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The difficult justice of Melville & Kleist.

There is an old Venetian folk story about a peasant who searched and searched for a just person to be his newborn child's godfather. At last he met up with the Lord. "I need to baptize this little child, but I want a just person for his godfather," he said. "Are you just?" Embarrassed, the Lord hesitated in his reply: "Well, you see, to tell the truth, not really." "Then you can't be my boy's godfather," the peasant said and went on till he encountered Our Lady. She too when asked if she were just, blushed, and said she couldn't in good conscience claim so much. Finally the father encountered a lady dressed in black. "Yes, I believe I am a just person," was her answer. The infant's parents were overjoyed and the baptism duly took place with feasting and merrymaking. When the last guest had departed, the Signora Godmother invited the father into her palazzo and conducted him into a great hall in which many little flames were burning. The peasant halted in astonishment. "Godmother, what are all those little flames?" The Signora replied: "Those are the lights of all the souls of men. Look, will you, at that one there that's weak and on the point of going out? That's your little flame. There's almost no oil left in the lamp. And will you look at that one there burning bright and strong? That one is your little son's." The peasant trembled with fear. "Godmother," he begged her, "take a little drop of oil, would you, from my baby's lamp and put it into mine?"--"No," the Signora Godmother replied, "I am a just person: I am Death."

Very profound, the tale is. And buried in it is a silent laugh. There is no justice on earth, it says, nor in heaven neither, you fool. Is the story cynical? Yes, in an old Italian way. But in an old Italian way it isn't, for there is justice, after all, in death. Heaven is a church territory in the story, a kind of papal state, not really something on the other side of the phenomenal world, not a mystery. What is a mystery is death. Since death is a mystery, so, ultimately is justice. Which explains a lot by not explaining.

It is no news that justice is not an easy matter. Creon, King of Thebes, banging his fist down in the Antigone of Sophocles, says that whatever the ruler does is just, even when it is unjust. Such an idea of justice, which has never lost its currency, makes no sense, or rather it makes only too obvious sense: Don't argue with the justice of the ruler. Antigone's argument for disobeying Creon's order forbidding the burial of her brother Polyneices, who had warred against Thebes, is that the order did not come from Zeus above or the gods below. Neither "Creon nor any mortal man may overrule the gods' unwritten and unfailing laws," which since time immemorial commanded burial of the dead. The divine law is clear enough and becomes clear to Creon too, belatedly, after Teiresias gives him a talking-to.

The Chorus respects Antigone's piety, but you don't defy power so, they say. The bit priggish Antigone defends herself against the charge of overweeningness in a most surprising way. If it were her own dead child, or its dead father, she would have let the corpse moulder away rather than defy Creon's command. One husband gone, she might have found another, got another child to replace the lost one--but with her parents dead, there was no replacing her brother. The passage has been a stumbling block to commentators. It appears from it that the "unfailing" higher law is not so absolute as otherwise it is represented in the play, that it is subject to qualification--to us a very bizarre qualification.

Justice is a theme of much Greek tragedy, justice religiously-philosophically considered. This is often true, too, of Shakespearean drama. With Shakespeare, who has a positive dislike for absolutes, qualifications multiply, limits are set: "immoderate" authority, acting the god, tyrannizes; immoderate "liberty plucks justice by the nose." Yet it is still the case with him, as Hamlet says, "Offense's gilded hand may shove by justice ... but 'tis not so above." With some exceptions--notably Kleist, Ibsen, and Kafka--justice philosophically considered doesn't figure prominently in the European literature of the last two centuries. Issues of justice, and especially of social justice and law, are everywhere to be found in the great European novels, but not ideas, or intimations, which cast back (or down, or up--or around) for an ultimate source of our sense of right. Proust, too, in at least one notable passage, muses about how we come into this world 'already burdened by obligations--to be good, kind, considerate, scrupulous, oh, many things--which nothing on this earth imposes on us, which seems to belong to a different world, based on "laws which every profound work of intellect brings us nearer to and which are invisible only (were it only!) to fools."

In American literature we have an outstanding example of a philosophical narrative which looks up yearningly from the platform of earth to a different world whose injunctions to goodness, kindness, justice arc indeed traced in our hearts--but impotently.

