Figures of Simplicity: Sensation and Thinking in Kleist and Melville (Intersections: Philosophy and Critical Theory)
Birgit Mara Kaiser
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A fascinating comparison of the work of Heinrich von Kleist and Herman Melville.
Figures of Simplicity explores a unique constellation of figures from philosophy and literature—Heinrich von Kleist, Herman Melville, G. W. Leibniz, and Alexander Baumgarten—in an attempt to recover alternative conceptions of aesthetics and dimensions of thinking lost in the disciplinary narration of aesthetics after Kant. This is done primarily by tracing a variety of “simpletons” that populate the writings of Kleist and Melville. These figures are not entirely ignorant, or stupid, but simple. Their simplicity is a way of thinking, one that Birgit Mara Kaiser suggests is affective thinking. Kaiser avers that Kleist and Melville are experimenting in their texts with an affective mode of thinking, and thereby continue a key line within eighteenth-century aesthetics: the relation of rationality and sensibility. Through her analyses, she offers an outline of what thinking can look like if we take affectivity into account.
the girl. And she renewed with great eagerness her efforts to draw him in after her. ‘What, no one!’ cried the stranger, snatching his hand from hers and taking a step backwards. ‘Did this boy not tell me just now that a negro called Hoango is living here?’ ‘No, I tell you!’ said the girl, stamping her foot with an air of vexation, ‘and although the house belongs to a monster of that name, he is absent just now and ten miles away!’ And so saying she dragged him into the house with both hands,
meant. But “though he but ill comprehended,” he responds to it, and does so in a way that cannot be said to be due to a mere lack of understanding. Rather, as Johnson suggests, “Billy maintains his ‘plotlessness’ not spontaneously but through a complex act of filtering. Far from being simply and naturally pure, he is obsessed with maintaining his own irreproachability in the eyes of authority.”27 This resonates with Ronell's coining of a resolute simplicity: Both Johnson's “act of filtering” and
of simplicity—“einen Helden der Einfalt”32—suggesting a similar antagonism: the obedience vis-à-vis the self and the compliance with the exigencies of the world suddenly become antagonistic for Kohlhaas. He is a hero of simplicity because he reduces, that is simplifies, the Kleistian motif of trust to a personal relation between himself and the state. This antagonism is carried through to its end, becoming in a way an obedience against oneself, as Kommerell notes: “ein Gehorsam gegen das Ich.”33
is to marry—very much in line with his reason of state—the emperor's daughter. Despite this resolution, however, Käthchen's persistence in not-knowing does not waver, and she escapes any resolution or explication by fainting in the last scene. Kleist plays here with the performative quality of language, as much as with its potential to enfold and unfold endlessly, something that writers like Roussel or Blanchot will later perfect.30 However, interesting for our reading are the figures of
drückte: so übernahm sie, von manchen Seiten geweckt, ein menschliches Gefühl; sie folgte ihm mit einer plötzlichen Bewegung, fiel ihm um den Hals, und mischte ihre Thränen mit den seinigen. Was weiter erfolgte, brauchen wir nicht zu melden, weil es jeder, der an diese Stelle kommt, von selbst lies't. Der Fremde, als er sich wieder gesammelt hatte, wußte nicht, wohin ihn die That, die er begangen, führen würde; inzwischen sah er so viel ein, daß er gerettet, und in dem Hause, in welchem er sich