For over a hundred and fifty years, Heinrich von Kleist has been thought of not only as one of the most individual of the great Romantic writers, but as a force who will make you feel stronger and surer about yourself. His letters—now available in English for the first time, in An Abyss Deep Enough—have that awakening force. Written between 1793, when he was fifteen and still in the army, and November 21, 1811, the day of his death, they are about a boy’s, and then a young man’s, desire to see himself in relation to eternity. Well over half of them were written between 1800 and the spring of 1802, when Kleist was in his early twenties, to Wilhelmine von Zenge, his fiancée. He is proud to sign off many of the letters with “your lover,” and he often talks about their upcoming marriage and the children they will have. But these aren’t love letters. Heroic and uncertain in almost the same breath, he always wants to pose, and answer if he can, the biggest questions of life and experience.
Some of his pronouncements are surprising. They make you stop and think about whether you agree with him—as when he tells Wilhelmine that “all ceremony stifles the emotions. It preoccupies the mind, while the heart remains dead.” But most of his insights have a settled rightness to them. When you read his thoughts on, say, how people begin to have more charity toward others when they fall in love, you want to mark the passage, because he is clearly coming on this perception as he writes, and he makes you feel as if you are hearing it for the first time. You keep seeing yourself in him, the way you see yourself in Anne Frank when you read her Diary. Kleist may remind you of yourself at your best, as she does.
Yet while you don’t lose your admiration for him, and you don’t grow impatient with his determination to report continually on the state of his soul, you are left a little etherealized by his purity. Not that he writes only about his frustrations and expectations. Especially in the hundred-odd pages of his correspondence with Wilhelmine, there are lovely, snapshot-like glimpses of everyday life in the Napoleonic era. Within a few months of his engagement, he is off traveling through Germany and, later, France, in search of adventure and in the hopes of finding the right occupation for himself. He meets young German intellectuals, looks at art in the great galleries of Dresden and Paris, and wanders through Paris’s muddy streets. He stands in the Louvre, admiring the works of classical and Italian Renaissance art, and is asked by a Frenchman, “Was all this painted here in Paris?” He reports home on the latest fashions (“Tie the ribbons of your bonnet from your ears along the edge of your cheeks so that the bow adorns the exact middle of your chin”). He tells about romantic coach rides in the moonlight, where he luxuriates in his lonesomeness. And he tosses off passages of unromanticized, journalistic travel writing at its best, as when, in talking about the sandy-soiled Baltic towns, he describes how they sit on “a stretch of ground originally intended rather for whales and herrings than for people.” Visiting a hospital in Würzburg, he re-creates the living deaths he has seen with an unflinching firmness worthy of Géricault, who was making paintings in the morgue and insane asylum in Paris at almost the same time.
But he is unable to lose himself in the outside world for long. He can’t get away from speculating about his fate and the worth of his character, and, because he is so trustworthy and compelling, his self-judging mood casts a grayed spell on the reader. The letters have the effect of a kind of therapy that lets the patient sink into an introspective war with himself, a battle where, in pouring over his every motive and feeling in isolation, he gets caught in an emotional gridlock.
Even after Kleist became a public figure, he continued to believe he might, as he says, make a “botch” of his “entire life” at any moment. In the correspondence that follows his break from Wilhelmine in 1802 (he never does marry), we follow him, on a less daily and intimate basis, on his whirlwind yet frequently interrupted career as a writer, editor, and publisher. In the nine years that remained to his life, he wrote eight plays and eight stories, struggled with a number of works, including a two-volume novel, that he was dissatisfied with and destroyed, and attempted to open a map, book, and art publishing house. Between 1807 and 1809, he published Phöbus, a magazine devoted to literature and the arts. Then in 1810 he founded the Berliner Abendblätter, the city’s first daily newspaper, which was distributed free in its first months, and which he also edited and contributed to.
Yet the letters that cover these years of tremendous accomplishment and Herculean labor bespeak very little self-satisfaction. He virtually never talks about his work. He is never at ease with himself. He never shakes for long the despair that is in his farewell to Wilhelmine, from May, 1802: “Dear girl, write me no more, I have no other wish than very soon to die. H.K.” His letters end with him writing to his friends and family about his preparations to achieve this wish. On November 21, 1811, shortly after he turned thirty-four, he took his own life in a suicide pact with Henriette Vogel, a married woman then living with her husband and children, who was terminally ill with cancer, and whom Kleist had only recently met. The title An Abyss Deep Enough comes from one of his last letters, where he says he wants “to find an abyss deep enough to leap into” with Henriette.
