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Reviewed by:
  • Heinrich von Kleist and Modernity ed. by Bernd Fischer and Tim Mehigan
  • Hansjakob Werlen
Heinrich von Kleist and Modernity. Edited by Bernd Fischer and Tim Mehigan. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011. vii + 314 pages. $80.00.

This outstanding collection of essays, containing revised and reviewed presentations from a 2010 Kleist symposium at the University of Otago, New Zealand, is an excellent indicator of the state of contemporary Kleist scholarship. Written by some of the foremost Kleist experts, the contributions display a wide methodological range, yet these divergent approaches are held together by intricate interconnections due to two salient choices made by the editors. The title provides the various contributions with a thematic Leitmotiv and the arrangement of the essays under the two rubrics “The Plays” and “The Stories and Essays” allows for an easier comparative overview, especially in the first part (“The Plays”).

The connection of Kleist and modernity has been a commonplace for a rather long time now but the volume provides readers with novel insights into what constitutes Kleist’s modernity and how his writings participate in modernity’s emerging literary, philosophical, and scientific discourses. In their introduction, Tim Mehigan and Bernd Fischer provide a list of topical (“gender, class, ethnic wars, terrorism, sacrifice”) and discursive aspects in Kleist’s œuvre that encompass modernity’s conflicts and impasses but also its emancipatory potential, including the “emphatic assertion of individual authenticity” (2). Still, as Ricarda Schmidt—in reference to Adorno—aptly points out, the dominant definitory descriptions of modernity oppose affirmative categories and this negative assessment is reinscribed by post-modern terminology: absence of metaécrits, disappearance of ultimate foundations, displacement, loss of certainty, inescapable perspectivism, etc. (151).

The volume’s first essay, Bernhard Greiner’s “Zu Ende schreiben: Ultimative Strategien im Schaffen Kleists,” delineates a twofold meaning of “ultimate” at work in Kleist’s writing: the greatest possible development of motives (e.g., grace) and most extreme expression of aesthetic-poetic conceptions (e.g., the sublime). Both these variants of “writing-to-the-end” entail as their telos completion, finitude, death, as Greiner convincingly shows in his description of Kleist’s use of Plato’s cave simile in Die Familie Schroffenstein, Kleist’s reaction to notions of the sublime (by Kant and Schiller) in his essay on Caspar David Friedrich’s “Monk by the Sea” painting, and the failed self-representation of Guiskard. All result in a negative truth that can [End Page 502] no longer be overcome through recourse to corrective reason (Kant). Grant P. McAllister, in his 2005 Kleist’s Female Leading Characters and the Subversion of Idealist Discourse, has shown (esp. 5–24) this specific subversion of the Kantian sublime in Kleist’s writings by focusing on the concept of negative representation (Negative Darstellung) and its inalterable permanence for Kleist. The absence of English-language scholarship in the endnotes shows that a possibly fruitful exchange on Kleist’s aesthetic turn was missed here but Greiner’s informative essay nevertheless demonstrates in great detail the various discursive “end points” found in Kleist’s work, including the discourse on grace and the historical development of tragedy (returned to its origins in Penthesilea).

Nancy Nobile’s brilliant interpretation of Die Familie Schroffenstein (“‘Sein Nahen ist ein Wehen aus der Ferne’: Ottokar’s Leap in Die Familie Schroffenstein”), with special attention to the ending of the play (labeled unsatisfactory by many critics) traces the bold aesthetic moves Kleist employs to demonstrate “what theater looks like after enchantment has ceased and the veil of aesthetic illusion has lifted” (24). Confining spectators to interiorities that grow ever more hermetic (prison, cave, head), Kleist, in a daring transposition, reverses Diderot’s demand that the audience be walled out (“fourth wall”) and imprisons the viewers (readers) in the protagonists’ dreams and fantasies. An escape from this unseen psychic interiority is only possible when the protagonists themselves reveal the fantastic (imagined) nature of their desires.

Der zerbrochene Krug is the focus of the next three essays. Dorothea von Mücke’s “The Fragment Picture and Kleist’s Zerbrochener Krug” analyzes the complex interweaving of grand historical changes (Dutch War of Independence, arrival of a new judicial order) and individual personal histories in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-2810
Print ISSN
0026-9271
Pages
pp. 502-505
Launched on MUSE
2013-11-08
Open Access
No
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