Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Notes toward The Last Days of Mankind - this drama has no actor other than all mankind

“In These Great Times” (1914) is bookended by “Tourist Trips to Hell” (1920), concentrated Karl Kraus.  Half of the articles four pages consists of a reproduction of an actual advertisement for an actual organized tour of recent battlefields:

You ride through destroyed villages to the fortress area of Vaux with its enormous cemeteries containing hundreds of thousands of fallen men.

You receive in the best hotel in Verdun a luncheon with wine and coffee, gratuities included.

And the other half is Kraus’s spitting, incredulous response, although I am not sure any response is necessary besides pointing and glaring:

You receive unforgettable impressions of a world in which there is not a square centimeter of soil that has not been torn up by grenades and advertisements.

Kraus’s argument is again literary.  People should visit battlefields; people who visit battlefields should eat lunch.  The offense of the advertisement is in the language, and what the language implies.

The translations are from the old In These Great Times collection, which presents the advertisement as a four page foldout, the original German on the left, and a spatially accurate English translation on the right.  Richard at Caravanas de Recuerdas just wrote about “Tourist Trips to Hell,” including more of Kraus’s shock as well as a photo of Kraus reading the piece – half of the advertisement faces the camera.  For Kraus, the end of the war did not mean the end of the horror.

In between the two pieces, Kraus wrote a unique masterpiece, The Last Days of Mankind, an 800 page satirical play in five acts and 259 scenes about the public face of the war, the war as seen through censored newspaper reports, official dispatches, and propaganda.  Much of the text – perhaps as much as half – is not by Kraus, but is a collage of quotations.  The plot is the war.  Each act covers a year of the war, and the action that begins in Vienna gradually expands to Germany and elsewhere.  The characters are journalists, officers, politicians – anyone, really – with dialogues between the Optimist and the Grumbler frequently recurring.  The Grumbler is often said, by people with a weak understanding of fiction, to be the stand-in for Kraus himself.

The play lends itself to rearrangement – any performance would require it – and I have seen three attempts to give the poor English reader a glimpse of the contents.  The German Library selection of Kraus includes one key scene, the Grumbler’s final monologue and statement of purpose:

I have written a tragedy, whose perishing hero is mankind, whose tragic conflict, the conflict between the world and nature, has a fatal ending.  Alas, because this drama has no actor other than all mankind, it has no audience! 

In These Great Times compresses the play into less than a hundred pages.  The selection looks performable, but becomes deceptively coherent and more directly pacifistic, when the play’s pacifism is actually more ambiguous.  Or so it seems in the longest available selection, the 230 pages of the 1974 translation (by Alexander Gode and Sue Ellen Wright) on which I will rely for the next couple of days. 

Edward Timms, in his two volume critical biography of Kraus, writes that “[t]his edition eliminates from the play antisemitic and anti-capitalist utterances which might give offence to American readers.”*  The notion that whoever the American readers of Kraus might have been in 1974 would have been “offended” by “anti-capitalist utterances” is hilarious; the idea that British readers would not be offended by Kraus’s anti-Semitism is a different kind of joke.  All right, Timms did not think that sentence through.  But I take the warning that I am working with a fragment of a text, however impressive the fragment.

*  Edward Timms, Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist, 1986, Yale UP, p. 429.


  1. I wonder if the "antisemitic and anti-capitalist utterances" were Kraus', or if they were from the media sources he quoted?

    The translation of Dead Souls I'm reading includes a note from the editor that "Gogol uses a number of expressions in which miserliness and dishonesty in business dealings are associated with Jews. Guerney consistently replaced these expressions with neutral ones, and I have preserved his choices." I have wondered if the antisemitism being bowdlerized here is Gogol's, or that of his characters. Either way, I'd rather have it straight.

    Kraus is a hoot. An angry hoot. With the current interest in metafiction and the relationship of media to audience, I don't know why someone isn't filming the play right now, or at least an abridged 15-hour version of it.

  2. "...British readers would not be offended by Kraus’s anti-Semitism..." I just got that joke. I'm awfully thick sometimes.

    All this commentary about commentary about Kraus' commentary on commentary. It's like something by Nabokov. Or Sterne, if Sterne hadn't been so amused with himself.

  3. An animated version would be able to solve a lot of problems. Or puppets, like Jan Švankmajer.

    I would rather have it straight, too, in part just for the reasons you mention. Maybe, just maybe, some of the offensive utterances are attached to the characters?

    Kraus was himself Jewish (and then confessionless, then Catholic, then confessionless again), for what that is worth.

    The rhetoric of anti-Semitism and anti-capitalism were so strongly connected in Kraus's time that I know why they are side by side here. Still. If some noble fool is out there now, translating this beast, just lay it all out, please!

  4. I think some of the turn to theory in the academy was driven by a yearning for pure commentary, commentary with no foundation outside of itself.

  5. pure commentary is a beautiful concept. The universal solvent of literature.

  6. "For Kraus, the end of the war did not mean the end of the horror." I don't want to read too much into my 30 pages of Kraus (!), but it does seem that the war scarred him in ways that other German and Austrian writers might have had to wait till WWII to relate to. Of course, maybe he just responded to everything more viscerally than his counterparts--it's hard to get a bead on the guy given the extremity of his persona as revealed in his writings. Thanks, by the way, for your intro-in-progress to the, ahem, longer version of The Last Days of Mankind than my two-act excerpt.

  7. Maybe I will take a shot at that Grumbler scene you read in my last post. It is typically slippery.

    I think you are exactly right about the way Kraus took the war. That aphorism about him hearing the music of the spheres that no on else could hear was psychologically accurate.