Kleist’s letters are revelatory. They make human, complete, and down-to-earth a figure who, for English-speaking readers anyway, has been one of literature’s mystery genuises. They show an Everyman simplicity, and a fear of being crushed, that Kleist’s plays and stories, in their intoxicating speed and charging, fearless assurance, only hint at. If you have read and loved Kleist, you will wolf down An Abyss, which includes, in addition to the letters, twenty-one of his short, lively essays—the best of which are about the psychological processes that make for liberated or hamstrung art—and twenty-four of his even shorter, often half-page-long, anecdotes.
A few of these pieces are familiar. “On the Puppet Theater” has been available. Probably his most influential single essay, it is, on the surface, a discussion between two men about the superior grace of inanimate things, and about the burden consciousness places on our acts. Ironic one moment and straightforward the next, the essay is like a fable that might be told by a wise man to a passing stranger in a Middle Eastern bazaar. Its points never settle in the mind, and that has contributed to its fame and appeal. It seems to say different things each time it is read. Parts of Kleist’s review of the work of the painter Caspar David Friedrich, his contemporary, have appeared before, too, usually in studies of Friedrich or of Romanticism. This piece contains one of the startling moments in writing about art: Kleist’s remark about the picture Monk Before the Sea, that, looking at it, “the viewer feels as though his eyelids had been cut off.” The piece on Friedrich, which was originally published in Kleist’s newspaper, is included here in its entirety.
But the majority of these essays, pieces of journalism, and anecdotes have never before been translated into English. Miller doesn’t say what proportion of Kleist’s nonfiction writing this “selection” represents. (Presumably he has included all of the letters.) Considering how little there is of Kleist altogether, one would like to know; it would have been helpful to have a list of the titles of the other pieces, to get a sense of how wide his range of subject matter was. This is the only detail that Miller hasn’t attended to. His notes to the letters and articles are helpful and never intrusive; he has also supplied a handy chronology and an introduction which gives a good sense of Kleist’s place in European literary and intellectual history, and of how layered his themes are. The book’s design is pleasing, too. A large, classical typeface has been used for the many chapter headings, and that suits Kleist. The image of the imposing, blocky print, set at the top of these slightly smaller-than-average-size pages, is a continual reminder of his little-big-man strength.
Kleist wasn’t a popular author during his life. He wrote less for a wide audience than for the literary powers of the time, and he made those powers nervous. They regarded him as an unstable writer and person, and took his suicide as a confirmation of their doubts. Not long after his death, though, he began to be thought of with a rare affection, and that hasn’t changed to this day. He is a writer that few writers can feel superior to, but one most writers can feel parental toward, no matter what their age or sense of their own stature. It’s possible his first audience will always be writers, or other artists, because, while he doesn’t write about artists in his fiction (many of his characters are aristocrats and are generally of historical and mythological vintage), he takes to the limit the urges that almost all performers, in any field, have. He’s a supreme showoff, yet he works with the intensity of someone who isn’t a professional—someone who, you suspect, will never professionalize his feelings.
He often writes about shifts in power; he’s a specialist on how people stretch and lunge for power, and yet how, once they have it in their hands, their immediate instinct is to whip it, like a frisbee, off to their partner. In its precision and muscularity, his prose is a power tool, too. Even in translation, his writing has a self-conscious, but not fussy, beauty. It’s easy to imagine him at work, sitting there, thinking of how impressed his reader will be with him. But you also sense that part of him is convinced that the art of writing is an indulgence. In his letters, he keeps fingering this thorn; he can’t shake the belief that doing one good deed in the world is worth more than a lifetime spent in bringing to the surface and making presentable the stirrings and hunches that are within. And in much of his writing, he makes his readers conscious of his refusal to be artful. Yet he is so honest and rigid about not giving more than is necessary—he is so determined that each sentence be as clean and polished and count for as much as the ones surrounding it—that he ends up with the opposite of what he intends. Wanting to produce the most barewalled Protestant prose ever, he comes out on the other side, with a style of compressed extravagance, an almost Catholic style.
