The Kleist We Need

Heinrich von Kleist teaches how to resist heteronormativity, as well as how to imagine gender fluidity and a less restrictive masculinity.

As a half-decent German keeping half-decent company, I am not exactly used to hearing people cite 20th-century Germany as a positive example. But in recent years, this has changed. Suddenly, even friends on the left are full of praise: Germans paid their reparations;1 Germans confronted their Nazi past; Germans show us how to resist.2 And thanks to reheated fascism, books by Theodor W. Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Joachim Fest, Sebastian Haffner, and Leo Löwenthal are read with a new appreciation for their insights on how an agitator agitates, how propaganda works, how fascism begins, and how to recognize a concentration camp. If Learning from the Germans is on the curriculum, to cite the title of Susan Neiman’s recent work of comparative (anti)racism, then perhaps there is no hope.3

Now, two English translations of novellas by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811) have been published. The timing of these translations is impeccable, insofar as these novellas are highly relevant to a political issue that concerns us in our present moment—namely, the question of how to react to systemic injustice.

And yet, what becomes obvious in these translations is that our scripts of resistance remain all too predictably gendered. For, while these translations have the power to teach us Politics of resistance, with a capital P, they doze through a no less important political lesson that Kleist’s work can teach us: how to resist heteronormativity, how to imagine gender fluidity and a less restrictive masculinity. It is this extremely timely, radically queer aspect of Kleist that Katrin Pahl’s new book, Sex Changes with Kleist, embraces.

Both of the newly translated short novels by Kleist were published around the same time: Marquise von O— came out in 1808, the year in which a first fragment of Michael Kohlhaas appeared (the latter was published in its entirety in 1810). Michael Kohlhaas—now translated by decorated German-British poet and translator Michael Hofmann—is the text by Kleist that has been most translated into English.4 It has also led to some masterful literary adaptations, including J. M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K (1983) and Arnaud des Pallières’s Age of Uprising (2013).

The novella tells the story of a (maybe a bit too) righteous horse dealer. Two of his horses are taken by greedy aristocrats, under the pretense of being collateral, and then worked to total exhaustion. In the course of his attempt to win justice, Kohlhaas loses his wife, his servant, and his possessions. In return, he kills the family of his enemy, sets two cities ablaze, and eventually sacrifices his own life, orphaning his children—just for the satisfaction of damaging the man who wronged him in the first place: “You can take me to the scaffold if you like, but I can hurt you, and I will!”

Contemporary readers might especially relate to the moment when Kohlhaas still makes an effort to deny that things are quite as bad as they in fact are. He refuses to admit that he was wronged intentionally, that those in power enrich themselves at the expense of the weak while protecting each other, and that the justice system is a farce. (It is no wonder that Kafka read Michael Kohlhaas no less than 10 times.5) As depressing as it feels to Kohlhaas to acknowledge the facts, he also gains something: “In the midst of his pain to see the world in such disarray, an inner contentment twitched to see his own instincts at least in order.”

What becomes obvious in these translations is that our scripts of resistance remain all too predictably gendered.

In The Marquise of O—, rendered into English by prolific translator Nicholas Jacobs, the protagonist is a woman. The radius of her reality testing thus cannot be the world—as with Kohlhaas—but is instead limited to the female body.

The Marquise, a virtuous widow with several children, is raped and impregnated. Yet because she was unconscious during the rape, she is “mistrustful of herself”;6 like the reader, she will only find out belatedly what has happened to her. Both novellas are based on historical incidents, but to the reader in the age of #MeToo the Marquise’s case resonates with the ordeals of women drugged and assaulted by Bill Cosby.

Kleist adds a cynical twist of the “tragic” kind, where surrender lies on the way to salvation: during a siege of the castle of the Marquise’s father, Count F— saves the Marquise from gang rape, only then to rape the unconscious woman himself. The count falls in love with his victim and, regretting his deed, tries to marry her. The Marquise declines the marriage proposal because she regards herself—pregnant outcast with children of her own—as unfit to be married to the noble count. What the Marquise does next presents the real scandal of the story: she posts an ad in the local newspaper, in which she asks whoever impregnated her to make himself known so that she can marry him.

Whereas the male protagonist Michael Kohlhaas insists on his rights, the female Marquise tellingly can only accept her fate. Both positions are radical in that they make visible coercive social structures, including those of gender and sex. We are told that “there was nothing that [Kohlhaas] took so much amiss from the government that he was involved with as the appearance of justice.”

There does not exist a vast publishing market for translations of German literature from around 1800. The fascination of literary theory for Hölderlin and Schlegel has perhaps run its course, and German national monuments Goethe and Schiller hold relatively little interest for contemporary Anglophone readers.

In the case of Kleist, however, there is still a lot to excavate, for Kleist remains uncategorizable: enigmatic and disturbing, politically ambiguous and aesthetically transgressive. Translators of the recent Kleist editions are attuned to Politics with a capital P: the discourse on, and arguably of, power. Jacobs, the translator of The Marquise of O—, has made a name for himself as a careful translator for writers on the left: Hans Fallada, Johann Peter Hebel, and Georg Lukács.

