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A World of Intensities (On Kleist)

The brief examination of the work of Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) conducted here is intended as an essay in criticism in the spirit of Sartre: “Une technique romanesque renvoie toujours à la métaphysique du romancier. La tâche du critique est de dégager celle-ci avant d’apprécier celle-là.”1 The concept of metaphysics Sartre employs refers, on my reading, to the hardly controversial thought that literary works generally (not only novels) render worlds imaginatively present, and that these worlds exhibit principles of intelligibility. To free up the metaphysics of an artistic world, then, is to solicit the deep criteria (or categories) that organize that world. Such criticism brings the form of an aesthetically achieved world to light and demonstrates how that form is made salient linguistically, rhetorically, narratively, dramatically, and so forth. Call this the non-formalistic criticism of form. Needless to say, the account of Kleist’s work I develop here does not aspire to exhaustiveness. The aim, rather, is to limn the contours of Kleist’s artistic achievement such that acknowledgement of its originality and importance is felt to constitute an intellectual obligation. Acknowledgement, a variant of Hegelian “recognition,” deserves to replace the now faded and, in Sartre’s use, merely technical notion of appreciation.


In his “Anecdote from the Recent Prussian War” (1810), Kleist has an innkeeper relate a story, the ostensible point of which is to demonstrate that, had the Prussians only had more men like the lone cavalryman featured in his tale, they would certainly have defeated the French. The village outside Jena, where the innkeeper has his business, has already been abandoned by the frantically retreating Prussian troops. Inexorably, Napoleon’s soldiers are closing in. Suddenly a Prussian cavalryman bursts into the roadhouse courtyard and, sheathing his sword, orders a brandy. “God in heaven,” replies the innkeeper, “see to it, friend, that you scram out of here. The French are at the edge of town!” But the thirsty soldier insists on his glass of brandy and, even though the frantic innkeeper offers to send him off with the entire bottle free of charge, lingers for a second, and then a third glass of the deliquescent amber, the hiss of French bullets audible on all sides. Anecdotes often achieve their effect by surpassing their own extravagance and this one is no exception. After time has all but run out across three thoroughly satisfying glasses of brandy, and with Napoleon’s deadly grip tightening on the town, this cavalryman, child of certain death, calmly pulls out his pipe, carefully packs it with tobacco, and then asks for a light, which the innkeeper, by now utterly distraught, must send his servant girl to fetch, causing, of course, a further agonizing delay. By the time the cavalryman finishes the relaxing smoke and puts his pipe away, three French chasseurs have appeared at the gate. The Prussian, a glint of lightning in his eye, bursts into action, boldly riding directly at the enemy soldiers as if an entire corps of fellow Prussians were behind him. The French, uncertain whether there might in fact be more Prussian cavalry about, pause for a moment, quite contrary to their usual practice in battle, and in that instant our lone cavalryman, charging into the gap of their hesitation, slashes all three from their saddles. Gathering their horses and bidding the innkeeper farewell, he rides off in raucous hilarity, the equine booty in his grip. The innkeeper concludes his tale with these words: “In my entire life I’ve never seen such a guy.”2

There is much to be learned about Kleist from this anecdote—for example, about his art of delayed literalism.3 Take the final sentence: “In my entire life I’ve never seen such a guy.” Its idiomatic sense is: “I’ve never seen another man the likes of this particular cavalryman whose tale I’ve just told.” Read literally, however, the sentence declares that no such man as the one who appears in the account was seen at all. This blends the story into myth; the narrative, let us stipulate, of a transaction between the human and the divine. The point I want to bring out, however, bears less on the how than on the what—the noematic content—of Kleist’s art. I want to claim that this anecdotal myth is meant to exemplify a way of being in time that we might call complete absorption in the moment, complete coincidence between consciousness and present action. “Everything that happens, happens simultaneously,” Niklas Luhmann famously wrote, and he meant this as the triviality it is: the banal truth that life is lived in time, that there is a now at which everything that happens happens, that what has happened is not here and now, and that what might have happened then and there will never happen then and there.4 We know this truth, but we don’t live it. The mind detaches its attention from sheer actuality, considers what was, what might have been, what probably, possibly, or even impossibly will or won’t come to be. And, of course, it’s rational to do that. The anxiety of the innkeeper, who knows the French are closing in, knows that the Prussian cavalryman is one and the enemy is legion, knows that time is short and getting shorter, evinces such rationality. Moreover, the success of the anecdote requires our sharing his sense of ineluctably approaching disaster. Narrative understanding in general integrates present information into a framework built out of recall and anticipation. The innkeeper is a storyteller and we are his audience; our contract is our common prudential concern. Remarkably, though, all this is not true of the Prussian cavalryman. His life is lived, completely lived, in actu, without calculation, without pro- or retrospect. He is fully there in each present moment. If thirst is to be quenched by one, two, three glasses of brandy and this to be followed by the incomparable satisfaction of a relaxing smoke, then so be it. That is the demand of the present moment, and that demand is absolute. “Absolute” means without a conditioning other. No extraneous factors such as the distance or proximity of the French troops condition his enjoyment of brandy and tobacco. And the same may be said of his charge at the French soldiers, which is made spontaneously and without reservation, although he’s outnumbered three to one. In fact—and this exemplifies a law of Kleist’s fictional world: one lesson of his masterpiece “On the Marionette Theater” (1810)—precisely this absence of calculation, this total investment in the present moment, guarantees the Prussian’s victory. The French, instead of themselves going on the attack, pause to consider whether there might be other Prussians lurking in the village, and this entirely rational assessment of risk disrupts their synchronicity with the present moment of battle. They are defeated because of a brief retraction of attention from the absolute now of the onrushing event.

