Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 May 2022
WITH HER SEMINAL ARTICLE, “Hegel and Haiti,” Susan Buck-Morss called for reading Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's (1770–1831) paradigmatic account of the dialectic of “Herrschaft und Knechtschaft” (mastery and servitude) in light of colonial slavery and the Haitian struggle for personal, economic, and political independence. German intellectuals of the time followed with great interest not only the revolutionary developments in neighboring France but also those in France's colony Saint-Domingue. Like many other prominent German-speaking observers, Hegel religiously read Minerva—Ein Journal historischen und politischen Inhalts (Minerva—A Journal of Historical and Political Content), which, from 1792 to 1805, featured substantial articles on the insurrection of the enslaved laborers and the newly founded nation of Haiti (Buck-Morss 2000, 837–42). For Hegel, who insists on the interconnection of history and truth, the self-liberation of an enslaved class, complete with the creation of a new state, must have been a manifestation of world spirit, Buck-Morss argues, even though, as with many of his historical, philosophical, and literary intertexts, Hegel does not mention the Caribbean context expressis verbis. The Eurocentric refusal to acknowledge the historical importance of the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), she suggests, has stinted the reception and interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy.
With Kleist, the reference is, for once, more obvious: he explicitly sets one of his novellas, “Die Verlobung in St. Domingo” (“Betrothal in San Domingo,” 1811), during revolutionary times in what would soon be known as independent Haiti. Dramatizing the paradoxes of the transition to a new order, the narrative explores the unravelling of the colonial paradigm. In November 1804, Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz (1743–1812), the editor of Minerva, announces, “Die Augen der Welt sind jetzt auf St. Domingo … gerichtet” (The eyes of the world are now directed at St. Domingo). While Kleist would certainly have been attracted by such certified importance, the source of his novella cannot be determined as he combined widely circulated stereotypical depictions.
Other texts by Kleist also feature allusions to Haiti, its slavery-based colonialism, and its revolution. Penthesilea (1808), for example, compounds the issues of race and gender in the alien Geschlecht (tribe) of warrior women who found a nation “der das Gesetz sich würdig selber gebe” (That gives itself its laws in dignity).