It is Melville's Billy Budd. The troubling case recounted in that story is firmly resolved. Nevertheless the resolution leaves all concerned in a state of agitation: characters, readers and (you feel) the writer of the story himself. In the stories and plays of the ever surprising Prussian poet Heinrich von Kleist, born four decades before our American Melville but like him in being a dialectician, only more so, justice philosophically considered is a constant theme. In his extraordinary novella Michael Kohlhaas justice seems impossible to arrive at, so tangled the situation of its eponymous protagonist becomes. But in the end, involved and complicated though it is, justice is done and a calmness ensues. There is nothing of the uneasiness, the smothered protest, the confusion that troubles Billy Budd. Both Melville and Kleist are realists, but realist-romancers (as after them Kafka is). Some such combination of realism and romance is needed for the modern imagination to tell a story that reaches beyond the phenomenal world.

Melville is an exasperating writer. He can write so powerfully, even sublimely. How Moby-Dick catches you at the start, with Ishmael and his November-filled soul standing at the tip of Manhattan Island looking out to sea from the Battery--then with him in New Bedford at the Spouter Inn together in bed "like a married couple" with that noblest of savages, the wonderful Queequeg, waking to find the harpooner's "arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner" What a scene! And what a business, practical and metaphysical, he makes of whales and whaling! He can write so well and ill, like Theodore Dreiser and others after him. D. H. Lawrence said that on the American continent the life-force is more powerful than consciousness "and so is never gracefully expressed"; it prompts a "savage desire to go to extremes" extremes of violence, extremes of idealism.

Billy Budd goes to an extreme of perverted idealism. It is Melville's last work and much praised by critics. Murdering idealisms have never lacked for praise. It is powerfully written, in his clumsy way--the power and the clumsiness being one special voice--with a plentiful laying on of signs and wonders. We all know that Melville was the great naysayer. About Hawthorne (and about himself) he had written in 1851: "He says NO! in thunder." To what? To the cheerful American shallowness which would smile away everything that is dark and deep, "the blackness of darkness"--evil. Solzhenitsyn when he lived in Vermont asked: "Why do Americans smile so all the time?" For one, because we're so glad we aren't poor, as most of the world is. We love our materialism, which provides us a decent if uninspiring well-being. But Melville hated it. And America doesn't care for him and his world-wandering Pequod, with its crazy captain commanding its capable mates--tragical madness commanding reason. Our preferred vessel is the Good Ship Lollipop.

Melville's cry, was (it needed Lawrence to supply the words): Delenda est Chicago! But thirty-five years and more later, it was time for his nunc dimittis, time to depart life with some mellowing word of acceptance, of reconciliation, an offering of faith in the existence of human goodness. That word is Billy Budd--or so it has been claimed.

The story is both a tale and a fable. The tale is simple in its scene and elements--a ship and its crew--with a strong politico-historical dimension. The fable is simpler. The time is one of great upheaval, 1797, and Britain is at war with Revolutionary France. She has recently suppressed two mutinies by her much abused naval seamen. The seventy-four-gun H.M.S. Bellipotent stops the Scottish merchantman The Rights of Man (the Scots were inclined to radicalism) and presses into the British Navy, the Handsome Sailor Billy Budd, a welkin-eyed innocent whose natural goodness had spread a hal-cyon calm and kindness among his roughneck shipmates. When Billy is being rowed off into the King's service, the satirical-allegorical author has his unsatirical prelapsarian innocent cry out, "Goodbye to you, old Rights of Man!"

Goodbye indeed. There are no rights of man, and few rights of any kind, in His Majesty's service. The endearing Billy still proves endearing aboard the Bellipotent, though in that floating war society his innocence evokes sardonic smiles among experienced hands. And that world provides, like the great world itself; a Satan, harsher than his harsh name of Claggart, as sinisterly handsome as Billy is angelically--modeled on Milton's Satan, despairing like him, but ignoble. He is the Master-at-Arms, the policeman of the ship, the Adversary. He hates Billy. It is "an antipathy spontaneous and profound ... called forth by harmlessness itself." He also hates him for finding himself attracted by Billy's good looks and happy temper. Claggart plots against the youth, denouncing him to the Captain as a mutineer. Billy is called in to answer Claggart. But Nature's innocent has one imperfection: he stutters "under strong provocation of heart-feeling." The stutter becomes a tongue-tied convulsion when face to face with his accuser.

