Kleist: How Kant ruined my life

kleist-50x71Ian Brunskill reviews Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, in a new translation by Peter Wortsman.

Kleist was widely-traveled, energetic, a brilliant writer — and a suicide at age 34. Why?

Brunskill writes: “Kleist in his youth had espoused with enthusiasm all the optimism of the Enlightenment. Reason would conquer all; happiness would come with experience and understanding. In March 1801, however, by his own account, he seems to have encountered the thought of Immanuel Kant (it is not clear what precisely he read), and his world fell apart. kant_50x64By testing the nature and limits of human knowledge, Kant had sought primarily to establish the possibility of a meaningful metaphysics. To Kleist, however, it was much grimmer than that: Kant had shown, he believed, that empirical knowledge was unreliable, reason illusory, truth unattainable and life quite meaningless. ‘My sole and highest goal has vanished,’ he wrote. ‘Now I have none.'”

In my Explaining Postmodernism (p. 81), I quoted Nietzsche on Kant:

nietzsche_50x57“As soon as Kant would begin to exert a popular influence, we should find it reflected in the form of a gnawing and crumbling skepticism and relativism.” That quotation continues with Nietzsche’s making a direct connection to Kleist: “and only among the most active and noble spirits, who have never been able to endure doubt, you would find in its place that upheaval and despair of all truth which Heinrich von Kleist, for example, experienced as an effect of Kant’s philosophy. ‘Not long ago,’ he [Kleist] once writes in his moving manner, ‘I became acquainted with Kant’s philosophy; and now I must tell you of a thought in it, inasmuch as I cannot fear that it will upset you as profoundly and painfully as me.'”

Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist (Archipelago, 2009) is also available at Amazon. Brunskill’s review is online at the Wall Street Journal for a few days. (Thanks to Roger for the link.)

Update: C. August has an excellent, extended follow-up post on Kleist, Kant, and the competing readings of the two.