Germans Get Naked; Kafka Goes to B-School

Two articles new on Slate today, both about subjects near and dear to my heart.

First off, yet another thing I adore about Germans: Their blasé attitude toward beach nudity. FKK FTW! Sure, my own skin may burst into flame upon contact with direct sunlight, but that doesn’t stop me from being pro-skinnydip ON PRINCIPLE. More “clothing optional,” less prudery, Amis!

Then, a trend piece on a fascinating new idea for business school: Not a terminal MBA, but an interminable one. An MBA that never ends. Business classes to which you “subscribe” for the rest of your synergistic days. Yes, I got in a good Kafka reference — what am I, a farmer?

These two articles — like the vast bulk of what I write — have nothing to do with, and are not interested in, bashing academia. People (by which I mean “trolls”) often forget (by which I mean “ignore”) that the vast bulk of the Schoeuvre consists of good-natured trend pieces like this. Sometimes they don’t get the virality because they don’t piss anyone off (sometimes, like the naked-beach one, they do well simply b/c they are about nudity, or German grocery stores, which we have all established that everybody loves). I hate to provide so many living reminders of the rather banal fact that I largely earn my living as a legitimate culture journalist, but here you go.

About these ads

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Me & My Trolls: A Love Story

Yesterday I read a long-form interview with Weird Al (one of my personal heroes), in which he told the interviewer he reads almost everything written about him — good or bad — and all of his @-replies on Twitter. He also said something really true, which is that no matter what you do, there will be people who don’t like you. If Weird Al, actual famous person and national treasure, can realize this, than so can I, non-famous rando.

You might have noticed — or not, I’m not important! — that I get my fair share of really pissed-off people commenting on my Slate stories and reaching out to me on Twitter. (Admission: I also get a smattering of nasty comments on this here blogeroo, but I moderate them all out because this is a blog-tatorship and not a blog-mocracy, and I like to keep at least one tiny corner of the Internet safe for me to peruse without bursting into tears.)

I think all people who Write For the Internet get this (except Gawker’s Caity Weaver, who is quite deservedly the most popular person on Earth) — but I think I get it juuuuuust a tad bit worse than many of my compatriots (not being sarcastic; just a tad), and I’ve got some thoughts as to why, in case anyone is interested, which you are probably not, since I am not important. But still, here goes:

  1. I enjoy pretending to be important. When well-meaning people say that mine is an “important” voice in the higher-ed conversation, that makes me feel good (true or not), and it empowers me to be as honest as possible when I write. Which brings me to…
  2. I write some controversial opinions about academia sometimes. I always express faux-shock that I get so much personal attack in response to the systemic critiques I level. Like, I didn’t attack you personally, medievalist/comp-rhet asshole #53, so why are you wasting an hour of your time writing a whole blog about how bad my choices are and how much I suck, when I never said anything about you? But here’s the thing: Academics who have enjoyed any measure of success — or, and this is important, believe they will — have, in their years of being kicked in the gut in graduate school, internalized the culture of abuse, and become the system. They identify so completely with the system I critique that when I attack the system I am attacking them personally.
  3. I have a bigger audience than I probably deserve, and I get to write about pretty much whatever I want, and people actually read it, and that’s not fair because my voice is not universal and I don’t speak for everyone and how did I even get to and blah blah blah blah blah blah blah sorry I fell asleep. Many academics harbor secret or not-so-secret ambitions to be ‘public intellectuals,’ who write delightful tomes for the mainstream press, in addition to their scholarly brilliance. And yet they’ve had a hard time getting their work published, probably because most academics are not trained to write for a general audience, and so regular-person editors get their stuff and go WHA? I get a fair amount of strangers emailing me to ask them for help placing an article at Slate (hint: I will almost never do this, because I do not have any power at Slate, and I can’t risk whatever wobbly cred I have over there going to the mat for a stranger), and they send me the article unsolicited and I’m like OH NO NO NO NO NONONONONO. No discernible voice, no lede, no quick 1-2-3-4 punch essay structure, a lot of looping back around, and jargon jargon jargon. I was a normal-person writer before I even thought up the dumb-ass idea of getting a PhD — for three years in the early aughts, I even had my own (print! LOL!) magazine column in New York. Writing for a general audience is just something I happened to be trained for years ago, and the specialized knowledge and experience I gained in graduate school now mean I have a “beat” I can cover with some measure of expertise. This is my roundabout way of saying that many of my detractors are probably jealous. To which I say: Go ahead and explode your academic career in public, and have most of the people you thought were your “friends” betray and abandon you completely, and be willing to say things you know will make a bunch of people mad, and then deal with how mad they get, and you, too, can probably have the wondrous accidental fourth career that I do.
  4. I am unapologetically, unusually sensitive to criticism, which I am fully aware is a completely wackadoodle way to be in my chosen career. But I have always been like this — I just want everyone to either like me or leave me alone, and have for my whole life. And yet I will not stop writing things that make people mad. So why do I do this if I know it is just going to hurt me (because make no mistake, it hurts me deeply, often for days on end)? Because, to put it simply, very few people write with total blunt honesty about the current problems in academia, precisely because they’re sensitive and couldn’t take the backlash, or because it would be unwise for their careers (or they believe it would be, deludedly, because they will never have the careers on whose behalf they self-censor every day). The stuff I say — again, to risk sounding like a dick — is better said than unsaid, and somebody’s got to do it, and since I did it once with “Thesis Hatement,” I might as well just keep going, since it hasn’t resulted in my utter ruin yet.
  5. I like attention. Except when I don’t, and promptly want everyone to leave me alone. At which point I poke my head out of my little cave and go “Wait, where is everyone? Troll? Anyone?” and it starts all over again. I’ve been a massive ham for my entire life. I do wish that I could get attention without having to subject myself to internet comments and hate-Tweets, but that is the very price of attention. And when you combine attention + sensitivity, you get me in all sorts of tiffs with people, which results in more attention, which I love until I don’t.
  6. I’m a woman and and adjunct. If I were a tenured male making the same points I do, I’d be lauded as a visionary. AND, it is very worth noting, if I were a person of color, I’d get it many orders of magnitude worse than I currently do. The only reason I can get away with what I do, to the extent that I do, is because I’m a middle-aged white lady.

OK. So, that’s why everybody hates me and I am an attention-hog, the end. Hooray?


Filed under Uncategorized

Bad Relationship Choices Part XVIII, or: Why I Don’t Drink Anymore

OKAY! With the publication of the following, I will have officially finished plumbing the depths of my mostly-unfinished essay reserve. I will then re-commence my usual quasi-thought-through “live” fare, for which I apologize in advance (as usual).

