Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn


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Career: Travelled throughout Germany, and to Paris and Switzerland, ; attempted to join the French army, ; civil servant, Konigsberg, ; co-founder, with Adam Muller, and editor, Phobus, Dresden, ; attempted unsuccessfully to publish the newspaper Germania, in Prague, ; editor, Berliner Abendblatter, Suffered many nervous breakdowns. Died: suicide 21 November Werke, edited by Erich Schmidt and others. Samtliche Werke und Briefe, edited by Helmut Sembdner. Die Familie Schroffenstein produced Price, Amphitryon produced Der zerbrochene Krug produced Penthesilea produced Das Kathchen von Heilbronn produced Pierce, in Fiction and Fantasy of German Literature, Prinz Friedrich von Homburg produced Die Hermannsschlacht produced And as we shall see, not only has his work given rise to a wide divergence of critical opinion, but the critical debates it has provoked have been often bitter and uncompromising.

For Wittkowski, the play is an attack on conventional systems of morality grounded in the structures of religious authority and, at the same time, a plea for a more natural, autonomous system of ethics. Seen in this light, Jupiter's 'triumph' 2 Introduction is a sham and it is Alkmene who emerges as the 'moral victor' at the end of the play.

Wittkowski sees the play as a critique of conventional morality, Ryan as a critique of conventional love. From this perspective, the difference in their interpretative strategies is not so much one of substance as of emphasis, and further evidence of this can be seen in the way each assigns the play to a different genre. For Wittkowski, the play ends on a tragic note because Alkmene's 'Promethean resistance' is crushed by the forces of authority and results in the loss of her innocence. Indeed the typically Kleistian metaphor of the 'duel' 'Zweikampf' would not be out of place here.

Yet the polemical character of the debate is symptomatic of what is at stake. For just as the characters in Kleist's plays and stories resort to force, both physical and rhetorical, in an attempt to resolve the paradoxical situations with which they are confronted, so too the vehemence of much Kleist criticism is symptomatic of the critics' efforts to sustain a position of interpretative coherence in the face of the often contradictory and paradoxical nature of Kleist's work.

For although Wittkowski and Ryan correctly identify the contradictions inherent in conventional 'morality' and conventional 'love', each posits the resolution of these contradictions in idealised notions of, on the one hand, autonomous human morality as represented by Alkmene , and on the other, unconditional love as represented by Jupiter. Yet the paradoxical character of Kleist's Introduction 3 writing embraces both these 'solutions', neither of which is unambiguously upheld in the play itself. For although few would now accept uncritically Fricke's view that Kleist's works demonstrate the superiority of human intuition over the rational intellect, the influence of his ideas on later scholarship is unmistakable.

This is most clearly revealed in his handling of the motif of intuition 'Gefuhl' itself. For although he asks, quite correctly in my view, how we can endorse Kleist's faith in the supremacy of human intuition when it is shown to be so unreliable, he attempts to resolve this very real dilemma by drawing a distinction between 'different varieties of human intuition'. Faced with the impossibility of drawing a principled distinction between 'genuine intuition' 'wahres Gefuhl' and 'illusory intuitions' 'der Schein des Gefiihls' , MiillerSeidel has little choice but to revert once again to the notion of 'innermost feeling' 'innerstes Gefuhl' as the one form of intuition 'that is incapable of being misled'.

It is not hard to detect the presence of Kleist's essay Uber das Marionettentheater On the puppet theatre as the main impulse behind 4 Introduction Miiller-SeidePs interpretative approach. In his reading, the plays and stories depict a teleological process of development whereby human beings are said to progress from a condition of selfconsciousness to 'a new state of innocence',17 in which they will be guided solely by intuition. In this way, they are said to attain a state of 'infinite grace' that, in Miiller-SeidePs view, is symbolised by the Kleistian marionette. This interpretation of Kleist's essay is well represented in the secondary literature18 and has become the cornerstone of a number of studies of his works.


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Perhaps the best known of these is Use Graham's book Heinrich von Kleist. Word into flesh: a poet's questfor the symbol, published in , in which she argues that Kleist's characters are prevented from experiencing 'the Absolute' as a result of their obsession with its embodiment in physical phenomena.

But in her reading, this struggle is set within a specifically Christian framework, for as she writes, 'in Kleist's world, salvation is found, if at all, in a renewed, higher form of blindness which transcends physical perception in that it apprehends the invisible numinous realm by the disclosure of a new, religious organ of cognition'. Not only is it far from clear what such notions as 'infinite grace' and 'infinite consciousness' could mean when applied to the behaviour of concretely existing, finite human beings, but it is equally questionable whether the behaviour of Kleist's mechanical puppet can be accepted thus uncritically as the embodiment of an ideal state of human grace.

