Breaking the Laws of Language: Freedom and History in Kleist's Prinz Friedrich von Homburg.
These issues are all the more pressing given the extent to which the reception of romanticism is haunted by a sense that it is too romantic, indeed, that it is often little more than an extension of a discourse it repeats rather than critiques. In this regard, it is instructive to look at a problem where contemporary views appear decidedly un-romantic. There is an overwhelming consensus today that literature participates actively in social and political reality. Poetic language is celebrated for its creativity and denigrated for its violence, lauded for its systematicity and deplored for its whimsical, at times arbitrary behavior, yet in all cases, it is treated as anything but a dormant mode of idealization or harmless fancy. Late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century thought made even stronger claims for poetry's participation in the world, but it did not share our confidence in a smooth modulation from literary to socio-political praxis. In texts as diverse as Shelley's "Defence of Poetry," Hegel's Asthetik, or Holderlin's "Uber die Verfahrungsweise des poetischen Geistes," literary language is accorded enormous power and championed as the pinnacle of thought, the founding of civil society, or the possibility of humanity's future. At the same time, these analyses invariably include a moment at which the poetic spirit confronts its own dormancy, idleness, or irrelevance, its constitutive failure to establish itself as a wholly reliable medium or means to an external end. The point at which language is generalized as the model for praxis proves to be the point at which it most directly challenges its own capacity to produce, act, or perform.
Heinrich von Kleist's oeuvre is a sustained exploration of the limits of literature's transformative powers. Taking off from the familiar Enlightenment problem of whether a political order can be grounded in an ethical system which is independent of empirical superstructures, Kleist's works confront a number of quandaries concerning the relations between representation, expression and self-determination. One crucial intervention is his reflection on what it means to break a universal law: what it means about a subjective agent that it confirms its status as rational only by violating a basic principle of reason, and what it means about the historical existence of a universal law that it becomes lawful only insofar as its sovereignty is transgressed. The play we will examine here in detail, Prinz Friedrich von Homburg, presents this as the question of whether any law can be recognized as a universal law of language, and if so, whether that law is a law of freedom or tyranny. Literature, it will be argued, is a historical phenomenon to be reckoned with not simply because of its capacity to present or represent, to posit or reproduce reality, but because it is the site where systems of ethics and politics fail to reconcile themselves to a common aesthetic paradigm in which a representational model of language would also serve as a model of human praxis.
Written in hope of securing the position of court poet for its author, Prinz Friedrich yon Homburg was such a failure that its reception is often cited as a reason for his suicide.(1) Uncertainties about precisely why the play did not live up to expectations reflect the broader uncertainties that confront any attempt to understand what it means. Does the drama praise and glorify the Prussian state, or does it mock it? Is the Prince an insightful hero or a buffoon? Is the Elector a noble statesman, a careless ruler, or a tyrant? In few texts is the general tonal orientation so obviously ambiguous. As the curtain rises, the Elector and his entourage discover Prince Friedrich sitting in the palace garden, "half-awake, half-asleep," weaving a laurel wreath. The intruders quickly assume the role of mischievous players and intervene. They snatch the wreath from him before he can crown himself with it and withdraw as he slowly comes to his senses. Five acts later, this scene is repeated in ritualistic fashion, except that this time the dreaming Prince is actually crowned with the wreath and given a hero's salute just before everyone rushes off to renew the war with the enemies of Brandenburg.
While the play opens and closes with a play within a play, there is a play in between. During the central battle scene, the Prince, Friedrich von Homburg, disobeys his Elector's orders and commands his unit to attack prematurely. For this act, he is sentenced to death, at which point several characters intervene on his behalf in an effort to have the sentence rescinded. Initially disinclined to take his predicament seriously, the Prince becomes distraught upon seeing the grave being dug for him. In a bizarre twist, the Elector, who has learned of his soldier's pathetic pleas for mercy, calls upon the Prince to decide for himself whether his sentence is just, whereupon the young soldier undergoes a transformation and announces that he is ready to acknowledge his misdeeds and die. The potentially tragic clash between the state and one of its subjects appears to be a source of genuine consternation, and the resolution of the drama seems to turn on its protagonist's struggles to constitute himself as a lawful rational agent.
Given the tendency to read Kleist's oeuvre as an engagement with Kantian philosophy, it is tempting to understand the play's conflict in terms of the confounding relation between knowledge and action at the heart of Kant's doctrine of moral autonomy.(2) In this interpretation, the Prince would be an example of a subject who prescribes for himself the very power to prescribe the law. This Prince would be a subject whose freedom renders him incomprehensible both to himself and to others, in which case the message of Kleist's play would be that we, the audience, can only aspire to be moral agents ourselves insofar as we comprehend the incomprehensibility of our own freedom. This line of analysis seems to be born out by the other figures in the play, who learn that the more one makes assumptions about the Prince's character or inferences about why he does what he does, the less comprehensible his behavior becomes. It is problematic, however, to view the Prince as a Kantian subject who lays down a universal law for himself, i.e., who acts only in such a way that the maxim of his action should become a universal law. In its final act, the play dissolves into a quasi-comedy. As the day of execution approaches, the Elector's forbidding tone softens into cheerfulness, and he behaves more and more like a playful, all-knowing god who has merely staged the entire event as a good-natured lesson for his pupil and is not sure why everyone else has been taking the whole affair so seriously. This shift in tone prompts a retrospective reassessment of the entire play, at which point it becomes evident that modulations between tragic and comic moments, often within the space of several speeches, are the norm throughout. Although certain scenes are undeniably ridden with pathos--e.g., the characters' grief at inaccurate reports of the Elector's death, the Prince's display of fear, or Natalie's impassioned pleas to the Elector--the Prince's "grave" error to attack too early is made only after Golz has surveyed the field and ascertained that victory is theirs. More importantly, the Prince's "fateful" decision to attack prematurely manifests itself with mechanical predictability. If the play turns on the attribution of responsibility, intention, and/or motivation(s) for a (mis)deed in battle, the inevitability of the errant behavior is prefigured to an almost absurd extent. Virtually all of the dramatic action prior to the Prince's decision to attack before receiving the proper command makes it clear that the Elector's orders will not be followed. Indeed, the "preparations" for the Prince's disobedience are so precise that for him to have executed his orders correctly would retrospectively have made most of Act 1 meaningless, or farcical.(3) Even if the rest of the play up until the last scene of Act 5 is viewed as a series of attempts by the Prince (and everybody else) to deal with the ramifications of his unusual behavior in the opening scene in the palace garden, the play's conclusion does not constitute closure or herald the conclusion of a process of intellectual or moral development, but instead divides the beginning and the end of the play from the rest of the drama.(4) The Prince is crowned with a wreath he wove himself. In between is (another) play about an error in battle and the efforts to come to terms with that error. So we are back where we started: What does the play mean? Should the audience be moved to laughter or tears? Does the misfiring of a tragic plot suggest a collapse into comedy, or should it have been clear since the opening scene that it was a mistake to speak of tragedy in the first place?(5)
The opening scene of Prinz Friedrich is an exercise in evaluating the state of the Prince, although the insights garnered here will be forgotten almost immediately by everybody who participates.(6) Unlike the bard of the play's dedication who aspires to be crowned by somebody else ("Sie halt den Preis in Handen, der ihm falle, / Und kront ihn die, so kronen sie ihn alle"),(7) the Prince is discovered in the palace garden, half-awake, half-asleep, weaving a wreath for himself. Or so Hohenzollern, in what will prove to be his very influential account of the situation, describes him:
Hohenzollern: Als ein Nachtwandeler, schau, auf jener Bank, Wohin, im Schlaf, wie du nie glauben wolltest, Der Mondschein ihn gelockt, beschaftiget, Sich traumend, seiner eignen Nachwelt gleich, Den prachtgen Kranz des Ruhmes einzuwinden. (22-26) [Hohenzollern: Like a sleepwalker--look, on the bench-- Where, asleep, as you would never have believed, Enticed by the moon, he is occupied; Adream in himself, like his own posterity He is weaving his own splendid wreath of fame.]
