Devouring Metaphor: Disgust and Taste in Kleist's Penthesilea

by Michel Chaouli
Devouring Metaphor: Disgust and Taste in Kleist's Penthesilea
Michel Chaouli
The German Quarterly
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Harvard University

Devouring Metaphor: Disgust and Taste in Kleist's Penthesilea

There is something in bad taste about Penthesilea. Certainly, the "feverish twitch- ings, ... rawness and wildness," which evoked "terror, loathing, and disgustnin one of the play's earliest critics and which have continued to repel readers and viewers, are not easy to swa1low.l And it has not helped the play's popularity that its heroine makes mincemeat out of its hero, nor that the drama-filled as it is with one-breasted, battle-scarred women--quickly gets itself into gender tr~uble.~

But my sense is that something more than excess in plot and lan- guage is at stake, for otherwise the depth and breadth of antipathy that Kleist's play provokes is hard to understand. Such ex- cess may plausibly account for why the text meets with stern disapproval from those judging it with the yardstick of Weimar clas~icism;~

it may even, less plausibly, ac- count for the seventy-year hiatus between the publication of the play in 1808 and its first full-scale production, yet it hardly ex- plains why theaters and audiences have play does not content itself with question- ing the categories of the beautiful and the disgusting, but goes on to offer a realign- ment of the two that turns out to be as am- bitious as it is alarming to an orderly notion of aesthetics. In what follows I argue that what deeply unsettled Kleist's contempo- raries, what unsettles us today, is this dou- ble movement in Penthesilea. On one tra- jectory, the play stages a profound critique of the philosophical terms that sustain the third Critique,not so much by engaging in an argument as by attacking it on the level

of the signifier. Penthesilea borrows phi- losophemes-most crucially taste-and

subjects them to a punishing literary exer- cise at the end of which these metaphors have been so disfigured that they can hardly be expected to sustain an edifice as imposing as Kantian aesthetics. If, as I ar- gue, the play is obsessed with reducing to zero the distance to aesthetic objects, ifit is intent on reminding us of the gustatory sense of taste, then it does so by implicitly

continued to shy away from Penthe~ilea,~questioning the status of a prohibition cen-

given that its scenes of mayhem are tame compared to what any multiples will have to offer.

If the play is in bad taste, if it is judged to be disgusting, it is so, I would suggest, because it calls into question the very cate- gories of taste-good or bad-and of what is disgusting; this is another way of saying that it launches an attack on one of the seminal works of aesthetics, Kant's Kritik der UrteiLskraft, for nowhere is the opposi- tion of good taste and disgust enshrined as firmly and systematically. Moreover, the tral to the third Critique, namely, the pro- hibition against representing what is dis- gusting. In a sense, the play is a sustained attempt at trespassing as far as possible on the disgusting, literalizing and embodying the very terms that aesthetics has been busy metaphorizing. At stake is not merely an expansion of the boundaries of the aes- thetic by shocking audiences with the "fe- verish twitchings" and "wildness" to which our reviewer objects, but rather the very existence of the boundary separating the beautiful from the disgusting, thus threat-

The German Quarterly 69.2 (Spring 1996) 125

ening the collapse of Kantian aesthetics.

Yet this is not all,for if it were we would end up withnot very much. Ifthe first move- ment implies the destruction of a philo- sophical edifice by means of a performative literalization ofmetaphors (something that recent Kleist criticism has frequently ar- gued5), there is a second movement coun- teracting it. While Penthesilea, the heroine, may follow a path leading to a shapeless, chaotic rubble of representation, Penthe- silea, the play, pursues a far more compli- cated road. I will argue that the process by which a metaphorical discourse is literal- ized, embodied, made flesh in the play, goes hand in hand with, indeed depends upon, the very metaphorical discourse it is sup- posed to supplant; far from displacing figurative language in favor of a radical lit- eralism, Penthesilea makes visible the figu- rative in the literal. I will attempt to dem- onstrate how the very cannibalism that, on one level, tries to bring to a halt the process of metaphorical substitution by abandon- ing the word and going for the flesh, on a second level inaugurates a practice of rep- resentation in the inscriptions that teeth make on the body. The play, I suggest, offers us the outlines of another theory of art,one in which the beautiful and the disgusting, the figurative and the literal, sustain each other precisely because they are constantly undermining each other; it is hardly an aesthetics with foundations and pillars, but a precarious construct whose stability para- doxically lies in its simultaneous collapse.

Whatever their specific gripes, most of Kleist's contemporary critics kept return- ing to the scene toward the end of the play in which Penthesilea, aided by a pack of hounds, cannibalistically dismembers Achil- les, her rival and lover. Though many critics buttress their rejection by pointing out how far Kleist has deviated from the path ofclas- sical poetics, it quickly becomes clear that the real-and usually unnamed -referent

is not the classical standard but contempo- rary aesthetics. Since Kleist uses the same source as many of his contemporaries- Benjamin Hederich's Griindliches mytholo- gisches Lexikon (1770)-it is quite apparent to everyone that Kleist has inverted the central element of the plot: while in all of Hederich's accounts Penthesilea is defeated by Achlles (even in the one account in which she wins, he is revived by his mother and kills Penthesilea6), Kleist casts the queen of the Amazons as the victor, albeit one whose victory-in a reversal that typifies the play's movement-prompts her self-destruction. That the insult of a rever-

sal of the "normal" course of events is com- pounded by the injury of cannibalism, that, in other words, Kleist not only inverts the classical but perverts it, makes this mo- ment into the point of condensation for much of the criticism heaped on the work. Take, for example, a passage from a review of Penthesilea that appears in late 1808 in the journal Miszellen fir die Neuste Welt- kunde:

Penthesilea ist im Wahnsinn eine Furie, die Abscheu erweckt, statt Grausen. Sie laRt den Achill von ihren Hunden zerreiR- en, und der Dichter zerriR mutwillig die Teilnahme, welche er zuvor in uns fiir die wunderbare Amazone entspann .. . Das Ekelhafte ist niemals Objekt der schonen ~unst.~

The reviewer crowns his judgment not with a reference to the text but simply by stating, as apodictically as possible, one of the car- dinal rules of Kantian aesthetics: what disgusts can never be the object of the he arts. He declares Kleist aesthetically out of bounds by citing, wittingly or not, a key pas- sage f?om the third Critique: "NLW eine Hd- lichkeit kann nicht der Natur gemalj vor- gestellt werden, ohne alles asthetische Wohlgefallen, mithin die Kunstschonheit, zu Grunde zu richten: namlich diejenige, welche Eke1 enve~kt."~

Kant's argument fol- lows the "except-one" logic: it is permissible to represent ugliness in art-Kant lists the Furies, sicknesses, and ravages of war--ex- cept in one instance, namely, when it causes disgust. For in disgust, says Kant, the object is represented "as ifit forced itself, as it were, upon our enjoyment" ("gleichsam, als ob er sich zum Genusse aufdriinge" [KdU A 187, B 189]), thus collapsing the distinction be- tween the artificial representation ("kiin- stliche Vorstellung") of the object and its nature in our perception. Such forcible imposition-albeit doubly mediated and hedged ("gleichsam, als obn)-leads to the quandary that artifice and nature cannot be distinguished anymore, and since the agency of aesthetic judgment in the third Critique-taste-relies on such distinctions, a disgusting object "cannot possibly be re- garded as beautiful" ("kann allsdann un- moglich fur schon gehalten werden" [KdUA 187, B 1901).