This is an issue to which we will return when we look more closely at the most 'puppet-like' of all Kleist's creations, the 'ideal woman', Kathchen von Heilbronn. The difficulties inherent in reducing Kleist's work to an unambiguous affirmation of one set of beliefs over another are explored at some length in John Ellis's highly polemical book Heinrich von Kleist: studies in the character and meaning of his writings, p u b - lished in His commentary on the violent disagreements between Kleist's critics reads almost like a resume of the Wittkowski-Ryan debate itself when he suggests that 'while the Introduction 5 critics argue over who has the better case, they do not see that the story is about that argument, not about the particular interpretation they are trying to make the victor in the argument.

But despite his insistence on the need for a moreflexiblecritical approach, when he turns specifically to the task of interpreting the texts, he does not always live up to the high standards he has set himself.

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In his discussion of Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, for example, he starts by drawing attention to the 'numerous enigmatic episodes' in the play, yet contrary to his own stated aims, quickly sets about resolving these moments of textual indeterminacy in terms of his own psychological model of the rivalry between the Prince and the Elector. In short, Ellis appeals to the inherent ambiguity of Kleist's work in order to undermine one set of interpretations only to replace them with his own re-interpretation.

And whilst he is never slow to castigate other critics for their willingness to adopt 'fixed rigid positions', in the end his own approach appears hardly less rigid than those he criticises. Given Kleist's views on the inadequacy of language as a means of communication,23 it is not surprising that many critics should have sought to account for the paradoxical and ambiguous nature of his work in terms of his apparent scepticism vis-a-vis language. But as we have already seen in the case of Miiller-SeidePs study, any attempt to identify the realm of the unconscious as the locus of authenticity is bound to raise at least as many difficulties as it resolves.

Nonetheless, although KommerelPs claim to have identified certain points in the text where we are confronted with moments of authentic communication is often problematic, his views have been highly influential in the subsequent development of the critical literature relating to linguistic issues in Kleist's work. In the late seventies and early eighties, a number of critics have turned their attention to the relationship between language, power and love in order to show how in his work, Kleist explores the possibility of the dialectical construction of the self in language.

To this end, Helmut Arntzen, Gerhard Neumann and, most recently, Anthony Stephens, have all argued that Kleist's work constitutes both a critique of conventional forms of discourse 'konventionelle Sprache' and a quest for an ideal form of authentic discourse 'neue Sprache' free from the effects of convention and authority. Indeed for Stephens, the fact that any such gesture is almost always thwarted by the forces of convention and Introduction 7 authority is seen as symptomatic of Kleist's scepticism regarding the possibility of a 'fresh start' in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

As we shall see, in rejecting such notions, his work draws attention to their illusory and wholly artificial character.

Kleist's Aristocratic Heritage and Das Kathchen von Heilbronn by William C. Reeve | Waterstones

For just as the non-alienated 'consciousness' of the Kleistian marionette is the property of an artificial, man-made construction, so too perfect formal transparency is not a property of natural language, but a quality to be found only in artificial languages such as perhaps mathematical logic. Moreover, the attempt to attribute a particular teleological view of history to Kleist — whether optimistic as in Arntzen's case or pessimistic as in Stephens's case - may well raise more problems than it solves.

For it is precisely this tendency on the part of human beings to place reliance on metaphysical accounts of historical and personal development that is so ruthlessly called into question in his work. The absence of any such teleological perspective need not be seen as implying that Kleist did not believe in the possibility of human improvement. For whilst he presents us with an uncompromisingly realistic picture of human behaviour, his realism is such that he never portrays Man as 'inherently good' or 'inherently evil'.

Accordingly, he imputes neither an optimistic nor a pessimistic teleology to the course of history.


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What he does show is that if we are prepared to confront thefinitenature of human beings which is what distinguishes real human beings from their fictional counterparts we will discover that they do have a genuine capacity for self-improvement. Therefore it makes little sense to speak of Kleist's pessimism in respect of the possibility of 'fresh start' in history, since for him there can never be a clean break with the past, only a modification - possibly for the better, possibly for the worse of what has gone before.

As we shall see, it is the uncritical acceptance of such metaphysical notions - 'perfect' justice, 'infallible' feminine virtue, the hero who is 'incapable' of fear, the 'irredeemably' wicked man and the like - that prevents Kleist's characters from discovering the true nature of their predicaments and hence from taking appropriate action.

