Sunday, September 21, 2008

Prince Friedrich of Homburg

Prince Friedrich of Homburg was the last work published by Kleist before he committed suicide. It couldn't be staged however as it was thought by the officials that the play could have demoralizing effect on the army. It was ironic because Kleist himself meant it to be seen as a patriotic play. His biographers believe that the failure of the play was one of the factors which aggravated his despair and was a decisive factor in making him take that drastic step.

The excellent introduction in the new directions press edition of the play also talks about his "Kant crisis". In brief, although he was always shy, awkward and hyper-sensitive as a young person, he basically had an optimistic temperament and believed in self-improvement and self-perfection through literature (which was one of the foundations of classical German culture). Then he came across the works of Kant, specially his distinctions between how things appear and how things really are. He interpreted it to mean that human mind could never reach the ultimate truth and will forever be condemned to live with lies and illusions. This philosophical despair combined with a series of failures in the real life led him to the end when he took his own life in a suicide pact with a woman who was suffering from a terminal disease.

Prince of Homburg is considered to be one of the key texts of German drama though I found it slightly underwhelming. It doesn't really have the shattering power of Georg Buchner's Woyzeck which came a couple of decades later (which I wrote about here). In a series of short scenes through multiple acts the play dramatizes how the eponymous Prussian prince wins the war against Sweden but is condemned to death by a military court because he didn't follow the military law by the book. (He basically took charge of the cavalry mistakenly thinking that the Elector was dead). Rest of the play charts his emotional state as it changes from abject terror and despair as a he faces certain death to exultation and feeling of glory after he rationalizes his death by seeing the law of the state as the absolute, objective law - kind of, state as the secular alternative for God himself. Modern readers can't help but think of German authoritarianism which lauded similar principles of individual subjection and sacralization of state and its laws. For this reason many critics think it is a proto-fascist play.

The introductory essay however says that this is a shallow and easier political interpretation and the real, more interesting way to read it as the dramatization of an individual response to the certainty of death, in a world bereft of transcendence.

Since man is psychologically incapable of dying for nothing, the problem facing the Prince becomes one of finding a way to affirm his death. For, if it is a noble pursuit to give one's life meaning, it is an absolute necessity to give meaning to one's impending death. The key to such a psychological tour de force is guilt. It is the affirmation of personal guilt before an absolute - be it God, the father, or the state - that makes it possible for the individual to walk rather than be dragged to the place of execution. By means of this psychological process, death is not only transformed into a just punishment imposed from outside, it also gives the guilty individual the welcome opportunity to atone and cleanse himself. In Prince Friedrich of Homburg, the crucial step in this process of "personalizing" death occurs when the Prince reverses his earlier protestations of innocence and outrage and admits: "Guilty, grave guilt lies heavily upon me."

The essay also compares the Prince character to a few others in German literature most notably in Kafka's story The Judgment. (Kafka claimed him as one of his influences and even called him his "spiritual companion")

By a process of voluntarily accepting guilt and punishment, these characters believe that their lives, previously marked by mere personal desire and petty whim, have been transformed and crowned by a higher meaning. Self-negation is the price of providing one's existence with transpersonal value, a value that can only be bestowed from outside by an absolute. Although the personal cost is the highest conceivable, the individual, by negating the self, liberates himself from the terrors inherent in the thoughts of personal extinction.

Finally a short extract from the play:

Prince: Life, as a dervish once said, is a journey and a short one at that. First we rise six feet above the earth and then lie six feet under. But I now want to settle down somewhere in between. Today a man can carry his head proudly upon his shoulders. By tomorrow it may tremble on his neck and lie the next day on his feet. They say, of course, the sun also shines in the next world and upon brighter fields than ours. It's only pity that the eye must rot before it can see such splendors.


Amateur Reader said...

Is this the Kleist play where the hero keeps fainting?

I can't argue with you comparison with "Woyzeck". Kleist was many years ahead of his time; B├╝chner many decades.

Alok said...

Yes its the same play. He also sleepwalks in the beginning of the play.