The Chili Earthquake


May 17, 2022

The Earthquake in Chili is a novella by Heinrich von Kleist, which he probably wrote in 1806. It first appeared in 1807 in Cotta's "Morgenblatt für educated Estates" under the title Jeronimo and Josephe. A scene from the Chili earthquake of 1647. In 1810 it reappeared under the now familiar title in the first volume of the tales.


While the earthquake of 1647 in Santiago de Chile (Kleist calls it "St. Jago, [the] capital of the Kingdom of Chili") provides the historical template for the text, the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was the main inspiration for Kleist in terms of the history of ideas. Other contemporary philosophers and poets such as Poe, Voltaire, Rousseau and Kant also used this theme to discuss the problem of theodicy, among others. Theodicy, i.e. the question of an almighty and good God in the face of suffering and injustice in the world, was dealt with prominently in the Enlightenment by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), who came to the conclusion that the existing world was the best possible world. The Lisbon earthquake again cast doubt on this formulation. In Kleist's novella neither divine intervention nor the effect of reason can be felt. What is decisive is the aleatoric moment, the coincidence that, like the earthquake, repeatedly destroys the narrative continuity as well as every thought of a teleological, meaningful and understandable event, which the actors, who ascribe the event to a higher being, do not understand. Coincidence and the associated overthrow of the old structures also creates new ones: the “bastard” becomes a “foster son”, and the natural family becomes a legal family. In addition to the theodicy debate, the discourse on the state of nature is also important for Kleist’s train of thought . Rousseau's thesis that in an original, propertyless primitive society man was noble and good challenged the traditional view that man was evil from birth (original sin): Rousseau's thesis was that when man returns to his natural state, he will become morally healthy again. This was controversially debated and violently rejected by the church and conservative side. Kleist's story is both an answer to the question of theodicy and to the question of the natural goodness of man. For Werner Hamacher, the structure of the narrative reflects the theory of the sublime from Kant's Critique of Judgment. There Kant names the earthquake in Lisbon, in view of whose dimensions the imagination fails, as one of the powers that awakens the feeling of the sublime and the respect for the supernatural in man and silences human language, as a kind of theophany. The feeling of the sublime also includes a masochistic mixture of pain and pleasure as well as the idea of ​​divine sacrifice, a new edition of the Passion of Christ, as it first appears in Kleist's story, but is subsequently destroyed by himself. More specifically, it was related to Kleist's biography The background to this was Prussia's defeat in the war against France in 1806 (Battle of Jena and Auerstedt), combined with a catastrophic, brief suspension of social conditions. Kleist probably wrote the work during his time in Königsberg (May 1805 to August 1806). He was a French prisoner of war from January to July 1807; during this time his friend Otto August Rühle von Lilienstern (1780-1847) conveyed the work to the publisher Cotta. The Chili Earthquake was Kleist's first printed story. Attempts have also been made to read the novella as a "historical philosophy of the poetic", "which responds to the political processing of the revolution [of 1789]".

Literary template

The basic structure of the plot goes back to the novel