Themes and Meanings

In this early masterpiece of biographical description, Robert Walser clearly identifies with the struggles of the young Kleist to establish a writing career. Writing, the text suggests, was a painfully difficult process for both writers, particularly in their respective foreign environments (the Swiss Walser wrote his Kleist story near the beginning of his eight-year stay in the Prussian capital of Berlin). Bordering on madness, yet seductive in its images, writing was no longer a romantically innocent activity or a matter of simple inspiration. For Kleist, artistic ambition and the drive for expressive perfection were undermined by longing for physical contact, on the one hand, and a vague heroic idealism, on the other. The lush and sensual natural surroundings of the Bernese Oberland stirred up the images of desire that were so detrimental to his writing. Thus, nature, instead of being an idyllic model of creative simplicity, took on a foreboding quality and caused the numerous radical shifts in his mood. His rescue by his sister implied that only a life of mundane routine could save him from the catastrophe of the madness of the solitary writer, but few things could have been more threatening to his creative energy than the example of normalcy held up to him by his sister’s life and education. In contrast to the simple marble commemorative marker, Kleist’s brief visit to Thun was, at least for Walser, an occasion for the complex manic-depressive turmoil that would later tear Kleist apart.