No matter how personal an injustice may be, we feel it as a disruption of a larger order. Our sense of the rightness of things is set askew. Certain ancient philosophers argued that injustice isn't only a matter of individual or collective grievance but has a cosmic side-effect. Injustice puts things in the wrong place. It dislodges our moral equilibrium. When Macbeth takes the throne that belongs to another, he's guilty not only of murder but of a primal injustice; he's taken a place that isn't his, and the world around him withers at the wrong. When he's defeated and killed, the legitimate king is enthroned; things return to their rightful places. This seems a simple case. But what happens when justice itself, in righting a wrong, becomes more savage, and more dislocating, than the grievance it sought to redress?
This is just the sort of quandary that the great German dramatist and storyteller Heinrich von Kleist (1777 – 1811) relished in his work. Kleist was a Prussian with an unbending sense of duty; he came from a long line of military forebears. But he was also a man of the most passionate intensity. Honor obsessed him; it made him so prickly that even the suspicion of an insult could cause him to reach for his sabre. He revered Goethe but when the cagey old Olympian slighted him, Kleist plotted to challenge him to a duel. When Prussian national honor was compromised by Napoleon's invasion, Kleist concocted a crack-brained scheme to slip arsenic into the emperor's soup. To take on both Goethe and Napoleon at the same time bespeaks a certain chutzpah, to say the least.
In his magnificent novella "Michael Kohlhaas" (1810), Kleist explored what happens when a just man pursues redress to such an extent that he almost wrecks the world. This tale, one of the masterpieces not only of German but of European literature, has now been republished in a translation by Martin Greenberg (Melville House, 133 pages, $9) as part of a new series, "The Art of the Novella."The novella is an odd, uneasy form, not quite a short story, not yet a novel. At its best, it combines the concentrated impact of a tale with that more spacious sense of time, of the growth and deepening of character, which the novel affords. Kleist in particular has the uncanny knack of compressing events so dramatically that when we have finished, we feel as though a whole human destiny has passed in a sudden flash.
The story has an almost biblical feel from its opening sentence:
Toward the middle of the sixteenth century, there lived on the banks of the Havel a horse dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, the son of a schoolmaster, one of the most upright and at the same time one of the most terrible men of his day.
It is his uprightness that makes Kohlhaas so devastating a figure. He is irreproachable in every respect. But his sense of justice is so absolute that when he is wronged, he sets out "with fire and sword" to get redress. Kafka admired Kleist's writing and was influenced by him, not only in his spare and agile prose but in his fascination with the moral impasse. We call such situations "Kafkaesque," but they should really be termed "Kleistian." In both writers, tiny events lead, by almost casual missteps, to the most appalling consequences. And the sequence of disasters horrifies because each one seems inevitable and accidental at once.
Kohlhaas sets out one day with a string of fine horses which he hopes to sell in Dresden. On the way he is stopped at a toll-gate erected by the unscrupulous new lord of the manor. He pays the toll but then is told he needs a pass, which he can only obtain in Dresden. He must leave two of his finest horses, along with his faithful groom, as a pledge. When he returns with the proper papers, he discovers that his horses have been mistreated — they are unrecognizable, reduced to skin and bones — and his groom has been beaten half to death and driven away. This is the injustice at the heart of the story.
Readers familiar with E. L. Doctorow's implacable hero, Coalhouse Walker, from his novel "Ragtime (1975)," a modern reworking of Kleist's parable, will know what happens next, but I won't disclose the plot. The narrative moves with a speed and relentlessness that are utterly remarkable. What I find most fascinating, apart from the sheer beauty of Kleist's prose, is the way he continually thickens the complications of his story with small, entangling details. Kohlhaas demands one thing from beginning to end: That his pair of horses be returned in the condition in which he left them. But even when his persecutors attempt to comply, they are stopped by ridiculous obstacles, a pile of manure in the roadway or the protocol of the various horsedealers and knackers who become embroiled in the dispute. As the story unfolds, justice itself begins to seem like some runaway horse, trampling everyone in its path.
Kleist's love of extremes isolated him. Goethe found him and his writing distasteful, labeling it a form of "hypochondria." He broke with his closest friends over trifles. Or he outraged them with his impulsiveness. He fell in love with the wife of Adam Müller, a now-forgotten philosopher, and exclaimed, "I must have Müller's wife. If he refuses to step aside, he must die!" This astonished everyone since he had shown no interest in the lady before; they were even more astonished when later on the same day, he tried to throw the hapless husband from a bridge into the Elbe. With another woman he was more successful. She was Henrietta Vogel and one day, when she was singing at the piano, Kleist was moved and cried out, "It's so beautiful I could shoot myself!"
This was the Romantic Age. For all his robustness Kleist was like Keats, "half in love with easeful death." But a few days later Henrietta told Kleist she was terminally ill and asked him to shoot her. He agreed and when she doubted him, he replied,"I am a man of my word." His only condition was that they make a suicide pact. Almost two hundred years ago, on November 20, 1811, the two went for a picnic on a grassy slope outside Berlin. Kleist shot Henrietta, then turned the pistol on himself. In a letter written a week before, he'd stated,"it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the daylight shining on my nose when I stick it out the window hurts me." He was only 34 years old, but by then he was well aware that justice too can create monsters.