No Place on Earth
Not named in the above list of characters is the narrator—effaced, yes, but a voice continually present, a sorceror’s voice, able to create shapes without bodies, present in no place, yet forming patterns on a stage in rhythmic movements tuned to a choreographer’s vision—ghosts of a courtship dance, specters of climax.
The ostensible themes, those that will be first noted by readers, are several: first, a Romantic agony springing from the poet’s inability to reconcile the imagined and the real, natural and human laws, emotion and reason, feeling and form, the subjective and the objective, Prometheus bound and unbound—those dualities both defining and entrapping Western man; second, a preoccupation with sex roles resulting from a culture’s inability to recognize that bodymate, soulmate, and mindmate are not necessarily exclusive of one another and causing for both men and women in the culture a crisis of body, soul, and mind; third, an existential treatise on life and death.
The novel is posited on a claim (a legend, it is said) that Heinrich von Kleist and Karoline von Günderrode met in June, 1804, at a literary gathering for tea and conversation. He is afflicted with an overly acute sense of hearing; she is hypersensitive to light. He, having abandoned an army career, failed in his effort to work as a civil servant, and eschewed his studies after reading Immanual Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781, Critique of Pure Reason); she, an impoverished gentlewoman, was forced by lack of funds to enter a convent for physical sustenance but pursued a vigorous program of self-education. He has recently burned a manuscript of a play; she has recently published a book of poems under a pseudonym. He was prepared by his education to expect women to be subservient and simple in mind and spirit; she was taught to allow herself to feel androgynous and to act out such a nature. They meet for a moment to talk, walk, and laugh before separating to follow their respective fates. Both commit suicide; she in 1806, and he in 1811.
The novel describes their tensions and conflicts, their differences and similarities, at a time before irony became a single valence pervading a worldview, at a time early in the last century when people still struggled to measure real life by an ideal, at a time before suicide became an acceptable alternative to nausea, before the Western world learned to live by relative measures. By contemporary standards, the anguish of these people over a metaphysical question seems almost quaint.
Not so quaint is their struggle with sexual roles—a struggle still all too real for the modern reader. “’Sometimes,’” Kleist says to Günderrode, “’I find it unendurable that nature has split the human being into man and woman.’” He admits it to her and makes himself vulnerable. He has been unable to live the role established for him; unable to love and marry; yet also unable to rid himself of the assumptions of his culture regarding the nature of women. “Should a woman have such a look about her? She makes Kleist uneasy.” Women, Kleist thinks, are a sex born for suffering. Women are not “placed under the law of having to achieve everything. . . .” She taunts him: “You were thinking: ’So clever, considering she’s only a woman.’” Günderrode appears to have allowed...
(The entire section is 1378 words.)