Captain Vere (i.e., Captain Truth) bristles with instant dislike of the Master-at-Arms, instant doubt of his accusation. Paternally, he tells the youth to take his time, speak when he is able. Afflicted more by the kindness, tongue-tied Billy answers only as he can: his fist shoots out and strikes Claggart, strikes him dead. "'Fated boy" breathed Captain Vere." The disciplinarian supplants the father: "Struck dead by an angel of God! yet the angel must hang!"

Early in the novella Melville had cited Billy's stutter as a "striking instance" of the fact that Satan, "the envious marplot of Eden, still has more or less to do with every human consignment to this planet" even with one so innocent as the Handsome Sailor. But how can Billy's helpless imperfection of speech be construed as the taint of primordial evil? Isn't it an imperfection of nature? For Melville to call the stutter evidence of the universal badness, was carelessly (or malignly) to bring his philosophy of fallen man (as much a soured humor as philosophy) into his farewell work. I say carelessly, because when the tongue-tied youth kills the Master-at-Arms, it should have followed from that philosophy that the blow prompted by the foretopman's speech defect was Satanic--not angelic, as Captain Vere, as the whole story declares. But maybe it wasn't carelessness. Billy's imperfection, the early passage had ended by saying, proved that he was no "conventional hero" and that the novella was "no romance" that Melville's idealistic fiction was no idealistic fiction. Late nineteenth-century America was awash in cheap literary idealism. Did he wish to contradict in advance any association of his fiction with such stuff--at the cost of some moral confusion?

Captain Vere is held up as a model officer, absolutely faithful to his "vows of allegiance to martial duty" Abnegating his most compassionate, human feelings, he urges the officers of the drumhead court to impose a sentence of death on the foretopman, though all agree, and Captain Vere first of all, that he was falsely charged by Claggart. Why is the Captain so resolute to hang the angel of God? Because the heavenly justice executed by Billy on the false accuser, being on earth, in the Navy, the raising of a hand against a superior officer, is a capital offense, never mind its circumstances.

The officers of the court find themselves in a state of "troubled indecision." Why should Budd be hanged, who "purposed neither mutiny nor homicide"? If convicted, wasn't it still possible to "mitigate the penalty"? The Captain, who is cast in the role of a patient explainer to those inferior to him in strength of intellect and moral austerity, has two answers to these questions.

You may ask how, he says, we can condemn to "shameful death a fellow creature innocent before God, and whom we feel to be so?" He too feels "the full force of that. It is Nature." But "a resolute mind" is needed to overcome such natural feelings. For the buttons they wear attest their allegiance to the King, not to Nature. Commissioned as King's officers, they "ceased to be natural free agents." In condemning Billy, they don't condemn; the "martial law operating through" them does. "For that law and the rigor of it, we are not responsible." As Stephen Vizinczey writes in Truth and Lies in Literature, with plain speaking breaking down the wall of portentousness that has protected the story, "This is what later became known as the Nuremberg defense."

Nor is it only the heart which is dismayed by convicting innocent Billy, Captain Vere continues; one's conscience is, too. "But tell me whether or not, occupying the position we do, private conscience should not yield to that imperial one" under whose code we serve? He does not say where one's private conscience is from. He does say that "at the Last Assizes" there, Billy shall be acquitted. You may understand him to mean God, or not. Melville himself quarrelled with God. Conscience's source is mysterious. But wherever it is from, down here below in the imperial world it is an embarrassment. If we should act on earth as the heart urges and conscience commands, all order and discipline would be imperiled, French Revolutions never cease, nor naval mutinies. Flat iustitia, the ancient maxim says, pereat mundus. Just you let justice be done, the Captain in effect argues, and then see how the world would indeed perish!

His second argument, his ace in the hole, I would call it, for so he conceives it, is: mutiny, the fear of it. Its danger to the Bellipotent, because of the revolutionary times and recent mutinies, he emphasizes heavily. Anything less than hanging, Captain Vere tells the unhappy court, would be a sign of fear. The "people" [crew] know very well what "our naval usage and tradition" are. "Your clement sentence they would account pusillanimous.... What shame to us ... and how deadly to discipline." From wounded discipline the next step would be rebellion. The order of the H.M.S. Bellipotent, ship of war that is the world, necessitates the hanging an innocent man.