To Americans, Kleist is less familiar for his plays than for his stories, all eight of which were brought out by Criterion Books in 1960 as The Marquise of O—and Other Stories, in translations by Martin Greenberg. Subsequently issued as a paperback, this volume has for long been the chief way most of us have known Kleist. It is an amazing book. (It is also graced by two introductory pieces, by Greenberg and Thomas Mann, that seem inspired by the chance to present the tangled themes and emotions in the works that follow.) Each of the stories is different in setting and flavor, and each has seemingly its own kind of deliberate, sought-after formal flatness; there are elements in them of fairy tales, tall tales, news reports, essays. Kleist rarely says what his characters look like or what they wear, let alone what the weather or light is like. He doesn’t describe why his people do what they do, he doesn’t get inside them. There is usually something artificial and operatic about his settings, too: Renaissance Germany, Chile in the seventeenth century, the West Indies. But we don’t stop to wonder about any of this because we don’t have the time. His people are too busy doing something or responding to what someone else has done, and we have to follow the chain of events closely or we’re lost.
His stories are so unpredictable and rich, in part, because no one in them is the way he seems at first sight. Kleist introduces everyone to us as plywood flat, then begins revealing different, contradictory flat layers behind the first. And while he keeps everything on the level of a report filed in the Police Gazette, his rushing, anonymous-toned, adjectiveless style leaves the impression that hair-breadth distinctions about feelings have been made. It’s for this reason that The Marquise of O—and Other Stories becomes in memory a fatter book than it is, and why, after reading two or three stories in it, you are too full to go on for a while. He presents emotions in unfiltered, simon-pure states, yet his meanings don’t announce themselves at once—they remain pleasurably cloaked—because those separate emotions have been carefully and quickly laid one on top of the next. You feel he has given you the world in a cameo. You feel like the Marquise of O—, who finds herself pregnant one day and doesn’t know who the father is or how it happened.
Some of the liveliest moments in his letters are of him at his most commandeering and audacious. You hear the son of a battalion commander and the descendant of generations of Prussian military officers when he tells Wilhelmine that his half-sister Ulrike “will always know where I am, but you, my beloved girl, will always know where I am going to be. Well then, in short: tomorrow my direction is—Pasewalk! Pasewalk? Yes, Pasewalk, Pasewalk.” The cocky young instructor in life’s ways is almost visible when, at the end of the same letter, he directs his fiancée to “Always have a map of Germany at hand and find the place where I am.” Kleist the supercompressor among writers is in these lines: “With what emotion I once again saw Mainz, which I had seen as a boy. How could it be described? Those were the richest seconds in the entire minute of my life!” The Kleist who hardly seems aware of how essentially witty his view of things is is capsulated in the sentence: “It was hell that gave me this half-talent of mine: heaven grants a whole one or none at all.” And at least one passage recalls the ecstatically ambivalent, one-idea-laid-on-top-of-another rhythm of his stories:
I myself, to be sure, have excited the expectations of others by certain uncommonly promising strides; and what should I now answer, when they ask how I have fulfilled them? And why ought I fulfill their expectations? O how burdensome it is—it may be true, I am some sort of failed genius, but failed not in their sense, but in my own. Knowledge, what is it? And if thousands excel me therein, do they excel what is in my heart?
A natural swaggerer, he also writes with a missionary’s desire to make his evasive, inward-turning readers snap to. “Do not trust the feeling that tells you you cannot change,” he writes to a friend in a letter of 1801, and his writings, from the full-dress plays in verse, through these carefully composed letters, to the generally short essays, form an encyclopedia of kinds of quickened feeling. Perhaps his most rounded formulation of this belief comes in a letter of 1806: “Every first motion, everything spontaneous is beautiful; but gnarled and crooked as soon as it comprehends itself.” The Napoleonic Age was not a slothful moment, and it’s likely that Kleist’s dislike of introspection and his insistence, in his letters and essays, on why you must do what you feel (and think about it later) reflects the era. This attitude may also reflect his desire to escape his well-known shyness—he found it very difficult to speak fluently in public gatherings.
