A Lasting Supper: Michael Kohlhaas

Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist, New Directions, 2020
Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

Let us begin at the end. The horse-dealer Michael Kohlhaas is about to be put to death following a stubborn and unending crusade for justice stemming from the illegal confiscation and mistreatment of two of his horses by Junker Wenzel von Tronka. This crusade, which has seen Kohlhaas become leader of a band of revolutionary peasants, instigated the death of his dear beloved, and forced the intervention of none other than Martin Luther, ends with restitution being granted. The horses are returned to their original condition and brought back from the Junker’s control, and so Kohlhaas submits willingly to his execution. The chronicle of Michael Kohlhaas, sixteenth century firebrand, is drawing to a close. However, by a strange series of events the prisoner Kohlhaas is in possession of an amulet containing papers, given to him by a woman with supernatural powers of foresight, with information pertaining to the fate of the House of Saxony. As Kohlhaas is led out to his death, he spies the Elector of Saxony: the one for whom the prophecy means more than anything on earth, a figure that had been instrumental in continually denying Kohlhaas his justice. In his last moments, Kohlhaas removes the papers from the amulet, reads what is in store for the Elector and his kin, and then swallows the prophecy, before being beheaded in front of the gathered crowd. The Elector, having been denied the most precious knowledge of all, collapses: ‘torn in body and soul’.

Kleist’s novella Michael Kohlhaas was first published in 1810, the year before Kleist and his companion Henriette Vogel enacted their infamous murder/suicide pact in Wannsee where a monument now stands. The novella is many things: political, humorous, expansive, disturbing and reading it one can easily understand why Kleist was the kind of writer capable of enchanting Kafka, inspiring Coetzee, unsettling Goethe, and delighting Sontag. The irrepressible quest for justice at its heart, the self-destructive search for the rightful enactment of the law, is as urgent now as ever; and the combination of the historical narrative framing and the deeply modern existential current running through it mark Michael Kohlhaas out as one of the great works of nineteenth century European literature.

The new translation of Michael Kohlhaas then, undertaken by Michael Hofmann and published by New Directions, is a welcome one. Hofmann remains one of the finest bringers of German literature to the English-speaking world, and this present addition is no exception. Hofmann’s translation is tauter and more vibrant than the Martin Greenberg translation which I read previously, though perhaps loses a little of the ‘fairytale distance’ of the latter. This quality being a kind of otherworldly atmosphere, a product of the woollier semantic “texture” and parabolic narrative devices, beneficial to the mystical turn the novella takes in its last act. This is not a deliberate act of erasure, merely an effect of the colloquial, energetic English Hofmann employs. Besides, it is a minor quibble. For the rest, Hofmann’s balance of the multiple forces at work in the text is excellent, and the book moves with that wonderful and paradoxical combination of pace and turbulence, blunt matter-of-factness and personal righteousness, that make Michael Kohlhaas so beguiling.

[I take a short aside here to remark on the sharp and striking cover design of the New Directions edition. A fine complement to my battered Sphere paperback (adorned with what surely has to be one of the great film tie-in covers of all time).]

The Sphere edition of Michael Kohlhaas

Let us return to the end. The prophecy ‘sub-plot’ in Michael Kohlhaas, by which the eponymous hero enacts a great and fantastical revenge upon the Elector and his agents who failed (up until the very last moment) to redress the injustice done to him, has garnered a good deal of critical attention, much of it negative. It is an element that (if one were to believe some critics) might be considered a whimsical and wholly unnecessary digression: an irruption of the inexplicable into an otherwise realist world, and one which serves to undermine in several different ways, the ‘main’ narrative thrust.

However, to do so would be a mistake. For in fact this moment of fantasy, culminating in a devouring incarnation of the word echoing both Ezekiel and the John of Revelation, is the necessary endpoint of another Michael Kohlhaas. This novella is a story not about horses or injustice or rebellion or political action or power (these things of course all remain in the background once this other thread is brought to the fore) but about documents, about the validity and absurdity of the written word. Indeed it is this Michael Kohlhaas which is absolutely key to its enduring power, and which draws the book up alongside the likes of The Beast in the Jungle and Bartleby, the Scrivener; novellas with the capacity to cause tectonic shifts in the way we understand literature and its capacities.

