Academic journal article The Comparatist

To Risk Immanence/to Read Schizo-Analytically: Deleuze, Guattari, and the Kleistian War-Machine

Academic journal article The Comparatist

To Risk Immanence/to Read Schizo-Analytically: Deleuze, Guattari, and the Kleistian War-Machine

Article excerpt

What a wide array of narrative arcs are inscribed in Heinrich von Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas: the story is a Baroque, textual architecture overlaid with the tight coils of a horse's braided mane; the cuneiform lettering of illuminated scripture; the swath of destruction Kohlhaas cuts across the German countryside; finally, the last arc inscribed in the story is the broad parabolic sweep of the executioner's axe: "Kohlhaas aber [...] wandte sich zu dem Schafott, wo sein Haupt unter dem Beil des Scharfrichters fiel. Hier endigt die Geschichte vom Kohlhaas" (Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas 103) [Kohlhaas, however ... turned to the scaffold where his head fell under the axe of the executioner. Here ends the story of Kohlhaas]. Yet, as attested in the language with which Kleist reports Kohlhaas's execution, each narrative arc is figured in distinctly textual terms; again, the swing of the executioner's axe "endigt die Geschichte vom Kohlhaas" [ends the story of Kohlhaas].

As Clayton Koelb points out the story is overall coherent despite its turn from an initial realism, centering on the provincial horse-dealer who suffers injustice at the hands of the Prussian government, to the fantastic character of its conclusion where an old gypsy woman's prophecy is deciphered to reveal the end of a royal line. The horses whose abuse seems to trigger Kohlhaas's vengeful wrath, "come into play mainly as stand-ins (that is, as collateral) for a missing document." It is not the horses per se that are at issue; rather, Koelb rightly argues, it is "Kohlhaas's lack of a 'permit [Passschein]' that starts all the trouble" (Koelb 1099).

Consider in this regard the following exchange between Kohlhaas and an officer at the border between Brandenburg and Saxony:

Der Burgvogt, indem er sich noch eine Weste uber seinen weitlaufigen Leib zuknupfte, kam, und fragte, schief gegen die Witterung gestellt, nach dem Passschein.--Kohlhaas fragte: der Passschein? Er sagte, ein wenig betreten, dass er, soviel er wisse, keinen habe; dass man ihm aber nur beschreiben mochte, was dies fur ein Ding des Herrn sei: so werde er vielleicht zufalligerweise damit versehen sein.

(Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas 10)

   (The warden, still fastening a waistcoat across his capacious body,
   came up and, bracing himself against the wind and rain, demanded
   the horse-dealer's permit. "My permit?" asked Kohlhaas and added, a
   little disconcerted, that so far as he knew he did not possess one,
   but that if the warden would kindly explain what on earth such a
   thing was he just might possibly have one with him.)

To Kohlhaas's dismissive comments concerning his documentation--if only he knew what it was, perhaps he would have it after all--the Junker Wenzel von Tronka replies that without a state permit a dealer bringing horses could not be allowed across the border.

All of Kohlhaas's subsequent travels--across the border into the Electorate of Saxony, and his return to the Brandenburg Mark--are figured in this missing permit: "In Dresden [...] begab er sich, gleich nach seiner Ankunft, auf die Geheimschreiberei, wo er von den Raten, deren er einige kannte, erfuhr, was ihm allerdings sein erster Glaube schon gesagt hatte, dass die Geschichte von dem Passschein ein Marchen sei" [In Dresden ... [Kohlhaas] went immediately upon arrival to the Chancellery, where from the officials--some of whom he knew--he learned what he all along had been inclined to believe, that the story about the pass was a fiction]. Despite the misgivings of the officials, Kohlhaas acquires from them a written certificate attesting to the lie of the Junker's story. No pass is, indeed, required to cross the border to traffic in horse-trade (13).

Kohlhaas later files official papers against the Junker in the court at Dresden (21). The court of Saxony, however, returns no official decision on Kohlhaas's "statement." Then, in reply to "a private letter" written to his advocate, Kohlhaas learns that the case has been dismissed: the Junker von Tronka has high-placed relatives in the Elector's officiate who will read nothing more of Kohlhaas's case (21). …

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