Heinrich von Kleist's Poetics of Passivity

Heinrich von Kleist's Poetics of Passivity

Steven R. Huff

An investigation of the structures of passivity in Kleist's work, which can be viewed as constituting a kind of poetics.
Controversial during his lifetime as well as among today's scholars and critics, the German dramatist and writer of novellas Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) remains an enigma. Was he a Romantic or a Classic? A conservative or a liberal? What is his status in the literary canon? Because of their enigmatic qualities, Kleist's writings have attracted the attention of critics and theorists from well beyond the narrow confines of German literary studies: comparatists, historians, philosophers, legal scholars, and even musicologists and dance historians. And outside academia his writings are as popular as ever.
This book scrutinizes for the first time a key element in Kleist's thought and poetic process: his obsession with the problem of passivity. Scholars have long been attracted to the dynamic, larger-than-life characters in Kleist's fiction and drama, overlooking the fact that Kleist's works often turn on moments of stasis, as these same protagonists are suddenly and sometimes brutally rendered passive. Through a careful, historically grounded, and original investigation incorporating extensive primary research in late-Enlightenment natural philosophy and eighteenth-century medical practices, the study sheds light on these nodal points in Kleist's work, contending that these structures of passivity are so pervasive and so systematic in his work that they can justifiably and profitably be viewed as constituting a kind of poetics.

Steven R. Huff is Associate Professor in the Department of German at Oberlin College.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Poetica Asina -- An Ass Brays, a Poet Is Born
The Poetics of Somniloquence: The Cultural-Historical Context
Kleistian Teichoscopy: Cannibalism Made Palatable -- or Not
Prince Friedrich Von Homburg: Soldier-Dreamer
Passivity in the Novellas: "And it came to pass ..."


Steven R. Huff has here done Kleist studies a great service and a necessary one, in isolating the theme of passivity as a persistent characteristic of Kleist's life and works and in uncovering the multiple and subtly realized permutations in which Kleist is able to see passivity at work governing his and his characters' actions . . . . [O]riginal, sensitive, and meticulous, refreshingly varied in its wide-ranging detail, and ongoingly intereresting. THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY INTELLIGENCER

Fresh and stimulating. Huff rewardingly questions received ideas and sends us back to Kleist's texts with increased appreciation. JOURNAL OF EUROPEAN STUDIES

Huff's is a steady guide to a writer of negative epiphanies. TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT

Huff provides a thorough historical glimpse of the philosophical and aesthetic influences that developed Kleist's peculiar aesthetic, which is truly enlightening. . . . It encourages one to rethink and reread Kleist's use of passivity . . . . GERMAN QUARTERLY

Huff's nuanced study represents an important contribution to Kleist scholarship, appealing especially to those for whom the real fascination of the Kleistian oeuvre consists precisely in the ways in which it engages with the intellectual and literary context in which it was created. MODERN LANGUAGE REVIEW

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