that phenomenon: from 1912 to 1947, a period of 35 years, Hofmann offers just twenty-four poems, while from 1949 to 1955, the last six years of Benn’s life, there are a lavish forty-eight.

Benn … speaks from inside this moral gray zone. He gives disgrace its aesthetic form. He experienced life as total defeat, and in this disgrace, he discovered a kind of nihilistic truth. In Benn’s poetry, the real meaning of disgrace was not remorse. No, its real meaning was isolation. In disgrace, he discovered how easily one can be severed from every community. From this isolation, his conclusion was an absolute disillusion. The only truth in which he could believe was the truth he had always relied on: the swarming, isolated self.

I have always admired Benn's poetry, and am glad it's finally gotten a persuasive advocate in English. As Thirlwell points out, Hofmann takes risks with his German translations, but they're smart ones. I've ordered the book, but it's still on its way. Benn, like Emil Nolde, initially favored the Nazi party, but was then sidelined by the cultural commissars owing to the 'degenerate' nature of his work.

The accompanying portrait of Benn, by Ivan Solyaev, is also magnificent:

Article_inset_thirlwell (1)

‘Silence’ by Gottfried Benn

coming from within:
things past,
tender early associations
ended by death;
also days with table-decorations and fruit-bowls
placed between couples
of unwavering commitment, two flames. 

from faraway estates,
preparations for festivities or homecomings:
beating of carpets,
on which, later,
many pairs of feet will shuffle
dotingly and in love. 

once endured and in store for strangers,
broken today by a hoarse plea:
“stay by me,
maybe not all that much longer,
too much decay in me,
too much heaviness,

Translated by Michael Hofmann (source)

People! Animals! Sensations!

Circuses disappeared from America sometime around 1975, to be replaced by God knows what.

But Europe, God bless it, still plays host to circuses. Actual traveling circuses, with genuine circus-folk and clowns with eerie, pupil-less eyes:

Welktklasse Europa Circus

Come one, come all, to see 'Snake-woman Mercedes' (who looks about 12), 'Clown Banana' (not further specified), 'Fire-fakir Santokan and Belly Dancer Destiny', 'Schecki — Europe's smallest Pony', 'Clown Peppo', and 'Arelina and Cartier', her trained horse.

I know we're supposed to find these things slightly louche and express concern over proper animal storage and all, but I for one welcome the prospect of humans leaving behind their flickering screens, foregathering in meatspace, and watching other humans do amusing things with each other and certain animals. Who says the new ways are always better? 

National Scorpions in a European Bottle

The Washington Post examines the chances of a right-wing block in the European Parliament and uncovers a few interesting cross-currents among European Euroskeptic parties:

With France’s National Front the likely anchor of any nationalist coalition, it has been up to Le Pen to try to forge a legislative bloc. Success would mean winning at least 25 seats from seven countries. Though almost assured of enough seats, Le Pen appears to be at least one nation shy of the country threshold.

Meanwhile, one nationalist group, the United Kingdom Independence Party, has refused to work with her. Like Le Pen, UKIP chief Nigel Farage has sought to position his party as sane moderates who happen to have an anti-E.U., anti-immigration bent. While he touts his party as mainstream, Le Pen’s National Front, he insists, is just faking it.

“Our view is that whatever Marine Le Pen is trying to do with the Front National, anti-Semitism is still imbedded in that party, and we’re not going to work with them now or at any point in the future,” Farage told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper.

But even her critics concede that Le Pen has determinedly sought to distance herself from her controversial father and has made strides toward steering the party away from explicit racism. In October, the National Front ejected a mayoral candidate, Anne-Sophie Leclere, after she publicly compared France’s French Guiana-born justice minister, Christiane Taubira, to a monkey.

In fact, Le Pen is portraying the party as the best ally French Jews could have against a common enemy.

“Not only am I not anti-Semitic, but I have explained to my Jewish compatriots that the movement most able to protect them is the Front National,” she said. “For the greatest danger today is the rise of an anti-Semitism in the suburbs, stemming from Muslim fundamentalists.”

It seems to me the European nationalist right can be traced to two factors, the first being the economic distress in many southern and Eastern European countries. But that doesn't explain the rise of the right in Scandinavia or Britain.

What we're seeing, I think, is proof of the uncomfortable fact that as Robert Putnam reluctantly concluded, "[i]n the short to medium run, … immigration and ethnic diversity challenge social solidarity and inhibit social capital." It appears impossible to induce ethnically homogeneous societies like those in Europe to harmoniously integrate people from radically different cultural, religious, and educational backgrounds. The best we can hope for is a largely peaceful but not static-free co-existence. 

