The diseased city – Images of the body in expressionist and futurist poetry

Term Paper, 2004

12 Pages, Grade: 70 (1)


The Diseased City – Images of the Body in Expressionist and Futurist Poetry

The body … the great central ground underlying all symbolic reference[1]

Where the Futurist’s City Symphony is a celebration of ‘the Joy of Mechanical Force’[2], the Expressionist’s is dark and apocalyptic. Cities in this poetry are centres of disease and disgust. They are industrial to the extent that they are equated with factories as pars pro toto. Life in the country-side or in the city could not be more different or the rift between the rich and the poor greater. R.H. Thomas comments that between 1890 and 1912 production in Germany was already industrial, whereas society was still far from industrial[3]. The reason being, that in Germany industrialisation set in much later than in the UK and was compressed into just three decades.

It is a time when the cities were ‘reborn’ and the images of the city changed dramatically, some of which I want to argue still exist in our common imaginary today.

There are several fields of images that contribute to the representation of the city, they are: apocalyptic visions[4] of technology and the decaying body, disease and sexuality, but also the Ich-Zerfall (ego-decay) can be seen as being triggered by the experience of the city as Simmel elaborates[5] and when the Expressionist poets write about nature, it only really exists in relation to that city whose red smoke always lurks in the background, its smoke can be tasted everywhere.

The city is the main theme of all these poems not just the backdrop and they address city issues directly. However, much has been written about the representation of the city in connection with technology, factories and alienating working conditions, which lend themselves to a Marxist analysis. This is not what interests me here, instead I want to approach the city on a sideway, using sociological theory of the body as put forward by Turner and Benthall and later explore the links between ‘body aesthetics’ and ‘machine aesthetics’ and see where they overlap.

Considering the prominence of images of the body in the following poems, it is surprising that Benthall and Turner do not refer to Expressionism an omission I hope to fill in this essay.

Through analysing representations of the body, poems which have not traditionally been read as ‘city poems’, such as Gottfried Benn’s Kleine Aster and Mann und Frau gehen durch die Krebsbaracke finally become important as aesthetic, ethical and sociological comments on the city. It is through their shared aesthetics of the diseased body that they can be linked to more traditional ‘city poems’ such as Alfred Wolfenstein’s Städter or A.T. Wegners Die tote Stadt and be read as analogies for the city and its social health[6]. Georg Heym’s Das Fieberspital II and Umbra vitae highlight this analogy.[7] Surprisingly, Gesualdo Manzella-Frontini’s The Anatomy Room uses very similar body images and body aesthetics as Benn. Filippo Tomasi Marinetti’s The Futurist Aviator speaks to his Father, Vulcan (from here onwards ‘Vulcan’) can be read against Georg Heym’s Der Gott der Stadt and Die Dämonen der Städte while Enrico Cavacchioli’s Let the moon be damned is an example for a different kind of body imagery.

This approach is justified when we consider how the body has traditionally been used as an analogy for society in what is traditionally called the “organic analogy”:

[...] anthropology developed an interest in the body because the body acts as a classificatory system. The body (with its orifices, regular functions, reproductive capacity, environmental adaptation and its organic specificity) proved a natural resource for social metaphoricality: (Turner, 1991, p.9)

As one example of such social metaphoricality, Benthall describes the streets but also the financial flows of the city as veins and points out how different parts of the city and their different functions have traditionally been compared to the organs of the human body, for example when we speak of parks as the lungs of the city or when the cathedral was traditionally the head of the city or the market-place its stomach (Turner 1996).

Christian views of the body as sinful are also important and give the question of what constitutes illness a whole new dimension as

[…] health depended upon morality, since improper life-styles were the root of personal illness and individual immorality was the product of social disorder and mismanagement of the social body. Briefly, the wages of sin, were disease and death.(Turner 1996, p.209)

