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‘Ich will nichts wissen:’ Representations of the Body in Heinrich von Kleist

Nora M Peterson

Last modified: 2010-12-22


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Two hundred years after his death, part of Heinrich von Kleist’s timeless allure lies in the difficulty of pinning him down or assigning him to any single category, reading, or movement. Rather than pinpoint or deny any particular trajectory, this paper will emphasize Kleist’s ambiguity, using as a pretext the principle that Kleist’s sometimes shocking extremes (for example, the proposition that we can have either “unendliches Bewusstsein” or “gar keins”) often lie closer together than readers would believe possible. In order to spotlight the ambiguity inherent in reading Kleist I will focus on the representation of ‘slips’ produced by bodies in three short texts. Using Kleist’s essay Über das Marionettentheater (1810) as a theoretical backdrop, I will read Die Marquise von O. . . (1808) and Der Zweikampf (1811) as meditations on the (non) representability of the body. I will argue that the bodies we see in these texts operate as sites of knowledge, simultaneously producing and denying their own readings. Das Marionettentheater posits the problem of automatism vs. consciousness, ironically opposing, then collapsing the two.  Die Marquise spotlights a woman whose body produces signs of pregnancy the Marquise is unable or unwilling to read. The ever-changing signs of the body in Der Zweikampf indicate an unstable exchange between the signification of truth and knowledge, and the mechanisms used to produce them. The undercurrents of violence in all three texts point to the volatility and fertility of Kleistian bodies.  I will argue that when questions of the body and knowledge are at stake, Kleist successfully and ironically points to the difficulties of a merely dualistic reading.