Why would anyone spend three bright Californian spring days in a lecture hall discussing a long-dead author? I asked myself this question when I received an invitation to a colloquium on Heinrich von Kleist, whose bicentenary was celebrated last year. This question wouldn't even occur to most academics, who relish the fact that the "why" regarding their research does not matter as much to them as it does the rest of the world. Would we remember Kleist at all if he had been able to tick the boxes marked "useful" and "relevant"? Still, when I was asked to travel to Stanford to discuss Kleist, I had a hunch that there had to be more than just a general interest in a writer with an intriguing life story.
Whether avant garde or conservative in their tastes or politics, Germans are unusually united in celebrating Kleist: a stranger and more challenging figure than Goethe, his more famous rival in the German literary canon; a paradoxical thinker who foreshadowed the nightmarish absurdities of Kafka; the most brilliant and self-destructive of all the Romantics. Germans with intellectual aspirations — myself included — are always fascinated by outsiders, and especially so when it comes to tortured rebels with a background as improbable as Kleist's.
Born in 1777 of noble Prussian descent, Kleist was educated by and for the military. He fought against the French revolutionary armies on the Rhine, went to university and then found a post as a civil servant. In 1801 he suddenly gave up his job to become an itinerant writer. After the defeat of Prussia by Napoleon, he was arrested and imprisoned as a spy by the emperor's satraps. Released, he tried in vain to rouse his compatriots against the French domination of Europe.
But it was his complicated affairs with women that destroyed him: in 1811 he made a suicide pact with the terminally ill Henriette Vogel. After shooting her, he killed himself beside the Wannsee lake in Berlin — the place where, 130 years later, the Holocaust was planned. He was just 34.