While the prohibition against what evokes disgust merits its own detailed ex- amination, both in regard to its role within the third Critique and in the larger context of aesthetiqg I would like to focus on what it implies for the Kantian concept of taste. The severe manner in which Kant dis- patches the disgusting from the field of the aesthetic is yet another instance, I would argue, of his persistent worry that there might be a slippage between taste, the agency ofaestheticjudgment, and taste, the organic sense. For the agency of aesthetic judgment-i.e., metaphorical taste-which relies on the very distinctions that the dis- gusting threatens to blur, only becomes taste by requiring the very distance to its object that its literal, gustatory precursor lacks. It is worth attending to the notion of distance, precisely because the third Cri- tique never explicitly does so. This may well be because the desirability of maintaining a distance to the object, particularly to the object that triggers the judgment of beauty, is of such obvious importance to Kant7s thinking that he does not bother to dwell on it in the third Critique. The discussion and, more important, ranking of the senses

in his Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hin- sicht, however, spells out some of what is implied in the Kritik der Urteilskraft. Three of the senses-touch, sight, and hearing- are more objective than subjective, Kant says, that is, they contribute more to the knowledge ofthe object than they excite the affected organ. Conversely, taste and smell, being far more characterized by an affection ofthe body, produce more pleasure (Genuss) than knowledge.10 It follows, according to Kant, that we can easily agree with others on perceptions derived from the first group of senses, something however that is not true of taste and smell sensations, because subjects are affected by them in very differ- ent ways. As we may expect, the degree of organic affection as well as a sense's rela- tive objectivity (and thus rank) is propor- tional to the distance it maintains to its object. Hence, sight is the "nob1est"ofsenses "because it is at the greatest distance from touching, as the most limited condition of perception" ("weil er sich unter allen [Sin- nenl am meisten von dem der Betastung, als der eingeschranktesten Bedingung der Wahrnehmung, entfernt" [Anthropologie BA 501). In sight, Kant argues, the body is less affected than with any other sense and thus comes closest to pure intuition ("reine Anschauung") in which the object is given without an admixture of feeling. By con- trast, taste and smell work by putting the body in close proximity to the object of sen- sation; indeed, the proximity is so close that with taste and smell the limit between body and object is violated, since the body is affected by foreign objects "that must pene- trate the organ" ("welche in das Organ ein- dringen miissen" [Anthropologie BA 521).

Such penetration ofthe body by the out- side world leads Kant, quite predictably, to bring up the notion of disgust:

Daher kommt es, daR der Ekel, ein Anreiz, sich des Genossenen durch den kiirzesten Weg des Speisekanals zu entledigen (sich zu erbrechen), als eine so starke Vitalemp- findung den Menschen beigegeben wor- den, weil jene innigliche Einnehmung dem Tier gefahrlich werden kann. (Anthropologie BA 52)

We can now see why Kant has been keeping the senses of taste and smell, as it were, at arm's length, why he defines taste-withun- mistakable distaste-as "Benihrung des Or- gans der Zunge, des Schlundes und der Gaumen durch den aderen Gegenstand" (Anthropologie BA 51) and smell-with gathering disgust-as "Einziehung der mit der Luft vermischten fremden Ausdiinstun- gen"(AnthropologieBA51), for they are both subject to what Kant, in atellingly pleonastic phrase, calls "inner ingestion" ("innigliche Einnehmung"). It seems as though the sen- sation of disgust does not merely occur as a special case of taste and smell-namely when the animal has ingested something dangerous-but that there is something fun- damentally disgusting about taste and smell as such. The very structure of the lower senses relies on the sort of invasion of the subject from which the other senses, indeed the other mental faculties, would turn away in disgust; it is entirely appropriate that in Kant's characterization of disgust (quoted above) the human being who is equipped with that vitally important sensation be- comes, in the following clause, an animal threatened by its "inner ingestion," for the disgusting violates the very autonomy and in-dividuality of the subject-its human-ity-that Kant has been busy establishmg throughout his project. The suspicion that taste and smell are inherently disgusting to Kant is strengthened by the fact that he metaphorically extends the notion of disgust to include any case in which the world is, as we would say, "in our face." Thus, when a thought "is forced upon us but is not benefi- cial as nourishment for the mind" ("wenn [der Gedankel uns aufgedrungen wird, und doch als Geistes-Nahrung fiu uns nicht gedeih- lich ist" [AnthropologieBA 52]), we will per- ceive it as disgusting ("widerlich"). Similarly, the higher senses lose their objective edge when they are assaulted by the world; thus

too much sunlight will blind us for a while and too loud a noise renders us temporarily deaf.

It should come as no surprise, then, that for the purposes of the third Critique the first group of senses will be heavily privi- leged, for not only are sight, hearing, and (to a lesser extent) touch-by keeping a proper distance-quipped with a greater immunity against the disgusting, they also for that reason provide a more reliable per- ception of the world, which has the advan- tage of being communicable to others, a key feature of aesthetic judgment. To keep aes- thetic judgment free and disinterested, Kant must shield it from the intrusion of the object and thus relies on a metaphori- zation of gustatory taste. Aesthetic taste, the third Critique reminds us, is "barbaric" where it requires sensory excitation"Reize und Riihrung" (KdU BA 38)-in order to achieve pleasure; hence Kant at- tempts to emancipate taste from the sort of Ruhrung and Beruhrung that the tongue requires in order to do its work of tasting. While the latter can only register the agree- able ("das Angenehme"), it is metaphoric taste, divorced from any immediate contact with its object, that can pass judgments on the beautiful.

Penthesilea will threaten, as I hope to show, just this separation between meta- phoric and literal senses of taste, but before proceeding to the play it is worth noting that this separation is hardly stable in the Critique itself. It is the frequency with which Kant draws the distinction between aesthetic judgment and organic sense, the vehemence with which he dismisses every- thing having to do with eating as being merely agreeable, that draws attention to itself. At first, Kant's repeated assurances that aesthetic and sensory taste are indeed different might be read as a compensatory rhetoric meant to counteract the actual or perceived closeness of the two phenomena. Such insistence is curious because by 1790, the publication year of the third Critique, the metaphorical usage of taste had long since established itself, even in Germany. Already in 1727 the theoretician of taste Johann Ulrich Konig noted in his Untersuchung uon dem gutem Geschmack that there were still some people who resisted the figurative sense of Geschmack,thereby implying that this usage was already well entrenched.ll Why would Kant repeatedly maintain that good taste has little to do with things that taste good, when thephilo- sophical and even belletristic discourse of his time had long since adopted this propo- sition? Why, if not to insist precisely on the connection between the two, to remind the reader who may have forgotten (or may never have known) of the gustatory under- pinnings of metaphorical good taste? Already the Anthropologie provides us with a first hint in this direction: in the manu- script, Kant had entitled Section 18 "Von den Sinnen des Schmeckensund Riechens," but changed this for the first edition to "Von den Sinnen des Geschmacks und des Riechens." It seems odd that Kant would substitute Geschmack for Schmecken, would erase an available semantic distinc- tion between two words when he wants to insist on their conceptual difference, unless the real force of Geschmack lies in its very ambiguity, in the way it simultaneously keeps the literal and figurative senses of taste in play. The third Critique continues this game, insisting on the refinement of one Geschmack while continually sticking the reader's nose into the other, securing the province of beauty while keeping alive the demon of disgust. Penthesilea merely mobilizes these counteracting forces.

Given these parameters, Penthesilea can indeed be read as a text that journeys from one aesthetic pole to the other, or more precisely, from an aesthetic pole to a non- aesthetic one, for the shrinkage of distance is ofgreat and terrifying concernin the text. The diminishing distance between Achilles and Penthesilea, which is teichoscopically related to us in the chase scene at the be- giming (387432), is already figured as food for Penthesilea's voracity:

Wie sie, bis auf die Mahn' herabgebeugt, Hinweg die Luft trinkt lechzend, die sie hemmt!


Mit jedem Hufschlag, Schlingt sie, wie hungerheis, ein Stuck des Weges, Der sie von dem Peliden trennt, hinunter!


And if here she only metaphorically con- sumes the distance that separates her from his heart, we soon find that the play literal- izes this motif, inexorably leading tothe final scene of ingestion in which the distance be- tween the two is reduced to zero (indeed, to be precise, to less than zero). What makes Penthesilea's act truly disgusting-and thus crucial to a consideration of aesthetics-is that, besides swallowing Achilles, she con- sumes the very concept of distance, that she undoes the differentiation ofeating and taste on which aesthetic judgment has depended. This act of consumption is charged with even greater philosophical force when we consider that the distance that becomes fodder for Penthesilea's voracity separates her not from just any object of desire, but from one that is specifically figured as an aestheticobject; take Achilles's glorious appearance, his slow rise over the horizon as he approaches on his horse:

Seht! Steigt dort uber jenes Berges

Riicken, Ein Haupt nicht, ein bewaffnetes, empor? Ein Helm, von Federbuschen iiberschat-

tet? Der Nacken schon, der macht'ge, der es tragt? Die Schultern auch, die Arme, stahl- umgliinzt? Das ganze Brustgebild, o seht doch, Freunde, Bis wo der Leib der gold'ne Gurt umschlieflt?