The following is a rather unflattering portrait of a very unhealthy relationship I was in for my first few months of graduate school. Though it doesn’t incriminate anyone per se, out of sensitivity to the other protagonist I have altered his name, academic discipline, physical characteristics and anything else that might make him easily identifiable to strangers.

Not much by way of universalizing the grad-school experience, or even teachable moments in this tale — just abject proof that sometimes, smart people can be real dumbasses.


The First Year of Grad School: Seminar, Inculcation, Mansplaining, Alcoholism

The months preceding graduate school had been as surreal as they were barren of gentleman callers. I’d fled New York in July after skipping out on the sublet in Greenpoint I’d “scored” on two weeks’ notice in April, after my ex-boyfriend kicked me out of our beautiful Carroll Gardens apartment (to be fair, I had rarely paid rent there). The sublet was in an un-air-conditioned railroad unit where I effectively slept on the kitchen floor, and was often jostled awake by the intermittent vomiting of my roommate’s two highly neglected cats. I did not feel guilty about abandoning this apartment a month before I said I would.

2005 had been a year in which I found myself in a personal-life Nietzschean abyss. With the clock ticking on my time in New York anyway, I had nowhere else to go but back to my parents’ house in Oregon, a home I’d left, amicably but allegedly permanently, at the age of seventeen. Luckily, I also “had” to go on the pretense of my parents “needing” me. The universe had smiled upon me for long enough to grant my father a debilitating hip ailment that “required” my help (I’m kidding; obviously I was not glad about my father’s osteoarthritis). My mother had been called to direct a study-abroad trip in Italy, which involved ditching my normally very self-sufficient dad four weeks before his joint replacement surgery. In exchange for room, board and more meals out than I could consume without bursting (my dad adores restaurants as much as my mother adores her own cooking), as well as a modest allowance for incidentals (which at the time was alcohol), I would, at age 28, return home to be my father’s home assistant, and while he was at work I would practice German and get ahead on The Elective Affinities.

The summer mostly consisted of me electing not to have any affinities, and instead staring my personal abyss in the face until, as Nietzsche warns, it started staring back. I’d mope around the house watching Gilmore Girls in syndication, “refurbishing” garage sale furniture to bring with me down to California (I framed a giant mirror in mosaic tiles, so that the finished product weighed no less than 75 pounds). Newly single in my hometown, I was kept company only sporadically by a few high-school friends who were now married with children, and stuck on my childhood twin bed, still covered by its New Kids On The Block duvet. I was largely terrified about starting graduate school, but I was also hoping it would be teeming with smart, interesting guys I wanted to date.

Once I finally arrived and had a sweet new room in a big apartment all to myself, I had the means, and two months hanging out only with my dad and some toddlers had given me the motive—now, all I needed was opportunity, which was much more difficult to come by than I’d expected. The OC megaburbs had spectacular weather, delicious health food and the beach. But they did not have the kind of guy I like, which is best described as “anyone but a McMansion-living, Jag-driving Republican,” who are the near-entirety of Orange County’s male residents in their thirties and forties. Not to mention that it went both ways: Orange County guys like long, tan legs and big, fake bosoms. In Theodor Fontane’s spectacularly boring Schach of Wuthenow, the protagonist is as uninterested in a young woman hideously scarred from smallpox as she is uninterested in a shallow rapist (spoiler alert: he rapes her and it’s awful)—basically, minus the violent sex crime, that’s about how the eligible bachelors of the OC and I regarded each other.

Also, something you learn your second day in graduate school is that nobody outside graduate school either understands or cares what you do, so as far as dating is concerned, you are pretty much limited to your fellow students (or faculty, if you are disgusting, which I am not). Academically, grad school could not be less like college—they’re paying you and not the other way around; you actually do all of your reading (usually twice!) sometimes even like it. But if you’re single, socially, it is college all over again: house parties and hookups, and a level of interpersonal intrigue befitting the teenaged.

Life in my section of Palo Verde—where they put all the single students—was like returning to a dormitory where everyone was ten years younger than me and weird. It was like the mental hospital in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Physicists, in which Cold-War era spies pretending to be mental patients who think they are Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein (keep up!) engage in a surprisingly hilarious series of misunderstandings (spoiler alert: their psychiatrist is the one who’s really crazy! Keep up!) whilst surrounded by the breathtaking Swiss countryside. Except, you know, in California, and I couldn’t at all tell if I was crazy, or if the socially maladjusted 24-year-olds all around me were.

The first person I met besides my roommates Beryl and Elena was Judah my historian neighbor, who waved at me through his window one night as I brought in groceries from my car. He invited me up to his barren apartment to play Scrabble and drink box wine, and it was apparent that if I wanted to meet anyone, his was the wagon to hitch to: class hadn’t even started yet, and he knew everyone. Soon he invited me, Beryl and Elena to a party down the hall, in an apartment identical to ours, where my first real chance to meet a guy could arise. I was hoping for an all-out masquerade bacchanal like in Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story (which Anglophones know as the source material for Eyes Wide Shut)—but I got was seven sweaty dorks playing cards.

As such, I was heavily pessimistic about my romantic odds, but Elena bet me $20 that if I wanted it, I could find it. The key was to assess my relative levels of desperation and dignity. The first guy I met was Isaac, who looked like it was the week after his Bar Mitzvah, and had purchased a meal plan in one of the freshman dorms because his mom wasn’t there to cook for him. Then there was his amorphous roommate Mike, who was covered in a layer of grease and smelled palpably of masturbation. It looked like winning at Kings would be my only triumph of the night, and I was already regretting the forty-five seconds I had put in to styling my hair. I was just about ready to bounce when in walked Judah with his newest friend—a fellow historian, Gabriel, who was nice-looking and appeared to be my age.

During the next round of Kings I confirmed this, by making an elaborate show of how I must be the one to drink when the “oldest person” was commanded to: “I’m 32,” countered Gabrial, and that combined with the fact that he knew passable German was sufficient and necessary cause—Gottlob Frege, the founder of first-order logic, would have been proud, I’m sure. When, about half an hour later, Isaac and Mike’s party died down and Gabe asked, “D’you have any beer?” I could not beckon him fast enough to my own place.

Dating Gabe made me feel dangerous — that night, he revealed that he was only wearing his glasses to cover up his black eye, which he had gained recently in a fistfight while drunk. I don’t have to tell you the size of red-flag that is for entering into an actual relationship, but for a self-administered rebound fling after three years with an actor who had never punched so much as a time card, Gabe was a certified bad-boy.

