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Introduction: Kleist's Literary and Philosophical Paradigms

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 May 2022

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Summary

In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas / corpora

—Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 1, lines 1–2

[My spirit compels me to tell of forms changed into new bodies]

SHORTLY BEFORE HIS DEATH, in a letter of August 1811, Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811) wrote to his cousin Marie von Kleist (1761–1831) of his struggle to delineate imagination and reality: “Wirklich, in einem so besondern Fall ist noch vielleicht kein Dichter gewesen” (Truly, perhaps no poet has ever been in such an unusual situation as I am). In the twentieth century, this assessment found increasing agreement, beginning with literary historian Adolf Bartels's 1902 declaration that Kleist was a “homo sui generis” (human being of his own species) and corroborated in Thomas Mann's (1875–1955) 1954 declaration that be it as dramatist, prose author, or personality, “er war einer der größten, kühnsten, höchstgreifenden Dichter deutscher Sprache, ein Dramatiker sondergleichen,— überhaupt sondergleichen, auch als Prosaist, als Erzähler,—völlig einmalig, aus aller Hergebrachtheit und Ordnung fallend, radikal in der Hingabe an seine exzentrischen Stoffe bis zur Tollheit, bis zur Hysterie.” His contemporaries, from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) to Clemens Brentano (1778–1842), to some extent agreed with Kleist's self-assessment. According to Johann Peter Eckermann (1792–1854), Goethe found Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas (1805–10) as alienating as he had found his Penthesilea (1808): “Es gehöre ein großer Geist des Widerspruches dazu, um einen so einzelnen Fall mit so durchgeführter, gründlicher Hypochondrie im Wettlaufe geltend zu machen.” In his letter to the brothers Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786–1859) of November 2, 1810, Brentano describes Kleist with an all but unprecedented combination of contradictory adjectives: “Der Phöbus Kleist, ein sehr kurioser, guter, grober, bornirter, dummer, eigensinniger, mit langsamem Konsequenztalent herrlich ausgerüsteter Mensch.” Kleist and his unusual works, like the metamorphic period he experienced, are, of course, not literally sui generis phenomena; on the contrary, as Heraclitus described it some 2,300 years before Kleist's birth, change is constancy, and, as Tim Mehigan wrote in 2000, Kleist's works demonstrate a “complex dialogue with the Enlightenment”; 200 years after Kleist's death, Christoph Zeller concluded that Kleist was very much a “child of his time.”

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Heinrich von Kleist
Literary and Philosophical Paradigms
, pp. 1 - 14
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2022

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