heinrich von kleist experiences a crisis of faith.


on the 22nd of november, 1811, heinrich von kleist and a young woman with terminal cancer sat down on the banks of a lake between berlin and potsdam, where heinrich von kleist pulled out a pistol and shot the woman through the heart, and turned the gun to his own head. he was 34.

the story of heinrich von kleist’s short but productive literary career, his encounter with kant’s writings and ensuing crisis of faith, and his eventual suicide pact, is almost as compelling as his writings.

born in 1778 to bankrupt aristocrats, heinrich von kleist was schooled in all the principles of enlightened thought: life can be planned, its random element can be eliminated, happiness achieved if pursued the right way, man is educable, society perfectable, and the universe’s secrets finitely knowable. in march 1801, however, kleist encountered the writings of one immanuel kant, and his world fell apart. no one is certain what work of kant’s he read, and by all accounts kleist seems to have seriously misunderstood kant’s work, but the outcome remains the same: kleist understood from kant that the truth was a thing we would never attain, the gap between nomena (the true knowledge of things themselves) and phenomena (the way things appear) was a chasm human understanding could never bridge.

kleist occupies a transition line in literary and philosophical history, straddling enlightenment and romanticism. a precursor to kafka and camus, kleist was destroyed by despair at a lifetime of failure and disappointment, and no longer able to cope with the prospect of continuing to live, kleist was chewed up and spat out by the machinery of a world marching forward. uncertainty and disequilibrium characterized the life of kleist the writer just as much as it did the figures of his plays and short stories.