Die Haupter sieht man schon, geschmuckt

mit Blessen,

Des RoSgespanns! Nur noch die Schenkel


Die Hufen, von der Hohe Rand bedeckt!

Jetzt, auf dem Horizonte, steht das ganze

Kriegsfahrzeug da! So geht die Sonne


An einem heitren Fruhlingstage auf!


As if to emphasize the aesthetic quality of Achilles's appearance, the text presents him at a double remove, distancing us from the distance at which he stands; like the sun, Achilles is figured both as a luminous object located in the distance and as one whom we can see not directly, but through a reflection, in this case through teichoscopy, which di- rects the sight of him through a linguistic representationto our ears. This resplendent aesthetic object is in short order robbed ofits distance and transformed into a piece of tasty meat, thus reversing the metaphoriza- tion of taste, accrued over several centuries, in a matter of a few hours. The trajectory of the play can be seen, at least at this point in my argument, as moving from the possibility of beauty to the reality of disgust.

The repercussions of the collapse of taste-as-aesthetic-judgment into taste-as- cannibalistic-desire become more evident if we consider that Achilles is not just any warrior, nor is his appearance announced by means of just any image; his ascent is that of the sun, with which he continues to be closely identified throughout the drama. During the chaotic confusion of battle, the sun breaks through the clouds ("durch der Wetterwolken RiS" [1033]) and, of all things, illuminates, laser-like, his head; in- deed, in a remarkable metaphoric series, the sun is first prosopopeically figured as kissing Achilles (1062), only to become Pen- thesilea's rival in love ("Nebenbuhl'rin" [10641), whom she jealously tries to over- take, for through Artemis Penthesilea is as- sociated with the moon, the mere reflection of the sun. But the sun occupies a special position among metaphors, for metaphors are employed in language to clan@ by means ofthe sensible an abstraction, which is something from which the sensible has been drawn away. And every process that involves such illumination (enlightenment, illustration, clarification) depends in the final analysis, as Derrida has pointed out, on the presence of the sun.13 Metaphor-and thus the sun-is indispensable to any liter- ary (more generally: aesthetic) discourse, not merely for the empirical reason that literary texts use metaphors, but because metaphor replicates, in its structure of sub- stitution, the very notions of distance and distinction that are at the foundation of aes- thetics. Metaphor maintains the sharp separation between "natural" and "artifi- cial" representation that Kant sees threat- ened by the disgusting.

We do not have to look far in Penthesilea to find the sun, nor its peculiar property of being simultaneously figure and meta-fig- ure, for when Achilles and the sun rise, early in the play, their referential relation- ship is left altogether open: "So geht die Sonne.. . auF leaves it undecidable in which direction the arrow of figurative compari- son points; both are possible: Achilles is compared to the sun ("Look, Achilles rises over the hill just like the sun does") and the sun is compared to Achilles ('When the sun rises, it is just like Achilles's glorious as- cent"). Thus, if the positions of the two are interchangeable and reversible, if they can stand in for one another, if, that is, Achilles is a metaphor for the metaphor of all meta- phors, then the trajectory we have been tracing-how figurative distance collapses in the materiality of cannibalism, evoking disgust-is much more serious than it at first seemed, for it would also imply the destruction-the collapse--of the master metaphor of Western discourse. It is bad enough that Penthesilea, accompanied by her hounds, chews up the greatest hero of Greek mythology; but what is worse, she dismembers the very possibility of repre- sentational-and thus aesthetic--discourse; what she violently annuls is not merely dis- tance and taste, but the conditio sine qua non for distance and taste.

Yet Penthesilea is not as monodirec- tional as that, nor is its brutal treatment of aesthetic metaphors as unequivocal. As violent as the path that Ihave just sketched from aesthetic beauty to disgust might be, it still relies on a stable relationship be- tween the two terms; indeed, such a trans- formation would cement, rather than un- dennine, the Kantian distinction between disgust and all other representations, for if forcing Achilles down our throats marks the collapse of distance and its attendant con- cepts, it conversely assumes an intact aes- thetic beginning, an Achilles who is all sun and no meat. This is obviously not the case: the first time we see the body of Achilles on stage (rather than just hearing his linguis- tic representation), far from embodying the glory of the ascending sun, he is nothing more than a wounded warrior, sweating and bleeding (after 492, 503). Kleist does not want us to miss this wound: for seventy- five lines of text, while Greek generals hold forth on strategy, two medics busy them- selves with bandaging Achilles. The stand- in for the sun, the figure of figure, is not only flesh, but flesh that has been marked by an incision, flesh that bears the traces of, that has been inscribed with, Penthe- silea's desire. But ifhere the aesthetic object par excellence bears the marks of meaty materiality from the very beginning (albeit through a cut that, as war wound, is irnme- diately divorced from the body and in- scribed into a discourse of heroics), then by the end of the play, when Penthesilea makes her marks not long-distance, by means of bow and arrow, but at the shortest distance, with her teeth, we must realize that the piece of meat has also already been an aesthetic object. For while Penthesilea,

in a bout of madness, attempts to shrink the distance between natural and artificial representations of Achilles, while she at- tempts to get beyond the name and at the meat of Achilles, while she attempts to sever his relationship with her love rival, the sun, halting metaphoric movement- attempts that are not a result of, but the same thing as her madness-we, readers and viewers, are permitted to maintain a generically and linguistically secure dis- tance from these events. The play, in other words, does not move merely in one direc- tion-Penthesilea gobbling down the dis- tance between herself and Achilles with such ferocity that she forgets to stop when she reaches him-but also in the other, for neither the consumption nor the consumed is ever available to us at no distance, is never simply disgusting, but always in- scribed in a distancing, aesthetic register (which, indeed, performs such inscription on the body). Just as the rising sun is at once literalized in flesh, the piece of flesh at the end is, as we shall see in detail, more than literal but always also figurative; it is, for example, more than literal in that it al- ludes back not just to Achilles's wound, but to the history of ecstatic devourings start- ing with Euripides. Thus, what is at stake in the play is not so much a movement from the beautiful to the disgusting as an ap- pearance of the disgusting in the beautiful, and vice versa.

We finally never see how she devours him. Like all of the play's other crucial events-xcept for Penthesilea's suicide- this, too, takes place offstage;14 indeed, it is removed by one more degree in that it is (aside from four lines, 2594-2597) not re- lated through teichoscopy (which would make it contemporaneous with the action on stage and the audience's perception of it), but reportedafter the fact by an Amazon leader. Though such formal framing devices are important to mark the event as aes- thetic, we need look no further than the language in this scene to recognize that, were the Kantian divide between the beau- tiful and the disgusting stable, the text could have been said to attempt to straddle it. The poetic power that sustains the lines that describe Achilles's dismemberment derives from the cohabitation ofmetaphori- cal language with its imminent annulment, of flowers with wounds. Let us look at the scene (as related by the Amazon Meroe) in which he, hunted 'like a youngstag"("g1eich einem jungen Reh" [2631]), is hiding in a spruce from her, who pursues him 'like a huntress" ("gleich einem Jagern [26421):

Und da er eben, die Gezweige offnend,

Zu ihren FiiSen niedersinken will:

Ha! sein Geweih verrat' den Hirsch, ruft


Und spamt mit Kraft einer Rasenden, so-


Den Bogen an, daS sich die Enden kiissen,

Und hebt den Bogen auf und zielt und


Und jagt den Pfeil durch den Hals; er

sturzt. (2643-2649)

At the moment in which the play is poised to plunge into the mayhem that will, according to the trajectory we sketched above, cata- pult it beyond the pale of the aesthetic, it provides us with one of its most intricately layered passages. We should not be fooled by the sudden change from a hypotactic sen- tence structure to the parataxis here, which would at first glance suggest a breathless recounting of events. Far from replacing the beautiful with the disgusting, marking the end of aesthetics, the cited passage and the account ofAchilles7s destruction that follows depend on the functioning of the very signi- fylng structures that in our first reading we had declared dead (killed, indeed, by this scene): allusion, metaphor, an intricate play of literal and figurative senses.

