Let’s Talk About Kleist, Baby

For the next day or so, I’m going to be writing all about one of my favorite German authors, Heinrich von Kleist. Please understand that simply by uttering the name “Heinrich von Kleist” I am giving you what I think is called a “trigger warning”: Any mention of Kleist brings with it descriptions of (just off the top of my head): sexual violence, suicide, Martin Luther, initials being used instead of names and cities, grievous misunderstandings of major philosophers (both Kleist’s and mine), patriarchy, and swooning. I imagine the first two are the only ones that might cause an issue, but I like to be thorough, so consider yourself warned.

The Short and Unhappy Life of Heinrich von Kleist

kleistHeinrich von Kleist
(1777-1811) wrote some impressively dense stories, and the suffering his prosody has wrought upon the undergraduate populace has meant the death of many a GPA—or at least of mine in 1996, when I nearly failed two classes in one semester because I disliked Kleist that much (and one of them had nothing to do with Kleist). Despite (or perhaps because of) my own misadventures, as a professor I quite sadistically enjoy assigning his novella Michael Kohlhaas, published in 1811, also the year of the author’s untimely death at 34. Kohlhaas, which Franz Kafka claimed to have read “with true reverence” many times, is a highly frustrating tale of a horse-trader in the sixteenth century who has been wronged by the “Junker von Tronka,” a Junker (YUN-kah) being a now-obsolete title for some nebulous level of Saxon landed gentry. Here is a passage from the story, which should demonstrate why Kleist can sometimes be an insurmountable challenge:

Yet months passed by, and the year had almost come to a close before he even received any communication from Saxony about the action he had brought there, let alone any decision on the case. After several times renewing his petition to the court, he asked his lawyer in a confidential letter what had caused such an excessive delay. It was then that he learned that the Dresden court, in consequence of intervention from a higher level, had dismissed his case out of hand. When the astonished horse-dealer wrote back asking for an explanation of this, his lawyer informed him that Junker Wenzel von Tronka was related to two noblemen, Hinz and Kunz von Tronka, one of whom was Cupbearer to the sovereign and the other actually his Chamberlain. He advised him to attempt no further court proceedings.

It is a begrudgingly accepted opinion in academia that this fellow in his original German is all but un-teachable to undergrads, because just imagine trying to parse the passage above in your second language (which you can speak and read at an admirable level, but in which you are probably not yet fluent). I certainly am inclined to agree, since that absolves me from having to own up to being possibly the laziest undergraduate in the entire decade of the 1990s. Yet even for Germans Michael Kohlhaas is not an easy book. And circumstances only get more tortured from here on in—the bureaucracy widens, its intransigence toward Kohlhaas worsens, Martin Luther gets briefly involved, a lot of things get set on fire, and I guess I could tell you justice was served in the end, but that would be a highly misleading oversimplification.

But please believe me when I tell you this book—and nearly everything Kleist wrote—is worth the time and pain. Reading Kleist, though while you’re doing it you might feel like the inside of your brain is organizing itself into an angry mob (an angry mob being, by the way, an integral part of the plot of Michael Kohlhaas), can be revelatory in several ways, both philosophical, and, believe it or not, regarding the importance of comprehensive sex education (STAY TUNED FOR THAT!). You might think that a mentally unstable German man in 1811 would not have been a staunch advocate for Sex Ed, but as you’re about to see (LATER), Kleist is full of anachronism and very bizarre surprises.

The Kant-Crisis and Kleist’s Untimely Demise

 [SchumEditor’s note: I am aware that some of my dealings with Kant below take extreme liberties. However, I vetted most of this with the long-suffering Mr. Dr. Schuman, a Kant expert, and though he agreed I took liberties and won’t be the next Paul Guyer (met him once; really great guy–NAMEDROP LOL!), my literature-obsessed and liberty-taking passages are, in his words, “Fine, I guess.” Good enough for me!]

Kleist died at age 34 in dramatic fashion on the shores of Berlin’s Wannsee, where he still lies today, buried alongside his companion Henriette Vogel, whom he murdered, ostensibly with permission, before shooting himself in the head. The gravesite is understandably far removed from any consecrated ground. Visitors are pointed in the correct direction first by a matter-of-fact street sign that says KLEISTGRAB–>, and then, closer to the lake, by one that reads: The poet’s restless soul sought peace here, surrounded by the beauty of the nature that lovingly embraced him. Until just a few years ago, on the gravestone itself  installed by the Nazis (below, accompanied by yours truly at the end of my own Kleistjahr, shortly before my 35th birthday) reads a morbid joke : “O Immortality, now you are all mine.”


