Thursday, November 24, 2011


The Tragedy of Fate and the Tragedy of Culture: Heinrich von Kleist’s The Schroffenstein Family

On 21st November 1811, on a lake’s edge near Potsdam, a 34 year old Kleist shot himself dead in a suicide pact with his terminally ill lover. He left behind him just under a decade of intense literary output which has established him as one of the most important writers of the German romantic period. On the bicentenary of his death, Kleist scholar Steven Howe explores the importance of his first dramatic work and how in it can be seen the themes of his later masterpieces.
Chalk-drawing reproduction of a now lost miniature which Peter Friedel made in 1801 to be presented to Kleist's fiancée at the time Wilhelmine von Zenge
Heinrich von Kleist is without doubt one of the most challenging figures in German literary history. In a career lasting a little under a decade, from 1802 through to his premature death in 1811, he produced a remarkable body of creative work that radically called into question the prevailing intellectual, aesthetic and ethical orthodoxies of the age. Today, Kleist is perhaps most familiar, certainly to British audiences, as the dramatist behind the violently tragic Penthesilea and the brilliantly enigmatic The Prince of Homburg, and as the author of a series of daring and dramatic short stories, including Michael Kohlhaas, The Marquise of O…, and The Earthquake in Chile. Altogether less well-known, however (notwithstanding Eric Bentley’s adaptation in German Requiem), is his first major literary production, the five act play The Schroffenstein Family, published in 1803. Aside from a brief premiere at the National Theatre in Graz in January 1804, the drama found little immediate resonance, and it has traditionally been regarded as belonging to the second class of the author’s imaginative work. Kleist, for his part, also seems to have attached little value to the piece, referring to it in a letter to his sister, Ulrike, as a ‘wretched botched job’. That the drama suffers from the defects one might expect of the first work of a young poet is a point that few would demur: the language is overwrought, the plot convoluted, and the entire exposition lacks the refined touch which Kleist was later to perfect. That being said, the play nonetheless contains a number of scenes and episodes which provide an early glimpse of the author’s promise and genius, and introduces several of the most significant themes and features which were to subsequently become a hallmark of his poetics.
The action of the drama revolves around the conflict between the rival houses of Rossitz and Warwand, and the fate of two star-crossed lovers, Ottokar and Agnes. The imaginative debt to Romeo and Juliet is plain to see, and Kleist hews closely to the model of Shakespeare’s tragedy, though with one significant variation – the two feuding houses are here different branches of the same family. The origins of the conflict extend from a testamentary contract, according to which the property of either house should fall to the other branch if the line of descent is broken. This breeds an atmosphere of mistrust, as both houses suspect one another of pursuing its demise, and particularly that of its heirs. When the younger son of Count Rupert, head of the Rossitz branch of the family, dies in unexplained circumstances, his suspicions thus fall directly on his counterpart, Count Sylvester, and the drama opens with him compelling his immediate family to swear an oath of bloody and absolute vengeance against the entire house of Warwand.
The cast of characters of Die Familie Schroffenstein as featured in a 1922 collection of Kleist's works for the stage.
The tragic trajectory of the play is set by the issue that Ottokar, the elder son of Rupert, partakes in this oath-swearing, unaware that the girl with whom he has fallen in love, Agnes, is the daughter of Sylvester. Once alerted to the fact, he is convinced by Agnes of her father’s innocence in the matter of the child’s death and attempts to negotiate a reconciliation between the warring counts. His efforts are thwarted, however, by Rupert’s burning hatred for Sylvester and his untameable lust for revenge. Upon learning of his son’s clandestine affair, Rupert resolves to murder Agnes, and when the two lovers secretly meet at a mountain cave, he and his vassal, Santing, accost them. In an attempt to deceive his father and protect his beloved, Ottokar exchanges clothes with Agnes; failing to note the switch in the darkness, Rupert stabs his own son to death, whereupon the presently arriving Sylvester follows suit by murdering Agnes in the mistaken belief that she is Ottokar. Ironically – or perhaps appropriately – it falls to the blind grandfather, Sylvius, to recognise the true identities of the two victims and reveal the double filicide. At the play’s end, an old widow, Ursula, discloses the true state of affairs, namely that Rupert’s son’s death was accidental – he drowned in a forest brook. With the misunderstanding resolved, a despairing reconciliation follows, and the drama closes with the mad-driven bastard son of the Rossitz house, Johann, addressing Ursula as master and personification of fate.
