Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

'Der Herr Aber, Dessen Leib Du Begehrst, Vergab Seinem Feind': The Problem of Revenge in Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

'Der Herr Aber, Dessen Leib Du Begehrst, Vergab Seinem Feind': The Problem of Revenge in Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas

Article excerpt

In recent years, interpretations of Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas have focused above all on the question of whether Kohlhaas is motivated by a genuine desire for justice or whether his pursuit of justice is not itself undermined by the desire for revenge. The origins of this debate can be traced back to the fundamental tension inherent in the opening sentence of the story in which the horse-dealer is described as 'einer der rechtschaffensten zugleich und entsetzlichsten Menschen seiner Zeit' (p. 9) (1) and readings of the text can be categorized, albeit crudely, in accordance with the way each critic chooses to resolve this teasing paradox. Thus Richard Matthias Muller, for instance, mounts a passionate defence of the horse-dealer, pointing out that even the citizens of Wittenberg and Leipzig whose property is destroyed in the incendiary raids are inclined to side with Kohlhaas. (2) By contrast, Raymond Lucas argues that Kohlhaas is a figure who remains bent on revenge right up until the last, declining any of the opportunities held out to him to embrace the Christian doctrine of forgiveness, and concludes that Kohlhaas is a typical example of 'those Kleistian characters who are deep in illusion about themselves and the world, [...] unclear [...] that his vengeance has taken off and lost all relation to justice'. (3)

More recently, however, critics have suggested that such clear-cut judgements are out of place and that the ending of the novella is clothed in irony. Thus John Ellis argues that the Elector of Saxony 'operates on too trivial a level to be an appropriate target for Kohlhaas's righteous fury' and claims that:

The tragedy of Kohlhaas at the end of the story is not that he falls from being a model of perfect justice, or that he is sacrificed in the name of justice. It is that the world is too inconsistent, too disorganized, and too much influenced by whims and foolishness to be able to find a place for Kohlhaas's grandiose sense of mission. (4)

Indeed the sheer complexity of Kleist's narrative, with its depiction of a labyrinthine system of justice administered by a series of officials whose names are often so similar as to be scarcely distinguishable from one another seems, at least at first sight, to support such a reading of the text. (5) For after the deliciously provocative opening sentence, the narrator offers the reader a bewildering range of opinions on the central character, describing him one moment as blessed with 'ein richtiges, mit der gebrechlichen Einrichtung der Welt schon bekanntes Gefuhl' (pp. 15-16) and at the next as possessed by 'eine Schwarmerei krankhafter und missgeschaffener Art' (p. 36). At times the story is told from Kohlhaas's perspective, sometimes from that of his adversaries and at other times from the perspective of a third party (such as Luther), who despite their official status as 'neutrals', none the less have a vested interest in the outcome of the dispute that cannot but colour their judgement of the facts. Not surprisingly, some critics have concluded that to pass judgement on Kohlhaas is to attempt the impossible, and in his recent study of Kleist's work, Anthony Stephens speaks for many when he suggests that 'there are simply too many variables to be balanced against one another, in too many combinations, to yield one consistent set of answers'. (6) Claiming that such moral judgements are 'too common in writing on Kohlhaas to retain any interest', he sees it as the critic's task to uncover yet more layers of irony, in short, to embark upon the description of what he terms 'a literary form that tests the coherence of its own discourse'. (7) Yet to seek refuge in a world of intertextual elaboration is surely to ignore precisely those questions that have both fascinated (and puzzled) Kleist's readers over the years. For although there is no one character in the novella (the narrator included) with whom the reader can uncritically identify, it is far from clear why the absence of such a perspective should rule out any possibility of the reader arriving at a stable reading of the text. …

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