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Political Change and Human Emancipation in the Works of Heinrich von Kleist

Political Change and Human Emancipation in the Works of Heinrich von Kleist

Elystan Griffiths
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Political Change and Human Emancipation in the Works of Heinrich von Kleist
    Book Description:

    The German writer Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) was an unconventional and often controversial figure in his own day, and has remained so. His ideas on art, politics, and gender relations continue to challenge modern readers, and his complex and radically open texts remain the object of vigorous scholarly debate. Kleist has often been portrayed as a "poet without a society," whose writing served as escape from the realities of his social environment. This new study challenges such a view by situating Kleist in relation to the central political and philosophical debates of his momentous age. The study first establishes the German--and Prussian--context of Kleist's day, and then provides a short introduction to Kleist's life, here seen in particular relation to the political world. Developing his argument in relation to Kleist's literary work and essays in a series of close readings, Elystan Griffiths shows how Kleist's writings responded to four pressing political issues: the relationship of national culture and the state; education and social reform; the theory and practice of war; and administration and the delivery of justice. Griffiths sheds fresh light on Kleist's writing by placing emphasis on its intricacy and rich ambiguity, which are often simplified or overlooked in political studies of Kleist. Thus Griffiths furthers the critical understanding of Kleist's political thinking by uncovering crucial tensions between a pragmatic readiness for compromise and a utopian longing for freedom and truth. Elystan Griffiths is a Research Fellow in the Department of German Studies at the University of Birmingham.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-651-0
    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)
    E. G.
  4. A Note on Translations and Publication Dates
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xii-xii)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-2)

    Almost all of Heinrich von Kleist’s writings, whether literary or journalistic, have some sort of political framework, and many of them have some relevance to questions that were at the heart of current debate in Germany at that time. This book offers an interpretation of his work against the shifting political context of his age. It aims to add to the understanding of Kleist and his age by considering what was distinctive about his contributions to ongoing political debates, and by suggesting what Kleist’s interventions teach us about the historical epoch in which he lived.

    The book is organized into...

  7. 1: Prussia and Germany in Kleist’s Day
    (pp. 3-26)

    At the end of the eighteenth century, Germany was a figment of the imagination, more a state of mind than a territorial state marked on the European map. Its closest political approximation was the arcane structure of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, both in its political and legal institutions and in the person of the Kaiser. Most of the German-speaking population of Europe could be found within its borders, but it also contained substantial non-German-speaking populations, particularly at its extremities.¹ Many felt that the Empire had served the Germans well by maintaining stability and a common tradition,...

  8. 2: Kleist and the Political World
    (pp. 27-47)

    Heinrich von Kleist lived in a pivotal historical period. His lifetime saw the collapse of the monarchical order in France and the discrediting of the corporative state in Prussia. Equally momentously, it was an age in which the Enlightenment, with its belief in the sovereign power of human reason, came to be questioned, relativized, and partially discredited by a set of powerful critiques arising from Kantian philosophy, the work of the Romantics, and the beginnings of nationalist thought in Europe. The study of Kleist’s life and work can illuminate our understanding of this period, for it provides an insight into...

  9. 3: The Nation, the State, and the Subject
    (pp. 48-73)

    Kleist’s early letters bear witness to his engagement with questions surrounding forms of statehood and their relationship to national culture and to the individual. His break with the army in 1799 was prompted by what was essentially a moral judgment: that the ethos of the army prevented him as an individual from conducting himself according to his own insights as a rational being. Kleist criticized the absolutist state for its functionalization of the individual, and for similar reasons he was loath to accept a position within the bureaucratic structure supporting absolutism. The experience of living in Berlin and Paris led...

  10. 4: Education and Social Change
    (pp. 74-98)

    The Prussian reforms of Kleist’s age were founded upon fundamentally pedagogical considerations. Long before the rout of 1806, the reformers recognized the need to mobilize the energies of the entire population in order to match the achievements of revolutionary France, and the comprehensive defeat of the old corporative state at Jena and Auerstedt gave them the opportunity to implement their ideas. Their primary insight was that the French Revolution had revealed the importance of giving soldiers a reason to fight for their country, which led them to conclude that elements of the corporative state needed to be dismantled in order...

  11. 5: The Theory and Practice of War
    (pp. 99-123)

    The military requirements of the eighteenth-century state often set the parameters for political life. Under Frederick the Great, Prussia’s military organization had been based on corporative divisions, which made it difficult to bring about political change without compromising state security. In revolutionary France, the introduction of universal conscription also affected the political world, as it advanced the cause of the Jacobins.¹ It was only the crushing defeat of 1806–7 that brought change to Prussia, as it demonstrated unmistakably the bankruptcy of the old regime. Thus the years after the defeat saw the first steps towards the abolition of serfdom,...

  12. 6: Administration and Justice
    (pp. 124-157)

    The rise of the absolutist state in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries transformed the political organization of Germany. The establishment of absolutism entailed the expansion of the bureaucracy to enable the state to assume responsibilities formerly borne by aristocrats. Legal reform was fundamental to the struggle for absolute central control of territories, as enlightened monarchs sought to standardize legal procedures and eradicate local anomalies and privileges. The Allgemeines Landrecht (ALR) of 1794 was a legacy of Frederick the Great’s reign, but it only succeeded in part in its aims. As we saw in chapter 1, the ALR...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 158-162)

    The conduct of individuals in extraordinary situations is often the point of departure for Kleist’s works, but he nonetheless retains a persistent interest in the dynamics of social interaction. His writings do not usually depict his own society directly, but they undoubtedly refer to matters of some importance for the political and intellectual life of early nineteenth-century Germany. His literary milieux are too richly conceived to be dismissed as a mere backcloth against which individual characters are shown. Of course, Kleist does not represent particular societies in their precise historical detail; rather, he investigates more generally the material — historical, political,...

  14. Works Cited
    (pp. 163-180)
  15. Index
    (pp. 181-190)