Radical Kleist

A New Biography of Heinrich von Kleist

Two hundred years ago, on a mild November day on the shore of the Kleiner Wannsee near Potsdam, Heinrich von Kleist shot Henrietta Vogel, terminally ill (according to her doctor) with what was probably endometrial cancer, then himself. She was 31; he was 34. The local church book recorded the event as “Mord und Selbstmord”—murder and self-murder. The scandal had tongues wagging in Berlin for weeks, though most of them had no idea that Kleist was a writer. It was a suicide pact, celebrated by both in a mood of frolic (and anyone who doubts it should read the extraordinary parallel letters, the so-called “Todeslitanei”*, addressed by each to the other), that put an end to a decade of intermittently sustained creative work on his part, as playwright and narrative writer, from his first dramatic work The Schroffenstein Family to the feuilletons produced in the last two years of his life for the boulevard daily, Berliner Abendblätter. Several of Kleist’s key literary productions saw publication in the latter, of which he was editor, including the speculative and metaphysically daring essay On the Marionette Theatre: it tells how the advent of self-consciousness brings about a fall from grace that leaves humans awkward, opaque and inscrutable, not least to themselves. It is not the theological concept of “fallen man” that preoccupies Kleist, it is the implications of the Fall as what contemporary science would call a “state-shift”. The essay has perhaps become his best-known piece in the English-speaking world; it is certainly his most-quoted.

This is an odd state of affairs: as Günter Blamberger, President of the Kleist Society and curator of a double exhibition on the writer in Berlin and his hometown of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder, remarked in an interview, much still remains to be done in terms of translating Kleist into other languages. His core dramas, including his indelicately raw Penthesilea, with its climactic linguistic love-bites (prefiguring his actual suicide pact with Henriette), are seldom performed, and even the eight novellas, perhaps on account of their syntactical resistance to the sociability of story-telling, are not particularly widely known, in spite of their decisive influence on Kafka, to name but one. Yet it is likely that aspects of his work will continue to haunt modernism: it may be his fellow German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann’s eerie stories which most resemble Edgar Allan Poe’s, but Kleist’s ironic essays bear an uncanny kinship with some of the American writer’s more speculative pieces, notably “Eureka”. Kleist’s writings were always “fragments of the future.”

In this magisterial new biography, which by virtue of its sheer wealth of detail and research (including a number of evocative black-and-white illustrations of key personages and objects) is certain to remain the definitive life of Kleist for a generation, Blamberger looks to the atmosphere around 1800 to give us a sense of the upheavals that shaped the young Kleist, who had already seen military action—including hand-to-hand fighting—as a teenage soldier in the Palatinate. Member of an impoverished Prussian noble family that supplied the state with an impressive number of generals, Kleist had neither property nor wealth to fall back on. Nor could he count on Prussia. After its successive defeats by Napoleon, the Prussian army and state had largely collapsed. It was only after the Peace of Tilsit in 1807 that efforts began to reform the military, culminating in the General Staff that would dominate European military and political life for over a century thereafter. Nationalism was in full swing: Kleist’s own most controversial work, the bloodthirsty drama Hermannschlacht, was recuperated by the Nazis for its “steely Romanticism”. Blamberger reads it as an epic handbook which envisages how the first guerrilla war, of the Spanish against the French, might be carried over into Prussia as an act of grassroots resistance to overwhelming force. It would seem that Kleist’s consistent emphasis on resolute action was fodder to the Nazis, who liked to portray themselves as zealots of the deed.

Like his times, Kleist turned experimentalist. He tried to transform the aristocrat convenience of his emotionally flat relationship with his neighbour Wilhelmine von Zenge into a bourgeois marriage of minds, which seemed mostly to involve him writing letters to her which read like the moral injunctions in Emile. Other letters suggest a strong attraction to young men of his station: Kleist admitted in a letter to his cadet friend Ernst von Pfuel, later a high-ranking Prussian official, that the sight of him emerging after a swim excited “girlish feelings” in him, a phrase that brings to mind the reversal of sexual roles in Penthesilea: the heroic Achilles exhibits feminine traits while the Amazon queen acts boldly and in the end rapaciously (the whole play can even be seen as an enactment of the thoughtless cliché about wanting to eat what we love). Kleist travelled restlessly across Europe, and in 1802 asked his fiancée to take up farming with him near the town of Thun. It was another chapter from Emile. Wilhelmine refused, and Kleist abandoned his Swiss project; and the pursuit of a bureaucratic post in order to be able to marry her. He was to abandon many other projects in that decade: joining the otherwise detested French army to cross the Channel, reforming the Prussian financial system, staging his comedy The broken Jug in Weimar under the auspices of Goethe, printing anti-French propaganda in Berlin in 1809 in the wake of the French invasion of Austria, and designing a prototype submarine. Kleist had a seemingly tireless capacity for what we would recognise as “knowledge production.”

