By Gene Miller, November 2012
A gentle meditation on various collisions between natural law and community standards.
Stuck in the welter of uninvited emails about penis enlargement and how to hypnotize girls into having sex was one with the provocative and totemic subject line, “PMA.” Po-Mo Abstractionism? Prime Minister Abdicates? Pre-Menstrual Abandon? Post-Midi d’un Antilope? My neurons fired endless possibilities. Poor me again!
Turns out it was a pitch for Positive Mental Attitude. I was advised to create an “abundance mentality” by reading and watching personal development material and success stories; to leave behind—to forcibly reject, actually—everything that held me back; and to cultivate a win-win life strategy. The page also informed me that my shopping cart was empty—a problem I could remedy with just one click.
Cli.... No, maybe not.
Still, feeling uncharacteristically PMA-ish, I detoured from the “All Is Folly” section of my bookshelves just to “Gloom.”
“On the morning of November 21, 1811,” writes Geoffrey O’Brien, “Heinrich von Kleist and his cancer-ridden, terminally ill friend, the 31-year-old Henriette Vogel, strolled arm-in-arm to the shore of the Wannsee, near Berlin, and carried out a suicide pact.” Kleist shot Vogel dead then blew out his own brains.
During his despairing and brief life von Kleist managed, between his resignation from an army officer’s career and his early death at 34, to produce extraordinary writings—principally, plays and stories—including the exceptional novellas The Marquise of O and Michael Kohlhaas.
From the true history of one Hans Kohlhase, a horse merchant who sought and was denied justice, went renegade and was captured, tried for acts of terror, and broken on the wheel in Berlin in 1540, von Kleist crafted a novella that studied a personal quest for “natural” justice in defiance of the “laws of the land.”
His story about the collision between natural law and community standards raises questions easily transposed to our times. For example, it’s at the heart of most of the friction between environmental imperatives and economic exigencies. And it found local expression not so long ago when our celebrated contrarian, David Arthur Johnston, was arrested serially for turning Victoria’s public parks into his bedroom; and also recently on our own city streets where I happened to witness the arrest of a young woman outside a food store. She had been caught boosting something, and sad and pointless justice was taking its course on the sidewalk: the police van double-parked at an urgent angle, lights flashing; the uniformed police surrounding a wild-eyed, dirty, almost feral-looking kid; passers-by skirting the entire abject human mess.
We say: she had choices, of course. She could have remained at home with her family. She should have stayed in school. She could have developed life skills and skirted a survival lifestyle. She could be in a supportive relationship. She could be selling cosmetics at the Bay. She could be drinking a latte.
How Swiss of us.
Here is a synopsis of von Kleist’s extraordinary tale...
The Brandenburg horse dealer Michael Kohlhaas, an honourable man and a “paragon of civil virtues,” is leading a team of horses, bound for sale, in the direction of Saxony when an official of Junker (Squire) Wenzel von Tronka detains him at a newly-erected tollgate, claiming that he does not have proper transit papers. The official demands that Kohlhaas leave two horses as collateral.
In Dresden (Saxony) Kohlhaas discovers that this collateral was totally arbitrary, and resolves to demand return of his horses. After concluding his business and making his return home, he eventually arrives at the castle of Junker Tronka where he discovers that the horses have been suffering from working in the fields and his hired man, who protested against the mistreatment of the horses, has been beaten.
Kohlhaas sues the Junker for the cost of medical treatment of his hired man and for rehabilitation of his horses. After one long year of waiting he finds that the suit has been declined through political influence of the Junker’s relatives.
Kohlhaas persists in demanding his rights, but remains unsuccessful. Even his wife travels to plead his case, is beaten for her pains, and eventually dies from this abuse.
Frustrated at every step by the administrative system in his desire for legal justice, Kohlhaas begins a private war. With a small band of men he destroys the castle of the Junker who, in the meantime, has fled to Wittenberg. Kohlhaas leads his growing army (really, a peasant mob) to Wittenberg, demanding the Junker. In spite of numerous attacks of his 400-man army on Wittenberg, he fails to get hold of the Junker.
Through the personal intervention of Martin Luther, an amnesty is arranged, whereby the Elector of Saxony approves Kohlhaas’ suit against the Junker. But the Junker again uses family influence, and Kohlhaas is thrown into a dungeon.
Kohlhaas is released through sympathetic intervention, but in the meantime Saxony has informed the Kaiser in Vienna, and the ruling families in Berlin feel this threat to the authority of the aristocratic hierarchy must be handled with severity. Kohlhaas is sentenced to death.
As he is led to his execution, Kolhaas is informed by his lawyer that his suit against the Junker has been successful, and is presented with compensation for the injuries of his hired man and shown the horses, now well-fed and healthy. Pleased that justice has been served, he submits willingly to his death.
Whatever other meanings you take from this tale, please note that we seem right now to be dealing with more than our fair share of...well, fracture and social breakage, stress brought on by the erosion of common purpose and the belief that justice is not being served. There’s a lot of “othering” and thinly disguised warfare—class and otherwise—going on, and if you were looking for a good working metaphor for our divided times, you could do worse than to peruse the online lists of the Hundred Best Zombie Movies (there are many more than a hundred and, sorry, I’ve claimed Trattoria of the Living Dead). I pluck this from the Huffington Post: “Gun owners got prepared for a zombie apocalypse. Now, the military and law enforcement are getting ready…Security firm HALO Corp. announced yesterday that about 1000 military personnel, police officials, medical experts and federal workers will learn the ins and outs of a zombie apocalypse, as part of an annual counter-terrorism summit…Visitors will learn to deal with a worldwide pandemic, where people become crazy, violent and fearful.”
I believe I’ll be making no unreasonable claims on your imagination if I suggest that “zombie apocalypse” itself is code, however ambiguously, for the spectre of Mitt Romney’s 47 percent of Americans—“victims” who don’t pay income taxes. Notionally announcing open season on these non-tax-paying living dead, Romney stated, “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Economic and cultural stresses in this ever-more-polarized world are at risk of creating a zombie class—or legions of renegade justice-seeking Michael Kohlhasses. If the global economy remains intractably depressed, frustrating the aspirations and disuniting the interests of those who have and those who want, I predict horrid outcomes featuring lots of Negative Mental Attitude.
Whatever metaphors Michael Kohlhaas represents, were he alive today and trying to function in our edgier and more fractured world, he might have to burn down a lot more than the Junker’s castle to get justice. An acquaintance recently emailed me about the 1500 wealthiest people: “We’re sharpening the guillotine and we know where they live,” she wrote. How’s that for social ecology?
It doesn’t have to come to this. Let’s give PMA a chance. Fortunately, I have been working hard, collating all the solutions for the world’s ills, and I would be happy to share them with you. But your shopping cart is empty...a problem you can overcome with just one click.
Gene Miller, founder of Open Space, Monday Magazine and the Gaining Ground Conferences, is currently writing Massive Collaboration: Stories That Divide Us, Stories That Bind Us and The Hundred-Mile Economy: Preparing For Local Life.