The drumhead court, still troubled in mind, convicts reluctantly. The thoughtful Captain Vere confides the verdict to thoughtless Billy. "[E]ach" it is said, "radically sharing in the rarer qualities of our nature," submits to authority's higher necessity. The two are imagined as embracing like father and son, like Jacob and Isaac, in the privacy, of the sailor's confinement, where, as if it were a sacred precinct, the storyteller doesn't venture to enter. Each experiences a sacrificial exaltation: Billy, sacrificing his life at the behest of the father-god of his world, exclaims "God bless Captain Vere!" just before he drops from the yardarm; the Captain, as the one who condemns to death, makes the even harder sacrifice (according to the narrator) at the behest of his father-god, the King. It's an old, old lie--that the hangman suffers more than the hanged, the commander more than the commanded. (World War I in the next century, mocked it out of existence, but perhaps not forever.) Not only is Billy likened to Isaac, he is likened to Christ: "A chip of the spar" from which Billy was hanged, to the "people" was "as a piece of the Cross."

What confusion! Heaven reached down powerfully and stayed Jacob's hand. The all-powerful Father on high, intervening, sent down his only son to save mankind. But God, or the gods, or heaven, or the beyond--they are as powerless as Nature against the injustice of civilized law in Melville's story. All the other world can do is signal Billy's innocence by the Lamb-like glory of the fleecy vapor of the dawn in which he is hanged, by the corpse's perfect immobility at the end of the rope, by the sea birds croaking a requiem over his watery burial spot.

In the Venetian folk tale I began with, the justice of death, of the mysterious beyond, defies the injustice of the world in which even the Lord and Our Lady are implicated. Death in Billy Budd lacks all defiance. At the heart of the story is the debate between conscience's truth and the King's truth--a rigged debate. The officers of the court, moved by compassion and an uneasy conscience, wish to sentence accordingly. But their voice in the deliberations counts for nothing. Captain Vere both presents the case for lenience and refutes it. Like file ship, the debate is entirely in his hands. Still unpersuaded by him as to the law of the matter, the officers are awed by him into assent, and persuaded, too--by the need to strike fear into the "people's" souls by hanging Billy whether he is guilty or not.

Behind the story's determined martial front, it quakes with uncertainty. Captain Vere dies from wounds received in a battle in which he defeats a French ship of the line named the Atheist. His last murmured words are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd." Melville hastens to add it isn't remorse speaking. We see how an author can lie about his own story in his own story! What else but remorse do you hear in those words? The avowed/denied remorse, the crew's smothered protest, the pity for poor Billy that overwhelms the ending of the story--all this clashes silently with the absolute martial law and military, necessity that Captain Vere is at such pains to defend. The result is moral incoherence.

Melville was appalled, in his poem "The House Top," by "the Atheist roar of [the] riot[s]" against the draft in New York in 1863, by the corruption of the Roman virtue of the Republic by money after the Civil War, by the downfall of patrician culture signified by the failure of Moby-Dick to interest a vulgar demos which preferred the effusions of sentimental lady novelists. The man who said NO! in thunder in 1851 had said in his next words that "all men who say yes, lie." In Billy Budd he was driven to say yes, reluctantly, so as to preserve from anarchical destruction what Captain Vere calls "the forms, the measured forms."

Atheism for Melville meant all-destroying French Revolutions, naval mutinies, and draft riots. But there was another kind of atheism as well: Creon's declaring that you don't argue with the justice of the King "when it is right, and even when it is not"--Captain Vere's Nuremberg defense, his justification of overriding military necessity. Against such atheism the mysterious gods uphold a justice known to our conscience, a justice acknowledged in the Captain's dying words. These contradict, confusingly, the elderly yes that Melville says to draconian justice, the hanging justice of the Draco he calls "wise" in his poem about the draft riots.

Kleist's Michael Kohlhaas, too, like Billy Budd, has an historical setting, the sixteenth century of Luther and the peasant wars. But the epochal feeling of Kleist's own time of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man also enters into it, in the character of Kohlhaas as an individual more citizenlike than subject insisting on the justice due him. Early in his troubles he tells his wife Lisbeth that he has no wish "to go on living in a country where they won't protect me in my rights. I'd rather be a dog, if they are going to kick me, than a man!" You hear in his words a very different accent from anything in Billy Budd--the accent of freedom. Nobody is free in our American's story; Kohlhaas vehemently asserts his freedom in the Prussian's.