I call the complete investment in the present moment just described—be that investment physical, affective, attentive, or actional—intensity. The present moment is the moment in which reality is encountered and felt.5 Intensity is what is at issue in the “Anecdote from the Recent Prussian War.” But my contention is that intensity, as it has begun to emerge into view here, constitutes a core issue of Kleist’s writing generally. Its import comes to light if we recur to the concept of myth as a transaction of the human and the divine. This concept would seem not to pertain to the anecdote, which strikes one as, however exaggerated, robustly realistic, in the manner, say, of Dutch genre painting. Close attention to Kleist’s language, which under scrutiny becomes almost frighteningly precise, belies this impression. In my English paraphrase of the German original, I wrote that the cavalryman “bursts into the roadhouse courtyard,” and that he “bursts into action” as he makes his attack. This was to simulate Kleist’s use of the verbal root sprengen, which combines the senses of “galloping,” of “violently driving apart,” of a “liquid expulsion,” and of an “explosion.” Kleist employs the verb to announce the arrival of the cavalryman at the inn, and then three times in the attack scene. It marks his coming and going, his epiphany, we might say. In the attack scene, one instance of the verb occurs in this formulation:

… sprengt, so wahr Gott lebt, auf sie ein …

which I will translate here as:

… explodes, as truly as God lives, into attack on them …

Here we have another example of Kleist’s delayed literalism. Initially understood as an avowal of the truth of the innkeeper’s tale, the inserted phrase comes to sound, on second reading, like an adverbial qualification of, or even an equivalent phrase in apposition to, the verb einsprengen. The Prussian cavalryman’s explosion into action becomes legible as the manifestation of a divine violence breaking into the present moment. Kleist’s anecdote is a myth of divine actuality, of godlike or godly force shattering the empirical order. The truth of the living god—so wahr Gott lebt—is the explosive energy of his (His?) becoming present now. The divine for Kleist, I want to say, has its being as intensity. Kleist’s texts are about the emergence of such intensities, about their vicissitudes, their collisions, and their dissipations. Support for this conjecture can be gleaned from a second verbal detail of the anecdote. At the attack’s inception, the cavalryman’s gaze is said to fix—even to seize: ins Auge fassen—his hapless French victims blitzend, a present participle adverbially deployed to signify lightning striking. I gloss this as follows: in the action of pure intensity, there is no discrepancy between intention and realization; seeing the enemy is the incipience of, and thus continuous with, the strike.6 The temporal hiatus between inner resolve and external performance falls away. Will and execution achieve identity as pure present actuality. The will, we might say, wills its own being as action. This almost sounds like a definition of the divine; and indeed, even in a post-Franklin world lightning could still feel like the actuality of divine violence. As a matter of fact, exactly that is its connotative function in Kleist’s texts generally. For Kleist, the divine is the pure intensity of the lightning flash. One need only recall that in the anecdote entitled “God’s Stylus,” which appeared in the Berliner Abendblättern (the evening paper edited by Kleist) the evening before the “Anecdote from the Recent Prussian War” was published there, the eponymous divine stylus is figured by a lightning bolt that shatters the pretentious ornaments of hypocrisy and spells out divine judgment in the array of letters: sie ist gerichtet (“she is condemned”). Or think of the early “Hymn to the Sun,” where the imaginary cognate of the lightning bolt as a figure of divine actuality is the sun’s ray, the Strahl:

Helios! Wrench round your wheel of flames!

Look! He wrenches it upward! The nights, how they flee—

Shining the god inscribes his name there,


With the stylus of his ray,

“Creatures, do you render homage to me?”

—Shine, Ruler, we pay homage to you.

The sun’s ray, the bolt of lightning: kindred figurations of intensity as explosive radiance, as the unity of intention and execution, as divine violence, and, remarkably enough, as an act of solar inscription. Kleist’s entire oeuvre is rooted in this conceptual nexus.


We can bring out a further aspect of Kleist’s writing of intensity by remaining for a moment in the year 1799, when Kleist wrote not only the “Hymn to the Sun” just cited, but also an “Essay on the Sure Path to Finding Happiness and Enjoying It Undisturbed—Even in the Greatest of Tribulations!” Where generic or thematic conformity reigns, even slight deviations are telling, and for this reason the essay is a gift to the critic interested in gauging the intentional thrust of Kleist’s writing. Indeed, the initial impression one has of Kleist’s text is one of faithful adherence to the paradigm established by the immensely popular moral treatise published in 1748 by Johann Joachim Spalding, Reflection on the Vocation of Man. By 1794, this pamphlet had gone through ten editions. In 1800, a year after Kleist composed his essay, no less a philosopher than Johann Gottlieb Fichte would honor Spalding’s memory by bringing out a book of nearly the same title. Another author who deserves mention in this context is Christoph Martin Wieland, Kleist’s first literary mentor. In fact, the central argument of Kleist’s text is perfectly epitomized in the title of a treatise by Wieland published in 1756: Attempt at a Proof that Happiness Resides in Virtue and Follows from It as Its Natural Consequence. We are dealing, in short, with a variety of neo-Stoic doctrine, the central aim of which is to identify a form of happiness impervious to the perturbations of fate. Such security of mind was thought to reside in the self-awareness of virtuous conduct. Consciousness of virtue, according to neo-Stoic theory, is immune to the vicissitudes of worldly conditions. Kleist, acutely sensitive to the ever-present danger of catastrophic reversals of fortune, embraced this thesis. The innovation his essay brings about vis-à-vis its predecessors is not to be found on the level of its claims, but rather in the peculiar urgency with which those claims are stated. Kleist presses the concept of happiness—this is already suggested by the exclamation point of his title—to an ecstatic extreme. For Spalding, the relevant form of happiness is rendered as the “pleasurable contentment” or “satisfaction” afforded by the self-intuition of one’s own moral character. Kleist takes up the idea of self-intuition, but intensifies the Enlightenment thinker’s moderate contentment to “full and exalted delights.” In the same context, he speaks of “exaltedly delightful feelings” and, with regard to the image of the crucified Christ, of “an entire heaven of feelings.” The last-mentioned phrase can be attributed to the influence of sentimentalism, but the extremity is nonetheless noteworthy and must be counted as a genuine Kleistian trait. Thus, in the “ecstatic delight without end” promised by the rose festival in Kleist’s tragedy Penthesilea (1808) we find the same untenably hyperbolic pitch of emotional intensity, now stripped of sentimentalist propriety. The rose festival is a collective erotic consummation that passes over into horrific violence.

