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This article is taken from PN Review 16, Volume 7 Number 2, November - December 1980.

On the Gradual Formation of Ideas while Speaking Heinrich von Kleist

Translated by Helen Watanabe - O'Kelly

Introduction by the translator:

FROM HIS birth in 1777 as a scion of an illustrious Prus-sian military family to his death by his own hand in 1811, Kleist's life was a troubled and unhappy one. By his day his family had produced no less than twenty generals and marshals and virtually all the male members of the family were officers in the Prussian army. The young Heinrich, therefore, became a cadet in the famous Potsdam Regiment at the age of 15. It was here that he met his life-long friend, J. J. Otto August Rühle von Lilienstern, to whom the essay, 'On the Gradual Formation of Ideas While Speaking' is addressed. Kleist and Rühle relieved the tedium of garrison life in Potsdam near Berlin by taking part in musical evenings and going for excursions into the surrounding countryside. Correctness, formality and conventionality were the order of the day at Potsdam and French was the normal language of communication, especially in the company of ladies. This stiffness and tedium, together with the unquestioning, unthinking obedience demanded of the soldier, finally drove Kleist to resign his commission in 1799, an act which left him tainted for evermore in the eyes of the Prussian court as the exofficer who turned his back on the traditions of his family. His resignation also meant that he had no real means of support, so, since he had declared his intention of becoming a scholar, he ...


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