It is by no means clear when or where the logic of Hohenzollern's description leaves the dreamer. In a dedication of the self to the self, the Prince is said to be imitating his posterity ("seiner eignen Nachwelt gleich") by creating a wreath, an emblem of his future fame. With these remarks, Hohenzollern casts the opening events as a search for a mode of interpretation that will facilitate an understanding of this princely agent in terms of the Prince's attempts to dedicate himself--his fame, his future, his posterity--to himself. By understanding the Prince's weaving of a laurel crown as a proleptic act of self-affirmation, Hohenzollern suspends the Prince between a future of glorious deeds that may take place (perhaps as early as the next day on the battlefield), a future Nachwelt in which the Prince will no longer exist, and a present that exists only as a dream and that retrospectively will never have existed. In this schema, the Prince wins fame for his deeds by relating to them as though they were past achievements of a past subject, which is to say that even in the dream of fame, a dream of a relation between doer and deed, fame is still not something that you dream of winning for yourself, a point that the Elector makes quite aptly: "Im Traum erringt man solche Dinge nicht!" (76).(8) The dream of fame is a dream of a fame won improperly, a fame that is won before it ever exists and that ceases to exist the moment it is won. This is further complicated by the Prince's own account of his dream in Scene 4, where he makes it clear that although he remembers nearly being crowned, he is not aware that it was he who wove the wreath. The dream is not a dream of self-creation, but of passivity, while the Prince's visible activity, the weaving, is something of which he has no experience, either awake or in his dream. The act of weaving is neither the anticipation of future renown nor the product of an intention that preceded it and produced it, which is why the Prince never achieves a perspective on the strange mental "state" in which he begins the play. As the grounds for conclusions about the Prince's intentions with respect to his actions (dreamlike as these "intentions" may be), the weaving can only take place in a time in which the Prince could never be. Intent is divided from the temporal schema which would coordinate it with an act, while being and being-famous threaten to become mutually exclusive, a complication to which the Prince ironically gestures by writing his own epitaph during his lament about an impending death (and afterlife) without fame: "Und ein Gestein sagt dir von ihm: er war!" (992).(9) Self-creation occurs as an act that shatters the production of the self as an historical entity at the very moment that the self dedicates itself to a future that can never be its own; hence, this is a play about a condemned Prince who never dies, or at least who is never executed.
The dedication to the Prussian princess that precedes the opening act of the play suggests that the act of weaving should be understood as the representation of poetic productivity itself and that "whoever holds the prize in hand can crown one and all." The act of weaving should therefore be the grounds for the Prince's relation to himself; it should facilitate the dedication of the Prince from himself to himself, from a warrior to a warrior, from a poet to a poet. The Prince, however, weaves this wreath only in the midst of a dream in which the prize is taken out of his hands, trapping him, not between reality and hallucination or waking and sleeping, but between a dream in which he is rewarded for deeds he will never be able to perform, and an act of weaving he can never know as his own. The ensuing drama unfolds as a response to this dreamy predicament, as a series of attempts to reject any aporia at the heart of the praxis of self-construction, to reject any paradox that would undermine the coherent attribution of actions to an "agent."(10) This recuperation is by no means necessarily doomed to failure. If these complications point to a difference between (rather than conflation of) winning fame and weaving the crown of one's own fame, then the ostensible epistemological predicament may only concern the existence of a distinction between how fame is achieved and how fame manifests itself as an achievement. The Prince dreams of being famous, and he dreams of being crowned with the wreath he is weaving. What could be simpler? Why could he not just dream both? Moreover, Hohenzollern's account of the weaving, particularly his comment that the Prince is imitating pictures of heroes he has seen in Berlin suggests that the Prince's relation to his Nachwelt is mimetic (48). In these terms, the act of weaving need not be understood with reference to the dedication of the play, as an act of self-creation, but can simply be read as an act of self-representation grounded in imitation (i.e., as a mimesis of poiesis).
Yet can the mimesis of poiesis avoid all pretensions to being poietic? The decisive scenario in this regard, the test case, if you like, of the relation between weaving fame and being famous, would be the act of the Prince crowning himself with the wreath he has woven (an act which, in the terms of our previous discussion, would be the impossible act par excellence, the self-creative act of self-erasure). It is precisely this scenario that is never probed in the opening garden scene. The moment the Prince finishes weaving the wreath, the Elector takes it from him, winds a chain around it, and gives it to Natalie, who then withdraws. The Prince never gets a chance to mimic the self-elevating act of Napoleon, who created quite a stir at his coronation when at the last moment he took the crown out of the hands of Pius VII and crowned himself.(11)
The Elector will subsequently be accused of having erred in playing what from Scene 2 on will be referred to as a joke ("Scherz") on the Prince (although the Elector will aver that what he terms the "ambiguity" ["Zweideutigkeit"] of his actions was not unacceptable). But what is the joke? And who is it on? The Elector's remarks at the moment he takes the wreath from the Prince seem illogical in this context: "Ich mu[Beta] doch sehn, wie weit ers treibt!" (64).(12) Precisely what the Elector does not do is see how far the Prince will go, i.e., whether he will crown himself. In the face of the difficulties presented by the, as Hohenzollern calls him, "sick" Prince, order is restored by cutting him off from that of which he is supposed to be making himself a part, by cutting him off from his comic dream-action, his relation to his production of himself, his production of a future self he will never be or never was. The characters must play with the Prince in this opening play within a play, they must play the Prince off against the Prince, because they must abe able to understand his dreamlike state as the difference between two distinct Princes, a "half-awake, half-asleep" Prince, and an awake Prince, conscious of himself. The play is a play of, by, and in an interruption. From the moment the wreath is taken from the Prince's hands, it is never clear if he can wake up, or if the other characters can stop playing their play within a play. Acting means play-acting, and this is far from witty. Precisely what the players in this play within a play are unable to do is to pass from the comedy of the joke, the Scherz, to the incisiveness of wit, Witz. As Carol Jacobs has noted, the Prince's place in the battle--the place that he is all too capable of leaving early--is none other than the Hackelwitz, as if the entire play develops as the impossibility of being witzig enough ("A Delicate Joke" 123). For all its reverberations, the Elector's joke may never be strong enough to free the sick Prince from the healthy Prince.
Of course, the joke in the opening scene may be on the players, for the Prince's self-crowning is interrupted by putting the crown in Natalie's hands, thereby substituting one reflexive structure for another as this scene is aligned with the play's dedication: now, "she," Natalie, "holds the prize in hand." In this way, the play, like its own dedication, seiner eignen Widmung gleich, shelters the dramatic present against the doubly destroyed present of the Prince's dream, but it does so only by reinscribing that present into a structure of dedication to which the play's dramatic action may relate only as a joke. The divisiveness of the potentially impossible act of self-crowning may be so disruptive that interrupting it, however wittily, only underscores the impossibility of relating to it (much less interrupting it) at all. In other words, interrupting the impossible act of self-crowning is either impossible, in which case the play unfolds as the repetition of a suspended disjunction of two impossible events, or it is possible, in which case the players' interruption has no relation to the paradoxical essence of self-crowning in the first place and reveals nothing about it. Either way, the interruption of the self-crowning in Act 1 is by no means itself necessarily interrupted when the Prince is crowned in the last scene of Act 5. The final scene is not simply the repetition or doubling of the opening scene, for the final scene "completes" the first one only by doing what in the first one is impossible, i.e., crowning the Prince. By de-paro-dying the opening scene, the final scene only further removes the grounds for retrospectively making sense of the first scene, thereby exposing itself to further accusations of parody.
The opening scene of Prinz Friedrich, a search for a mode of interpretation that will facilitate an understanding of the historical dimension of heroic agency, founders on the weaving scenario as the attempt at a dedication of the self to the self proves only to confound the possibility of knowing the self. The effort to explain what the Prince is doing establishes a relation between the Prince and his posterity that jeopardizes the possibility of relating to the Prince, whereas asking why he is doing what he is doing seems to be a superfluous line of inquiry that offers no insight into his state of mind.(13) The act of self-weaving gains significance within the broader logic of the play, however, precisely because the other characters intervene in it. From the start, the Prince's problem is not primarily his relation to himself, but his relation to something or someone other than himself (which initially means the other characters who interrupt him and attempt to evaluate his dreaming).