Billy Budd is a fable dressed up as a story. A fable is constructed with the goal of its conclusion always before it. A story happens, and must find the way to its conclusion. Michael Kohlhaas, no construction, unfolds with the naturalness of life, with the details, the complications, the surprises of life (and also of supernatural life). What is not natural about it is its idiosyncratic, radically hypostatic style. But that is no dispraise. Hard as steel, surcharged with matter, contorted and complex (as Thomas Mann describes it), it is a style that drives Kleist's narratives along at headlong speed thanks to the compression achieved by a syntax which can pack a succession of actions, considerations, and reflections into its subordinative structure.

Much of the story's matter, as in so much Kleist, is dialectical: argument and counter-argument. His imagination was a restless, reasoning one. The world for him was a question he could never stop turning over in his head. So it is with Michael Kohlhaas--one long question, in its case about what is justice. The striking first sentence about the Brandenburg horse dealer Michael Kohlhaas declares that he was "one of the most upright and at the same time one of the most terrible men of his day" His character (like Kleist's Prince of Homburg, Count F--in The Marquise of 0--and others) embraces opposed moral extremes--unnaturally, according to the old rationalist psychology, only too naturally according to the Dostoyevskian psychology Kleist anticipates. There would have been "every reason" so we are told, "to bless Kohlhaas's memory, if he had not carried one virtue to excess. But his sense of justice turned him into a brigand and a murderer." If a too scrupulous sense of justice can do that, then justice is indeed no easy matter.

Crossing into Saxony one day to sell horses at the Leipzig fair, Kohlhaas is stopped at the Tronka Castle tollgate and two of his string are illegally detained by the Junker Wenzel yon Tronka. When he returns to collect them, they are skin and bones from overwork, and Herse, the groom he had left behind to care for them, has been chased away. All his attempts to obtain legal redress are blocked by the Tronka influence. The worst failure is an attempt by Kohlhaas's wife Lisbeth to appeal personally to the Saxon Elector, which costs her her life. Dying, she urges her husband to forgive his enemies.

"May God never forgive me the way I forgive the Junker!" is his unspoken reply. Claiming an "inborn authority" he sends the Junker an ultimatum, which is laughed at--whereupon he falls on Tronka Castle with a handful of men and burns it to the ground. The narrator--or one should say the text, the words are so impersonal--comments as if from on high: "In such fashion does the angel of judgment descend from heaven:' Of course this isn't suggesting Kohlhaas is an angel of God (as it is suggested about Billy in Melville's story). But it does say he is an instrument of an angel, the fiery sword of Michael (whose viceroy with half-demented fanaticism he subsequently claims literally to be). This first action of the "terrible" Kohlhaas, called a judgment from heaven, is at the same time the action of man thirsting for revenge. It should make us uneasy. Justice is a practice of reason. A prohibition going back to remotest times condemns unreasoning revenge; that is the meaning of Jehovah's reserving it to himself. Yet we don't feel uneasy when Kohlhaas attacks. We exult--the side of justice, virtue, goodness is striking back at last. But the exultation suffers a check almost at once when with loud whoops the men Kohlhaas commands heave out of the castle windows the corpses not only of the castellan and the steward but also of their wives and children. Justice may be from heaven, but is it the case that, passing through the hands of men as it must, it inevitably punishes the innocent with the guilty?

The Junker manages to escape, and the horse dealer in pursuit publishes a high-sounding "Kohlhaas Manifesto" declaring that the war he is waging against him is a righteous one. The argument he makes for this to Martin Luther later in the story is: having been denied the law's protection, he is an outcast from it and free to act for himself. It is a defensible argument, Luther reluctantly allows; the horse dealer's war has its justice. In just wars, as we well know from our own day, it is not only the evil side that destroys terribly; the just side does too. This doesn't mean an equality, only that justice may and often does entail injustice. So the answer to my question above is yes. Which is why pacifists reject all wars, absolutely. But absolutism is a refuge in the clouds from the uncertainties and incompatibilities of practical reason.

Heaven speaks for Kohlhaas. When he orders a convent that had sheltered the Junker put to the torch, it speaks against him by loosing a lightning bolt at his feet. Thanks to his military, victories and "the clink of his gold," his handful of men swells into a band of murderous freebooters and peasants whose main interest is plunder. His sense of himself as an arm of justice swells too, into the mad conviction that he has been divinely called to punish with fire and sword not only the Junker but the whole lying world as well, and to build a better one--so he proclaims grandiosely in another manifesto, signed, "at the seat of Our Provisional World Government." He surely causes the higher powers much anxiety.