The next morning, he “took me out” to the Costa Mesa Omelette Parlor, where my robust hangover and I managed to put down three forkfuls of hash browns, and he ate everything but the table and his side of fruit—which, he explained as he wrapped two orange slices in a napkin, he loathed so much that he couldn’t even bear to look at it as he ate something important, like bacon. Over coffee we discussed (or rather, he orated upon) German political philosophy. It was like being at brunch with Nietzsche, minus any of the beautiful imagery (“What is language? A moving army of metaphors.” All I had was a moving army of tiny dudes holding up tiny red flags and telling me to get the fuck out of there.)

Gabe’s only indication of awareness of a world outside his research was when he proclaimed definitively that he “hated” lesbians: “They’re disgusting, and they’re useless,” he concluded, because he, personally, found them (all of them) physically repulsive, due to the fact that they had the gall to be sexually uninterested in him by nature.

Instead of pouring coffee on his head and leaving him to be chauffeured back from Costa Mesa by his own homophobia, I not only swallowed that bit of inexplicable hatred and gave him a ride, but I also paid for his meat-omelette massacre, given that he’d “left” his wallet at home, “accidentally.” As I pulled back into the Palo Verde parking lot, Judah emerged from our building with a smirk in my general direction, and beckoned Gabe up to his place to retrieve a borrowed book. “Um, can you wait here?” Gabe asked, honestly believing that I would not only voluntarily prolong this morning of shame, but that I would display it in the out-of-doors, complete with whatever awkward and possibly bigoted good-bye marked its conclusion, a desperate, simpering Gretchen to his absconding Faust. I told him that if he wanted to find me, he knew where I lived, and then I went home and wrote Elena a $20 check. She ripped it up and taped it to the refrigerator with a note that said “I don’t take money from ho’s!”

I didn’t see Gabe again that day, for as it turned out, his primary gifts were in academics, alcohol consumption and the bench press. Mathematics, wallet-remembering, anger management, and a rudimentary sense of direction were all, apparently, for lesbians. So you’d think that would have been a bullet dodged. And yet, for reasons I still do not fully understand but that had almost certainly to do with my refusal to have a Nietzschean abyss as my primary companion for any longer, I proceed to date that fucker for six more months, which was a learning experience almost as rich as the graduate seminars I’d just begun.

Judah, my friend Eileen and I quickly assigned Gabe a nickname: The Monster (das Ungeheuer in German), in honor his astoundingly short fuse. We all agreed, however, that his charisma, charm, and high academic standing made him an adequate dating prospect, so long as nobody got serious about anybody. We all especially admired his academic intensity, since he was a third-year student and our Impostor Syndrome was so pronounced that we considered that wise. He was already studying for his comprehensive exams, which to us were a far-off hellscape of imaginary torture we all secretly believed we would fail. Our part of Palo Verde was brand-new construction, so there were few if any students living near us who were already writing their dissertations—that to us was beyond human conception.

So for several months, Gabe was the wisest and most experienced grad student I knew, and I sought to put to use all of my reading of Erich Auerbach’s theory mainstay Mimesis, and imitate almost everything he did. The first step was to divide my time between exactly three pursuits: studying, working out, and drinking. Everything else—including personal relationships of any sort—was inconsequential. “I have a cousin in the NBA,” Gabe told literally anyone who would listen, in pursuit of his own preferred pastime, diegesis (or, in his case, mono-gesis). “And you know how he got there? He says: Every chance I had, I played basketball. I played when everyone else was sleeping. I played when everyone else was goofing around. I played and played and played.”

Even at this rudimentary stage of my development into a literary scholar, I was astute enough to understand such an allegory, and I obeyed. Studying was everything; everything else was nothing.
Except, of course, for drinking.

I don’t know when it was that I realized that Gabe wasn’t a dangerous bad boy or a badass with a scholar’s heart: he was extremely ill with alcoholism, and his disease was enthusiastically enabled by the grad-school milieu. During our ill-fated relationship, Gabe had a tremendous influence on me, in several different ways: his reflexive response to any display of human discontent on my part with incessant generalizations about women (which he pronounced “wee-mons,” to be funny) awakened long-dormant feminism. His lengthy diatribes on everything from neoliberalism to the scourge of analytic philosophy (practitioners of both being PERVERTS!) made me investigate my own opinions on these phenomena (first: anti; second: pro). His raging jealousy of any man who so much as looked in the general direction of any woman he had dated for any amount of time made me appreciate in retrospect my utterly oblivious actor-boyfriend of yore. And his heart-wrenching alcoholism changed my relationship with drinking forever.

All of this would have been little more than a passing annoyance that offered me sporadic and unsatisfyingly drunken physical companionship, had the entire affair not played out in public, its every flourish broadcast through the megaphone that was Sven. Sven was another one of these grad students who was book-brilliant and life-questionable: he once passed out cold in my apartment, falling over so tree-like that his noggin actually punched a hole in my particleboard wall. When paramedics arrived to attend to him, he refused admit that he’d smoked marijuana earlier in the day, and his reason for keeping a medical fact from medical professionals was: “I thought my department would find out and I’d lose my fellowship.” Less Auerbach, more Grey’s Anatomy, everyone.

Anyway, when Sven wasn’t busy fainting in my kitchen like a Victorian housewife, he was introducing me to the wondrous world of grad-school intrigue. He took great pleasure in introducing me to the woman Gabe had dated before me, a knockout fellow historian named Sienna—I think he anticipated some sort of epic hair-pulling lady-scholar throwdown, but instead Sienna and I became super-tight friends almost immediately, since it turned out neither of us had ever viewed Gabe as a long-term prospect. It was through Sienna that I learned of Gabe’s tendency to drink to excess and then demand a heart-to-heart, the subject of which was that he just couldn’t be in a relationship. He once got inspired to do this in the middle of an overnight trip to L.A., effectively stranding Sienna eighty miles from home.

Gabe and I had “big, serious talks” about the State of our Relationship (by which I mean: he mumbled at me; I nodded indulgently) every time he got drunk, which was often. And every time that happened, somehow Sven was in earshot, ready to blab the entire sordid mess to the whole School of Humanities. I was part of some bullshit grad-school soap opera, and I didn’t even really have any feelings at stake, other than a wounded ego that just kept getting more wounded every time Gabe would drink twenty, even thirty beers at a party and then get straight-up scary.

The rules of our non-relationship were: he got to date, or attempt to date, anyone he pleased, from random friends of his sister’s who invited themselves down for visits to statuesque art students he’d hit on in front of me. He was a version of Bertolt Brecht’s ultimate villain, Mack the Knife, who manages to have several wives at once but would cut the throat of anyone who cuckolded him. Any attempt on my part to reveal in public that Gabe and I knew each other was tantamount to the clingy possessiveness endemic to “wee-mons,” but even the most innocuous conversations I dared broach in his range with other be-phallused humanoids put those poor guys in immediate physical danger. There were a few other guys I could have dated by this time, but they were afraid to come anywhere near me.