The passage-perhaps the play, which Alfred Doblin has called "ein Leckerbissen von Literaten"15-is ultimately about the question of how Achilles will fall, how the plunge into mayhem will take place, for both main characters are intent on making it happen: he would like to go down gently to her feet-"da er ... / Zu ihren Fiiljen nie- dersinken willn-yet she foils him and causes him to fall violently, to collapse: "er sturzt." The difference is crucial, since nie- dersinken always carries a guarantee of a soft landing, for Achilles's futile gesture of submission, as much as it is driven by panic at this point, contains the seeds of his earlier plan-to feign defeat in order to possess Penthesilea-which would have turned the nominal vanquished into the ac- tual victor. Niedersinken is part of a ritual of submission and mercy, that is, part of a signifying game, and Achilles, as we know, is a master at playing such games of signi- fication, a master at turning meaning in- side out: when, in scene 14, Penthesilea- whom he has defeated but who, having been unconscious, does not know (or does not want to know)l6 this turn of events- asks him whether indeed he is her prisoner (which he merely pretends to be), hereplies, "In jedem schon'ren Sinne, erhabne Konigin! / Gewillt mein ganzes Leben furderhin, / In deiner Blicke Fesseln zu verflattern" (1611-1613).17 Indeed, Achil- les has already once performed for us the manner by which he means to use nied- ersinken: whlle he still maintains the fiction of a defeat at the hands of Penthesilea, she queries him skeptically:

PENTHESILEA: Furchtest du, die dich in Staub gelegt? (Zu ihrr.nFiiBen): Wie Blumen Sonnenschein, PENTHESILEA:~ ~ t ,

gutgesagt, So sieh mich auch wie deine Sonne an.


The gesture ofniedersinken here is a complex one, for it echoes a fall to her feet that never took place and foreshadows, indeed pro- vokes, one that will; it is Achilles's pretense here that makes Penthesilea into a Fury at the end. The gesture of willed submission parallels Achilles's clever simile, for he is at her feet as much as he-the sun-is in need ofsunshine, namely, not at all. Just how "well saidnthis is becomes clear to Penthesileaonly later, for what allows Achilles, by way of a simile, to slip out of the position of the sun and into its orbit is precisely the intactness of the metaphorical system guaranteed by the sun, i.e., precisely the fact that he still is the sun, rather than a flower in need of it. Thus, niedersinken can be read not so much asagesture ofsubmission, but as one ofmas- tery, indeed, ofmastery through submission.

Sturzen, by contrast, offers no hope of a safe landing; in the course of the play, Sturz is the mark of a terrifying loss of control, a fall whose endpoint can be not only death but, worse, confusion, obscurity, chaos, that is, the end of a system of representation in which the illuminating metaphor reigns. The first fall of the play occurs when Achil- les's horses recoil from an abyss ("Abgrund" [2621), sending rider and horses into a cha- otic entanglement: Wnd im venvorrenen Geschirre fallend, / Zum Chaos, Pferd' und Wagen, eingestiirzt, / Liegt unser Gotter- sohn" (269-271). We find another pairing of stiirzen and Chaos in scene 3, where, for the first of many times, Achilles plays a trick on Penthesilea; she falls for it and, as a result, falls, stiirzt. As she closes in on him, he changes course and pretends to take a detour-a Bogen (416)-to his goal (the safety of the Greek camp), luring her into taking the straight route-4ehne (417) (lit- eralizing the abstract arc into a weapon)- which leads to her fall when she overshoots her goal:

DOLOPER: Wie sie, die Unaufhaltsame, vorbei SchieRt an dem Fuhnverk MYRMIDONIER: Prellt, im Sattel fliegt, Und stolpert






Stiirzt, die Konigin!



The fall of the queen (which Kleist displays, as it were, in the cascading of verse 427 on the printed page) is traumatic enough to re- quire a double mention; and though Penthe- silea does not die, she and the Amazons that pile up on her offer a sight of utter loss of order: "das Chaos war, / Das erst', aus dem die Welt sprang, deutlichef (437438). AU of this might be viewed as preparation for the final scene, which is appropriately an- other-indeed a double-fall; for Achilles's last fall, rendered with a lapidary "er stiirzt" (2649), is followed quickly by Penthesilea's, which itself is doubled: Wnd stiirzt-stiirzt mit der ganzen Meut', o Diana! / Sich iiber ihn, und reiSt-reifit ihn beim Helmbusch, / Gleich einer Hiindin, Hunden beigesellt" (2657-2659).

But at the moment when everything seems to be falling, when the text points to its own collapse into chaos, to the end ofthe signifying sun, it also manages to suspend such movement, for the very process of pointing, of reference, assumes a linguisti- cally functioning sun. Almost every phrase in the account of Penthesilea's savage de- vouring ofAchilles resonates with allusions to rich networks of imagery either inside the play or out (or, indeed, both). I have suggested some of the images associated withsturzen andniedersinken. I should also note that the moment in which Penthesilea discovers Achilles, the moment that sets the stage for the fall into what, according to a linear reading, would be chaos, is itself a richly resonant one. The stag that Pen- thesilea spots between the branches of the spruce ("Ha! sein Geweih verrat' den Hirsch" [26451) cites the story of Artemis (to whose temple, under "normal" circum- stances, Achilles would have been taken) in which the goddess turns Actaion into a stag, who is then torn to bits by a pack of dogs. Not only does this line provide us with

a multilayered allusion (to Artemis, to the temple, to the moon with whom Penthesilea is thus associated), it also does something more crucial: precisely when Achilles is to die, when, according to the logic we have delineated, the process of metaphorization is to come to an end, the presumed agent of his destruction does not use Achilles's name (i.e., the only signifier with only one signi- fied), but uses instead a metaphor (stag) that in turn encapsulates an allegory. And the metaphor does even more than that: it also points us to a simile in the play's first scene in which the roles of hunting hound and hunted stag are reversed. Odysseus complains here about how Achilles has been distracted by Penthesilea from the real task at hand, namely, the Trojan war:

Schafft den Peliden weg von diesem


Dem wie die Dog$ entkoppelt, mit


In das Geweih des Hirsches fallt: der


Erfiillt von Sorge, lockt und ruft sie ab;

Jedoch verbissen in des Prachttiers


Tanzt sie durch Berge neben ihm, und


Fern in des Walds Nacht hinein: so er,

Der Rasende, seit in der Forst des Krieges

Dies Wild sich von so seltner Art, ihm


Durchbohrt mit einem Pfeilschulj, ihn zu


Die Schenkel ihm: er weicht, so schwort er,


Von dieser Amazone Ferse nicht,

Bis er bei ihren seidnen Haaren sie

Von dem gefleckten Tigerpferd gerissen.


The allusive power ofpenthesilea's reference to the stag becomes clear only once we look at this passage, for here allthe elements that constitute the end-hound, stag, throat, dance,ls arrow, and death-are present but in inverted form: here Achilles is the hound, Penthesilea the deer, and Odysseus guides the arrow; even the famous heel has been passed from Achilles to Penthesilea. It would be reductive, though, to argue that the play stages such an inversion, exchanging in essence Achdles's and Penthesilea's positions;lg such a claim would indeed merely radicalize (and simplify) the claim that the play stages an inversion of beauty and dis- gust by identifying those terms with the two characters. But, as I have suggested, some- thing more complicated is at stake here, something that is announced by the veryhst figure of the work:

Du siehst auf diesen Feldern, Der Griechen und der Amazonen Heer, Wie zwei erboste Wolfe sich umkampfen:

Tot sinken die VerbiRnen heut noch nieder, Des einen Zahn im Schlund des anderen. (3410-11)

Rather than map the hunt between Penthe- silea and Achilles onto this stag or that hound, it may be more accurate to refer to the two wolves that have their teeth, Escher- like, buried in one another's throat. (Is it clear, after all, who is hunting whom in this play?) Indeed, the two tendencies that have their teeth perhaps most deeply buried in one another are beauty and disgust, the aes- thetic and its other, the possibility of meta- phor and its limits (to suggest three distinct ways of framing the issue).

