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she must accept this fact for the sake of her own survival, and only a few days after her arrival at V— her grief had been replaced by a heroic resolve to arm herself with pride and let the world do its worse.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.


5 thoughts on “I Wanna Kleist You Up

  1. THIS is a brave example how you make the humanities relevant to students in higher ed–oh, Rebecca, you shame the shame–able in university education is so many exquisite ways.

    BTW–this can also be nicely read as a critique of the “willfully blind tenured” faculty and administration.” Oh, perhaps the green glasses will fall when they finally see the pitchforks (re: your twitter messages) glistening in front of them.


  2. Dear tenured and tenure-track Germanisten: Can you describe your research as engagingly, and demonstrate its relevance to your students as clearly as RS does here? No? Then please step aside and let someone who can give it a try.


  3. It’s a crime that the modern language departments of North America’s universities have been so thoroughly gutted. You, Dr. Schuman, belong in a classroom.


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