Michael Kohlhaas, Heinrich von Kleist (1810)

Michael-Kohlhaas-320x373Von Kleist is an author I’ve often heard referenced — in particular I remember that Rilke’s Duino elegy about the harlequins owes Von Kleist some kind of debt I forget — but had never read. Thanks to the good people at Melville House Publishing and their lovely editions of novellas like this one, I’ve at last been inspired.

This is a relentless little story which quite nicely maps onto a lot of contemporary issues and quandaries. Here’s the question in a nutshell: To what extent is it acceptable to commit injustices in the course of seeking redress for injustices? You could ask this of the prisoners of Guantanamo, and you could ask it too of Michael Kohlhaas.

Kohlhaas, a prosperous citizen, is done wrong by a nobleman, who seizes two of Kohlhaas’s horses under the guise of some bogus regulations. When Kohlhaas tries to pursue redress through legal channels, the nobleman’s friends in high places see to it that the petitions are squashed. Then Kohlhaas, enraged — one must imagine him played by Klaus Kinski at this point — takes matters into his own hands, terrorizing the countryside in an effort to force the ruling classes to make him whole.  From here events swirl into ever-tightening circles of moral hazard and illogic, where it is increasingly difficult to say who is in the right, or what “right” might even be. The funhouse claustrophobia and panic reminded me strongly of Kafka’s The Trial, and I was not surprised to find out with a little research on Wikipedia that this novella was a favorite of Franz’s.