It would be possible to argue that this dynamic is paradigmatic not only for the relations between the Prince and the other characters, but for all of the relations between the characters, a point that becomes clearer in the contrast between the various characters' interpretations of the Prince's behavior in the opening scene in the garden and their interpretation of his behavior during the battle. The other characters debate the Prince's decision to attack too early with respect to his intentions or consciousness (In what sense did he know what he was doing? Did he know what he was supposed to be doing?) and with respect to the military consequences of the decision (Would the battle have had a different outcome if he had followed orders?), but there is never any doubt about the identification of the act with the actant. The Prince committed the crime. This much is not in question. The opening scene in the garden presents a different problem: the claim that the Prince does not know what he is doing--he is asleep, he is dreaming--cannot be discussed independently of the consequences of the act, but the consequences of the act can only be discussed in terms of the consequences of the other characters' interruption of the act (at which point, as has been said, it is the consequences of the interruption that are discussed, not of the [non]crowning). In the case of the battle, the identity of act and agent is irrelevant for the meaning of the event, while in the case of the opening scene, it is impossible to be sure if the event is meaningful at all. In both instances, subjective agency manifests itself only negatively, as the withdrawal of the attribution of intention from the "actant," i.e., the manifestation of intention erases the structures that allowed it to appear in the first place.
This question is whether this detail constitutes an insight into the nature of the self (who does or does not act), or into the structure of actions (actions considered not as the predicates of a subject but as objective events). To the extent that these examples suggest that asking why things were done will not be useful in explaining what they mean (a qualification that greatly complicates the interpretation of the plot in terms of schemas of cause and effect), the effort to explain a relation between a given character and a given action of that character (the effort, that is, to explain an incident as though it were a relation between a subject and predicate) is suspended. The basic assumption of dramatic theory since Aristotle, the viability of characterizing an "actant" in terms of how he or she acts, is suddenly in jeopardy. The action of Prinz Friedrich breaks upon itself as it becomes a challenge to action as the dramatic paradigm. This is why the characters in Kleist's plays are simultaneously too mechanical and too unpredictable, too generic and too inscrutable, too obvious and too enigmatic. Once the relationship between plot and character cannot be understood as a coherent synthesis of subjects and predicates, of doers and deeds, situating different elements of the plot within a broader explanatory summary becomes impossible.(14) The characters appear to have subjective motives only if they are subsumed by a larger model of unity and telos, that is, only if they are subsumed by an abstraction called the plot; but this abstraction can in turn be understood to have a conceptual content (e.g., "the [im]possibility of decision") only if its status as determining with respect to the action is negated by the particularity of the characters. The more we focus on the events of the play per se, the more we try to rescue our interpretation by simply explaining what happened, the more a logic of suspicion permeates the events and dissolves our connections. The more we try to explain what happened, that is, the less it seems that anything has happened at all. The very viability of dramatic action as such is menaced by a dramatic inactivity. Rational agency and the possibility for action seem to be fundamentally at odds.
Insofar as the dynamic interrelations of character and plot do not unfold as a productive synthesis of subjective activity and objective occurrence, Prinz Friedrich constitutes a substantial challenge to any account of the relationship between drama and history in terms of the representation of past events. Still, this paradigm of action and the lack thereof, telling as it is for the development of the play as we have pursued it to this point, is incomplete. In following out its consequences at such length, we risk eliding the role, albeit a somewhat abstract role, of the law. The Prince, we should not forget, breaks the law. From a slightly different perspective, we must now consider the play as a series of efforts to develop a language of decision, a language of intentions, and most importantly, a language of the law, a language in virtue of which the Prince can be put before the law and justice can run its course.
At first, it appears as though this language will be constituted in an Adamic scene of naming. At the beginning of the play in the garden, nobody chooses to follow Hohenzollern's advice ("Ruf ihn [den Prinzen] beim Namen auf, so fallt er nieder" ),(15) but the strategy proves to be very effective in the fourth scene when it is finally deployed: "Hohenzollern: `Arthur!' Der Prinz fallt um" (87).(16) There are strong suggestions that this fall in the garden (of Eden) is the Prince's fall away from the power of naming. In his trance, the Prince, the princely Adam, bestows the other characters (to their collective confusion) with names: "My father! My bride! My mother!" (60-70). Once he wakes in a fall at the sound of his name, however, he finds himself unable to remember Natalie's name, exclaiming: "Gleichviel! Gleichviel! / Der Nam ist mir, seit ich erwacht, entfallen, / Und gilt zu dem Verstandnis hier gleichviel" (155-56).(17) The "Fall" (a fall from names, a fall from grace, a fall into consciousness), the Prince's inability to be seiner eignen Nachwelt gleich (which may also be his inability to name himself)(18) is expressed not in terms of equality (Gleichheit) or inequality, but as an exclamation of indifference (Gleichgultigkeit): "Gleichviel!"--an exclamation that subsequently multiplies to the point that it virtually becomes the central word in the play.(19) In Act 2, when the Prince is confronted with the news of the Elector's "displeasure" at his actions during the battle and retorts that they did after all defeat the Swedes, Hohenzollern answers: "Gleichviel!--Der Satzung soll Gehorsam sein" (775).(20) Surprised that his friend is not bringing him weapon and setting him free, the Prince responds in kind: "Ich glaubte, du, du bringst [den Degen] mir.--Gleichviel!" Hohenzollern answers: "Ich wei[Beta] von nichts," only to hear again from his friend: "Gleichviel, du horst, gleichviel!" (796-98).(21) This curious "indifference" takes a final turn when Hohenzollern tells the Prince that the Elector was given the sentence from the military court and, rather than pardoning him as judgment allows, ordered that it be brought to him for his signature. Need we even add the Prince' response: "Gleichviel. Du horst. Hohenzollern: Gleichviel?" (883-885).(22) Having had his "gleichviel" answered with "gleichviel", however the Prince is suddenly convinced of the seriousness of his situation, and proclaims that it is impossible the Elector could be doing this to him. The question is whether Hohenzollern thereby negates the Prince's indifference with indifference, or whether gleichviel is like gleichviel, gleichviel gleich, in such a way that it can articulate a relation to the death sentence that is something other than like or unlike, gleich or ungleich. Whereas in the first act "gleichviel" is associated with the loss of the Prince's power to name names or know names, here hints at a broader problem that will become more and more evident as the play continues: the inability of the law and its judgments to name the differences between identity (Gleichheit), similarity, and indifference (Gleichgultikeit).(23)
While gleichviel seems at best a somewhat unstable terms in the name of which the law could be lawful, subsequent efforts in the drama to compare and contrast various names of the law (fate, the fatherland, luck, and war) make it seem less and less likely that any confrontation of the Prince and the law will ever take place. Following the battle and his return from the dead, the Elector announces that whoever has led the calvary in its premature charge is to be put before the military court and sentenced to death. The question of how the law will relate to that of which does not obey the law is presented as a description of where victory comes from. Informed (incorrectly) that it was not the Prince who was fault, the Elector adds that even if the victory had been ten times greater that day, "das entshuldigt / Den nicht, durch den der Zufall mir ihn schenkt: / Mehr Schlachten noch, als die, hab ich zu kampfen, / Und will da[Beta] dem Gesetz Gehorsam sei" (731-735).(24). Later in an argument with Kottwitz (who has pointed out that they did not, after all, lose the battle), the Elector makes the point even more graphically.
Kurfurst: Den Sieg nicht mag ich, der, ein, Kind des Zufalls, Mir von der Bank fallt; das Gesetz will ich, Die Mutter meiner Krone, aufrecht halten, Die ein Geschlecht von Siegen mir erzeugt! (1566-69) [I do not like victory which, a child of chance, Falls to me; I want to uphold the law, The mother of my own crown, which Spawn me a race of victories.]
The progeny of the law is to be distinguished from that which merely falls to one by chance ("ein Kind des Zufalls, der mir fallt"). The law is to be maintained upright (aufrecht gehalten), and its products are not fall at all. The Elector, the representative of the law, assumes that the law is responsible for demonstrating the difference between the case, the Fall, of victory through Zufall and the case, the Fall, of victory through the law (der Beweis des Unterschieds fallt dem Gesetz zu). Nevertheless, once Zufall is put into a relation with the law, once there is a case, ein Fall, of the law, even if it is a Fall of radical contrast, the other the law, Zufall, itself becomes a law. Die Gesetzlichkeit des Gesetzes fallt dem Zufall zu--the lawfulness of the law falls to chance--in which case (Fall) it is inevitable that any victory will collide with chance (mit Zufall in Konflikt kommen oder gegen den Zufall versto[Beta]en). Each victory thus assumes a positive or negative relation to chance; chance becomes the (anti)law of the law.