At the same time, translations always run the danger of turning their objects into nationalist kitsch. Both new Kleist translations flaunt a huge, vertical sword on their covers, which are soaked in a black-and-red color scheme (with some Fraktur lettering, for good measure).

In Michael Kohlhaas, there is actual mention of a sword (“fire and sword,” “the sword of justice”), although two famished horses would have made more sense as a cover motif. But it seems something more Teutonic, and actually more masculinist, is at stake: in the case of The Marquise von O—, the phallic sword on the cover overpowers the O, which could be seen to symbolize the vagina, virginity, fertility, and the pregnant body.


Stumbling Over a Violent Past

By Michael Rothberg

One can certainly not blame the translator for such visual chauvinism—unless he does nothing to counterweigh this impression. In his impressively tone-deaf preface, Jacobs, while pondering a historical precedent, refers to the rape as the “happy hour.” With a similarly euphemistic tendency, he calls The Marquise of O— “the exception among the stories for its unconditionally happy ending.” This is far from true. Barbara Vinken and Anselm Haverkamp have argued that “the ‘happiness’ of bourgeois marriage at the end consists of disillusionment.”7

Even Count F— realizes that the Marquise only allows him into her life “for the sake of the frail governance [gebrechlichen Einrichtung] of the world.” Jacobs, however, translates this as “because of the world’s precarious nature.” But Kleist, who worked as a Prussian civil servant in the legal and financial sector, is not talking about any metaphysical “nature,” but about the precarity and volatility of human institutions. (The exact same formulation also comes up when Kohlhaas considers getting over the injustice inflicted upon him on account of “the infirm constitution of the world.” But even this translation is too optimistic for Kleist.)

Although the cover text of The Marquise of O— announces that the new translation will capture “the full richness of [the story’s] irony,” Jacobs misses out on two sources of potential humor.

First, Kleist’s puns. In the first sentence, the narrator announces euphemistically that the Marquise “now faces different circumstances” (in andre Umstände gekommen) without knowing how these circumstances (her pregnancy) came about. The short novel goes on to play with the word Umstände (circumstance, situation) no less than 14 times, sometimes twice in the same sentence. The effect of this subdued or latent metaphor of pregnancy is that it renders the text itself “pregnant” with this word. Indeed, given that “Um-” is the prefix of “rounding,” one might even hear and see in “Um-stände” (“circum-stances”) the shape or circum-ference of a pregnant belly.

Second, there is Kleist’s outrageous ridiculing of the rapist’s masculine excess. Right after Count F— rapes the Marquise, Kleist has him “save” the castle in a caricature of pornographic poses: Count F— is described as “mann[ing]” the fort through “wonders of exertion” (which Jacobs, leaving behind the word’s resonance with bodies, translates as incorporeal “energy”), “rolling lukes and reeves.” Kleist even finishes the scene with a money shot: with a “hose in the hand” Count F— “reigned over the jet of water” (regierte, “reigned over,” is comically high style, as opposed to Jacob’s neutral “directed”).

Kleist remains uncategorizable: enigmatic and disturbing, politically ambiguous and aesthetically transgressive.

Michael Hofmann’s translation of Michael Kohlhaas is masterful. This is especially true given that Hofmann takes on the challenge of retaining Kleist’s brevity, as well as his extreme accumulation of subordinated clauses. Both of these achievements are remarkable considering that this story of justice-seeking causes native and nonnative readers alike to lose their bearings.

Still, I am struck by one perplexing infidelity, which lies in Hofmann’s numerous alterations of the (anti)hero’s emotions. (Tellingly, Hofmann largely avoids the notion of “feeling” [Gefühl] by cutting it—in spite of its centrality for Kleist—or by giving preference to more rational substantives, such as “sense” or “orientation.”)

Consequently, it is remarkable how often Hofmann feels compelled to understate the male protagonist’s affects by eliminating intensifiers (like “highly” or “very”) or by freely altering adjectives. For example, Hofmann writes “dismayed” where Kohlhaas is said to be “indignant” or “enraged” (entrüstet), “shamefaced” (betreten), or “embarrassed” (betroffen). In another such instance, he renders the adverb betroffen—which means “embarrassedly” or “affectedly”—as merely “apprehensively”; in another, betreten—“shamefaced”—as “crestfallen.” Where Kleist has Kohlhaas “furious” (rasend), Hofmann sobers him up into being “rigid”; where Kleist characterizes Kohlhaas as “extremely distraught” (auf das äußerste bestürzt), Hofmann dims his reaction to “bewilder[ed].”

Translation regulates the spectrum of affects a literary character may inhabit and, therefore, what kind of readerly identifications a character enables. The cumulative effect of Hofmann’s translation is that Kohlhaas has far more mastery than in the original and, therefore, conforms better to fantasies of invulnerable masculinity. As a result, further possibilities of identification are lost: because Hofmann implicitly censors Kleist’s model of masculinity as “fragile,” we are left, once more, with “toxic masculinity.”

