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  • Utopia through the Back Door: Kleist’s Marionettes and the Mechanics of Self-Consciousness
  • Elizabeth Bridges (bio)

Doch das Paradies ist verriegelt und der Cherub hinter uns: wir müssen die Reise um die Welt machen, und sehen, ob es vielleicht von hinten irgendwo wieder offen ist.

(Kleist, “Über das Marionettentheater” 559; emphasis in the original)

Over the last few decades, studies of Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 story/essay “Über das Marionettentheater” have occasionally addressed the utopian sentiments communicated near the end of this text, quoted above. These analyses have tended to downplay or dismiss any possible utopian view of this text as either naïve (Rushing) or as a purely theoretical expression, indicative of an abstract crisis of language and representation (Greiner; Seeba). Indeed, as noted by the editors of this special issue of Seminar, grand utopian thinking lacks caché among contemporary critics, and a survey of Kleist scholarship in recent decades shows that critics of “Über das Marionettentheater” have proved to be no exception to this trend. However, while philosophical and aesthetic interpretations that sidestep or dismiss the utopian question in “Marionettentheater” have proved revealing in some respects, such analyses have not approached the scientific tension that underlies Kleist’s inquiry into the Marionettentheater. In this text, he explores the tension between a radically materialist view of the universe and how a “self” (or Seele, as Kleist terms it) can or cannot fit into such a nondual, anti-Cartesian conception of reality, a world view that shows parallels to current scientific models of the self.

Couched in the form of a dialogue between an anonymous narrator and “Herr C.,” an accomplished dancer, the text opens as the two men come upon a marionette theatre. They debate the nature of what Herr C. calls the grace (Grazie) of movement visible in the dancing marionettes, a level of grace Herr C. deems uncommon in human dancers, however accomplished they may be. The narrator, meanwhile, attempts to prove him wrong with a series of anecdotes. In essence, this discussion concerns the nature of human consciousness as either a surface effect brought about by the workings of the body or as a separate entity, and as such, the nature of “Paradies” as either a place of freedom from the illusion of an independently existent self or the more [End Page 75] traditional view of a Christian heaven, where souls, as entities separable from the body, might reside in some transcendental world after physical death. Kleist communicates this tension in the last lines of the text, where his narrator concludes that the highest level of grace is most achievable

in demjenigen menschlichen Körperbau [...], der entweder gar keins, oder ein unendliches Bewusstsein hat, d. h. in dem Gliedermann, oder in dem Gott.


In the spirit of this volume addressing a reexamination of utopian thought and what that might mean in the face of rapid scientific advancement, this article reexamines the utopian question with regard to Kleist’s “Marionettentheater” as a lens through which to connect with contemporary thinking about the nature of human consciousness. This will be shown using the methods of cognitive literary criticism, in which literary scholars “engage[ ] with the findings and methods of cognitive and brain sciences” (designated here collectively as “neuroscience”) in order to better understand the model of self presented in Kleist’s “Marionettentheater” (Richardson 1). The aim of this article is to demonstrate how Kleist’s text implicitly engages in an inquiry regarding the nature of human consciousness as an object of scientific study and everyday experience, and not only as a topic of theoretical speculation, as natural rather than supernatural. In highlighting elements of Kleist’s text as, in some sense, anticipatory of contemporary models of the self derived from neuroscience, the following discussion is not meant to suggest a direct relationship between the limited understandings of the brain available to scientists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Kleist’s text, and contemporary neuroscience, although some parallels exist. Rather, in examining the nature of the “Paradies” alluded to in “Marionettentheater,” the strain of thought common to earlier (e.g. La Mettrie) and more current scientific views on the nature of consciousness finds expression in...


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