If it is to be supreme and absolute, the law cannot determine the principles of its own lawfullness without thereby becoming one law among others, one more Fall of law. Accordingly, the law of laws is powerless to prevent its regression, its Fall, back into a multiplicity of competing statutes. The highest law cannot account for its relation to that in the name of which it is the law. No such account would be an autonomous, absolute act of law. This means that the law is absolute only insofar as it tolerates no other law. There is, in other words, no lawful self-presentation of the law as law. In its uniqueness, the law appears as thoroughly broken. Only in its total collapse, its utter fallen-ness, can the law distinguish itself from everything that is a Fall or a Zu-fall des Gesetzes.
The problem in the first instance is not that the law is arbitrary (willkurlich), a point that the Elector will make over and over. Nor is the problem that the letter of the law fails to provide access to the spirit of the law, or that the intent of the law is difficult to interpret. By contrasting the law with Zufall the Elector transforms the law of victory into a law of incidents (Zu- oder Vor-Falle), battles which must occur (vorfallen) if the law is to be a law. At the same time, this law of Vorfallen--this attempt to be before the law, vor dem Gesetz as vor dem Fall--is in turn nothing but an attempt to understand the law as a law of some thing, in which case the law is just something that "mir von der Bank fallt." This is not to say that it is unclear which events (Vorfalle) are children of the law and which are accidents (Zufalle), but it is to say that the law can only manifest itself as the competition between laws that, vor dem Gesetz, can only be accidental (zufallig). The law falls, from law to law.(25) This is why all debates about the law degenerate into disputes over which law is the highest law. The most extreme instance of this line of argument is Kottwitz's debate with the Elector in Act 5:
Kottwitz: [D]as Gesetz, das hochste, oberste, Das Gesetz, das wirken soll, in deiner Feldherrn Brust, Das ist der Buchstab deines Willens nicht; Das ist das Vaterland, das ist die Krone Das bist du selber, dessen Haupt sie Tragt. (1571-74) [Kottwitz: The law, the highest, the mightiest, The law that you should feel in your general's breast, It is not the letter of your will; It is the fatherland, it is the crown, It is you yourself whose head wears the crown.]
In Kottwitz's model, the Elector does not represent the law in its difference from that which is not the law (i.e., Zufall); he simply is the law.(26) This schema is not, as it might first appear, a generalization of denomination, as though entities before the law were coordinated by the nominative grammatical Fall itself (exemplified by Kottwitz's repetition of "it is, it is, it is"). On the contrary, Kottwitz describes nothing less than the fall of the law back into instances (Vorfalle) of subjective decision-making, that is, in his argument, the law becomes the Elector's option to decide to rescind the death sentence. Kottwitz has misunderstood the law(27)--and provided, as the Elector says accusingly, nothing other than "den spitzfundge Lehrbegriff der Freiheit," "the fool's conception of freedom" (1619)--because he has reduced the law to a rule or regulation. He has transformed it into something that no longer rejects the pretensions of any individual incident to be a case of the law, the pretensions of any Vorfall to be a Fall unter des Gesetzes. This rule or regulation is a law that fails to achieve the freedom of utter legal collapse, that fails to singularize in utter breakdown, hence, that fails to exist in an antithetical relation to its own representatives, that fails to be so fallen that it cannot even be a case (Fall) of itself. The war in and of the name of the law ends when the head that wears the crown is the crown, i.e., when the distinctions that would make a crowning possible have been elided, when the Elector is the law. Unfortunately, as the Elector knows all too well, when one is truly before the law one can never isolate a single Fall with whose consequences one could then reckon. There are always more battles to be fought ("mehr Schlachten noch"), more Vor- oder Zu-Falle to face, vor dem Gesetz, which means that one must always reckon with one more modulation in the name of the law, one more failure to articulate the law of the law. In Act I, calling out the name of the Prince proved to be enough to make him fall over and wake up, but here, the law of war is the impossibility for any logic of consequence to be sufficient to fall vor or zu the name of the law. The law falls by failing to fall in a way that one could speak of a time after the Fall, by failing to be fallen.(28)
So is the Prince brought before the law? For the Elector, the posture to be adopted in the face of these difficulties is called, in fine Kantian fashion, obedience. To some extent, the Prince's failure to obey the law may stem from his appeal to the power of a luck or fortune, a Gluck, that cannot be reduced to Zufall,(29) a move that contrasts with the Elector's implicit conflation of Gluck and Zufall in his argument with Kottwitz about the sources of their victory in battle.(30) At the same time, the Prince's ability to utter the name Fortuna is not enough to explain why he is crowned rather than executed at the end of the play. To apostrophize the goddess of fate is not necessarily to speak in the name of fate, in the name of "that which has been spoken" (fatum). There is no question that the Prince's oratorical powers increase markedly during the course of the play, virtually from speech to speech. Despite this ever-growing eloquence, it is nevertheless clear that he speaks as one who can never be sure if he is apostrophizing fate or fortune, Schicksal or Zufall. The Prince can never speak as the one who has spoken, and his apostrophe to Fortuna, like all his speeches, can always turn out to have been something, was ihm zugefallen ist, which is to say that his dramatic mode of address, the mode in which he would become a world-historical hero by apostrophizing a future to be realized by virtue of his speech, is always at risk of being already forfeited, ruined, verfallen. The Prince speaks in the name of an incomplete, a broken, a decaying law.
Whatever the Fall of the name may be, the Elector, in a manner seemingly inconsistent with the edict of the Kriegsrecht, gives the Prince an opportunity to decide himself if he has been treated unjustly, an opportunity to rescind his own death sentence. The unlawful decision to attack early is met with the offer of an opportunity for a second decision. The question is whether the Elector, the representative of the law, thereby abrogates his own duty, whether his action is rather in some way lawful, or whether he is in fact the state of exception, der Ausnahmezustand, in which the lawful and unlawful are indistinguishable. In offering the Prince this chance to cancel his own death sentence, the sovereign calls his own position before the law into question, forcing us to decide whether the political forces of the state and the ethical agency of the individual characters are essentially part of the same complex, or whether the political agency of the Kurfurst necessarily comes into conflict with his status as an ethical agent.
The remarkable offer of a self-pardon emerges out of Natalie's plea for mercy for her cousin in the opening scene of Act 4 (1082). Natalie begins her speech by acknowledging that the law of war must prevail, then adds that feelings should also play a role and that the best gesture in this case would be arbitrarily (willkurlich) to rip up the death order. Alone, these claims are not disruptive of the law. In its absolute systematicity, in being entirely non-arbitrary (unwillkurlich), in being delimited by nothing but itself, without reference to any other law, the law is utterly autocratic (selbstherrlich, eigenmachtig), hence, willkurlich. In legal terms, the tearing up of the court's verdict would be equally arbitrary or non-arbitrary. The distinction is simply not relevant. Rather than confronting the law with an "other" that turns out to be itself, Natalie's remarks make it necessary to ask whether any account of the law's relation to something other than itself, in particular, any account of the law's effects or impacts on something other than itself, is, by definition, willkurlich. Willkur does not thereby become another name of the law (like the [non]law of Zufall). The point is rather that it makes no more sense to say that the law is willkurlich than it does to say that it is unwillkurlich because the law is nothing other than the relentless self-differentiation of the law from that which is not the law. This does not mean that it is impossible to distinguish the law from its opposite (as though they are mixed together or blurred), but it does mean that the negation that would facilitate such an opposition in the first place can never be formulated before the law.
Of course, all of this overlooks the fact that Natalie's speech introduces history as a crucial category for the debate. Her claim about taking "feelings" into account is only one facet of her larger argument that the fatherland will have no trouble surviving the Prince's mishap (and a concomitant gesture of forgiveness on the Elector's part). The living-on (Uberleben), the survival into a future of the fatherland is, in her account, predicated on something other than the rule of the law. It takes place in spite of (or even irrespective of) the lawful or unlawful rule of the law; it exists in virtue of something that is not a law at all, something Natalie personifies as the demand "of history." The danger inherent in Natalie's distinction is that it will divide history and the law irrevocably, a consequence to which the Elector speaks when he responds, "Meint er [der Prinz], dem Vaterlande gelt es gleich, / Ob Willkur drin, ob drin die Satzung herrsche?" (1144-45).(31) At the same time, the fact that the Elector's first question is a question about the Prince's view points towards what is compelling about Natalie's distinction, namely that by dividing existence from the law, it holds out a possibility for reconstituting the Prince--a subject whose effort to relate to the future has pitted his ability to know against his ability to act--as a comprehensible lawful subject.
