Heinrich von Kleist and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Violence, Identity, Nation by Steven Howe (review)
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Reviewed by
Steven Howe, Heinrich von Kleist and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Violence, Identity, Nation. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2012. 237 pp.

Steven Howe’s intricately argued and meticulously documented study is an important contribution to reading Kleist in his historical and intellectual element. Howe situates Kleist’s writing in a historical time and place, which he defines not by the language controversies or poststructuralist lines of flight of much Kleist scholarship of the 1990s and 2000s but as the context and heritage [End Page 303] of the Enlightenment. He warns his reader, citing Peter Gay, not to “strip the Enlightenment of its wealth and then complain of its poverty” (6). This wealth is the legacy of the French philosophes and their relation to the classical tradition of rhetoric, especially the figure of paradox as a mode of rhetorical performance. For Howe, Kleist straddles the fault line separating the confidence of Enlightenment from the anxiety of the revolutionary age. It is certainly difficult, then, to choose a better interlocutor for Kleist than Rousseau, who anticipates and embodies the declivity from reflection to revolution and the strife between ideals and reality. Howe’s procedure throughout this study is to take a tricky question in Rousseau scholarship, offer an answer, and refract this answer through a Kleistian prism. Using Rousseau as a foil, an at times ironic and generally more pragmatic Kleist continues Rousseau’s reflection on violence, revolution, reform, and republican government.

Chapter 1 functions as a second introduction, announcing major themes and signposts and setting up an image of Rousseau and “the paradoxes of Enlightenment.” Taking up classic studies of Rousseau (such as Starobinski’s) and more recent work comparing him with Kleist (such as Christian Moser’s), Howe brings Rousseau into focus as a critic of modernity who combines ethical imperatives with political thinking and a consideration of nature and presocial being with the knowledge that human history only moves forward and that presocial life is a fiction, not a reality to be recovered. The figure of Rousseau as a champion of conceptual tension and paradox provides a nuanced perspective on the topic announced in Howe’s subtitle, “Violence and Identity.” Rousseau’s evocations of justice and violence are modulated through the conceptions of popular power and the “general will” that emerge on the arc Kleist draws between the French Revolution and Napoleon. Even without the longish consideration of definitions of intertextuality with which Howe sets up his demonstration that “the connections between the two are more complex and manifold than have previously been thought” (40), he makes clear that one can read Kleist as testing Rousseau’s ideas on self, society, and political power in terms of the world he experienced and described in postrevolutionary Paris and in the Napoleonic invasion and reordering of the German lands. The evolving differences of this period have been an important object of reflection among German playwrights since Kleist, and it is good to see the discussion framed here in terms of history and contingency rather than ideological belonging or attribution.

Chapter 2, on the novella Das Erdbeben in Chili, posits that Kleist’s story speaks to the caesura of the revolution and the violence of the revolutionary mob as well as the aesthetics of the revolutionary popular festival. Howe compares the horizontal spatiality of such festivals to the spontaneity of the utopian space outside the city in Kleist’s tale, pairing the contrast of valley and city or cathedral in Kleist with Rousseau’s opposition of the popular festival, part of the quest for forms of “republican sociability” (75), to the theatrical forms of spectatorship and representation that Rousseau condemned. In Kleist, this process ends in the theocratic setting of the cathedral of Santiago de Chile, an echo of the period of Thermidor, the Directory, and Napoleon as First Consul, during which the Revolution was re-hierarchized and brought under control.

Perhaps the most philosophically nuanced and challenging section of this book is Howe’s close reading of the Social Contract on the question of civil religion. Rousseau’s desire for a civic religion and credo-like profession of loyalty to a republican ideal inspired Robespierre and accounted...