In his finished writings, though, he never says why it is crucial to follow your instincts. The impetuosity he describes seems to come out of nowhere. Even his characters are surprised by it. One of the reasons The Prince of Homburg* and, to a lesser extent, his other plays are so airy and easy to read, and seem so unconnected to the literary conventions of the past, is the way that, as Kleist’s major characters go into tailspins, the lesser characters stand back dubiously, with open mouths, and utter “What?”—usually at the same moments we are feeling “What?” The tailspins and abrupt turns in mood are more surprising and dreamlike in the stories, where there is often no dialogue, and the faintings and seductions are simply embedded in the this-is-what-happened-next flow. We’re reading and suddenly his people bash each other’s heads against the wall, they put pistols in their own mouths and do away with themselves.
But the undertow of his work isn’t so optimistic. The story he wants to tell is about the impossibility of endeavors and the knightly beauty of failed things. His writings have been read as justifications of power and might over the individual, and it’s not hard to see why. Though it is never his main point, he catches that moment when you feel patriotic for the first time—when you can be carried away by the idea of giving yourself to your country. Kleist blurs the distinctions between being a revolutionary and a reactionary. He writes as a junior, but one who understands the wavelengths of his seniors. His stories and plays say, in effect, “No, I will not be a general. But I will win the general’s war for him.” His longest story, and one of his most famous, “Michael Kohlhaas,” set in the time of Martin Luther (who is a character in it), begins as a tale of a horse breeder, Kohlhaas, whose person and property are maltreated, with cavalier contempt and indifference, by the local nobility. Unable to have these wrongs redressed, even acknowledged, by following every available legal course open to him, and finally overwhelmed by the accidental yet brutal death of his wife, who has sought to deliver a petition in his behalf, he takes matters in his own hands and in a short time has become a rebel insurgent.
Kohlhaas is a good man, he has been manhandled, and we are on his side. His speed in becoming a warlord surprises us, though, and his ruthlessness and the arson and pillage his followers leave in their wake make us uncertain that he is doing the best thing. (Kohlhaas, though it does not literally mean coalhouse in German, was the model for Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime.) But then, in the last two-thirds of the story, which has the length of a short novel, he’s moved to the side as we follow the wranglings of the many court chamberlains, princes, electors, and counts whose reputations, even lives, depend on the positions they take on what to do with Kohlhaas once he has been locked up. The reader feels at first that Kleist wants to show how independent, unrehearsed acts are crushed by the selfish schemes of the scared, deadwood juntas that keep things as they are. But it becomes clear that he has set up the story so he can also show how an old, entrenched, and sluggish power machine hauls itself into battle position, cleaning its house as it moves its troops to the front.
In an 1805 letter to a friend, Kleist says about a mutual friend, a writer, “It is strange, the powers that sometimes develop in a person while he strives to make use of quite other ones.” The remark is prophetic, for he, too, in the shape of his career and in his vision, developed powers he hadn’t set out to. He wanted to be a great lyric and tragic playwright, and his plays show how big his ambition was. But when his efforts as a playwright met with little success, he began to write stories, and he put the fleetest, most mysterious part of himself in them. He no doubt believed himself to be the poet of the individual, and he will always be best known for his confused, quicksilver, impetuous, and demanding young men and women. Yet he wrote about the families and court and state officials that cluster around his heroes and heroines with more sympathy than he himself may have been aware of.
Kleist became almost as great a poet of the family as he is of the child. Maybe this is why the themes of his stories and plays reveal themselves to us so slowly. Events in them move by with a Mercury-like dispatch, but, at the end, we feel we’re not far from where we were at the beginning. I don’t think this happens because Kleist is a chuckling ironist who wants to point out how no lasting changes can be made in the world. Nor does it happen because he has a tragic vision through and through. What he is after, I believe, is to get things back to where they once were. He is after the restoration of states which, on the chart of human development, come almost before childhood. He wants the parents of the world to tower over us as gods, to fill the roles of life-creators and protectors that they were given. There is an expendable, jerked-about, straw-man lightness to almost all Kleist’s central characters, not only to Michael Kohlhaas but to the Prince of Homburg, to the Marquise of O—, to Toni, the fifteen-year-old mestizo heroine of “An Engagement in Santo Domingo,” and to the weaselly Nicolo, the creep-hero of “The Foundling.” But the figures of power and the older people in these and in his other works, who nurse and shout and banish and condemn, have an underlying stability and pleasing dignity. If Kleist had written Hamlet, he wouldn’t have given the members of the court any more psychological depth than they have, nor would he have let them off the hook, but he probably would have made them more solid than they are. He might have made Polonius a charging monument to staleness rather than the windbag he is, and he might have given Claudius a conscience; you can imagine Kleist giving Claudius a disfiguring telltale skin disease and sending him off with it to a distant chamber in the castle, where he’d slowly scratch himself apart until, in the last act, he would be brought on to explain his deed.
