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THE REINCARNATED PLOT: E. L. DOCTOROWS RAGTIME, HEINRICH VON KLEIST'S "MICHAEL KOHLHAAS/ AND THE SPECTACLE OF MODERNITY Christian Moraru Discussing the "scene of reading" in nineteenth-century fiction Clayton Koelb cogently argues that "the Romantic desire to recuperate and revivify the dead past by reading achieves one of its most dramatic expressions in 'Michael Kohlhaas'" (1106), Heinrich von Kleist's 1810 novella. As we may recall, Kohlhaas is a Brandenburg horse dealer who, on his way to Dresden, is stopped by the Junker Wenzel von Tronka's men at the Saxon border and asked to pay a toll as well as to produce a "permit" (Paßschein) stating his right to bring horses across the border. Unable to comply with the latter request, he leaves a pair of horses instead and rides on to Dresden to apply for his "certificate." Finding out that the Junker's demands were "illegal," he returns to Tronka Castle only to learn that his well-fed pair ofblacks were worked to death in the fields and the groom he left with the horses was almost killed and driven away. As the law ofhis time fails to "protect his rights" (Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas 27) both in Saxony and Brandenburg, Kohlhaas takes it into his own hands to exact his revenge on the Junker. His individual struggle , however, rapidly becomes a public affair and eventually turns into a violent rebellion that rocks the whole Empire. It takes Martin Luther's intercession to appease Kohlhaas and bring him back into the legal system , which compensates the horse dealer for his spoiled property at the same time that it puts him to death for having sought justice outside the system itself. Right before his beheading, Kohlhaas reads the prophecy written on a scroll given to him by an enigmatic gypsy woman, and then hastily swallows the paper as the Elector of Saxony, watching from the crowd, is "seized by a fit and f[alls] unconscious to the ground" (98). According to Clayton Koelb, in eating the prophetic roll Kohlhaas "is incorporating it into himself, making himself one with it." Further, this incorporation represents both a "physical fulfillment" and a "figure for the act ofreading" (1103) Kleist's protagonist had just completed. More remarkably perhaps, this reading performance also entails a daring rewriting of a sacred locus. The "textophagic" passage2 ostensibly rewrites ^—or "acts out," as the critic has it—roll-eating loci in the Old and New Testament. Koelb mentions Ezek. 2.9-3.3, where Ezekiel eats God's "roll of a book," and Rev. 10.8-10.10, in which an angel gives John a sacred scroll to eat up. It is also worth noting that this episode and the whole novella end with a reference to the Elector's being "shattered in body and soul" (Kleist, Michael Kohlhaas 98) [zerrissen an Leib und Seele] (Kleist, Sämtliche Werke 778). He fears for the political future of his house, whereas Kohlhaas, physically dismembered as he ends up, '"d[ies] into a new life' by making himself one with a text belonging to a Vol. 21 (1997): 92 THE COMPAnATIST transcendent realm" (Koelb 1106) and thereby ensures his posterity. "Some [of his] hale and hearty descendants," the narrator tells us, "were still living in Mecklenburg in the last century" (Michael Kohlhaas 99). It is my contention that the story's closing scene and commentary carry considerable significance and "organic value" not only within "Michael Kohlhaas" and its symbolic economy. As I have pointed out, the final scene is a scene ?? rewriting as it is one ofreading. The textual assimilation and "readerly embodiment" Kohlhaas effects prior to his own disembodying on the executioner's block in Kleist's text actually involve an "¿Jifertextual" embodying of other narrative materials such as the Bible and the "old chronicle" on Hans Kohlhase. In a sense, the hero's eating the foretelling text mirrors en abyme the more general "textual ingestion" the novella carries out. However apparent Kleist's "inventive originality,"4 story-writing here deliberately presupposes a rewriting of available texts, both sacred and secular, real or invented. In fact, as Anthony Stephens specifies, "some 90 different documents or classes of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-0887
Print ISSN
0195-7678
Pages
pp. 92-116
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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