To understand the source of this emotional extravagance, we must consider a second innovation of the essay, namely Kleist’s marked accentuation of the concept of image (Bild). The concept is closely related to the deeply invested concept of Bildung, or self-forming (self-cultivation), that occupied Kleist especially in this early phase of his career. Not the virtuous conduct of life, as in the Enlightenment treatises, but the internal image (one might say: the model or ideal) of virtue provides the thematic focus of Kleist’s moral reflection. It is this image toward which the subject “strives” with “innermost inwardness,” as Kleist phrases it in emphatic tautology. The subject achieves itself in a projective identification with the revered and internalized model. The two innovations accomplished in Kleist’s text—the emotional extremism and the attractive power of the image—are inextricably entwined. Distance from or proximity to the internal image determines the fluctuation of Kleistian affect. The source of happiness (a word that now seems too pale) no longer resides in the self-awareness of virtue, but in the perfervid investment in the internal image, the identificatory extasis of its subjective appropriation. Image and affectivity have displaced real-world moral practice, a semantic realignment that has far-reaching consequences for Kleist’s work. For where affectivity is the measure, normative distinctions lose their grip. A world comes into being in which “kisses” (Küsse) and violent “bites” (Bisse) can seem to rhyme, as indeed happens in the ghastly rose festival of Penthesilea. That world, however, is already implicit in the drastic, scandalous sentence Kleist included in a letter to his fiancée Wilhelmine von Zenge from September 16, 1800, a year and a half after completing the essay on happiness: “For it is with the same feeling with which you receive the bread from the hand of the priest in holy communion, it is with the same feeling, I say, that the Mexican strangles his brother at the altar of his idol.”

From the “Essay on the Sure Path to Finding Happiness and Enjoying It Undisturbed – Even in the Greatest of Tribulations!” a direct line leads to Kleist’s literary work. It is, in fact, hardly an exaggeration to say that all of Kleist’s heroes and heroines are formed—determined in their innermost character—by their affective investment in a specific internal image. This image is the prolepsis of an ecstatic fulfillment and as such the object of a rigid fixation that determines the character’s intransigent and quasi-somnambulistic pursuit of his or her destiny. The protagonist of Kleist’s greatest play, Prince Friedrich von Homburg (1810), is perhaps the most famous example of such an image-fixated somnambulist. In saying this, I am rehearsing the central and compelling thesis of the posthumously published study by Beda Allemann, Heinrich von Kleist: Ein dramaturgisches Modell, a remarkable synthetic construction of the logic of Kleist’s dramatic oeuvre. Allemann does not see, however, that the function of the internal image is not unique to Kleist, but is, rather, a component of the epochal discourse of Bildung. Compare, for example, Herder’s sentence: “Every human being has an internal image of what he is and what he ought to become; as long as he is not yet that, there is disquiet in his bones.”7 At stake here is the active, formative capacity of the image, its force, one might say, of psychic imprinting, an aspect that can be traced back to religious, indeed mystical, discursive contexts. Nor does Allemann note Kleist’s appropriation of this tradition in the early essay on happiness, the dynamic of which enables us to elicit what I take to be the peculiar inflection of Kleist’s employment of the image as a motivating factor in his stories and plays. My thesis is that for Kleist the image is not conceived in representational terms, not as depiction. Rather, its primary function is to make palpably present an invisible power and to establish with that power something like genuine communication, authentic contact.8 For Kleist, the image transmits intensities. Such transmission, however, is subject to deviations and vicissitudes and these provide the vectors along which Kleist constructs his plots.

One such vicissitude occurs when the image is so effective that its object, the radiant source of intensity, actually enters into the domain of experience, takes on body in the empirical world. A remarkable example of this is the novella The Foundling (1811), in which a woman ritually prostrates herself in impassioned erotic submission before the life-size portrait of her deceased beloved. The same complex forms the imaginative core of Kleist’s Amphitryon (1811), an adaptation of Moliere’s play of the same title that, miraculously enough, outdoes its predecessor in comic subtlety. Consider these lines, in which Alkmene, attempting to quell emergent doubts about her own marital fidelity, recalls to her servant Charis the appearance of her husband Amphitryon.