Meanwhile, Gabe’s drinking was making me hysterical. I had never been with anyone who simply refused to stop imbibing long past the point of severe intoxication. Once at a party, as I left in tears, he caught up with me and admitted: “I’m a boozehound. I’m going to drink, and it’s more important to me than anyone or anything else.” And yet, everybody I knew found this behavior hilarious, if not simply a sign of how serious of a scholar he was. It is not an understatement to say that abstaining from alcohol is basically like saying, “I do not wish to be accepted into academia.”

One of the funniest jokes Germanists tell each other comes from a Walter Benjamin essay about Swiss literature, in which he recounts the legend of authors Gottfried Keller, Arno Böcklin and Carl Böcklin at a pub. The Böcklins exchange a total of three sentences over several hours; in response, Keller yells: “I came here to drink, not to yap!” Most American academics are here to drink and yap; they consider consuming alcohol to shameful excess a form of research. A vigorous imbiber myself, I had always been around drinkers, and I had even been around a few alcoholics, but in New York the worst thing you had to do was pour them into a cab and stuff a few twenties into their bra. Here it was different—because this guy was an intellectual role model for his peers (and me), and because the volume of alcohol he consumed was beyond anything I have ever seen. But to my cohorts he was “hilarious.” To the grad-student community, he was awesome.

One week into Spring quarter, Gabe got super-drunk, crawled into my bed, and explained that he just couldn’t do this anymore, because there was “no eros there. There’s just no eros.” (Even his drunken breakup-language was pompous). Slightly tipsy myself, I cried through the night, and sulked through most of the next day, which coincided with a road-trip to LA for a foreign-language pedagogy conference with Sienna and Eileen. A few panels about “multiple cultural literacies” and one motel-room viewing of the Miss Universe contest later, I was 100% officially Over It, and could not believe I’d wasted what little social time I’d had in my first year of grad school on a raging alcoholic chauvinist homophobe.

Gabe had taught me a minor amount about study habits, an alleged butt-load about historical stuff I neither remember nor care about, and more than I ever wanted to know about Freud by spending half a year subject to the vicissitudes of an unapologetic Id. One who, in the end, provided a nasty reality check about my own drinking, which had spiraled out of control in its own way: my in-room miniature refrigerator was always stocked with both liquor and beer, which I regularly drank alone. In the past two months, I had actually vomited from drunkenness, an act I had heretofore avoided for fifteen years. I regularly assumed that at least one study-day of the weekend would be lost to a hangover, an affliction that seemed to get exponentially worse with every month I aged.

So, soon after I quit hanging out with Gabe (who insisted we remain “Best Friends” upon our breakup, effectively keeping me from dating anyone else—nein, Danke) I quit alcohol. The result in graduate school was immediate designation as a Grade-A ruiner of all things recreational, and large-scale ostracization from many social groups at once.


Filed under Uncategorized

I Wanna Kleist You Up

Previously, on German Lit SVU, the Marquise von O— demanded a midwife come and prove her clear conscience.

The following essay contains extended discussions of sexual assault, fictional and real. Reader discretion is advised. BONK BONK.


Kleist, Steubenville, and our 200+-year-old,
Not-Really-Kantian Ideas of Consent

The midwife shows up, but instead of reinforcing the Marquise’s clear conscience, she definitively proclaims the widow officially and unequivocally pregnant. Ergo, the very rape of which both the Marquise is unaware and which Kleist did not actually write, that catastrophic event which we have only been able to figure out because Kleist has naughtily supplied us with a series of obvious clues whilst simultaneously parading about the cluelessness of the poor Marquise’s family, has confirmedly resulted in a pregnancy. After many instances of both willful and inadvertent obfuscation of the truth, some of it can no longer be contained. Of course, what we have is a partial truth, one that is viewed understandably differently by the Marquise and everyone she knows. The former, having no reason to think otherwise, assumes she must be the recipient of an immaculate conception. The latter group, on the other hand, assumes she must be the recipient of some consensual and illicit intercourse, and a wholesale and passionate shunning is commenced:

‘My beloved father!’ She held out her arms toward the Commandant, but no sooner did he see her than he turned his back on her and hurried into his bedroom. As she tried to follow him he shouted ‘Begone!’ and tried to slam the door[.]

A Marquise with less internal fortitude would probably succumb to despair at this point, but Kleist’s takes her kids and splits, starting her life over with bravery unheard of from a woman in her situation (it also helps that she has no reason to be unconvinced of the immaculate conception at this point):

…and she submitted herself wholly to the great, sacred and inexplicable order of the world. She saw that it would be impossible to convince her family of her innocence, realized that she must accept this fact for the sake of her own survival, and only a few days after her arrival at V— her grief had been replaced by a heroic resolve to arm herself with pride and let the world do its worse.

Meanwhile, word of the Marquise’s condition leaks to Count F—, who is stricken, and remarks not at all suspiciously to the Marquise’s brother: “Why were so many obstacles put in my way! If the marriage had taken place, we should have been spared all this shame and unhappiness!” Unbelievably, the brother does not see this declaration for what it is, for it appears that aristocratic women were not the only ones kept in ignorance of the facts of life. Instead, the Marquise’s brother understands this to mean that the Count F— would have happily obscured his sister’s obviously wanton previous behavior.

So obsessed is the Count with making things right that he rushes to the Marquise’s house and repeats his proposal—but she promptly insists that he get lost and leave her alone, forever. But not because she has figured out he did this to her; she just thinks he’s being presumptuous, because he’s heard that she puts out. Finally, he prepares to write her a letter confessing everything—when he sees the latest newspaper, which contains a classified advertisement from the Marquise. This ad is actually how Kleist begins the story, before flashing back to the castle-siege and its fallout:

In M—, an important town in northern Italy, the widowed Marquise of O—, a lady of unblemished reputation and the mother of several well brought-up children, inserted the following announcement in the newspapers: that she had, without knowledge of the cause, come to find herself in a certain situation; that she would like the father of the child she was expecting to disclose his identity to her; and that she was resolved, out of consideration for her family, to marry him.

