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Heinrich von Kleist's Poetics of Passivity

Heinrich von Kleist's Poetics of Passivity

Steven R. Huff
Volume: 47
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Heinrich von Kleist's Poetics of Passivity
    Book Description:

    Controversial during his lifetime as well as among today's scholars and critics, the German dramatist and writer of novellas Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) remains an enigma. Was he a Romantic or a Classic? A conservative or a liberal? What is his status in the literary canon? Because of their enigmatic qualities, Kleist's writings have attracted the attention of critics and theorists from well beyond the narrow confines of German literary studies: comparatists, historians, philosophers, legal scholars, and even musicologists and dance historians. And outside academia his writings are as popular as ever. This book scrutinizes for the first time a key element in Kleist's thought and poetic process: his obsession with the problem of passivity. Scholars have long been attracted to the dynamic, larger-than-life characters in Kleist's fiction and drama, overlooking the fact that Kleist's works often turn on moments of stasis, as these same protagonists are suddenly and sometimes brutally rendered passive. Through a careful, historically grounded, and original investigation incorporating extensive primary research in late-Enlightenment natural philosophy and eighteenth-century medical practices, the study sheds light on these nodal points in Kleist's work, contending that these structures of passivity are so pervasive and so systematic in his work that they can justifiably and profitably be viewed as constituting a kind of poetics. Steven R. Huff is associate professor in the Department of German at Oberlin College.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-742-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Note on the Translations
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xii-xii)
  6. Introduction: Poetica Asina — An Ass Brays, a Poet Is Born
    (pp. 1-30)

    Sometime in early summer 1801 a two-horse carriage lumbered along the road from Kassel to Frankfurt am Main. Passing through endless Hessian farm fields interrupted only by the occasional half-timbered village, the coach — probably close to midday — rolled into Butzbach, a small hamlet situated about twenty-five miles north of Frankfurt, and made what should have been a brief stop in front of the inn.

    The passengers, Heinrich von Kleist and his half-sister, Ulrike, had been on the road for about two months. Their journey had taken them first to Dresden, where they visited the famous art gallery and viewed Raphael’s...

  7. 1: The Poetics of Somniloquence: The Cultural-Historical Context
    (pp. 31-70)

    It is axiomatic that art does not occur in isolation. Nevertheless it seems remarkable that as his interests in the sciences gradually gave way to his literary propensities, Kleist managed to discover so fertile a middle ground — a kind of twilight zone, actually — in which science and art converged in such a productive albeit bizarre way. In hindsight one can now see that the realm in which this took place, the preoccupation with what the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries knew as animal or electrical magnetism, required science to cede considerably to art.

    An array of phenomena closely associated with romantic...

  8. 2: Kleistian Teichoscopy: Cannibalism Made Palatable — or Not
    (pp. 71-128)

    Teichoscopy is a dramatic device that facilitates the depiction of an offstage event by means of simultaneous onstage action. Most often a character stands on a hill or ascends a tower and reports actions out of view of the other dramatis personae and the audience. Sometimes the observer peers over or through a wall; hence the Greek root of the word (teixos) and the German translation Mauerschau. Classical philologists coined the term with reference to the episode in book 3 of the Iliad where Helen, peering over the wall protecting Troy, describes the Achaean heroes to King Priam. While an...

  9. 3: Prince Friedrich von Homburg: Soldier-Dreamer
    (pp. 129-156)

    In their vivid and precise depiction of a wide range of psychological and somatic conditions, Kleist’s stories and plays are nearly without precedent in the history of European literature. As we have already seen in Das Käthchen von Heilbronn and Penthesilea, Kleist takes as a point of departure his fascination with the irrational side of human nature, as manifested in such phenomena as somnambulism and cataleptic trances, and develops a character type that deviates considerably from the traditional passive characters in German literature. This new type most often assumes the form of the soldier-dreamer figure who typically embodies the qualities...

  10. 4: Passivity in the Novellas: “And it came to pass . . .”
    (pp. 157-208)

    Commentators generally hold that Kleist’s greatest achievements lay within the realm of the drama. Sembdner, for example, dubbed Kleist an “arch-dramatist” and follows the main current of twentieth-century Kleist criticism in viewing the poet as “above all the great creator of Prinz Friedrich von Homburg and Penthesilea.”¹ Despite serious reservations about the poet’s alleged “reactionary narrow-mindedness” and “decadent individualism,” Georg Lukács could — also with Homburg in mind — still grant Kleist the status of “einer der großartigsten Szeniker und szenischen, sinnlich-gedanklichen Dialogkünstler der dramatischen Weltliteratur” (one of the greatest scenarists and scenic, material-philosophical dialogue artists of dramatic world drama).² By far...

  11. Bibliography
    (pp. 209-222)
  12. Index
    (pp. 223-228)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 229-229)