Penthesilea and her sisters

What would it be like if reality and fiction came face to face? If Wilhelmine, Ulrike and Henriette met Alkmene, Penthesilea and Käthchen? If the mortal ladies complained about their afflictions to the ladies who have been rendered immortal by Kleist – and vice versa? Without a doubt, all of them would cite Kleist.

Wilhelmine, the bride abandoned by Kleist, would talk about his avowal to “form and shape” every girl, just as he carved the “mouthpiece of my clarinet” until she “fi ts perfectly into every part of my mouth”. She did not challenge her fiancé in this belief, something that was not hard, as he was constantly traveling, so that she was able to form herself for another, more reliable man, who loved her more than the eccentric Kleist. The man she married in the end was Krug, Kant’s successor as Professor in Königsberg.

Ulrike, Kleist’s sister would proudly point out that Kleist portrayed her as “having the soul of a hero in the body of a woman”. Yes, she would tell us, she financed and protected her brother throughout his life, as if she were the man and he the woman. She lived her life free and in charge of herself, did not marry and ran a finishing school for girls. She was only moved to anger by the accusations Kleist expressed against his family before taking his own life, something that stayed with her until the end of her days.

Henriette, Kleist’s terminally ill companion in death, would scoff and make all of the other Kleist ladies jealous by declaring how much easier and jovial it was to die with Kleist than to live with him. She, she would say, had understood Kleist’s secret that “life is the only possession that has value when we no longer esteem it”.

“Ah”, Alkmene, the betrayed wife of Amphitryon in Kleist’s tragicomedy of the same name, would reply to that, “what else can one expect? Kleist is a master of feigning secrets. No man can truly know a woman, and no woman a man. One would have to tear a person’s heart out of their breast, or remove their brain, to avoid having to face all the pretence and disappointment”.

Penthesilea, the notorious Queen of the Amazons would agree painfully with this sentiment. One is “unable to decide whether what we call truth is truly the truth, or only appears so to us”. She herself could not “evaluate her soul” and Achilles was also unable to do so. She did not understand him until she literally assimilated his heart and brain, confusing “kisses with bites”.

Käthchen, the illegitimate Emperor’s daughter from Kleist’s medieval drama “Käthchen of Heilbronn”, would presumably respond to this by saying that we do not have to eat one another to understand one another. And what is more, she would add, one should forget about tying to evaluate the human soul and place one’s trust in a Cherub, who would almost certainly lead one to the right partner with instinctive reliability.

This comment would cause all of the Kleist ladies to laugh and, as if in a dream, they would continue quoting Kleist.

(Günter Blamberger)