Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "Massacre of the Innocents” (1565-67).
Becca Rothfeld,  April 23

Crimes of Passion

The violent imagination of Heinrich von Kleist

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "Massacre of the Innocents” (1565-67).
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Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist, translated by Michael Hofmann. New Directions, 112 pages.

In 1806, the Prussian writer and neurotic Heinrich von Kleist was wretchedly constipated. In a letter to a colleague, he wrote, “I sit here as though by an abyss . . . I have for several months now been plagued with the most stubborn constipations. . . It is a great disorder in my nature, I know; but so it is.”

This missive is characteristic, both because it is so deliciously dramatic—only Kleist would characterize his stomach problems as spiritual agonies—and because his nature was indeed marred by great tangles of disorder. In many ways, Kleist proved constitutionally clogged. Scholars speculate that he suffered from phimosis, a condition in which the foreskin encloses the head of the penis, complicating emissions. Speech, too, was a fraught ejaculation. As Thomas Mann noted in an admiring essay, Kleist floundered when he tried to talk in public, appearing “sullen, melancholy, tongue-tied—a disability stemming in part from a speech defect which made his sporadic contributions sound severely unpleasant.” When he chanced a contribution in company, “he stammered or blushed.” By his own admission, he was an “unspeakable human being.”

Even in writing, Kleist remained unable (or unwilling) to digest thought into word. In an 1801 letter to his sister, he confessed that he would “gladly” convey his anguish to her “if it were possible. But it is not possible. . . Even language, the means we do have [for expression], is of no use, cannot limn the soul, and gives only torn fragments at best.”

Still, he went on crafting torn fragments. Between this disavowal of language and his violent suicide in 1811, Kleist wrote a number of newspaper columns; a handful of flash “anecdotes,” beloved by Kafka; several novellas; many stories; six plays; and a (torn) fragment of a seventh that remained uncompleted. On the face of it, much of what he wrote is as abrupt and enigmatic as his outbursts at parties. His plays are operatically plotted, gnarled with deceptions and revelations. In his prose, leitmotifs flit like images in dreams.

He approached all his projects with the same frantic urgency and abandoned all but writing as cavalierly as a child discarding a toy.

Perhaps the most inscrutable of all his works is the 1810 novella Michael Kohlhaas, newly translated by the incomparable Michael Hofmann. Set in the sixteenth century, the book follows its namesake, a petty horse trader who grows enraged when a nobleman subjects him to a minor injustice. The Junker Wenzel von Tronka is no doubt remiss in confiscating two of Kohlhaas’s mares on illicit grounds—but it is nonetheless shocking when Kohlhaas, who has failed to secure damages in court, turns suddenly vigilante. Almost before we register what is happening, he has assembled a small army, torched Tronka’s estate, and set off on a manhunt across Saxony, laying waste to the towns he passes through.

In an 1811 column, Kleist lamented that he could not reach directly into his heart, remove his thoughts, and place them with his “bare hands” into the chest of his interlocuter. He concludes that he makes recourse to speech solely because he has no alternative. If Kohlhaas acts without apparent motivation, it is perhaps because he, too, cannot scoop his soul out, lacking a language rich enough to match his rancor. In the face of a fury that exceeds all description, the horse-trader resorts to wrathful silence. Kleist, in contrast, kept talking. His sentences, hypnotic and exquisitely controlled, span entire pages, rippling into ever wider and ever dreamier rings.  


Born in 1777 to an aristocratic family, Henrich von Kleist was orphaned by the age of fifteen. He was left to cultivate a passionate relationship with his sister, Ulrike, a ferociously independent woman who disguised herself in male clothing to sneak into lectures undetected. From 1792 to 1799, Kleist served in the Prussian army. But after declaring the military a “monument to tyranny,” he quit to pursue studies in mathematics, logic, physics, and Latin in the town of Frankfurt an der Oder (not to be confused with the city of Frankfurt), where he also became engaged to a bourgeois socialite named Wilhelmine von Zenge.       

It was around this time that Kleist discovered Kant—and was thrown into a panic from which he would never recover. “I am to become another one of those victims of folly of which the Kantean philosophy already has so many on its conscience,” he wrote to Ulrike in 1801. While it remains unclear just which Kantian works disturbed him so acutely, or whether he even had access to a primary source, he seems to have been chagrined by the classic Kantean distinction between noumena, the raw things in themselves, and phenomena, the world’s contents as they appear to us once they have been filtered through our faulty perceptual lenses. “If everyone saw the world through green glasses,” Kleist explained in a letter to Wilhelmine,

they would be forced to judge that everything they saw was green, and could never be sure whether their eye saw things as they really are, or did not add something of their own to what they saw. And so it is with our intellect. We can never be certain that what we call Truth is really Truth, or whether it does not merely appear so to us.

