I’ve just read the chapter in Robert E Helbing’s The Major Works of Heinrich von Kleist on Kleist’s Kant crisis and it has confirmed what I’ve always believed. You could drive yourself crazy with philosophy and it could be argued that Heinrich von Kleist did exactly that. He was certainly never the same after reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason which argued the inability of reason to discern the truth behind appearances. This played havoc with his belief in human perfectibility and immortality expressed here to his fiancée, Wilhelmine,  on 22.03.2011

 If people all had green lenses instead of eyes they would be bound to think that the things they see through them are green …. It is the same with our minds.  We cannot decide what we call truth is truly truth or whether is only seems so to us.  If the latter, then the truth we gather here is nothing after death – and all our striving to acquire something of our own that will go with us even into the grave, is in vain … (Translation: David Constantine)

This (in)ability to discern the truth whether through reason or feeling becomes a fundamental concern in his work and while that sounds weighty, it certainly doesn’t read that way. I was thoroughly entertained by the two works I read for German Literature Month.

The investigation into the eponymous Broken Jug (Der Zerbrochene Krug, ca 1806) is a comic masterpiece, in which Frau Marthe Rull sues her daughter’s betrothed, Ruprecht, for the damage to an antique and very precious  jug. The jug was broken during an altercation allegedly between Eve, her daughter, and Ruprecht. The case is to be heard in the village court. The judge, Adam, is nervous for a number of reasons. Firstly, the county assessor has arrived and he is to watch over Adam’s performance (and anybody who has had to submit to an internal audit will know how that feels). Secondly, Adam is not best prepared as he is sporting a number of injuries, including a couple of head wounds which he cannot hide because circumstances have conspired to lose both his judicial wigs. Now the stories he tells to justify this set of circumstances are hiliarious. Concentrating solely on the wigs, one is at the wigmaker’s for repair, the second is under his bed as the cat has just delivered her litter in it.

We don’t believe a word – and nor should we. Taking note of the character names – Adam and Eve – leads us to suspect what is going on. (Though not quite the whole story.) So it comes as no surprise when Ruprecht reveals that he hits the stranger who was trying to escape from Eve’s room over the head twice with his walking stick. And then the court clerk, Licht (light, another symbolic name) arrives having found Adam’s wig in the unlikeliest of places …. The objective evidence finally proves what our intuition, backed up by Adam’s dissembling has told us all along. But what are the reasons for Eve’s behaviour – there is nothing available for us to understand her motivations. Only when Adam’s guilt becomes obvious, does she open up and tell the whole story.  The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth comes out in the end, but not until the material evidence is uncovered.

The opposite is true in Kleist’s 1811 novella, The Duel (Der Zweikampf, 1811), in which all manner of distressing trials and tribulations are experienced by its 14th century characters and the material evidence, a love token, serves not to unveil the truth but to obscure it. (I won’t go into detail about the story here as Caroline reviewed it extensively yesterday.) Medieval legalities and belief in divine intervention to ensure exposure of the guilty muddy the waters still further. As does the fact that neither party involved in the duel is guilty of the crime for which the duel is being fought. One is guilty of something else but that’s not relevant in this supposed holy combat. Or is it? Whether Kleist is proving that God moves in mysterious ways or satirising 14th century legalities is beyond the remit of this post (but is full of potential for a future one). As per The Broken Jug, the truth does finally out, but in contrast to it, it is not material evidence that brings it fully into focus.

I read both works from David Constantine’s sparkling translations.  The book has a rather suggestive front cover, which is quite appropriate for the underlying sexual tensions in both works (again fodder for another post). It contains 3 plays – The Broken Jug (comedy), Amphitryon and The Prince of Homburg (tragedies) – and Kleist’s 8 novellas along with some shorter anecdotal pieces, essays and letters.  Entertaining stories,  historical settings, and philosophical themes which remain current.  I  see myself working through this volume in its entirety in the near future.

The Broken Jug    / The Duel

P.S I would love to see The Broken Jug on stage, but I suppose not being in Germay to join in the bicentennial of Kleist’s death, I’ll have to settle for a film. Anyone recommend an adaptation worth seeing?

Advertisements