- “der ganze Schmutz zugleich und Glanz meiner Seele”. Die Briefe Heinrich von Kleists als Teil seines Werks by Gisela Dischner
While an eccentric genius to those who knew him during his lifetime, Kleist was virtually forgotten for a century after his death, despite the best efforts of Ludwig Tieck to preserve his works for posterity. The first centenary celebration of his death brought Kleist to wider light shortly before the outbreak of the First World War. Kafka was one of many to have discovered Kleist around this time. Since then Kleist’s [End Page 505] fame has spread, although he is not always known as a writer of the first order outside specialist circles even today. What may change this is an emerging weight of opinion amongst Kleist scholars that highlights not just the literary qualities of the author but also his contribution to the intellectual discussions of his day. This contribution can be gleaned not only from his fiction—the dramas and prose—but also his essays, aphorisms, and other writings. Among these other writings are letters that have long attracted attention for their vivid portrayal of private dilemmas and confusions not unlike those that dogged Goethe’s Werther (Kleist’s end, as it turned out, also paralleled Werther’s). Despite their inherent interest, the letters have never quite been given the undiminished critical attention they deserve. Gisela Dischner’s study, which purports to read the letters in a more focused way as part of Kleist’s work as a whole, promises to address this need.
As laudable as this intention is, there is a certain risk in embarking on such a project. The risk pertains to the status of the early letters—the only writings that expressly give account of the intellectual aspirations of the author. These are letters written in late 1800 and early 1801 in which Kleist reports on his encounter with the thought of Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher from Königsberg. Leaving aside the difficult question of how much or little Kleist comprehended Kant and through what means, most view these “crisis letters” as part of an early phase Kleist was to leave behind him when he began his career as a writer. Yet—and herein lies the importance of Dischner’s approach—this is not the view that Dischner follows when she reads the letters as “part of” Kleist’s œuvre. Rather, she foregrounds the conceptual side of the author even where she comes to consider his literary works. Dischner thereby opposes the conventional view that there is an essential disjuncture between the intellectual sentiment of the early letters and the literary outlook of the later fiction. She effectively argues for an integrated Kleist, a Kleist, as it were, “aus einem Guss.”
The general spirit of Dischner’s venture, in particular the underlying commitment to overcoming the disjunctive view that has pervaded, and at times overwhelmed, Kleist scholarship, is certainly one I support. Yet hand in hand with this view is the implication that Kleist lacked any clear intellectual development. I believe such an implication does not pay Kleist his proper due, philosophically speaking. Leaving aside this background objection, how exactly does Dischner make her claim appear credible that the letters and the creative works can be put together and viewed as one? This move is accomplished by moving Kleist, temperamentally speaking, forward in time towards Nietzsche, Kleist’s most intelligent reader in the 19th century, and by ascribing to Kleist an underlying “Dionysian” quality. Let me quote Dischner on this point in full: “Als rückwärts gekehrter Prophet entdeckt [Kleist] die Geschichte neu, er entdeckt ein anderes Griechenland als Goethe und Schiller, ein dunkles, mächtiges, nächtig-rauschhaftes: das Reich des Dionysos” (58).
This is a plausible position to take up. The most notable thing it achieves is that the Kleist of the early letters and the Kleist of the mature plays and stories can be reconciled. The connector figure here is the Amazon queen Penthesilea who opposes...