At the height of his military successes and messianic delusion, a public notice denouncing him as a bloodthirsty revenger, signed by Luther, brings him to his senses. The shaken Kohlhaas pays Luther a nocturnal visit. In the ensuing debate the angry reformer admonishes him about the God-granted authority of princes which he has defied. But having conceded the horse dealer's grievance was justified, Luther agrees to intercede for him with the Elector of Saxony--but not with God by granting him the communion he begs for. For that Kohlhaas must first forgive the Junker. In anguish he refuses. His being repeatedly urged to forgive and his always refusing (with one exception) is an essential fact in understanding his character and the justice the story arrives at. Kohlhaas's defining virtue is his integrity, his acute sense of right. To give up his claim to justice would be to give himself up, give up self. The saintly give up self; Kohlhaas is no saint. But the revenge he pursues implacably--doesn't that seriously taint his virtue? No, I don't think so. Because for all his feelings of vengefulness, his demands don't in fact go beyond a narrowly limited justice: his pair of blacks restored to him in their original condition, the belongings of his man Herse, who subsequently fell in battle, returned to his mother, and the Junker punished.

Thanks to Luther, Kohlhaas comes to Dresden a free man, under an immunity, to pursue his case against the Junker. But the Saxon officials turn the guard that has been placed at his disposal bit by bit into jailers. "In the despair and anguish of his soul," the horse dealer agrees to a scoundrelly follower's secret proposal to rescue him. The scheme is detected and the horse dealer is condemned to be tortured to death and quartered by knackers' men. At this juncture the Elector of Brandenburg, critical of the Saxon proceedings against one of his subjects, intervenes and has Kohlhaas brought to Berlin for trial before the Imperial court.

The piling up of incidents and circumstances, making for what seemed a hopeless legal confusion, threw Kohlhaas into despair. For Kleist the way of justice lay through despair. Perhaps the way of justice always does. But now, suddenly, there is an intervention of the supernatural into the story. There have been a few signs already of its interest in the horse dealer's fate--which is no surprise in a storyteller always ready to see a shadow from the other side falling on this one. However, the old gypsy fortuneteller closely resembling Kohlhaas's dead wife who suddenly appears is no shadow but a solid presence, supernatural but not at all ghostly. She singles out the horse dealer from among a crowd of spectators in a village square to give him a piece of paper, sealed in a capsule, in which is foretold the downfall of the Saxon house. "Get it from him, from that one," she tells the frantic Elector.

The prince offers to help Kohlhaas escape in exchange for the capsule. He refuses, denouncing the dishonest, dishonorable way he was treated in Dresden. The Elector "can send me to the scaffold, but I can make him suffer, and I mean to." His refusal to forgive the hated Junker is one thing. But what does it mean that he should choose death over life so as to make the Elector suffer?

Kohlhaas is tried in Berlin and condemned to death for breach of the public peace. At the same time he is vindicated in his action against the Junker Wenzel von Tronka and his three demands of justice granted. The desperate Saxons hire an old crone to masquerade as the gypsy woman and get him to entrust the paper to her. But the old crone is the very gypsy woman she is hired to impersonate, and puts him on his guard. Nevertheless her counsel is: accept the Elector's original offer and live. Not for the world, is his reply. Not for the world, yes, she says, but for the pretty little boy she is holding in her lap. Still he refuses; he will not give up the "bit of writing through which satisfaction has been given me so wonderfully for all that I have suffered." The old woman, by every indication his dead wife Lisbeth mad so an emissary from beyond the grave, who had died urging him to forgive his enemies, gives way. Again in the debate between an unshakable Kohlhaas and an uncertain heaven, the former prevails.

Michael Kohlhaas has been criticized for departing from the straight path of its realism into fairytale supernaturalism. I did so myself, in the introduction to my 1960 translation of the work. A gross misapprehension! It was to read the story with novelistic expectations. But it isn't a novel; the nineteenth-century realistic novel was still on its way. It is a novella which, as Goethe said, is a story full of a lot of strange goings-on (gar vieles wunderliche Zeug). All the while one's head judged the strangeness of its last part adversely, one's unlistened-to feelings said, "That's right, that's right!" That the gypsy woman and her prophetic paper were an afterthought is evident just from the text. But what of it? Kleist's after-thought fulfills the story by sublimating a limited question of legal justice into a transcendental (ultimate) one.

