1001 Ways to Die – (3) Heinrich von Kleist, Writer


2011 will mark the 200th anniversary of the death of the great German writer Heinrich von Kleist.

Kleist was born in the market town of Frankfurt on the Oder into an aristocratic Prussian family that had produced a long line of distinguished military men. Following tradition, he joined a regiment of the royal foot guards when he was not yet 15. He saw action against the French, but he was quite unsuited to the discipline and monotony of military life. “So many officers, so many drill masters, so many soldiers, so many slaves,” he wrote.

Unappreciated in his own time, Kleist posthumously received wide critical acclaim for his short prose. His eight short stories, or Novellen, originally puhlished in two volumes in 1810-11, are considered comparable to the work of Giovanni Boccaccio and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In addition to his Novellen, Kleist wrote eight plays and many political essays. The extreme stylization and frank sexuality of his works shocked his contemporaries, denying him the acclaim he coveted; however, these same qualities have ensured continuing interest in his work today, and he is now particularly praised for his acute psychological insight and honest depictions of sexuality.

In Greece Kleist is mostly known for his play “The Broken Jug”, which he wrote in 1808. The play was staged for the first time in Greece by the National Theater, in 1954, under the direction of Alexis Solomos.

{Goethe, a literary father-figure to Heinrich von Kleist, may have sensed an Oedipal bloodlust in the emerging poet and playwright: “With the best will in the world towards this poet,” he wrote, in a review of The Broken Jug, “I have always been moved to horror and disgust by something in his works, as though there were a body well planned by nature, tainted with an incurable disease.”}

Read more: http://wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/kleist_new_translations/#ixzz1D56qSlse

I got to know Kleist and his work more, when a good friend some years ago, gave me as a present Kleist’s novellas. It was a revellation. I quote from a “New Republic” article:

Patricia O'Donovan's work based on the story by Heinrich von Kleist

{Heinrich von Kleist’s famous story “The Earthquake in Chile” is set in Santiago in 1647. A young Carmelite nun named Josephe, condemned to death for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, is about to be beheaded. Across town, her lover, Jeronimo Rugera, is preparing to hang himself in the prison where he has been incarcerated. Just as the bells announcing Josephe’s imminent execution begin to toll, a gigantic earthquake strikes: We now know that it measured around 8.5 on the Richter scale, just a little less than the recent 8.8 quake. The pillar on which Jeronimo was to hang himself becomes his support, and he escapes as the building collapses around him. His beloved, saved by the same “heavenly miracle,” finds him in the countryside, where the refugees from the city have gathered. (This quotation and the others come from Peter Wortsman’s new translation of Kleist’s Selected Prose, just out in an attractive new edition from Archipelago Books.) The same townspeople who earlier that day had gathered to watch Josephe’s execution now greet the pair with warmth and compassion. Had the past, they wonder, only been a bad dream? The earthquake seems to have acted as a great leveler, erasing the previous divisions of class and piety:

Amidst these awful moments that had brought about the destruction of all of humanity’s worldly possessions, and during which all of nature threatened to be engulfed, it did indeed seem that the human spirit itself blossomed like a lovely flower. In the fields all around, as far as the eye could see, there were people of all social classes lying together, nobles and beggars, matrons of once stately households and peasant women, civil servants and day laborers, monks and nuns: all commiserating with each other, helping each other, cheerfully sharing the little of life’s necessities they’d been able to salvage, as though the common calamity had joined all those who’d managed to survive it into a single harmonious family of man.}

Later when I was living in London, I got introduced to other Kleist plays, like “The Prince of Homburg”  and “Penthesilea”. The appreciation of Kleist’s work grew even more when I discovered Hans Werner Henze, the German composer who wrote an opera based on the play “The Prince of Homburg” in 1958.

von Menzel Adolf: Illustration to Kleist's - The Broken Jug

{As (Thomas) Mann stressed to Anglo-Saxon readers, one cannot account for Kleist’s narrative quirks with historical perspective. “No other contemporary writer resembled him in the least. His method of storytelling is as eccentric as his plots, and with very few exceptions…Kleist’s contemporaries found his fiction intolerably mannered, unpalatable in fact.”}

Read more: http://wordswithoutborders.org/dispatches/article/kleist_new_translations/#ixzz1D57I1fVx

In his essay “On the Theater of Marionettes,” an ironic, fictionalized dialogue, Kleist consider’s Man’s fall from Eden and asks whether human self-consciousness is less a blessing than a curse.