And yet Kleist isn’t an exonerator of authority. It’s Kohlhaas, Toni, the Prince, the Marquise, and the others who are the true heroes and heroines, and who have the last word. Nervous, outgoing, generous, they are the ones who precipitate the action. They are the ones who shove their gone-to-sleep elders—generally the male figures—and leave them different, rejuvenated people. Kohlhaas brings out in his superiors a keen-wittedness and a sense of the precariousness of their positions and lives that, so it seems, are new for them. By her steadfastness, the Marquise eventually makes her rageful, rigid father a loving and humble man. Bringing the drowsed-down world back to its senses, Kleist’s heroes and heroines, who are often virtuous and untested sons and daughters, even become the elders for the moment. Then, towering over all the other characters, yet suddenly purposeless and adrift, they surrender themselves to the newly roused authorities. They often go to their deaths, which in Kleist’s scheme of things is even more desirable than having power in this world.
The jacket of An Abyss Deep Enough is a detail of Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer on the Fog-sea, which shows a man in a dark suit, his back to us, his hair tousled, looking out over mountain peaks shrouded in fog. It is an apt choice for a Kleist collection, because his life and writing leave the image of a lone figure advancing into a frightening but enticing next world. Kleist rarely talks about death at length, but the subject is frequently at the edges of his thoughts, from the letters he wrote as a teenager on through. Miller has emphasized this aspect of Kleist with his title, and in placing the words “…not to be,” from Hamlet’s soliloquy, under the book’s dedication (which is to Heinrich Blücher). A good majority of the two dozen anecdotes Miller has included in An Abyss are about death, too. These miniature tales, which first appeared in Kleist’s newspaper, are often about how people meet with gruesome ends. They have come down to us because, says Miller, the complete run of the paper was carefully saved and stored by the Brothers Grimm, who lived two hundred miles from Berlin and subscribed to the Abendblätter mostly for what they called Kleist’s “truly priceless anecdotes.”
Told in a deliberately artless way, the anecdotes are a bit like the Brothers at their most concise and far-out—as in their “Mrs. Gertrude,” where, in the course of its one paragraph, a head-strong little girl wanders into the wrong house and is transformed by the lady of the title into a log and thrown into the fire. Kleist’s blackout tales don’t have the same snap or cozy-and-scary atmosphere, but they are more contemporary in spirit. They’re a little like the supposedly tasteless jokes about dying that some people can’t help making—that they themselves are surprised they keep coming out with—at funerals. Though the anecdotes represent only an index finger’s worth of his talent, they are worth reading, if only because they show what Kleist the man, not the literary artist, was like when he let it rip. There is a contemptuousness and cruelty in his tone that is unusual for him; he’s giving death, and people who treat it with kid gloves, a good kick.
But in his letters, he lets death kick him. He is absorbed by death; he sees it as the ultimate awfulness, but he also keeps referring to it because, it seems, he likes the pressure. He carries the fact of his mortality with him the way kids sometimes take an object with them from their house—often an object they don’t cherish, maybe even one they hardly look at—when they go away for a night or for a weekend. But then—it is hard to pinpoint where in the letters this happens—we sense him becoming too familiar with death; he talks about death as if it were the point, instead of the antithesis, of life; he turns it into a refuge from troubles, a place he wants to go to.
