In the flow of the world : genre and the social in the works of Heinrich von Kleist

Davé, Sveta , Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University of Virginia
Best, Thomas, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, University of Virginia

The study focusses on Heinrich von Kleist's idea of the social and the relationship between this idea and the generic distinctions in his works. Kleist's letters even before the so-called Kantkrise -- reveal his disillusionment with the search for Truth. With the Kantkrise, then, he rejects the quest for the absolutes of Truth and Knowledge, turning towards relativism: towards the existence of the individual in the context of a society. In the essay "tiber die allmahliche Verfertigung der Gedanken" he redefines knowledge as edification, as the formation and development of an individual in society. The notion of the individual as a social product· becomes central to his work.

Criticism persists in referring to Kleist's novellas and plays as if they were of the same genre, speaking of the "dramatic style" of the novellas and of the plays as "dialogued novels." In order to pinpoint the essential difference between the genres, this study analyzes one work of each genre: Michael Kohlhaas and Das Kathchen von Heilbronn.

In both works the idea of the social is the same: society is the locus of the conscious ordering of existence. The generic distinction pivots on the way the idea of the social is treated and on the implied recipient of the work. Thus both the narrator of Kohlhaas and the play Kathchen deflect epistemological and concentrate on ethical concerns. Both advocate the need for systems of community, law, and language. But whereas the play provides the audience with a coherent symbol of the social, the novelle provides the reader with a second and epistemological level which relativizes the narrator's stance by revealing that the systems he advocates do not work.

The idea of drama as a genre implies the shaping-of existence in the social environment of the theatre. Hence the form of the genre affirms the idea of the social. The form of the novella, however, suggests as recipient not a social group but rather the isolated reader and hence undermines the idea of society even as the work Kohlhaas undermines the social order advocated by its narrator.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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