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Selected Topic Seminar 3

Jin Yeob Chung

2014-12-11

On the Futility of Human Beings Witnessed in


Michael Kohlhaas and the parble Before the Law
Written by Heinrich von Kleist in 1806, Michael Kohlhaas depicts the story of a man
who greatly values the virtue of justice. Throughout the text, one witnesses the transformation
of the protagonist from a reasonable man who accepts the lawful procedures to an aggressive
character who overly lives by his virtue to an extent where he is willing to take any measures
to promote justice. Franz Kafkas parable Before the law, whilst touching upon similar
concepts outlined in Michael Kohlhaas, on the other hand, introduces the account of a more
reserved man from a countryside who struggles to gain entry to the law. In fact, when one
closely scrutinizes these texts, there are numerous comparisons as well as contrasts that one
can elicit. But it is precisely this process of carefully analyzing these stories, drawing out both
similar and disparate qualities, which allows this dissertation to encourage the reader to
consider the futility of the human beings within a legal framework.
The futility of human being is plain to see, one such implication through our inability
to pronounce individual authority. In Kafkas Before the law, the man from the country is a
reticent character who represents the feeble human desire to adjust the relationship between
human and law. That is, although the man knows that the law should always be accessible
and that the gatekeeper ought to welcome entrance to the law, his desire is minute to an extent
where he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets the permission to inside
(Kleist, 1806). His assertion suggests that despite his acknowledgement of an unfitting
behavior by the gatekeeper who is preventing entry to the law, he is not willing to challenge
the situation. Rather, he stands off the situation and avoids direct confrontation until his final
breathe only to realize that the man himself is the sole character who had the right to attend the
law. The old man is portrayed as a character with a habit of obedience (Austin, 1869) who
surely could have had gained entry to the law since he is not subjugated under a complete
prohibition or an imperative constraint, an emphasis of which is duly consented by the claim
of the gatekeeper if it tempts you so much, try going inside in spite of my prohibition
(Kleist, 1806). Indeed if [the old man] had ignored the threats of the blustering, childish
gatekeeper, he would have gained access to the one right way, his way, which since was made
expressly for him (Robert, 1982). The country man is lost because he does not dare to
pronounce individual authority and decides to delay and escape his decision by handing the
matter of choice to the gatekeeper.
The incapacity of humans to articulate individual authority is not merely witnessed in
the behavior of the country man, but also visibly seen in that of the gatekeeper. The concept of
deferral tangibly observed in the words of the gatekeeper is a recurrent theme in the behavior
of the gatekeeper which demonstrates his inability to stamp individual authority. One such
instance of deferral is seen in the direct action that the gatekeeper takes. Whilst the doorkeeper
physically delays the request of the country man to enter the law, he also defers entry in
temporal perspective by pronouncing his final verdict which runs counter to the scriptural
passage according to which the door is open as always (Politzer, 1962) but not at this moment,
but perhaps at some timead infinitum and ad nauseam. (Glen, 2009) In addition, the
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Selected Topic Seminar 3

Jin Yeob Chung

2014-12-11

gatekeeper ceaselessly receives the mans bribery to a point where the manspends
everything, no matter how valuable, to win over the gatekeeper, (Kleist, 1806) the latter
merely takes all the grifts provided by the man only to defer him by claiming that I am taking
this only so that you do not think you have failed to do anything. The fact that his decisions
to defer the country man lack rational reasoning, that he stands before the Law, that is, that he
represents without being responsible for what he represents, is the basic reason for his dubious
character and authority. (Politzer, 1962) Another instance of deferral is witnessed in his
admission that from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. By
conceding that he is the most lowly gatekeeper he acknowledges the presence of the greater
and more powerful authorities (Kleist, 1806). The doorkeeper who stands in the way of the
man from the country is only the lowestunintelligible to the limited powers of human
perception (Politzer, 1962) and it is by such compromise that the gatekeeper defers his
authority to more authoritative beings. Thus through such instances of deferral that the reader
is able to see an inability of the gatekeeper to impose individual authority.
However, to claim that the human inability to pronounce individual authority lies
within human nature is an exaggeration. It seems that our incapability to enforce command
does not come from our inherent nature but stem from the fact that an individual is a mere
individual within the grand scheme of law. Derrida discovers in Kafkas parable:
a text that explores the undecidable relation between signified and signifier, between the
conceptual universality of the law and the singularity and individuality of the man from the
country. The man seeks access to the law because it is universal and applies to everyone, and he is
denied access because he is not everyone, but only himself and no one else (Foshay, 2011)

In other words, the man is inside the law in a sense that he is before the law and the subject of
the conceptual universality of the law but he is denied access because he is simultaneously
outside the law as a mere individual. Likewise, the doorkeeper, though a subject of such
universality, is a mere individual in the grand scheme of law. That is, the parable itselfmakes
the point clearlythat the doorkeeper guards a law that is inaccessible even to him, and that
he has not authority that is not in a real sense given to him by the actions, assumptions, and
expectations of man from the country. (Foshay, 2011) In Kafkas parable, there is an
equilibrium between an individual as a subject of the universality of the law and as a mere
singular individual in a collective society.
Similar to Kafkas parable, the central topic of Michael Kohlhaas is justice, or more
exactly the question, in which way a citizen in a corrupt or unjust state could find justice for
himself. (Horn, 2005) The main of theme each story is closely associated with an extent to
which an individual, as a subject of law, can engender individual authority. In the concept of
natural justice of the 18th century, which was around the time Michael Kohlhaas was written,
human beings are conceived as inside the judicial framework. That means, according to Hegel:
The reasonable human being must submit to the necessary, if he does not have the means to bend its
power, i.e. he must not react against it, but accept the unavoid-able quietly; he must relinquish the
interest and the need which perishes at this barrier and in this way suffer the insurmountable with the
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Selected Topic Seminar 3