That the mechanisms of fate and chance do serve as an important motor for the action of the drama is very much an accepted commonplace in interpretive criticism. In his personal letters, Kleist reveals a fascination with the unknowable powers of contingency and coincidence that intrude upon and shape the life of the individual, and such concerns penetrate to the core of many of his literary works: time and again, he confronts his characters with situations over which they have no control and to which they must then react. In Schroffenstein, chance happenings are heaped upon one another in such a way as to both blunt much of the originality of the constellation, and to strain reader credulity after the fashion of the Gothic tale – it is not without reason that Matthew G. Lewis’s The Monk has been cited as a possible source of inspiration. The outcome is a demonstration of the operations of fate and contingency which, viewed in a narrow sense, seems at times laboured and contrived. The design of the inquiry is, however – in a further parallel to Romeo and Juliet – overlaid with a deeper disquisition on the limitations of human awareness. Ursula’s laconic words to Rupert and Sylvester, ‘If you kill one another, it is an error’, acquire, in this context, special relevance, pointing as they do towards the movement of error and the instances of misunderstanding that drive the action to its tragic close. Here one can detect the influence of Kleist’s encounter with Kantian philosophy, which appears to have shattered his faith in the possibilities of absolute truth and knowledge. The fallibility of perception emerges, as a consequence, as a dominant theme and subject of reflection in Kleist’s work, and remains so across his entire literary corpus. In Schroffenstein, this manifests itself through the frequent recurrence of error and confusion, bred by the characters’ inability to communicate and their attendant susceptibility to misreading reality. Typically, Kleist drives the issue towards aesthetic extremes, crafting an enveloping atmosphere of illusion, deceit and suspicion within the extended family which, in turn, calls forth gruesome acts of vengeance and retributive violence. In this regard, the drama can perhaps be seen as the most Jacobean and Sturm und Drang-like of Kleist’s works – as a grizzly, though at times darkly comedic, exploration of the workings of fate and the human capacity for misunderstanding, and of their effects in unleashing man’s violent potentialities.
Kleist's grave alongside that of Henrietta Vogel, his terminally ill lover whom he shot before shooting himself in a suicide pact on the banks of Kleiner Wannsee near Potsdam. The inscription on Kleist's grave reads 'Now, oh immortality, you are all mine'.
(Photo by Jochen Jansen, published under a CC-BY-SA license).
It would be misleading, however, to suggest that the tragedy be approached solely through the lens of metaphysical and epistemological concerns. For the very issue of error that stands at the heart of the drama raises the question of interpretation, and with it that of the extent to which cultural and social codes give shape to the individual’s understandings and perceptions. In particular, the text displays how the nature of the conflict between the two houses fosters a socially-conditioned prejudice that colours and impairs judgement, and which speaks to a deeper cultural critique embedded within the drama. The major point of reference and orientation here is Jean-Jacques Rousseau who, in his Discourse on the Origins of Inequality, both put into question the Enlightenment faith in human progress and delivered a searing assault on the conditions of modernity. The opening scene of the play already bears the mark of Rousseau’s sway: when Rupert’s wife, Eustache, refers to her natural feminine tenderness in response to his calls for her to swear the oath of vengeance, he objects, ‘Nothing more of nature. It is but a sweet, delightful fairytale from childhood’. What follows does so under the sign of Rousseau’s condemnation of man’s fall from natural goodness into socio-moral decay: the terms of the inheritance contract, for instance, as both agent and symbol of the conflict between Rupert and Sylvester, casts into relief the lure of wealth and property, the original idée fixe, which Rousseau identifies as a root cause of modern inequality and conditions of violence. In its presentation of the trials of the lovers, meanwhile, the text also plays on the anthropology of identity laid down in the Discourse, in which the dilemma of man’s ruinous modernity is diagnosed in terms of the tensions between subject and world. In this instance, that dilemma is telescoped through the relationship between love and society, with Ottokar in particular forced to struggle with the contrast between the demands of his father and his feelings for Agnes. In such a way, the text also points to a modern view of identity as an active positioning of the self in relation to cultural discourses – a theme to which Kleist was to frequently return, perhaps most notably in his portrayal of the cross-cultural relationships between Gustav and Toni in The Betrothal in St. Domingo, and between Achilles and Penthesilea in the drama of the latter name.
These fundamental tensions between nature and culture, between individual and society, serve as a central axis for the greater part of Kleist’s literary oeuvre, and it is perhaps in this sense, above all, that Schroffenstein can be seen to point the way towards his later – and greater – dramatic achievements. On the one hand, his works dwell on the onslaught of fate that upsets the secure ideals of enlightenment rationalism; on the other, however, this aspect is only ever a corollary to a deeper sense of the cultural rift between subject and world, and the attendant instabilities of agency and identity. Behind this lies the experience of the French Revolution and the turmoil it left in its wake, as existing hierarchies of power and status collapsed, and Europe was plunged into a period of instability and conflict. Against this backdrop, Kleist, like so many of his Romantic contemporaries, critically explores the paradigms of eighteenth-century humanist discourse, taking up the tensions and paradoxes embedded therein and exhibiting them in the full light of his imagination. In particular, it is the complex relationship between nature and culture to which he time and again returns, with most of his texts turning upon an exploration of the psychological and moral conflicts between the individual and his or her environment. Frequently, such struggles escalate to a sudden unleashing of the self, to acts of violent rebellion or assimilation. It is this readiness to plumb the extreme depths of human psychology and conduct under conditions of stress that lends Kleist’s work its peculiar modernism, and which ensures that even now, some two hundred years on from his death, he retains the ability to excite, engage and trouble his readers.

