Michael Kohlhaas, by Heinrich von Kleist

I wrote quite a bit on this, but then deleted it all. It was ok. I liked the mad Schiller-like bits. But it would have been nice if Kleist had worked on it a bit more. I wonder if what scholars find so astonishing and remarkable about Kleist isn’t that he’s actually not very good at stories so they always end up an incomprehensible mess.

We see this occasionally in films: a film of weird complexity comes out, and everyone argues about what it means, what the explanation of it is – critics create theories; ordinary people in the street create theories; they argue amongst themselves and yes, it is a great pleasure to argue – and yet, nobody wants to stand up and say, but perhaps it just doesn’t make any sense, perhaps it’s just badly written rubbish and they couldn’t be bothered to think it through. (It’s very easy to do; it’s not a mark of profundity).

Josipovici mentions somewhere (here are perhaps the most thorough quotations available on the non-pay internet) that Kleist in his writings eschews “common explanations” as, say, you’ll find in the midrash (explanations by scholars of the stranger passages in the Bible). Thus he opens himself up (like, say, Kafka) to the exegesis of literary critics, who are just modern-day religious men (religious men without religion) – to create a midrash of their own (an infinite midrash, which will keep them in work) – and, since they are religious, since they believe in God (who is – ironically, considering their stance on such things – equated with the Author), the last conclusion their exegesis is ever likely to come to is that – well, perhaps it was just badly thought-out in the first place.

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2 thoughts on “Michael Kohlhaas, by Heinrich von Kleist

  1. I read this a while back and am still thinking about what I made of it. I didn’t find it incomprehensible exactly, although at times it was certainly not easy to follow the parade of titles, roles etc.

    I was left feeling that we (readers) had been put through an awful lot for frankly not a huge return.

  2. Perhaps it was the mess that was incomprehensible. It did seem at times to be incredibly badly constructed: for instance, the whole business of the curse/prophecy – which basically Kleist introduces by saying, Oh yeah, didn’t I tell you about this bit? – a curse/prophecy which, as far as I remember, serves no purpose whatsoever in the narrative. The whole second half is a mess: Kohlhaas coming to trial etc, a waste of the reader’s time; which is a pity, because the first half is really good.

    I was going to write a post, but never did, on the proposition: what could you make of Kleist’s view of God’s intervention in the world, based on Michael Kohlhaas, The Duel, St Cecilia and The Earthquake in Chile. At first sight they all seemed entirely contradictory (God does directly intervene, God’s interventions are misinterpreted by human-beings/the Church, God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform); perhaps, if you studied them closely, you could make a theory which encompassed all this; but perhaps it would be literally that, a “made-up” theory, a piece of fine argument such as you might use to get around contradictions in the Bible. So feeding into my favourite idea: that literary analysis is nothing but rhetorical nonsense; – and also another fond idea of mine: that the meaning of stories does not necessarily represent the world-view of the author; often, it’s just inherent in the story.

    But I guess I couldn’t be bothered to delve into all that.

    Incidentally, one of those Guardian article on (against?) Tintin provided the information that McCarthy’s Tintin work was also largely (entirely?) based on a French original. It would be clever idea, n’est ce pas, if you lacked ideas of your own but knew French, merely to take the ideas of French writers, translate them into English, and rely on the xenophobia of the English to believe they’re original.

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