Against the Lawby Gabriel Don
Heinrich von Kliest
Michael Kohlhaas from Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist
translated by Peter Wortsman
(Archipelago Books, 2009)
“Because I do not wish to remain in a land … where my rights are not protected,” says Kohlhaas, the protagonist in von Kliest’s short story. On Halloween last year, following Occupy Wall Street, the Guy Fawkes mask, which starred in V for Vendetta, was popular on the streets of New York. The quote from the movie, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people,” seemed to blare at me from these costumes. The movie paraphrased John Basil Barnhill’s edict, “When governments fear the people, there is liberty. Where the people fear the government, there is tyranny.”
When Kohlhaas is rebuked by Martin Luther for attacking Junker von Tronka in pursuit of his own judgment, he responds by saying, “The war I wage with society would indeed be a misdeed, were I not … cast out of it … I call him an outcast, who’s been deprived of the protection of the law!” There are undertones that the upholding of social order above all else is important. Legal recourse as society’s safe haven. The idea that the state will see our point of view and impose a just solution, similarly to when I waited for my mother to come home to settle a dispute with my sister, who had already phoned our mother to make sure she heard her side of the story first. The state as our babysitter becomes problematic, for example, when the prince assigns guards to Kohlhaas and instructs them “to follow him when he went out for his own protection.” Citizens, through legislative actions, such as suing the state (denial of responsibility) can lose civil liberties when the government becomes Big Brother. Moreover, the social contract of a citizen and state not only entails expectations of the state to protect the citizen but also the citizen can be tried and punished by the state to which they belong.
Heinrich’s story highlights the semantics of describing violence depending on the side of the fence one is on, where popular support lies, or where hegemony is trying to lead; rebel, barbarian, or terrorist as opposed to freedom fighter or coalition of the willing. A fundamentalist or “an emissary of the Archangel Michael come to punish all those with sword and fire who sided with the Junker in this dispute, and thereby to cleanse the world of the sorry state it had fallen into.” Anarchist or libertarian, Kohlhaas “called out to the people to join him in his fight for a better world order.” The government frets as “public opinion, Luther remarked, had turned dangerously in this man’s favour.”
The government’s bureaucratic processes of justice include paperwork, long, drawn-out procedures and the need for representation. Kohlhaas goes to the barrister’s office to prepare and file his complaint because we are unable to speak for ourselves in laymen’s terms. Justice is accessible to the eloquent few, the tiny group trained in that discourse. Kohlhaas has an advantage from the onset: He can write a letter, he is not illiterate and is aware of a legal structure that is meant to protect his rights. The language of law is very convoluted and people must pay a lawyer to interpret the text, the way people relied on priests to translate the Bible when it was in Latin.
There are different kinds of power. The Lord Governor Otto von Gorgas is someone “who, by his mere presence, was accustomed to instilling respect and obedience in the people.” Martin Luther has a moral authority. The Junker has sway with family connections. Judicial decisions, if they managed to reach him, lay in the elector’s hands but power disseminates and even the elector who at one point seemed all powerful had his limits and was overruled by the Emperor.
Power and justice connect when there is judgment. Who is allowed to make judgments? Who has agency to act on judgments? The piece overall demonstrates the absurdity of procedures that citizens are subjected to and how the systems in place involve a seemingly endless stream of lines to stand in, letters to write, red tape, civil servants suppressing legal proceedings, tribunals, appeals, councils, and court cases. Kohlhaas’s request for the return of his nags in their former healthy condition, which he viewed as a “simple act of justice, an immediate and unstinting restitution for the wrongs done him,” provoked him to attack the administration, enabling a sordid tit for tat which proliferated and Kohlhaas viewed that one incident as the cause of all disasters that followed. The original dispute seems petty and ludicrous, though a symbol of civil justice and a microcosm of the violation of a civilian’s rights, when taken into account the tragedies that ensued.
Jackson Taylor, author of The Blue Orchard, once said that to forgive requires no revenge or recompense because that would not be true forgiveness. Taylor also wrote in his beautiful and educational novel aforementioned, “Every town has a man who is permitted to break the law.” Kohlhaas’s wife, Lisbeth, beseeched her husband, “Forgive your enemies … do good to them that hate you.” Revenge is not just; an eye for an eye and the whole world goes blind.
GABRIEL DON is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.