Excerpt from “On the Theater of Marionettes”

{In this context, Mr. C… replied in a right friendly manner, I must tell you another story, of which you will immediately comprehend the connection.

On a trip to Russia I happened to find myself on the country estate of a certain Sir von G…, a Livonian nobleman, whose sons were at the time very much focused on their fencing; especially the older one, who had just returned from his university studies, played the virtuoso, and one morning up in his room handed me a rapier. We fenced, yet I proved superior; passion helped put him off his guard; with almost every thrust I struck home, until, finally, his rapier flew into a corner. Half in jest, half pained, he said, as he picked up his rapier, that he had found his master; but everything in nature finds its match, and he would soon lead me to mine. The brothers laughed out loud and cried: Off with him! Off with him! To the woodshed he must go! Whereupon they took me by the hand and led me to a bear that Sir von G…, their father, was training in the yard.

When I appeared before him in stunned amazement, the bear stood upright on its hind legs, with his back to a post to which he was attached, his right paw raised and ready to strike, looking me straight in the eye: this was his fencing position. And finding myself face to face with such an opponent, I did not know if I was dreaming; but Sir von G…, egged me on: Thrust man! Thrust! he said. See if you can teach him a thing or two! And having gotten over my initial amazement, I lunged with my rapier; the bear made a very slight movement with his paw and parried my thrust. I tried with feints to trick him; the bear did not budge. And once again I lunged with a nimble stroke that would have pierced without fail any human breast; but the bear made a very slight motion with its paw and parried the thrust. Now I was almost as befuddled as had been the young Sir von G… The bear’s perfect calm helped rob me of my own composure, I varied thrusts and feints, sweat dripped from my brow: for naught! Not only did the bear, like the foremost fencer in the world, parry all my thrusts; but, unlike any human counterpart would have done, not a single time did he go for my feints: Looking at me eye to eye, as if he could read my soul, he stood stock still, paw raised and ready, and if my thrusts were ruses, he did not even budge.

Do you believe this story?

Absolutely! I replied with cheerful applause; I’d believe it from the lips of any stranger; all the more so from you!

Well then, my fine friend, said Mr. C…, you now have all the knowledge you need to grasp my meaning. We see that in the organic world, to the same degree that reflection gets darker and weaker, grace grows ever more radiant and dominant.—But just as two lines intersect on one side of a point and, after passing through infinity, suddenly come together again on the other side; or the image in a concave mirror suddenly reappears before us after drawing away into the infinite distance: so, too, does grace return once perception, as it were, has traversed the infinite—such that it simultaneously appears the purest in human bodily structures that are either devoid of consciousness or which possess an infinite consciousness, i.e. in the jointed manikin or the god.

In which case, I observed, a bit befuddled, would we then have to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge again to fall back into the state of innocence?

Undoubtedly, he replied; which will be the last chapter of the history of the world.}

Kleist shot himself on the 21 November 1811, on a small hill by the shore of the Wannsee lake just outside Berlin, having first shot dead a woman called Henrietta Vogel, who was the wife of an acquaintance and who in the subsequent autopsy would be found to have been suffering from incurable cancer. There was no love affair between the two of them, although when I first read the events, I trully wished this were the case.

As an ending to the post, I would like to present his masterpiece, the play “The Prince of Homburg”, with the help of two articles from the British newspaper, “The Guardian”.