Now: the beginning. The instigation of the injustice done to Kohlhaas, the act which sets off the whole chain of events, is as a result of the absence of a document, a permit. The demand for such a document, it is later revealed, as Kohlhaas suspects, is illegal. Besides which, it also quickly becomes evident this story about the permit is ‘a mere fabrication’. The necessity for the permit’s existence is both fictional and criminal. In response to this, Kohlhaas goes to obtain a document testifying to the non-existence of the permit. The permit, a document of the law, is shown quite quickly to be a falsehood, a construction. From this point on, right up until the final sentences of the book, almost each and every twist and turn, doing and undoing, of the plot is accompanied by a document that either affirms, annuls, or opposes a previous one. The novella thereby exposes a rift between documentation and the law, between the idea and its material incarnation. The law, as immutable object, enters a slippery slope of contradicting texts. The law requires its own absence in order to be effective. Discussing Michael Kohlhaas in relation to Kafka’s parable An Imperial Message in his perceptive essay ‘Incorporating the Text’ Clayton Koelb notes that in both cases: ‘the ultimate guarantee of a text’s transcendent authority is unavailability’.[1]

In his final act, Kohlhaas devours the future of another. The simple horse-dealer transfigures himself into the incarnation of the future of Saxony just as that self is going to be destroyed. Koelb notes how this act gives dramatic expression to the ‘Romantic desire to recuperate and revivify the dead past by reading’, and actualises ‘both sides of the ambivalence about texts’ which runs throughout the narrative.[2] However, a question remains as to the effect this has on the novella we are reading, the purported historical chronicle Michael Kohlhaas.

The chronicle is a form which is inherently historical, a relation of past events, and thereby tied to a linear chronology. Its meaning is worked out procedurally, from the accrual of events. The chronicle bears with it then a sense of secular eschatology, a meaning arrived at by the inevitable movement of forces. In Michael Kohlhaas Kleist uses this mode only to radically overturn it, to take that knowledge and displace it into the infinite through wilful destruction. In destroying the text Kohlhaas guarantees the absolute extension of its power. The prophecy parodies the eschatological directionality of the chronicle only to abandon it, leaving behind a tear, the wound and anguish created by its loss. Kohlhaas guarantees the indefinite continuation of the search by the eradication of its object. Rather than being able to decipher and decode, there is only an ever-divergent, propulsive questioning.

In doing so, the act of consumption goes beyond a mere reflection of the ambivalence toward textual materials and the fissure between law and its written enactment. It saves Michael Kohlhaas from being a novel about politics, power, justice, law: for literature refuses to be determined by such manifestations of certainty. The destructive act opens a space of suspension which leaves these potentialities in play in their very incompletion but reaffirms that literature is not our teacher, our spoon-feeder, a realm from which one may directly impart knowledge. Reading is not a lesson, it is an experience. The quest of the novella, the strange void within it, cannot be reduced to a juridical discrepancy: it is a rift which goes to the core of the question of knowledge itself.

Kohlhaas, by devouring the ‘secret knowledge’ for which the Elector is prepared to sacrifice everything, condemns the latter to live in the presence of a lost infinity, a prison from which there is no hope of escape. Unlike Plato’s lost realm of Truth, or the one lost by Adam and Eve in the Fall, here the Elector is baptised into a religious order where the death of the saviour was both the founding event of the world and the absolute eradication of any potential salvation. The entire world of the Elector becomes corrupted by the absence of the document, and each event becomes heavy with the sense of return, of having already been foretold. This then is the final resolution of the problem of knowledge and text: an irrevocable prolongation and search for a restitution that will remain impossible until the moment of death, which is exactly what Michael Kohlhaas is all about.

[1] Koelb, Clayton, ‘Incorporating the Text: Kleist’s “Michael Kohlhaas”’, PMLA, Vol. 105, №5 (Oct., 1990), p.1105

[2] Koelb, ‘Incorporating the Text’, p.1106

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