Sunday, May 11, 2008

Justice Deferred

Heinrich von Kleist wrote Michael Kohlhaas in 1811. I read the translation published in Melville House's 'Art of the Novella' series.

In sixteenth-century Brandenburg, a horse dealer named Michael Kohlhaas sets out for business in neighboring Saxony (where he maintains a second home). At the border, a crooked knight seizes two of his horses. It later turns out that the horses were worked almost to death and that one of Kohlhaas's servants was harassed and abused by the knight's men.

The rest of the story is about Kohlhaas's quest for justice from the local potentate, the Elector of Saxony. Justice is repeatedly denied since the crooked knight has friends in high places. Kohlhaas rebels against the state by forming his own army, which attacks several Saxon towns.*

One interesting idea in the story concerns the role of the state. The state exists to provide justice to its inhabitants, from which it follows (according to one of the Elector's counselors) that by denying justice to Kohlhaas they have expelled him from the state, so that he is no longer subject to its laws; as a result, he's not so much a criminal as a foreign power making war against their state.

The tale at times comes across as a simple revenge story with Kohlhaas refusing to accept the legal outcome and forgive his enemies (as his wife and Martin Luther urged him to do). At other times, though, the story seems to present a clash between two laws: the human law that derives from the ruler and a higher, natural law that rulers ignore at their peril. This is the law that Kohlhaas, cast into the state of nature, aims to uphold.

In the end, it is Kohlhaas' willingness to die for this law that gives him more power than the Saxon prince, who fears for his own fate.

*Kleist thoroughly vilifies the Saxons, who in his own day were allied with Napoleon against his beloved Prussia.

Update (Sept. 26, 2009): Here's a stimulating reflection on Kohlhaas, the Grimms, etc. by Waggish.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Great, strange book. What do you think of the business with the old woman at the end?

praymont said...

Yes, the old gypsy woman was strange. Some critics object that she's a deus ex machina tacked on as a clumsy way to move the plot to its desired end. There's some merit in that. It looks like the gypsy woman was 'tacked on' -- apparently Kleist had earlier published a good portion of the story in a periodical, a portion that ended before Kohlhaas' departure from Saxony and thus one that didn't include the gypsy.

At the same time, the old woman does serve to reinforce the notion of a natural law, something beyond or antecedent to the realm of mortal rulers, though it does seem odd to have this supernatural element supporting the idea of natural law.

In the end, the old woman is like the riot scene in the Dresden market -- a plot element that suggests primordial, non-rational forces. She put me in mind of the three fates in Greek mythology. I didn't like, though, Kleist's linking her to Kohlhaas' deceased wife.

Alok said...

Have you read Kleist's The Earthquake in Chile? It is another very strange story, much shorter than Kohlhaas. I didn't know what to think of it when I read it but your comment about bringing in a supernatural element to reinforce the natural law makes me see it in a new way. Only this time it is the Church and religion and not the state whose law is at variance with the human law.

praymont said...

Thanks, alok. I haven't read Earthquake in Chile yet, but will do so soon now that you've mentioned it. I also want to look at the Beggarwoman of Locarno, which I've heard is Kleist at his most uncanny.

Anonymous said...

I admit I was drawn to this book purely from the Melville House Art of the Novella pedigree, but my interest in it further enhanced by Gabriel Josipovici (a favourite of several book bloggers inc Mark Thwaite and Steve Mitchelmore) listing it as one of his top ten novellas. As a result, and in common with so many worthwhile titles, I have acquired it but not yet read it. Meanwhile, your review is a satisfying taster. Someday soon...