MLN 121.3 (2006) 522-529
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Dancing With Words.
Kleist's 'Marionette Theatre'
With its puzzling hypothesis that marionettes dance with more grace than human dancers, Kleist's essay "On The Marionette Theatre" outlines a mechanistic aesthetics of dance which departs from late eighteenth-century notions of dance as a natural expression of passions, as for instance Noverre had promoted them in his attempt to sever ballet and pantomime from their ties to comedy and commedia del'arte and to reform ballet through recourse to antiquity and English Renaissance drama. Kleist does seem to borrow from such an influential theoretical text as Lucian's De Saltatione, a treatise with which Kleist was probably familiar through the translation of his friend and mentor Wieland. Like Lucian's text, Kleist's essay is structured as an argumentative dialogue in which one discussant finally persuades the other; like Lucian's text, Kleist's essay makes certain references to homophilia; and, finally, Kleist's essay seems to take up the cosmological dimensions of dance, which for Lucian is as old as the world and mirrors the circular movement of the planets.
Kleist apparently also borrows such motifs as the metamorphoses into a frozen statue, which are recurrent in Wieland's works in the context of pantomime and dance. But Kleist's essay displaces those traditional motifs and references. In a dance with words, as it were, Kleist displaces the position of an external cause of movement or an immovable mover onto the paradox of a self-implication of the operator in his operation, a paradox that the essay unfolds as a coincidence between marionette and God, unconsciousness and consciousness. Circling around empty spaces supplemented by variables such as the [End Page 522] marionette's gravitational center, the essay displaces the semiosis of such empty spaces onto pseudo-theological and geometrical terms, proposing a "ring-shaped world" whose two ends, "God" and "matter," coincide, a world which displaces more traditional cosmological references onto a fictional version of the curved space of non-Euclidian geometry. With its excessive use of paradoxical structures, the essay finally displaces its own semiosis through what might be called a cybernetics of dance. I will draw on Niklas Luhmann's distinction theory to delineate such a displacement of semiosis.
Kleist's essay is structured as a dialogue between a first person narrator and Mr. C., the principal dancer at the local opera. The dancer gradually convinces the narrator to accept a claim he had first dismissed as paradoxical—namely that a mechanical puppet is more graceful than the human body. In support of this claim, the dialogue offers a technical description of the mechanics involved in puppet theatre, pseudo-theological ideas about man's fall from grace, and two anecdotes. Unconvinced by the dancer's puzzling proposition, the narrator at first raises what seems to be an obvious objection: that the puppet's movement could not be graceful in itself, since it is the puppeteer who, pulling a myriad of strings, determines the movement of every limb. The marionettes' mechanical movement would thus only be graceful because a human consciousness imbues it with grace. The dancer contests this objection. The task of the puppeteer, he claims, is actually quite simple and requires no great skill. Since each movement has a single center of gravity, it suffices for the puppeteer to control this gravitational center within the puppet. The line of movement described by this gravitational center is straight in most cases. Where it is curved, however, it is elliptical and follows a curvature "of the second order" ("von der . . . zweiten Ordnung"). When the puppet's center of gravity describes an elliptical curve, its movement corresponds to the movement most natural to the human body. The options available to the puppeteer are limited to describing two kinds of simple lines with the puppet's center of gravity. And yet these lines entail something enigmatic, the dancer believes, for they describe nothing less than the "path of the dancer's soul." ([den] Weg der Seele des Tänzers").1 [End Page 523]
The puppeteer can only control the gravitational...