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The First Man on Earth’

Kleist: A Biography

by Joachim Maass, translated by Ralph Manheim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 313 pp., $22.50

One day in June 1940 after reading in the London Times a lyrical account of the invasion of France by beautiful Nazi soldiers—their blue eyes smiling under steel helmets wreathed with wild-flowers, while their tanks were roaring across the green fields—I turned on the radio. The BBC was playing Schubert’s great Ninth Symphony in C major with its marching rhythms entwined with ravishing melodies relentlessly moving forward as though across a vast plain, irresistibly. Suddenly I saw terrifying connections between German Romantic music and German military might.

Heinrich von Kleist may be likened to some great German Romantic composer who, in prose and verse stories and poetic dramas, uses words where the composer of music would use notes in symphonies, operas, and chamber music. He was descended from a famous family of the nobility, from the eastern part of Germany, which had already produced eighteen generals by the time he was born, on October 18, 1777. (This makes him seven years younger than Beethoven.) Kleist, who—Mr. Maass tells us—liked to relate music to literature, had what he later called “musical hallucinations” during childhood. “He seems to have composed, to have played the clarinet, and to have been able to sing or play back any melody he heard.”

One of his minor, but surely revealing works is a story based on a sixteenth-century Dutch legend called “Saint Cecilia, or The Power of Music.” It is about four young men who break into a convent at Aachen. But when the nun who is St. Cecilia plays old music on the church organ not only is their will to profane a ceremony paralyzed, they become religious maniacs. They spend the remainder of their lives shut up in a madhouse in a state of enforced beatitude, caring nothing for sleep, food, or any other comfort, but ecstatically pray and sing hymns, blissful.

Readers are struck by the forward-moving rhythms of Kleist’s great works, his assimilation of the material in them within what might be called the melodic line, the opening sentences of stories or poems which make them like statements of themes developed with great consistency and economy. His famous novella Michael Kohlhaas starts with a bare statement consisting of a few sentences, on which all the ensuing situations, each complete in itself, are variations.

About the middle of the sixteenth century there lived on the bank of the Havel River a horse dealer named Michael Kohlhaas. The son of a schoolmaster, he was one of the most upright and yet most terrible men of his time. Until the age of thirty this extraordinary man might have been taken for the very model of a good citizen. In the village that still bears his name he owned a farm, from which he made a peaceful living by his trade. The children that his wife bore him were raised in the fear of the Lord and taught industry and loyalty. There was not a man among his neighbors who had not profited from his benevolence and fairness. In short, the world would have been compelled to bless his memory if he had not carried one virtue to excess. But his sense of justice turned him into a robber and murderer.

What follows, which includes Kohlhaas’s devastation of cities and countryside in his determination to achieve justice, seems to exhaust all the possibilities of action implicit in this initial “statement.” It is as though Kleist had exploited in a set of variations the whole range of his instrument of language. Even the “happy” ending, which some critics take exception to—where Michael Kohlhaas, though beheaded for the devastation he has caused, is nevertheless paid compensation for the injustice he has suffered, and his sons are made knights—has its parallel, more suited perhaps to music than literature, in the last of Beethoven’s Diabelli variations, which moves away from the original theme onto the heights of the composer’s imagination, where the gates of heaven seem opened.

The poetic drama Penthesilea is based on a legend of the Trojan War. Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, with her invincible female warriors, attacks both Greeks and Trojans on the plains surrounding Troy. But she falls in love, or lust, with her chief opponent, Achilles, the Greek leader, who falls in love, or lust, with her. The violence of their hatred equals their love for each other. After they have made love Penthesilea murders Achilles and, ‘falling on his body, seeks to devour him. When she recovers from this madness she commits suicide. The action is one of total, unmitigated, indiscriminate violence, without hero or heroine since, morally speaking, there is nothing to choose between Penthesilea and Achilles.

In his new biography of Kleist, Joachim Maass describes Penthesilea as

an archaic drama, as it were: two primordial forces recognize each other, clash, wrestle to the point of unconsciousness, mutter dream phrases, reemerge from the night. Through it all, they are surrounded by impotent helpers, onlookers and speakers, who, like the chorus in the Greek theater, bear witness, praise, or deplore the action of the protagonists. These figures represent human reason, which watches the frenzied action, sometimes applauding, often protesting, but never capable of decisive intervention. And suddenly one understands: what happens here in the cosmos of poetry is at the same time taking place in the microcosm of the human personality, not only Kleist’s, but the human personality in general, the struggle of the atavistic bipolar powers within us. What at first sight seemed no more than a poetic treatment of an ambivalent legend becomes, on closer scrutiny, a psychological portrait of the poet—and of all men.

