The winning of battles is not determined between men who plan and
deliberate, who make a resolution and carry it out, but between men who are drained of
these faculties, transformed, fallen, either to the level of inert matter, which is all
passivity, or to the level of blind forces, which are all momentum.
This is the final secret of war.
The human spirit is prey to the most astounding impulses. Man goes constantly in
fear of himself. His erotic urges terrify him. The saint turns from the voluptuary in
alarm; she does not know that his unacknowledegeable passions and her own are really one.
Ive read a poem in the form of a play, Joel Agees
translation of Kleists Penthesilea, and cant get it out of my mind.
This German poet, not recognized in his greatness until a century after his death at an
early age (suicide), wrote, elsewhere: I carry around a heart the way a Northern
land carries within it the germ of a semitropical fruit from the South. It sprouts and
sends forth shoots, but it cannot grow ripe. This, from a dichter who lit
extremities of the human heart with such intensity that a reader may long to shield her
eyes, at certain moments, from the blaze. I think his heart could not have endured more
life than it did.
Here are the Greeks before the walls of Troy. Their hero Achilles has
defeated Hector, Trojan prince, and dragged his body around the walls of the city under
the eyes of the king his father. Suddenly, like wolves the Amazons descend upon the
combatants. Wily Odysseus, Greek commander, has just retreated before their onslaught:
having pounded the Trojans, they then, bafflingly, turned on the enemies of the Trojans.
Their fury astonishes the rational Greeks, who cannot divine its cause I
swear by Jupiter, they dont know why! Even more strange, the Queen of the
Amazons, the maiden Penthesilea, seems to bear hatred toward Achilles, whom she seeks out
and pursues on the battlefield. The Greeks are observing from a cliff above. Diomedes
describes the scene to Odysseus and Antilochus:
For as they met in combat yesterday
At eventide, Achilles and the Queen,
Deiphobus comes, the Trojan, of a sudden,
Takes a position at the maidens side,
And smites the son of Peleus such a savage
And cunning blow that you could hear the elms
Reverberating with the clash of steel.
The Queen turns pale, two minutes long she waits
With sinking arms: and then, indignantly,
She shakes her locks about her flaming cheeks,
And, Rising tall above her horses back,
Brings her sword plunging, like a bolt from heaven,
Down with a blaze of light into his neck,
And sends the meddler rolling to the feet
Of bold Achilles, Thetis godlike son.
He thereupon, Achilles, wants to thank her
By dealing her a similar blow; but she,
Bent low against her piebalds flowing mane who,
Gnashing his golden bit, throws himself round
Eludes the murderous blow, lets the reins loose,
And turns her head, and smiles, and is gone.
What sort of courtship is this? A courtship of noble warriors; nothing
moderate or gentle about it. They would kill each other, with love; do.
The play was sent to Goethe by its young author. Goethe was the
unscalable mountain, the Sequoia of European literature, in that year of 1808; respected
councilor to the court of Weimar, he advanced the careers of third-rate artists (it was
judged later) while setting back those of writers whom he must have recognized as
competitors, or successors: Kleist, H÷lderlin. He snubbed Kleist badly and refused to
stage the play; indeed, was horrified by it, and rejected its author as unbalanced and
immoderate. His own contribution to German Romantic literature, and suicide, THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER, was long in the past.
Kleist was the descendant of distinguished Prussian
officers of the old nobility; was educated privately by a Protestant minister; served in
the military; hoped to fight against Napoleon. In young manhood he suffered some sort of
crisis. Joel Agee thinks it was not his reading of Kant as is usually
said that unsettled him but the volcanic eruption of his own artistic
vocation. There was, in any case, a crisis of faith in the ordering power of reason, and
it was permanent. He was also inept in social situations, being seized (perhaps like
Coleridge) by enthusiasms, tremblings, false starts. By the time he was ready to end his
life, at thirty-four, he had written eight plays, assorted stories, poems, essays,
anecdotes, and remarkable letters; all in less than ten years. He had during those same
years been employed by the Prussian Ministry of Finance, imprisoned by French troops
occupying Prussia, suffered a nervous breakdown, endured illnesses, voyaged to France and
Switzerland, established (then saw fail) a literary journal, Ph÷bus, founded and
edited the first daily newspaper in Berlin, and more. He was poor and in debt, had not
gained for his distinguished family name the glory he had sought from literature. He no
longer cared to live, and persuaded a friend, a young married woman ill with an incurable
cancer, to die with him.
Penthesilea raised the hairs on the back of my neck; this was a
degree of poetry one seldom reads. Kleist traced the movements of the aristocratic heart
in love and in war: beauty of language, swiftness of action, implacable fate of lovers
whose word for kiss echoes bite.
The new war in Kosovo and Serbia deepen ones reading of that drama
of another age, whose author, says Joel Agee, deployed the disjunction of German
speech in martial strategies like war machines for the liberation
of affect within the stately rhythms of classical pentameter. The aesthetic effect is both
explosive and serene, and it cannot be duplicated. The drama is of a very high
order, aesthetically; also, it is shocking, is meant to be so. Horror is the
word with which the various actors describe what deeds are done before their scalded eyes.
Achilles and Penthesilia are lovers who would kill each other with the honor and valor
required of great opponents. The rules are implacable; combat is bloody and exhausting.
