- Simultaneity.A Narrative Figure in Kleist
Note from the editor: These pages were written as the first two sections of a longer essay on Kleist. Bianca Theisen planned to take the argument which she developed here to the "Marionette Theater" in the main body of the intended essay. The reading she wanted to propose seems to be roughly the same as in "Dancing with Words," the paper published after this one. The fragment presented here therefore may be read as an introduction to or commentary on the following paper on Kleist. RC
There is no simultaneity but in collapse. The very moment Jeronimo Rugera in Kleist's Earthquake of Chile is about to hang himself in his prison, an earthquake collapses the building. Falling, the building meets with and is suspended by the fall of the opposite building, thereby accidentally creating a vault through which Jeronimo escapes his death, if only momentarily, for the time of the narrative—which begins with this suspension of Jeronimo's death through natural force and ends with his slaying through social violence—replicates as it were the structure of the vault. The very moment the Marquise von O. . . is about to fall unconscious in view of the abuses of the Russian soldiers, the man appears who saves her from being raped, though only momentarily, and the narrative—as the impossible explanation of an instant of salvation or rescue which instantaneously turns into its opposite—seems to unfold only by folding back upon this instant. In The Foundling, the very moment Nicolo passes through the dining room in his costume of a Genoese knight and finds the door to his [End Page 514] bedroom locked, Elvire, who has just unlocked a cabinet and searches for a remedy, falls down to the floor as if struck by lightning. From that incident on, Nicolo will try to set himself up in the position of the Genoese knight, Elvire's savior, collapsing the distinction savior/seducer in a space where Nicolo is and is not Colino at the same time. The very moment Sister Antonia in Saint Cecilia or The Power of Music is directing the old Italian mass that saves the cloister from the onslaught of the iconoclasts, overwhelming them with the power of music and enticing them to convert to a ghostly Catholicism, she lies in her bed unconscious, about to die.
Such moments of simultaneity pervade Kleist's texts, and the structure of his narratives in particular seems to revolve around these moments.1 Two completely contingent events—Jeronimo's suicide attempt and the earthquake—are given simultaneously, meeting in one instant, and from that instant on seem to be contingent on one another, necessitating interpretations within the narratives themselves that construct causal or teleological relationships for these events: the earthquake happened in order to save Jeronimo and Josephe. Preoccupied with modes of salvation crossing over into their opposite, these moments of simultaneity collapse the teleological processes one has come to associate with theological conceptions of a history of salvation. They collapse causal relationships which presuppose a temporal difference between a cause, whether it is given or has to be reconstructed, and its effect.2
Kleist's moments of simultaneity, however, while they merely juxtapose events, summon readings that translate a juxtaposition of the merely contingent into consecutive events for narrative sequence to unfold at all. One might think of Lessing's differentiation between the visual arts and literature: while paintings present the visual facets [End Page 515] of their objects spatially in an instant of time, verbal arts rely on sequentialization in time.3 Kleist's simultaneous moments would then pretend to offer a visual effect which is wanting or void and could only be supplemented by interpretations that narrativize these moments. For his narratives to be narratives, then, Kleist needs readers: be it the characters in his narratives, who interpret whatever happens to them and thereby generate consecutive events, or be it the interpreters of these interpretations that already constitute Kleistian narratives. Thus, reading a moment like Sister Antonia's simultaneous appearance in two places only in terms of Romantic motifs such as mesmerism4 (as it is indeed prevalent in...