The earthquake in literature: the example of Kleist

She had a feeling, which she could not suppress, that the preceding day, despite all the misery it had brought upon the world, had been a mercy such as heaven had never yet bestowed on her. And indeed, in the midst of this horrifying time in which all the earthly possessions of men were perishing and all nature was in danger of being engulfed, the human spirit itself seemed to unfold like the fairest of flowers. In the fields, as far as the eye could see, men and women of every social station could be seen lying side by side, princes and beggars, ladies and peasant women, government officials and day labourers, friars and nuns: pitying one another, helping one another, gladly sharing anything they had saved to keep themselves alive, as if the general disaster had united all its survivors into a single family.

Instead of the usual trivial tea-table gossip about the ways of the world, everyone was now telling stories of extraordinary heroic deeds. Persons hitherto held to be of little consequence in society had shown a Roman greatness of character; there were countless instances of fearlessness, of magnanimous contempt for danger, of self-denial and superhuman sacrifice, of life unhesitatingly cast away as if it were the most trifling of possessions and could be recovered a moment later. Indeed, since there was no one who on that day had not experienced some touching kindness or had not himself performed some generous action, the sorrow in every heart was mingled with so much sweetness and delight that (she) felt it would be hard to say whether the sum of general well-being had not increased on the one hand by as much as it had diminished on the other.

Heinrich von Kleist, “The Earthquake in Chile”

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