This conclusion proved devastating to Kleist. “Since coming to the realization in my soul that truth is nowhere to be known here on earth,” he wrote, “I have not touched another book. I have paced idly in my room.”  

Kleist’s distress drove him abroad and prompted him to start writing. For the rest of his life, he careened from catastrophe to catastrophe, leaving a trail of failed ventures in his wake. He approached all his projects with the same frantic urgency and abandoned all but writing as cavalierly as a child discarding a toy. For a time, he swore that farming was his one true calling; months later, he insisted that his foremost ambition was to die nobly on the battlefield (instead, he ended up in treatment for nervous collapse). In the end, his engagement to Wilhelmine fell through.

From the first it is ambiguous whether Kohlhaas acts out of a heightened concern for justice or a complete disgust with it.

His forays into editing were equally abortive. Phöbus, a journal he founded with the philosopher Adam Müller, survived less than a year. The periodical folded soon after Kleist sent an issue to Goethe “on the knees of his heart”—and received a reply so dismissive that he contemplated challenging his idol to a duel. His final project, Berlin’s first daily newspaper, hardly fared better. While his wry feuilletons amassed a devoted following, the Berlin Abendblätter succumbed to political pressures from Prussian censors a mere six months after its 1810 inauguration.

Kleist’s extravagant excesses, which would delight modernists like Gide and Nietzsche a century after his death, affronted most of his mild-mannered contemporaries. Unemployed, subsisting on borrowed money that he had for years been unable to repay, he rated himself a failure. In November of 1811, he joined Henriette Vogel, a woman afflicted with incurable cancer, in the small, picturesque city of Potsdam. Newspapers would report that the pair spent “one night and one day” “putting up prayers, singing, drinking a number of bottles of wine and rum, and last of all by taking about sixteen cups of coffee.” Then, as per their agreement, Kleist shot Vogel in the head. Finally, he shot himself in the organ that had always vexed and disappointed him, his mouth.


“People demand, as a qualification for truth, that it seem probable,” Kleist wrote in one of his Berlin Abendblätter columns, “and yet probability, as experience teaches, is not always on the side of truth.” He could well be describing his almost implausibly theatrical death—or his fantastical fiction, which often presents itself as fact. The Marquise of O, a masterfully weird novella about a noblewoman who becomes pregnant under mysterious circumstances, is preceded by a parenthetical assurance that the story is “based on a true incident.” Michael Kohlhaas likewise presents itself as historical chronicle. “In the middle of the 16th century there lived on the banks of the Havel a horse-dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, son of a schoolmaster, at once one of the most righteous and appalling individuals of his time,” it begins. And the book is loosely based on actual events: Kleist was inspired by the brigand Hans Kohlhase, who led a group of pillagers across Saxony when his horses were confiscated by a Junker in the 1530s.

The novella’s first scenes are reminiscent of The Trial. (Fittingly, Kafka read excerpts of the work aloud during one of the two public appearances he ever made.) Though Kohlhaas doggedly petitions the courts, demanding damages from the Junker who stole his horses, he fields one disappointment after another. In the end, Kohlhaas takes matters into his own hands. Here we depart from the Kafkaesque and embark into the territory of inspired overreaction. Kohlhaas descends on the Junker’s castle as wrathfully as “the Angel of Justice,” and for the rest of the book, he breaks the law at least as enthusiastically as he once invoked it.

A portrait of Heinrich von Kleist, via the New York Public Library

From the first it is ambiguous whether Kohlhaas acts out of a heightened concern for justice or a complete disgust with it. On the one hand, he is excruciatingly attentive to the question of desert. No matter how rabid he becomes in his pursuit of revenge, he remains as assiduously precise as a bank clerk when it comes to enumerating the damages he hopes to claim. While he does not hesitate to torch an entire city several times, he continues to request no more than “punishment for the Junker in accordance with the law; restoration of my horses in their original state; and some recompense for the violence done to us. . .” His sense of rectitude is “as finely equilibrated as a pair of jeweler’s scales.” Yet on the other hand, Kohlhaas seems relieved to the point of rapture when he is released from the constraints of cautious lawfulness. Though the Elector promises him amnesty, he is “pleased” to learn that officials have broken their end of the bargain, for now he, too, is licensed to revert to violence.

The love of justice, it emerges, breeds justice’s opposite. If justice is a question of proportion—of punishment commensurate with crimes, of scales carefully calibrated—then Kohlhaas must place himself beyond its purview if he is to succumb to his evident hunger for surfeit and savagery. We would remember Kohlhaas with unmitigated admiration, Kleist writes, if the man “hadn’t followed one of his virtues to excess. His sense of justice led him to robbery and murder.”

