On "Michael Kohlhaas" and the business of revenge - Dustin Illingworth in The New Yorker:
'"Michael Kohlhaas,” an 1810 novella by the German poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist, is a work of almost total calamity. Its speed and cataclysmic force are palpable from the opening paragraph:
In the middle of the 16th century there lived on the banks of the Havel a horse dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, son of a schoolmaster, at once one of the most righteous and appalling individuals of his time. Until his thirtieth year, this unusual man would have been accounted the very model of a good citizen. In the village that still bears his name, he owned a farm that provided him with a comfortable living; the children his wife gave him he brought up in the fear of God, to be hardworking and loyal; there was not one among his neighbors who hadn’t benefited from his charity and his fair dealing; in sum, the world would have blessed his memory, if he hadn’t followed one of his virtues to excess. His sense of justice led him to robbery and murder.
The narrative that follows, in which the eponymous hero seeks redress over a minor infraction, is both satisfyingly atavistic and indelibly modern. Loosely based on the life of a sixteenth-century merchant, the book’s initial, indiscriminate violence—thieving, arson, maiming, execution—gives way, in its second half, to cosmic inscrutability. The horse-dealer’s implacable quest for justice is stymied by the opacity of the law. (That the novella was beloved by Franz Kafka is perhaps unsurprising. “This is a story I read with true piety,” he wrote to his soon-to-be fiancée, Felice Bauer, in 1913.) Its bottomless ambiguity and sense of futility anticipate the modern novel by nearly a century; not only Kafka but writers as disparate as Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Witold Gombrowicz, and J. M. Coetzee are unimaginable without Kleist’s example.
His life, like much of his work, was brief and dramatic. Born the eldest of eight children in Frankfurt an der Oder, Kleist became a member of the Potsdam Guard Regiment at fourteen; fought Napoleon; briefly studied law; experienced a “Kant crisis,” in which he despaired of reason; wandered restlessly through Paris and Switzerland; broke off his engagement to a German pastellist; was arrested by the French as a possible spy; suffered a nervous breakdown; and killed himself, at thirty-four, on the shore of the Wannsee, in a suicide pact with a terminally ill friend. His work often eulogized European high culture, which could provoke the opprobrium of its elder statesmen. (Goethe, whom Kleist both admired and despised, called him a “Nordic phantom of acrimony and hypochondria.”) He was attracted to a life of regimented, almost militaristic order, even as psychological disarray engulfed him. This conflict lends Kleist’s œuvre its remarkable, even shocking, sense of paradox and turmoil.
“Michael Kohlhaas,” which was recently reissued by New Directions in a sparkling new translation from Michael Hofmann, makes for a fine entry point into Kleist’s passionate, grotesque, hysterical, and deeply strange body of work. It begins, as it ends, in bureaucratic entanglement. Kohlhaas, en route to a Leipzig marketplace, is stopped by a castellan in the employ of the knight Wenzel von Tronka, who demands to see a travel permit. Lacking the necessary visa, Kohlhaas is coerced into leaving two of his finest horses as collateral, along with his trusty groom to watch over them. While passing through Dresden, he learns from a government notary that the permit is in fact a fairy tale. As so often occurs in “Michael Kohlhaas,” the law is invoked only to be disfigured by human cupidity. The castellan is merely an avatar, the first of several figures whose knowledge of the law allows them to shape or pervert it for private aims. Kleist introduces the self-serving technocratic interpreter to modern literature.
Extraordinary cruelties beset Kohlhaas in rapid succession. He returns to find his horses near collapse, and his groom badly beaten. His demands for redress are laughed off by Tronka and his retinue. In a ghastly turn, his beloved wife is fatally injured while bringing his plea before the sovereign. (An overzealous guard crushes her sternum.) Kleist offers little psychological garnish to this great feast of suffering. His hero’s setbacks are relayed with the compression and impassivity of a parable, albeit one whose moral proves elusive. Kleist comes to inhabit the same terrifying remoteness as Job’s God: pitiless, obscurely motivated, and not above a bit of mockery.
After such rigorous sadism, Kohlhaas wastes no time in dedicating himself to “the business of revenge.” '
'Kleist’s book is a fable of civic disenchantment. The pathos one feels for Kohlhaas stems in part from his steadfast belief in the rule of law, even as he proves himself unequal to its cryptic prerequisites. For all his honor, he turns out to be something of a principled rube, easy prey for the Dresden initiates. In the courts, righteousness matters less than sophistication. The horse-dealer comes to embody a nascent feature of the middle class: fear and confusion before the gates of administration. The chilly radiance of this vision lights the way to Kafka.'
'“Michael Kohlhaas” could be called a pathology of obsession, or a juridical riddle, or even a kind of magnificent taunt, though none of these is right, or right enough. One must merely read it, and then read it again, staggered by its sheer acceleration, its furious savagery, its vertiginous authority, its exquisite prolongment of closure as event follows improbable event. Kohlhaas is one of literature’s eternal characters because he outpaces any interpretive framework'
Read the complete review here.
I would call 'the terminally ill friend" with whom Kleist killed himself a lover but besides that it's hard to disagree with this review.
Kohlhaas as the embodiment of what middle class was, is and probably will be: fear and confusion before the gates of the administration, followed by the lust for revenge, sometimes revenge itself.
I once called Job the first angry citizen, but the book Job of course was one of the first, maybe the first descriptions of middle class. The difference is that Job manages to overcome his anger and lust for revenge and is rewarded for it.
Kohlhaas of course is not interested in the goodies that the administration might bestow upon him, justice is his passion, destruction the way to obtain it.
The contemporary Michael Kohlhaas is not interested in justice anymore, it's revenge for the sake of revenge.