Nowhere is metaphor-and the very concept of metaphor-played out more resonantly than in the image of the Bogen, which covers a semantic field well beyond bow and arc. It is again a motif that calls attention to itself by its double appearance in this most economical of texts:

Und spamt mit Kraft der Rasenden,


Den Bogen an, dalj sich die Enden kiissen,

Und hebt den Bogen auf und schieljt,

Und jagt den Pfeil ihm durch den Hals; er

stiirzt. (2646-2649)

Bogen, in the sense of archer's bow, does nu- merous duties at once in the text: it is not just a weapon of war but, of course, as the kiss in the above passage suggests, Cupid's tool; in Penthesilea we are never allowed to think of one without the other. (Indeed, the kiss of the bow's two ends has been read as the forcible unification of desire and vio- len~e.~~)

The bow is also doubly crucial to the "Frauenstaat"(1958),for it both founds the women's state and dissolves it; it is at the moment in whichTanaisreaches forthecere- monial bow that is to make her the first queen of the Amazons that a doubting voice interrupts the ritual, questioning whether full-bosomed women will be able to pull a bow tautly enough to defend themselves against hostile, and male, neighbors. The queen's response is swift and radical:

Doch als die feige Regung um sich griff,

RiR sie die rechte Brust sich ab, und


Die Fraun, die den Bogen spannen


Und fie1 zusammen, eh' sie noch vollendet:

Die Amazonen oder Busenlosen! -

Hierauf ward ihr die Krone aufgesetzt.


The fact that it is an act of self-castration that founds the new state should surprise us only if we expected the "Frauenstaat" to op- erate according to an entirely different logic of self-legitimation than men's states. If there is a difference, it is to be found not in the self-mutilation that all Amazons perform on themselves, but in the movement of the bow. For after the crowning, when the crucial moment of the constitution-the naming-of the state has passed, when the fluidity of confusion yields to the fixlty of baptism, something more is added: the fall--Stun- of the bow which the high priestess had held out for Tandis to mark her ascent to the throne but which now, with the queen's col- lapse, has nowhere to go but down:

Nichts als der Bogen lie13 sich schwirrend


Der aus den Handen, leichenbla13 und


Der Oberpriestenn darniederfiel.

Er stiirzt', der grol3e, goldene, des Reichs,

Und klirrte vor der Marmorstufe dreimal,

Mit dem Gedrohn der Glocken, auf, und

Stumm wie der Tod, zu ihren Fu13en sich. (1995-2001)

The figure that both of these passages pre- sent is the paradox of a foundation in the midst of a fall; ifTandis names the new state (which will distinguish itselfthrough a lack: those without a breast) in the moment of her collapse-thus also establishing herself as founder in the very motion of her fall-the bow which is the sign of the founding in the first place also marks the new beginning by its fall. We have witnessed here the precise symbolic structure of the birth of a new in- stitution, for what at first seems like an ab- erration from the usual ritual oflegitimizing power (rather than clutching the bow, Tanais drops it) becomes fixed as the sign ofthe new order, or rather: it fixes what was a state of fluid signification ("feige Regung") into a par- ticular meaning. We can see the new master signifier at work towards the end ofthe play when Penthesilea has returned from her out- burst of cannibalism, and when the moment of her abdication, of the dissolution of her bond with the state, consists of the dropping of the bow (after 27681, vividly echoing the language ofthe above passage; but according to the paradoxical logic of the fall, it is im- mediately interpreted by the Amazons not as an abdication, but rather, as a reafirma- twn of her queenship:

ERSTE AMAZONE: Der Bogen sturzt' ihr aus

der Hand darnieder!

ZWEITE: Seht, wie er taumelt

VIERTE: Klirrt, und wankt, und fdlt -!

ZWEITE: Und noch einrnal am Boden zuckt -

DRImE: Und stirbt,

Wie er der Tanals geboren ward. (Pause)


Die grol3e Stifterin des Frauenreiches,

Die Tanais, das gesteh' ich jetzt, sie hat

Den Bogen wurd'ger nicht gefuhrt als du.


Thus the arc-Bogen-that spans the time from one fall ofthe Bogen to the other defines precisely the lifespan of the Amazon state (a life that falls, strictly speaking, between two deaths [2001,27711), in which, according to the highest ritual authority among the Ama- zons, wielding the bow with dignity means letting it fall. The logic of a bow that sustains anedificewhile falling hds its architectural expression in the arch-Bogengewolbe-that is held up by the keystone-Schlu/3stein, or Bogenschlufi. While visiting the town of Wiirzburg, Kleist found himself fascinated by this phenomenon. In aletterto his fiancee, Wilhelmine von Zenge, he articulates hls reading of a gate structure that may help us with our reading of the passage: Warum, dachte ich, sinkt wohl das Gewolbe nicht ein, da es doch keine Stutze hat? Es steht, antwortete ich, weil alle Steine auf einmal einstiinen w01len."~~

That collapsing and supporting, stiinen and stiitzen, should be so close, indeed, that the stability ofthe arch should depend on the simultaneous fall ofits elements, is a motifthat is employed not just in the passages dealing with the founding of the state, but all over Penthesilea.

Most explicitly, the image of the arch is evoked by Prothoe as a simile for the con- stitution of the subject. Admonishing Pen- thesilea, who is dejected because of her de- feat at the hands of Achilles, Prothoe offers this advice:

Steh, steh fest, wie das Gewolbe steht,

Weil seiner Blocke jeder stiirzen will!

Beut deine Scheitel, einem SchluSstein


Der Gotter Blitzen dar, und rufe, trefft!

Und lalJ dich bis zum Fu13 herab zerspal-

ten. (1349-13531~~

Again, the notions of disintegration and fall are not in contradiction with a stable struc- ture but are, rather, its condition; even ifthe subject is split from head to toe, it will hold together as long as all its parts are in a state of simultaneous stiinen. The image of the self-supporting arch renders perhaps most accurately the conflicting tendencies we have been sketching in the play, for if there is a movement of disintegration, loss of dis- tance, death of metaphor, disgust, it is met by a counterforce that makes the first trajec- tory available as an aesthetic object, resplen- dent with beautiful figurative language. Thus, if this play stages a collapse of meta- phor, it does not collapse intosimple disgust, but is suspended in its fall.24 This is also how we must read the peculiar language of the play: it does not, as some have suggested, mirror a state of disintegration, ofZerrissen- kit, but it follows rather the logic of the col- lapsing arch: only when the splintered, de- contextualized language blocks lean on each other in precisely the right way can the sen- tence precariously hold together.

But the text does not stop here, for the metaphor of the arc is at once literalized and metaphorized, both in close conjunc- tion with one another. When there is a metaphoric arc, we know the sun cannot be far off. And indeed, both the passage taken from Kleist's letter and Prothoe's speech are surrounded by references to the sun. "Als die Sonne herabsank," Kleist writes to Wil- hemine with the pathos that fills so many ofhis letters, "wares mir, als ob mein Gluck untergingen (SW 2:606). But then he walks under the arched gate, and the fear that his happiness may be sinking like (or with) the sun is quickly dispelled by the comfort ("Trostn) that the sight of the suspended arch offers him. He then recalls that he had had a similar moment of comfort earlier:

Ich stand nmlich mit dem Riicken gegen die Sonne und blickte lang in einen lebhaf- ten Regenbogen. So fallt doch, dachte ich, immer ein Strahl von Gliick auf unser Leben, und wer der Sonne selbst den Riicken kehrt und in die triibe Wetterwolke schaut, dem wirft ihr schonres Bild der Regenbogen zu (606).

The comfort that this sight affords Kleist, we may surmise, does not merely lie in the rather tired moral ofthe silver lining in times of darkness, but is to be found above all in the fact that the aesthetic system of the sun functions no matter what; the sign ofits func- tioning is the aesthetic surplus that it pro- duces in the rainbow (itself a sign par excel- lence) which is no mere zero-sum reflection ofthe sun, but rather one that reflects a more beautifil image ("ihr schonres Bildn) even than the sun itself can project.

