Kleist in Paris

Michael Hofmann

Dearest Mina,

      Thank you for yours, my first news
of you in ten weeks. Imagine my happiness
when I saw my address in your handwriting.
But then the postmaster wanted to see my passport,
and I didn’t have it on me. I begged him
to make an exception, swore that I was Kleist,
but it was in vain. Deceived a thousand times,
he couldn’t believe there was an honest man
left in Paris. I went home to get my passport,
and read your letter in a café, quite exhausted.
You are so earnest. Despite all the trouble
I cause you, you still manage to be cheerful.
It moved me so much that I left the theatre
where I was waiting to see a great play,
and ran out to answer you with enthusiasm.
– You want me to tell you about my spirit?
Willingly. The storm has settled somewhat,
the sailor feels the gentle, swelling motion
that announces a bright and sunny day.
Perhaps I can even bless this stay in Paris.
Not for its sparse joys, but because it has
taught me that knowledge leads to immorality.
The most developed nation is ready to decline.
When I see the works of Rousseau and Voltaire
in libraries, I think: what is the point?
Why does the state subsidise education?
Love of truth? The state?! A state only thinks
about getting a return on its investment.
It wants comfort, luxury and sophistication.
What can transcend chicken à la suprême?
But man is drawn irresistibly to the sciences.
He rolls the wheel of fire up the mountainside,
and shoulders it again when it reaches bottom.
If progress doesn’t accomplish happiness,
should we say no to it? Forget what we know?
The alternative to decadence is superstition.
Where brightness exists, there is also shadow ...
When you consider that it takes a lifetime
to learn how to live, that on our deathbed
we still don’t know what Heaven demands,
how can God expect responsibility from Man?
And don’t let anyone talk of a ‘quiet inner voice’.
The same voice that calls upon the Christian
to forgive his enemy, instructs the savage
to roast him, and he eats him up with reverence
in his heart. What then is Evil? The things
of this world are ramified in thousands of ways,
every deed is the mother of a million others,
and often the best is sired by the worst.
Whatever anyone says about Attila and Nero,
the Huns, the Crusades and the Inquisition,
still this friendly planet rolls through space,
spring comes round again, and people live,
enjoy themselves and die, just as always ...
Freedom, my own house, and a wife, I pray
for these every day, my three monastic vows.
Heaven’s promised gift to Man is joie de vivre.
Man has to work for it by doing good on earth.
I haven’t made up my mind what to do yet.
Writing is forever, so I won’t commit myself
any further. Be patient and hope for the best.
And don’t let a day pass without seeing me.
You can find me in the shady part of the garden,
or upstairs in Carl’s room, or by the stream
that flows from the lime-trees into the Oder.
May the past and the future sweeten your present,
may you be happy as in a dream, until – well,
who could spell it out? A long kiss on your lips.

P.S. Greet your parents from me – tell me,
why do I feel uneasy whenever I think of them,
and never of you? It is because you understand me
I wish the whole world could see into my heart!
Yes, greet them, say that I honour them,
whatever their opinion of me. Write soon
– no longer poste restante, but Rue Noyer 21.