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Heinrich von Kleist

Heinrich von Kleist: Writing after Kant

Tim Mehigan
Volume: 109
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Heinrich von Kleist
    Book Description:

    The question of Heinrich von Kleist's reading and reception of Kant's philosophy has never been satisfactorily answered. The present study aims to reassess this question, particularly in the light of Kant's rising importance for the humanities today. It argues not only that Kleist was influenced by Kant, but also that he may be understood as a Kantian, albeit an unorthodox one. The volume integrates material previously published by the author, now updated, with new chapters to form a greater whole. What results is a coherent set of approaches that illuminates the question of Kleist's Kantianism from different points of view. Kleist is thereby understood not only as a writer but also as a thinker - one whose seriousness of purpose and clarity of design compares with that of other early expositors of Kant's thought such as Reinhold and Fichte. Through the locutions and idioms of fiction and the essay, Kleist becomes visible for the first time as an original contributor to the tradition of post-Kantian ideas. Tim Mehigan is Professorial Chair of German in the Department of Languages and Cultures at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and Honorary Professor in the School of Languages and Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-785-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
    T. M.
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Introduction: Kleist and the Problem of Self-Consciousness
    (pp. 1-12)

    Self-consciousness, as Manfred Frank has succinctly put it,¹ is the name of a philosophical problem. The problem centers on whether knowledge claims can be advanced on the basis of self-conscious awareness, or, stated in reverse, whether the data of self-consciousness can lead to knowledge. A key moment in this philosophical discussion was reached when Descartes discovered an inviolable defense (or so he thought) against seventeenth-century skeptics, the (latter-day) Pyrrhonists. This was the cogito ergo sum, an argument that proceeded on the basis of the self-evidence of internal states of self-awareness. Descartes held the existence of these internal states at bottom...

  6. Part I. Reason

    • 1: Kleist’s “Kant Crisis” and Its Consequences
      (pp. 15-32)

      Heinrich von Kleist encountered Immanuel Kant’s philosophy in 1800 and 1801. It is not clear which of Kant’s works, if any, he actually read. Letters from that time reveal nevertheless how seriously he took the encounter with Kant’s thought. In a letter of 14 August 1800 to his sister Ulrike, for example, he wrote that he had composed, with no definite purpose in mind,“[eine] Schrift, über die Kantische Philosophie” (2:514). Kleist also referred to the “neuere[n] sogenannte[n] Kantische[n] Philosophie” (2:634) in a letter to Wilhelmine von Zenge. At another point, he even spoke of a “traurige[n] Philosophie” (2:667), apparently meaning...

    • 2: “Betwixt a false reason and none at all”: Kleist and Skepticism
      (pp. 33-51)

      A study of the dramas and stories of Heinrich von Kleist lends much support for the view that a profound skepticism about knowledge pervades Kleist’s worldview generally, as well as a specific sense of skepticism with respect to the claims of reason. At the same time it is not clear how Kleist could have derived such deep skepticism about reason and knowledge simply from reading Kant’s philosophy, especially as Kant’s moral philosophy ultimately seeks to offer a positive account of community and the role that reason plays in structuring it. While anti-rationalist philosophy was gaining influence in Kleist’s day —...

    • 3: On the Excluded Middle in Penthesilea
      (pp. 52-67)

      As most scholars readily agree, agonistic elements are not deployed merely for dramatic effect in Kleist’s works; they also point to a more deeply felt conviction of the author about the fundamental state of reality.¹ Conflictual relations pervade Kleist’s tragedy Penthesilea, for example, from the very beginning. Describing how the Amazons fight the Greeks like Furies, Odysseus speaks of opposing forces that allow for no resolution, no “third” position: “Kraft bloß und ihren Widerstand, nichts Drittes” (1:326; line 126). Concerning Penthesilea, daughter of Mars, and her adversary Achilles, son of the sea goddess Thetis, Odysseus continues: “Was Glut des Feuers...

    • 4: Heinrich von Kleist’s Concept of Law, with Special Reference to “Michael Kohlhaas”
      (pp. 68-84)

      Heinrich von Kleist wrote all his major literary works within the ten-year period from 1801 to 1811. As brief as this flourishing was, it was also intense, cut across by events of great international significance. Midway through Kleist’s decade the formidable Prussian army was routed by Napoleon at Jena. Once hailed as the disseminator of Enlightenment principles and the liberator of Europe, Napoleon instead increasingly appeared to many as a new kind of despot over the course of the first decade of the nineteenth century. His conquest of Europe for Prussians, in any case, brought grief at the loss of...