At the same time the Count sees the ad and figures out “just what to do,” the Commandant and his wife begin to soften their stance on their poor daughter, who is perhaps not the incessant fornicator they had previously thought. “She did it in her sleep!” explains the Commandant—but instead of thinking of a recent and obvious situation in which his daughter has been unconscious around strange men, he decides to perform one last test on the Marquise to make sure she is not the unapologetic harlot he assumed she was: he forces one of his employees—Leopardo, the horses’ groom—to pretend to admit to the deed to see how the Marquise will react. Sure enough, she accepts it as fact, wonders only when Leopardo got the opportunity, and agrees to marry him. Merely this highly convoluted and demeaning ruse is required to return the Marquise to the good graces of her parents:

…her mother fell to her knees before her. ‘Oh, Giulietta!’ she exclaimed, throwing her arms around her, ‘oh, my dear excellent girl! And how contemptible of me!’ And she buried her face in her daughter’s lap.

And now that the family is once again a united front, the only thing that remains is for the actual father of the baby to present himself at the date and time the advertisement has specified. And that he does—but, again unbelievably, when the Count F— shows up, the family simply reacts by saying, effectively: Hey, what are you doing here? We’re expecting someone. Finally, finally, finally, at long last, they figure out the actual, full, unadulterated truth—and while the Commandant and his wife are surprised, the Marquise is livid:

The Count rose to his feet, still shedding tears. He again knelt down in front of the Marquise, gently took her hand as if it were made of gold and the warmth of his own might tarnish it. But she, sanding up, cried: ‘Go away! go away! go away! I was prepared to meet a vicious man, but not—not a devil!’

The truth of the Count is finally out: he’s not the angel the Marquise thought he was, but rather he was “a devil” all along, having not only committed such a horrid deed, but then keeping it secret (although, I suppose we could say he tried to rectify the situation in his own ludicrous way). However miserable the Marquise now is to have the unpleasant truth—that indeed, as she insisted all along, she was impregnated by an angel, but that “angel” was actually a “devil” of a human—it’s the olden times, so instead of Count F— going to jail, the two get married to save the honor of the O— clan:

During the ceremony the Marquise stared rigidly at the painting behind the altar and did not vouchsafe even a fleeting glance at the man with whom she was exchanging rings. When the marriage service ended, the Count offered her his arm; but as soon as they reached the church door again the Countess took her leave of him with a bow.

Heartbreaking—and yet: fortunes change once again for the erstwhile Marquise of O— (now the Countess of F—). I mean this both literally and figuratively. This is because the Count, upon the birth of the immaculate-non-immaculate-angel-devil-child, wills the baby an enormous sum of money and the Countess the entire F— fortune. This, along with the duly chastened behavior the Count has displayed during their as-yet celibate marriage (he agreed to live in separate residences as part of the marriage contract), begins to soften the Countess’s (understandably!) hard heart, and here is where the story goes from frustrating to outright unhinged: the two fall legitimately in love, and then have a bunch more children, all conceived in mutually enjoyed intercourse, and then live, I am not shitting you, happily ever after:

…when a year had passed he won from her a second consent, and they even celebrated a second wedding, happier than the first, after which the whole family moved out to the estate at V—. A whole series of young Russians now followed the first, and during one happy hour the Count asked his wife why, on that terrible third day of the month, when she had seemed willing to receive the most vicious of debauchees, she had fled from him as if from a devil. Throwing her arms around his neck, she answered that she would not have seen a devil in him then if she had not seen an angel in him at their first meeting.

The only thing more frustrating than the way this story ends is how clueless the Marquise’s entire family has been up until this point. Meanwhile, for us, it just becomes more and more obvious, until we want to jump into the book and shake everyone, going How can you not see it? That is, the truth of the situation, which we can see from a place safely outside the story, is impossible for those in it to recognize. So why is it obvious to us and not to them? The reason blends the Kant-Crisis together with the perilous reality of the limited sex education of the upper classes. That is, the O— family’s time-appropriate propriety and subsequent sexual ignorance (and eagerness to shame and shun the “improper”) actually acts as the “form of intuition” that allows them to understand—or rather, fail to understand—the Marquise’s condition.

Kleist’s decision to hide the rape in an em-dash, and thus bury its truth both for the Marquise and for us (although for us it becomes unearthed approximately 40 pages sooner), is, then, yet another cynical middle finger to Kant, specifically to the section of the first Critique called the “Analogies of Experience.” Kleist objects specifically to the Second Analogy of Experience, which argues that “all alterations take place in conformity with the law of the connection of cause and effect.” That is: every effect must have a cause. This isn’t hard to agree with: if my car breaks down, this must be because something in it broke or malfunctioned. If I get bacterial pneumonia, this must be because bacterium not unlike Streptococcus pneumoniae made its way into my lungs from some snotty-nosed student who got the “walking” version of it and then came to my office hours blubbering about his grade. For every effect, there has to be a cause. So what in the world could Kleist’s problem with this have been?

Well, for Kant our sense of cause and effect is one of our forms of intuition. So instead of helping us determine the truth (as Kant suggests), for Kleist, our sense of cause and effect is just another filter getting in the way. Since determining the truth of a cause requires us to process that “truth” through our filters, it isn’t really true at all, but rather just yet another thing we view through green glasses and mistake for green. For example, what if there was a fetus, for whose conception the mother was unconscious? If she can’t process, intuit, filter the cause, then its truth can never be found—ergo, by (Kleist’s version of) Kant’s own rules, the Marquise’s pregnancy (provided that the Count never says a peep about it) is an effect with no cause. Take that, Kant!

So, aside from its prurient content, The Marquise of O— was also seen as a subversive book because it gave us an effect—pregnancy—that has, effectively, a cause whose “truth” can be changed on the basis of the perceptions of the Marquise. The first “truth” of her pregnancy, run through Kleist’s (mis)understanding of the Second Analogy, is that it must have been committed by an “angel”—and this is, in fact, as close to objectively true as possible, as it was committed by a human she had mistakenly called an “angel” not knowing what he’d done to her. And yet even though that’s technically the “real” truth, it’s not the real truth at all because the Marquise doesn’t know the full story. So then the story has to develop a second “real” truth: that the Marquise has been impregnated by a human “devil,” who raped her while she was passed out.

And yet, because this “devil” bequeaths upon her and her child an enormous sum of money, he returns to “angel” status, thus reifying the first “truth” and invalidating the second one, effectively making the rape disappear and then creating a third truth, in which the pregnancy was neither immaculate nor forced, but simply conjugal precursor to “the first” (as the final paragraph reads) in a “long line of Russians” the Count sires. So that’s at least three separate “truths” to the cause of the Marquise’s pregnancy—and meanwhile, we the readers, out in the book’s transcendental Noumenal realm, where we are all-knowing and all-seeing, are the only ones with access to the unblemished, actual truth, which the characters in the book can necessarily never know.

