Complex Messiah

Michael Kohlhaas by Heinrich von Kleist, translated from German by Michael Hofmann. New York: New Directions. 144 pages. $15.

The cover of Michael Kohlhaas

Heinrich von Kleist died by his own hand at the age of thirty-four. For a man whose life was plagued by failure, his suicide was a remarkable success. On November 20, 1811, two months after turning his eighth play over to the Prussian censors, Kleist and his friend Henriette Vogel retired to an inn outside Berlin, where for one night and one day they sang and prayed, composed final letters, and downed bottles of rum and wine (as well as, the London Times later reported, sixteen cups of coffee) before making their way to the banks of the Kleiner Wannsee. In these idyllic surroundings, as per their agreement, Kleist shot her in the chest, reloaded, and then fired at his own head. “I am blissfully happy,” he had written to his cousin that morning. “Now I can thank [God] for my life, the most tortured ever lived by any human being, since He makes it up to me with this most splendid and pleasurable of deaths.”

In those eight plays and another eight long stories, written intermittently over a decade-long career, Kleist depicted men and women who found life a torturous affair. Sometimes they chafe under state despotism. In “The Earthquake in Chile,” two lovers are imprisoned for having a child out of wedlock. His late play Die Hermannsschlacht, which Carl Schmitt deemed the “greatest partisan poem of all times,” is a parable about life under occupation (Prussia was essentially a vassal state to France in Kleist’s time). In other stories, his characters’ sense of unease is more internal and mysterious, surfacing as violent obsession, fits of despair, crises of belief. The tales unfold with a wild, almost savage intensity, which contemporary readers found disturbing; infamously, Kleist’s hero Goethe dismissed the younger writer as diseased.

Kleist’s two abiding concerns, politics and metaphysics, come together powerfully in Michael Kohlhaas, his longest and best-known narrative, which now appears in a lively new translation by Michael Hofmann. Largely unnoticed on its original publication in 1810 (like most everything Kleist wrote), the novella has since won the admiration of writers including Kafka, Thomas Mann, Susan Sontag, and J. M. Coetzee, who used it as a model for Life and Times of Michael K (1983). Set in the sixteenth century, it follows a fanatical terrorist who leads a band of vigilantes against the Prussian feudal order. Protestantism lies at the heart of the story—Martin Luther himself makes a brief, electrifying appearance—which raises profound questions about the individual’s relationship with the state and the law.

Like many of Kleist’s stories, Michael Kohlhaas begins with a crime (more precisely, a tort). The horse-dealer Michael Kohlhaas is on his way to the market at Dresden when he is stopped at a tollbooth and dispossessed of a pair of prize mares. Erected by the baron Junker Wenzel von Tronka, the booth was illegal, as Kohlhaas suspects. The rest of the story follows his attempts—first calm, courteous, and through the legal channels; then through violent vigilantism—to have justice served. “I am not minded to live in a land in which my rights are not protected,” he tells his wife. “Sooner to be a dog, if I am to be kicked, than a human being!”

Kohlhaas is a curious terrorist. Initially setting out with a band of loyal servants, he soon wins considerable power, essentially declaring a full-blown insurrection and installing himself at the head of a legion of peasants who christen him as an avenger of the poor. Yet his own aims remain strictly apolitical. All he demands is the return, in their original condition, of his two stolen horses, plus compensation for the injuries his squire suffered at the hands of Tronka. If this much is guaranteed, he promises to disband his forces and return to horse-rearing.

What explains his behavior? One clue can be found in his many proclamations, which grow increasingly religious in tone as the story unfolds. Kohlhaas seems to view his legal battle as a kind of crusade against state corruption, at one point deeming himself “a vice-regent of the Archangel Michael, come to punish with fire and sword all those who took the side of the Junker, the wickedness in which this whole world has sunk.” This reflects a more general tendency to conflate his personal impulses and emotions with sublime notions of justice. On discovering that his horses were driven almost to death by the baron’s workers, he reacts with characteristic righteousness:

[Kohlhaas] could feel his heart thumping under his tunic. He felt an urge to dump the fat-bellied ne’er-do-well in the filth and grind his heel in those ruddy features. But his sense of justice, which was as finely equilibrated as a pair of jeweler’s scales, was still trembling in the balance; outside the tribunal of his own bosom he could not be sure whether some guilt was oppressing the other party or not.

