I’ve noticed lately that a fair few book bloggers are getting interested in reading the work of Heinrich von Kleist but are unsure who he is or what kind of work he produced. Well, Kleist was one of the high points of my undergraduate literature courses, and he is a particular favourite of mine. He’s also the kind of writer whose stories are enriched by a little literary analysis, and so I thought I would tell you a bit about his life and then consider one of his most famous short stories, ‘The Marquise von O.’
Kleist was born in 1777 to a noble, military family, and into a time that was profoundly enamoured with the views of the Enlightenment. Kleist declared in a letter to his sister that he found it ‘incomprehensible how a human being can live without a plan for his life’, and he bought heavily into the late 18th century beliefs in the perfectibility of life, the possibility of eliminating randomness and chance, man’s ability to achieve happiness, to educate himself and to perfect the society in which he lived. He clung tenaciously to the Enlightenment prediction that in time, the world in its entirety would be understood, because it was based on rational principles. Well you may already be able to see where this is going to go; of all the possible life philosophies to choose, I wouldn’t myself go for the inherent order and comprehensibility of the universe, but that was then. In practice, Kleist’s conviction that he owed it to himself, as a rational man, to push for his own personal happiness and fulfillment led to a peripatetic, feckless life in which he dabbled in many things and could settle to none of them. He went into the army, he studied physics, mathematics and Latin, he travelled Europe. At one point he attempted a conventional engagement to Wilhelmine von Zenge, which necessitated a sudden mad dash to Wurzburg where he underwent some kind of medical treatment in order to be ‘worthy’ of his fiancee. History draws a veil over the procedure itself but records that he broke off the engagment brutally, some short time later.
His frenzied questing for the answer to life brought him to the brink of his sanity when he discovered the writings of Kant. To cut a long story short, Kant distinguishes between what he calls ‘noumena’ the unknowability of things in themselves and ‘phenomena’ or the way that things appear to us. Kleist read into this an irreconcilable split between appearance and reality, with there being now no way to ascertain what was real and what was the consequence of our subjective perceptions. For Kleist, it seemed that if this were correct, the whole of life was a riddle, an enigma that we could never solve; everything was confusing and ambiguous. For the next 10 years he produced a series of extraordinary stories and plays that explored this paradox, and then, having befriended a woman with incurable cancer, the two of them had a jolly picnic by the side of a beautiful river and then Kleist shot them both in a prearranged suicide pact. The moral of the story? If you are thinking of reading Kant, hesitate, think twice, maybe choose something with jokes in it, and never ever believe those dodgy spam mails that insist they know a way to enhance your prowess.
Now, ‘The Marquise von O.’ is an extraordinary short story quite unlike anything else you’ve probably ever read. It begins with Russian forces storming a citadel in which our heroine is living with her family. During the battle she is carried off by a small group of soldiers who are about to rape her when she is saved by the young Russian officer, Count F (proving that there are ways of going about storming citadels that do not dispense with civilised politeness). Count F takes her to safety but she succumbs to a fainting fit and is unable to thank him. Several months later, Count F turns up unexpectedly at the family’s new home and, in a dramatic and inexplicable scene, insists on asking for the Marquise’s hand in marriage. She is naturally surprised, the family is naturally keen to ask for a delay to consider the matter, but the Count presses and presses the issue, until finally they agree to a temporary arrangement that may be broken off. At around this time, it becomes apparent to the Marquise that the unthinkable has happened. Whilst to all intents and purposes she has remained chaste and pure, it transpires that she is pregnant. Understandably this causes some small consternation in the household, indeed, the irreconcilability between the Marquise’s condition and her insistence on her virtue leads to her banishment from the family home. Her father is so furious that he shoots at her with his rifle, and she packs her bags and flees. Not knowing what to do, she puts an advert in the local newspaper, asking for the father of her child to come forward, an unprecedented and extraordinary act for a woman of good birth in her particular society. This advert will in fact lead to a resolution of the mystery, in which the paternity issue is cleared up and the Marquise is forgiven by her family. Indeed, of all the many odd scenes in this story, the most disconcerting by far is the reconciliation between father and daughter. Having been characterised as a family who are entirely bound to convention, to the rules of society and to civilised behaviour at all times, the reader cannot repress a shudder on reading that the Marquise’s mother, on coming to see if all is well between her husband and her child:
‘saw a sight that made her heart leap with joy: her daughter, with her head thrown right back and her eyes tightly shut, was lying quietly in her father’s arms, while the latter, with tears glistening in his wide-open eyes, sat in the armchair, pressing long, ardent, avid kisses on to her mouth, just like a lover!’
Oh dearie me. You’ve been reading along so far, enjoying Kleist’s clear, detached prose, wondering why the family cannot put two and two together as to the father of this unborn child, watching a fairly conventional if strange plot about family disgrace and reconciliation, and then this scene makes you stop and reassess everything that’s happened so far. What has happened to the Marquise, given the rigid rules of society in her day, is not just shocking, it is unthinkable, but then Kleist asks us to witness a family scene that is permitted, indeed, smiled upon, and yet which seems every bit as disconcerting. One of Kleist’s concerns here is: what is civilised behaviour? The story draws together love and war, contrasting the right way to storm a fortress with the wrong way to storm the citadel of a woman’s virtue. Notions of what is ‘fair play’ in taking over another man’s property, be it in bricks and mortar or flesh and blood, are thrown into disarray. Men can be very civilised about war, the story suggests, but not about sexuality. In fact we generally find the impression growing upon us that the veneer of civilisation, whilst inflexibly determining all the superficial elements of the story, is a fragile and weak thing, ready to be broken at any moment by the supreme forces of violence and desire that lie poorly concealed underneath.
Finally, the central symbol of this narrative has to be the unborn child in the Marquise’s womb. It represents the incontrovertible truth, and yet it is surrounded by paradox. Kleist literalises the mystery of incarnation to repudiate the belief in knowledge based on empirical evidence. That beloved element of the rational mind, a fact, is shown here to be enigmatic, indecipherable and perplexing. Poor Kleist; all he wanted was a little certainty, but he spent the finest years of his creativity writing tales to exemplify the conflict between our desire to know and the radical unknowability of the world. An unknowability that is further complicated by the strength of passions we can neither comprehend nor control. When I first read him, aged 20 or so, his work really spoke to me, and I return to it, many years later, to find it as fresh and engaging as ever. If you feel like trying something different, something that is superficially easy to read but will leave you pondering its implications for hours afterwards, then you could do no better than his writings.
Edit: If you want a very different take on love, war and irrationality, go and read the Hobgoblin’s latest, heartfelt post. I’m sure Kleist would have agreed with him.