In 2011 — very shortly after the above was taken, actually — the Germans finally got around to removing the Nazi headstone and now the beautiful new one reads “er lebte, sang und litt in trüber, schwerer Zeit. Er suchte hier den Tod und fand Unsterblichkeit,” (he lived, sang and suffered in dull, difficult times; he sought death here and found immortality), as intended back before the Nazis got their paws on all of German literary history.

And it’s true: In the German-language literary world, Kleist is immortal—his stories were about a hundred years ahead of their time, and next to Goethe and Kafka, he is probably the most obsessed-over author in the canon. But at the time of his death, Heinrich von Kleist was both largely unknown and seriously despondent about his least-favorite philosopher (and mine!), the German Enlightenment’s chief figure, Immanuel Kant.

In literary circles, what happened to Kleist is known in shorthand as his “Kant-Crisis,” or Kantkrise in German, because one of the many delightful things about the German language is that every new concept has the potential of getting its own word, even if you can only use that word to describe one thing that happened to one person once. Such is the case with Kleist, whose nervous breakdown and resultant murder-suicide can be attributed to his reading of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

I’m torn about going into much detail, because reading the Critique of Pure Reason is the mental equivalent (and possibly also the physical equivalent) of doing jumping jacks in hardening cement. For some people, such as my husband (whose expertise was recruited for what detail I can bring myself to go into below), this activity is intellectually rewarding.

Here is an example of the kind of prose that awaits you in the Critique of Pure Reason, should Kleist’s prove to be too simplistic. This is from the introduction to a section to which philosophers refer in shorthand as the “Transcendental Dialectic,” entitled “Of Transcendental Illusory Appearance,” and it may in fact be the only passage of the entire Critique that Kleist actually read before commencing his existential crisis:

For truth or illusory experience does not reside in the object, in so far as it is intuited, but in the judgment upon the object, in so far as it is thought. It is, therefore, quite correct to say that the senses do not err, not because they always judge correctly, but because they do not judge at all. Hence truth and error, consequently also, illusory appearance as the cause of error, are only to be found in a judgment, that is, in the relation of an object to our understanding.

Entire books—multiple entire books—have been written just to make sense of the Transcendental Dialectic, and I’m certainly not fit to add this one to that august group, but I will go so far as to restate in Earth language more or less what is going on here: the truth about an object—say, a glass of milk on our nightstand, and whether or not it exists—does not come from that glass of milk itself; that truth comes from our ability to understand what the glass of milk is, and judge that it is there. Thus: truth comes not in the object itself, but in “the relation” of that object “to our understanding.” If you can believe it, it was this idea that caused Kleist to lose his marbles and eventually claim his own life.

BUT WHY? Doesn’t that seem obvious? I mean, everyone’s perception of truth is different—isn’t that basically just PoMo 101? When we think about how upset Kleist became when he read this, we have to remember: Kant wrote in the eighteenth century! The Germans sort of missed out on the Renaissance (they had baroque theater, but Shakespeare it was not) and had gotten fairly caught up in Luther’s somewhat hard-line Reformation, and so until pretty recently, the standard operating procedure for anyone who liked to think was: Read Bible. Listen to what clergy say about Bible. Recognize that ultimate Truth about life is proscribed in Bible, and if we simply study it with enough alacrity, we will understand it.

Not only was any other approach potentially blasphemous (and thus subject to any manner of medieval-style torture devices still sitting in your neighbor Karl-Heinz’s dungeon from a hundred or so years before), it was just unnecessary. Until, that is, Kant came along, and insisted (in the mercifully succinct “An Answer to the Question: What Is Enlightenment?”) that a free society must be allowed to reason freely. Great, said (almost) everyone—but how does the act of reasoning actually work? Then Kant answered, and everyone was sorry they asked.

In his first Critique (just to taunt us, he then wrote two more), Kant made a very important division between things we can know and things we can’t—and this is where Kleist really started to lose it. The things we can know inhabit what Kant called the “phenomenal” domain, after everything (every phenomenon) that we can experience during our earthly lives. And, everything in the phenomenal realm is known to us only through our various abilities to know it—what Kant calls our “forms of intuition,” what our mind uses to perceive the things around us: our understanding of space and time, cause and effect, relative size, and so on.

The “noumenal” realm, on the other hand, is where our forms of intuition can’t reach, and also where all the good stuff is: God, the soul, the essence of life, and a very weird German word salad called the Ding-an-sich (the “thing-in-itself”), i.e. the pure unadulterated, Thing that exists (nominally) without being experienced by us, without being “processed” by the different “filters” of our forms of intuition (space, time, size, etc.).  Of course, since humans are only able to understand stuff through our forms of intuition, the Ding-an-sich is necessarily outside our grasp.

