Mighty Kleist

‘German intellectuals are fascinated by outsiders, especially tortured rebels like Heinrich von Kleist’

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.

Even more alluring than his life is his writing, in particular such plays as The Broken Jug or The Prince of Homburg, as well as his essays, stories and poems. Many of these works are classics, endlessly performed, studied and translated. As founder, editor and main contributor of the Berliner Abendblätter, he practically invented modern German newspaper journalism, weaving together sensational news and intellectual essays while avoiding official censorship.

Throughout history, Kleist’s work has provoked radically opposed reactions and interpretations, with scholars appropriating him for a variety of causes. Critics in Nazi Germany laid claim to him as a heroic precursor. Later came existentialist, Marxist, feminist and psychoanalytic approaches to his works. 

But most problematic, especially for Germans, are Kleist’s justifications of violence as a means to higher ends. Violence and brutality in literature is always a touchy subject, for it challenges our perception that art operates in a different sphere from reality. No wonder then that Kleist has been posthumously accused of oppressive ideological beliefs and patriarchal notions of gender.

Germans of course have their own history of violence, both actual and ideological, a horrified fascination with which even trickles down into the seminar room. Kleist himself was capable of violence, not least against himself, but also of great courage. So were other members of his clan. One Kleist served Hitler as a field marshal; another tried to kill him and was executed. Is the renewed interest in Kleist, then, really about conflict, or (to put it more grandly) about action rather than observation? Does Kleist answer a desire to be, for once, politically incorrect?

There’s more to the phenomenon than just the subversive appeal to the academic mind of being uncouth. Kleist remains a writer who cannot quite be grasped. In one sense he was a true European, with the mind of a Prussian soldier and the heart of an English Romantic. He was certainly not a crude German nationalist. Yet he was not what we think of today as a good European. It would be hard to imagine anybody less Kleistian than Angela Merkel, for example. Indeed, he might have reacted violently against Mrs Merkel’s attempts to unite Europe by peaceful means, just as he did against Napoleon’s attempts to do so by force.

In his extreme politics and aesthetics, Kleist is that desirable creature: a popular outsider, a poet of radically individualistic thoughts and ideas. He also reminds us of a different paradox: in order to bring about change, an outsider has to remain an outsider — especially in Germany.

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