Natalie's subsequent remarks on this point, however, are not reassuring. Far from having an opinion on the status of the legal decision and its implications for the Fatherland, the condemned Prince is trapped in a state of misery without precedent and thinks only of rescue: "Zu solchem Elend, glaubt ich, sanke keiner, / Den die Geschicht als ihren Helden preist" (1167-68).(32) As if this were not enough, Natalie adds that das Vaterland could meet its demise (an event which, in the terms of her previous remarks, would be the counterfactual event par excellence), and the Prince would not even notice: "Der konnte, unter Blitz und Donnerschlag, / Das ganze Reich der Mark versinken sehn, / Da[Beta] er nicht fragen wurde: Was geschieht?" (1152-54).(33) The Prince of Act 3 is entirely outside of the history of heroic glory of which he dreamed in Act I because his behavior has no historical precedent, Prazedenzfall, i.e., there is no prior fall, biblical or otherwise, to which one could refer in order to explain it. The Prince's heroic future has become impossible--unimaginable, unthinkable, even as a dream--and in one poignant lament, he envisions his glimmer of hope to lie not in his destiny as a soldier, but as a farmer. No hero in history, as Natalie puts it, has ever fallen so far out of politics as to have become comparably unrepresentative of an ethics. No hero, crowned or executed, has ever so completely lost his head.(34) The world-historical subject, the hero, thereby manifests himself as anything but an incarnation of the absolute spirit. The history of this hero is not the affirmation of possibilities. It is neither prospective nor progressive. In his state of utter misery and abject hopelessness, the Prince permits of no projections. Comprehensible as neither a universal nor a particular, he lies before or beyond any anticipation of a future. At this radical divide between ethics and history, Kleist's dramatic language shows us precisely how discomforting a language without promise can be.
"Wo werd ich / Mich gegen solchen Kriegers Meinung setzen?"(35) the Elector asks Natalie (1181-82). Where indeed? The Prince's state of misery demands extraordinary attention from the law because it is unclear if his Fall is irrelevant (gleichgultig) for the law, or if he is too much like the law in his indifference to what has happened and what is to come, standing as he does outside of any chronological narrative that could project or reject him into the past or the future. If the law cannot deal with a Fall in which gleichviel means Gleichgultigkeit (indifference), then the Prince has become the dramatic agent of a negative poetics in which literary and political representation alike become impossible.
At the same time, the Prince is still a hero, and it is Natalie's description of this hero's abject state that successfully persuades the Elector that action must be taken. Thus, the infamous opportunity to be saved: "Wenn er den Spruch fur ungerecht kann halten / Kassier ich die Artikel: er ist frei!" (1185-86).(36) Informed by Natalie of this offer, the Prince exclaims, "Es ist nicht moglich! Es ist ein Traum!" (1305).(37) The Prince's interrogation of his dream-state has thus come full circle. In Act 2, the Prince claimed he must be dreaming as they took his dagger away ("Traum ich? Wach ich? Leb ich? Bin ich bei Sinnen?"  ["Am I dreaming? Am I awake? Am I alive? Am I in possession of my sense?"]). Now, he wonders if he is dreaming precisely because he is offered his dagger back. By repeatedly referring his difficulties to his dreamy behavior in the play's opening scene, the Prince might appear to turn his relation to the law back into a self-relation, into a question of his self-consciousness or lack thereof. This line of interpretation has been important in discussions of this play, and it would seem to confirm a relatively continuous passage between the philosophical and the literary subject.(38) In this regard, the Prince's limited awareness of the extent to which he is semiconscious or unconscious at various points in the opening and closing acts would become the impetus for a comparison and contrast of the dynamics of the other characters' observations of him, at which point the law would be reduced to a set of rules governing intersubjective behavior, a set of rules without any genuine positional power. This schema, however, is illusory. The play would develop quite differently if the Prince ever clearly awoke from his dream in the first act and achieved some insight into his mode of existence, e.g., if he awoke into a deeper "sleep" in which he knew that dreaming disrupts the certainty of any sleep that would simply be the "other" of being awake.(39) Closer examination of the Elector's offer confirms that we must be cautious before drawing any conclusions. Even if the Prince has been made an extraordinary offer to evaluate the law as his law, there is no guarantee that he is free to answer. The Prince reads the letter from his sovereign aloud: "Meint Ihr, ein Unrecht sei Euch widerfahren," writes the Elector, "So bitt ich, sagts mir mit zwei Worten-- / Und gleich den Degen schick ich Euch zuruck" (1311-12).(40) Silly as it sounds, it is by no means obvious what these two words would be. Natalie "erbla[Beta]t," realizing immediately that her cousin will not be able to provide them, while he mulls over the letter: "He says, if I am of the opinion ..." the Prince muses, at which point Natalie interupts: "Freilich!" ["Certainly/Indeed!"] (1322-23). "Freilich," however, never modulates into "eine Freiheit des Schreibens," or into the signature "Friedrich." The Prince finds it impossible to compose himself (sich fassen); he is unable, he says, to write "die Fassung eines Prinzen" ["the composition of a Prince"]. "Two words will be enough," repeats the puzzled Prince; but alas, gleichviel, the exclamation he has been able to utter with such ease up to this point in the play, is only one word, and it would certainly condemn him.
Her frustration increasing, Natalie stresses that the request for a response "ist der Vorwand, / Die au[Beta]re Form nur, deren es bedarf: / Sobald er die zwei Wort in Handen hat, / Flugs ist der ganze Streit vorbei!" (1346-49)(41) While the play's dedication speaks of she who "holds the prize in hand," nobody in this scene has the means ready or present to hand, vor- or zuhanden, with which to get a grip on these words. No self-evident principle of similitude (Gleichheit) governs the passage from gleichviel to zwei. The Elector's request for two words, of course, should not be surprising given how unreliable one-word assurances prove to be in this play. At the same time, zwei is consistently associated with various characters' doubt (Zweifel) about the future, as well as with the aforementioned ambiguity (Zweideutigkeit) of the Elector's joke.(42) This is a play about two people named Friedrich, and it is a play about an assault in battle that took place, as the Prince says, two seconds early. It would be difficult to take two too seriously.
The Prince, in any case, continues to insist that he is unable to understand (fassen) the Elector's letter, finally exclaiming: "Sieh da! ... Mich selber ruft er zur Entscheidung auf!" (1340-44).(43) Once the Prince has specifically reformulated the Elector's offer as a call to decision, there is suddenly no doubt in his mind that he will not be able to say he has been treated unjustly, and he has no further trouble composing himself and composing an answer. Fassen appears to be a simple matter as soon as it has been made into a problem of Entscheidung. Indeed, the identification of the call to decision substantially alters the Prince's relationship to his impending demise. In the scene with Natalie and the Elector's wife where the Prince displays great fear of death, his all too prescient perspective on his own future (and epitaph) had rendered him oblivious to the historical eventfulness of the future as such. Now he is starkly indifferent to what may "befall" him, answering "gleichviel" in spirit, if not in word.
Despite the confusion caused by his somnambulistic activities, the Prince is far more problematic for the other characters when he is awake and holding the law together (zusammenfassen) by simultaneously understanding (fassen) the Kurfurst's offer, composing himself (sich fassen), and composing (fassen) an answer. Hardly an irresponsible dreamer, the Prince finally seems to take the law (if not the crown) into his own hands, but in contradistinction to the opening scene of Act 1 where the characters were able to take the wreath/law away from him, it is not obvious to what extent this new mode of autonomy permits of outside intervention. Is there another "joke" to play on this Prince? "The monster," as Natalie dubs him, has reached the limits of humanity because, contrary to the dedication under whose aegis the entire drama unfolds, he is no longer striving to crown himself. The joke of the opening scene suddenly becomes serious when the Prince stops playing along, when he stops trying to live by living on beyond himself, when he stops trying to live into the future.
