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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: April 2017

The Facts of Life: Kleist's Challenge to Enlightenment Humanism (Lessing)

from Intellectual Paradigms


It is almost a commonplace that the most basic “facts of life” — intercourse, conception, and pregnancy or birth — form the center of Kleist's prose and drama. Take his two comedies, Der Zerbrochne Krug and Amphitryon, or stories such as “Die Marquise von O …,” “Die Verlobung in St. Domingo,” “Der Findling,” and “Der Zweikampf”: common to all of them is a sexual encounter that precipitates a narrative conflict that, even as it unfolds, bears a strangely hidden, enigmatic quality. More often than not, then, the famous Kleistian “event” disrupting the status quo with such ineluctable force is traceable to the most prosaic of human experiences.

Nowhere did Kleist make his point with greater economy than with the notorious dash in the “Marquise von O …”: a horizontal mark filling, or bridging, the narrative void in which the untold, and untellable, rape occurs. But more than an act is embedded in the dash; it signals the rupture that the naked fact of human physical reproduction represents within the cultural order, as well as within language. This rupture is not just the opposite or the other of culture but its prerequisite, as well. The story of rape and impregnation ends with the perpetrator being granted universal forgiveness “um der gebrechlichen Einrichtung der Welt willen” (2:143). The phrase “die gebrechliche Einrichtung” may capture the paradox of an order the very constitution of which rests on the condition that it be broken apart. The fires of war and sexuality die down once the count has penetrated both fortress and female body; the only erection left is of a social edifice in which a legal father (and all that comes with it: name, paperwork, and inheritance) is installed.

Similarly, though with less felicitous consequences for the protagonists, “Das Erdbeben in Chili” revolves around a moment of natural upheaval that effects at once society's annihilation and its reconstitution. This story of an earthquake is one of birth on a cosmic scale. Precisely at the midpoint of the text we are told, via the anecdote of an awestruck survivor, “wie die Stadt gleich nach der ersten Haupterschütterung von Weibern ganz voll gewesen, die vor den Augen aller Männer niedergekommen seien” (2:151).