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Library General Kleist- On the Marionette Theatre
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Kleist- On the Marionette Theatre
I just read this wonderful short story by Kleist, thank you Pierre for introducing it to me!

More than a story it is a discussion between two people, of whom one is a great dancer, about the advantage the puppet dancing movements have over the human dancer bodily movements. Kleist writes that one great advantage is that these puppets will never fall into affectation, their movements being the result of their natural weight and not of their wish to “show (off)” their interpretation to the public.

In music it is visible how very few prodigies, who are geniuses of intuition, manage to keep it up when they become conscious of what they’re doing. It’s related to the fight between muscle memory and conscious memory.
Books Discussed
The Marquise of O and Other Stories (Penguin Classics)
by Heinrich von Kleist

Hi  Edna , on your recommendation I read the story and as it’s pretty short- here it is.

While spending some time during the winter of 1801* in M., one evening
in the public gardens I chanced upon Herr C., who had been recently engaged
as the leading dancer at the opera house and who had found exceptional success
with the public there.
I mentioned how surprised I had been to notice him on several occasions
attending a marionette theatre that had been set up in the local market place,
which entertained the masses with short dramatic burlesques interspersed with
song and dance.
He assured me that the performance of these puppets was a source of great
pleasure to him, and he made it quite clear that a dancer who wished to improve
himself could learn a great deal from observing them.
Because his remarks were obviously not to be taken lightly, I sat down with
him so that we might discuss his reasons for such a remarkable statement.
He asked me if indeed I hadn't found some of the movements of the puppets,
particularly the smaller ones, to be exceedingly graceful in the dances.
I could not refute this observation. In fact, one group of four peasant figures
had danced a roundelay in such fashion that Teniers could not have painted anything
more charming.
I was curious about the mechanics of these figures and asked how it was
possible to control parts of each limb according to the demands of the rhythm
of the dance without having myriads of strings attached to the fingers.
He informed me that I must not suppose that every single limb, during the
various movements of the dance, was placed and controlled by the puppeteer.
Each movement, he said, will have a center of gravity; it would suffice to direct
this crucial point to the inside of the figure. The limbs that function as nothing
more than a pendulum, swinging freely, will follow the movement in their
own fashion without anyone's aid.
He further stated that this movement was really quite simple; that each time
the center of gravity was moved in a direct line, the limbs would start to describe
a curve; and that often when simply shaken in an arbitrary manner, the whole
figure assumed a kind of rhythmic movement that was identical to dance.
*The essay Uber das Marionetten Theater was first published in four installments in the daily
Berliner Abendblatter from December 12 to 15, 1810. Kleist was editor of the newspaper-ed.
These remarks seemed to throw some light on the pleasure that he maintained
he discovered in the marionette theater. However, I as yet had no idea of
the consequences he would later draw from these observations.
I asked him if he thought that the puppeteer who controlled these figures
was himself a dancer, or at least if he did not have to possess an understanding
of the aesthetic of the dance.
He replied that though such a task might be simple from a purely mechanical
viewpoint, it did not necessarily follow that it could be managed entirely
without some feeling.
The line that the center of gravity must describe was, to be sure, very simple,
and was, he felt, in most cases a straight line. In cases where that line is not
straight, it appears that the law of the curvature is at least of the first or, at best,
of the second rank, and additionally in this latter case only elliptical. This form
of movement of the human body's extremities is natural, because of the joints,
and therefore would require no great skill on the part of the puppeteer to approximate
But viewed in another way, this line is something very mysterious. For it is
nothing other than the path to the soul of the dancer, and Herr C. doubted that
it could be proven otherwise that through this line the puppeteer placed himself
in the center of gravity of the marionette; that is to say, in other words, that the
puppeteer danced.
I replied that a puppeteer's work had been suggested as something rather
dull: somewhat like grinding the handle of a hurdy-gurdy.
Not at all, he replied. Rather the movement of his fingers has a somewhat
artificial relationship to those of the attached puppets, somewhat like the relationship
of numbers to logarithms or the asymptote to the hyperbola.
Furthermore he stated the belief that this final trace of the intellect could
eventually be removed from the marionettes, so that their dance could pass entirely
over into the world of the mechanical and be operated by means of a handle,
such as I had suggested.