Two energies flow contrariwise through this passage. Kohlhaas expresses a kind of radical Protestantism, taking to an extreme the notion that the individual conscience—the “tribunal of his own bosom”—offers direct access to the universal truth (or God). Yet at the same time Kleist’s tone is entirely, even anxiously, secular. He stresses the human impulses—the thumping heart, the desire for revenge—coursing through the horse-dealer, as if to remind us that the saintly avenger is subject to more worldly passions.

Kleist follows the proceedings from a wry, unobtrusive third person, without overt comment or explanation, simply recounting one folly after another, so that the story develops an awful narrative velocity, a snowballing inevitability that the reader resists in vain. (The effect is not dissimilar to a Thomas Bernhard monologue.) For the translator, the challenge is to find a language that is pitched at the right distance, conveying an emotional closeness to Kohlhaas while underscoring his otherworldly messianism. Hofmann catches this balance brilliantly. Where earlier translators have tended to overexplain, he uses a colloquial, flexible diction and remains calm in the face of violence: “Kohlhaas on entering the room confronted the knight Hans von Tronka, grabbed him by the scruff and hurled him into a corner, where his brains were dashed out against the stone.”

Kleist began work on Michael Kohlhaas in 1804, soon after suffering an intellectual crisis that would change his life forever. In his youth, he had fallen under the sway of the Enlightenment, drawing up a detailed life plan (Lebensplan), based on the soundest Rousseauian principles, not only for his own education but for that of his fiancée. Yet an encounter with Kantian philosophy in 1801 brought to the surface a deep-seated suspicion that the world lacked a rational order—and that humans, for all their pretentions to knowledge, were incapable of rationality.

In letter after letter he expresses the agony of living without the knowledge of whether his actions are moral. “The same voice telling the Christian to forgive his enemies tells the South Sea Islander to roast his,” he wrote to his fiancée in August 1801. “And piously he devours them—Are we right to trust our convictions if they can justify such deeds?” The question haunted him all his life. Though other factors were involved—penury, un-happy relations with his family, artistic failure—his suicide, in Coetzee’s opinion, “was ultimately a philosophical act.” Kleist could not bear to live in what he described as a world with “imperfect or unstable structure.”

In a sense Kohlhaas’s predicament is Kleist’s own. Both are intense, high-strung men, at odds with society and compelled by urgent inner voices they cannot quite trust. Unlike his creator, the horse-dealer blindly follows his conscience, which brings about nothing but misery and destruction. When he seeks out Martin Luther, whose opinion he values above all others, Kohlhaas is finally made to see the error of his ways. “Wouldn’t you have done better to forgive the Junker?” the priest asks him. But by then Kohlhaas is sure it is too late for him to change course. “Because [the events] have now cost me so much,” he reflects, “the thing has its own momentum.” Yet it would be rash to read Michael Kohlhaas simply as a cautionary tale. While the mature Kleist might have grown distrustful of all systems, he never lost his youthful desire for reason, clarity, and order. This unresolved tension remains alive in the novella, which is pitched at a tenor—breathlessly urgent, absolutely bereft of irony—that seems to affirm Kohlhaas’s dignity, if not his tragic grandeur.

In 1810, the year before his death, Kleist published a brief, incandescent essay titled “On the Marionette Theater.” In it, he offered a veiled confession: “Affectation appears, as you know, when the soul . . . locates itself at any point other than the center of gravity of the movement.” Responding freely to the pull of strings, marionettes are the most compelling, graceful actors, whereas humans are torn between competing passions, ideas, and impulses. It is this inability to be with the values of society, combined with a total commitment to his inner vision, that probably drove him over the edge. Only in death could he discover his life’s true meaning.

Ratik Asokan is an associate editor at The Baffler.