It is tempting to describe this transformation of the Prince as the reappearance of a Kantian law, a law that an autonomous self lays down for itself in a dynamic that is intra- rather than inter-subjective. The Prince, after all, displays considerable insight into the law. The Elector's call to decision ostensibly opens up the possibility for the death sentence--which cannot be said to belong to anybody--to be transformed into a judgment of the Prince. In this case, however, the joke is on the Elector. The Prince knows all too well that the call to decision, the Aufruf zur Entscheidung, cannot (as Natalie unsuccessfully tries to persuade him) be treated as a hollow pretence. Before the law, two words are never at hand, ready for use (like a joke). The Prince refuses to allow the law to be recast as a dialogical process; he refuses to treat the Aufruf zur Entscheidung as a question that anticipates either the answer of "yes" (I have been treated unjustly), or "no" (I have not been treated unjusfiy). This does not mean, as is often assumed, that the Prince is simply holding the Elector to the letter of the law by refusing his mercy. If he is truly to do something legal, something lawful, the Prince must do more than just claim to take responsibility for his mistakes. To say that before the law "two words is enough" is to say that the only acceptable answer is yes and no or neither yes nor no.(44) Less obvious is whether this answer is thereby to consist of one word or of two.
The issue becomes clearer several scenes later when, in the only encounter in the play between two fully conscious Friedrichs, the Elector again tries to call on the Prince for help, this time for help with the petition from the troops that demands the prisoner's freedom. The Prince answers, "Ich will den Tod, der mir erkannt, erdulden!" (1745), continuing, "Es ist mein unbeugsamer Wille! / Ich will das heilige Gesetz des Kriegs, / Das ich verletzt', im Angesicht des Heers, / Durch einen freien Tod verherrlichen!" (1749-52).(45) The Prince can only glorify the law by elevating his individuality to the universality of the law, i.e., by dying. In the terms of Act I, this free death would be the impossible coincidence of knowledge and action, the epitome of a self-crowning in which the subject, by dying in accordance with the law, would affirm a law that is utterly indifferent to the particular predications (wishes, wants, dreams, or wreath-weavings) of any subject. Such a "free death" would be the place where the judgment of the law and the decision of the self would coincide, the place where the self could give itself a universal law that would not be restricted to the particularity of a self. The will to die freely, however, does not make the Prince free. Death divides freedom from being, i.e., the free subject no longer exists; but this does not mean that by sacrificing his life the Prince can win immortality. The Prince does, in one of the play's most memorable speeches, apostrophize immortality as entirely his, but in the larger logic of the play, he can only do so one scene after, unbeknownst to him, the Elector has ripped up the death sentence, only after the law no longer holds death over him as the only crown he will ever have.(46)
Furthermore, far from restoring the Prince to the realm of those who are obedient to the law of war, the Prince's wish for death puts him at odds with the very essence of the war. The battles the characters in this play wage are not first and foremost struggles to kill or be killed, but campaigns to prevent what the Prince calls "the journey of life" from stalling in an endless string of apostrophes to what exists, a "freedom" in which the self would simply be enslaved to a world of necessity to which it spoke--often, as in the Prince's later monologues, with great eloquence. War is the very possibility of a difference between life and the law. This indicates, among other things, that the lawful subject cannot be free simply by existing in accord with the laws it would give itself. At the same time, the war is an ethical event, for the apostrophes to that which should be (rather than to that which is), the two-word calls to the next battle and the next victory ("Zur Schlacht! Zum Siegl!"), are not expressions of subjective intentions or desires, but marks of the self's inability to know death as its own, even as the "other" of a life it calls its own. The lawful subject wages the war of the law, but in the midst of its calls to and for war, the speaker cannot understand itself in terms of that to which or for which it calls. The war is the turmoil of a language of address in which apostrophe fails to posit an object or to facilitate inferences about a speaking subject. The subject at war in the name of the law can never lay down a law on the basis of which its word would be law. The war is thus never something reflective (or prospective) through which the lawful subject understands what it is, what it will be, or what it will have been. Neither a clash between strife and the law of strife, nor a by-product of monarchist, nationalist, or imperialist ideologies, this war is the historical event of the law, a struggle for the very possibility of a language in virtue of which there could be something called freedom.(47)
Of course, there is still the Elector's "joke." The joke of the joke of the opening scene of Act 1 is that the other characters rely on the joke as the only means of relating to the Prince. Before they can rush the Prince back into battle in an effort to revitalize his obedient posture towards the law, they must first attempt to play out his impossible relation to his posterity. They must reinvigorate his dream of fame by acting out the death sentence. In the last scene of the play, the players do just this: they blindfold the Prince, then, rather than executing him, they crown him with the wreath he wove in the first scene. The joke of the joke--a joke ostensibly designed to close off the reverberations of the play within a play with which the drama began--fails, however, to produce the intended effect, for the joke, like a dream, cannot be negated in its own terms. At the point at which he is finally crowned, the Prince faints. Trapped between the law of the dream and the law of war, between the Garden of Eden and the field of battle, he is roused by the others' noisy tributes ("Heil! Heil! Heil!"); but far from waking into a reinvigorated life of fame and glory, he manages only a question--"Ist es ein Traum?"--to which the only answer is Kottwitz's version of gleichviel: "Ein Traum, was sonst?" (1852-56).(48)
This confused heroic consciousness is the manifestation of something that is neither joke nor dream, neither life nor death, yet that interrupts the lawful self-composition that would underwrite them all. This something--in the name of which the effort to make two words one and one word two is suspended; in the name of which words can no longer relate to a posterity as zwei or gleich--this something--which never takes place as the dream of dreams that would recall the Garden of Creation or as the joke of jokes that would recall the primal scene of naming--is what the play calls history. History, which begins in an interrupted dream of self-creation and self-glorification, in a garden where nobody yet has a name, is the breaking of a law, a law of language. The Prince can never obey the law, he can never be, as the Elector demands, "dem Gesetz gehorsam" (731), for he cannot obey the demand of language that it constitute itself as a free, autonomous language. The Prince, in other words, can never be der Sprache gehorsam. History is thus the failure of poetic language to be the model, the form, the law of language, even though it is only in and as this breakdown that language presents itself as a force of rational agency.
Prinz Friedrich von Homburg envisions a poetic address in which the Prince could speak freely and still be himself, a poetic address to a future posterity that would name the difference between fate and fortune with more than one word--or at the very least, with a word other than gleichviel. This naming would be the free act par excellence, the linguistic determination of freedom as freedom, a dramatic language of both war and joke in virtue of which there could be a politics based on a speech act that would at once be "categorical" and "imperative." It would be a language productive of and sacrificed to the interruptions, the contingencies, the falls of language. Such a dramatic speech would designate itself as the power of naming under which all linguistic acts could be subsumed, but it would also ceaselessly expose itself to the possibility of lapsing into a mode in which the poetic word is entirely unproductive, apoietic.
In the final analysis, the Prince's dramatic expression fails to coordinate the ethical injunctions organizing his agency with the political structures judging his acts, as a consequence of which his free poetic address never establishes itself as a total success or failure. In these terms, Kleist's text is about history because it does not allow for a conception of literature as either simply a product or a producer, a creation or a creator. The historical force of this discourse manifests itself at the moment at which it most strongly contests its own capacity to give form or force to something we could call an empirical event. If this work is emancipatory, it is not because the characters' words are potentially arbitrary (hence, free), or because fiction has the liberty to represent whatever it desires, but because the drama challenges the conflation of identity with representation that still underwrites so many projects on both the right and the left. Prinz Friedrich does not necessarily ask that we surrender our efforts to explain the relations between literature and social and political realities, but it shatters the uneasy alliance between scientific and aesthetic models of language in virtue of which we believe we can at once submit humanity to linguistic laws and submit language to laws of our own design.