The Marquise of Ohio:
From Kant-Crisis to the Crisis of Inadequate Sex Ed

Let’s revisit just why the forms of intuition applied by the O— family fail so miserably. Again, these particular “green glasses” aren’t green so much as they contain selectively applied black bars, a la those decorating the plastic jackets adorning the copies of Playboy for sale at airports that conveniently obscure breasts or other titillating protrusions. In the Marquise’s case, her “filters” are very much a posteriori, in that they both involve rear ends and have been applied rigorously during her upbringing. In the spirit of Kleist, I’m bastardizing Kantian intuition horribly here, really way past its appropriate philosophical applicability, I realize, but I still like to think of the Marquise’s ignorance in terms of forms of intuition, filters, “censorship glasses” or “propriety glasses” that prevent her from being able to synthesize how sex works—and in the case of her family, their “propriety filters” make it so that her pregnancy must be the result of unforgivably lewd activity for which she is surely to blame.

Indeed, Kleist seems to be having a lot of fun not just at the expense of Kant, but also of aristocratic prudishness. But you have to understand, at this time there was literally no reason a proper lady should know, really know, the intricacies of the birds and the bees. A proper lady got married in her teens, had children whenever God blessed her with them, and then died. There was only one kind of woman who really needed to know how pregnancy happened—the wrong kind, a Lady of the Night, or a reader of salacious novels. As a result, there was no reason an aristocratic widow of good character shouldn’t assume an unexplained pregnancy was immaculate. Still, this state of affairs was rather easy to take advantage of in order to sell a ton of books, which was Kleist’s primary goal in writing The Marquise of O—, as at the time of its publication the author was dabbling in bankruptcy in addition to existential despair. Kleist’s need for remuneration is, in fact, why nobody and nothing in the story has a full name: the F— and the O—, more censorship filters, these hilariously contrived to make the entire sordid tale seem “ripped from the headlines” like an episode of Law & Order: SVU.

Thus, the faux anonymization in Kleist’s Novelle had a dual purpose: it was to be sensationalistic and sell sell sell (very important), but this sensationalism also served to make a really subversive and important point: the aristocracy might have been “better” than commoners…but at least most commoners back then were savvy enough to know how babies were made. In the Marquise’s case, the consequences of her gentility are vast: her status as “better” is, in effect, what turns enables her to become so thoroughly disgraced.

But wait a second! Have we forgotten already the end of this story, which is ostensibly “happy”? Lest we forget: doesn’t the Marquise’s eventual forgiveness of her rapist in effect erase the rape? Is that not another moral to this story—that even with something as reprehensible as rape, let bygones be bygones with the proper context? Given Kleist’s heavy-handed “hints” to the reader and how well they serve to highlight the ignorance of the story’s aristocrats, I have a hard time believing that he wrote that ending sincerely—but since I possess neither a time machine nor a mind-reading machine, I suppose what professors might call his “authorial intent” is destined to remain in the literary noumena for time immemorial. However you choose to feel about the end of the story, however, the Marquise’s effective re-erasing of the rape (the first time it gets “erased” is in its initial non-narration) brings us to the way in which Kleist’s story is most relevant to the contemporary American sexual landscape, especially among young people.

Many followers of the U.S. news will be familiar with the depressing and high-profile case of a 2012 sexual assault that took place in the small town of Steubenville, Ohio. In the case, not unlike in The Marquise of O—, a young woman (specifically, a 16-year-old girl) becomes incapacitated. Of course, we live in different times, and this young girl’s incapacitation is not due to the siege of her castle, but rather the siege of her body due to excessive alcohol consumption, which may or may not have been voluntary (and, at any rate, 16-year-olds generally view alcohol consumption through the forms of intuition best described as “pubescent idiocy”). In her six hours of unconsciousness, the modern-day Marquise of Ohio is “helped” by a group of “friends”—who proceed to strip her and perform sex acts on her unconscious body.

The primary difference between the The Marquise of O— and the Steubenville case that in Ohio, rather than there being no witnesses other than the perpetrator, and no concrete narration of the central shattering event, there is the total and preposterous opposite of this: dozens of students witnessed these events and committed them to the 21st Century equivalent of the Novelle: Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter. In fact, the only reason the case made the news was its frenetic and comprehensive documentation, which should have made the facts of the situation incontrovertible.

But, depressingly enough, it is actually Steubenville’s largest dissimilarity to Kleist’s work that provides its greatest and most important similarity: the extensive documentation of the events, the large-scale dissemination of what appeared to be incontrovertible facts, didn’t actually make circumstances any clearer, and served not to help the victim, but rather to villainize her. Though the news media largely cooperated in protecting this minor child’s anonymity, social media was not so kind, and the girl’s accounts were bombarded with a deluge of abuse that continued — and was exacerbated — after the perpetrators were found guilty in a juvenile court and sentenced to one measly year in juvenile facilities.

What in the world could Kleist and the Marquise of O— have to teach us about this distressing situation?

After all, that excessive use of social media meant that this was a fully digital-age case, a strictly contemporary situation that ignited a firestorm of debate in the United States about rape culture and what constitutes consent. But look closer: I think that one of the reasons the high school students at that party behaved the way they did — and the reactions to the media reports ignited the debate they did — is that to this day we possess unfortunate “forms of intuition” regarding human sexuality. And, further, these forms are not that different than they were 200 years ago.

Again, this is completely bastardizing Kant, but in terms of the way Kleist understood him, it’s helpful to think of the “green glasses” metaphor again. Take, for example, the filter of “propriety”: it causes us to say things like, Good girls don’t get drunk and go to parties! The filter of “our understanding of how sex works” or “our understanding of what consent is” causes us to take the following as truth: Being drunk doesn’t mean that you can’t consent! It is these absurd filters—a posteriori though they are—that allow us to believe that an appropriate reaction to the situation is…one that is strikingly identical to that in the Marquise:

First, according to the testimony of multiple witnesses and evidence presented in court, the perpetrators attempted to un-exist the event. Neither of them was called an “angel,” but when the initial narrative of the evening was fed to the victim — who testified under oath that she spent the night in a blackout — the perpetrators were painted as helpers, aiding a damsel in distress by removing her vomit-covered clothing, and placing her comfortably on the basement mattress in a strange house on which she awoke on the worst morning of her life. That is: the perpetrators’ initial reaction, quite like the Count’s, was to allow the event, due to lack of (or alternate) narration, to un-exist.

But whereas Kleist’s story is both made up and also uses that fateful, highly-symbolic em-dash, the Steubenville case was all too real, and in place of allusive punctuation was a flurry of social-media evidence. However, not unlike the Count, the Steubenville perpetrators testified that they were indeed overcome with remorse. Neither took a bullet on a battlefield, but they did the twenty-first century equivalent: they sent apologetic and placating texts. But just as the Marquise becomes enraged when she finally discovers what her “angel” really did, so does the Steubenville victim when the unconscionable videos surface, in which she is clearly depicted being dragged, unconscious, while gleeful teenaged voices say “She is so raped right now” through laughter.

