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Heinrich Von Kleist, Education and Violence

Heinrich von Kleist

The work of Dr Seán Allan was put forward as a Modern Language and Linguistics Impact Case Study as part of the University of Warwick's submissions to the Research Excellence Framework, 2014. His research into the German Enlightenment and, in particular, the work of writer Heinrich von Kleist has enriched cultural experiences and a different perspective on contemporary issues through the introduction of new ideas, arguments and forms of expression. In this series of podcasts from 2012, Dr Seán Allan, Professor Ricarda Schmidt and Dr Steven Howe explore the life and work of Henrich von Kleist, a 'writer out of his time' whose work always courted contradiction and controversy.

(1777-1811) is one of the most important German writers of the early nineteenth century, and his works have had a profound influence on subsequent writers both in Germany and beyond. His admirers in the German-speaking world include E.T.A. Hoffmann, Franz Kafka, and Thomas Mann, and – in the post-war period – Christa Wolf, Monika Maron and the dramatist Heiner Müller. His works have been filmed by the French filmmaker Eric Rohmer and produced on stage by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In the English-speaking world John Banville, Nicholas Mosely, Philip Pullman, and Will Self have all acknowledged his influence on their own work.

One of the most striking features about Kleist is the way that, throughout history, he has been enlisted in the service of often diametrically-opposed political agendas. Re-discovered as a source of nationalistic fervour following the founding of Imperial Germany in 1871, Kleist’s plays and stories were immensely popular during both World War I and World War II. During the Third Reich Kleist was seen as a perfect embodiment of the Nazi ideology of ‘blood and soil’ and the screen adaptation of his comedy The Broken Pitcher (starring Emil Jannings) was reputedly one of Hitler’s favourite films. However, that did not stop amateur German actors living in exile from staging his plays in war-time London in an attempt to ‘reclaim’ German culture from its misappropriation at the hands of the Nazis.

However tarnished his reputation may have been in the immediate post-war years, during the 1960s Kleist was re-invented as a radical author whose works, it was often claimed, undermined all forms of political and patriarchal authority. The perception of Kleist as a ‘marginalised’ writer at odds with the cultural establishment of his time made him a figure with whom emerging directors of New German Cinema – among them Volker Schlöndorff, Hans-Jürgen Syberberg and Helma Sanders-Brahms – could easily identify; and the French cultural critic, Hélène Cixous famoulsy said that she owed her life to Kleist and that his writing should be regarded as a precursor of what she termed ‘écriture feminine’.

Kleist’s work has always courted controversy and inspired contradictory interpretations; and he has frequently been seen as ‘a writer out of his time’. However, our project: Kleist, Education and Violence. The Transformation of Ethics and Aesthetics sets out to explore the enigma Kleist poses from the opposite direction. Rather than emphasising rupture, we will concentrate on continuities instead and on Kleist’s creative engagement with eighteenth- century discourses. Funded by the Arts and Humanties Research Council, our three-year project (located at the University of Exeter and the University of Warwick) explores one aspect of Kleist’s work – education – that has been almost totally ignored to date, and seeks to relate it to another – the representation of violence – in a way that sheds new light on constructive and destructive functions of violence in his work.

Intuitively, the two aspects would seem to be at opposite ends of a spectrum, with education stemming from ethical endeavours and violence marking the breakdown of ethical behaviour. However, we demonstrate that one of the most important aspects of Kleist's work lies in the fact that he explores multiple interdependencies between education and violence, as well as complex and contradictory ethical implications in each. Whether violence is conceived of as innate, as the result of social oppression, or as ‘necessary' means to a higher moral end has vital consequences for our understanding of works of art, and, moreover, for ethical choices in our lives. Similarly, the question of what role different models of education can play in mitigating or exacerbating violence is of importance not only for our understanding of Kleist, but also for conceptualising our future.

These podcasts are designed to provide an informed introduction to Kleist’s life and works. In the first – Kleist’s philosophical world – we explore Kleist’s indebtedness to the thought of the Enlightenment and his complex relationship to early German Romanticism. Kleist’s views on Kant’s epistemology have long been seen as crucial to an understanding of his works and we discuss this together with his reception of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The second podcast – Kleist’s women – explores prevailing attitudes to questions of gender at the end of the eighteenth century, and considers how these ideas informed the author’s relationship with four key women in his life: his long-suffering fiancée, Wilhelmine von Zenge, his half-sister Ulrike von Kleist (a relative he famously described as an ‘amphibian’ being who belonged fully to neither sex), his cousin and confidante, Marie von Kleist, and finally Henriette Vogel, with whom he died following a suicide pact.

In the remaining podcasts we turn our attention to some of the better known works of fiction Kleist wrote. (All of the stories are available in English translation published by Penguin Classics.) In our discussion of The Earthquake in Chili – a work closely bound up with the philosophical debates triggered by the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 – we consider the ways in which Kleist’s story engages with the discourses of Enlightenment optimism and the thought of Rousseau and Voltaire. Our fourth podcast – The Betrothal in St. Domingo – focuses on a love story set against the background of the slave revolution that took place in Haiti between 1791 and 1804, and considers what the implications of this story are for an understanding of German responses to the French Revolution of 1789. Finally, our podcast on The Marquise von O… (a story in which the female protagonist is raped by her rescuer while she lies unconscious and subsequently discovers that she is pregnant without knowing how) explores the ways in which this ‘moral tale’ is informed by the prevailing discourses of gender, violence and ethics in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Prussia.

Interested in German? Find out more about German Studies at the University of Warwick.

You might also be interested in German and Business Studies; German and History; German and Sociology; German and Theatre Studies; German and Italian; German with Film Studies; German with French; German with International Studies; German with Italian or German with Spanish.

Kleist's philosophical world


Kleist's women


The Earthquake in Chile


The Betrothal in St. Domingo


The Marquise von O...

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October 2012

Dr Seán AllanDr Seán Allan is Reader in German Studies at the University of Warwick. He has published two monographs on Kleist - The Plays of Heinrich von Kleist: Ideals and Illusions and The Stories of Heinrich von Kleist: Fictions of Security, and is co-editor with Elystan Griffths of a Special Number of German Life and Letters entitled Heinrich von Kleist: Performance and Performativity.

Professor Ricarda Schmidt is Professor of German at the University of Exeter and has published numerous essays on Kleist’s work and German Romanticism. She is the author of Wenn mehrere Künste im Spiel sind. Intermedialität bei E.T.A. Hoffmann, and is co-editor (with Seán Allan and Steven Howe) of Heinrich von Kleist: Konstruktive und destruktive Funktionen von Gewalt.

Dr Steven Howe is post-doctoral research fellow on the AHRC project Kleist, Education and Violence: The Transformation of Ethics and Aesthetics. He has published a number of essays on Kleist, and is the author of Heinrich von Kleist and Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Violence, Identity, Nation.

Anton Graff Heinrich von Kleist (via Wikimedia Commons)

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