He makes you feel—or takes you back to a time when you felt—death in its purest, most physical form. Possibly that was at night, when you were in bed, and imagined what it would be like if one of your parents were to die. At the time, you don’t tell yourself that you will have to die if your mother or father dies—you don’t go that far; you are belted with the fuzzier, more enveloping idea that life, somehow, would have to stop; you feel you couldn’t go on with your parents dead. The image may be so overwhelmingly awful that you banish it; it may be the first thought that you remember pushing out of your mind. It’s possible that you will return to these feelings, though, if only because you don’t understand why they weigh you down so. And when you’re older you may look back and remember when you were troubled by them as a time when you really were walking on thin ice. You’re glad you have replaced those fears with ones that are easier to handle; but you may wonder at the processes that keep you from finding death as awesomely terrible as you did as a child. You may even miss those early awarenesses, for their intensity. You may feel that life has grown over you, like moss, and that you have lost your capacity to feel the unknown, and how frightening the unknown is.
Kleist seems never to have lost those early awarenesses. That is part of his allure, especially if you come to him at a time when you are absorbed by the subject of suicide, and think of it as your secret weapon—when suicide seems to be the best way to tell the oblivious world how resolute, and how wronged, you have been. In his stories and in his person, Kleist epitomizes the daredevil, and also chivalrous, belief that life means something only when you can, as he says in a letter of 1802, “throw it away with a noble gesture.” (It is a belief that men, possibly, are more drawn to than women.) But the reader of his correspondence is made to feel that this belief is less invigorating than wearying. It is an unintended gift of the letters that they show how a courtly, self-sacrificing spirit can corrode a man.
In the letters from his last year, and especially in those from his last days, which the editor has entitled “The Suicide Letters.” Kleist is still traveling through the regions of pure feeling for us, and now he is in the land where the sky is always arctic blue. These few letters have a different cast from the others, though. He writes about his last feelings with the lidless extra vision he saw in Friedrich’s art. Kleist’s words say that he is happy to be leaving this world, but what is heard isn’t happiness, it’s the voice of someone on a rhapsodic spree. He speaks as if he himself has finally become one of his Machiavellian, knife-carrying heroes when, in a letter to Marie von Kleist, his cousin through marriage, he bids her “Good-bye! You are the one, the only one on earth whom I wish to see again in the beyond. Ulrike too?—Yes and no; yes, and no; no, and yes: I leave it to her own feelings.” In this letter, or when, say, he writes to Henriette Vogel about how she means everything to him—and sounds as if he wants, with his river of short sentences, to hypnotize both of them in the process—he seems to be no more than his originality; he is spirit stripped of matter and ready to take off.
These letters do not stir you, they don’t make you feel that you have lost a friend, as Vincent Van Gogh’s last letters to his brother Theo do. But then we rarely feel that Kleist seeks to clasp hands with anybody—we are drawn to him despite the fact that we never quite feel he’s addressing us. There is a skipped moment in his conception of people. Though not all his works literally take place at night, many leave the impression of being set in a sexual pitch-dark, a milieu where you might not know—you might not even be able to see fully—your partner, and where you might not wake from the encounter. The image left by one of his best stories, “An Engagement in Santo Domingo,” is of a long Caribbean night, when it is too dangerous to go to sleep, everyone carries a lantern, and no one knows if the next face they raise their light to see will be a white man’s or a black man’s or, regardless of its color, the last face they will ever see.
Kleist breaks through his period—he draws right up to where we are now—because sex in his world is a detonation, a boom that makes you forget who you are. Yet you want him to take his world further, out beyond the enclosure where, when people come together, there can only be rape, instant seduction, or, as in his engrossing and awkward play Penthesilea, a colossal infatuation that feeds on itself until the sexually bloated but still untouched heroine staggers away to her death. Few of the characters who mean most to him live beyond sex. He presents the courtly devotion a man pays to a woman as a powerful and all-encompassing bond, and his long-married couples have the same trust in, and believable affection for, each other as the wise and benevolent kings and queens of fairy tales. But when men and women come together for him it is a thunderclap without rain, a fuzzied shock moment that sends both parties away still thirsty.
There was a knot at the center of Kleist’s feelings, and it wouldn’t come undone—it got only tighter. He seems to have felt himself so alone in the world that he never quite believed fame, during his life or posthumously, would be possible. But he couldn’t stop thinking about whether and how he would be remembered; any romance, with any person or thing, in the here and now, was pale in comparison with the affair history might have with his name. He was turning the no-win situation over in his mind from his earliest days. In a letter of 1800 to Wilhelmine, when he was still uncertain of how he would make his mark, and had not yet seriously entertained the idea of being a writer, he wrote that he didn’t know how Christ would have been able to be crucified if he hadn’t been able to see his mother and disciples, with their “moist glances of rapture,” down there beneath him. In a letter to Ulrike from the year before, he wondered how Socrates, too, faced the problem. How can a man be a hero if there is nobody there to appreciate it? His instincts told him that nobody would be there for him, that his message would go unrecognized.
