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!

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4 thoughts on “Kleist is Natural, Kleist is Good–Not Everybody Reads Him, But Everybody Should

  1. “…Kleist is best when it’s one– on– one…” My nose is now buried in the novella “the Marquise of O,” picked up from the library (as announced yesterday), and today’s SchumNotes guide has been very beneficial. Just sayin.’

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