Steven Howe is Associate Research Fellow in the College of Humanities at the University of Exeter. He is currently working, together with Ricarda Schmidt (Exeter) and Sean Allan (Warwick), on a large-scale, AHRC-funded project – timed to coincide with the bicentenary of the author’s death – exploring discourses of education and violence in the works of Heinrich von Kleist (Kleist, Education and Violence: The Transformation of Ethics and Aesthetics). He has previously written a full-length study on Kleist’s engagement with the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and published further articles regarding the representation of violence in Kleist’s texts, and on aspects of their popular and critical reception.

Links to Works

Poems by Friedrich Hölderlin

In English translation by David Constantine

A sampling from the book
Friedrich Hölderlin
Selected Poems
translated by
David Constantine
Second, expanded edition 1996
Published by Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle upon Tyne

Ages of Life
Euphrates' cities and
Palmyra's streets and you
Forests of columns in the level desert
What are you now?
Your crowns, because
You crossed the boundary
Of breath,
Were taken off
In Heaven's smoke and flame;
But I sit under clouds (each one
Of which has peace) among
The ordered oaks, upon
The deer's heath, and strange
And dead the ghosts of the blessed ones
Appear to me.

'Another day'
Another day. I follow another path,
Enter the leafing woodland, visit the spring
Or the rocks where the roses bloom
Or search from a look-out, but nowhere

Love are you to be seen in the light of day
And down the wind go the words of our once so
Beneficent conversation...

Your beloved face has gone beyond my sight,
The music of your life is dying away
Beyond my hearing and all the songs
That worked a miracle of peace once on

My heart, where are they now? It was long ago,
So long and the youth I was has aged nor is
Even the earth that smiled at me then
The same. Farewell. Live with that word always.

For the soul goes from me to return to you
Day after day and my eyes shed tears that they
Cannot look over to where you are
And see you clearly ever again.

'Once there were gods'

Once there were gods, on earth, with people, the heavenly muses
And Apollo, the youth, healing, inspiring, like you.
And you are like them to me, as though one of the blessed
Sent me out into life where I go my comrade's
Image goes with me wherever I suffer and build, with love
Unto death; for I learned this and have this from her.

