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  • The Futurist Johannes R. Becher *
  • Peter Demetz (bio)
    Translated by Wilhelm Werthern

With Johannes R. Becher the Germans have a gifted and spirited poet whom they have not yet appreciated; neither the poems of his developing period (1912–26) nor the documents of his extraordinary life (1891–1958) have been read enough. Here and there (apart from a few praiseworthy exceptions) 1 people are busy suppressing the memory of his early works as well as his real life story; and thirty years after his death there is still no biography that would show us how the wild young man transformed himself into the Comrade Minister of State who came to censure himself. European literary history has yet to admit that J. R. Becher, the first Communist Minister of Culture in the GDR, in his earlier and poetically most productive years was more thoroughly attracted to the Italian Futurists than any other German poet of the war generation, and enthusiastically seized on Futurist rhetoric, usually considered protofascist in its ideological implications, in the most effective Leninist poems ever written in the German tongue. Becher himself attempts to interpret and bend into shape the years of his youth and early manhood (at the end, he quotes Stalin’s essay on language against the poems of his youth); and he is also a victim of the pedantry of a Germanist, which in its exclusive zeal of its interpretive and metatheoretical strivings, on the Left and the Right, has forgotten that poems, especially good ones, are sensual creatures that anarchically pierce the flatness and grayness of our everyday speech.

It is difficult to describe how the idealistic Munich highschool student revolted against his father, the highest judge in the kingdom of Bavaria, and how at age seventeen, in a romantic suicide pact, killed a part-time prostitute and attempted to [End Page 179] kill himself (his father rescued him, pleading insanity). He never finished his studies and was repeatedly treated for morphine addiction. Commuting between Munich and Berlin, a bohemian of the gutters, he lived strangely unharmed through the years of the war and his own confusions (he was not called up because his suicide attempt that lacerated his lungs). He longed for salvation by soulful women and beautiful young men, studied the writings of mystical nuns, Gorky, and Lenin, and was readily welcomed in the best salons, or what was left of them. After the war, he made his slow way to the all-forgiving Communist party, the activism of the orthodox functionary (he had his part, together with Georg Lukács, in undoing the Left avant-garde) and exile in Moscow, where he never intervened for anyone accused of treason by the Secret Police. He returned, by special plane of the Soviet Army, to his devastated fatherland; and was later photographed at the massive desk of his ministry, surrounded by joyous schoolgirls who presented bunches of roses to the loyal poet of the new national anthem. It is a German life: strange, unique, and beyond comparison.

Becher’s works resist clean divisions, and even Norbert Hopster, in his praiseworthy dissertation, is not altogether happy with his chronicle of its changes and motifs. The two merge, and the literary loyalties, from Richard Dehmel to Walt Whitman and from Rimbaud to Futurism, blur together and transcend the borders of ideological transformations; even in the final Leninist Maschinenrhythmen (Machine rhythms; 1926) Becher works, for the last time, with Futurist ideas and language patterns.

The years 1912–13 and the beginning of the war pushed the schoolboyish admirer of Richard Dehmel and Waldemar Bonsels into radical modernism. In his collection of poems Die Gnade eines Frühlings (The grace of a spring; 1912) he still published neoromantic songs in praise of Mary (“burningly my mouth arms itself / for you, Mary, sweet life”—this, incidentally, also in protest against the Protestant father), 2 or pastoral lyricism (“so childyoung / the air makes me, so soulblossoming”). 3 Already one year later in De Profundis Domine (1913) and Verfall und Triumph (Decay and triumph; 1914) the impressionistic and playful elements are gone; the influences of Georg Heym and Jakob van Hoddis, two young expressionists, draw Becher and his poems into...

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