Jin Yeob Chung

2014-12-11

quiet courage of pas-sivity and toleration. Where a fight is of no use, the reasonable thing to do is to
avoid the fight so as to be able to withdraw at least into the formal independence of subjective freedom.
(Hegel and Bubner 1970)

The perspective of Hegel seems to favour the tacit approach of the man from the country and
the doorkeeper who simply accept their inferiority and defer their decisions to and tolerate
higher authorities. Whereas the man yields his choice to a supposedly more authoritative
doorkeeper, the doorkeeper also defers his right to stronger doorkeepers. Yet it is their ability
to relinquish interest and suffer the insurmountable with the quiet courage of passivity and
toleration that Hegel appears to value.
In Heinrich von Kleists Michael Kohlhaas, on the other hand, the reader witnesses
the breakdown of the aforementioned equilibrium through the transformation that the persona
undergoes. Michael Kohlhaas, a man of public justice, initially takes lawful procedures, the
means that the reader sees as appropriate to rectify the immoral actions of the Squire Wenzel
Tronka. That is, Michael Kohlhaas looks a man who respects and values the judicial methods
in that he not only carefully notes the words of the victims, but also petition[s] for the lawful
punishment of the former, restoration of the horses to their original condition, and
compensation for damages which he and his groom had sustained, not to forget his official
pleas to the Elector of Brandenburg in the forms of written documents solicit[ing] the
protection of the sovereign (Kleist, 1808). The protagonist one sees in the beginning is a
character who fits into the legal paradigm and uses tacit, but intellectual method to increase the
general well-being of the foreigners entering into Brandenburg. After a series of failures to
address the problem and realizing the violence of the authority monopolized by the state and
unformulated in its constitution, as well as the maze of officials, clerks, and other assorted
bureaucratic trappings of the Institute, (Arendt 1948) however, Michael Kohlhaas decides to
demand public justice for himself (Kleist 1808) and thereby takes the matter into his own
hands and it is this decision that marks the turning point. In contrast to the logical and
methodological approaches taken previously, Kohlhaas employs unconstrained physical means,
set[ting] fire to all the outbuildings in the castle inclosure (Kleist 1808). Such transformation
that Michael Kohlhaas undergoes reflects the change from a mere individual in a collective
society who, like the man from the country and the gatekeeper, seems unable to enforce
personal authority into a character who, even as an individual is able, to put forth his
individualistic power and turn to wilder forms of justice in a society that is unable to
convince individuals of its ability to exact atonement for injury (Jacoby, 1983)
Contrary to the characteristic we witness in Kafkas parable and the conventional 18th
century belief that one with less authority should take a more reserved approach, Kleist seems
to make demands from human beings a high level of independence, who makes effort to defend
justice and create the demands of his life through his direct actions, free from any external
influence regardless of his bougeois status. On the other hand, Michael Kohlhaas, in the process
of becoming a more autonomous being who still acknowledges the general suffering of the
public, indulges in one virtue in excess, his feeling of justice (Kleist, 1983), which
therefore made him a robber and a murderer, who at the cost of greater suffering of the innocent
public, obtains satisfaction for the slight that he suffered as an individual. That is, instead of
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Selected Topic Seminar 3

Jin Yeob Chung

2014-12-11

[becoming] the heroic and absolute being with deep passion of his soul and the eternal
destination of his ego, who yet recognizes autonomy as a fulfillment of his duty towards
society (Coetzee and Attwell, 1992), Michael Kohlhaas becomes a a great spirit of
contradiction, [willing] to justify a single case with thorough and painstaking hypochondria
against the rule of the world, (Goethe, 1909) and jeopardizes society as a whole in a case of
so little import, just to satisfy his violent obstinacy (Kleist 1983). It is precisely from the
transformation of the man who claims to value the public justice into an individual who
nevertheless delves into attaining his own private sense of justice that the reader learns the
futility of human in enforcing individual authority. To further clarify, although Michael
Kohlhaas may have been successful in promoting his authority in his own private sense, he has
failed to enforce his original intention of achieving individual autonomy that works on behalf
of the bourgeois community.
The inabilities of the man from the country, the gatekeeper, as well as Michael
Kohlhaas all seem to pave the way for a pessimistic conclusion. That is, whether an individual
attempts to and to a certain extent, manages to prompt individual autonomy as Michael
Kohlhaas does, or whether a personnel relinquishes the individual authority due to the presence
of higher authorities, the conclusion that derives from both stories seem to indicate the daunting
ending that humans simply are unable to pronounce their right in a rightful way. Returning to
the parallelism internal to each story, the man from the country dies having never reached his
objective and Michael Kohlhaas relinquishes his life without achieving the public justice that
he originally admired. Individuals almost seem subjugated under fatalism, that whilst humans
are free to act and choose, that is, to decide whether to value our individual rights, humans
nevertheless work toward the same ending that we will never fully deliver our individual
authority. Where one believed here was the law [and justice], there is in fact desire and desire
alone (Deleuze and Guattari, 1986), a human desire that never blossomed.

Selected Topic Seminar 3

Jin Yeob Chung

2014-12-11

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