His instincts were right. Miller says that even in Germany Kleist is still a hazy name for most people. But the instincts that made him wonder about Christ and Socrates were right, too, because he is an author whose readers feel unusually close to him; they are a following, almost. It’s likely Kleist’s importance will never be taken for granted. He may always be a personal discovery for each reader. On the day of his death, he wanted to make it clear that he had no illusions that even his friends would remember him fondly; he wrote Marie, “There was a moment when I decided to have a portrait painted; but then it seemed to me again that I have done you too much wrong ever to be able to expect that my picture would give you much pleasure.”
He left a portrait, though, in The Prince of Homburg. All of his writings comprise a portrait of his feelings, of course, but this play, the last work he left in complete form, is the grandest, most ample single presentation of him. (It was given its American premiere in New York in 1976 by Robert Kalfin, at the Chelsea Theater Center, with Frank Langella as the Prince, and broadcast on TV the following year.) The play can make you feel physically lighter, as Kleist’s letters do. Almost everything Kleist wrote makes you feel as if all your bodily sensations have rushed to your head, leaving the rest of you airy, tingling, sucked-out. But this play also leaves you feeling as if a heavenly softness has come into you. It follows the fortunes of Prince Friedrich Arthur of Homburg, an impetuous young warrior-nobleman. In his letters, Kleist is fond of saying that he would be satisfied if he could achieve roughly three things in life (he keeps changing his mind about what they are). Then, he says, he would be ready to die. His Prince wants essentially three things, too: to serve his country, to be swooningly in love, and, most of all, to keep a jutting, actorish profile on his actions at all times.
The Prince is a wonderful character; he has the dimension of Hamlet or Heathcliff. Though he is in great straits for nearly all of the play, he has an underlying sunny enthusiasm. He gives you an idea of what Hamlet or Heathcliff might have been like if they didn’t have cause to be angry or to feel insulted. Guilty of not following orders at a crucial juncture during a battle, he is sentenced to die, even though his last-minute storming of the enemy’s fortifications and demolition of their troops have secured the victory. We’re at the Battle of Fehrbellin, it’s 1675, and codes of honor and duty say he must be punished; but the codes can be brushed aside, and his superior, the Elector, who has long watched over him as if he were his own son, is willing to play a power game with him. He will let the Prince go if he says he has been treated unfairly—if he, in effect, begs for his freedom.
There are many tracks in the play. At least two subsidiary characters, out of their affection and growing love for the Prince, pull strings to have a stay of execution; and the Prince, meanwhile, has been going through a personal revolution. First, he believes his imprisonment is a joke and a formality. Then he learns that the Elector means to stand by the codes of military behavior, and this erases every moonstruck and chivalrous thought he ever had. He acts the way heroes aren’t supposed to act, but the way you suspect you might act at such a moment: he goes straight to the Electress, whom he calls his aunt and who raised him after the death of his mother, and begs her to intercede. He’s frightened, crying, and on his knees so quickly we laugh at him before we understand that he’s in a cold sweat.
He announces that he will give up every bit of self-respect, including his claims on the Princess Natalia, his fair lady. He conjures up an image of total surrender for himself: he will go off to his estates in the Rhineland and work on them, as the most dutiful and obscure of private citizens, until his death; he will go through a living death so as not to have to suffer a real one. But later, when he’s given the terms of his release, he realizes that he can’t allow himself to go so limp; he can’t bring himself to defend and explain what he has done. Deciding that he doesn’t want a pardon, he’s filled with a new command of himself and the situation. He entirely forgets that he will have to face the firing squad the next day. He feels himself a true prince, and he feels aligned with the Elector, too, as one member of the nobility to another. He sees an aristocratic generosity in the Elector’s offer that the Elector hadn’t intended.