My astonishment now grew even greater, with the realization that he considered
this entertainment of the masses worthy of a higher art.
He smiled and replied that he dared to venture that a marionette constructed
by a craftsman according to his requirements could perform a dance
that neither he nor any other outstanding dancer of his time, not even Vestris
himself, could equal.
Have you, he asked while I gazed thoughtfully at the ground, ever heard of
those mechanical legs that English craftsmen manufacture for unfortunate people
who have lost their own limbs?
I replied that I had never seen such artifacts.
That's a shame, he replied, for when I tell you that these unfortunate people
are able to dance with the use of them, you most certainly will not believe me.
What do I mean by using the word dance? The span of their movements is quite
limited, but those movements of which they are capable are accomplished with
a composure, lightness, and grace that would amaze any sensitive observer.
I suggested somewhat jokingly that in this way he had found his man. For
this same craftsman who would be capable of constructing such a strange limb
would doubtless be able to construct an entire marionette according to his requirements.
What then, I asked, as he for his part looked down at the ground somewhat
embarrassed, are the requirements necessary to accomplish this technical skill?
Nothing, he replied, except what I have already observed here: symmetry,
mobility, lightness; only all of that to a higher degree and particularly a more
natural disposition of the centers of gravity.
And the advantage such a puppet would have over a living dancer?
The advantage? First a negative gain, my excellent friend, specifically this:
that such a figure would never be affected. For affectation appears, as you know,
when the soul (vis motrix) locates itself at any point other than the center of
gravity of the movement. Because the puppeteer absolutely controls the wire or
string, he controls and has power over no other point than this one: therefore
all the other limbs are what they should be-dead, pure pendulums following
the simple law of gravity, an outstanding quality that we look for in vain in most
Take for example the dancer P., he continued. When she dances Daphne and
is pursued by Apollo, she looks back at him-her soul is located in the vertebrae
of the small of her back; she bends as if she were about to break in half, like a
naiad from the school of Bernini. And look at the young dancer F. When he
dances Paris and stands among the three goddesses and hands the apple to Venus,
his soul is located precisely in his elbow, and it is a frightful thing to behold.
Such mistakes, he mused, cutting himself short, are inevitable because we
have eaten of the tree of knowledge. And Paradise is bolted, with the cherub
behind us; we must journey around the world and determine if perhaps at the
end somewhere there is an opening to be discovered again.
I laughed. Indeed, I thought, the spirit cannot err where it does not exist.
Yet I noticed that he had still other things on his mind and invited him to continue.
In addition, he went on, these puppets possess the virtue of being immune
to gravity's force. They know nothing of the inertia of matter, that quality which
above all is diametrically opposed to the dance, because the force that lifts them
into the air is greater than the one that binds them to the earth. What wouldn't
our good G. give to be sixty pounds lighter, or to use a force of this weight to assist
her with her entrechats and pirouettes? Like elves, the puppets need only to
touch upon the ground, and the soaring of their limbs is newly animated
through this momentary hesitation; we dancers need the ground to rest upon
and recover from the exertion of the dance; a moment that is certainly no kind of
dance in itself and with which nothing further can be done except to at least make
it seem to not exist.
I replied that although he handled his paradoxes with skill, he would never
convince me that in a mechanical figure there could be more grace than in the
structure of the human body.
He replied that it would be almost impossible for a man to attain even an approximation
of a mechanical being. In such a realm only a God could measure
up to this matter, and this is the point where both ends of the circular world
would join one another.
I grew even more amazed and simply did not know how to reply to such
strange statements.
It would seem, he continued while taking a pinch of snuff, that I had not
read very carefully the third chapter of the first Book of Moses; and whoever
was not acquainted with that first period of human civilization could not reasonably
discuss the matters at hand and, even less so, the ultimate questions.
I told him that I understood only too well how consciousness creates disorder
in the natural harmony of men. A young friend of mine had lost his inno-
cence, and Paradise too, simply because of an observation he made that I witnessed
at the same time; after that moment, in spite of all possible attempts, he
never again regained it. However, I ventured, what conclusions can you draw
from that?
He asked me to explain the incident to which I referred.
