e n d n o t e s

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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.
Simone Weil


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.
Georges Bataille

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I’ve read a poem in the form of a play, Joel Agee’s translation of Kleist’s Penthesilea, and can’t 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 don’t 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 maiden’s 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 horse’s 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 piebald’s 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 one’s 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 Kleist’s drama took the German theater back toward the archaic sources of Greek tragedy as Goethe’s 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 “people’s 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 women’s 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 she’d finished.” Thus began the defended state of the Amazons, the “bosomless.”

Achilles cries in admiration, “By Zeus the thunderer, she didn’t 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 can’t 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, Goethe’s 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 Weil’s 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?

—KM

 

Heinrich von Kleist, PENTHESILEA. Tr. Joel Agee. Pictures by Maurice Sendak.
          NY: Michael di Capua Books/HarperCollins, 1998

see also:
Hubert Butler, “The Artukovitch File,” Vol. 1 No. 2
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

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