Constructed with an elegant symmetry and the teacup-and-saucer lightness of a drawing-room comedy, The Prince of Homburg streams to its conclusion; it moves so fast, and ties together its moves so fast, and ties together its dramatic elements so neatly, that it is only after you have seen or read it that you are aware of how many solid, big shifts have been made. The Prince has touched his own depths, and, without knowing it—though we are aware of it—he has made the Elector, who tears up the order of execution at the last minute, a bigger man. Kleist doesn’t tell us enough about the Princess to enable us to know if her shrewd and courageous behavior is new for her, but we are led to believe that, in making one quick-witted deal after another with the Prince, the Elector, and the army, in behalf of the two men she loves and her country, she, too, has become emotionally ennobled.
And what may be the play’s true climax occurs when we’re hardly aware of it. At one moment toward the end, when the Prince is expected by the assembled court to arrive and plead his case, we’re told that he will be a little late—he has stopped by the cemetery gates, and is looking in at the grave being dug for him. The image is reminiscent of many paintings by Friedrich, the master painter of mortality-gazers. When this seeming non-event is reported, we feel only that the play has to take a breath of air. Later, Kleist’s reason for inserting it becomes apparent. For it is only when the Prince lingers by the cemetery, and we imagine a smile beginning to spread on his face as he’s engaged by his new role, that it sinks in that he has diffused death’s power. He has fallen in love with it, the way he earlier fell in love with the Princess and his charge into battle. The point isn’t that he looks forward to his execution—it’s that death is no longer the terrifying unknown. There are no more unknowns for him. He is ready now, as never before, to live his life.
Kleist wrote The Prince of Homburg with few expectations of seeing it put on stage. During his lifetime, not one of his plays was performed as he wrote it. The closest he got was when Goethe, without informing him, mounted a production of The Broken Jug that had no resemblance to the play and was a fiasco, and when parts of Penthesilea, chosen and arranged by someone other than Kleist, were read at what he calls a “rehearsal.” In light of this, it’s all the more remarkable that there is such an expressive ease to The Prince of Homburg. Built like a drawing-room comedy, it has the breadth of Shakespearean tragedy; yet it’s too flashy and fast to be one or the other—it is too touching one moment, and too frightening the next, to take a proper place in the ranks of great literature. Only an imposing author could have brought it off, yet Kleist wrote it with the desire, which is in so many of his letters, to stare down the life-and-death dilemmas. In a more direct way than many plays that are earlier and later than it in date, The Prince of Homburg makes you feel as if it is all happening to you. Kleist takes you back, to relive your worst childhood fears, and then pulls you through them and out to the other side, where those fears can be smiled at.
Kleist’s own death was a cold and forlorn scene, yet he must have died knowing that, in the small but bursting collection of stories, plays, essays, and pieces of journalism he had produced with such speed, he had expressed the longings and doubts he had been turning over in his mind since he was a teenager. He may have been aware, too, that, whether he wanted them or not, new themes were bubbling up in him, and that, to treat them, he might have to alter the tone of his work. Maybe the awareness that he would have to face another, and more devilish, period of groping was one of the things that drove him to take his life—that, along with the censorship difficulties with French and Prussian officials that forced him to cease publication of his newspaper, and the crucial loss of patronage he suffered with the death of Queen Louise, one of the few people he is known to have revered. His career was dedicated to the beauty of first feelings. But in fashioning the life and near-death of the Prince of Homburg, he wrote in praise, too, of second thoughts. He found himself saying good things about the philosophical reflectiveness that had always been very much a part of his nature. The deepest message of the play is that it is possible to be loyal to both spirits at the same time—you can be less pure than you expected to be and still be strong. Perhaps Kleist believed that his changing sense of things would have sapped him, as a man and a writer. On the basis of The Prince of Homburg, though, it’s likely that he wasn’t about to lose his core subject. Few writers have shown how swift a sword the fervor of youth can be. At the end of his life, Kleist may have been on the verge of showing the different power and freedom you gain by growing up.
January 20, 1983
The Prince of Homburg—sometimes titled Prince Friedrich of Homburg—is one of the four plays in Walter Hinderer’s selection, volume 25 in Continuum’s proposed 100-volume German Library, where it appears in a new verse translation by Peggy Meyer Sherry. The play is also available in other places, including a more fleet-footed prose translation by Diana Stone Peters and Frederick G. Peters, in a New Directions paperback. ↩