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Just one drop of forgetfulness

The author Gertrud Leutenegger has a very Kleistian afternoon on Elba, when she encounters the Marquise von O in the waiting room of a very strange eye doctor.

In the middle of the hot summer day I met the Marquise von O... in Portoferraio. My left eye was inflamed from the changing winds on Elba, from the sea water or the blazing light, anyway I had an appointment with an eye doctor at the Piazza della Repubblica. The horseshoe bay of Portoferraio was deserted at this hour. I glanced one last time at the row of houses which rose up like the steps of an amphitheatre, and stepped through the Renaissance gate into the inner city, not without first checking my punctuality against the clock that was set into the walls of archway. Suddenly I felt uneasy about having an appointment in the quiet of noon. The doctor's surgery was in a grand house from another century, I had to climb three floors, all of which seemed fast asleep. Then in the semi-darkness I caught sight of an open doorway where my doctor was waiting for me in his white coat. He led me into a small waiting room where the shutters were closed against the midday heat, and immediately disappeared again. At an advanced age, he cut a very aristocratic figure.  All the more peculiar, then, his wrinkled, grimy doctor's coat whose collar, I could see even in the poor light, had a yellowish stain. Instinctively I took this as a sign that the eye doctor lived alone, nor was there any sign of an assistant.

I sat alone in the shady waiting room with its faded dusky pink paintwork. On one wall hung black framed portraits of people born blind, as it said beneath them, the centre one, a little larger and flanked by the smaller pictures like an altar piece, showed the face of a woman with a thick mass of hair pinned up, her eyes directed straight towards the viewer yet disconcertingly absent, one pupil slightly to the side as if she were looking away into darkening depths, which in no way lessened the expression in the other eye that radiated constancy and pride. I suddenly felt as if I were standing before the Marquise von O.... Briefly I scanned the portraits on either side of her, a young man with a bowl haircut, who had narrowed his eyes so tightly that only small strip of white was still visible, and a boy with black curly hair, one eye gently closed, the other open but clouded by a grey veil. Immediately I turned back to look at the Marquise and her stupendous talent for conceiving a child as in a dream. Not a sound filtered through to me in the waiting room, I neither heard the doctor going about his business nor talking to anyone else. Perhaps he had just lain back down to sleep. The eye doctor had been highly recommended to me, he was Sicilian, it was emphasised, and had had this surgery since time immemorial, something that now filled me with doubt more than anything else.

At last the door opened. The doctor hinted at a courteous bow and had me step into his cabinet. It was lined with dark red wallpaper and small, narrow horizontal pictures, like votive panels, of deformed, swollen and contorted eyes, hung one above the other. Old-fashioned instruments were laid out, uncovered, on a wheeled table, disinfectant nowhere to be seen, the minute chair on which I had to sit was rusty. After I had described my ailments, the doctor stared long into my eyes, without the help of a lamp. Then he wrapped some cotton wool around a toothpick, used it to wipe an eyelash from my eyelid, said: I have to turn your eye around, and without further ado stuck his bare fingers right into it. Frozen in horror at his method of treatment, I allowed him to continue for barely a second longer before impulsively yanking his arm away, shouting: I won't stand for this! But he insisted: You mustn't resist! And already he was delving into my eye again with his fingers, I leapt to my feet, excuse me, but this is impossible! Then there's no helping you, he said. And he seemed to be looking at me with a peculiar air of contemplation.

Visibly lost in thought the doctor wrote out the bill by hand, paid me a noble complement, I gave him his money and stepped outside, profoundly perturbed, into the blazing heat of the Piazza della Repubblica. On my journey home to the north-western tip of the island my thoughts circled, as if seeking purchase, around the Marquis von O... again whom, so unexpectedly, I believed I had recognised in one of the portraits of the people born blind. And I thought, too, about the protective obliviousness which is no longer accessible to us today and to that blessing which Kleist bestows with such striking frequency, of fainting in situations where something incomprehensible is taking place. He dispensed this talent for being able to fall unreservedly unconscious all the more generously among his characters the less it was granted to him. Although in September 1800 he wrote, still facetiously,   from Würzburg to his fiance Wilhelmine von Zenge about the ceremony of Latin Mass. "I am convinced that all these compounds do not inspire a single sensible thought"; in May 1801, with his Kant crisis already well behind him, he reported back to her, full of yearning, about a person praying ardently at the altar in Dresden: "Oh, just one drop of forgetfulness and with lust I would become Catholic." But Kleist's acute awareness of these dissonances and his feverish vigilance would remain with him right up until his death. Even his death, dealt by his own hand, and the puzzling and the shocking cheerfulness which surrounded it, was unable to conceal that it was marked by such courageous planing and extreme control.

