Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Karl Kraus, war writer - his misused language beautifies a misused life

Karl Kraus has become a World War I writer.  It is a strange fate.  The prophet was right, so his prophecy swallowed him.  Clichéd, thoughtless language really did lead to the apocalypse, or at least an apocalypse, a war that quickly became an inescapable nightmare.  The crazy guy with the “World Is Ending” sign was right.  At least metaphorically right.

Also relevant is that much of Kraus’s best writing is in one way or another about the war.  The two decades of writing leading up to it becomes background for The Last Days of Mankind.  Such are the vicissitudes of masterpieces.

Kraus’s first major response to the world war, an article he read in November 1914 and published in December, is titled “In These Great Times,” a horrible phrase taken from the newspapers, a phrase that is easy to mock:

… the times measure themselves and are astonished at how great they have become overnight.  But they have probably always been great, and I simply did not notice it.  Thus it was an optical fault of mine to perceive them as small.  (80)

I had planned to chew through this article for a post or two, but upon review I have discovered that it is so think and knotted, as rhetorically complex as Thomas Carlyle, that I am mostly baffled.  The argument is built of paradoxes:

Let him who has something to say come forward and be silent!  (71)

Perhaps the obscurity of detail helped keep Kraus out of prison.  He was the only major German-language writer to speak out against the war.  Hofmannsthal, Rilke, Hauptmann, Thomas Mann – all wrote and spoke enthusiastically in favor of the German and Austrian cause, at least for a time.  Arthur Schnitzler was wiser; he followed Kraus’s advice and was silent.  Only Kraus spoke in opposition, although the nature of his opposition changed and broadened as the costs of the war grew.

The main target remained the same, though.  Kraus’s greatest enemies were other writers, especially journalists (the line in quotations marks is from Antony and Cleopatra, a messenger’s response to Cleopatra’s anger over bad news.):

“Gracious madam, I that do bring the news made not the match.”  But the reporter does make the match, sets the house on fire, and turns the horrors he fabricates into truth.  Through decades of practice he has produced in mankind that degree of unimaginativeness which enables it to wage a war of extermination against itself…  he has the reflected glory of heroic qualities at his disposal, and his misused language beautifies a misused life – as though eternity had saved its apex for the age in which a reporter lives. (76)

The cause of war – or at least this war – is unimaginativeness, which is caused by misused language.  This is a writer’s argument, a literary argument.  How many people could possibly find it convincing?  But it is not a paradox to Kraus, at least, and his anger at the press and the poets is real enough.

“In These Great Times” can be found in the 1976 Carcanet collection In These Great Times, ed. and trans. Harry Zohn.  The forthcoming Penguin Classics Kraus anthology is titled In This Great Time and Other Writings, so I will bet you one silver dollar that the essay will be in that book too.


  1. Ha, jackpot, out of the several many Kraus books at the library In These Great Times is the one I grabbed. Now the question is if and when I'll get around to reading it.

    I already love the tone in that first quotation.

  2. That tone - me, too. Although it is a relatively straightforward selection from this strangely woven essay.

    With luck the new Penguin edition will surpass it, but for now I think you have your hands on the best choice.

  3. Tom, have you come across any references to how Kraus and Musil got along in your readings on Kraus? They seem to have had some general "cultural" affinities, but I just read somewhere that Musil wasn't such a big fan. Anyway, your point about how Kraus' "greatest enemies" were other writers amuses me given how many other things Kraus found to complain about in general--many understandably so.

  4. I do not know. The first volume of a Kraus biography is at hand, but it does not say, other than mentioning that Kraus recommended Musil's fiction. I need volume 2!

    They worked some of the same ground, didn't they? But Man without Qualities is over fifteen years after "In these Great Times." In 1914, Musil was small fry compared to Hauptmann and Hofmannsthal.

    1. Good point about The Man Without Qualities representing a much different side of Musil than The Confusions of Young Törless and small fry Musil. Regardless of the fame/reputation factor, which I understand is important here, those two books might as well have been written by two different authors. By the way, would you recommend that Kraus bio to an amateur reader like me? Is it delivering the goods?

  5. I am using but not reading the Kraus bio. But I can at least say that it is most useful.

  6. Musil seems to have been more critical of Kraus than many of his contemporaries were. (Of course, that sentence remains true if we substitute other great names for 'Kraus' -- Freud, Mann, Broch,....) In a 1973 issue of the New York Review of Books, Walter Kaufmann quoted some of Musil's critical remarks. The letter, with Erich Heller's reply, is on-line at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1973/aug/09/on-karl-kraus/?pagination=false

  7. Paul, thanks for filling in that hole.

    Kauffman, Heller - giants walked the earth.