Without the gypsy woman and her gift to Kohlhaas, where should there have been the "extraordinary man" we are told about at the story's start, the justice figure of the end? The magical paper gives Kohlhaas the freedom to choose, and by doing so "renders visible what is otherwise invisible but nonetheless real: his inner freedom" (Stephen Vizinczey). And he chooses death. Escaping would have meant abandoning his suit against the Junker and forfeiting the justice his soul has thirsted for more than anything on earth, and giving the ignominious prince possession of awful knowledge no mortal has a right to, as Kohlhaas understands. For only just before he stoops his head to the axe does he unseal the amulet and read the paper himself--which he then swallows before the fainting Elector.

In a letter Kleist wrote ten years before his suicide, he said about death and freedom (having just feared for his life in a storm on the Rhine):
 Oh, there is nothing more repulsive than the
 fear of death. Life is the one possession that is
 worth something only if you are indifferent to
 it. How abject it is not to be able to relinquish
 it without a struggle--only a man who is able
 to cast it aside easily and joyfully can make it
 serve great ends. A man who has too much
 care of it is, morally speaking, already dead,
 for the highest power of his life, which is his
 ability, to lay it down, decays in the degree that
 he is solicitous of it.


The nature that compels us to cling to life, the law-bound phenomenal life, enslaves. This absence of freedom, for Kleist, is not the negativity, the nothing, of the abstraction called determinism. Living, actual living, is living morally, willy-nilly; to bow to necessity is to die morally, which is not nothing. By choosing to die, the horse dealer serves the "great end" of justice. He becomes as it were the "just person" of the Italian folk story who is Death.

Justice is done and the novella ends in a kind of numinous glow. Or as Richard Kuhns vividly puts it in his book Tragedy, "The closing scene flashes with the presence of uncanny powers." All is strange, all is wonderful. On arriving in Berlin, Kohlhaas had been lodged in a prison reserved for knights. Though charged as a criminal, the state recognizes in him a dignity beyond the law, a law beyond the law. He receives a letter from Luther by the hand of Jacob Freising, and from the latter the Holy Communion he has longed for. He is condemned to an honorable rather than a felon's death. He rejoices in the return of his pair of blacks, restored as if by magic to plump and shining creatures pawing the ground spiritedly, in the return of Herse's belongings, in learning the Junker has been condemned to two years' imprisonment. Kohlhaas goes to his death rejoicing. Justice always has something wonderful about it: that what wasn't right, that stood there immovable as a mountain, should be made right after all, the mountain removed.

Everything happens in Billy Budd as it must and the most anybody can do is say, alas. Had Melville lost all confidence in human freedom? The collaboration of a hanging judge with an innocent youth in a judicial murder, he idealizes as loving resignation, a holy martyrdom--yet uneasily, remorse creeping in unacknowledged. Had he lost confidence, too, in political freedom, in American democracy? The crew of the Bellipotent are called, democratically, the "people." They are full of compassion for Billy. But unless disciplined by the lash and the noose, they are feared for that very reason as a mutinous mob ready to overthrow the "measured forms" of the social order. Did Melville feel uneasy as an American when he found himself questioning the American Revolution and the American confidence in the people? Is that why he placed his story aboard a British vessel--although the incident it is based on (mentioned in the novella) happened aboard an American one in 1842, with a cousin of his presiding over the court that hanged three men as mutineers?

Who has the last word in the story? The crew, the ordinary seamen, speaking as the people, not as a mob, who lend Billy his last word in their ballad "Billy in the Darbies":
 --But aren't it all a sham?
 A blur's in my eyes; it is dreaming that I am.
 A hatchet to my hawser? all adrift to go?
 The drum roll to grog, and Billy never know?


In Michael Kohlhaas justice is no sham--it is an exercise of transcendental freedom. Kleist's reading of Kant in his youth is a famous episode in German literary history; it plunged him into despair about the possibility of truth. But may we see Kant as an encouraging influence for the later Kleist, behind Michael Kohlhaas? The horse dealer is a self-determining spirit, a self able to act freely out of his own self-determination.

The end of the novella leaves the great Saxon prince shattered in body and soul. Kohlhaas' posterity on the other hand thrives, and "some hale and hearty descendants of his were still living in Mecklenburg in the last century."
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Author:Greenberg, Martin
Publication:New Criterion
Date:Mar 1, 2005
Words:6178
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