All this may be true but it does not make Penthesilea a workable subject for drama. It does of course point to modern works which have incorporated cosmic and primordial subject matter as these occur in dreams—for example, all of human history in the mind of Earwicker in Finnegans Wake, but this is no subject for drama; and if there are elements of the same material in the plays of Beckett, in order to dramatize them, Beckett treats the cosmic and the atavistic in miniature, not as tragedy but as comedy. Goethe saw very clearly that the grotesque and gigantesque in Kleist’s play touches at every point on the absurd when he remarked: “In some passages the tragedy borders on high comedy; for example, where the Amazon appears on stage with one breast and assures the audience that all her emotions have fled into that second, still-remaining half.”

Answering Goethe, Herr Maass comments: “What a vicious formulation—and how false! No Kleistian character ever ‘assures’ the audience of anything whatsoever, since each one of them is utterly obsessed with himself or his opposite; in the whole of Kleist’s dramatic work there is not a single address to the public.” But Maass forgets that Penthesilea is a play written for performance in a theater; that all drama surely addresses an audience, even though the characters on stage speak only to one another, with the audience as peeping Tom.

With its dithyrambic rhythms, its whirling up into them of the wildest imagery, its oversize protagonists like vast instruments of silver or brass—or, still more, like soaring, sinking, bellowing human singers—Penthesilea, in common with Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, really looks forward not to the modern theater but to Wagnerian music drama and beyond Die Götterdämmerung to Strauss’s Salome—perhaps also to Alban Berg. Goethe’s objections to these would of course have been the same as those he made to Kleist, and, for that matter, to Beethoven.

Kleist used language in his poetry in order to convey emotions of great force which lay outside it, and he regarded technique as a vehicle for doing this. In an article entitled “Letter from One Poet to Another”1 Kleist recalls a conversation with a poet who praised his use of form “now for the expedience of the underlying scheme, now for the rhythm, now for the delightful euphony, now for the purity and correctness of expression.” Kleist repudiates all this, claiming that the only virtue in such devices lies in their becoming unnoticeable in the reading of the poems. “While at work with my writing, if I could reach into my heart, take hold of my thoughts, and with my bare hands lay them without embellishment in your own, then, I confess, the innermost desire of my soul would be fulfilled…. How often when we pick up our Shakespeare are the interests on which you dote secondary to the great, mysterious, universal ones that this magnificent poet intended to resound in your heart.”

This, then, is the Romantic vision of poetic technique as the medium for conveying the most intense existence and emotion of the poet: form merely as intermediary. Nevertheless, Kleist was a superb technician, a great master who used blank verse in German with a flexibility beyond that of Goethe or Schiller. As Dr. Richard Samuel points out in his introduction to the Harrap edition of The Prince of Homburg,

Kleist has his own individual style, entirely new in his time and never accomplished again. Its psychological characteristics are breathlessness and high tension, its grammatical characteristic is a peculiar sentence construction which plays havoc with word order and the sequence of clauses. This phenomenon is common to his prose and verse. It necessitates carefully timed recitation rather than reading. 2

Dr. Samuel analyzes the grammatical structure of the first ten lines of The Prince of Homburg, with their appearance of preternatural simplicity. The first five lines run:

Der Prinz von Homburg, unser tapfrer Vetter,
Der an der Reuter Spitze, seit drei Tagen
Den flücht’gen Schweden munter nachgesetzt,
Und sich erst heute wieder, athemlos
Im Hauptquartier zu Fehrbellin gezeigt….3

He shows how in order to achieve this effect of simplicity “all conventional usages are discarded.”

In the same introduction, he discusses the many elements of Kleist’s biography in The Prince of Homburg, which, he says, “embraces Kleist’s whole life story.” Kleist summarized that life story in a phrase from the suicide letter that he sent to his sister Ulrike (one of several he wrote) before shooting his companion Henriette Vogel and then himself in their death pact. “The truth is that there was no help for me on this earth.” His poetry was the immense effort of intellect and imagination by a man who was a misfit in the military caste into which he was born, in his relations with his family, friends, and colleagues, and in the various enterprises which he undertook—a misfit who hoped, as poets before and since him have done, that through great poems he would attain fame and wealth which would redeem him in the minds of his contemporaries and gain him immortality. He only succeeded in the last of these aims.

Joachim Maass has brought Kleist’s tragic life story together with seriousness, lightness, and charm, placing it in its time rather in the manner of a documentary film with descriptions of his family (especially vivid is his account of Kleist’s sister Ulrike) and his friends. He gives excellent portraits of Brockes, his kindly and forbearing companion on his mysterious journey to Würzburg, his patron the elderly poet Christoph Martin Wieland and Wieland’s family, the fashionable “operator” Adam Müller who first helped and later quarreled with Kleist, and Kleist’s much loved travel companion Ernst von Pfuel. He describes the girls with whom Kleist had frustrated relationships, beginning with his fiancée Wilhelmine. At an early stage in their engagement, he left her, but they exchanged letters in which he lectured her on how she should educate herself in order to become suitable as a wife to him.