(1.) The drama was never performed in Kleist's lifetime because the Princess Wilhelmene felt it injured the honor of her family (the Hessen-Homburg line) with its depiction of a Prussian soldier afraid of death. Further criticism from military and court circles short-circuited negotiations for the work's publication in 1811. When the first performance finally did take place in Vienna in October of 1821, audience reactions hinged from dismay to disgust. Similar problems plagued performances that year in Berlin, and the King banned the play after its third performance. Prinz Friedrich finally had some success about two decades later, but, as was typical for almost all of its performances in the nineteenth century, this success came only after substantial editing, i.e., the names of the characters were changed, and a majority of the Prince's speeches were eliminated or modified. On the history of the play, see William C. Reeve, Kleist on Stage, 1804-1987 (Buffalo: McGill-Queen's UP, 1993); and Klaus Kanzog, Text und Kontexte. Quellen und Aufsatze zur Rezeptionsgeschichte der Werke Heinrich von Kleists (Berlin: E. Schmidt, 1978).
(2.) Kleist's remarks about the crisis he experienced on reading the first Critique have prompted interpretations of his work with reference to Kant's epistemology, aesthetics, and, less frequently, ethics. It is far from obvious, however, whether reading the two authors "together" is a productive exegetical endeavor or a sophisticated strategy for avoiding the very different challenges they present. On some of the problems posed by a (or "the") Kant-Kleist relationship, see Claudia J. Brodsky, "Kant and Narrative Theory," The Imposition of Form (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987) 21-87; and Michael Shae, "Fatal Vision: Penthesilea and the Kantian Sublime," Dramas of Sublimity and Sublimities of Drama, diss., Yale University, 1992, 7-36. On Kleist and Kant's moral law in particular, see Ernst Cassirer, "Heinrich von Kleist und die Kantische Philosophie," Idee und Gestalt (Berlin: Bruno Cassirer, 1924) 157-202. On the role of Kantian Pflicht in Prinz Friedrich, see Felicitas Sieger, Die Aporie der Freiheit. Zu Idealitat und Asthetizitat des Menschenbildes Heinrich von Kleists (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1993) 176-185. On Kant's theory of language, see Werner Hamacher, "The Promise of Interpretation: Remarks on the Hermeneutic Imperative in Kant and Nietzsche," Premises: Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan, trans. Peter Fenves (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996) 81-142.
(3.) To explain the forces that contribute to a decision being made is inexorably to elide the decision's status as a decision, i.e., such an explanation dispels the spontaneity and autonomy characteristic of a decision by showing that it was actually the product of a set of determinants logically and temporally prior to it. In other words, if a decision is comprehensible in terms of a set of explanatory factors, it is not a decision. These points have become something of a truism in contemporary theoretical discussions, but in this instance, the dialectic of spontaneity and determination takes an odd turn: The Prince's "decision" to attack early is prefigured within the chain of events to such a degree that it almost does stand outside of that chain, not as an instance of his autonomous freedom, but as an instance of his irrelevance.
(4.) This complication calls into question attempts to align the play's self-reflexive structure with its communicability. Fo such an attempt, see Thomas Gro[Beta], "... grad wie im Gesprach ..." Die Selbstreferentialitat der Texte Heinrich von Kleists (Wurzburg: Konigshausen & Neumann, 1995) 240-88.
(5.) The Prince is not a tragic hero in any classical sense insofar as he never engages in a contemplation that takes place as self-division, which is to say that his self-understanding never achieves the level of subjective insight that is self-destruction. The Prince is an anti-Penthesilea, perhaps the character in literature least likely to describe his own suicide and have it be followed by the stage direction: "He falls and dies." Consequently, some commentators have suggested that it is the Elector who is the "true" hero of the play, while others have offered Natalie (and even the anti-heroic Kottwitz) as a substitute. In this way, uncertainty about the generic status of the play--as tragedy, comedy, or tragicomedy--is addressed by re-ordering the ostensible hierarchy of the characters, which is essentially to beg the question rather than explain something about the relationship between plot, character, and genre. For a discussion of the self-reflexivity of this Schauspiel vis-a-vis its status as a Trauerspiel or Lustpiel, see Renate Homann, Selbstreflexion der Literatur. Studien zu Dramen von G. E. Lessing und H. von Kleist (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1986) 379-425.
(6.) The interpretation of the first and last scenes of the play is vital for almost every account of what the play is about (and constitutes the major stumbling block for many). On the level of characterization, questions inevitably arise about why the Elector treats the Prince the way he does and why the Prince behaves the way he does. Ironically, it is the former problem that has received the most attention, as if the Prince's bizarre mental state were simply too inscrutable to fathom. The easiest way to answer questions about the Elector's behavior is to seize on his poise in the final act and argue that he is a benevolent educator who never intends to execute the Prince but is merely guiding him through a ritual of Bildung. This conveniently makes the Prince's strange mental state irrelevant for the interpretation, and thus much easier to deal with. The opposite view regards the Elector as a rivalrous, jealous competitor of the Prince. In these terms, much is made of the parallel between their two non-deaths (the false report of the Elector's death in battle and the Prince's rescinded death sentence), although it is unclear if the competition between the two is over the right to kill or the right to die. The other characters reinforce the comparison (and rivalry) between the two through references to their shared name, as when Natalie tells the Elector that the Prince has acted "fur deines Namens Ruhm," which of course is "fur seines Namens Ruhm" as well (1105). John Ellis gives a thorough list of the various interpersonal dynamics of the Prince-Kurfurst relation in Kleist's "Prinz Friedrich von Homburg:" A Critical Study (Berkeley: U of California P, 1970).
The play's concluding scene is often interpreted as a reconciliation, resolution, or synthesis of the relevant conflicts. See Walter Muller-Siedel, Versehen und Erkennen (Cologne: Bohlau, 1967); Elmar Hoffmeister, Tauschung und Wirklichkeit bei Heinrich von Kleist (Bonn: Bouvier, 1968); and Ilse Graham, Heinrich yon Kleist: Word into Flesh (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1977). At the same time, many interpretations have viewed this final scene, and for that matter all of the other scenes, as fundamentally ambiguous or ironic. See Erika Swales, "Configurations of Irony: Kleist's Prinz Friedrich von Homburg," Deutsche Vierteljahrsschrift fur Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte 56.3 (1982): 407-30; Valentine Hubbs, "Die Ambiguitat in Kleists Prinz Friedrich von Homburg," Kleist-Jahrbuch (1981-82): 184-94; and Roger A. Nicholls, "`Schlug meiner Leiden letzte Stunde?': The Problem of the Resolution of Kleist's Prinz Friedrich von Homburg," Carleton Germanic Papers 14 (1986): 45-54. Although Ellis's book is somewhat out of date, it offers a good survey of the critical literature on the play, dexterously cataloguing the myriad of mutually exclusive interpretations that the drama has prompted. Renate Just also provides a useful survey of the major accounts of the play in this century in her Recht und Gnade in Heinrich von Kleists Schauspiel "Prinz Friedrich von Homburg" (Gottingen: Wallstein, 1993).
(7.) "She holds the prize that falls to him in hand, and if she crowns him, they all crown him." Heinrich von Kleist, Samtliche Werke und Briefe, ed. Helmut Sembdner, vol. 1 (Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1984) 629. Citations from the play will be referenced by line number. Quotations from other works of Kleist are from this edition and are referenced by volume and page number. All translations are my own and most are footnoted.
(8.) "One does not win such things in dreams!"
(9.) "And a stone says of him: He was!"
(10.) To an acting agent, or to an actor who could act the part of an agent. It has been suggested that Kleist's stage direction for the first scene which describes the Prince sitting "half-awake, half-asleep" is the key element of the drama that will always elude presentation on stage. The audience, it is argued, can never "see" half-waking, half-sleeping, as though the obscurity of the Prince's mental state marks the entire drama as unperformable. In these terms, all of the Prince's confusion--his obsession with Natalie's glove, his inability to write down his orders for the battle, and so forth--are (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to make this stage direction manifest. See Carol Jacobs, "A Delicate Joke," Uncontainable Romanticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989) 115-37.
(11.) Unlike Napoleon, the Prince is not permitted to become an example of Hegel's world-historical agent, the agent who, by objectifying its own activity, reverses its subjectivity into the absolute universality of the Subject (Geist). In Kleist's eyes, this is probably just as well. His antipathy towards the French Emperor is so well documented that Heidegger refers to him sarcastically as the poet who was long driven by his dark plans to get rid of Napoleon. Typical of Kleist's ruminations in this regard are his remarks in a letter of 1805 where he marvels that nobody has yet put a bullet in the head of this "bosen Geiste der Welt" (2:761).
(12.) "I must see how far he'll take this!"