It’s not too difficult if you think of it like this: the phenomenal realm is us, everyone we know, all our furniture, everything we’ll ever see and do, anything we can touch, taste or smell, basically every actual concrete thing that ever was, is or will be. The noumenal realm is–well, we can’t describe it, can we? That’s the point! Gah!–but the best possible approximation would be that it’s some un-picturable something (place? realm? sphere?) where God lives and hogs all the transcendental stuff: Himself, the thing-in-itself, and the soul. And whereas we get to live in the phenomenal realm every day, we might get to hang out in the noumenal realm when we die and go hang out with God…or, we might not. The point of the noumenal realm is: it can’t be experienced; it can only be thought; as long as we’re getting all fancy, noumena is, in fact, Greek for “things that can be thought.”

Kleist read this and took it to mean that because it was impossible, in this life, to experience the pure, transcendental essence of The Thing—because everything we know is processed by our forms of intuition, our brain filters—that it was thereby impossible to experience any truth whatsoever. He took Kant’s actual thesis, which was something closer to, “Here’s how the human brain knows stuff,” to mean, GUESS WHAT? EVERYTHING IS JUST APPEARANCE. THERE IS NO ULTIMATE TRUTH. I REPEAT. THERE IS. NO. TRUTH.  In a letter to his lady friend Wilhelmine von Zenge (who managed NOT to die at his hand) in 1801, Kleist likened the forms of intuition to having green glasses for eyes:

If all people had green glasses for eyes, they would have to judge that the objects they see through them ARE green and they would never be able to determine whether their eyes showed them the things as they are or whether they added some property which does not belong to the thing, but to the eye.

And so it is with understanding.  We cannot determine whether that which we call truth really is truth, or whether it only appears to be…. My only, my greatest goal has disappeared, and now I have nothing left.

Kleist’s (mis)understanding of Kant lead him to believe, in his deepest soul (a soul which, of course, he would never truly know), that everyone might as well be looking through green glasses and proclaiming the whole world green.

Given that determining absolute truth had been his greatest goal, without it Kleist sunk into despondency. This ended with him, shall we say, electing to vacate the phenomenal realm prematurely (with a plus-one) that day in 1811 on the shores of the Wannsee. But before he did, he left us the rest of us (and our phenomena) with some pretty phenomenal books—all of which had plots and themes that battled with the Kant-Crisis. These books include the aforementioned Michael Kohlhaas, which I heartily recommend but will not torture you with further. And they also include a much shorter and more salacious story, The Marquise of O—

…which I will talk ALL ABOUT TOMORROW, with all of the gory trigger-worthy stuff intact.

12 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Kleist, Baby

  1. Though I’m not into German lit or language, I enjoy the hell out of your style and especially your voice. This morning, while doing something totally off subject, I ran into the following quote and immediately thought of you and your struggles in academia. Please note that no disrespect is meant for either your beloved husband or philosophy.

    “I thought I might teach philosophy but the atmosphere of a college faculty repelled me; the few islands of greatness seemed to be washed by seas of pettiness and mediocrity.”
    I.F. Stone


  2. Rebecca, this was terrific, thank you. So engaging and instructive, for both beginner and specialist. Thank you for introducing me to Kleist. Will add “The Marquise of O–” to the proverbial pile of books by my bed (heading out to the library today so I’ll swoop up a copy…). If you keep this series up, I’ll be able to accrue enough credits for a minor in German Studies! Or will there be enough for a major? 😉


  3. Fun hilarious fact: my dissertation advisor had to talk me out of using the word “crisis” in two chapter titles. (He let me keep it in one.) And Kleist…don’t get me started.


  4. Hmmm, I filed in 2005, so I must have been ahead of my time!! Seriously, though, if you’re writing about the Weimar Republic, crises are not that hard to find.


  5. We read Kant’s Prolegomena in high school (yes I know, Italian schools….); a friend of mine raised his hand and said: ‘Excuse me prof, but I do not understand this’; Prof answered: ‘And you think you can understand Kant at 17?’. End of the explanation.


  6. That green-glasses metaphor is really interesting — did it have any wider circulation? Because it makes me think of, of all things, the Wizard of Oz (book, not movie), where the Emerald City isn’t actually green, but everyone who visits is given green sunglasses to make them think that it is. But it seems kind of unlikely that L. Frank Baum would have been using letters from Kleist to his girlfriend as source material.


  7. Damn that was a good read (and really my first direct exposure to Kant). Thank you! Also, I’ve been in my Kleistjahr for the past 11 months and I didn’t even know it!


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