The pairing of the arch and the move- ment of the sun in the letter is not acciden- tal, for the sight of the arch liRs his spirits precisely at the moment when the sun is

about to set. But what could be more uplift- ing than discovering in the arched gate a substitute, a metaphor, for the sun itself, both in the geometrical form the two de- scribe (the sun doubly so, in its apparent turning motion and its reflection in the rainbow) and, more important, in the fact that arch and sun function according to the same principle, namely without a support- ing beam-a Stiitze-but rather through a mysterious process of suspension which im- mediately gives rise to metaphors. We must keep this rich background in play when Prothoe suggests the image of the arch, for it is accompanied in the same scene by both the metaphorical primal arc (we could say, the arch-arc), the sun, and a literalized arch, a bridge. Shortly before Prothoe's speech, Penthesilea asks: Wo steht die Some?" (1320). Though this is no doubt on one level a simple query about the time of day, it is ofcourse also an inquiry into Achil- les's position, where he stands vis-a-vis Penthesilea. But her mistake is to believe that he stands still, as she herself, having stared unflinchingly-"unvenvandt" (after 1337)-into the sun, woefully concedes a few lines later: "Zu hoch, ich wei(3, zu hoch -I Er spielt in ewig fernen Flammen- kreisen I Mir um den sehnsuchtsvollen Busen hin" (1342-1344). If "unvenvandt" suggests a fascinated desire for Achilles, a desire so powerful that it risks a direct and sustained gaze into the sun, it also implies an essential division between Penthesilea and the heavenly object, it implies that they are not related, not uerwandt. For while she recognizes that he moves like Helios in dis- tant and unattainable spheres, her phan- tasmlies in believing that she, who through Artemis is identified with the moon, re- mains at rest while the sun revolves around her ("Er spielt . . . 1 Mir um den . . . Busen hin"). We can locate Penthesilea's insanity in this cosmic constellation: it was hubris spurred by jealousy when she wanted to overtake the sun in its turns earlier in the play (1061), but at least there she bowed to the sun's movement; what we witness here

is the opposite tendency, namely the at- tempt to halt the sun, to make it do what Penthesilea believes she does, namely rest. Thus the hopeful Wo steht die Some?" and thus the scene of utter madness when, standing on the literalized arch-that is, the bridge-she schemes to heap the moun- tains Ida and Ossa onto one another to pull down the sun, to pull down Achilles, to be precise, the "goldne Flamrnenhaare" (1384) that meld Achilles and the sun into a single image. The megalomania turns abruptly into an insane narcissistic fantasy when, gazing down from the bridge into the water where she sees the sun reflected, she imag- ines that he is already at her feet, and moves to join the sun's, and presumably her own, reflection in the water (1388). The tragi-comedy of the scene is inescapable: mistaking the sun's reflection for the thing itself is already an act of stupidity (for the sun is always only available to our percep- tion in reflections), but then attempting to embrace the reflection to be closer to the original is worthy of a Kaspar Hauser. Yet the scene is also deeply moving because it presents us with desires in Penthesilea that militate against one another. It foreshad- ows the moment when Achilles is indeed thrown to her feet, when all the metaphori- cal turnings have been embodied in the tooth that pierces his chest and heis, finally, laid to rest (or so it seems).

Yet (and there is always a yet in Kleist) this foreshadowing of the horror that is to befall metaphorical discourse is rendered in language that attempts to play the games of metaphoric substitution that the sun enables. More important, Penthesilea's desire for the Greek warrior is fueled not by love at first sight-by immediacy of ex- perience-but by the division of signifier and signified that makes figurative lan- guage possible; for Penthesilea does not de- sire Achilles but "Achilles," a name passed on to her by her dying mother in clear con- travention of Amazon law, as the high priestess observes: "Ziemt's einer Tochter Ares, Konigin, 1Im Kampfe einem Namen sich zu stellen?" (1045-1046). Thus the very driving force of the play-Penthesilea7s nymphomaniacal desire-is a desire not for the immediacy of the body (assuming such a thing to be possible) but precisely for a word.25 Penthesilea's tragedy lies not so much in the fact that in order to possess Achilles she must kill him as in the fact that in order to kdl him she must submit to him; every time she attempts to break out of the system of metaphors for which Achilles stands, sheis only thrown back into its orbit with greater force. And her madness lies in the fact that she attempts to invert the movement of metaphor: not content with being a heliotrope, following Helios7s movement above her head, she attempts to apply the principle of substitution to the sun itself, offering to become Achilles's sun.26

Even though she chews him up, she fails, as she must. Penthesilea can never strike Achilles where she intends to, for to do so would pull the rug out from under her own feet. She learns early in the play that there is no shortcut to the arc of the sun's movement, that any such attempt must fall short: during the chase scene we have al- ready considered, when Achilles moves playfully along the arc of a bow-"Er lenkt im Bogen spielend noch" (416)-she, attempting a shortcut, takes the string, only to plunge-stiirzen-into a disorder more obscure than chaos. Or else she overshoots her goal, voraciously consuming the dis- tance between herself and Achilles, finally consuming the target as well as the path. Even when she fells him with an arrow, she still suspects-correctly-that she may have missed the mark:

Doch ein Verrater ist die Kunst des


Und gilt's den Meisterschufi ins Herz des


So fiihren tiick'sche G6tter uns die Hand,


zu nayihn, wo es gilt? (2888- 2891)

Her master shot has, of course, missed the mark, the heart of happiness, for she hits him where she may think it counts, in the throat. But if that shot was supposed to cut off his voice, halt the production of playfully turning (i.e., deceptive) meta- phoric language, it fails; not only does it not manage to mute Achilles, who there utters perhaps his most beautifully moving lines,27 but it fails even to bring about the collapse of figurative language, for Penthe- silea relies both here and in her suicide on the presence of that which she vainly at- tempts to dismember. When in the final scene, strongly reminiscent of Oedipus Rex, the queen, relentlessly questioning her subordinates about the murderer of Achil- les, finally discovers that she herself is the person she seeks, we find her trying halt- ingly to put into words what has happened. She corrects the high priestess's euphemis- tic "Du trafst ihn" (2975) with the brutal "Ich zerrilj ihn" (2975), and though we may be led to believe that this marks the advent of a simple, direct, non-metaphorical, non- deceptive language, that is not the case. For in what follows the entire movement of em- bodiment that the cannibalism was sup- posed to accomplish is reversed in a series of puns, rhymes, and metaphors. "KuBt ich ihn nicht? Zerrissen wirklich? sprecht?" (2978); there is no answer to the question, except the one that Penthesilea herself pro- vides, namely, that yet again she missed the mark: "So war es ein Versehen. Kusse, Bisse, 1 Das reimt sich, und wer recht von Herzen liebt, 1Kann schon das eine fur das andere greifen" (2981-2983). If it was a Versehen, rather than the Versprechen that she uses a few lines later (2986), we can identify her misdirected gaze as nothing other than her unflinching look into the sun; that does not yield blindness but rather the continued ability to operate un- der the aegis of the sun, for Versehen is, of course, ametaphor for Versprechen. But the triumph of metaphoric discourse, of aes- thetic distance, comes precisely where we thought it had been demolished. for Pen-


thesilea's terrifying deed is due to a linguis- tic slip that causes her to use her teeth rather than her lips when she meets Achil- les. She is both literally and figuratively "der raschen Lippe Herr nicht" (2987), and she merely makes the sort ofmistake-sub- stituting one word for a similar one-that is normal in treacherous linguistic systems governed by the sun. Thus Prothoe is quite correct in suggesting that Penthesilea does not move about "In des Verstandes Sonnen- finsternis" (2902); the high priestess agrees when she formulates her wish that Penthe- silea may be covered in "ew'ge Mitternacht" (2980), thereby indicating that, at the mo- ment, she stands in bright sunlight.28

