Les poètes maudits

The writing process is not always a creative art.

I want to vindicate a forgotten and excellent writer: Heinrich von Kleist.

Heinrich von Kleist, by Peter Friedel, 1801. Image: Bildindex

Literature, like life, is unjust and cruel on many occasions. When I speak of literature, I am referring to the creative art of oral or written expression. I compare literature to life because, according to John, the evangelist, the origin of everything, or the beginning of all things, was the Verb (John 1: 1–3). That is to say, the word (Of course, it is a simplification of the biblical meaning’s analysis).

Once upon a time, when human beings’ communication began, literature surged through the spoken word, not throughout writing forms. The oral narrative is a very remote genre praised by the great Iberian writer José Saramago (1922–2010), the author of The Gospel According to Jesus Christ.

After oral seeding, the seed blossomed in the Bible. It is the written word by excellence because the voice became a sign, a new kind of expression. It mutated, like a genetically programmed pandemic virus (it is very curious to know that the real cellular DNA, the genome, or genetic Bible, is a long text composed of a combination of four letters).

The word written became viral and infected human beings owners of sensitive souls that feel the beauty and look for knowledge. They are those people that enjoy the pleasure of reading.

At the beginning were the cuneiform tables used by Mesopotamian civilizations; later, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Five centuries later, thousands of millions of letters, words, phrases, paragraphs, and many signs compose the structure of the last editions of the good literary books; for example, novels as One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez), The Old Man and the Sea (Ernest Hemingway), or Macbeth, the William Shakespeare’s play drama). The literary texts are the body that housed the soul of literature. Paraphrasing Augusto Monterroso’s famous novel, the rest is silence.

To write is not always art creation

Regardless of its quality, every published writing is not literature. Nor is everything advertised, sold, and acquired under the big literary umbrella of literature. Those products are only writing, like this one that you are reading now.

Nor even the fact that commercial or media success guarantees the literary essence. The marketing product is something else, even if its iron dictatorship dominates the field. Despite the launch of fifteen or more editions and perhaps selling two or three million books, a bestseller is only a commercial success, unquestionable. Still, it takes more to be a genuinely literary success.

Good literature is not always selling’s success.

Selling’s success is not always good literature.

Literature is an act of creation, and creation is a matter of gods

Good literature persists in time. It is immortal. It may pass much time until to be recognized, but in the end, it usually succeeds. There are many examples. Miguel de Cervantes did not know in life the success of his Don Quixote of La Mancha, one of the most read books in history, together with the Bible. In any language, country, or culture, very excellent writers failed in life. And many died without the recognition of critics and their contemporaries.

A notable example of an author not recognized in his time is a European writer. He lived at the end of the 18th century and during the first decade of the 19th. He was a romantic but alien to the Romanticism movement.

The damned Kleist

Bernd Heinrich Wilhelm von Kleist or Heinrich Kleist (from now on Kleist) was born in Frankfurt from the Oder (the ancient Holy Roman Empire) on October 18, 1777. His childhood is little known. He received a rigorous, Prussian education (it was like the education of remote Sparta but in the 18th century’s Europe). Stephan Zweig dedicated him a brief biography entitled The Struggle with the Daemon, together with Friedrich Hölderlin and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Heinrich von Kleist, circa 1808, by Anton Graff (1736–1813). Image: Wikipedia Commons.

Kleist’s adolescence and youth and the army walked joined. It was a continuous struggle between his military father’s military desires and his literary vocation nestled in his soul. His family’s most usual activity was the militia, with eighteen generals and only two mediocre poets.

There were many swords for so few pens. More than a model of romantic Prussia, his family seemed a saga of Macondo. In the end, after infinite hardship, literature won out. But without immediate success.

Nobody can fight against the gods

The personality of the Prussian writer was very complicated. Possibly, he had bipolar disorder. And he could have been fully aware of the disturbance nesting in his soul. He once wrote: ‘At this moment, everything is in me in turmoil, like burlap on the wheel’.

But in addition to the many personal, emotional, psychological, and economic vicissitudes suffered, he had to coexist with the god of Weimar: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). It seems that every Mozart has a Salieri whom the monster’s shadow blur.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, by Joseph Karl Stieler (1781–1858). Image: Wikipedia Commons.

