No Place on Earth

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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 herself to think the problem through, not censoring the forbidden thoughts: “They start early on, forbidding us to be unhappy about our sufferings, which are all imaginary. By the age of seventeen we must have accepted our fate, which is a man, and must learn and accept the penalty should we behave so improbably as to resist.”

She knows, also, how she will die, if not when. She dreams a variation of her death—she, transformed into a doe, both killed and saved by Savigny’s hand; dreaming, she watches as observer of the action, while at the same time she participates in the ritual act. She carries a knife with her always, and she has already found out from a physician the exact place in her breast where she must plunge the dagger. She has practiced watching herself as a corpse often enough so that she can call up the vision without flinching with terror.

Kleist also has yielded to that terror. “This breakdown in November. The hideous winter. These rumbling, never-ending monologues inside his poor head. He knows what would save him: to gag the voice inside him that inflames and mocks and drives him on, toward the galled sore places.” Kleist has lived in Wedekind’s home for six months while Wedekind has tended him through his terror. Like Günderrode, Kleist also has a recurring dream. He dreams of a wild and beautiful boar which he pursues, hoping to bridle it, mount it, and subdue it, but he can never succeed in reaching the wild creature. Exhausted, he drops to the ground, and when the beast threatens to escape, he reaches for a gun, aims, and fires. The animal rears up, plunges down, and shudders in an agony of death. For Kleist, the dream is less a ritual enactment of death than it is an embodiment of conflict and a sure knowledge that suicide must be his fate. It is the stereotypical male response—more rational than emotional—and because the conflict will not lend itself to reasonable solution, it continues to torture Kleist, despite his recognition of how it will end.

More intriguing, however, than the themes mentioned above, but infinitely harder to discuss is that which “nothappens” in “noplace”—the coming together of a man and a woman preceded by an elaborate dance, formal in design and carefully patterned, and culminating in a climax that releases tensions and points to the solution Harry Haller finds in his dreams in Hermann Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf (1927; Steppenwolf, 1929)—the lucidity of a Mozart, expressed in a laugh, not of a madman frustrated by confusion and chaos, but of a god delighting in clarity of vision. It is this delight in pattern that finally sustains the reader and makes this novel one of the finest examples of post-Modern fiction.

The designs are made graphic by well-chosen images that both describe and conceptualize. Kleist’s “eccentric footprints” lacerate the “map of Europe.” Günderrode moves in the “confines of a narrow circle” as though under a spell. When Kleist first sees the group attached to Günderrode, he imagines a series of paintings in infinite regression, both receding into the past and coming to the forefront of a vision and of history. When viewing Kleist, Günderrode perceives him as a “patch of empty space,” the “point which all the lines avoid.” People at the party circle around one another as though they are sleepwalkers “without any fear of falling down a precipice.” Günderrode is, for Kleist, the only person “truly real in a horde of specters.” On their walk, Kleist traces a figure in the dirt—an “absurd geometrical construction.” Men and women are “insane diagrams” sent “onto that eccentric path.”

On their walk, by means of their conversation, Kleist and Günderrode come together and draw apart, until their exchange, for Kleist, closely resembles “sensual intoxication.” She is at the moment “thinking exactly the same thing.” When she laughs, it is infectious, and Kleist laughs, too. They hold on to each other so they will not fall. They will never, the reader is told, be closer than they are at this moment—specters though they are, “rough sketches,” conjured up for a time and fleshed in and then allowed once more to disappear.

Christa Wolf is the author of two previous books, Nachdenken über Christa T. (1968; The Quest for Christa T., 1971) and Kindheitsmuster (1976; A Model Childhood, 1980), both said to be autobiographical in nature. Kein Ort. Nirgends (1979; No Place on Earth, 1982) is her third work. All three of her works have been published in English translation. An East German writer, Wolf is said to have pieced together from extracts of actual letters written by Kleist, Günderrode, and her friends much of the material that forms the basis of the book, but the conception and execution are hers, and the novel is an excellent one.

Form and Content

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Christa Wolf’s prose text No Place on Earth describes an imaginary meeting between the poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist and the poet Karoline von Günderrode. Although the narrative of No Place on Earth makes references to a specific time and place and to historical figures, it is not a simple example of historical realism but a highly complex fictional integration of biographical and historical material. While the characters are historical, the event—the gathering for tea at Joseph Merten’s country estate—is described by the narrator as a “legend that suits us.” Prompted by a casual remark by Kleist’s biographer Eduard von Bülow that Kleist was said to have made Günderrode’s acquaintance, the novella centers on this speculative gathering.

Kleist has just suffered through a spiritual, intellectual, and artistic crisis; Günderrode also is at odds with society. By insisting on her calling as artist, she disregards the limits placed on her gender that confined women to the private sphere of the house. She publishes her works under a pseudonym which gives her some measure of freedom. Although Kleist realizes the restrictions that the gender system of his age placed on women, he seems, at times, almost envious of the lack of responsibility afforded to women. He believes that they have a greater measure of freedom because they are not under the social pressure to make a name for themselves by means of their achievements. This achievement orientation, characterizing the emerging economic rationality of his society, is at the heart of Kleist’s existential and artistic crisis.