We can conclude with another rhyme that has received far less attention than Kiisse and Bisse; if Kiisse and Bisse main- tain the sort of perilous closeness that the bow's two kissing ends suggest (and if the very imperfection of the rhyme implies the complications such a kiss calls forth), then the relationship between Bip and Rip (be- fore Penthesilea speaks of kissing or biting Achilles, she mentions tearing him up ["Ich zerrilj ihn"]) points to a process in which disgusting acts and literary production are fused. There have been many attempts at reading the entire drama in terms of a the- matics ofzerrissenheit, that is, an emphasis on the sort of alienation and disintegration that separates the modern mode of cultural production from a classical one.29 The trouble with such a point of departure is not that it is incorrect, but that it is always correct; there is hardly a point in the history of Western writing before which one cannot suppose an era of wholeness.30 It might be more productive to read Rip and reipen more strictly in terms ofthelogic ofthe play; and while a full-fledged investigation of the topos would exceed the limits of this study, we can sketch the lines along which such a reading might take place. The earliest meaning ofRip, Grimms Deutsches Worter- buch reminds us, much like scriptura and writ, is the drawing of furrows in a field, and quickly thereafter, of letters and signs; it is related to ritzen, to cut, to etch; the word also denotes not just the process of such marking, but also the product itself, i.e., writing and drawing. But Rip is also, still according to Grimm, the name for the prey that a predator has caught. We can already see how these meanings begin to converge on the most common sense of the word- cut, tear, incision-in the final hunt scene of the play. For Penthesilea, who has been compared to a wild cat countless times, does not merely corner her prey here, nor does she merely cut him up, but she inscribes him, as she has done earlier, with the marks of her desire. Though the play places itself into the mythological time before writing, we can read it as a long and increasingly violent writing exercise in which Achilles is writ, is written upon, at steadily decreasing range and with steadily increasing harm. When we first see him, as we have already noted, he has been cut by one of her-and Cupid's-arrows (and already here we can see that this cut inscribes Achilles into the discourse of desire and violence); later we find him injured ("Geritzt am Arm," as she says [17571) after his direct confrontation with Penthesilea during which she gets knocked off her horse (and again the con- nection between such a cut in the body and a discourse of desire is made explicit for us3l). And finally, her "rasche Lippe," her instrument ofspeech, bares the last writing tool, her teeth, with whch she scribbles madly-what? KiisselBisse?-all over hs body. If Penthesilea's attack is indeed, as so many have maintained, an embodiment of themes generally treated in an abstract register,32 then it is also an embodiment of the Versprechen that caused it in the first place, i.e., it is the process of linguistic pro- duction--cutting, writing-n the b0d~.~3

We are left with the most condensed, and thus the most gruesome image encap- sulating our reading of the drama. Penthe- silea, towering over Achilles and tearing him to bits, certainly seems to tear to shreds, as I have attempted to show, all of the careful distinctions and distances on which an aesthetic discourse depends. Yet the very gesture of tearing, of writing, of substitutingBisse forKiisse,requires at the same time that the edifice under attack re- main intact, for it is necessary for a repre- sentation of the attack. Put in its briefest form, this play attempts a representation of disgust, an impossible task since, as we know from Kant, disgust cannot be repre- sented.Penthesilea does it by depicting dis- gust always also as a process ofwriting, and writing always perilously close to the dis- gusting. The way in which this paradox is kept in play is that in which the arch re- mains standing.


lReview in the Nordische Miszellen, Dec. 1808, reprinted in Heinrich von Heists libens- spuren: Dokumente und Berichte der Zeitgenos- sen, ed. Helmut Sembdner, 2nd ed. (Bremen: Carl Schunemann, 1964) No. 282.

2Forgender we might read the richer term Geschlecht, for it subsumes race, family, and gender in one, and all three are indeed deeply intertwined with the sense of strangeness that the play has provoked. I know of no study that has rigorously connected the precarious posi- tions of nation and gender in Penthesilea. Many of the feminist readings I have consulted make strong arguments about the asymmetry in this war of the sexes; see for example Inge Stephan, "'Da werden Weiber zu Hyanen ...'-Amazonen und Amazonenmythen bei Schiller und Kleist," Feministische Literaturwissenschaft, ed. Inge Stephan and Sigrid Weigel (Berlin: Argument, 1984) 2342. Carol Jacobs provides a brilliant reading of the play in a chapter of her book Uncontainable Romanticism: Shelley, Bronte, Heist (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1989) entitled "The Rhetorics of Feminism" (85-1141, though the chapter says not a word about feminism, leaving it to the reader to make the connections. I agree with Chris Cul- lens and Dorothea von Miicke, who maintain in their well-argued Lacanian reading of the play: "In its very insistence on the tension between the constructed artificiality of any cultural or- der and the intervention of accident and chance, the play defies any feminist essentiali- zation." Chris Cullens and Dorothea von Mucke,

"Love in Kleist's Penthesilea and Kuthchen von Heilbronn," Deutsche Vierteljahresschrift fur Literaturwissenschaft und Geistesgeschichte

63.3 (Sept. 1989): 461-93, here 478. 3For Goethe's censure, see his letter to Kleist (1Feb. 1808) in hbensspuren No. 224.

4Cf. William C. Reeve: "Goethe's repudia- tion became widely known and has been held largely responsible for the fact that the tragedy had to wait seventy years for its first perfor- mance." William C. Reeve, Kleist on Stage: 1804-1987 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill- Queen's, 1993) 79. For an excellent overview of the history of Penthesilea productions, see the section "Auffiihrungen" in the appendix of Heinrich von Kleist, Dramen 1808-1811, ed. Ilse Marie Rarth (with the collaboration of Hans Rudolf Barth) and Hinrich C. Seeba (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1987) 73349, vol. 2 of Stimtliche Werke und Briefe (referred to hereafter as the Klassiker edition; all references to the play are to this edition and will be given parenthetically); see also Reeve 78-111. While Kleist's plays, especially Derzerbrochene Krug and Das Kuthchen von Heil- bronn, have been quite popular on German- speaking stages, there have been very few productions of Penthesilea in the past decade, and only one, Hans Jurgen Syberberg's produc- tion in which Edith Clever played all the parts, provoked a lively reception in the press. The play's halting reception is not confined to its stage version alone; when in 1885, more than three quarters of a century after Penthesilea's first publication, Theophil Zolling prepared an edition of Kleist's collected works, the play's ori- ginal print run of 750 copies was still not sold out. See the Hassiker edition 685.

5For example, "In both cases the metaphor ceases to be figurative or Symbolic and becomes one with the act it has formerly described. The conflation of word and deed or malfunctioning of the Symbolic constitutes madness." Ingrid Stipa, "Kleist's Penthesilea: From Misappre- hension to Madness,"Seminar 27.1 (Feb. 1991): 27-38, here 36.

6Benjamin Hederich, "Penthesilea," Griindliches mythologisches Lexikon (Reprint, Darm- stadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 19671, column 1940. Cf. also the entry on Achll- les, especially column 37.

7Lebens.spuren No. 283. Even when mar- shaling condemnatory evidence the reviewer is loath to mention that Penthesilea participates in, indeed leads, her dogs' attack on Achilles.

8Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft, ed. Wilhelm Weischedel (Frankfurt: Suhr- kamp, 1979) A 187, B 189 (A refers to the first edition of 1790, B to the second edition of 1793). Hereafter cited as KdU).

gJacques Derrida has articulated some of the consequences of this exclusion: "The abso- lute excluded [l'exclu absolul does not allow it- self even to be granted the status of an object of negative pleasure or of ugliness redeemed by representation. It is unrepresentable. At the same time it is unnameable in its singularity. If one could name it or represent it, it would begn to enter into the auto-affective circle of mastery or reappropriation. An economy would be possible. The disgusting X cannot even an- nounce itself as a sensible object without im- mediately being caught up in a teleological hierarchy. It is therefore in-sensible and un-in- telligible, irrepresentable and unnameable, the absolute other of the system." Jacques Derrida, "Economi~nesis,"Diacritics 11.2 (Summer 1981): 3-25, here 22. It would be fascinating to explore to what extent this excluded other su- stains the argument of the third Critique, to what extent the exclusion of disgust is necessa- ry to maintain the coherence of what remains. The question here, however, is whether Penthesilea merely presents a disgusting scene or whether Penthesilea herself becomes the dis- gusting object, since she seems to match Derri- da's last description perfectly. Through the course of the play she has been declared insen- sible ("sinnberaubtn [3421), unintelligible ("Un- begreiflichen [1811]), unnameable ("sie, die for- tan kein Name nenntn [2607]), and not so much irrepresentable as incapable of representing anything (the state, herself).