Further, and most importantly—although here the parallel events are out of order—instead of being comforted, counseled and healed, each victim, the fictional one from 200 years ago and the very real one today, becomes victim a second time, due to the phenomenon now known as slut shaming, in which it does not seem to matter how a woman came to engage in sexual behavior—if the fact is that she did, and said behavior is deemed debaucherous, then she must shoulder most of the blame, simply because a woman’s currency, her worth — material and moral — is inextricably tied to her virtue.

The Ohio case and the story of the Marquise seem to diverge entirely in their resolutions: the perpetrators in the Steubenville story were found guilty, (sort of, weakly) brought to justice, while in Kleist’s story the Marquise and her rapist reconcile and live happily ever after. And yet—this is the way in which these stories are actually the most similar, and the way in which Kleist’s two-centurys-old Novelle can be most instructive to us now.  That is: one of the most shocking results of the Steubenville case was that a majority of the students present, when questioned informally and under oath, appeared not understand that in today’s law (as, technically, in the Marquise’s, though with different consequences), an unconscious woman cannot consent, no matter how she became unconscious.

Today’s abstinence-only sex education curricula, or lack of any sex-education curriculum aside from furtively downloaded pornography, cause young people to turn to questionable sources such as the ever-reliable Yahoo! Answers (Q: “Is it rape if both parties are drunk?” A: “I don’t think it is, but from watching tv (sic), I have seen people prosecuted from raping someone (sic) even though they were both drunk. In this case, the girl is just being a b****”). This lack of credible information—and indeed, at times willful shielding of people from credible information—seems to have given our youth a new and more dubious set of “green glasses,” a posteriori though they may be (and thus bastardizing Kant further, should any Kantians be reading this aghast). Thus, it seems like the lessons of the Marquise of O—, of the frangibility of truth and its relation to sex education, have a sad amount of relevance to day, and one can only hope it won’t take another 200 years for them to be learned in earnest.


It is my sincere hope that these past few days, I have succeeded in cracking open some of Kleist’s mind-breakingly difficult prose, and showing that his themes are not only fully understandable, but also quite relatable to us, both philosophically and practically—especially when it comes to issues of sexuality and sexual consent, areas in which the idea of “multiple truths” becomes unusually dangerous and can have devastating consequences, in literature and in life.


Filed under Uncategorized

Kleist is Natural, Kleist is Good–Not Everybody Reads Him, But Everybody Should

This week, I am talking all about my third-favorite German author behind Kafka and Robert Walser: Heinrich von Kleist.

Today’s discussion of the Die Marquise von O— contains semi-graphic references to sexual assault. Reader discretion advised.

Wilkommen in Sex Ed mit dem lieben Heini

You might think that a story written two hundred years ago would have little to offer us about contemporary sexual issues, but — and I don’t know whether to be delighted that Kleist is still relevant, or horribly depressed at society’s relative lack of progress for two entire centuries — you’d be wrong. Furthermore, Kleist’s approach to sexuality is so interesting precisely because he took all of his angst about Kant’s philosophy and channeled it into highly subversive literature. Indeed, The Marquise of O— is a terrific example of Kleist’s attempts to stick it to Kant (though, sadly, Kant had been dead for four years by the time this story came out). As we have just learned, Kleist’s interpretation of the Critique of Pure Reason was that the only relationship to “truth” we can have is through our experience. If we can’t experience something, it has no “truth” for us — in other words, if we can’t experience something, it might as well not exist. Kleist thought this was a preposterous and destructive way of looking at the world (though I guess he also assumed it was true), and sought to bring this preposterousness and destruction to life in the most provocative example possible.

Still from the 1976 film, Dir. Eric Rohmer.

Still from the 1976 film, Dir. Eric Rohmer.

The Marquise of O— presents the following dilemma: if there is no truth other than what we experience, that means that if a woman is raped while unconscious, and her rapist never admits to the deed, and thus she can conceivably never know what “really” happened, then nothing really happened. Thus, if this rape results in a pregnancy, that pregnancy technically has “no cause.” Being a male German in 1808, what Kleist didn’t realize is that this exact subversive conundrum also highlights a concurrent point that is just as important: a good working knowledge of how babies are made is not just for prostitutes (the only women in 1808 who “needed” to know such things), and indeed, the possession of such a priori knowledge (a joke! I know that’s not what a priori really means, pedants) would be singularly helpful in a situation such as this. The central event (or “non-event”) of The Marquise of O— also thereby brings up vitally important issues about assault, consent, fault, and what actually constitutes rape, issues I sincerely wish were as dated as the Marquise’s method of dress, but are unfortunately as valid today as they were two hundred years ago.

This central event — the rape — takes place in typical overly-complex Kleistian fashion: a Russian soldier, mysteriously named the Count F—, “rescues” an aristocratic Italian widow only known as the “Marquise of O—” from other would-be rapist pillagers while her castle is under siege. Alas, but the Count only “rescues” the Marquise (mar-KEEZ-uh) from rapists to take cruel and demeaning advantage of her after she passes out. Further, as I’ve already revealed, this rape — which has no witnesses — results in a pregnancy, which upends the life of the Marquise and everyone around her as she searches desperately for the father of a child whose conception she did not experience.

This story is part of a genre unique to the Germans called the Novelle (BOB LEMON), which is pronounced like “novella” but actually different than a novella, which is sort of a catch-all word we use to describe something that’s longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. The length of a German Novelle doesn’t actually matter at all—the definition comes from the mouth and mind of Germanics’ infallible deity, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who proclaimed that the purpose of a Novelle was to reveal a single, catastrophic, “previously unheard-of event,” around which all important character changes revolved. In fact, the genre was invented for a specific German purpose: to entertain refugees returning to the Fatherland from France as a result of the French Revolution (begun in 1789) with stories whose catastrophic “singular events” both spoke to the souls of the emigrants recovering from their own traumatic “singular event,” and were coincidentally also usually the right length for the carriage ride (NOW ARE YOU HAPPY, BOB LEMON?).

Die Marquise von O—, as it was known in German, was published at the tail end the Novelle’s vogue, when the genre was popular and well-established. In fact, it was well-established enough for Kleist to mess with it substantially—he took the central “unheard-of event” and made it literally unheard-of: not only did he make it happen in unconsciousness, but, and here’s the really tricky part, he didn’t narrate a word of it, instead simply using what may be the world’s most significant em-dash:

…[The Count] lead her, speechless from the previous goings-on, into the other wing of the palace, which was not yet engulfed in flames, where she promptly fainted dead away. Here — then, as her terrified maids soon appeared behind her, he made his apologies and called for the doctor, ensured—as he remounted his hat correctly on his head—that she would soon be on the mend, and returned promptly to the fight.