Kleist’s biography is essentially the story of his frustrated attempts to reconcile himself with his world. These begin with his attempt in 1793, when he was sixteen, to become a soldier, as an ensign in the First Foot Guards at Potsdam, leading to his utter abhorrence for the military life. Later, he made his mysterious journey with Brockes to Würzburg, for the purpose of undergoing some medical treatment which would make him fit to perform the duties of marriage. What this operation was and whether it was successful remain mysterious, but Kleist seems anyway to have discovered that he was unfit for domesticity.

After this, the thin thread of faith that seemed to connect him with some mystical sense of some ultimately discoverable truth of life which lay beyond the grave was snapped by his reading—really misreading—Kant’s philosophy. Everything to do with reality available to us through the perceptions of the senses, love, the business of living, the fatherland, and the military seemed to break in his hands. Out of this emptiness he deliberately created himself as a poet, having renounced mathematics and philosophy, the supposed paths to truth which were his first objects of study.

Kleist never won the wealth and fame for which he was immensely ambitious. Yet he impressed many of his contemporaries with his genius wherever he went. When, rather late in their relationship, he read to Wieland the fragment of his unfinished masterpiece, Death of Guiscard the Norman, Wieland exclaimed that if the spirits of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Shakespeare were to cooperate in creating a tragedy, the outcome would be the equivalent of this work.

Kleist should not be thought of as a Romantic of the kind who is the inhabitant of an ideal spiritual or imagined world which has no contact with temporal power and business enterprise. On the contrary, he had a strong grasp of these activities, and in such stories as Michael Kohlhaas he shows a chilling understanding of the impulses to rebellion and the implacability of the forces of order. He was full of patriotic fervor, loving his country and hating Napoleon. The newspaper, the Berliner Abendblätter, which he started at the end of his life, was a brilliant news sheet very largely written by himself. His failure was to collaborate with other people who were concerned with his enterprises. Editing a magazine, Phöbus, he quarreled with Goethe, the contributor essential to its success (essential also if he was to succeed as a play-wright). His most loyal friend, Pfuel, wrote of him:

He always miscalculated his effects; he confused the general public with his friends, and demanded of the former what could reasonably be expected of the latter; and deep as was his insight into the human soul, people in the mass remained alien and incomprehensible to him.

His extreme ambivalence between love and hate—resembling almost that of Penthesilea or Achilles in his poetic drama—is shown in his attitude to Goethe whom he both admired and detested, in his wild ambition claiming that he would tear the wreath off Goethe’s head. Goethe was clearly impressed by Kleist, while being deeply repelled by him and his works. Kleist, he said, filled him with “horror and revulsion, as if a body which nature had intended to be beautiful were afflicted with an incurable disease.” There was “something barbaric, misshapen” about him. He was a “Nordic phantom of acrimony and hypochondria.”

Goethe and Kleist had something in common which these words seem reluctantly to acknowledge: overpowering genius and supreme control of language. There is something futile about saying that Goethe should have “understood” Kleist or his other great contemporary, Hölderlin. Goethe had, he must himself have thought, pulled himself out of a similar abyss that had opened in his own youth, and achieved sanity and happiness, an Olympian calm. His sense of his own sublime is magnificently expressed in a passage from his essay on Winckelmann (quoted by R.J. Hollingdale in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra):

When the sound and wholesome nature of man acts as an entirety, when he feels himself in the world as in a grand, beautiful, worthy and worthwhile whole, when this harmonious comfort affords him a pure, untrammeled delight: then the universe, if it could be sensible of itself, would shout for joy at having attained its goal and wonder at the pinnacle of its own essence…. For what end is served by all the expenditure of suns and planets and moons, of stars and Milky Ways, of comets and nebula, of worlds evolving and passing away, if at last a happy man does not involuntarily rejoice in his own existence?

These words come from the far side of a gulf while Kleist stands on the side near us. It is impossible that any poet after Goethe could convincingly write in this way. From the standpoint of our modern age, to which Goethe himself already belonged, the voice of Goethe sounds here like that of the last man on earth, an earth that has itself passed away. Kleist appears as the first man on a new, quite new, and different earth—writing, with marvelous conviction and grasp of the world that overtook Goethe’s, the poetry of the supremely alienated artist.

  1. 1

    Reprinted in An Abyss Deep Enough: Letters of Heinrich Von Kleist, with a selection of essays and anecdotes, edited and translated by Philip B. Miller (Dutton, 1982).

  2. 2

    Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, by Heinrich von Kleist (London: Harrap, 1957).

  3. 3

    Translated as follows by Peggy Meyer Sherry:

    The Prince of Homburg, our

    courageous cousin,

    Who has led our cavalry the past

    three days

    And given the elusive Swedes an

    eager chase,

    Appeared again today, quite out of

    breath,

    At our commanding post in Fehr-

    bellin….

    From Prince Frederick of Homburg, in Heinrich von Kleist: Plays, The German Library, vol. 25 (Continuum, 1982).

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