10Immanuel Kant, Anthropologie in prag- matischer Hinsicht, in Schriften zur Anthropo- logie, Geschichtsphilosophie, Politik und Pad- agogik, ed. Wilhelm Weischedel, 2 vols. [vol. 11 and 12 of Werkausgabel(Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1977) 2: BA 47 (A refers to the first edition of 1798, B to the second edition of 1800). Hereafter cited as Anthropologie.

llKonig is cited in Ute Frackowiak, Dergute Geschmack: Studien zur Entwicklung des Ge- schmacksbegrifj% (Munich: Wilhelm Fink, 1994) 211.

12As the commentary of the Klassiker edition points out (797,847), Achilles appears here as a collection of limbs, foreshadowing no doubt the carving into limbs which is to be his fate. It


is as though we were observing a staging of Lacan's mirror stage, for only after all the body parts have been assembled does one of the Greeks subsume them under one signifier- "Achilleus ist's!" (370)-making out of the dis- connected body parts a subject.

13Jacques Derrida, White Mythology: Me- taphor in the Text of Philosophy," Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982) 207-71, here 251.

14Stipa has remarked: "In keeping with the conception of madness as exclusion, most of the so-called 'verruckte' events of the drama take place at some distance from center-stagen (29).

l"e1mut Sembdner, ed., Heinrich uon Kleists Nachruhm: Eine Wirkungsgeschichte in Dokumenten (Frankfurt a. M.: Insel, 1984) No. 623a.

16Losing consciousness is yet another motif that is played on both a figurative and a literal register. Having recovered consciousness after the fall, she professes her desire for Achilles ("An diese Brust will ich ihn niederziehn" [11921) which prompts Prothoe, her confidante, to say: "Der Sturz I Hat vollig ums Bewurjtsein sie gebracht" (1194-1195).

17We should not moralize and accuse Achil- les of manipulation when he merely employs the full range of possibilities that language of- fers. He is certainly aware of the tendency in language to produce lies; when threatened by an Amazon princess, he comments, "Ich kann's nicht glauben: sun, wie Silberklang, / Straft eure Stimme eure Reden lugenn (1428-1429). The argument is clear: voice and speech rnili- tate against one another, the former belonging to truth, the latter to lies. It does not take long (exactly fourteen lines) to discover on which side Achilles finds himself, for it turns out that the sentence about the distinction between voice and speech is already on the side of speech, i.e., on the side of lies and deception ("Schmeichelworte" as one Amazon correctly recognizes [1439]). Penthesilea articulates the opposite position; when she thinks that her ad- missions of love have fallen on deaf ears, she laments: 'Was ich ihm zugeflustert, hat sein Ohr 1Mit der Musik der Rede blon getroffen?" (2388-2389). Here, the sound of words is pre- cisely what makes them into lies, or at least, sources of misunderstanding. Her suspicion of

words goes so far that she even mistrusts

names, preferring to give a description of her

features instead of a name (1814-1815,1819-


l8For example: "Seht, wie sie ... / Voll

Kampflust ihm entgegentanzt!" (1058-1059).

'9This inversion caused immense irritation

among the early readers of the play. For while

Achilles's exploits (both in the play and in

myth) do not exactly confonn to the standards

of an eighteenth-century gentleman, they are

nevertheless a proper object of aesthetic repre-

sentation; Penthesilea's deeds are merely loath-

some and disgusting. It is clear that the gender

difference plays a role in this schema; what pre-

cisely such a role might be, however, is far less

clear, and deserving of a full-fledged investi-


20For example in the commentary of the Klassiker edition 848.

21The naming proceeds according to the du- bious etymology ofAmazone current at Kleist's time.

22Heinrich von Kleist, Stimtliche Werke und Briefe, ed. Helmut Sembdner, 2nd ed. (Munich: Carl Hanser, 1961) 2: 606. Hereafter cited as sw.

23My reading of this passage is indebted to Cullens and von Mucke, "Love in Kleist's Penthesilean472.

24The notion of a collapse that, in the mo- ment of falling, does not merely destroy but also creates structures is literalized most famously in Kleist's story "Das Erdbeben in Chili," in which falling walls, before collapsing into a heap of debris, hold each other up, creating a momentary triangular tunnel through which one of the protagonists escapes to safety.

25For a somewhat different reading, see Cullens and von Mucke: "Achill, excluded from the laws of exchange and substitution the Ama- zons apply to the male foes they consider the representatives of Mars, thus becomes through his immunity the exclusive representative, who thereby stands in direct relation to the god of war, if he cannot be equated with him" (467). Though this is the case, my claim would be that, far from being excluded from the laws of ex- change and substitution, Achilles is their rep- resentative; the commerce between Achilles and "Achilles" effectively moves those laws inside the sign of Achilles.

26Again Cullens and von Miicke: "This iden-

tification of Achill with Apollo originates chiefly

in Penthesilea's attempts to arrest undifferen-

tiation and arbitrariness through singling out

an Other who coincides with the perfect gaze"

(467). But what we, and Penthesilea, discover

here is that the Other is already marked by a

cut, that he already lacks wholeness. And in-

deed, Penthesilea is, as we have seen, not con-

tent in being the object of a gaze but wants to

return Achilles's gaze.

27Er, in dem Purpur seines Bluts sich


Ruhrt ihre sanfte Wange an, und ruft:

Penthesilea! meine Braut! was tust du?

1st dies das Rosenfest, das du ver

sprachst? (2662-2665)

28Cullens and von Mucke maintain the

opposite: "Penthesilea's love has persistently

resisted the laws of language, the fact that

meaning can only be constructed through the

dfferentiation of the signifiers and not through

a sheer act of identification and naming" (476).

This is only one side of the coin, for what kills

Penthesilea is that she tries, and fails, to have

her "Achilles" and eat him too.

29Th~sfor example Walter Muller-Seidel, who locates Zerrissenheit in both Penthesilea and Achilles: "Zugleich sind die Bilder der Spie- gel eben jener Welt, die man sich im dichteri- schen Weltbild Kleists als eine gespaltene und gebrechliche zu denken hat." Walter Miiller- Seidel, "Penthesilea im Kontext der deutschen Klassik," Kleists Dramen: Neue Interpretatio- nen, ed. Walter Hinderer (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1981) 144-71, 158. Or Benno von Wiese: "In dieser tragischen Selbst-ZerreiBung gerat der Mensch in jenen Zustand des Wahnsinns . . . Solcher Wahnsinn ist wie Zerbrechen der bis- her gelebten Einheit." Benno von Wiese, Die deutsche Tragodie uon Lessing bis Hebbel

(Hamburg: Hoffmann & Campe, 1955) 324f. Or, with more nuance, Gerhard Kaiser: "Hier fin- det sich nicht mehr die Kunstwelt der Hoch- Massik, die tendenziell noch im 'Zerbrochenen Krug' und im 'Amphitryon' . .. vorhanden ist; hier stofit Kleist am weitesten in seinen Wer- ken zu einer Kunstform vor, welche die Zerris- senheit der Welt auch in ihrem eigenen Zerrei- Ben darstellt." Gerhard Kaiser, Wandrer und Idylle (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1977) 213. The notion of a "zerreihenden Wahn- sinnn is already used in 1809 by Franz Horn in his Umrisse zur Geschichte und Kritik der scho- nen Literatur Deutschlands, cited in Heinrich von Kleist, Penthesilea: Dokumente und Zeug- nisse, ed. Helmut Sembdner (Frankfurt: Insel, 1967) 41.

30In this supposition, both conservative cri- tics, who condemn representations of fragmen- tation and mutilation, and progressive critics, who tend to celebrate it, strangely agree.

3lPenthesilea: "Zwar gern mit diesem Arm her traf ich dich; / Doch als du niedersankst, beneidete, / Hier diese Brust den Staub, der dich empfing" (1760-1772).

32For example, Carol Jacobs: "[Achilles] calls Penthesilea forth to a renewed struggle of pure theatricality, for the text is moving through metaphorical speech to total perfor- mance" (100). Jacobs nuances this assertion by adding that Penthesilea is "the unnameable embodiment ... of metaphor and literality" (101).

33We could push the connection between the hunt and writing into Kleist's own practice, for his process of Rei/3en-writing-takes place on a Bogen, as sheets of paper were commonly called then.

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