You would have to misinterpret my feeling

That I never found him more beautiful.

I could have taken him for his image,

For a painting, see, drawn by artist’s hand

True to life, but drawn out into the divine.

He stood there, I don’t know, as in a dream,

An unspeakable feeling seized hold of

Me of my happiness, never felt before,

As he, radiant in his glory, approached me

Yesterday, the victor at Pharissa (II/4, l. 1187-1196).

One must recall here what has sparked Alkmene’s uncertainty regarding the previous night’s conjugal embrace. The troubling worry that she has been unfaithful begins to invade her conscience at the moment when she notices that the letter “J” (for Jupiter) has replaced the letter “A” (for her husband Amphitryon) upon her bejeweled diadem. The chastely sequestered ornament that bears the seal of her marital bond has somehow received an altered imprint. What she doesn’t know (but now dimly suspects) is that Jupiter, appearing in the guise of her husband Amphitryon, in fact shared her bed during the previous night. By inscribing the diadem with his initial, the god not only declared his possession of her, he also symbolically announced a deeper inscription, the act of divine insemination that, after the play’s end, will eventuate in the birth of Heracles. And although she does not yet grasp the meaning of the re-inscription, Alkmene’s reaction upon seeing it—“as if touched by lightning—clearly states the essential matter: that it is here a question of divine intensity, of the lightning strike of Jupiter’s presence to her. The flash of erotic intensity—recall: “as truly as God lives”—shatters the bonds of marital convention much as our lone cavalryman shatters the formation of French soldiers. With this in mind, the status of the image (“I could have taken him for his image, / For a painting”) alluded to in the cited passage becomes intelligible. It was the presence of Amphitryon as image that motivated the night of erotic abandon. The image mediates between the visible and the invisible, the empirical husband and the divine lover. It is the husband become divine and the divine become husband and, as such, it is the conduit of energies felt so intensely as to be beyond the reach of words. Kleist’s Amphitryon unfolds its plot out of the separation and juxtaposition of the two sides of the image that Alkmene’s simile is at pains to hold together: on the one hand, the fact of empirical thereness, dull as only a literal husband can be; on the other hand, the entry into presence of divine intensity. We cannot explore here the comic vicissitudes this ontological diremption generates throughout Kleist’s play, but we should at least note, with a view to our overall theme, that Alkmene’s speech interweaves three levels of intensity that play out across the entire drama: first, the intensity of divine inscription, the blinding, inseminating lightning bolt of Jupiter; second, erotic intensity, something that finds expression in the tensile sensuousness of Kleist’s language; and finally, the intensity of martial violence. One of the discoveries literary scholarship has inherited from the work of René Girard is the insight that the returning hero always radiates the contagious energies of violence and that this irradiation invades the space of tragedy.9 Kleist’s lines betray his knowledge of this fact. The approaching husband/lover’s outpouring of radiance is also the luminescent “glory” of the triumphant slayer of men.

Warrior, lover, god: can there be any doubt but that these three vessels of intensity, of its outpouring, radiation, and violence, come together in the figure of Achilles in Kleist’s Penthesilea? Who is Achilles if not the Helios of Kleist’s early poem, now embodied as supreme warrior? Here is the Amazon’s first glimpse of him:

Look, look how, through that gap in the storm clouds,

With a mass of light, the sun

Falls upon the Pelide’s locks (l. 1033-5).

The image is not descriptive of an object. Rather, the lines evoke the motion of mythic descendance, the transmission of heliotic intensity to the hero. Once this transmission is accomplished, Achilles himself possesses the radiance of the sun:

Radiant he stands upon a hill,

His horse in steel barding, and he, not sapphire

Nor chrysolith casts such rays!

All around the colorful blooming earth is

Cloaked by the blackness of the storm’s night;

Nothing but a dark background and contrast

That sets off the shining splendor of the singular one (l. 1037-43).

This, we might say, is the Kleistian doctrine of the image: visual, to be sure, but not representational. Kleist’s language doesn’t record the predicates of Achilles’ appearance, his facial or corporeal features, but proclaims just the single fact of his opulence of light, his heliotic fulguration. This is the image with which Penthesilea, having received it from the rhapsodes, has identified herself in ecstatic appropriation. I spoke above of the hyperbolic pitch of emotion that the fixation on the image brings forth in Kleist’s early essay. In Penthesilea, this hyperbole is acted out. The Amazon’s affectivity is structured as a throwing upward, a madly excessive self-overthrowing. Her cast (Wurf), as she herself says, aims for the humanly impossible (Unmögliches): nothing less than “pulling Helios by his flaming hair down here to me” (l. 1385): “The young defiant war god I’ll tame,” she says to her compatriots, and “ten thousand suns/Congealed to a single glowing ball/Will not seem so glorious as victory, my victory over him” (l. 630-4). Victory is the seizure of the other’s radiance, the appropriation—as we shall remark in another context—of intensity.