  7. Part II. Agreement

    • 5: “Über das Marionettentheater”
      (pp. 87-102)

      When Kleist used the symbol of the puppet in his article “Über das Marionettentheater,” it was not for the first time. He expressly referred to it in an early letter, the letter of May 1799, in which, significantly, his concern was to outline his “Lebensplan” to his fiancée Wilhelmine von Zenge:

      Ja, es ist mir so unbegreiflich, wie ein Mensch ohne Lebensplan leben könne, und ich fühle, an der Sicherheit, mit welcher ich die Gegenwart benutze, an der Ruhe, mit welcher ich in die Zukunft blicke, so innig, welch ein unschätzbares Glück mir mein Lebensplan gewährt, und der Zustand, ohne...

    • 6: The Narrative Paradigm: Text as Contract
      (pp. 103-126)

      Two of the shortest, and frequently least highly regarded,¹ of Kleist’s short stories, “Das Bettelweib von Locarno” and “Die heilige Cäcilie oder die Gewalt der Musik,” will be used here as exemplary narratives for the establishment of a narrative paradigm. Both stories reflect what is a readily discernible feature of all the narratives, namely a clear tripartite structure along the lines of drama² featuring an exposition, an unfolding and development of themes in a central or middle section, and a denouement or resolution marked by a return to the issue(s) foreshadowed in the exposition (see NK). This structure provides the...

    • 7: “Die Marquise von O. . .”: The Marriage Contract
      (pp. 127-138)

      Hermann Davidts has correctly observed that three separate threads run throughout the story of “Die Marquise von O. . .”: the story of the Marquise’s pregnancy (which is told in the manner of a detective story with an unknown perpetrator whose identity is revealed in the course of the narration), the issue of Graf F. . .’s proposal of marriage, and the conflict within the Kommandant’s family, which centers on the question of the Marquise’s relationship to her father (NK, 63). Each of these narrative threads is expressly linked to a form of writing that, as writing, registers the disturbed...

    • 8: “Michael Kohlhaas”: Death and the Contract
      (pp. 139-166)

      Of all Kleist’s stories, the functioning of the contract in form as well as substance is at its most conspicuous in “Michael Kohlhaas.” For one thing, the story takes the question of the individual’s relationship to his society for its subject matter. This relationship, conceived in legal terms, is encapsulated in an important passage from the famous Luther scene: “Verstoßen, antwortete Kohlhaas, indem er die Hand zusammendrückte, nenne ich den, dem der Schutz der Gesetze versagt ist!” (2:45) Legal protection, then, is what Kohlhaas receives in exchange for his oath of fealty to the state. His relationship to the state...

  8. Part III. Inference and Judgment

    • 9: “Der Donnerkeil des Mirabeau”: Kleist’s Essay “Über die allmähliche Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden”
      (pp. 169-182)

      In his remarkable study of the stories of Heinrich von Kleist, Bernd Fischer characterizes Kleist’s relation to philosophy as follows: “Kleist [verfügt] über keine Theorie, die geeignet wäre, das idealistische Paradigma zu überwinden. So untypisch Kleists Verzicht auf eine geschichtsphilosophische Ästhetik für seine Zeit ist, so notwendig dürfte ihm die Beschränkung auf die bloß innerliterarische Reflexion sein.”¹ Dissatisfied with all extra-literary theories, Kleist’s only recourse, Fischer contends, was to lie in an “ironische[n] Metaphysik,” a philosophical outlook expressing deep skepticism about the presentiments of the major philosophical systems of his day. Moreover, Kleist could not locate an adequate literary program...

    • 10: Kleist’s Fiction from a Game-Theoretical Perspective: “Die Verlobung in St. Domingo” as an Example
      (pp. 183-195)

      Game theory may properly be considered an invention of the twentieth century. It cannot usefully be separated from statistical analysis and probability theory, which arose in the last decades of the nineteenth century, along with the industrialization of the European societies whose study they aimed to promote. Game theory, therefore, takes its place alongside other theories of behavior and society that are preeminently modern, if the defining attribute of modernity is taken to be contingency, as the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann¹ and others have argued. Contingency, according to Luhmann, is anything that is “neither necessary nor impossible” (45), that is,...

    • 11: The Process of Inferential Contexts: Franz Kafka Reading Heinrich von Kleist
      (pp. 196-212)

      That Franz Kafka and Heinrich von Kleist are linked by manifold stylistic and thematic concerns is uncontentious: Kafka himself acknowledged Kleist as a “blood relative”;¹ his enthusiasm for Kleist’s works, particularly Kleist’s story “Michael Kohlhaas,” is well known. Several authoritative critical voices, among them Wilhelm Emrich,² have found the connections between Kafka and Kleist to be compelling. It cannot therefore be the aim of any new addition to this scholarship to amplify what is already self-evident. My aim is rather to come at the question of influence and aesthetic inheritance from a new angle. As this aim requires me to...

  9. Works Cited
    (pp. 213-226)
  10. Index
    (pp. 227-232)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 233-233)