About three years ago, I explained, I went swimming with a young man
whose personality was possessed of a natural charm. He was probably about sixteen
years old at the time, and only from a distance could one notice the first
traces of vanity in him, a quality brought about by the attentions of women. Now
it happened that a short time before in Paris we had seen the statue of the youth
pulling a splinter from his foot. Copies of that statue are well known and can be
seen in most German collections. My friend was reminded of this statue when
after our swim he placed his foot on the footstool to dry it and at the same time
glanced into a large mirror; he smiled and told me what a discovery he had
made. And indeed I had made the same observation at the same moment; but
whether it was that I wanted to test the security of his natural charm, or whether
I wanted to challenge his vanity, I laughed and replied that he was imagining
things. He blushed and lifted his foot a second time to show me; as one could
have easily predicted, the attempt failed. Confused, he lifted his foot a third, a
fourth, even a tenth time: in vain! He was unable to duplicate the same movement.
What can I say?-the movements he made became so comical I could
hardly keep from laughing.
From that day on, from that very moment on, an inexplicable change took
place in this young man. He began to stand in front of the mirror all day long,
and one virtue after another dropped away from him. An invisible and inexplicable
power like an iron net seemed to seize upon the spontaneity of his bearing,
and after a year there was no trace of the charm that had so delighted those
who knew him. There is only one other person alive today who witnessed that
strange and unhappy incident, and who would confirm it for you word for word
as I have related it.
Following this line of thought, Herr C. said kindly, I must in turn tell you
another story, and you will easily understand why I tell it now.
While traveling in Russia, I came upon the country estate of Herr von G.,
a Livonian nobleman, whose sons were at that time seriously engaged in learning
to fence. The oldest boy, who had just returned from the university, in particular
regarded himself as somewhat of a virtuoso, and one morning while in his room
he offered me a foil. We fenced, but as it turned out I was superior to him. The
heat of anger further added to his confusion. Almost every blow I struck was successful
and finally his foil was knocked into a corner of the room. As he picked
up the foil he admitted, half jokingly, half angrily, that he had met his master;
but everything in this world meets its master and thereupon he proposed to conduct
me to mine. The brothers laughed loudly and cried: Let's be off! Let's go!
Down to the lumber yard! And with that they led the way to a bear that their
father, Herr von G., was having trained in the open yard.
The bear stood, to my amazement, on his hind legs, his back leaning against
a stake to which he was chained, with his right paw raised ready for combat, and
looked me in the eye: this was his fencing position. It seemed to me that I was
dreaming when I first faced this adversary; but-strike! strike!-cried Herr von
G., and see if you can score a hit. Having recovered somewhat from my amazement,
I went at him with my foil; the bear made a slight movement of his paw
and parried the blow. I tried to throw him off guard by feints-the bear did not
stir. I went at him again with a renewed burst of energy; without a doubt I would
have struck the chest of a man. The bear made a slight movement of his paw and
parried the blow. Now I found myself in almost the same circumstance as the
young Herr von G. The single-mindedness of the bear served to reduce my
self-assurance; as thrusts and feints followed each other, I was dripping with
perspiration. But all was in vain! Not only was the bear able to parry all my blows
like some world champion fencer, but all the feints I attempted-and this no
fencer in the world could duplicate-went unnoticed by the bear. Eye to eye, as if he
could see into my very soul, he stood there, his paw raised ready for combat, and
whenever my thrusts were not intended as strikes, he simply did not move.
Do you believe this story, he asked?
Absolutely, I replied with encouraging approval; it is plausible enough that
I would have believed it had any stranger told me, but it is even more plausible
coming from you.
Now, my excellent friend, said Herr C., you are in possession of everything
that is necessary to comprehend what I am saying. We can see the degree to
which contemplation becomes darker and weaker in the organic world, so that
the grace that is there emerges all the more shining and triumphant. Just as the
intersection of two lines from the same side of a point after passing through the
infinite suddenly finds itself again on the other side-or as the image from a concave
mirror, after having gone off into the infinite, suddenly appears before us
again-so grace returns after knowledge has gone through the world of the infinite,
in that it appears to best advantage in that human bodily structure that has
no consciousness at all-or has infinite consciousness-that is, in the mechanical
puppet, or in the God.
Therefore, I replied, somewhat at loose ends, we would have to eat again of
the tree of knowledge to fall back again into a state of innocence?
Most certainly, he replied: That is the last chapter of the history of the world.
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