The emphasis of the novella is less on external action or plot and more on the dialogues of the shifting conversational groupings. The protagonists Kleist and Günderrode are the outsiders in this group of successful burghers, artists, and scholars. Both attend this gathering almost against their will and are reluctant to be drawn into the conversation. Through the various conversational groupings, Kleist and Günderrode are drawn to each other until they finally meet. Their gradual spiritual connection is slowly traced by the narrative, culminating in a walk that they take away from the rest of the group. They discover each other’s vulnerabilities and strengths; their sense of spiritual connection climaxes in one brief moment marked by infectious laughter. This moment of cognition is at the same time linked to death; both realize with a sense of relief that they do not have to live forever. They depart, the guests leave, and the text ends.


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While Wolf portrays the fate of a woman who cannot develop within the constricted margins of her role prescribed by society and convention, at the same time she explores the roots of the fragmentation afflicting individuals and society in order to uncover the point at which the division of labor was internalized. She sees this as the intersection of two historical problems: the increasing exclusion of “sensibility” from the definition of what is essential and normative for society and, linked to this issue, the antithetical division of characteristics into masculine and feminine. Instrumental reason and rationality are part of the masculine sphere, whereas sensibility is relegated to the margins, to the feminine and private sphere. Thus all nonrational modes of experience, such as sensibility, intuition, and clairvoyance, are excluded from the public sphere, with its sense of identity rooted in separation, opposition, and conflict. The strength of this system is dependent on the inviolability of the boundary between itself and what it excludes; Wolf does not simply oppose the male and female principle. Furthermore, she refrains from celebrating women for their greater openness to cooperative and nonviolent methods of conflict resolution and problem-solving because of their relative underdevelopment of the separative ego. Instead, she creates a form of androgyny for her protagonists, Kleist and Günderrode. Both together represent the realm of ideas and of sensitivity that is excluded from the realm of action.

In her analysis, the gender structure and the strict division of labor are conceptually linked. She suggests a departure from the simple polarities of the rational and the irrational. She does not suggest, however, that reason and rationality are equivalent to male domination and should therefore be abolished for an alternative form of thinking and acting. Instead, she envisions a third category distinct from the irrational that could be labeled subrational. It is defined as a renunciation of the sovereignty of the ego and the postulation of states of consciousness that encourage and tolerate more fluid interaction between self and “not-self.” Contrary to postmodern thought, Wolf believes in a rational alternative to reason, one which would overcome its prisonlike limitations.

Undoubtedly Wolf’s writing influenced the surge and direction of women’s writing in the former East Germany in the early 1980’s. It encouraged women writers to look beyond the equality granted to them by their society, to distrust the structures and patterns of thinking that men and instrumental reason have established, and to set out for the journey to find their own unique positions.


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Buehler, George. The Death of Socialist Realism in the Novels of Christa Wolf. Frankfurt: Lang, 1984. This narrowly focused sociohistorical study delineates Wolf’s gradual departure from the formal and ideological prescripts of socialist realism.

Kuhn, Anna K. Christa Wolf’s Utopian Vision: From Marxism to Feminism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Presented from a feminist perspective, Kuhn’s text examines the ideological implications of Wolf’s utopian visions as they move gradually away from the Marxism realized in her early socialist-realist prose to her more formally complex artistic visions on feminist issues. This study is ideally complemented by Marilyn Sibley Fries’s collection and Myra Love’s monograph (below).

Library Journal. CVII, September 1, 1982, p. 1678.

Love, Myra N. Christa Wolf: Literature and the Conscience of History. New York: Lang, 1991. This study is less concerned with the historical context of Wolf’s writing than with the link between writing and the concept of subject. Love discusses Wolf’s writing subject as both self-asserting and self-exploratory. Furthermore, she also focuses on Wolf’s representations of issues such as war and peace in the nuclear age, the nature and possibilities for self-realization in contemporary industrial societies, gender and familial relations, and the structure of human needs.

Love, Myra N. “ ‘A Little Susceptible to the Supernatural?’: On Christa Wolf.” Women in German Yearbook: Feminist Studies in German Literature and Culture 7 (1991): 1-22. This article examines the feminist implications of Wolf’s treatment of intuitive, parapsychological, spiritual, and supernatural motifs. Positions Wolf’s thematization of supernatural elements and paranormal abilities in connection with her critique of the normative scientific (that is, purely naturalistic or materialistic) interpretation of the world shared by patriarchal societies, both socialist and capitalist.

The New Republic. CLXXXVIII, April 4, 1983, p. 38.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, October 10, 1982, p. 11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXI, June 25, 1982, p. 102.

Sibley Fries, Marilyn, ed. Responses to Christa Wolf: Critical Essays. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989. This substantial volume of essays on Wolf features contributions from the most important international literary critics and scholars of East German literature. In addition to the nineteen individual essays exploring specific issue in Wolf scholarship from a variety of theoretical positions, it also provides an excellent biographical introduction, a chronology of Wolf’s life and of her publications, an interview with Wolf, and a useful bibliography of English-language works of Wolf scholarship. Lists individual reviews of her works, and includes an index. The most useful volume on Christa Wolf in English.


Critical Essays