Such oxymorons abound in Michael Kohlhaas. Even Kleist can’t seem to make up his mind about his “righteous and appalling” protagonist. He calls him “unappeasable and vindictive” but also “far from contemptible.” In this regard, Kohlhaas resembles many of Kleist’s most memorable characters, who are riven by an irreconcilable doubleness. In “Saint Cecilia, or the Power of Music,” the eponymous saint bewitches iconoclastic rioters on the verge of vandalizing a nunnery, thereby saving the cloister—and dooming the would-be attackers to madness for the rest of their lives. The miracle she performs is “so terrible and so glorious.” The marquise in The Marquise of O informs the man she loves that she “would not have seen a devil in him then if she had not seen an angel in him at their first meeting.” And in Penthesilea, a play that Kleist felt contained “all the filth and radiance of [his] soul together,” the Amazonian queen is “half grace, half fury.” Though she ends by devolving into a frenzy of desire and tearing her beloved to pieces, she is as much a victim as an assailant. The “mere sight” of Achilles renders her “the vanquished,” and after her erotic mania abates, she reflects, her mouth bloody, “A kiss, a bite/The two should rhyme/ for one who truly loves/With all her heart can easily mistake them.”

Kleist was obsessed by such contradictions in part because he hoped to dramatize the dilemma of reflexivity. As they act upon (and against) themselves, his characters splinter into subject and object. In one of his earliest plays, a judge presides over a case in which he himself is the perpetrator. “Have they come,” he wonders, “to bring a suit against myself before myself?” And in Amphitryon—a comedy of mistaken identities inspired by Moliere’s play of the same name—Jupiter assumes the form of the mortal general and confronts his double. As one official jeers, it is “Amphitryon against Amphitryon.” For his part, Kohlhaas is subjected to the injustice that he in turn inflicts. In Kleist’s view, the relationship of a self estranged from itself is invariably antagonistic.

Kleist’s fascination with the adversarial nature of reflexivity was shared by other Romantic writers and philosophers of the period, many of whom were also steeped in Kantian philosophy. Friedrich Hölderlin—another writer criminally underrated by Goethe—posed similar questions in his 1795 essay “Being Judgment Possibility,” where he asked, “How is self-consciousness possible? By setting myself in opposition to myself.” He went on to distinguish between “being” and “identity”: to be myself, he claimed, is to be inseparable from myself, whereas to be identical with myself is “to be able to recognize myself in what opposes me,” thus necessarily sustaining a kind of fracture.

Even at the hour of his death, Kleist felt bifurcated, this time into killer and fatality.

Both Kleist and Hölderlin understood the competing notions of selfhood as tracking the Kantian distinction between freedom and natural necessity—between, that is, the active self experienced from the inside, and the passive self witnessed from without. The former is a subject, whole in itself, while the latter is an object, inhabiting a material world subject to rigid causal laws. Both writers wondered whether the subject can ever be objectified—whether the inner self can ever be made legible to others, and whether the body can ever be made to correspond to the soul.

Kleist offered a tentative (and pessimistic) answer to his life’s guiding question in “On the Marionette Theater,” perhaps his most dazzling work. The 1810 essay describes an accomplished dancer who has determined that dancing puppets surpass their living counterparts. The automata excel because their “the limbs, which are really nothing but pendulums, follow of themselves, in a mechanical way, without further aid”—because, that is, they are subject only to natural laws. The advantage of such a dancing puppet, the dancer continues, is “that it would be incapable of affectation”. An absence of self-consciousness unifies the puppet’s inner and outer being.

Kleist concludes that it is “absolutely impossible for the human being to compete with a puppet. Only a god, on this field of contest, could prove a match for matter.” A god, of course, is the inverse of a puppet, being composed of pure thought undiluted by substance. Yet both are entirely of one domain, subject to a unitary set of laws. It is humans, in contrast, who straddle two incompatible realms, governed by the clashing dictates of nature and of agency. To be a person is to be slashed into warring halves, the one that thinks and the other that exists in the world.


Even at the hour of his death, Kleist felt bifurcated, this time into killer and fatality. The part of him that acted suppressed—and stifled—the fumbling part that spoke. Even in death, he was shuttered: the autopsy report revealed that his “mouth was shut tightly . . . the jawbones could be separated only by the greatest efforts of an iron lever.” But prized open he was, and in print, he goes on speaking.

Yet the overarching question remains: Why did Kleist use a language he distrusted till the end, in much the same way that Kohlhaas reviled the injustice he could not stop enacting? If he felt that words must either collapse into noise or vaporize into thought itself, why did he persist in writing? Perhaps, like his creation, who loathes and loves his own banishment, who is beholden to the cool prescriptions of justice and the hot demands of vengeance, Kleist delighted in attempting what he could not hope to achieve. How else to be everything—soul, body, just, unjust, speaking and sublimely silent? How else to become briefly, if impossibly, whole?

Becca Rothfeld is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Harvard.

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