The Diseased, Decaying and Deformed Body

Thus “diseases belong inside nature; illnesses inside culture” (Turner 1996, p.200) and “Disease is a social phenomenon” (Turner 1996, p.201). It is this understanding of the body and of disease that makes the analogy of the diseased body such a powerful comment. Even where at first it may seem as though it was expressed only with regard to the individual, like Benn’s ‘drowned beer-truck driver’ from Kleine Aster. In the German as well as in the English translation the link between ‘ersoffen’ and be soffen, ‘drowned’ and drunk is apparent especially because he was not just any kind of truck driver but a beer truck driver; this is one link to disease. The reader also shares the perspective of the pathologist so it can be assumed that he died a violent or unnatural death. In Mann und Frau gehn durch die Krebsbaracke the topos of disease is already given a stronger social aspect. This is far more than a description of a ‘cancer ward’ but rather an inspection of the state of society. But these are bold statements and the medical terminology alone is not proof enough. After all Benn was a army doctor and these poems might even be credible if not quite ‘realistic’ renderings of what are essentially his personal observations.

However, the use of medical language to describe social problems is common in other disciplines:

In the nineteenth century social analysis often used medical discourse to describe the social problems of an urban, industrial environment: social medicine, which regarded all social problems in terms of social pathology (Turner 1991, p.9)

And what is more, Georg Heym, who writes his Morgue earlier and who had studied law and not medicine, used similar imagery before him. So does Manzella-Frontini.

It is through Heym’s Umbra vitae that ‘disease and deformation crawl through the gates[8] ’ of the city. An apocalyptic city, where “every roof is crowded with star-gazers” (p.61). From here on, body images and images of disease continue to crawl through other depictions of the city, for example in Alfred Wolfenstein’s Städter (City Dwellers, 1914), which picks up on the crammed living conditions workers faced in the city, when an average 9 to 15 people shared one heated room in the northern and eastern parts of Berlin:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Who is strangled here? Do the houses strangle each other or does the city strangle its inhabitants? The borders are not clear in the third stanza of the same poem either:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Are these the walls of the city that are ‘this as skin’ or are they even metaphorical walls, between one individual and the other, the boundaries between public and private space? Turner describes the mental state of the time:

The ‘crisis’ in nervous illnesses in the late 19th century produced a cluster of conditions – anorexia, agoraphobia [what Simmel called “Berührungsangst”], anorexic hysteria, virgin’s disease, or various wasting diseases – which can be interpreted as symptomatic changes in the relationship between the sexes, between public and private space, between the family and the economy (Turner 1991, p. 23)

It is interesting that he should mention wasting diseases. Are they the same that Benn and his contemporaries describe? Was there a real presence which later informed all symbolical renderings of decay?

The analogy between the diseased body and the sick society could not be expressed more directly than in Heym’s Fieberspital II (1911) [9] :

Die Kranken horchen auf der Lagerstatt

Wie Kröten, von dem Lichte rot gefleckt.

Die Betten sind wie eine große Stadt,

Die eines schwarzen Himmels Rätsel deckt.


[1] A.N. Whitehead, quoted in Benthall et al (1975), p.5

[2] title of a 1909 manifesto written by F.T. Marinetti.

[3] Thomas, R.H., ‘Das Ich und Die Welt: Expressionismus und Gesellschaft’, in: Rothe 1969

[4] Zawodny gives the most comprehensive overview of this aspect.

[5] Simmel, Georg, ‘Die Grossstädte und das Geistesleben’, in: Die Grossstadt. Vorträge und Aufsätze zur Städteausstellung, Petermann, Th. (ed.), Vol.9, 1903, Dresden, pp.185-206

[6] “Sociologists were thus able to draw rather obvious comparisons between organic systems equilibrium and the equilibrium of the social system in relation to its environment.” (Turner1991. p.9)

[7] most poems and their English translations in the Appendix

[8] My own inadequate translation of “Krankheit und Misswachs durch die Tore kriechen” the first line of the third stanza, which is missing in Menschheitsdämmerung. Große p.15

[9] This was not included in Menschheitsdämmerung, I am refering to the Große edition.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The diseased city – Images of the body in expressionist and futurist poetry
University of Cambridge  (Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages)
The City
70 (1)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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523 KB
Images, City, Stadtpoetik, Expressionismus, Lyrik 20. Jahrhundert, Futurismus
Quote paper
MPhil Rebecca Steltner (Author), 2004, The diseased city – Images of the body in expressionist and futurist poetry, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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