Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in German


World Languages and Literatures

Physical Description

1 online resource (iv, 98 leaves)


Gottfried Benn -- 1886-1956, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche -- 1844-1900




The German expressionist poet Gottfried Benn (1886-1956), a great admirer of the philosopher, psychologist, poet, anti-Christ and art theoretician Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), quoted and commented on the works of the latter from 1926 until his death. Benn’s references to Nietzsche range from the mere mention of the name in some works to entire poems (c.f. “Sils Maria”), essays, and lectures on Nietzsche (c.f. “Nietzsche – nach fünfzig Jahren”). Benn made no secret of his hero-worship for Nietzsche and considered himself the latter’s heir as far as his theory of art was concerned. Three key ideas on art, which Benn took over from Nietzsche and quoted, elaborated, and commented upon are: the idea that the world and existence are justifiable only as esthetic phenomena, the idea of art as the “Olymp des Scheins”, and the idea of art as the actual task of man, as his metaphysical activity. In my thesis I have attempted to show that in spite of Benn’s great admiration of Nietzsche as art theoretician, in spite of the fact that Benn used Nietzsche’s art vocabulary and took over quotations from his works almost verbatim, in spite of the fact that both Benn and Nietzsche saw in art the salvation for man in the midst of the European nihilism, Benn misunderstood Nietzsche’s basic message. I have explained that Benn and Nietzsche looked upon nihilism from two divergent points of view. Nietzsche concerned himself with giving the old “absolute” values, which were in their death-throes, the coup de grace and tried to establish in his Übermensch” ideal, an ideal which man is not meant to ever attain, but must continuously strive for, a new set of values, a new “metaphysics”, one not of the supernatural world, but of the natural world, different from the metaphysics of the Christian-Platonic tradition in that it looked upon man as a unity, a polarity of the material and the non-material and sought to bring them in harmony not through the violence of the extermination of the passions and the drives, but rather through their sublimation. For Nietzsche, nihilism was a brief temporary stage in the history of ideas, the natural and necessary conclusion of the old absolute values, an end the seed of which the old values had borne in themselves from their very inception, since they were based upon a denial of and violence against nature. Nietzsche’s attitude was a dynamic, revolutionary and creative one, and he saw at the center of his new valuation, as an enticement to life, as that which leads man to an affirmation of the totality of life – its pain and sorrow as well as its joys. For Benn, on the other hand, who saw in Nietzsche not a positor of new values, but a destroyer of the old ones, a materialist and a disciple of Darwin, nihilism was insurmountable and here to stay. His attitude was a heroic nihilism – one of resignation, a static, quietistic attitude. As a result of man’s progressive cerebration and his subsequent loss of a genuine relationship to nature, the material and the non-material aspects of man, life and intellect were considered by Benn to constitute an irreconcilable antimony. As a result he also considered art and life as two separate spheres and saw art as an escape, as the artist’s search for his identity. From this point of view Benn developed his theory of absolute art, of art for the sake of art, of art as form. I have attempted to show that Benn’s misunderstanding of Nietzsche on the subject of art – not notwithstanding the similarity or the vocabulary employed by the two authors – stems from his misunderstanding of Nietzsche as a philosopher, from the fact that Benn overlooked certain aspects of the writings of Nietzsche in favor of other aspects. By Benn’s own admission, his favorite book on Nietzsche was Ernst Bertram’s “Nietzsche: Attempt at a Mythology” (1918). I have examined this book, under whose spell Benn had fallen, and have found that Bertram, a member of the George-Kreis, the members of which used the Nietzsche of the Nietzsche “Legend” to their own ends, made no claim to either historical or philosophical accuracy, indeed that he overlooked Nietzsche’s philosophy completely, that his goal was to perpetuate the Nietzsche “cult” of the Kreis. For Bertram Nietzsche was not a philosopher, but a mystic and a saint. It is well-known that Nietzsche’s vocabulary lends itself especially well to misinterpretations of all sorts, intentional as well as unintentional. One need only think of what the Nazis were able to do with the“blond beast”and the “superman”, words taken out of context and used as slogans to fit a given ideology. The first scientific work which dealt seriously with Nietzsche as a philosopher was that by Jaspers in 1936, in which a brief half-page is devoted to art. The other scientific works on Nietzsche as a philosopher have appeared only much more recently.


Portland State University. Dept. of World Languages and Literatures

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