Thus in Amphitryon, Alkmene is led astray by her mistaken belief that she is so 'perfectly' in love with her husband, that she is, quite literally, 'incapable' of infidelity. In his other plays, Kleist shows us a number of societies dominated by ideologies masquerading as genuine insights into a 'natural' social order, but which are, for the most part, man-made conventions reflecting the interests of a dominant class.

In Die Familie Schrgffenstein, the juxtaposition of Rossitz and Warwand society draws attention to the particular ideology that underpins each of their contrasting views of 'human nature'. Likewise, in Amphitryon, the presence of Jupiter and Mercury allows the audience to see that the institutions and culture of Theban society are simply a series of ad hoc arrangements designed to sustain Amphitryon's bare-faced dictatorship. In several of his plays, Kleist explores the possibility that true love, by excluding all considerations of self-interest, might enable lovers to break free from these elaborate systems of pretence that stand in the way of genuine self-knowledge and self-fulfilment.

Thus for a moment it seems possible that in Die Familie Schrgffenstein, the love affair between Agnes and Ottokar might offer a way out of the conflict between the two families; that in Penthesilea, the love affair between the queen and Achilles might provide a means of transcending the gulf between the culture of the Greeks and that of the Amazons.

In the final analysis, however, these 'utopian idylls' are shown to be illusions, shot through with insincerities and irredeemably grounded in the social realities from which they seek to escape. In this way, Kleist reminds his audience that often it is where ideology appears to be positively absent, that it is most actively present. Even in a play, such as Das Kdthchen von Heilbronn, in which the love affair between Strahl and Kathchen survives against all the odds, the kind of love involved is inimical to the problem Introduction 9 presented in the play, and results only in the perpetuation of a social system that is manifestly flawed and desperately in need of radical change.

Indeed in Kleist's works, such love affairs almost invariably signify not a fresh start in human affairs, but on the contrary, a continuation of the status quo. Are we justified, then, in regarding Kleist's work as an unrelievedly pessimistic commentary on the human predicament? Is the real import of his work to point out the way in which human achievements are always bound to fall short of 'the ideal?

Does he really believe that the love between man and woman is necessarily doomed from the outset? I think not.

For as we shall see, although Kleist sets up such 'idylls' of love only to demolish them, it is not his intention to discredit the notion of love itself, but to expose the extent to which the conception of love to which his characters subscribe is flawed, being little more than a conventional arrangement of sexual relations designed to serve the interests of a predominantly male-oriented culture in which the element of ownership is paramount.

The same might be said of his presentation of another important area of human concern, namely justice. Thus although in Der zerbrochne Krug, he points out how far the prevailing conception of 'justice' serves the interests of a corrupt state, once again, it is not justice per se that he criticises, but rather the pretentious version of it that Walter and Adam serve. Nevertheless, in exposing these defects in the notions of 'love' and 'justice' as they appear in his plays, Kleist's aim is to not to discourage individuals from the pursuit of the ideal, but rather to argue the need for a new way of attaining the ideal, one which would take into account both the limitations of finite human beings and their positive capacity for self-improvement a way more in line, perhaps, with his understanding of Kant.

And it is in this that the genuinely emancipatory thrust of Kleist's art consists. For underlying the specific concerns of each play, we can discern a more general theme, namely the dangers for human progress inherent in a particular type of moral and aesthetic theory, the origins of which go back to Plato. This theory - which is remorselessly pilloried by Kleist - holds out the possibility that philosophers, visionaries, artists and writers have privileged access to a so-called 'transcendent' realm of existents — 'perfect love', 'perfect justice', 'perfect beauty' and the like.

It is io Introduction further claimed that by contemplating these 'ideal' forms, this privileged elite are in a position to fashion temporal versions of these great central concepts for the guidance of lesser mortals. This view is open to criticism on at least two counts, both of which Kleist rehearses in his correspondence and in his literary works.

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Firstly, there are no good grounds for believing that human beings have access to any such 'transcendent' realm. Kleist's reading of Kant would appear to have confirmed this. Secondly, this view appears increasingly suspect when we remind ourselves of the sinister regularity with which ruling elites throughout history have gained an advantage from this claim to have privileged access to a 'transcendent' realm and to have based what are merely class-biased conventions in the legal, moral and aesthetic fields on such 'perfect transcendent models'. In addition, Kleist is able to show that the application of this theory to everyday life causes many problems, even for its 'beneficiaries'.

The prevailing concepts of love, morality and aesthetics being so obviously slanted in their favour and not in fact derived from a 'transcendent' source there is every chance that the fraudulent character of these 'ideals' will be unmasked.

Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn
Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn
Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn
Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn
Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn
Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn
Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn
Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn Kleists Aristocratic Heritage and Das Käthchen Von Heilbronn

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