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Katie van Schaijik

Kleist’s take on modernity

Feb. 18, 2010, at 11:55am

A Barnes and Noble review of a new collection of Heinrich von Kleist’s prose ends with a paragraph that succinctly captures a salient feature of modernity.

Fifty years ago, Martin Greenberg tried to determine the particular quality that gives Kleist his startling modernity. He pointed, finally, to “the questionableness at the heart of his world, the almost diabolical ambiguity of its atmosphere, the way things tremble and shift and make one wonder if they are what they seem.” In essence, Kleist consistently subverts our expectations. Like the earthquake in Chile, his fiction causes the apparently solid ground beneath our feet to shudder, crack, and, finally, give way.

I know von Kleist’s name from the story I often heard told in philosophy classes on Kant’s epistemology: that this great 19th century German poet, playwright and story-teller was so appalled by Kan’t theory that the human mind cannot attain objective reality that he committed suicide.

Being an artist of exceptional sensitivity, Von Kleist no doubt felt sooner and suffered more from the spiritual malaise that afflicts the modern world. His despair is negative testimony to the human need for truth, certainty, the metaphysical stability and inherent meaningfulness of reality.

Here is a contrasting sense of reality from Edith Stein, who, as a woman who went from being a Jewish German atheist to Catholic Carmelite nun eventually gassed to death in Auschwitz, knew as much von Kleist about the ambiguities of the modern world.

In the knowledge that being holds me, I rest securely. This security, however, is not self-assurance of one who under her own power stands on firm ground, but rather the sweet and blissful security of the child that is lifted up and carried by a strong arm.


Joseph S • Feb 20, 2010 - 9:00 am

Thank you for this illuminating post, Katie. What a wonderful quote from St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross. Where is her quote taken from?

Katie van Schaijik • Feb 22, 2010 - 10:35 pm

I found it in the introduction to a book called Edith Stein: Essential Writings, by John Sullivan, OCD.  The author sites one of her philosophical treatises, “Letting God’s Plan Guide Us,” as the original source.

Lauretta • Feb 22, 2010 - 1:24 pm

The starkness of the contrast between those two lives was painful, Katie. 

I have many relatives who do not believe in God and I always wonder what keeps them going.  How could they not despair especially as they get older and only death is in their future?  And, even more importantly, why would they choose to continue to believe in that darkness rather than the light of love who is our God?  Wouldn’t it bring much more peace to believe in God even if it were not true rather than stare into the void of nothingness which is the alternative?

Rhett Segall • Feb 22, 2010 - 9:56 pm

Lauretta, I think the sincere atheist who disbelieves because tragedy and chaos are so much to the forefront of his/her mind, might reflect on the root of their very sincerity and courage in faceing the darkness. Does not that very sincerity and courage speak of a transcendence that Christians call God?

Katie van Schaijik • Feb 22, 2010 - 10:43 pm

My sense is that there are basically two kinds of unbelievers, with every shade of difference between them also represented.  There are those who live largely superficial, unreflective lives—who simply absorb the prevailing ideas of the culture around them without giving them much thought.  They are irreligious because they find religion distasteful—odd and unnecessary.  Then there are those who are persuaded that religion is based on errors and illusions.  These ones are compensated for the loss of the consolations of faith by the sense of strength and courage, maturity and independence that comes from “facing facts”, as they think they do.

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