Another factor is the often-feckless response of the pro-diversity crowd. No matter how much outrage or sarcasm you direct at the latest racist comment from a Front National member, their message will still resound with millions of people. And this is where many European social democrats turn to counterproctive responses:

  1. lecturing voters who keep stubbornly voting for the "wrong" parties;
  2. even more patronizingly, searching for the 'real' reasons behind anti-immigrant sentiment; and/or
  3. blaming the 'rat-catchers' and 'demagogues' and 'populists' for 'fanning the flames' of anti-immigrant sentiment (as if were somehow dishonest to address your clientele's genuine concerns).

The approaches seem to posit that there might still be a way to 're-educate' ordinary Europeans to embrace diversity. If only we could get rid of the demagogues! If only we could find the perfect way to showcase the benefits of diversity! But I suspect lots of European voters say they don't like foreigners because they don't like foreigners. And they never will, no matter how often you remind them that they really, really should

I'm not sure this particular problem has a solution. But as long as anti-immigrant parties are in the minority, it probably doesn't need one. The vast majority of Europeans, whether they're uncomfortable with immigrants or not, are still unwilling to vote for parties whose main focus is immigrant-bashing. Preserving that status quo is probably the best Europe can do.

Norwegian ‘Slow TV’

I visited Norway last summer and came back filled with envy. Here's the thing about Norway: It's a ludicrously beautiful country perched atop a massive underground ocean of oil. Plus, its sensible government doesn't blow the oil money on platinum-plated palaces. Instead, it first funds a lavish welfare state and then deposits the remaining surplus cash into Norway's $1 trillion government savings fund. Norwegians all looked absurdly healthy and happy, as if they didn't have a care in the world.

Abstractly, you might sometimes just want to punch them. But then you meet them, and in eerily flawless English, they bitch endearingly about all the problems their country faces, from right-wing extremists to the high cost of living to timid, ineffectual politicians. You know, typical Scandinavian problems. So then you begin to like the Norwegians.

And really, how can you stay mad at people who enthusiastically watch 6-day-long 'Slow TV' marathon shows featuring totally normal cruise ships voyages, train journeys, or knitting orgies?

Below, 236 minutes constituting part I of the Bergen-Oslo train journey, considered one of the world's most picturesque:

German Word of the Week: Backpfeifengesicht

Over at a website called Chateau Heartiste*, the anonymous author has this to say about the above picture: 

The Germans have a word (the Germans always have a word) for “a punchable face”: Backpfeifengesicht.

That's rather hard cheese on feminism-boy, but we'll leave that aside for a moment. I found to my surprise that Backpfeifengesicht has an active double-life in English, with an eager crowd of Teutonophiles spearheading a movement to bring it into English to join Earworm, Weltschmerz, Fahrvergnügen, and other recent imports. Problem is, though, that nobody has any idea how to pronounce Backpfeifengesicht. The consonant-block 'ckpf' is, safe to say, not one many English-speakers have encountered, although it's far from the gnarliest that German has to offer.

My advice is simple: as with all German words, it's pronounced exactly as it's spelled, no matter how impossible that may seem at first.

* As for the sentiment expressed by the sign, I have emphatically no comment.

Experts, Schmexperts

While we're on the subject of expertise, a study finds that blindfolded violinists preferred new violins to the supposedly ineffable old Italian fiddles:

Many researchers have sought explanations for the purported tonal superiority of Old Italian violins by investigating varnish and wood properties, plate tuning systems, and the spectral balance of the radiated sound. Nevertheless, the fundamental premise of tonal superiority has been investigated scientifically only once very recently, and results showed a general preference for new violins and that players were unable to reliably distinguish new violins from old…. In this study, 10 renowned soloists each blind-tested six Old Italian violins (including five by Stradivari) and six new during two 75-min sessions—the first in a rehearsal room, the second in a 300-seat concert hall. When asked to choose a violin to replace their own for a hypothetical concert tour, 6 of the 10 soloists chose a new instrument. A single new violin was easily the most-preferred of the 12. On average, soloists rated their favorite new violins more highly than their favorite old for playability, articulation, and projection, and at least equal to old in terms of timbre. Soloists failed to distinguish new from old at better than chance levels. These results confirm and extend those of the earlier study and present a striking challenge to near-canonical beliefs about Old Italian violins.

Add this to the mountain of evidence that professional wine tasters can be influenced by all sorts of extraneous factors: 

Colour affects our perceptions too. In 2001 Frédérick Brochet of the University of Bordeaux asked 54 wine experts to test two glasses of wine– one red, one white. Using the typical language of tasters, the panel described the red as "jammy' and commented on its crushed red fruit.

The critics failed to spot that both wines were from the same bottle. The only difference was that one had been coloured red with a flavourless dye.

As Kevin Drum puts it succinctly, if you're an expert but can't do your thing blindfolded, STFU.

[The video is a legendary 1988 episode of the German TV show 'Wetten, dass…' (Bet that I can…) in which Titanic (g) magazine editor Bernd Fritz claimed to be able to detect the color of markers (g) by tasting them.]

