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Heinrich von Kleist: Writing after Kant by Tim Mehigan (review)

From: Goethe Yearbook
Volume 20, 2013
pp. 283-285 | 10.1353/gyr.2013.0002

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Writing to his sister Ulrike in August 1800, and subsequently to his fiancée Wilhelmine von Zenge, Heinrich von Kleist described his first encounters with the writings of Immanuel Kant and his attempt to compose something in light of Kantian philosophy. The result of this encounter seems to have triggered a deep psychological crisis, leading him to report to Ulrike and Wilhelmine in 1801 how much Kant’s thought had affected him. Kleist’s “Kant crisis” represented a breakdown of faith in the Enlightenment project that truth and reason provided a reliable basis for meaning and moral action. Kant convinced him that the “thing-in-itself” as the guarantor of true knowledge (Wissen) was inaccessible, throwing us back onto problematic contingencies of experience. Knowledge becomes, in Tim Mehigan’s phrase, “a skeptically informed, knowledge-directed procedure of inferential meaning-making” (10). Kleist’s awareness of Kant is well known; see for instance Ludwig Muth (1954), Bernhard Greiner (2000), and James Phillips (2007); also relevant is James Pippen (1999 and 2005). Mehigan, however, argues that Kleist’s response to Kant is more profound and extensive, triggering his vocation as writer, and that Kleist’s entire literary career can be fruitfully read in terms of an extended response to Kant and the problems that arose from his reflections on the Kantian crisis.

Mehigan acknowledges that we do not know exactly which specific works or passages Kleist was responding to, but proposes to assume a broad general influence. Many critics read the presence of Kant in Kleist’s sense of the tragic nature of life. Mehigan proposes an “other” Kleist, one who embraces the skepticism and is fascinated by the “enigmatic openness” (170) that it raises. Thus Kleist’s plays, essays, and stories are not about characters despairing over an opaque or even malevolent world unhinged from reason or order, but about seeking meaning out of the various contingencies.

Mehigan, Professorial Chair of German in the Department of Languages and Cultures at the University of Otago, New Zealand, presents eleven studies in which he reads Kleist’s works against the implications of Kantian thought. He clusters them into three broad groups of concern, deliberately paralleling Kant’s three critiques: “Reason,” surveying the limits of human knowledge; “Agreement,” looking at the foundation of ethics and human relationships; and “Inference and Judgment,” examining how decisions and judgments are made in the context of skepticism, in which Kleist stands, for Mehigan, as one of the first moderns.

The first four essays read Kleist’s plays and stories against skepticism and the claims of reason. In one chapter, reading Kleist’s essay on the “Marionettentheater” against his tragedy Penthesilea, Mehigan discusses how Kleist probes the ability of self-consciousness to reach out beyond itself and bridge the gap with nature, a theme he also explores in the play Prinz Friedrich von Homburg. In these he dramatizes his skepticism over the post-Kantian (romantic) hope for a possible synthesis between the “I” and the world. In another chapter, Mehigan looks at the tale Der Findling. Rejecting the usual view that it is merely a tale about a foundling whose behavior is unpredictable, dramatizing the opaqueness of an absurd world, Mehigan sees the story challenging the Enlightenment ideal of education. Another chapter looks at the novella Michael Kohlhaas in terms of the naturalization of a contractualist discourse, a theme that he treats more fully in the next grouping of essays.

The next four essays center on the theme of the contract as the basis of ethics and human interaction in a post-Kantian world. In chapters on Die Marquise von O. and Michael Kohlhaas, Mehigan looks respectively at the marriage contract and the social/legal contract as the basis of creating norms. He also examines the narrative contract between the writer and audience, playing on two observations: first, that Goethe’s comment to Eckermann that the genre of the novella represented the narration of an “unheard event” (187) implies that the writer is creating without assumptions shared with the reader, in effect with no contract; and second, that Kleist’s writing is marked by a narrative tension between a rigorous formal structure and an increasingly chaotic subject matter, as...



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