*Kleist, Heinrich von

Heinrich von Kleist

Heinrich von Kleist



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Kleist, Heinrich von

German, 1777–1811
Although better known as a playwright and author of novellas, Kleist wrote a small number of essays that reveal his unique cast of mind. These essays, which are often ransacked by critics mistakenly seeking keys to Kleist’s other works, are seldom explored as contributions to the art of the essay. Kleist also penned terse anecdotes, admired by Kafka, which make the reader ponder issues similar to those raised by his essays. What gives Kleist’s essays their characteristic texture is the tension between his rationalistic quest for order and his intuitive grasp of the uncertainties of the human psyche. They disclose a mind caught uneasily between a hand-me-down faith in reason derived from 18th-century philosophy, Romantic notions about the importance of inner life, and a very modern sense of the inherently paradoxical nature of man’s lot.
Kleist’s first essay, “Aufsatz, den sichern Weg des Glücks zu finden” (Essay on the sure way of finding happiness), a juvenile piece of writing full of clichés culled from second-rate 18th-century thinkers, was probably written in 1799. His mature essays, anecdotes, theatrical reviews, and articles were written primarily for the Berliner Abendblätter (Berlin evening news), one of the first German dailies, which Kleist set up with the political economist Adam Müller in October 1810. Although the newspaper owed its short-lived success to the crime reports supplied by the Berlin chief of police, the occasional contributions by Kleist captivated discerning contemporaries such as the Brothers Grimm. However, after Kleist was obliged to close the newspaper in March 1811, these writings fell into oblivion until the surge of interest in his life and work in the early decades of this century.
The most famous—and most misunderstood—of Kleist’s essays is Über das Marionettentheater (1810; On Puppet Shows). A number of critics have concocted systems of thought on the basis of the philosophical, aesthetic, and theological allusions scattered throughout this seminal essay. Some commentators construe the essay as a treatise on Romantic aesthetics, others as an exposition of a triadic philosophical scheme said to underlie all of Kleist’s plays and novellas. Such attempts, however, ignore the tentative quality of the essay, which is modeled after a Platonic dialogue.
The essay features a dialogue between the first person narrator and a puppet master about the elegance of puppets, who have only one “center of gravity,” and the clumsiness of humans, whose capacity for reflection destroys their ability to move and act naturally.
What concerns Kleist about the Fall of Man is not so much sin as the loss of the primeval grace still possessed by unthinking animals. Unlike the Romantics, however, with whom he is sometimes wrongly conflated, Kleist is not tempted by past idylls. What he envisages instead is an open-ended quest for the harmony lost when man was expelled from Eden: “But Paradise is locked and bolted and the Cherub is behind us. We must make a journey around the world to see if a back door has perhaps been left open.”
Kleist’s doubts about the possibility of ever attaining that goal, suggested by that characteristic word “perhaps,” links him to later, more radical skeptics such as Kafka and Camus.
In other ways, too, Kleist points forwards rather than backwards. In a mere handful of essays he anticipates the insights of modern psychologists, philosophers, and linguists. In “Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden” (wr. c. 1805–06; “On the Gradual Fabrication of Thoughts While Speaking”), he reverses traditional notions about language by arguing that speech often creates thought rather than vice versa. He emphasizes the largely unconscious process by which we arrive at insights: “it is not we who ‘know’; it is rather a certain condition of ourselves that ‘knows’.” Here he anticipates Freud’s exploration of different levels of consciousness. Moreover, Kleist, who covertly alludes to the political and cultural objectives of the Berliner Abendblätter in a piece called “Gebet des Zoroaster” (1810; “Prayer of Zarathustra”), no doubt influenced Nietzsche’s choice of a mouthpiece in Also sprach Zarathustra (1883–85; Thus Spoke Zarathustra).
The distinctiveness of Kleist’s essays stems from his ability to write with the rigor of a scientist and the imagination of a poet. In one of his aphorisms Kleist states that most people think either in terms of metaphors or in terms of formulas. He himself was capable of both modes of thought. His style reflects the tension in himself between rationalism and intuition. In the essay on fabricating thought, and elsewhere, he shows a particular fondness for metaphors and analogies drawn from mechanics and physics: “Speech is not a fetter, then, like a drag chain on the wheel of the mind, but a second wheel running parallel to it on the same axle.” Yet he also has a poet’s flair for apt detail: “Perhaps, after all, it was only the twitch of an upper lip, or the ambiguous fingering of a wrist frill, that precipitated the overthrow of the old order in France.” Kleist’s sense of humor is evident in the whimsical essay, “Nützliche Erfindungen: Entwurf einer Bombenpost” (1810; “Useful Inventions: Project for a Cannonball Postal System”) and in “Allerneuester Erziehungsplan” (1810; “The Very Latest Educational Scheme”), in which he advocates the establishment of a School for Vice.
Although Kleist’s own writing is noted for its formal rigor, in his essays on aesthetic themes he advocates unrestrained subjectivity. Two essays in epistolary guise, “Brief eines jungen Dichters an einen Maler” (1810; “Letter from a Young Writer to a Young Painter”) and “Brief eines Malers an seinen Sohn” (1810; “A Painter’s Letter to His Son”), suggest that the arts are merely a vehicle for self-expression: “The objective, after all, is not to become someone else, but to be yourself: through color and design to render your very self, that most personal and inner part of you, visible.” In “Brief eines Dichters an einen anderen” (1811; “Letter from One Poet to Another”), written in the year of his suicide, Kleist is even more extreme in his rejection of literary form: “…if I could reach into my heart, take hold of my thoughts, and with my bare hands lay them without further embellishment in your own, then, I confess, the innermost desire of my soul would be fulfilled.” Although this letter-writing poet is not necessarily Kleist himself, it is difficult not to read such passages in existential terms as the final testament of a writer who, like Arthur Rimbaud and Robert Walser, turned away from literature and chose what Kafka, in a letter to his fiancée Felice Bauer in September 1913, described as the “right way out.”


Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist. Born 18 October 1777 in Frankfurt-on-Oder, Brandenburg. Suffered many nervous breakdowns throughout his life. Served in the Prussian army, 1792–99, taking part in the siege of Mainz, 1793. Studied law at the University of Frankfurt, 1799–1800. Traveled in Germany, Switzerland, and France, 1800–04; civil servant, Königsberg, 1805–06; cofounder, with Adam Müller, and editor, Phöbus, Dresden, 1808–09, and Berliner Abendblätter, 1810–11; attempted unsuccessfully to publish the newspaper Germania, Prague, 1809. Died (suicide by gunshot) at Lake Wannsee, near Potsdam, 21 November 1811.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Über das Marionettentheater: Aufsätze und Anekdoten, edited by Helmut Sembdner, 1935; revised edition, 1980; title essay edited by Wilhelm Neufeld, 1962, and Helmut Sembdner (including essays on the text), 1967; title essay as On a Theatre of Marionettes, translated by G.Wilford, 1989; as On Puppet Shows, translated by David Paisley, 1991
An Abyss Deep Enough: Letters of Heinrich von Kleist with a Selection of Essays and Anecdotes, edited and translated by Philip B.Miller, 1982

Other writings: seven plays (Die Familie Schroffenstein [The Feud of the
Schroffensteins], 1803; Amphitryon, 1807; Der zerbrochene Krug [The Broken Pitcher],
1808; Penthesilea, 1808; Das Käthchen von Heilbronn [Kate of Heilbronn], 1810; Prinz Friedrich von Homburg [The Prince of Homburg], 1821; Die Hermannsschlacht, 1839), short stories (including “The Marquise of O.” and Michael Kohlhaas [1810]), and correspondence.
Collected works editions: Werke, edited by Erich Schmidt and others, 5 vols., 1904– 05, revised edition, 7 vols., 1936–38; Sämtliche Werke und Briefe, edited by Helmut Sembdner, 2 vols., 1961, revised edition, 1984; Sämtliche Werke, edited by Roland Reuss and Peter Staengle, 2 vols., 1988–92 (in progress).

Sembdner, Helmut, Kleist-Bibliographie, 1803–1862, Stuttgart: Eggert, 1966

Further Reading
Blöcker, Günter, Heinrich von Kleist oder Das absolute Ich, Frankfurt-on-Main: Fischer, 1977
Dyer, Denys, The Stories of Kleist: A Critical Study, London: Duckworth, 1977
Ellis, John M., Heinrich von Kleist: Studies in the Character and Meaning of His Writings, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979
Gearey, John, Heinrich von Kleist: A Study in Tragedy and Anxiety, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968
Hamburger, Michael, “Heinrich von Kleist,” in his Reason and Energy: Studies in German Literature, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, and New York: Grove Press, 1957:107–44; as Contraries: Studies in German Literature, New York: Dutton, 1971:101–39
Harman, Mark, “An Echo of Kafka in Kleist,” in Heinrich von Kleist Studies, edited by Alexej Ugrinsky, New York: AMS Press, and Berlin: Schmidt, 1980:169–75
Helbling, Robert E., The Major Works of Heinrich von Kleist, New York: New Directions, 1975
Hohoff, Curt, Heinrich von Kleist (in English), Bonn and Bad Godesberg: Inter Nationes, 1977 (original German edition, 1958)
Ide, Heinz, Der junge Kleist, Würzburg: Holzner, 1961
Kurock, Wolfgang, “Heinrich von Kleist und die Marionette,” in Heinrich von Kleist Studies, edited by Alexej Ugrinsky, New York: AMS Press, and Berlin: Schmidt, 1980:103–08
Nicolai, Ralf, “Schwerpunkt Kleist: Motive des Marionettentheaters im 20. Jahrhundert,” in Heinrich von Kleist Studies, edited by Alexej Ugrinsky, New York: AMS Press, and Berlin: Schmidt, 1980:127–35
Reed, T.J., “The ‘Goethezeit’ and Its Aftermath,” in Germany: A Companion to German Studies, edited by Malcolm Pasley, London: Methuen, 1972:493–553
Sembdner, Helmut, editor, Kleists Aufsatz “Über das Marionettentheater”: Studien und Interpretationen, Berlin: Jahresgabe der Heinrich-von-Kleist-Gesellschaft, 1967
Silz, Walter, Heinrich von Kleist: Studies in His Works and Literary Character, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961

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