Some pages bearing bodies


Start at the back of the book, with the appendix. It’s six pages long, and it begins this way.

“Appendix: some lists and references

“Proof of Jewishness is found in the following sources:
. . .

“Collaborators with the ‘Storm’ group,
led by the Jew Herwarth Walden:”
. . .

Click to enlarge.


The book, Säuberung des Kunsttempels, is by a German artist named Wolfgang Willrich, and literary history remembers it for its attack on Gottfried Benn as the author of poems unworthy of a Nazi. I knew it only by that reputation when I mentioned it in my April 22 post “The poetics of cleansing,”, where I translated its title as Cleansing the Temple of Art. Now that I have the book in front of me, however, I see that I should have relied for my vocabulary on the newspaper, not the dictionary. I shouldn’t have written “cleansing,” which (in contemporary American usage) is ladylike, euphemistic, and semi-literary. I should have gone directly to the language of men in leather boots and written “purging.” The phrase requires such a word from the nineteenth-century nomenclature of shit. It proposes that there be a purge to rid society of certain unhealthful men and women. Listing them, name by name, it proposes that Jews are shit and non-representational artists are shit.



The book was published in 1937 by the house of J. F. Lehmann. In the years when the international language of science was German, Lehmann was perhaps the world’s greatest medical publisher, and after it became a political publisher as well during the Third Reich it continued to publish works of Nazi science. It was the publisher, for instance, of Hans F. K. Günther’s Racial Typology of the German People, one of the most important texts in National Socialism’s educational curriculum.

Here at the back of Säuberung des Kunsttempels the book is advertised in both a long and a short edition, along with a companion Racial Typology of the Jewish People (“Blond hair and blue eyes among Jews; gestures and behavior; odor; crime”). The page is headed, “Every German must inform himself of the questions and responsibilities of racial thought,” and at its foot it completes its catalog of Günther titles with a picture book: German Heads Belonging to the Nordic Race.

“A splendid collection of truly Nordic women and men,” explains the text. After the temple of art has been purged, to see a face there in the temple will be to take it to ourselves. The visions we place in the penetralia of memory will be fully blond, and all head. Later, when we contemplate our collection, the word Geist might come into play. We might even believe it could be perceptible in the collection’s interior, a dark blur ensouled, form by single form, just behind the bright collective hair.



But no; the art of Wolfgang Willrich and J. F. Lehmann is community property. It is Leviathan: an art that forms one body.

“To artists we cry, ‘Create the exemplary!’ and to other racial comrades we cry, ‘Demand exemplary forms in which a fundamentally healthy and racially noble life and a noble, undivided mind are revealed! Turn away from the worthless doll figures and saccharine nonentity of the era before the war, and turn away before all else from the ghosts and gnomes in whose sickly and foul doctrine can be seen a great evil! Be certain: what you demand of an art whose creators hearten you by deed and command, art will give you. Be certain: its images will make you obedient and disciplined German people, your better selves pledged only to what is elevated, for the sake of your children’s children!’

. . .

“Then — a servant first of the church, after that of princes, after that of cosmopolitans and philistines, latterly of the most questionable pseudo-society — German art will at last serve the German people and its highest hope: the immortality of the noble German blood!”



August 7, 1942. Rauca, accompanied by Garfunkel, toured the institutions of the Ghetto. During the tour he noticed a pregnant woman, in her seventh month. Rauca said: “This embryo must perish. If not, it will be taken away from its mother right after birth.”

— Avraham Tory, Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary, ed. Martin Gilbert, trans. Jerzy Michalowicz (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 123



The title of Willrich’s own painting can be translated, “The Guardian of Kind.”

It shows us body within body, body all the way to the center. The blank face and averted eyes communicate only with an opaque interior. When this embryo comes forth, its hair will be blond and it will speak in imperatives and (because it will be a kind, not a man or a woman) immutable Euclidean truths. In its book now, however, it has been delayed at an imperfect stage. Its paper matrix is brown, the spine of the cloth and cardboard that shield the matrix has been snapped, and the routing slip on my interlibrary copy from the University of Nebraska is annotated, “Please HANDLE WITH CARE.” That imperative, at least, I can obey. But what may I do if or when the event promised by the image goes to completion?

The poetics of cleansing

As of April 21 my new WordPress blog hasn’t yet been found by Googlebot, but it already seems to be picking up more spam comments in a week than the old Blogger blog attracted in six months. The latest one compliments my brilliance and then extends an invitation to advertise something called Juice Cleanse Detoxify, and the more I look at that phrase in my own blog’s composing window the more seductive it seems.

After all, the notion that the literal or figurative body is a vessel full of poison is not just perdurable but ancient. Walt Whitman, who suffered from chronic constipation, was always writing himself resolutions to purify and then rebuild his body, and the metaphor is prevalent throughout nineteenth-century America, from the writings of the health lecturer Sylvester Graham, “the peristaltic persuader,” to the Book of Mormon. In twentieth-century Europe, too, Gottfried Benn was attacked by a fellow Nazi, the propaganda painter Wolfgang Willrich, in a book which was called Säuberung des Kunsttempels, or “Cleansing the Temple of Art.” In that title the metaphor presumably (I haven’t read the book) comes from the Bible, perhaps by way of Psalm 51: Asperges me, Domine, hyssopo, et mundabor, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” At the opening of the Mass, the priest symbolically purifies the congregation by sprinkling holy water as he chants that verse.

Willrich’s own art was pure in the extreme;

Click to enlarge

Benn’s perhaps less so. Taking notes in wartime like a responsible clinician, Dr. Benn observed one of his fellow officers in the act of commenting on his own language practice — “I command only once” — and then completed the communication by completing the predication: “The subject was latrine-cleaning” (58). That realized a little zone of the world by anchoring its language to the soiled human actuality of a toilet brush. As spoken by the officer, the phrase “I command only once” could have significance only for the officer, but after the poet translated it into what Wordsworth called “the language really spoken by men,” it acquired communicable meaning.

But the art of Willrich’s portrait begins by expelling the really spoken. Erase the black, says this art, and leave the paper white; purge the unclean and leave the perceiving eye nothing to perceive but the clean. Willrich’s head model has been cleaned that way by the artist’s charcoal, and so he no longer senses the persuasions of his lower body. Erased from within, his expression has lost the fascia that once made it move. You can’t believe you could see through that unmoving face into a mind full of thought, as you might believe in front of a portrait by Rembrandt. A head by Willrich has no body, and there is nothing inside it except paper. The paper is a painter’s, too, not a poet’s. It’s blank and wordless.

As for me writing words in the postwar, I dismissed as spam my commentator’s persuasive invitation to collaborate in the ongoing work of cleansing and detoxifying. But thanks anyway for thinking of me, anonymous bringer of hyssop from the ancient world.


Work cited: “Block II, Room 66,” trans. E. B. Ashton. Gottfried Benn: Prose, Essays, Poems, ed. Volkmar Sander (New York: Continuum, 1987), 53-63.