"But Paradise is locked and bolted" - Heinrich von Kleist

18 September 1777, the German playwright and poet Heinrich von Kleist was born in Frankfurt (Oder).

“Misconceptions are unavoidable now that we've eaten of the Tree of Knowledge. But Paradise is locked and bolted, and the cherubim stands behind us. We have to go on and make the journey round the world to see if it is perhaps open somewhere at the back.” (Heinrich von Kleist)

The Swiss classicist painter Anton Graff’s (1736 – 1838)
portrait of Heinrich von Kleist (1808, Staatliche Kunstsammlung Dresden)

Having a plan for one’s life is basically a good thing. A change of plans is a good thing, too, basically. A change of plans on a regular basis is usually a chaos. And usually, after scribbling a few lines in the next paragraph of his life's script, Heinrich von Kleist realised that he went from smoke to smother again. Nonetheless, Kleist talked about and quested for his Lebensplan, his life plan, for all his short life. Scion of ancient Prussian nobility, he traditionally started as an officer – and hated being a soldier. He studied natural sciences, found it wanting of practical utility and abandoned his career as an academic, began a tenure as civil servant, couldn’t stand it and began to travel, was arrested by the French occupation forces as a spy, became a patriot and actually wanted to be a farmer. Kleist just didn’t belong. The famous lines he wrote to his sister, printed on every provincial stage’s playbill, ring true indeed: "The truth is that on earth no help was possible for me". One golden line runs through his short life, though. Writing texts, plays, novellas, poems and essays of considerable quality.

Kleist proposes literary scholars with a conundrum as well. Writing during the days of early and high Romanticism in the German states, he should actually be a Romantic. Kleist isn’t, even though he uses elements of the trendy style, uses them quite a lot, his composition, structures and contents are usually that of the bygone Weimar Classicism, though, counteracted with choosing extraordinary, desperate and plain gory sujets and sometimes providing audiences and readers with a preview of bourgeois realism or sheer avant-garde, not due until at least the next generation of authors was bound to put their pens to paper. His contemporaries had mixed feelings about Kleist’s outlandishness and most of his plays were staged not until after his death, when the subtle and radically individualistic texts written during the time of French occupation and, above all, Kleist’s personal turmoil became a new interpretation as patriotic plays under the auspices of the growing national chauvinism of the late 19th and 20th century. His “Prince of Homburg” alone usually was not performed. Fainting and insubordinate Prussian officers were seldom en vogue.

The Grave of Kleist and Henriette Vogel at Kleiner Wannsee near Potsdam

Suicide almost always seemed to offer a way out for Heinrich von Kleist, especially the idea of a double suicide seemed to hold a special fascination for him. He repeatedly approached female acquaintances with the idea, was finally rejected until he met Henriette Vogel in 1809. A congenial companion, they swapped ideas on poetry, art and music, he taught her fencing, their relationship grew more and more intimate, unfortunately, she was married already and suffered from cancer. Henriette and Heinrich decided to die together. On the morning of November 21st 1811, they both wrote their farewell letters, went to the shores of Kleiner Wannsee (Little Wannsee) near Potsdam and Kleist shot first her and then himself. They were buried together in situ.

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