Heinrich von Kleist. The Ambiguity of Art and the Necessity of Form

H.M. Brown. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1998. (409 pp)

This book presents an integrated approach to the non-literary and literary writings of the major German author, Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811). Analysis of Kleist's early letters, in particular, illuminates the oblique and unique processes by which he became aware of his vocation; simultaneously they offer new perspectives from which to approach the works themselves. The discipline of recording observations based on visits to art-galleries and travels through landscapes and towns in Prussia, Saxony, and Franconia stimulated Kleist's imagination, providing sets and scenarios which brought him gradually to an awareness of his innate dramatic talents. On a more theoretical level, he was led to speculate about the problem of illusion in art at the same time as he was wrestling with the epistemological implications of Kantian philosophy. The negative aspects of illusion which he drew from the latter were complemented by a new-found confidence in his ability as an artist to impart to the `fragility' of the human condition a degree of fixity through form and structure and the coherence and control associated with verbal devices such as paradox and irony. These principles are shown to operate to varying degrees in all Kleist's works, and to gain in subtlety and depth, nowhere more than in his final masterpiece, Prinz Friedrich von Homburg.