Let us live, oh you who are with me in sorrow, with me in faith
And heart and loyalty struggling for better times!
For such we are! And if ever in the coming years they knew
Of us two when the spirit matters again
They would say: lovers in those days, alone, they created
Their secret world that only the gods knew. For who
Cares only for things that will die the earth will have them, but
Nearer the light, into the clarities come
Those keeping faith with the heart's love and holy spirit who were
Hopeful, patient, still, and got the better of fate.

The Journey

Suevia, my mother, happy land!
You also are like your more shining sister
Lombardy over there
Flowed through by a hundred streams
And trees in plenty, white with blossom or reddish
And the darker, deep, full green, the wild trees
And the Alps of Switzerland overshadow you too,
Neighbourly; for near the hearth of the house
Is where you live and you can hear
Inside from silvery vessels
The spring rushing that issues
From pure hands when touched

By warm rays
Crystal ice and tipped over
By the lightly quickening light
The snowy summit drenches the earth
With purest water. For that reason
You are born loyal. Hard
Living near the source to quit the place.
And your children, the towns
On the long lake in the haze
On the willowy Neckar and on the Rhine
All think
Nowhere would be better to live.

'When I was a boy'

When I was a boy
A god often rescued me
From the shouts and the rods of men
And I played among trees and flowers
Secure in their kindness
And the breezes of heaven
Were playing there too.

And as you delight
The hearts of plants
When they stretch towards you
With little strength

So you delighted the heart in me
Father Helios, and like Endymion
I was your favourite,
Moon. 0 all

You friendly
And faithful gods
I wish you could know
How my soul has loved you.

Even though when I called to you then
It was not yet with names, and you
Never named me as people do
As though they knew one another

I knew you better
Than I have ever known them.
I understood the stillness above the sky
But never the words of men.

Trees were my teachers
Melodious trees
And I learned to love
Among flowers.

I grew up in the arms of the gods.

Titles of the original poems: Lebensalter, Wohl geh ich täglich..., Götter wandelten einst..., Die Wanderung, Da ich ein Knabe war...

From the back cover of Friedrich Hölderlin Selected Poems:

FRIEDRICH HÖLDERLIN (1770-1843) was one of Europe's greatest poets. The strange and beautiful language of his late poems is recreated by David Constantine in these remarkable verse translations. This is a new edition of Constantine's widely-praised HÖLDERLIN Selected Poems, containing several new translations, including one of the great elegy Bread and Wine. The odes and hymns are more fully represented and there are further extracts, in an equivalent English, from Hölderlin's extraordinary German versions of Sophocles. Notes on the poems have also been expanded. This new volume is a stimulating introduction to the work of a poet who, writing around 1800, addresses us ever more urgently as the millenium ends.
'Hölderlin is a poet we can read with our own atrocious times in mind. He is a deeply religious poet whose fundamental tenet is absence and the threat of meaninglessness. He confronted hopelessness as few writers have, he was what Rilke called "exposed"; but there is no poetry like his for the constant engendering of hope, for the expression, in the body and breath of poems, of the best and most passionate aspirations' - David Constantine
'Constantine goes for an "equivalence of spirit" in a more familiar idiom. This is at once a bold and humble undertaking, and has produced poetry of a remarkable luminosity and intensity, written in rhythms and cadences which recreate, both in their extremities of grief and their urgent hope, the immediacy of the original' - Karen Leeder, Oxford Poetry

David Constantine has published five books of poems, three translations and a novel with Bloodaxe. His latest poetry books are Selected Poems (1991), a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, and Caspar Hauser (1994), a poem in nine cantos. His co-translations include editions of Henri Michaux and Philippe Jaccottet in the Bloodaxe Contemporary French Poets series. His critical introduction to the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin was published in 1988, and his translation of Goethe's novel Elective Affinities in 1994, both from OUP. He is Fellow in German at the Queen's College, Oxford.

Copyright © by David Constantine and Bloodaxe Books. Published here by permission of David Constantine.