I have assigned this story to undergraduates many times, and to the one, even with prodding, and even when they are exceptionally bright, not a single student has “caught” the rape the first time through.

This devious punctuation’s effect on the reader actually parallels the Marquise’s own discovery of what has happened to her, as — being of course unconscious — she has also not “caught” the rape at the time of its commission. Being, as Kleist describes her at the story’s outset, a “virtuous” woman of outstanding character, the Marquise is part of a culture where sex outside of marriage is not just verboten, but simply inconceivable, and not in the Princess Bride (“You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means”) sense. I mean this literally—because virtuous aristocratic women (and there were no other kind), even those with children (!), did not possess the familiarity with human sexuality necessary to enable them to conceive of something like rape happening to them without their knowledge.  Sure, there existed plenty of salacious reading material even at this time that might have offered them a clue—but you can be sure that no well-respected Italian aristocrat would be caught dead reading anything other than the Latin grammar assigned by her governess.

I joke about the Marquise needing a priori knowledge of the birds and the bees (“from before” meaning “from before the siege of the castle”), but Kant — whose entire first Critique was about something he called “synthetic a priori judgments” — thought, quite correctly, that the a priori forms of intuition (space, time, cause, effect, size, etc.) did not extend to sex (actually, many Kant biographers believe that the great philosopher died a virgin, and many also suspect that he was gay but his sexuality remained unacknowledged). No, Kant’s a priori wasn’t just “from the before” of whatever event you were experiencing, it was from before birth — and we’re certainly not born with a knowledge of how that particular event came to pass (though that would save children and their parents a tremendous amount of awkwardness).

So, because the Marquise lacks any “forms of intuition” whatsoever during her rape—as do we as readers, because this early in the story, not even we have enough information to know what “really” happened—and because she also lacks the a posteriori knowledge of what happens when a man puts his penis inside the woman’s vagina and ejaculates (the whole “sperm and egg” discovery was relatively new, though existent, in the eighteenth century), instead we are all left with nothing. And out of this nothing there grows the inevitability of a huge scandal—albeit one that takes everyone a frustratingly long time to figure out.

Directly after the rape, the count is dogged by remorse and self-loathing — for example, upon commendation from the Marquise’s father “the Commandant,” Count F— blushes deeply, not out of modesty but out of shame. Yet he still accepts the gratitude of the O— family for “saving” their daughter from disgrace. He even, reluctantly, accepts the nickname of “angel,” in the ever-constant hope that his misdeed, known only to him, will vanish. And yet, as he returns to the front and is shot and presumed dead, his presumed last words betray his guilt, referring to the Marquise by her first name: “Giulietta, this bullet avenges you!” Alas, though he believes he deserves to, the Count fails to die.

Meanwhile, for reasons unbeknownst to her (but, to use the neologism of the great Mel Brooks, starting to be knownst to us savvy readers), the Marquise starts to feel strange:

But whereas she had previously been the very paragon of good health, she now began to be afflicted by repeated indispositions, which would make her unfit for company for weeks at a time. She suffered from nausea, giddiness and fainting fits, and was at a loss to account for her strange condition. (Sounds about right–SchumEditor)

The Marquise even jokes to her mother that her symptoms, so eerily similar to those of her most recent pregnancy (the Marquise has children from her marriage to the deceased Marquis), must mean that Morpheus has knocked her up; the two women have a good laugh about it. Psychoanalytic criticism of this story points out that by making this “joke,” the Marquise knows what has really happened to her on a subconscious level, but seeing as Kleist died 45 years before Sigmund Freud experienced the exit from his mother’s birth canal that probably traumatized him for life, it’s not going out on a limb to say that putting the Marquise on the proverbial couch isn’t the only answer to why she doesn’t immediately figure out what’s wrong with her. In fact, it seems as if she doesn’t figure it out because she is very soon thereafter distracted by the surprised and delighted tizzy into which she erupts when the O— clan finds out that the Count F— is not nearly as dead as they thought he was. Indeed, the Marquise’s “hero,” very much not-dead, comes to call, and seems unusually interested in her well-being:

…to judge by her complexion, he said, she seemed strangely fatigued, and unless he was very much mistaken she was unwell, and suffering from some indisposition.

The Marquise insists that she’s just fine and it’s nothing, and the Count reacts by not at all suspiciously, out of nowhere and having met her twice, asking for the Marquise’s hand in marriage. Kleist, at this point, seems to be having a tremendous amount of fun at the expense of an aristocracy so obsessed with morality and propriety that its members are unable to piece together what seem to us to be fairly obvious clues—as the story progresses, the Marquise and her family ever-cluelessly insist on taking some time to weigh the proposal, whilst the Count ever-more-dubiously begs the Commandant for his daughter’s hand post-haste, expressing “that he deeply desired the happiness of the Marquise’s hand in marriage, and that he most respectfully, fervently, and” — definitely not suspiciously — “urgently begged [her parents] to be so kind as to give them their answer on this point.”

As the Marquise takes some time to weigh the proposal (much to the Count’s dismay, as he had non-suspiciously wanted them to be married immediately, presumably before she started to show, under the assumption that since this family was bad at figuring things out, they were also bad at math), Kleist reveals to us that perhaps some part of her knows the truth—the actual, unadulterated truth to which she consciously has no access, as Freud would say, anachronistically. For when her confidantes ask her how she likes the Count, the Marquise answers that to her he is “both attractive and unattractive,” a contradiction that hints at some part of her knowing both what is growing inside her and how it got there.

And indeed, that part of her gestates, literally and figuratively, until she becomes conscious of it—right about the time her “indispositions” return and she notices “an incomprehensible change in her figure.” (Again, sounds familiar, though I sadly comprehend that mine is from too many potato chips.) A doctor is summoned, who confirms the Marquise’s suspicions and is summarily pilloried by the Commandant and his wife for being “a shameless and contemptible wretch” for even insinuating that their widowed daughter be in a family way. For her part, the Marquise insists upon the summoning of a midwife for the last word on the matter—as doctors, at the time, did not often lower themselves in the service of obstetrics—so that her clear conscience may be vindicated. The Marquise’s mother (who, by the way, throughout the course of the Novelle is referred to only as “the Commandant’s wife”) finds this to be a repugnant contradiction: “A midwife!” she scoffs, “A clear conscience and a midwife!”

…WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?!?!?! CLIFFHANGER!!!! You’ll find out in the next installment!


Filed under Uncategorized