Writing on March 22, 1801, to his fiancée, Wilhemine von Zenge, Heinrich von Kleist described in painstaking detail the collapse of his vision of the universe. He had believed until then (he was twenty-four at the time) that human beings were capable of building a secure and virtuous life by acquiring knowledge that reflected the coherence of reality and perception, of self and world. The previous three years, following his release from the army, Kleist had occupied himself with the study of mathematics, physics, and philosophy. He had disdained a career of easy preferment in the military for the arduous pursuit of philosophic and moral self-understanding, training himself to think clearly and act virtuously. In this undertaking he was behaving as an exemplary offspring of his class and station.

Born on October 18, 1777, into a noble family that had produced generations of Prussian generals,...


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