In a stunning paper, Juliane Vogel has recently shown that Kleist’s Penthesilea stages—brings into the space of the dramatic action—the fluvial twists and turns that course through the Trojan landscape, above all the bursting forth, sudden shifts, and switchbacks of the river Skamander.10 The unpredictable fluctuations of the river’s intensity parallel the erratic movement of the Amazonian warriors as they cross-cut the ordered arrangements of the Greek and Trojan troops. And Penthesilea herself compares the thunderclap (Donnersturz) of her soul with the Skamander’s rush at the moment of its greatest intensity, when it gushes down from the mountain. We should not overlook the fact that Skamander is a river god, the son of Okeanos and Thetis, hence a half brother of the Zeus-sired Achilles. The protagonists of the play, both descendents of gods, are the embodiments of energies natural and divine. And if it is true that, as in no other writer of the age except perhaps Hölderlin, the world of Greek mythology comes alive in Penthesilea without the reflective distance inevitably produced by learned allusion, it is because Kleist grasps the essence of that mythology not as a product of the imagination (this the ground-breaking thesis of Karl Phillip Moritz11 ), but as the truth of a world of powers and intensities that are liquid, solar, erotic, martial, and, in all these aspects, divine.

The image as the rendering present of powers and intensities in Kleist, I have been suggesting, provides something like a red thread through his work. One thinks in this connection of the Marquise’s vision of the Russian count as angelic herald in “The Marquise of O–”(1810); of the now-shattered image of imperial legitimacy painted on the jug of The Broken Jug (1807). And one thinks above all of the internal images—the visions and memories congealed to single gestures—that hold Kleist’s characters in thrall: most notably, perhaps, in Prince Friedrich von Homburg. But there is also a variant of the image in Kleist that I would like to call the image of negative intensity: an image that transmits no power or action, but merely the blank aspect of material stasis, the deadness of time. The most telling example is to be found in the brief essay “Sentiments before Friedrich’s Seascape,” the remarkable account of the experience of viewing Caspar David Friedrich’s breathtaking painting Monk by the Sea on the occasion of its first exhibition in 1810. Kleist insightfully locates the specific effect of the painting in its blockage of the experience of the sublime. Whereas the sublime consists in the dialectical surpassing of finitude and concomitant disclosure of the free rational capacity of transcendence, Friedrich’s painting halts—one almost wants to say: freezes—that dialectical movement in its incipience. This is accomplished through the elimination of the foreground/background distinction. The painting offers no safe place here for the beholder to place herself imaginatively in order to look there into the distance that would sustain her inner movement of transcendence: “that toward which I should have looked outward with yearning, the sea, was gone.” In Friedrich’s painting, the entire force of the infinite collapses into the finite; the world thus becomes infinitely finite, and from this implosion there is no safe refuge. “Nothing can be more mournful and painful than this position in the world: to be the only spark of life in the entire empire of death, the lonely midpoint in the lonely circle. The painting lies there, with its two or three mysterious objects, like the apocalypse, as if it were thinking Young’s night thoughts, and since, in its monotony and unboundedness, it has nothing except the frame as foreground, it is, when one contemplates it, as if one’s eyelids were cut away.” Not the blinding light of divine violence, but the exposure to the unblinking, terrified eye of a world rendered boundlessly finite. Friedrich’s painting apocalyptically tears away the comforting veil of “eternal life.” All solace gone. The painting “lies there,” as if dead, as if mortality itself had become painting. But Kleist’s reflection does not end with this purely negative finding. Rather, it finds its way to a gleichwohl: a “nonetheless” that accomplishes the syntactic-rhetorical turn away from the paralyzing melancholy of the initial impression. That turn, however, does not recuperate the uplifting consolation of the sublime, which now seems lost forever. Rather, Kleist discovers in Friedrich’s painting a new path (eine ganz neue Bahn) of artistic practice. We might call that practice literalism: a mode of landscape painting using the very materials—the chalk and water—of the landscape painted, a mode of painting that would be so effective as to incite the foxes and wolves that dwell there to howl. The triumph of Zeuxis is reversed: no longer the perfection of an illusion emergent from the virtual depth of the painting, but rather the perfection of a literalism that coincides with the painting’s material surface. Clearly, the essay has slipped here into the mode of travesty, but travesty, on my reading, is one of Kleist’s principal aesthetic strategies. Rather than develop this point, however, I will merely note that his version of the Saint Cecilia legend (1810) gives us an image before which the young men contemplating it become as howling beasts, wailing in abject non-faith before a crucifix rendered in its literality as “birch twigs tied together and pressed into a little hill of wax.” This variation on the legend of Saint Cecilia provides the bridge to a final speculation. For while the legend carves an arc from the presence of divine power in music to the literalism of the mad brothers’ howling idolatry of twigs and wax, it is also, by virtue of its central motif of iconoclasm, intimately connected with Kleist’s exploration of imagistic power. This suggests that Kleist’s works generally oscillate between positive and negative intensities, between the manifestation of divinities and the literalization of their exhaustion and withdrawal.

