Why I Don’t Want to Talk About Günderrode’s Suicide

Karoline von Günderrode killed herself on 26 July 1806, after receiving a letter from the married Georg Friedrich Creuzer ending their affair. This event, and its spectacular circumstances (she stabbed herself in the heart with a silver dagger, on the banks of the Rhine, leaving a poem and a blood-stained handkerchief as a “pledge” for Creuzer), has fascinated Günderrode’s readers. It has also shaped interpretations of her writings: for many, Günderrode is not only the embodiment of the tragic Romantic woman, but the Romantic lyricist of love and death. But this attention to Günderrode’s suicide has led to readers missing much of what is unique and important in her work, and misinterpreting or oversimplifying other aspects of her thought.

Günderrode’s life, relationships and suicide have inspired paintings, novels and poems, as well as many biographies, to such an extent that we can speak of a “Günderrode mythos.”[1] Claims about Günderrode’s supposedly conflicted personality, her mystical nature or otherworldiness, her relationship to Creuzer, and the role of these factors in her suicide began immediately after her death. Her friend Lisette Nees von Esenbeck wrote to another friend that “Your representation of her three souls is very true. The unity of these three powers would have been love. – In the reign of the first soul she was woman and inasmuch modern being, in the second man and lived in antiquity. In the third lay the tendency to the accommodation of both in the purely human.”[2] Two years later, Bettina Brentano-von Arnim wrote to Goethe’s mother, Catharina Elizabeth Goethe, with a “Report on Günderrode’s Suicide” that included a poetic and visionary interpretation of events surrounding Günderrode’s death. 

In 1840, Brentano-von Arnim published Die Günderode, an edited version of their correspondence, which strongly influenced subsequent perceptions of Günderrode. This text fostered a conflation of Brentano-von Arnim’s fictionalised Günderrode with the real person. “Günderode” appears here as an intellectual and spiritual mentor for “Bettine,” and as elusive and disconnected from ordinary life. This image of Günderrode as mystical, untethered, and fated for suicide dominated discussion of Günderrode and her writings until the late twentieth century, and continues to be a theme in many accounts today.

The reception of Günderrode’s writings in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century focused on Günderrode’s biography, particularly her suicide, presenting these as central to her work. For example, in 1895 Ludwig Geiger wrote that “If Karoline von Günderode had only been a poet, then, despite the significance of individual poems, her renown would have scarcely survived her lifetime. That she is still known today she owes to her personality and her fate.”[3]

In 1979, Christa Wolf published a selected edition of Günderrode’s works and letters[4] and a novel featuring an imagined encounter between Günderrode and Heinrich von Kleist.[5] In these works, Wolf presents Günderrode as an untimely poet whose death was a necessary sacrifice to the changing times in which she lived. These accounts were very important to the rediscovery of Günderrode in the 1980s and 1990s. However, Wolf’s interpretation contributed to the tendency to read Günderrode’s work primarily in relation to her suicide, instead of in relation to philosophical questions or literary themes. 

Günderrode’s biography remained a strong focus in scholarship in the 1980s and 1990s, but with a shift to considering the impact of social conditions on Günderrode’s life and writings. For example, in her 1986 book Karoline von Günderrode: Portrait of a Stranger, Margarete Lazarowicz argues that Günderrode’s social circle subjected her to socially normalizing criticism and advice, resulting in her isolation and eventual suicide. At the same time, Lazarowicz gives biographical interpretations of most of Günderrode’s works, based on her letters.

We can learn something from biographical interpretations of these texts, not only about Günderrode and her work but also, more generally, about the situation of women, women writers, and especially women philosophers in Europe at the start of the nineteenth century. However, several scholars have noted that the focus on this kind of interpretations of Günderrode’s work has, unfortunately, resulted in the occlusion of the philosophical significance of her thought, as well as her original contributions to German literature.[6] This reflects a long tradition of reducing women’s creative efforts to expressions of their authors’ lives, experiences, emotions and inner conflicts. In Günderrode’s case, the focus on her life as the key to understanding her writings has resulting in overlooking her contributions to philosophical debates on metaphysics, ethics, politics, death, love, freedom and the nature of the self.

Not surprisingly, Günderrode’s writings on death are, in particular, almost always interpreted in relation to her suicide. Here, Günderrode is generally viewed as representative of a stereotypical “Romantic” attitude to death: as longing for death.[7] One scholar writes that “Günderrode killed her self in her ‘work’”;[8] another that Günderrode had a “fascination, if not obsession, with death and sacrificial love” and that ”Myth and death are at the center of the poetic works of Karoline von Günderrode.”[9] But Günderrode’s concept of death was complex and cannot be fully understood on a biographical interpretation. As I argue elsewhere,[10] for Günderrode, death could indicate a time of rejuvenation and release, the possibility of an altered consciousness, union with loved ones, or personal metamorphosis. And Günderrode’s unique and complex model of death is also crucial for her understanding of the self and its relationship to the rest of nature.