The Prince of Homburg

“Encountering Kleist, one’s first impression is of a compelling strangeness. Nowhere is this more potent than in his masterpiece The Prince of Homburg, with its moonstruck opening tableau, its sleepwalking hero, its plot developing ominously and unstoppably from a single and essentially mysterious incident. The strangeness is compounded for a modern audience by the setting of the play. We are somewhere called Prussia, with the semi-legendary historical incident that inspired the play – the Prince’s cavalry charge at the 17th-century battle of Fehrbellin – transposed into a recognisable early 19th-century world of bureaucracy, organised warfare and journalism. But this is not the Prussia of history, for all the concrete details of its steely military orthodoxy. It is an interior landscape of the imagination, one very different from that of the English 19th century.

Kleist’s characters are confined, trapped, caught; but their imaginations and their narratives are opened up by the same vistas of exaltation and devastation that are to be found in the music of Beethoven, the visionary architecture of Schinkel, the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. They live on a stage where the stoniest of certainties can be suddenly evacuated by doubt, or hope, or catastrophe; where the sternest of hierarchies can unexpectedly warp, dissolve and then cruelly reassert themselves. Even time can be dangerously swift one moment, rapturously suspended the next. Darkness is suddenly challenged by light; brightness suddenly overwhelmed by the night.

No wonder that Kleist’s stories and plays are so haunted by sudden disaster and inexplicable reversals of fortune. Contemporaries still devoted to a more optimistic reading of the ideals of the Enlightenment found the violent emotions, the radical ambiguities and black ironies of his work hard to stomach. On publication The Prince of Hom burg was widely deemed unperformable. In addition, its portrayal of a high-ranking Prussian officer who collapses centre-stage in grovelling terror at the prospect of his own imminent death carried swift condemnation from the state censor.”

(Source: Neil Bartlett in the Guardian)

“Set during the time of Brandenburg’s war with the Swedes, the play starts mesmerisingly. In a moonlit garden, the eponymous prince has vivid dreams of military glory and royal betrothal. But, on waking, he becomes a distracted figure who fails to attend to the battle-plans of the ruling Elector.

As a result, in ordering the cavalry to charge too early, the prince suffers a bad case of premature exhortation. Although the Swedes are routed, the prince is court-martialled for disobeying orders and sentenced to death. What follows is an intricate cat-and-mouse game in which the Elector, bombarded with pleas for mercy by his generals and his niece, offers to quash the sentence if the prince himself can prove it was unjust.

But Kleist’s play is infinitely more subtle and morally ambiguous than that. In part, it is about the age-old conflict between freedom and order. But it is also a startlingly prophetic play about the equivocal nature of reality. In his dreams, the prince seems on solid ground. Only when he wakes is he plunged into a world of utter confusion. In this sense, it is only a short step, as George Steiner once pointed out, from Kleist to Pirandello.”

(Source: The Guardian)


  1. Συμπτωματικά είδα στο θέατρο προχθές τους “ρινόκερους” του Ιονέσκο. Όταν ο διανοούμενος της παρέας προσεβλήθη από τον ιό της καθημερινότητας, δηλαδή της λήθης του είναι, και έγινε ένα παχύδερμο αποφάσισε να συνθλίψει με την μάζα του τα βιβλία του. Πρώτο δε αυτό του Kleist. Τα κείμενα του, ο τραγικός θάνατος του, εύκολα θα μπορούσαν να χαρακτηριστούν από την νεκροτομούσα ψυχολογία. Η ύπαρξη, δηλαδή το είναι, προηγείται όμως πάσης χρηστικής κατηγοριοποίησης. Ο Heidegger είπε κάποτε πως ο λόγος περί των όντων δεν είναι παρά η ερμηνεία του δεδομένου, αυτού δηλαδή που αφήνει πίσω της η ανθρώπινη ελευθερία. Το φαινόμενο Kleist είναι ο γρανίτης που πάνω του σπάει το νυστέρι του ερμηνευτή.

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