(13.) This is the opposite of the Kantian predicament. For Kant, it is essential that a judgment about something reveal something about the structure of judgment itself. Without this minimal degree of reflexivity, the concept of judgment polarizes into an undialectizable opposition between reason and understanding, or it lapses into a permanent disjunction between mode and object of knowledge. In the first Critique, it will constantly turn out that the understanding judgment facilitates is at odds with the rules that make it possible to understand judgment as a faculty of understanding in the first place. At the very moment that it appears to perform an understanding, judgment marks as incomprehensible the relation between the performance of cognition and the cognition of cognition. This is why Kant often speaks of judgment as a faculty of cognition devoid of cognition. In this play, the problem seems to be that the judgment of the Prince only reveals something about the structure of judgment, i.e., it renders it something utterly formal, without, properly speaking, any object at all.
(14.) By what standards, for example, are we to decide how "serious" the threatened mutiny by the troops is, not to mention why the Elector puts the Prince's gross gesture of disobedience aside with scarcely a comment. It is equally difficult to assess any given character's account of another character's behavior (e.g., the Prince's claim that Natalie is the cause of the Elector's hostile behavior towards him), or to understand how certain characters seem to anticipate others' actions so accurately (e.g., Natalie's awareness the moment the Prince receives his letter from the Elector that he will not be willing to claim that he has been treated unjustly).
(15.) "Call him [the Prince] by name and he'll fall down."
(16.) "Hohenzollern: `Arthur!' The Prince falls down."
(17.) "No matter, no matter; since I awoke, the name escapes me and means little to us here."
(18.) The Prince is referred to as "Friedrich" only in the title of the play and in the list of characters at the beginning of the text. To the other characters (and himself), he is always "Arthur."
(19.) In line with the biblical subtext, the characters' speculations about the origin of the plant that composes the wreath can be seen as an attempt to have knowledge about the tree/wreath of (self)knowledge from within Paradise, rather than from the external perspective of a postlapsarian state. The garden "fall" (or lack thereof) will ultimately have to be related to the Elector's refusal to accept a victory won by Zufall (732), as well as to the Unfall of the Prince's fall from his horse that temporarily makes it possible that it may not be he who led the cavalry in their premature attack.
(20.) "It doesn't matter: The order is to be obeyed."
(21.) "Prince: I thought you, you were bringing me my dagger--No matter! Hohenzollern: I don't know anything ... Prince: It's irrelevant, you hear, irrelevant!"
(22.) "Prince: So what!--you hear. Hohenzollern: So what?"
(23.) Indeed, with the specter of the French Revolution's guillotine lurking in the background, Gleichheit may in the last instance be nothing other than the opportunity for someone (everyone?) to lose his or her head, the head on which he or she might wear a laurel wreath.
(24.) "That's no excuse for him, through whom accident sent me the victory. I have more battles to fight than just these, and I want the law to be obeyed."
(25.) On Fall and Zufall in Kleist, see Werner Hamacher, "The Quaking of Presentation," Premises 261-293.
(26.) Gordon Craig suggests that Kottwitz's speech might have been understood by an 1811 audience in Germany as a statement of sympathy with a group of officers led by Neidhart yon Gneisenau who opposed the cautious policies of Hardenberg vis-a-vis the French (The Politics of the Unpolitical: German Writers and the Problem of Power, 1770-1871 [New York: Oxford UP, 1995] 71).
(27.) Or rather, willfully twisted the law. Kottwitz is hardly the dummy here. Indeed, it is often suggested that his arguments on behalf of the Prince are designed precisely not to succeed.
(28.) While the arguments of Kottwitz and Hohenzollern on behalf of the Prince in Act 5 are revealing with respect to the notions of the law and the state at work in the play, it is unclear to what extent they influence the course of the plot, i.e., to what extent they influence the Elector. Given the interpretive attention that has been paid to Natalie's glove that the Prince grabs in the opening scene, it is worth noting that Hohenzollern's effort to excuse the Prince by identifying the glove as the source of his confusion is even less persuasive to the Elector than Kottwitz's appeal.
(29.) The Roman goddess of fate, Fortuna ("Gluck") is apostrophized by the Prince in precise Baroque detail in his monologue at the end of the first act.
(30.) "Der Elector: Meinst du das Gluck werd immerdar, wie jungst, / Mit einem Kranz den Ungehorsam lohnen?" (1567-69) ["Elector: Do you think that luck will always be there, as it has been recently, bestowing a crown on the disobedient?"].
(31.) "Does he think it doesn't matter to the fatherland whether it is whim or the edict that prevails?"
(32.) "I believe that nobody history has heralded as a hero ever sank to such misery."
(33.) "The entire realm could disappear under thunder and lightning and he would never ask: `What's happening?'"
(34.) At one point in their encounter, Natalie tells the Elector that he cannot first crown the Prince and then behead him. The claim seems out of place, for as we have discussed at length, the Elector has definitely not yet crowned the Prince. The motif of heads (or the lack thereof) and their suitability for crowning runs throughout the play and is the subject of the Prince's own ruminations two scenes later in a monologue where the gradual "fall" of the head marks the passage of life: "Wer heut sein Haupt noch auf der Schulter tragt, / Hangt es schon morgen zitternd auf den Leib, / Und ubermorgen liegts bei seiner Ferse" (1290-92) ["Who today still has his head on his shoulders, / Hangs it tomorrow trembling at his waist, / and the following day it lies by his heel"].
(35.) "Where can I set myself against such a soldier's view?"
(36.) "If he can deem the sentence unjust, then I annul it: He is free!"
(37.) "It's not possible! It's a dream!"
(38.) For a survey of this line of interpretation, see Roland Heine, "`Ein Traum, was sonst?' Zum Verhaltnis von Traum und Wirklichkeit in Kleists Prinz Friedrich yon Homburg," Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte: Festschrift fur Richard Brinkmann, ed. Jurgen Brummack (Tubingen: Niemeyer, 1981) 283-313.
(39.) Of course, the fact that the play does not develop by generalizing a dream-predicament is not in itself a guarantee that there is a question to ask before the law other than "Ist es ein traum?" On the problem of (un)consciousness in the play, see Helmut Arntzen, "Prinz Friedrich von Homburg:" Drama der Bewu[Beta]tseinsstufen, in Kleists Dramen: Neue Interpretationen, ed. Walter Hinderer (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1981) 213-37.
(40.) "If you think you've been done an injustice, I say, tell me so in two words and I'll send you your dagger back at once." The Elector adds, "Auf Euren eignen Bei-fall rechnet ich" (1310) ["I reckoned on your approval"], reinvoking the Prince's inability to supply the correct Fall.
(41.) "... [It] is a formality; an empty gesture is all that is required. As soon as he has two words in hand, the entire matter is over."
(42.) Aside from the obvious point that there are zwei Friedrichs, virtually every unit of time in the play is expressed with a zwei. Particularly notable is the shift from the phrase einen Augenblick, an instant, which appears perhaps fifteen times in Act I, to the unusual construction zwei Augenblicke, used by the Prince in Act 3 to describe his premature attack in battle.
(43.) "Look there! ... He calls on me to make the decision myself."
(44.) This point is not lost on the other characters who only half-heartedly pursue (and in the case of the Elector react to) the quasi-mutiny precisely because the Prince's abject despair is clearly not a question of his predicament simply being either just or unjust.
(45.) "I want to suffer the death to which I am sentenced ... It is my unbendable will; through a free death, I want to honor the holy law of war which, in the view of the army, I injured."
(46.) Ironically, immortality thus appears as the very inability of the subject to speak, indeed to strive, for immortality in a timely fashion. The power to apostrophize thereby removes the speaker's ability to speak as the divine or the damned, as the immortal or the mortal.
(47.) For a far-reaching discussion of Kleist's relations to Prussian ideology, monarchism and militarism, see Wolf Kittler, Die Geburt des Partisanen aus dem Geist dem Poesie: Heinrich von Kleist und die Strategie der Befreiungskriege (Freiburg: Rombach, 1987).
(48.) "A dream? What else?"
JAN MIESZKOWSKI is Assistant Professor of German and Humanities at Reed College. He is currently completing a book about poetic language and materialist theories of labor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tentatively titled The Ideology and Imagination of Production.
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Brief Article|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2000|
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