The Present

In one of the brilliant aesthetic reflections that emerged out of the collaboration of Goethe and Schiller, the exposé On Epic and Dramatic Poetry with its accompanying correspondence, Goethe notes that the epic poet recites his narrative as completely past while the dramatist presents his action as completely present.12 If we take this distinction to bear on the time when the event happens, we are apt to go wrong. The imperfect of epic narration, as Käte Hamburger demonstrated, does not refer to something that preceded the moment of its reading, but unfolds in a kind of virtual present, with its own sort of immediacy.13 Nonetheless, Goethe’s claim is certainly correct insofar as it highlights the closure of the epic world as opposed to the essential openness of dramatic action. This closure derives from the exteriority of the reciting narrative voice to the epic world. The difference between narrative recitation and dramatic presentation is that the former’s temporality, except in exceptional cases, is of a different order than that of the events depicted, whereas the latter’s temporality tends toward identity with the unfolding dramatic events. Although the fictional world of the epic is not literally past, then, it nonetheless shares with the past what might be termed its thoroughgoing selectivity. The narrator can choose whether to compress or dilate things, whether to focus in on one material detail or to draw back in long shots, whether to follow or to rearrange the sequence of events, whether to repeat, revisit, or, for that matter, to omit. And this selectivity (which Sterne playfully exploited in Tristram Shandy) saturates the epic world. Everything in that world is an item of meaning (intentional selection), and the unfolding of configurations of meaning before my attention, as I follow the rhapsode’s recital, is quite a different thing from my being taken up in the onrush of unfolding events. The latter, the onrush of events, is what Goethe means by Gegenwart, or “presence to.” I take it that Goethe’s position is that this Gegenwart is not simply given with the dramatic/theatrical situation, but rather requires artistic skill, and that such skill is efficacious when the dramatic presentation transports us into the openness of the now. As audience, we do not, of course, occupy the same space, the same world, as the dramatic figures, but, in the successful drama we do occupy the same time, and that time is now. It is the time of what is happening now to them, those figures up there, whose world I don’t share, but whose moment I do: “this moment, at which an arrival is awaited, in which a decision is made or left unmade, at which the past erupts into the present, in which reason or emotion fail.”14 With Kleist’s Broken Jug and an early version of Penthesilea in mind, Goethe wrote admiringly in a letter to Adam Müller (August 28, 1807) of Kleist’s ability to dramatically achieve a gewaltige Gegenwart: a powerful, even violent presence that, as it were, tears the reader or spectator along with the course of events moving from now to now. The now is not a unit of meaning, it is not deployable; its essence is what is called in German—the term, to my ear, is untranslatable—Unverfügbarkeit (that which cannot be disposed over, controlled, managed).

It is one of the accomplishments of Kleist’s writing to have brought the openness of the now—its unforeseeable character, its multiplicity and fluidity of circumstantial determinants, its catastrophic turns, its capacity to carry one along, in short: everything Goethe meant by the phrase gewaltige Gegenwart—into the very structure of the sentence. Confirmation of this thought is afforded by the essay “On the Gradual Fabrication of Thoughts in Speaking” (1805), which, like “On the Marionette Theater,” is a virtuoso synthesis of anecdote and theoretical reflection. The text presents itself, initially at least, as a kind of how-to manual, advising how to produce effective (one wants to say: vanquishing) speech. If I were to compare it with any other text, it would be to those remarkable ten propositions entitled “On the Doctrine of Style” that Nietzsche, animated by pedagogical eros, wrote for Lou Andreas-Salomé during their joint sojourn in Thuringia in August of 1882. Here is the fifth and most important maxim: “Abundance of life is displayed in the abundance of gestures. One must learn to sense everything, the length and brevity of sentences, the punctuation, the choice of words, the pauses, the sequence of the arguments—as gestures.”15 The counsel Nietzsche’s maxim offers is to infuse even such semantically indifferent matters as punctuation and sentence length with the vitality of corporeal expression. In style of the sort Nietzsche advocates, thought is fully embodied. His ideal is the command of even the inert features of language by life, in the Nietzschean sense of life as self-organizing, self-transforming power. This stylistic ideal involves a certain simulation of the oral in writing, a mediated recovery of the interactional or face-to-face system of communication in which gesture is born. Kleist shares with Nietzsche the strategy of simulating interaction within the scene of scriptural production, but his goal is to charge each sentence with dramatic tension.

The core counsel Kleist offers is that an actual or imagined agonistic encounter with another speaker spurs the “finding” of thought, its fabrication in speech. The real or potential strife charges the situation of language production with a sense of urgency. Something crucial—victory or defeat and the consequences that follow from each—is at stake. Urgency, just because it compels action forward, also lends each moment weight, the weight of potential decisiveness. Time is running out. If I hesitate, the other might seize the moment; I may not make it to the next sentence or phrase, and thus could lose—such is always the risk—the linguistic territory I am seeking to occupy. For Kleist, strong writing unfolds under the pressure of endangerment. This brings us to the second dimension of the agonistic situation: the elimination of the security of the external observer. Antecedence, as the position of reflection, the exteriority of the narrator to the narrated world, the comfort of foresight is no longer possible, and speech must achieve itself in the openness of the moment. With the example of the Prussian cavalryman in mind, we can say that when intention and execution coincide, when the hiatus between willing and doing falls away, then something like maximal intensity under the given circumstances is achieved. What Kleist envisions is the experience of language—the experience of the rhetorical period and each of its subcomponents—as dramatic unfolding. The third function of the agonistic scenario is that, due to its urgency, it summons forth unforeseen forces and possibilities. There is, in other words, an aspect of world disclosure here, an emergence of the new and unheard-of. Drawn into the open are, first of all, subjective resources: ideas, associations, formulations, but these resources are also possibilities in the world. At the point where thought and rhetorical execution coincide an event of semantic disclosure finds its completion and a new state of things is revealed. Kleist’s most telling example of such a speech event is Mirabeau’s refusal to obey the king’s order, delivered to the Third Estate by the royal master of ceremonies, to cease deliberation and leave the Salle des États, where the Third Estate convened. The historical effect of Mirabeau’s response (June 23, 1789) was, of course, the establishment of the National Assembly and therewith the declaration of the sovereignty of the French people. Tracing Mirabeau’s bold retort in its phrase-by-phrase emergence, Kleist highlights the improvisational character of this event of speech, its invention out of the moment of endangerment. By combining citation with intercalated commentary, Kleist’s rendering dilates the pivotal moment, magnifying its risky, uncertain character:

“Yes,” answered Mirabeau, “we have heard the King’s command,”—I am certain that in making this humane beginning he had not yet thought of the bayonet with which he ends: “yes, Sir,” he repeated, “we have heard it”—here one can see that he as yet doesn’t know what he wants. “But what gives you the authority”—he continues, and now suddenly a wellspring of prodigious ideas opens up to him—“to even suggest a command to us? We are the representatives of the nation.” That was what he needed! “The nation gives commands and does not receive them.”—immediately to swing himself up to the peak of temerity. “And just so I make myself clear”—only now does he find expression for the full measure of resistance in which his soul stands armed: “inform your King that we will not leave our seats except under the force of the bayonet.”—At which point he sat down on his chair satisfied with himself.

This fabrication of thought in language brings about what Kleist calls a “revolution in the order of things,” a radically innovative semantic parsing of the political world. The crucial point, however, is that the unheard-of thought (Mirabeau’s intended meaning) only emerges out of a contested labor of articulation in the unfolding present of the agon.

It is noteworthy that Kleist refers to the utterance-event of Mirabeau’s defiant reply as a “bolt of lightning” that, in striking, irrevocably splits history into before and after. It has become clear that the references to lightning scattered across Kleist’s texts are not conventional markers of astonishment or awe. Rather, they are woven into a web of thought that bears on the nature and effects of intensity. With this in mind, we can turn to the summary account of Mirabeau’s lightning bolt that follows on Kleist’s reconstruction of its dramatic unfolding:

If one thinks of the master of ceremonies, then one cannot imagine him in this scene otherwise than as in a state of complete intellectual bankruptcy; this according to a similar law as that which determines that when a body in a null state of electricity enters the atmosphere of an electrified body, it suddenly takes on the opposite electrical charge. And just as in the electrified body its own degree of electrification will, according to a law of reciprocal effect, be strengthened, so it was that, at the destruction of his opponent, our speaker’s spirit crossed over into the most audacious enthusiasm.

For Kleist, the shifting relations of electrical charge provide a model of the vicissitudes of interaction. The entire agon within which the utterance emerges is a play of intensities.16 And if it is enthusiasm—the animating inrush of spirit—that comes over Mirabeau at the moment his own electrical state abruptly rises, this is because the god or spirit always enters the present moment in the form of intensity. Mirabeau’s statement is an act of divine re-inscription kindred to that performed by the lightning bolt in the anecdote “God’s Stylus” or to Jupiter’s alteration of Alkmene’s diadem. Intensities of this order are divine or, as in the case of Penthesilea, mad.

The unique shape and force of Kleist’s style derives from his endeavor to realize the experience of language exemplified in the anecdote of Mirabeau’s explosive retort. Consider just the first sentence of the novella The Earthquake in Chili (1807): “In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, there stood, just at the moment of the great earthquake of 1647 in which many thousand people lost their lives, a young Spaniard named Jerónimo Rugera beside one of the pillars of the prison, to which he had been committed accused of a crime, about to hang himself.” I have put pressure on the conventions of English word order here in order to mimic the distance between syntactic commencement (“there stood”) and completion (“about to hang himself”) that stretches the German original almost to the breaking point. Such extended postponement (it can be felt in one’s breath) is crucial to the signature Kleistian effect of uncertain, indeed threatened, outcome. As always in Kleist, drastic semantic juxtaposition (mass death by natural catastrophe versus self-willed individual death) makes for high dramatic stakes. A hypotactic network of dilating appositions and relative clauses evokes the twisting personal and political histories that intersect “just at the moment” of disaster. This makes salient the omnipresent theme of contingency in Kleist’s occasionalist universe. The phrase “about to” holds not only the protagonist, but also the reader at the edge of the decisive moment around which the sentence curls. There is nothing gradual or preliminary about this initial sentence; it catapults the reader into the rush of catastrophe. And the remarkable thing is that Kleist can maintain this sense of the fragile or endangered present in sentence after sentence. The thought that a stone arch is held in place solely because its component stones check one another’s fall held a deep existential significance for Kleist, but it can also be considered the model of the Kleistian sentence. His sentences seem barely rescued out of syntactic and semantic collapse. In this way they bring the openness of dramatic presence into the movement even of narrative prose, investing Kleist’s style with a taut intensity that knows no parallel in the German language.