Perhaps the opening of their hearts to love is a dream. Penthesilea and Achilles, each,
flick in and out of dream, or madness, are seized by passion which is itself an unhealing
wound. The laws of their sovereign nations require each warrior to bear the
consort-captive home to the altar of their highest deity. There is no psychology in these
antagonists; they are terrifyingly innocent in the directness of their feelings. Their
desire is carnal. Penthesilea, mistaking Achilles challenge to single combat as
betrayal of his earlier, pretend submission to her, slaughters him, then, down among her
dogs of war, gnaws at his alabaster breast. Her frenzy spent, she becomes conscious of
what horror she has perpetrated, and takes her life.
Joel Agee suggests that Kleists drama took the German theater back
toward the archaic sources of Greek tragedy as Goethes classical restraint could
not, for the death of Achilles is played out as a sacrifice to Mars, god of war, and the
fury of Penthesilea the re-enactment of the bloody act of vengeance which gave birth to
her sovereign nation.
Of the origin of the Amazons nation, Penthesilea tells Achilles:
Where now the Amazonian nations rules,
There lived before, obedient to the gods,
Warlike and free, a tribe of the Scythians,
Equal to any nation on the earth.
This free tribe is located in the Caucasus; it was
conquered by Vexorus, the Ethopian King who [cut] down old men/ and
boys and took the women as their prize: And, to allot us our full measure of
shame,/ Forced us to tender them a loving welcome. Their queen, Thana´s, was to wed
her conqueror. At her direction, all the women of the tribe hid and sharpened metal
objects. Wedding him, Thana´s stabbed her victor-husband, Mars in his stead carried
out the marriage rite,/ And in a night the murderers had their itch/ Well satisfied, with
knives, till they were dead. The peoples council then proclaimed:
Hence let there be a sovereign nation founded,
A state of women where the arrogant
Imperious voice of man shall not be heard;
That gives itself its laws in dignity,
Obeys itself, provides its own protection....
And should a man set eye upon this nation,
That eye shall be forever closed again;
And should it happen that an infant boy
Be born of tyrant blood, dispatch him straight
to Orcus, where his savage father went.
When Thana´s is crowned, in the temple of Ares/Mars, a voice cries out
that this state of women, whose ruler dares carry the great golden bow of the former
Scythian kings, will be
the laughingstock/ Of men, no more than that, and at the first/ Attack of warlike
neighbors, it will crumble because womens breasts will get in the way of their
bow-pulling arms. Thana´s waits for a moment to observe the effect of this speech on the
crowd; the effect is fear; at once she tears off her right breast and baptized
those/ Whose task it was to wield the bow and arrow,/ And fell into a faint before
shed finished. Thus began the defended state of the Amazons, the
Achilles cries in admiration, By Zeus the thunderer, she
didnt need breasts!/ That woman could have ruled a race of men....
Whatever that speech first stirred in me for it is gratifying to
read at this remove any tale, no matter how legendary, of the valor of women I
would stand away from that dramatic thrill, considering its implication. Achilles, tender
with desire, is dismayed to learn that Penthesilea, too, is bosomless. She pleads that her
feelings have found refuge in her remaining breast, nearer her heart. This is
pathos yet nearly risible, but for the fact of her having been amputated.
No use, if hard to resist, clothing these personages she noble;
he noble and semi-divine in modern guise; if I recognize any trait in them, if I
see in him condescension toward her, and in her, terrifying innocence, meaning purity of
purpose, and the unreasoning, yet very sharp, intelligence of the great warrior or
athlete, nonetheless I cant ignore their tragic situation, their fatedness. No
matter their desire, they must carry out their hieratic roles unto death. An archaic
sacrifice was a bloody event; re-enacted classically, off-stage, it still horrifies even
the Homeric Greeks, even the Amazonian High Priestess of Artemis under whose auspices the
rite is carried out. If in war any exercise of reason occurs, it must be because statesmen
and commanders, agents of gods, knowing the reality of human barbarity, have agreed to
restrict it by mutually-agreed-upon rules according to which heroes will face each other.
Such rule-makers must be wise enough, then, to know that the fury and desire for war,
passion for war born of revenge or aggression or whatever dawn-of-the-world human impulse
fathers and mothers it, is also eternal. It is part of what is human. The passion cannot
be exterminated, they knew and believed, nor truly governed but, at best, bounded by
agreement; but when unloosed, it must run its terrible course.
Artistically, Kleist dramatized a terrible vision of the
collapse of the ordering power of reason. Goethe, a man of the educated
middle-class, could not (I believe) stomach this. Artistic vanity may have warped his
treatment of Kleist; but, surely, Goethes was a moral revulsion, expressed in
aesthetic terms, driving him back from this thrilling, exhausting play. Kleist had no hope
for and no belief in the ordering power of human reason; he, descendant of eighteen
Prussian generals, knew that life, not only The Iliad, was (in Simone
Weils phrase) a poem of force. I can hardly bear to know this: surely, I must know,
not deny, it if only to conceive of civilization as the alternative to the endless
repetition of ritual sacrifice; or is the martial god our ruling diety?
Heinrich von Kleist, PENTHESILEA. Tr. Joel Agee. Pictures by Maurice
NY: Michael di Capua
Hubert Butler, The Artukovitch File, Vol. 1
Hecuba in New York, Vol. 1 No. 2
Hecuba Writing from New York,
Vol. 1 No. 3
On Love, Vol. 2, No. 3
Goethe, Vol. 2, No. 3