Goethe and Kleist were twenty-eight years apart. Not only. Above all, there was an abyss between the different views about understanding life and practicing literature. Goethe was the lord of the Romantics, the king of Weimar, a god: intellectual, poet, playwright, novelist, and scientist. Goethe was the author Faust, an imposing drama in two parts (1807–1832), and also of the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). His aesthetic canon rested on the robust pillars of the Greek-Roman classics.

On the other hand, Kleist was a political activist, with certain revolutionary traits, most likely a spy and, above all, a literary whirlwind of his time.

Penthesilea’s cannibalism (1808) reflects his prose’s real harshness and his plays’ rawness. Penthesilea, the queen of the Amazons fallen in love with Achilles, devoured him, along with her dogs, in an extreme expression of the union between love and death.

These things were intolerable for the romantic Goethe, his disciples, and his followers. On the other hand, there was no personal empathy between the two writers, although they recognized each other’s talent. In my opinion, Goethe was a bit envious. The gods, as mythology teaches us, can suffer from some defects of humans. ‘Goliath’ Goethe, from his enormous height as an untouchable giant, despised the tiny ‘David’ Kleist. Unlike in the Bible, David of Frankfurt from the Oder did not kill Goliath from Frankfurt from the Main. Kleist killed himself.

A deadly wedding

Kleist died at the age of 34. It was a cold and foggy day: March 11, 1811. Death’s plan was very meditated and calculated, as an extraordinary and unique rite in the history of the more famous suicides.

Kleist did not suicide with a sling, but with a gun, one of whose bullets entered through the mouth and pierced such a privileged brain. It was a small hole for the skull but a black hole for the literary universe.

The writer died together with Henriette Vogel, a woman that wanted to die because she had an irreversible and painful cancer of the uterus. However, she did not dare to commit suicide. Kleist killed Henriette with her consent seconds before committing suicide.

The tremendous rite was like a wedding of death. The tragedy, an exalted model of a romantic gesture, occurred on Lake Wannsee’s shores, near Berlin (Germany). There still are the mortal remains of both friends. Heinrich von Kleist is now recognized and honored by many.

Heinrich von Kleist as a novel character

Kleist was the author of a powerful literary work: prose, essays, journalism, and theater. He did not write long novels. However, he did not enter the history of literature until almost two hundred years after passing through the world. Frank Kafka and Thomas Mann, two other monsters of world literature, claimed his name and works. They were not bad literary godfathers.

Kleist’s biography, even with its shortcomings, is a complete adventure book. It should deserve Netflix’s attention. What a series he would make! Because the platform directors have not yet called me, I have tried to recover the Kleist’s extraordinary character (see the Note at the bottom).

I contributed more modestly than Kafka and Mann because I lack the authority of the masters. My contribution is a novel. It can serve as a Kleist’s approach to the Spanish-speaking people. Until now, there is no English translation. The novel’s title synthesizes (De Tormenta. Historia de mi alma) the short and intense stormy life of Kleist, the author of the play Penthesilea and the short story The Marquise of O.

Decades after his death, the French poet Paul Verlaine (1844–1896) published an essay (Les poètes maudits) about six poets, one of whom was himself, all considered to be cursed. Thus, the concept of the literary curse was born. Verlaine borrowed the term from the book of poems Les Fleurs du mal by Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867).

Poètes maudits Paul Verlaine (far left) and Arthur Rimbaud (second to left) (1872), by Henri Fantin-Latour. Image: Wikimedia Common.

Heinrich von Kleist is an excellent example among the greats names of literature. It took him nearly two centuries to get success. But, in the end, he got it. Truth takes time to bloom but always flourishes. Shortly before his death, he left a farewell writing that is his epitaph. He proclaimed immortality after his death:

‘Now, oh Immortality, you are all mine.’

He was right.

Tombs of Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel near the Wannsee Lake (Berlin). The epitaph in German says, “Nun, or Unsterblichkeit, bist du ganz mein!”. Image: berlinparisberlinBlogspost.com

Informative note: My previously cited novel ‘De Tormenta. Historia de mi alma/Storm. History of my Soul’ is a fictional autobiography of Heinrich von Kleist.

Medical Doctor (Infectious Diseases specialist/Professor of Medicine) and writer (narrative, theater).

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