When I aesthetically consider (“contemplate”) the stove in my room, Wittgenstein noted in his diary on October 8, 1916, it does not appear to me as one among the countless things that furnish the world. Rather, it is my world.17 This thought recalls our starting point with Sartre. Literary works, it was claimed, bring worlds to aesthetic presentation and the task of the critic is to solicit the internal order of those worlds. In the case of Wittgenstein’s stove, we can only speculate on the order that revealed itself to his thoughtful attention. Perhaps the coal-fed contraption in the corner of the room disclosed a world that is burning within; that demands my labor and repays that labor with comfort; that is ever so slowly disintegrating into rust; and that strikes me as being “out there,” opaque, awkward in a jerry-rigged sort of way. In the free play of reflective judgment, these stove qualities become the deep criteria according to which the aesthetically presented world takes on intelligibility, purposiveness. Their coherence is the world’s form. Despite the almost childish simplicity of the case, the lesson is applicable to criticism even of a body of work as idiosyncratic and internally complex as that of Kleist. Kleist’s world, such was the argument developed here, is a world understood under the aspect of intensity. Intensity is not an item in the world, but one of the categories that render that world intelligible such as it is. Its application extends from such elemental phenomena as a river’s rush to manifestations of the divine. It encompasses such diverse domains of human experience as eros, combat, speech, political action, and madness. It lends the concept of image an original inflection and deploys that concept to grasp the nature of human aspiration. Fluctuations of intensity give rhythm to the world, oscillating between the extremes of high-pitched exuberance and mortal stasis. Intensity coheres with the form of the agon (another crucial category of Kleist’s world) and with a temporality centered on the unforeseeable, disruptive character of the present moment (a third category). Finally, the category of intensity determines the structure, pace, and effect of Kleist’s verse and prose. Kleist’s world is a world of intensities, their explosions, their movements, their vicissitudes, and their dissipations. On the moral level—the level, let us say, of intentions, desires, affects, commitments, and dependencies—these dramas of intensity are conflictual, often murderously violent, occasionally blending into madness. They also afford access to a unique and uniquely compelling experience of incandescent beauty.


A German version of the present essay appeared in the volume Kleist Revisited, ed. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Friederike Knüpling (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 2014).
1.  Jean-Paul Sartre, Situations (Paris: Gallimard, 1947), 71.
2.  My retelling of the anecdote draws on the edition: Heinrich von Kleist, Sämtliche Erzählungen, Anekdoten, Gedichte, Schriften, vol. 3 of Sämtliche Werke in vier Bänden, ed. Klaus Müller-Salget (Frankfurt a.M.: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 2005), 356-57. I have employed this four-volume edition throughout; translations are in every case my own. To disencumber the annotations, exact page references to works cited are not provided. This seemed justified since this essay is primarily intended for English speakers who would, in any case, not consult the German edition. The following translations afford access to all the works discussed, with the exception of very few anecdotes and one essay: Kleist,The Marquise of O– and Other Stories, trans. David Luke and Nigel Reeves (London: Penguin Books, 1978); Kleist, Selected Writings, trans. David Constantine (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2004); Kleist, Plays, ed. Walter Hinderer (New York: Continuum, 1982). Quotations from plays parenthetically refer to act/scene numbers (if available) and line numbers.
3.  Stanley Cavell speaks in much the same sense of “hidden literality” in his Beckett essay: “Ending the Waiting Game: A Reading of Beckett’s Endgame,” in Must We Mean What We Say?, updated ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 115-62. See pages 119-27.
4.  Niklas Luhmann, Soziale Systeme. Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1993), 98. (The line is repeated in other works by Luhmann.) My gloss on the thought echoes Stanley Cavell’s essay on King Lear in Must We Mean What We Say? See “The Avoidance of Love: A Reading of King Lear,” 267-356, especially page 334.
5.  See George Herbert Mead, “The Present as the Locus of Reality,” in The Philosophy of the Present (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2002), 35-60.
6.  With respect to this use of the figure of lightning, one could draw a line from Kleist to Nietzsche, who famously employed the “lightning strike” in section I/13 of Genealogy of Morality to debunk the idea of the “doer” antecedent to the deed. For a rich discussion of the philosophical significance of the passage in Nietzsche, see Robert B. Pippin, “The Expressivist Nietzsche,” in Interanimations: Receiving Modern German Philosophy (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 219-34.
7.  On the history of the concept of Bildung (including the Herder reference), see Reinhart Koselleck, “Zur anthropologischen und semantischen Struktur der Bildung,” in Begriffsgeschichten (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 2006), 105-54.
8.  In the wake of Jean-Pierre Vernant’s research, one could say that Kleist reactivates the function of the image in the ancient world. See Vernant, “From the ‘Presentification’ of the Invisible to the Imitation of Appearance,” in Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays, ed. Froma I. Zeitlin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 151-63.
9.  René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 41-42.
10.  Juliane Vogel, “Windung und Bahn Landschaftsdramaturgie in Kleists Penthesilea,” Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift für Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 87, no. 4 (2013): 600-615.
11.  Karl Philipp Moritz’ treatise of 1791, Götterlehre oder mythologische Dichtungen der Alten, is the inspiration for virtually all Romantic theories of mythology.
12.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sämtliche Werke, Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche, vol. 18 [Not sure what to do with the section number, is it needed?], ed. Friedmar Apel et al. (Frankfurt a.M.: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1987), 445.
13.  Käte Hamburger, The Logic of Literature, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973).
14.  Cavell, “The Avoidance of Love,” 334. On the following page, Cavell develops the distinction between narrative and drama very much in line with Goethe’s reflection on the topic.
15.  Friedrich Nietzsche, Sämtliche Werke. Kritische Studienausgabe, vol. 10, ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1980), 38.
16.  It is worth recalling here that at the time Kleist was writing, electricity was by no means a well understood and scientifically localized phenomenon. Luigi Galvani had discovered the bioelectromagnetic muscular mechanism only in 1791, Allessandro Volta’s battery was invented in 1800, but the discoveries by Ampére, Faraday, and Ohm all followed after Kleist’s death. When in the same passage Kleist notes the “noteworthy correspondence between the events of the physical and the moral worlds,” his claim moves within the semantically fluid ambience of nature observation and speculation. It is not, strictly speaking, a scientific claim.
17.  Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus logico-philosophicus, Tagebücher 1914-16, vol. I of Werkausgabe, Philosophische Untersuchungen (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1984), 178.
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