Günderrode’s work cannot be solely interpreted as wish-fulfillment, escapism or straightforward expressions of her emotional states and life circumstances. Rather, it but must be interrogated on its own merits: as part of a sustained investigation of the nature of the world, human beings, love, death, agency, ethics, aesthetics and social arrangements. Too much attention to Günderrode’s biography and psychology has diverted attention from the theoretical importance of her work. Consequently, we still know very little about Günderrode’s philosophical thought and its significance for German Romanticism and post-Kantian Idealism. If we are to understand the theoretical commitments that Günderrode developed in her writings, we need to talk less about her suicide.

[1] Adrian Hummel, “Lebenszwänge, Schreibräume, unirdisch: Eine kulturanthropologisch orientierte Deutung des ‘Mythos Günderrode,’” Athenäum 13 (2003): 61–91.

[2] Lisette Nees von Esenbeck, letter to Susanne von Heyden, August, 1806, in Birgit Wießenborn, ed., “Ich sende Dir ein zärtliches Pfand.” Die Briefe der Karoline von Günderrode (Frankfurt and Leipzig: Insel, 1992), 350.

[3] Geiger, introduction to Karoline von Günderrode und ihre Freunde (Frankfurt: Insel-Verlag, 2006 [1895]), 158, see also 154–55.

[4] Christa Wolf, ed., Der Schatten eines Traumes. Gedichte, Prosa, Briefe, Zeugnisse von Zeitgenossen (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1997 [1979]).

[5] Christa Wolf, No Place on Earth [Kein Ort. Nirgends], translated by Jan van Heurck (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1982; first published in German in 1979).

[6] Helga Dormann, “Die Karoline von Günderrode-Forschung 1945–1995. Ein Bericht,” Athenaeum 6 (1996): 234; Elizabeth Krimmer, “Karoline von Günderrode’s Mora and Darthula According to Ossian,” in In the Company of Men: Cross-Dressed Women Around 1800(Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2004), 130–39; Marina Rauchenbacher, Karoline von Günderrode. Eine Rezeptionsstudie (PhD diss., Vienna: 2012). I have also argued this in my introduction to Poetic Fragments (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016); “Sincerity, Idealization and Writing with the Body: Karoline von Günderrode and Her Reception,” AufrichtigkeitseffekteSignale, soziale Interaktionen und Medien im Zeitalter der Aufklärung, ed. Simon Bunke and Katerina Mihaylova (Rombach, 2016), 275–90; and  “Narrative and Fragment: The Social Self in Karoline von Günderrode,” Symphilosophie 2 (forthcoming 2020).

[7] For example, Nicholas Saul, “Morbid? Suicide, Freedom, Human Dignity and the German Romantic Yearning for Death,” Historical Reflections 32.3 (2006): 579–99.

[8] Christa Bürger, “‘Aber eine Sehnsucht war in mir, die ihren Gegenstand nicht kannte….’ Ein Versuch über Karoline von Günderrode,”Metis no. 2 (1995): 42.

[9] Barbara Becker-Cantarino, “The ‘New Mythology’: Myth and Death in Karoline von Günderrode’s Literary Work,” in Women and Death 3: Women’s Representations of Death in German Culture Since 1500, ed. Clare Bielby and Anna Richards, 51–70 (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010), 51, 52. See also Marjanne E. Goozé, “The Seduction of Don Juan: Karoline von Günderode’s Romantic Rendering of a Classic Story,” in The Enlightenment and Its Legacy. Studies in German Literature in Honor of Helga Slessarev, ed. Sara Friedrichsmeyer and Barbara Becker-Cantarino (Bonn: Bouvier, 1991), 117–129.

[10] Anna Ezekiel, “Death in Karoline von Günderrode (1780-1806),” Encyclopedia of Concise Concepts by Women Philosophers, ed. Mary Ellen Waithe and Ruth Hagengruber (Paderborn University, September 2019); Introduction to “Piedro,” “The Pilgrims” and “The Kiss in the Dream,” in Poetic Fragments (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016); “Sincerity, Idealization and Writing with the Body: Karoline von Günderrode and Her Reception,” AufrichtigkeitseffekteSignale, soziale Interaktionen und Medien im Zeitalter der Aufklärung, ed. Simon Bunke and Katerina Mihaylova (Rombach, 2016), 275–90); “Metamorphosis, Personhood, and Power in Karoline von Günderrode,” European Romantic Review 25.6 (2014): 773–91.

Attention to Karoline von Günderrode’s suicide has led to readers missing much of what is unique and important in her work, and misinterpreting or oversimplifying other aspects of her thought.

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