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Heinrich von Kleist and Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Heinrich von Kleist and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Violence, Identity, Nation

Steven Howe
Volume: 128
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    Heinrich von Kleist and Jean-Jacques Rousseau
    Book Description:

    Heinrich von Kleist is renowned as an author who posed a radical challenge to the orthodoxies of his age. Today, his works are frequently seen to relentlessly deconstruct the paradigms of Idealism and to reflect a Romantic, even postmodern, perspective on the ambiguities of the world. Such a view fails, however, to do full justice to the more complex manner in which Kleist articulates the tensions between the securities of Enlightenment thought and the anxieties of the revolutionary age. Steven Howe offers a new angle on Kleist's dialogue with the Enlightenment by reconsidering his investment in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Where previous critics have trivialized this as intense but fleeting and born of personal identification, Howe here establishes Rousseau's importance as a lasting source of inspiration for the violent constellations of Kleist's fiction. Taking account of both Rousseau's critique of modernity and his later propositions for working toward the Enlightenment promise of emancipation, the book locates a mode of discourse which, placed in the historical context of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, sheds new light on the political and ethical issues at play in Kleist's work. Steven Howe is Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter, UK. He is co-editor, with Ricarda Schmidt and Seán Allan, of 'Heinrich von Kleist: Konstruktive und Destruktive Funktionen von Gewalt' (forthcoming, 2012).

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-841-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction: Interpreting Kleist’s Paradoxes
    (pp. 1-11)

    Heinrich von Kleist is one of the most challenging figures in German literary history. In a career lasting a little under a decade, from 1802 to his premature death in 1811, he produced a remarkable body of narrative and dramatic work that called into question the prevailing intellectual, aesthetic, and ethical orthodoxies of the age. At a time when Goethe and Schiller were embarking on a period of classicist writing promoting harmony of substance and form, Kleist’s fictional worlds are, by contrast, full of chaos and conflict, dislocation and instability. His works raise fundamental questions concerning the possibilities of knowledge...

  6. 1: Kleist, Rousseau, and the Paradoxes of Enlightenment
    (pp. 12-55)

    The present study is written with the above perspectives in mind. Its aim is to offer a new angle on Kleist’s complex dialogue with the discourses of Enlightenment by reexamining his investment in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Alongside the likes of Montesquieu, Hume, Smith, and Kant, Rousseau stands as a truly pivotal figure in eighteenth-century European thought. Today, he is perhaps best known as a social theorist and author of controversial philosophical and political treatises in which he both put into question the Enlightenment faith in human moral progress—Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (First Discourse), Discourse on...

  7. 2: Das Erdbeben in Chili
    (pp. 56-94)

    First published in September 1807 in Cotta’s Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände, Das Erdbeben in Chili is widely regarded as one of Kleist’s fictional masterpieces. Set against the historical backdrop of the earthquake that rocked Santiago on 13 May 1647, this is a daring and dramatic tale of thwarted love and extreme violence, within the brief compass of which Kleist manages to reflect on a broad variety of current theological, philosophical, and political controversies—from questions of the providential order and the bounds of physical and moral evil, to an exploration of the ethics of social change and the volatile psychological...

  8. 3: Die Verlobung in St. Domingo
    (pp. 95-127)

    If the theme of revolutionary violence is situated at an abstract remove in Das Erdbeben in Chili, it has a far more direct textual bearing in Die Verlobung in St. Domingo. Here again we are dealing with the tragic story of star-crossed lovers, as the “Verlobung” of the story’s title between Swiss nobleman Gustav von der Ried and the young Mestiza Toni is played out against the backdrop of the latter stages of the slave rebellion on Haiti in 1803. The up-to-date setting is atypical—Kleist’s tales and dramas usually avoid the particular reality of contemporary events and are, instead,...

  9. 4: Die Herrmannsschlacht
    (pp. 128-161)

    As touched on in the previous chapter, Kleist’s 1808 drama Die Herrmannsschlacht is directly and principally concerned with the question of national liberation and the fight against French imperialism. In contrast to Die Verlobung in St. Domingo, the text is clearly determined for and by a specific moment of historical crisis: in a letter to Karl Freiherr von Stein zum Altenstein from January 1809, for instance, Kleist states that the play is “auf keinem … entfernten Standpunct gedichtet” and falls directly in “die Mitte der Zeit” (DKV, 4:426–27), while a month later he writes to Heinrich Joseph von Collin...

  10. 5: Prinz Friedrich von Homburg
    (pp. 162-194)

    In early January 1809, just a short while after completing work on Die Herrmannsschlacht, Kleist borrowed from the Dresdner Königsbibliothek Karl Heinrich Krause’s Mein Vaterland unter den hohenzollerischen Regenten.¹ This was to provide the historical basis for a second patriotic-political drama dealing—as the title suggests—with the legend of Prinz Friedrich von Hessen-Homburg, who, while serving as a cavalry leader during the Battle of Fehrbellin in 1675, evoked the ire of the “Great Elector” Friedrich Wilhelm by charging without waiting for the order to do so, but was later granted clemency in view of his decisive contribution to victory....

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 195-206)

    The imaginative vision with which Kleist closes Prinz Friedrich von Homburg represents, in many ways, an appropriately masterful expression of his aesthetic and political concerns and principles. The resistance to absolute closure, the sense of tension between subject and world, and the confrontation between tradition and modernity—these are all very much signature attributes of his poetics. So too is the blend of visionary idealism and realism that owes, artistically, to Shakespeare in its quality and complexity, and that not only bears on this piece, but also presents as a major feature of Kleist’s life and work—in the merging...

  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 207-228)
  13. Index
    (pp. 229-238)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 239-239)