Kleist, Education and Violence

The Transformation of Ethics and Aesthetics

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) is one of the most important German writers of the early nineteenth century, and his works have had a profound influence on subsequent writers both in Germany and beyond. Our three-year project – funded by the Arts and Humanties Research Council – will explore one aspect of his work (education) that has been almost totally ignored, and will link it to another (the representation of violence) in a way that will shed new light on constructive and destructive functions of violence in his work.

Intuitively, the two aspects would seem to be at opposite ends of a spectrum, with education stemming from ethical endeavours and violence marking the breakdown of ethical behaviour. However, we will demonstrate that one of the most important aspects of Kleist's work lies in the fact that he explores multiple interdependencies between education and violence, as well as complex and contradictory ethical implications in each. Whether violence is conceived of as innate, as the result of social oppression, or as 'necessary' means to a higher moral end has vital consequences for our understanding of works of art, and, moreover, for ethical choices in our lives. Similarly, the question of what role different models of education can play in mitigating or exacerbating violence is of importance not only for our understanding of Kleist, but also for conceptualising our future.

Kleist's work has always courted controversy and inspired contradictory interpretations, and he has frequently been seen as 'a writer out of his time'. While his alleged anticipation of present-day values is commonly regarded as a sign of his literary importance, this project sets out to explore the enigma Kleist poses from the opposite direction. Rather than emphasising rupture, we will concentrate on Kleist's creative engagement with eighteenth- century discourses.