This weekend I read a great little four-page essay by Gottfried Benn on 'Pessimism'. Even in four pages there's lots to provoke, horrify and confuse. Benn's such a combative writer that it should hardly be surprising that he's read in English as little as he seems to be. Certainly when I asked a postgrad reading group to look at some of his prose the reaction was hostile - and not only hostile but puzzled.
I think that there are two reasons for that reaction, both stemming from Benn's refusal to tow the intellectual line. First, his politics - no, his whole intellectual position and outlook - is opposed to the liberal orthodoxy of the last century or so. When you talk about writers being controversial, you need some sort of measure - here I don't mean that Benn believes in authorial intention or suspects the methodology of presentism: I mean that he was associated with or at least not vocally opposed to Nazism, is scornful of political philosophy (a crucial lingua franca in academia) per se, accepts quite cheerfully the continued and inevitable suffering and death of humanity, and refuses the moral constraints that are traditionally (if silently) imposed on the writer and intellectual. He won't play the game - and this brings us to the second reason that Benn makes uncomfortable reading in the professionalised world of contemporary letters: his style is idiosyncratic, histrionic, extreme, and rhetorical, in opposition to the dominant style, which is moderate, sober, and uses a regulated jargon.
I don't mean to pick on academics. There are good reasons why, for example, a regulated jargon is useful: it allows connections to be made between disciplines, topics and periods; it allows for systematising, so that the same concepts can be applied more than once; it allows us finally to say what critical words actually mean, even if in doing so we reduce their meaning (a necessary bargain, some of the time). Perhaps more dangerously, it allows the material of literature and philosophy to be treated using the techniques more natural to scientific humanities like sociology. Lastly - and this one is a real double-edged sword - it provides for people (well, academics) to grasp, pick up and use complex theoretical and ideological frameworks without constantly going into the murky depths to see how things work. Yet sometimes going down there is bracing, useful or necessary.
The problem with Benn is that he is an extremist in an age which sees that as a perjorative term. The contemporary moderation of the political parties seems to me to be mirrored in an ideal of moderation in matters of the intellect: one of the virtues of the intellectual/academic/writer is balance, and one of the vices is excess. One has to weigh things up and come to a judicious conclusion. Such an approach makes sense for the individual (who would be wilfully wrong?), but as a general tendency in the culture at large it becomes a motor towards homogenisation.