What makes him stand out from his similarly tireless contemporaries is that this process was not bound up with the usual Enlightenment optimism. One thing Kleist could not have written is a Bildungsroman. He was a writer who wrote with his back to the wall, a “crisis specialist” in Blamberger’s words. Understanding the physical world might be an endlessly engrossing activity but it didn’t afford him understanding of his part in it. As he wrote in a letter to Adolphine von Werdeck in 1801: “I would so much like to progress in a purely humanistic education, but knowledge makes us neither better nor happier. If only we could understand how everything hangs together!” The fact that his famous “Kant crisis”—when he confused subjective illusions (“Scheine”) with appearances (“Erscheinungen”) objective enough to sustain scientific propositions—occurred that same year suggests that one of the few calculable things in Kleist’s life was his suicide: having locked himself up for a week with Kant’s Critique he despaired of the self’s inscrutability—it could only be seen “through green glasses.” These days we pretend to take this kind of insight in our stride. His ten years of productive writing was therefore a hysteresis, another of those state-shifts. The future was going to be characterised by human beings shaped primarily by where they found themselves, not who they were. And yet, given the crises and catastrophes which mark Kleist’s novellas, it would appear that externalities—accidents, bolts from the blue, seismic upheavals —will be no easier to order than the former dark wranglings of the soul.


Blamberger’s biography conveys a sense of Kleist progressively loosening his ties—including those that bind him to his epoch—which is very persuasive. Since Kleist left very few relics behind (and even his doings over half of 1809 are unaccounted for), the biographer is paradoxically drawn to Kleist’s inner world, though as Blamberger warns the reader, Kleist himself (like Kafka) was sceptical about the interior life. He read people like a behavioural scientist avant la lettre. As Blamberger writes, he had become “a sceptical moralist, who was no longer interested in how humans ought to act among one another, but rather how they do.” What the biographer gets to work with are the writings. None of them is autobiographical, as little explained by events in his life as his life by his works. Yet all of them bear the unique stamp of his personality. Kleist was an empiricist among idealists, and in that sense absolutely “undeutsch”. Where Hegel saw the world-spirit on horseback riding through Jena, Kleist wrote from a stance closer to that of the ordinary person who simply has to cope. (Here the German verb handeln has an immediacy English cannot hope to replicate.) When Kleist writes in one of his essays that one should act first and think later, he is expressing the commonplace experience of a person put upon. Kleist was a thinker of the duel, of one-on-one reciprocal combat or Zweikampf, like his near-contemporary Clausewitz—passing mention to whose now classic manual Zur Kriege fails to draw out the true nature of Kleist’s insights into irregular, partisan combat within the classic legality of the most instrumental of all collective activities, war. (The scope of the word Kampf—which articulates competitive encounters of all kinds, including battles, campaigns, fights, bouts, tussles and contests, means that it and its variants take up twenty pages of Grimm’s famous dictionary of the German language.) Hegel’s pretension that there can be a “recognition” of equal subjects, that mastery—in a process both chivalric and disputatious—yields to the Other, is dispelled in Kleist. He is, without knowing it, one of the first thinkers to refuse (and bluntly at that) to make dialectics the order of the day, and evacuate the sense of tragedy. He devalues dialectics (like Schopenhauer after him) in favour of direct intuition and immediate expression. His stories end not in mutual recognition, but death and destruction. Or as Clausewitz put it: “the wish to annihilate the enemy’s forces is the first-born son of war.”

Kleist however is also talking about courage, which is as close to the grace of the marionette essay as we can hope to come. Courage has no causes, only occasions. Discussing intentions (as Kleist himself hinted in his essay On the Gradual Production of Thoughts While Speaking) can only ever be a second-order matter, and theorising about the courage of what one knows an even more distant affair. Courage excludes any thought of heroism: it acts before it ponders. The situation calls the action out of the person; it is only others—later, much later—who will call the person a hero. The point of the action is incidental to its meaning. Therein lies one of the split-level paradoxes that animated Heinrich von Kleist, and complicates his reputation two hundred years after his death. If modernity now has its own tradition of those who broke with the tradition, then he is clearly one of the prototypes. That doesn’t necessarily make him our contemporary, even if many of his insights oddly anticipate features of the contemporary neurosciences: it must be said though his moral confusion seems very modern, especially his bewilderment about ends and means. He spoke a lost language, one of absolutes and impetuosities that is alien now to us, who are comprehensively and even aggressively moderate in a way Kleist, one of the most radical writers who ever lived, could not have countenanced.