So much distance touches us from this death. I had left Portoferraio behind me and was headed, before the street climbed high, beneath the din of the cicadas, for the valley of San Martino, shimmering in the heat, the place where Napoleon was sent in exile by the time Kleist was already dead and could no longer hate him,"the Corsican, the all-purpose consul, this abominable person and shatterer of the fatherland." Yet when he was in Dresden Kleist was thinking about publishing the Napoleonic Code. But he could hardly have known the order issued by Bonaparte to his Guard: "The grenadier Gobain has committed suicide from love: he was in all other respects an excellent soldier. This is the second incident of the same nature that has occurred within a month. The first Consul directs it to be inserted in the order-book of the Guard: - that a soldier ought to know how to vanquish the pangs and melancholy of the passions: that there is as much true courage in bearing up against mental sufferings with constancy, as in remaining firm on the wall of a battery." How unfashionable this order is; what high regard for passion. Kleist himself had written similarly foreign-sounding sentences. Why do they stir me so deeply, although no one would express themselves like this anymore? Perhaps precisely because it's a lost language. An old freedom takes hold of us within it, with all the radiance afforded by great distance. Something impetuous and absolute pulsates in these sentences, a spectrum of feelings we would never dare to articulate today. But the fact that levelheadedness and rigour also hold sway there make them as intangible to us as music. Which is why you can repeat them so often, like the theme of a fugue. I have never repeated a sentence in an hour of darkness more than this one from Kleist: "Her mind, strong enough not to crack in her unusual situation, surrendered to the great, holy and inexplicable constitution of the world." Why had I always found this sentence so uplifting? Because it was like a formula to me, it became a underlying melody of my life.

And yet at the end of the story, which contains this sentence, "The Marquis of O..." who forgave the Count, because "of the fragile constitution of the world." How on earth? Does the constitution of the world change so fast? But here the Countess has returned – from her lonely country estate where she retreated deep into herself in her paradisaical dream of not-knowing, which indeed allowed her to develop unprecedented independence and to arm herself unswervingly against the world's attacks – to the social, superficial, vulnerable reality in which she has to survive. This oscillation, this passing over from one reality to another is perhaps the most unsettling thing about Kleist who, in a letter to his friend Rühle, said of death: "It is as if we go out of one room and into another."

It is not always so easy for his characters. When, after her announcement in the newspaper, the Marquise is finally confronted with the Count as the father of her child, she glares at with "deadly fierceness, her eyes ablaze" like a devil she slipped past him, "thrust her hand into a vessel of holy water fastened behind the door, with a sweep of her arm sprinkled her father mother and brother with the water, and disappeared." In the furore surrounding the suppressed information, this is not without comic effect. Kleist may have split his sides laughing at this sentence. How can we know how much of a comedian he was? His letters flicker constantly with humour. Is it these comical strains that sometimes seem to bring Kleist so uncannily close? He writes to Wilhelmine von Zenge: "I believe that Newton saw nothing in a girl's breasts except their crooked lines"; he reminded his half-sister Ulrike that she had once advised him to stop drinking beer so that he might be more cheerful, "and I was deeply hurt by your materialist explanation for my misery", and another time to Ulrike: "You may not have much more sympathy for me, but I assure you I am suffering most wondrously." We hear ourselves, our daughters, our sons in this appeal to his family: "If you would only allow me to be with you and work quietly without making me frantic with worry about what should become of me." And then such pithiness too! Kleist, who according to Achim von Arnim had a certain uncertainty in his speech, close to stuttering, could issue the most precise orders in his letters, like this to Ulrike: "Refrain from all applications, conclusions and combinations. They must be incorrect, because you are unable to understand me entirely." Or ask the most succinct questions, like this to Adolphine von Werdeck: "What do you say to the world, to wit, the physiognomy of the moment?"

A drilling pain in my eye, as if the eye doctor's finger were still poking about in there, I drove slower than otherwise along the winding road, which meandered down into narrow bays before climbing immediately afterwards up a wooded hill. In the heat the pines were cooking up an intoxifying scent, bay leaves whipped the car roof, in the distance Corsica faded in a blue haze, every now and then a purple red bougainvillea shone out between black cypresses like a carpet of fresh blood. The eye doctor made me think of Kleist, in his tender but crude inconsiderateness. Hadn't the portrait of the Marquise of O... prepared me for him? But then we are never prepared when the order of the world is turned on its head. And it impacts us just as directly when Kleist's characters torment one another with questions one moment and the next, offer words of encouragement so gently they might be addressing their own souls. And although the Marquise of O... is my favourite character because she moves over the ruins of her life with such certainty, knowing and unknowing at once, it was Käthchen, Käthchen von Heilbronn who was propelled as if by a magic machine, who never fell from grace, who found the most terrifying image for those ambivalences which border on madness when she said to her alleged father, the armourer Theobald: "You place your words, crosswise, into my chest like knives!" They are still painful, as if they had been sharpened this morning.


This article was originally published in German in the Neuer Zürcher Zeitung on 19 November, 2011

The writer Gertrud Leutenegger was in born 1948 in Schwyz, Switzerland and now lives in Zürich. Her novels "Matutin"(2008)
, "Pompona" (2004) and a volume of prose "Gleich nach dem Gotthard kommt der Mailänder Dom" (2006) are all published by Suhrkamp.

Translation: lp - let's talk european