21 September 2014

Never Lonelier: Gottfried Benn

"Never lonelier than in August:
Hour of plenitude – the countryside
Waving with red and golden tassels,
But where is your pleasure garden?

Soft skies and sparkling lakes,
The healthy sheen of fields,
But where is the pomp and display
Of the empire you represent?

Everything lays claim to happiness,
Swaps glances, swaps rings,
In wine breath, in the intoxication of things,
You serve the counter-happiness, the intellect."

“Never Lonelier” from Impromtus by Gottfried Benn, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 2013.

When I studied literature in college, the  German writer Gottfried Benn was the author of odd and disturbing short stories, one among several middle European writers (Georg Buchner, Heinrich von Kelist, Ilse Aichinger, Gerd Gaiser) who, taken together painted an unrelievedly dark picture of life.   I still have that collection Great German Short Stories, edited by Stephen Spender.  
Recently, I've been reading, as in picking up and putting down, a new translation of Benn's poetry (who knew?) by the German-born poet Michael Hofmann.  In his introduction Hofmann writes "Benn can scarcely be said to exist in the English-speaking world."    To Hofmann, Gottfried Benn is the most significant German poet of the 20th century after Rilke, and he may be right.  Benn, though, is an entirely different sort  Caught between the highbrow and the lowlife, Benn's first published volume was Morgue and Other Poems (1912), and the selections included in this new collection (Little Aster, Beautiful Youth, Circulation,etc.) are as grisly as you can imagine.  A doctor who specialized in dermatology and venereal diseases, Benn didn't need his stint in the German Army during WWI to view the world through hostile eyes.  That said, his early admiration for the Nazis, based partly on his oppositional bent, was not returned and he lived through WWII in bitter internal exile.
"I would be astonished if anyone were to read them," Benn wrote about his own poems  in 1921, treating himself  as though he were already dead.  The real astonishment in reading a poem like "Never Lonelier" is the thought of how long Benn's work has been away.

Gustav Kampmann, Herbstabend (Autumn Evening,)) 1900, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
Kampmann (1859-1917) was a German artist who committed suicide by slashing his wrists after contracting an eye infection during WWI that made making art a misery. 

03 September 2014

Madeleine de Scudery Maps the Affections

"..It's something that everybody needs.." - Lowman Pauling & Ralph Bass.

If only there were a reliable map to affairs of the heart, its cartographer would become wealthy and rightly so. 

The road to love begins, according to Madeleine de Scudery, at the city of Nouvelle amitié or New Friendship (at the bottom of the above map).  There are three tributaries to the River of Love which flows up the map’s center:  Respect, Esteem, and Affection.  Along the right bank of the Inclination River, various way stations such as Fresh Eyes, Love Letter, Big Heart, and Generosity invite the traveler to rest and contemplation.  On the opposite shore, Complacence, Little Care, Attendance, and Obeisance, offer alternatives  to virtue, driven by passion.
Marriage was not included in Scudery’s cartography, doubtless, because she saw emancipation from matrimony as the only freedom available for women in her time, the second half of the 17th century.   Scudery not only chose not to marry but managed to free herself from the burdensome guardianship of her brother Georges, typical of the life of a femme couverte of the minor nobility in France.   Mme de Scudery (all French women over the age of thirty are referred to by the honorific of Mme - the assumption  being that to assume a woman of that age is unmarried is an insult) had been forced to leave her beloved Paris for three years from 1644-47 when her brother Georges was appointed the governor of the  Fort of Notre-Dame -de-la-Garde in Marseilles. Perhaps, Scudery alluded to this difficult time when she included at the top of the map a terre inconnu  or Perilous Sea. Deviating from New Friendship can lead a woman to  to Indiscretion, Perfidy, and Wickedness.  Caught between the Sea of Enmity and the Lake of Indifference, it is no wonder that a woman might feel trapped between Scylla and Charybdis. Another unpleasant watery fate. 

Madeline de Scudéry  (1607–1701) created her Carte du tendre,  map of of affections, as a game to amuse her Parisian friends.  After her success as a member of the salon that met at the Hotel Rambouillet,  she began her own salon, the Société du samedi (Saturday Society), held at her home in the rue de Beauce.      The map proved so popular that Scudery incorporated it in the first volume of her novel Clélie, histoire romaine, published in 1654.  

In the Paris of Scudery’s day,  women were attempting to become accepted as authors in the (male) literary  world.  The Precieuses, as these women were called, were ridiculed by men, notably by Moliere in his very first play Les precieuses ridicules (1659).  It was  hardly a model of subtlety.  As if that were not enough to banish the women, Moliere took another poke at them in 1672 with Les femmes savantes or The Clever Women.  Make no mistake about this, the stakes were high. Reputation is a form of gold in the republic of letters.  Not only did these women, found mostly at royal court and in the salons of Paris, mean to attain the status of authors, they were at pains to replace the male concept of love – where the man gets to choose and the woman can merely assent or retreat (if she’s lucky).  One reason that the Lake of Indifference is so large is that even today, we women keep watering it with our tears.

Madeleine de Scudery was born at Le Havre on the coast of Normandy, where her father was the port captain; her brother Georges would later hold a similar  post in Marseilles.  Left fatherless at age six and motherless shortly thereafter, Madeline and her brother were sent to live with an uncle.  An enlightened man, he allowed the girl  to receive a broad education including such non-traditional subjects as writing, Greek, and Latin.  The girl was also free to study on her own, applying herself with zest to such like  agriculture and medicine.   After her uncle died in 1637, it was Madeleine who established a home for herself and Georges in Paris.  He became a playwright and Madeleine wrote novels, including   Artamène, which weighs in more than two  million words, possibly the longest novel ever published.  
Revised: 09/05/14.

For further reading: Precious Women by Dorothy Ann Liot Backer, New York, Basic Books: 1974.       


1. Madeleine de Scudery - Carte du tendre, 1654,  Bibliotheque nationale de france, Paris.'
2. Jean-Antoine Watteau -  Sitting Couple, c. 1718, Aramnd Hammer Museum of Art, Los Angeles.