We’re all Drinking Wawa Beer Already

AIDS might 'kill more Australians than World War II'. Whew, glad the Aussies dodged that bullet.

Epidemiology_rulez_ok commented, to the last post:

Drink Wawa-beer! The risk of becoming infected with life threatening bacteria is only 0.4% each time you drink Wawa-beer! Don't think about what happens if you drink Wawa-beer once a week, year after year!

Don't forget that the .04% risk figure is based on the number of sex acts with an HIV-positive person. Assuming you sleep with 10 different people a year, how likely is it that any of them is (1) going to be HIV positive; and (2) also be in a phase of the infection in which they are shedding enough viruses to infect others?

If you're straight, don't associate with IV drug users, and don't live in sub-Saharan Africa, the chances of you sleeping with someone who is HIV positive is tiny — and it's only then, when you sleep with that HIV-positive person, that you'll encounter the 1 in 2500 chance of infection. So the real chance, for people outside the high-risk categories, is probably not even 1 in 2500, but something like one in a couple of million. Which explains why verifiable, recorded instances of HIV transmission resulting from casual sexual encounters among people outside the risk categories are almost unknown.

Obviously, ERO is snarking a bit, but it got me thinking: isn't the attitude he or she mocks the basic logic we all use every day? Take, for example, unpasteurized cheese. I eat it, as well as millions of Europeans, every day, even though there's a small chance it will make us seriously ill. In fact, the United States bans or regulates the import 'dangerous' European cheese made from raw milk, and US government organs officially warn people of the dangers of raw milk and cheese. Yet probably half the cheeses in my ordinary grocery store are labeled rohmilchkaese (cheese from raw milk). Or how about the people I see every day riding their bicycles around without helmets, as I do myself? We are knowingly encountering a tiny chance of death that we could eliminate completely by wearing a helmet, but we don't.

My point is, as a matter of policy, it was foolish and irresponsible to try to frighten people outside the main risk groups. It spread irrational fear far out of proportion to any real public-health benefit. Also, it reduced the credibility of public-health figures. They cried wolf once (see the ad above), so who's to say they won't do so the next time some alleged threat looms on the horizon? It's also worth noting that the people responsible for the notorious 'Grim Reaper' ad later acknowledged it was a mistake, since it led to a backlash by straight Australians against gay men. Some people took the Grim Reaper to be a dramatization of the supposed danger of a virus localized in the gay community now threatening heterosexuals — even small children.

Oral Sex and Public Health Fear-Mongering


We've all been bombarded with messages about safe sex. Often, these messages are manage to be both hysterical and curiously vague. We are warned that all sex is dangerous, there's no such thing as safe sex, only safer sex, and solemnly enjoined to do ludicrous things like use condoms and dental dams during oral sex. Dental dams!

The patronizing tone of this propaganda always annoyed me. I felt as if I were in a dictatorship, constantly being told what to do, but never why. I remember looking up the actual statistics of HIV transmission in the 1990s and being amazed at how incredibly tiny they were. Over at Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory takes a look at the question of exactly how risky oral sex is:

University of California, San Francisco, study put the per-contact risk of transmission through “receptive” fellatio with an HIV positive partner at 0.04 percent. (For perspective, consider that the same study found a much higher per-contact risk of 0.82 percent for unprotected receptive anal sex.) The researchers calculated the rate of HIV transmission to be 4 out of 10,000 acts of fellatio. Without ejaculation in the mouth, though, some experts have called HIV transmission via performing fellatio “extremely low risk.”

As for the danger of having someone perform unprotected oral sex on you: “The only risk in this scenario would be from bleeding wounds or gums in the HIV positive person’s mouth or on their lips, which may transfer blood onto the mucous membranes of the other person’s genitals or anus, or into any cuts or sores they may have,” according to AVERT.

This more or less conforms to the information I got looking at controlled clinical studies of HIV transmission. The canard that everyone was at equal risk for HIV was just that, a canard. If you are healthy, straight, and don't use IV drugs you can have unprotected oral or vaginal sex with an HIV-positive person literally thousands of times without contracting HIV. And, as Flory reports, pretty much the same goes for other sexually-transmitted diseases and oral sex. Note how the public-health experts she quotes constantly emphasize the risks, but are then forced, almost sheepishly, in the fine print, to admit that actual number of cases of transmission by oral sex is small. And if you use your imagination, you'll probably conclude that most of those transmissions involved the kind of moist, unhygienic frolicking that most sensible people are not going to find tempting.

Obviously, these diseases are unpleasant, people should probably try to have safer sex, etc., etc. But I've always thought the fear-mongering does more harm than good. After all, if you suggest to people that obvious common sense (i.e. that oral sex is less risky than other kinds) is misleading and warn them they must use absurd precautions or they will die, they're going to stop taking you seriously. People wanna have fun. Don't point fingers at them. Explain to them like adults the risks they face, and design a better condom so it's a bit safer for them to do what they're going to do anyway.