If these two translations have the effect of “straightening out” Kleist—by censoring the male characters’ vulnerability and ridiculousness and by eliminating words associated with the feminine, with the effect of producing cis-male characters—then this tendency is felicitously countered by Katrin Pahl’s recent study Sex Changes with Kleist, in which Pahl convincingly argues that Kleist’s theatrical texts contest the bourgeois formation of what we nowadays call “heteronormativity.” In fact, Pahl’s text responds almost uncannily to the very issues I have discussed here regarding Jacobs’s and Hofmann’s translations.

Pahl begins her reflections in the spirit of (un)translatability, with a proposition to translate the Kleistian untranslatable prefix “ver-” with “awr/ay,” a neologism “that oscillates between ‘awe,’ ‘awry,’ and ‘away.’” If one does not know how seriously to take this suggestion, that uncertainty fits the spirit of the book, insofar as one of its biggest merits lies in its drawing attention to Kleist’s camp humor.

Wondering whether Kleist might, with his campy humor, “work through vicarious experiences of loss of martial status (be it the militaristic reputation of Prussia or the military rank of his father),” Pahl reads these threats to honor and recognition together with “the social stigma against same-sex leanings and transgender tendencies.” Military humiliation becomes entangled with the crisis of heteronormative masculinity.

A reflection like this one makes the phallic swords on the book covers appear less erect. Indeed, Pahl shows that the phallus is under attack in Kleist, to the extent that the phallus loses its solitary reign over the symbolic order. This is because in Kleist the symbolic order is not structured exclusively by the phallus; rather, the phallus competes with two other symbols: the anus and “the breast as the organizing signifier.”

Here, one thinks of Hofmann’s avoidance of the word “breast”—a term that appears in Michael Kohlhaas more than 30 times. Hofmann repeatedly omits the word “breast” and often replaces it, when men are depicted, with terms that are less feminine: such as “scruff,” “neck,” “sternum,” “chest,” “heart,” “soul,” or “arms.” Thus, where in Kleist, Kohlhaas’s wife “pulled him tightly to herself and covered his breast with hot kisses,” Hofmann has her kiss his neck instead—with the result that, whereas in Kleist, we imagine Kohlhaas with an eroticized, naked upper body, in Hofmann’s rendering of the scene he appears as a chaste cis male.


Translation’s Burden

By Matt Reeck

Granted, theorists can dwell on counterreadings and occluded meanings, whereas translators have to produce a readable text. It is a tribute to the originality of Pahl’s work that it might be an impossible demand to ask anyone to translate with the same level of insight with which Pahl reads.

But looked at slightly differently, perhaps Pahl’s reading is already the beginning of such a project of translation. We can thus read Sex Changes with Kleist alongside Emily Wilson’s recent rendering of The Odyssey or Anne Carson’s Sappho.8 If Kleist and Pahl have given us a German lesson, if not a lesson “from the Germans,” it is to show us that Kleist’s texts give the lie to narrowly gendered, “heroic” images of resistance and allow us to think of resistance otherwise—queerly and comically.


This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguínicon

  1. Such statements often result from a simplifying take on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations”—an essay that is actually less invested in praising Germany than in rightfully shaming the US.
  2. See the inspiring and heart-wrenching translation by Shelley Frisch of Freya and Helmuth James von Moltke, Last Letters: The Prison Correspondence, 1944–1945, edited by Helmuth Caspar, Johannes and Dorothea von Moltke (NYRB Classics, 2019).
  3. Susan Neiman, Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019).
  4. Christiane K. Eydt-Beebe, “Heinrich von Kleists Werk in englischen Übersetzungen. Überblick und Bibliographie,” Heilbronner Kleist-Blätter, vol. 15 (2003), p. 39.
  5. Frank Kafka, “From February 9 to 10, 1913,” Letters to Felice, edited by Erich Heller and Jürgen Born, translated from the German by James Stern and Elisabeth Duckworth (Schocken, 1988), p. 187.
  6. I am quoting from the Penguin translation of The Marquise of O— and Other Stories, translated from the German by David Luke and Nigel Reeves (Penguin, 2004), p. 87; Jacobs translates this as “Now losing trust in herself,” which suggests that the Marquise lacks in self-confidence; but what Kleist is (routinely) after is a sense of epistemological destabilization or doubt.
  7. “Die zurechtgelegte Frau: Gottesbegehren und transzendentale Familie in Kleists Marquise von O…,” in Heinrich von Kleist: Kriegsfall – Rechtsfall – Sündenfall, edited by Gerhard Neumann (Rombach, 1994), p. 134.
  8. Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson (Norton, 2018); If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, translated by Anne Carson (Penguin, 2002).
Featured image: Anton Graff, Heinrich von Kleist (ca. 1808). Kügelgenhaus Museum der Dresdner Romantik / Wikimedia Commons