Gottfried Benn (1886-1956) was one of the leading German lyric poets of this century and the major spokesman of the writers of the expressionist period in Germany. A physician by profession (he practiced medicine throughout his life) he did a considerable amount of original research in his field. In poetry he stood for the exploration of novel and often extreme experiences for the expression of which he created a new language combining divergent elements from the medical, vernacular and refined poetic vocabularies, coining new expressions, using daring images, and revolutionary ideas.
A trenchant social critic, Benn exposed the dangers of our technological era and the trend toward overemphasis of the rational and intellectual. He was anything but conservative in his writings and supported unlimited creative expansion and expression. He strove for a reconciliation between the natural, instinctual basis of man and his intellect; he worked for the resolution of dichotomies characterizing our lives, inner and outer, real and unreal, natural and artificial. Benn advocated the realization of our “antinaturalistic” nature, the creation of a “cerebral reality,” a “provoked Life out of the materials of dream and stimulation.”
The essay “Pro’Voziertes Leben” (Provoked Life) was written in the early 1940’s and appeared in the volume: “Ausdruckswelt, Essays und Aphorismen,” 1949, Limes Verlag, Wiesbaden, Germany. We gratefully acknowledge the permission of the Limes Verlag, Wiesbaden, Germany, to translate and reprint this essay.
Several years ago a film was shown in Berlin, a film about Negroes called “Hosiannah,” in which one saw Negroes getting intoxicated through communal singing. The disposition to do this lies in their nature, the process itself was sensual and conscious. Similar phenomena are reported about the North American Indians : The “Great Nightsong” is one of their principal ceremonies, where the men hold one another, move rhythmically and go into a trance. Closeness to intoxication is evidently a primitive quality as is the transition to a collectively heightened sense of being. The assembly provokes the transition through rites, movements, and certain ancient chants. It is a call of the race. Its nature is religious and mythical, an exciting communion with the totality which expands individual existence.
Over against the trances induced by ritual movements and rhythm, are those induced by plant extracts, whose distribution is far more universal. Several million of the earth’s inhabitants smoke or drink Indian hemp, as countless generations have done so through two thousand years. Three hundred million people chew betel; the great rice-eating population would sooner give up rice than the areca-nut ; not to chew means to die. The three largest continents stimulate themselves through caffeine; in Tibet, time is measured using a cup of tea and its effects; tea was found among the remains of prehistoric people. Chemicals which affect the brain, means of altering consciousness – these were primitive man’s first approaches to his nervous system. How the effects were discovered is a mystery. A primal urge and a secret, among a thousand roots, shrubs, trees, mushrooms, flowers – this one! Countless individuals probably died of poisoning before the race had reached its goal: enhancement, expansion – provoked life. Caravans with opium travel through the desert. Sykone is renamed Mekone, i.e. poppyville. On the tomb of Ariadne, a bearded god bends over her sleeping form, the god of sleep, carrying poppy-heads and the poppy-horn. The queen of the Incas was named after the miraculous plant Erythroxolon Coca; Mama Cuca ; the stone idols have one cheek filled with coca leaves as a sign of divinity; everywhere there are bottle-shaped pumpkins, in which the leaf is kept, mixed with chalk and plant ashes, ready to be taken; the long needle with which you take it out is moistened by mouth. The effects of a mouthful of coca last forty minutes, equivalent to three kilometers on flat terrain, two kilometers in the hills -this is the dosage measure.
The ingestion takes place in the rancho of dreamers in Ecuador, in tents, while the medicine man beats the drums, or in empty cellars lined with stone projections used as seats by the guests, sometimes with the women, sometimes without: the “black drink,” the “white water,” the “happiness pills,” or the “weed of graves,” which brings unity with the spirits. Stages of excitement, stages of dream -you are beside yourself, but you feel, you learn from twitches and breathing disturbances, you get apathy or mobility as desired. From hidden centres, from the depths it emerges: to rest, to move no more: withdrawal, regression, aphasia. Hours are filled with the satisfaction of the desire to drift along as formless life. To call this animalistic is to be mistaken: this process is far below the animals, below the reflexes, it is near roots, chalk and stone. This is not the apathy of a dying race, not degeneration, these are youthful people; it is something more primary: defense against the beginnings of consciousness, its senseless imperative projects – thus, change space, obliterate time, blow away the grim passage of hours.
As long as memory traces, and civilizations, have existed in the brain, this organ of classification: forget them! In front of the Bistro drawn figures, home-owner idealists, worn cut child-bearers, curves without deflections, normalized garbage – Ah – garcon – another cocaine-pulque, or in the restroom a pinch of snuff applied to the mucous membrane of the anus; or plug a soaked filling into a specially cultivated decayed tooth – ah – already the perspectives are beginning, ceaselessly spilling out of crosslines, winding and flickering; – Helena gave the heroes Nepenthes with their food, certainly an opiate preparation, when the mood was low or just before the battle, – aah, my battle too begins – first fields, colored like jewels, then red birds, – a purely cortical reality – lattice patterns are particularly frequent – “jewelers and artists should see this, they could take patterns from it,” the colors become finer, strings are hanging from the surfaces, marvels are looking out of things.
The ego disintegrates, the places of disentigration are the planes of attachment. There is a kind of cosmic coldness, sublime and icy, in the structure, but fire in the medial axis; feelings of limbs lengthening and shortening, feelings of swelling and joining; simultaneously more sensitive thresholds: a storm of impressions, suggestibility to external influences, directed toward something universal, a feeling of totality: “Noon feeling.” The senses exchange functions: “at the stroke of the clock purple color emerges”; alternating experiences of merging and distanciating; cutting through ego-feeling, smiling without affect, crying without object. Feelings of capacity: “the solution of dimly sensed problems seems immanent” – everywhere the unheard of rejoicing of powerful harmony” – “Lord, let me bloom,” – (Bucke’s “cosmic emotion”).
Another: “A great tension came over me. Great things had to be revealed to me. I would see the nature of all things, all the problems of the world would dissolve. I was out of my senses.” Promenade of a god on the banks of the Po. “Golden late afternoon light.” Then: “Only beauty in the eternal transformation of forms and colors. An increasing feeling of liberation came over me. Here everything would be resolved, in the end everything was rhythm.” (Klages came to the same conclusion, not so suddenly, but at the end of a long life and with the aid of many books. Quantum theory says the same thing.)
Strange penetration depth, cosmic osmosis (Magnaosmose) : I need time to finish my world view, which in skeleton form already is grounded on one sentence: God is a substance. God is a substance, a drug! An intoxicating substance with affinity for the human brain. Certainly possible, at any rate more probable than that he is an electroshock machine or a Spemann Tritonlarva, formed by stuffing tadpole tissue in the mouth area…
Complex structures become brittle, one can see through the rifts : “I had a peculiar muscle sensation. I could have removed every single muscle separately from the body.” (Long, long ago! The “muscle soul” arises, its contribution to the development of consciousness. ) The cortex loses its recently acquired property of specific sensory quality (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting) and answers in forms of general resonance. The “external” is not yet there; grounds yes, but hunting and fishing grounds: -the prehistory of “reality .”