Saturday, May 4, 2013

Kraus the prophet - Don’t ask why all this time I never spoke

Why have I been avoiding writing this final bit about Karl Kraus?  Because it is too sad, I will bet that’s why.

There are some things you would rather be wrong about.  What I mean is, if you enjoy worrying about catastrophes, I would rather you be wrong.  Maybe you would rather be right, catastrophe and all.  How would I know what you want.

Ricardo de las Caravanas de Recuerdas asks a useful question about Kraus: how “to determine where the slippery satirist ends and where the full-on real life nutjob begins”?  Kraus is one of the few true satirists.  Like Jonathan Swift and Thomas Carlyle, he is most serious exactly when he is most outrageous, when he says what he cannot possibly mean.  Although he likely does not mean what he says in exactly the way he says it.  Satirists are aggravating.

Kraus was both comedian and prophet, Isaiah at the Laugh Factory, Jeremiah Seinfeld.

Newspaper vendors (“E-e-xtra”) are heard throughout The Last Days of Mankind.  At the beginning of his final long monologue, The Grumbler, the Kraus-like pessimist, hears one:

GRUMBLER:  So it is five o’clock.  The answer is here, the echo of my blood-haunted madness.  And no longer does anything resound to me out of ruined creation except this one sound, out of which ten millions who are dying accuse me of still being alive, I who had eyes to see the world, and whose stare struck it in a fashion that it became as I saw it…  Have I deserved this fulfillment of my deathly fear of life?...  Why is my shout of protest not stronger than this tinny command that has dominion over the souls of a whole globe?  (V.54)

The jokes that were funny even at the beginning of the war have turned into something else.  The final scene, German and Austrian officers at a feast, is full of cheers and laughter, puns and jokes, but jokes like this:

GERMAN GENERAL STAFF OFFICER:  Yes sir – our German hand-gas-grenade type B!  With that thing the poisonous substance sprays out and creates suppurating wounds, with a secretion like an honest-to-goodness case of the clap.  (Laughter.)

The party is finally destroyed by artillery and replaced with “apparitions,” essentially a film montage of wartime atrocities, running from the pathetic to the gruesome.  In a strange turn, the apparitions begin singing, even when they are frozen corpses, children drowned by the sinking of the Lusitania, or twelve hundred horses drowned in the torpedoing of an Italian ship, an episode that Kraus mentions elsewhere in the play.  Dead trees have a song.  So do the ravens:

While you gluttons join in gorging,
We don’t do so badly, either.
Since we follow all your armies,
Never have we ached from hunger.

And then – well, Kraus is almost done.  Jeremiah’s prophecy is almost complete.  Except for the grumble grumble Epilogue that sounds if anything even wilder.

I would have thought that the end of the war would relieve some of the apocalyptic pressure on Kraus.  Perhaps it did for a time.  By 1933, though, Kraus was defeated.  He stopped publishing.  He realized that his weapons were useless against the Nazis.  He lived for a few more years, dying in 1936, never having to witness the worst, although he had already guessed it.

Here is his how he ended his career, his last published work, from p. 259 of In These Great Times:

Don’t ask why all this time I never spoke,
Wordless am I,
and won’t say why.
And silence reigns because the bedrock broke.
No word redeems;
one only spoke in dreams.
A smiling sun the sleeper’s images evoke.
Time marches on;
the final difference is none.
The word expired when that world awoke.


  1. Between your posts and Richard's you have convinced me that Kraus is someone to read. I really am partial to this the kind of negative controversial social commentary. I will need to give him a try soon.

  2. "Jeremiah Seinfeld" made me laugh, Tom, but Kraus' finale (in the words you close with by him) is "too sad" indeed. "He realized that his weapons were useless against the Nazis" prob. says everything you need to know about the blows to his fighting spirit. Still, a remarkable writer for what would appear to be a remarkably long time.

  3. Kraus is impressive, Brian. Unique. I am now quite eager to see what on earth people are going to do with Franzen's Kraus book this fall. I foresee some fine train wrecks.

    I tell you, one of the most appealing aspects of Kraus is his integrity. This guy was pure.

  4. Are the train wrecks you forsee things you'd rather be wrong about or right about, wreck and all?
    (I'm not going to be involved with those particular trains, so I guess I'd rather you'd be right)

  5. Luckily these train wrecks - bizarre and wrong-headed articles about (or perhaps by) Franzen - are completely trivial, so it does not matter much if I am right.

    Best case: clueless reviewers assigned Franzen's book will use the internet to discover the pieces written by Richard and me, thus saving them from error and keeping the trains safe.

  6. For those with the dedication and knowledge of German, Die Fackel:
    All of it.

  7. I was wondering if some enterprising, dedicated, crazy person had digitized it all - thanks!