MICHAEL KOHLHAAS, WHICH WAS WRITTEN BY KLEIST TO DISCUSS, LECTURE AND EXPLAIN HIS IDEAS, IS A HIGHLY READABLE, AESTHETICALLY STRONG, SUITABLY IMPRESSIVE AND INTRIGUING BOOK WRITTEN WITHOUT ARTISTIC CONCESSIONS.
The events narrated in Heinrich von Kleist’s long story “Michael Kohlhaas” , whose second edition in Turkish language was published in December 2011 (Can Publications) occur in the middle of the 16th century. The writer endeavors to discuss the concept of justice, assess it from different points of view and bring the reader to a conclusion. Heinrich von Kleist, who passed away at the beginning of the 19th century, wrote his stories to teach a lesson, just like the other writers of the classical period.
The art of giving a lesson
Novels and stories written with the purpose of teaching a lesson prevailed almost till the end of the 20th century. With the 20th century, the idea that literature and art, in general, should not necessarily be in the service of something started to be discussed. In the end, men of letters showed differences of opinion regarding the idea in question. While some merely supported the idea of ars gratia artis, those who argued that art is for the sake of something else never gave up. When considered from this point of view, the story of Michael Kohlhaas does not stand in front of us merely as a piece of art. Reflecting on it together with the social facts of the period in which it was written, it can be said that the story also bears philosophical thoughts, political events and emotional tendencies.
It can be said that Michael Kohlhaas could also be read as a book of law or thought. Nevertheless, one should not underestimate the artistic side of Kleist, since the art of the authors of the classical period absolutely shows itself even in an essay or a review book. Therefore, Michael Kohlhaas, which was written by Kleist to discuss, teach a lesson and explain his ideas, is a highly readable, aesthetically strong, suitably impressive and intriguing book written without artistic concessions.
The heart of the story
The protagonist of the story, Michael Kohlhaas, is a horse seller and clever enough to make out the connection between the injustice that he was the victim of and the imperial government. We can say that he is a lover of justice. This love cannot be explained through a simple fondness of justice. Kohlhaas is a character who has right conduct, although not a nobleman, can estimate what he can do within his social class, thoughtful, ethical and sophisticated. At first, he tries to tolerate and avoid the injustice which he is the victim of leniently and in a congenial manner. He does not have psychological problems. He does not mix his struggle with his personal ambitions. He is honest and constructive. His wife also shows the same features. His wife, in the first place, totally presents a model family with her husband. Both of them are the members of the newly developing Protestant movement.
Why are all of these narrated in detail and even in a manner that peculiarly attracts the attention of the reader? This is because the author wants his reader to completely trust Kohlhaas. This trust composes the heart of the book, because Kleist does not write his story with an anarchist conception. His problem is not with the state or the empire.
Alone with the nature
Kohlhaas turns into a model hero in Kleist’s narrative. The protagonist is an individual who stands against injustice, struggles and is ready to sacrifice everything for this cause. He is not an anarchist or a bandit. Kleist does not have a suspicion of the existence of the state or its goodness or badness. In his opinion, there is no good or bad state or empire. Good or bad can be the governance and the associates of the emperor. What makes a system is not the emperor, but his aides, advisors, judiciary and judges. Kleist particularly attracts attention to this point. He also equips and guides Kohlhaas in this regard. In fact, all the heroism and noblesse of Kohlhaas is based on the empire, because he strongly trusts the government of the state as the result of the injustice that he was the victim of. He files all the necessary appeals. He tries all the legal options. However, he is again wronged in spite of all these efforts; because the person he files a complaint about is a Junker, in other words, a German nobleman, an aristocrat.
Nobleman Wenzel von Tronka is also a close relative of certain people who have a high status in the court. This works against Kohlhaas. His appeal is not examined as required, or even not cared much. The two horses that were left as pledge are put under hard work in the field and become thin and skinny as a beanpole because of lack of nourishment. The butler who was assigned to take care of the horses is beaten to death. Kohlhaas suffers psychologically and physically because of this violence. However, the monger of all these misdeeds gets away with his evilness. So, it is obvious that those who are not protected by the law are cast out by the society and the state. As soon as Kohlhaas understands that his life, family and his employees are not under the protection of the law, he finds himself alone in the nature.
Being alone in the nature means that the laws have become defunct. This is called the return of the human to the nature, in other words, to the basic and indispensable rights he is bestowed upon birth. If the state cannot protect and guard the rights of the individual, the individual should do this himself. In a colloquial manner, the law of the jungle becomes effective where the law of the state ends.
The dilemma of Kant and Rousseau
We find the philosophy of Immanuel Kant in Kohlhaas as an honest citizen, in his pursuing his rights through the law, staying within logic, and the sense of responsibility he develops for himself, his family, the society he lives in and the state. When he finds himself out of the law and is excluded from the society, his logic towards the disappearance of the binding force of the society and the law is found to be based on the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau. These are the philosophers that Kleist discusses and consults in order to find ways to his predicaments.
Kleist is a synthesis artist. He does not say either Kant or Rousseau. Rather than choosing one of these two, he regards and assesses these philosophers as parts of the reality and prefers either of them depending on his conditions. In fact, we find orientations towards both philosophers in Kohlhaas. However, at some point he knows that the reality is not all about the ideas of philosophers. Kleist calls up religion at the point where philosophy becomes helpless.
We witness Kohlhaas’s Kantian side in his appealing to the superiority of the law against the injustice he is faced with and his Rousseauist side in his revolt against the judgment that he is out of the law. However, we see his Lutherian side at the point where both methods become defunct and illegality and rebellion start to harm the society and other people, everyone reach an impasse and solutions cannot be provided to problems.
Crime and punishment
When left alone with his inner self, Kohlhaas pursues his right with his own hands. He takes his weapon, gets on his horse and strikes Wenzel von Tronka’s chateau. Tronka runs away from the chateau and manages to save his life. However, Kohlhaas chases Tronka. He goes to every place where people inform him of Tronka and burns villages, towns, even cities. At first, these actions cause a reaction among the people. But in time, the people start to justify Kohlhaas. While Kohlhaas’s gang consists of ten people in the beginning, the number rises to twenty, then a hundred; his success against military troops increases the number of his supporters.
Then he again turns back to the philosophy of Kant. But his return is through an intermediary. Martin Luther is the very man in this regard. Martin Luther, the founder of Protestantism, is an intermediary between Kant and Rousseau and between the upper class and the lower class. His meaning is mercy. He is not a stranger or an enemy to any idea or human being. What he turns against is sin, illegality, violence, pain, tears, remorselessness and evil.
Martin Luther intervenes, appeals and writes letters to the empire and the upper management of the palace. Kohlhaas, who turns into a fierce murderer and a rebel, would only listen to Luther. Luther is a divine authority who warns and shows that it is necessary to stay inside the law and solve the problems definitely through the law and by reaching the emperor, although Kohlhaas is right.,
Kohlhaas loses his wife and his butler, leaves his children as orphans, loses his property, causes the deaths of many people and his supporters try to trick him. However, he pursues the way shown by Luther and gains his right. The trial ends. Nobleman Tronka gets what he deserves. Kohlhaas pays for his rebellion with his life. Thus, the philosophy of Rousseau is left at the end of the book to turn back to the philosophy of Kant.
As we mentioned in the very beginning, Kleist creates the protagonist Michael Kohlhaas in order to teach a lesson. He warns the emperor and the management of the palace on the one side, and the honest citizens on the other side. Kleist’s warnings have not lost their validity despite the a few hundreds of years that have passed and they should be reviewed and considered.