Monday, April 29, 2013

I must wait until my writings are outdated - it's Karl Kraus week!

A wiser, more experienced writer,  for instance a professional critic, would have no qualms introducing a week about Viennese satirist and scold Karl Kraus by lightly rewriting the introductory piece I wrote a month ago.  A fool and an amateur, I will just point to it.  The Jonathan Franzen book about Karl Kraus is still on Amazon, evidence but not proof that it is not a prank.

I hear noises which others don’t hear and which disturb for me the music of the spheres, which others don’t hear either.

Today I will borrow some of Kraus’s aphorisms to help describe him.  They are all taken from Karl Kraus, Hermann Broch, Elias Canetti, Robert Walser: Selected Short Writings (Continuum, 2006), pp. 24-33.  For some reason the entire Kraus section is available, at least in the United States, via Google Books.

Kraus was a satirist and cultural critic.  I suppose today we would call him a media critic, since he spent so much time attacking journalism, (“No ideas and the ability to express them – that’s a journalist”).  His weapons include parody, scorn, and even reason, but his main form of attack is accurate quotation.  Kinda hitting below the belt.  His work is filled with lines borrowed from advertising, politicians, and newspapers, sometimes ironically repurposed, sometimes devastating when presented as flatly as possible.

I do not know the work of H. L. Mencken so well, but he might be thought of as an American cousin of Kraus, an enemy of cant, propaganda, and officialese.  This sounds like Mencken, doesn’t it?

The devil is an optimist if he thinks he can make people worse.

Well, it sounds like any number of curmudgeons.  Kraus is a classic Austrian curmudgeon, perhaps the first great one.

My public and I understand each other very well: it does not hear what I say, and I do not say what it would like to hear.

Both Kraus’s topicality and his emphasis on language have caused problems for translators.  Some – perhaps much – of Kraus’s writing is probably not worth the necessary compromises, although I would like to see some careful, scholarly, independently wealthy translator prove me wrong.  Regardless, enough good pieces can be and have been translated to provide Caravana de Recuerdos and me with plenty of material.

My readers believe that I write just for the day because I write about the day.  So I must wait until my writings are outdated.  Then they may possibly achieve timelessness.

Kraus wrote one long piece, The Last Days of Mankind, nominally a play, a savage, complex treatment of World War I that is said to be 800 pages long.  About a quarter is available in a 1974 English version, and even that mangled fragment is a masterpiece.  Perhaps the best-selling Franzen book will inspire someone to finish it.

The dog sniffs first, then lifts his leg.  One cannot well object to this lack of originality.  But that the writer reads first, before he writes, is pitiful.

Hey, careful with the teeth, there, Karl!


  1. I fear that my limited exposure to Kraus this week will lead me to want to become a Kraus completist. "Careful with the teeth," indeed! His journalist description that you cite above and the other random nuggets I've come across so far by him make me really wish I'd studied German somewhere along the line...

  2. Though I am not familiar with Kraus other then what yourself and Richard have written about him I am usually very found of s bitingly humorous social critics and may have to give him a try.

    I also find it fascinating and a little strange that The Last Days of Mankind has only been partially translated.

  3. A temperamental difference: I find it strange that Last Days has been translated at all. What motivates these lunatic translators?

    At that Google Books link, jump to "Tourist Trips to Hell," where you can gauge your interest in Kraus in four pages. Richard or I - maybe both - will likely write about this startling piece. Half of it is simply the reproduction of an actual advertisement.

    A Kraus completist - I know, it is tempting. Perhaps it is best, then, not to know German, because then all 922 issues of Die Fackel would be available. I would read that entire play, though, no question, preferably in an edition that has been doubled in bulk by the brilliant annotations.

  4. There's some good stuff about Kraus in the Canetti memoir I'm reading at the moment, The Torch in my Ear. His show is the more popular attraction in Vienna amongst the literati - he seems to deliver long monologues each week like a stand-up comedian. Canetti is a big fan.

  5. That single sentence, your summary of Canetti, gives a clearer idea of what Kraus was doing in those shows than anything I have found so far. Too bad no one filmed one of them.

    Kraus obviously never had a big audience, but he sure had the right audience.

  6. Or, as Canetti puts it: "These weren't the usual operetta Viennese who assembled here, no Heuriger winos, but also no decadent clique of aesthetes a la Hofmannsthal. This was the genuine intellectual Vienna, the best and the soundest in this apparently deteriorated city."

  7. I begin to envision Canetti memoirs in my future.

    Since I am sure everyone is sick of it I did not work on this argument, but I have little doubt that the kind of art-centered culture Vienna had developed was crucial for giving Kraus the audience he had. He is hard to imagine almost anywhere else.