©Iain Bamforth. “Officer Material”: Expanded review of Günter Blamberger, Heinrich von Kleist, Biographie, S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 2011, in Times Literary Supplement, 1 December 2011.


*Die Todeslitanei, as it has come to be known, was most probably written in Berlin, in November 1811. The mood of exultation of the two mirror-letters (not at all like a litany), with their catalogue of endearments halfway between the Song of Songs and a rather tawdry romance novel, could only come from a couple which has understood the radical nature of its planned act. The letters are the Siamese twins of an act that itself pairs bliss and death—much like Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.

               Only a single epithet jumps with a terrible kind of knowingness out of Kleist’s list: “m Nachruhm”—“my posthumous fame”. It is Henriette’s list which is actually the more intriguing. She takes so much pleasure in her list of pet-names that she adds an addendum, in which she even compares Kleist to her “dear mother.” Her “knight” is also going to be her “death.” But most revealing is the exclamation mark she puts after “m Werthester!”: “my dearest one” puns on the name of Goethe’s hero Werther—it could almost be “my most Wertherian one”.

               In Goethe’s famous novella Werther takes his own life (still a scandalous act in the eyes of the church) because he cannot bear to live without Lotte, who is already married to Albert; by contrast Henriette Vogel was prepared to abandon her husband, who seems to have tacitly consented to the whole business, in order to die with the poet she calls “my voice, my judge, my holy one.”


„Mein Jettchen, mein Herzchen, m Liebes, m Täubchen, m Leben, m liebes süßes Leben, m Lebenslicht, m Alles, m Hab u Gut, meine Schlösser, Aecher, Wiesen u Weinberge, o Sonne meines Lebens, Sonne, Mond u Sterne, Himmel u Erde, m Vergangenheit u Zukunft, meine Braut, m Medgen, meine liebe Freundin, m Innerstes, m Hertzblut, meine Eingeweide, m Augenstern, o, liebste wie nen ich Dich? Mein Goldkind, m Perle, m Edelstein, m Krone, m Königin und Kaiserin. Du lieber Liebling meines Herzens, m Höchstes u Theuerstes, m Alles u Jedes, m Weib, m Hochzeit, die Taufe meiner Kinder, m Trauerspiel, m Nachruhm. Ach du bis mein zweites bessers Ich, meine Tugenden, m Verdienste, m Hoffnung, die Vergebung m Sünden, m Zukunft und Seeligkeit, o, Himmelstöchterchen, m Gotteskind, m Fürsprecherin u Fürbitterin, m Schutzengel, m Cherubim u Seraph, wie lieb ich Dich!—“


„Mein Heinrich, m Süßtönender, m Hyazinthen Beet, m Wonnemeer, m Morgen u Abendroth, m Aeolsharfe, m Thau, m Friedensbogen, m Schoßkindchen, m liebstes Hertz, m Freude, im Leid, m Wiedergeburt, m Freiheit, m Fessel, m Sabbath, m Goldkelch, m Luft, m Wärme, m Gedancke, m theurer Sünder, m Gewünschtes hier u jenseit, m Augentrost, m süßeste Sorge, m schönste Jugend, m Stoltz, m Beschützer, m Gewissen, m Wald, m Herlichkeit, m Schwerd u Helm, m Grosmuth, m rechte Hand, m Paradies, m Thräne, m Himmelsleiter, m Johannes, m Tasso, m Ritter, mein Graf Wetter, m zarter Page, m Erzdichter, m Kristall, m Lebensquell, m Rast, meine Trauerweide, m Herr Schutz und Schirm, m Hoffen und Harren, m Träume, m liebstes Sternbild, m Schmeichelkäzchen, meine sichre Burg, m Glück, m Tod, m Herzensnärchen, m Einsamkeit, m Schiff, m schönes Thal, m Belohnung, m Werthester! m Lethe, m Wiege, m Weirauch und Myrrhen, m Stimme, m Richter, m Heiliger, m lieblicher Träumer, m Sehnsucht, m Seele, m Nerven, m goldner Spiegel, m Rubin, m Syrings Flöte, m Dornenkrone, m tausend Wunderwercke, m Lehrer u m Schüler, wie über alles gedachte u zu erdenckende lieb ich Dich.

Meine Seele sollst Du haben.


Mein Schatten am Mittag, m Quell in der Wüste, m geliebte Mutter, m Religion, m innre Musik, m armer kranker Heinrich, m zartes weißes Lämchen, m Himmelspforte.