Avant-Garde in a Different Key: Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind
June 10, 2014 9:01 PM   Subscribe

Act 1, scene 1. "The stage directions read, “Vienna. The Ringstrasse promenade at Sirk Corner. Flags wave from the buildings. Soldiers marching by are cheered by the onlookers. General excitement. The crowd breaks up into small groups.”[2] The newsboys with their “Extra Extra,” announcing the outbreak of war, are interrupted by a drunk demonstrator who shouts “Down with Serbia! Hurrah for the Hapsburgs! Hurrah! For S-e-r-bia!” and is immediately kicked in the pants for his mistake (LTM, p. 69). A crook and a prostitute exchange insults, even as two army contractors, talking of possible bribes the rich will use to avoid the draft, cite Bismarck’s words, in Neue Freie Presse (Vienna’s major newspaper at the time of the assassination of the archduke in Serbia), to the effect that the Austrians deserve kissing. One officer tells another that war is “unanwendbar” (of no use) when he really means, as his friend points out, “unabwendbar” (unavoidable) (LTM, pp. 70–71). A patriotic citizen praises the coming conflict as a holy war of defense against “encirclement” by hostile forces, and the crowd responds by making up rhymes (in Viennese dialect) denigrating the enemy (LTM, p. 72)."

When, for example, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was covering the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, he couldn’t say enough about the marvels of the Arab Spring with its “Facebook Revolution” and ostensible thirst for democracy. Two years later, with Egypt in chaos, the economy in shambles, and the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, placed under house arrest, Cooper’s evening dispatches either ignore the situation (there’s always Syria!) or report on specific incidents, as if the CNN anchor had always known the revolution couldn’t work. How information is disseminated in a world where truth is subject to the daily news cycle is a tremendous social problem—a problem Kraus tackled with uncanny prescience.

Discussions of the early twentieth-century avant-garde rarely refer to the writings of Kraus or Wittgenstein, of Joseph Roth and Elias Canetti, and, in the next generation, of Paul Celan or Ingeborg Bachmann. In part, this neglect has to do with the subordinate status of post-World War I Austria, whose literature has been treated, at least in the English-speaking world, as if it were merely part of the larger body of “German” writing. In this context, the emphasis on the Marxist literature of the Weimar Republic, from Bertolt Brecht to the great critical theorists Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno, has eclipsed its very different Austrian counterpart.
posted by whyareyouatriangle (9 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
ack, I meant to put the body text in quotation marks as per a previous request.
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 9:04 PM on June 10, 2014

Great piece in my favorite periodical
posted by facetious at 9:44 PM on June 10, 2014

This is great -- thanks for this.

Discussions of the early twentieth-century avant-garde rarely refer to the writings of Kraus or Wittgenstein, of Joseph Roth and Elias Canetti, and, in the next generation, of Paul Celan or Ingeborg Bachmann. In part, this neglect has to do with the subordinate status of post-World War I Austria, whose literature has been treated, at least in the English-speaking world, as if it were merely part of the larger body of “German” writing.

This is definitely a significant part of it. I've often wondered, too, if an additional reason that Austrian literature has been overlooked is that in addition to the collapse of the Austrian Empire at the end of the war, 1918 also saw the deaths of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Kolo Moser, and Otto Wagner -- which contributed to a near-fatal weakening of the Viennese avant-garde in the visual arts. So the same city that had previously been the capital of a major empire and one of the great artistic centers of Europe becomes, almost overnight, essentially a political and artistic backwater -- thus making it easy to disregard or ignore entirely its literary output as well.
posted by scody at 10:56 PM on June 10, 2014

re: scody's point
Nazi repression and genocide after the anschluss as well as repeated Allied bombings during WWII were also not the best things that ever happened to Vienna's cultural output. It was a tough century.
posted by Wretch729 at 6:04 AM on June 11, 2014

Shortly after my essay (“Avant-Garde in a Different Key: Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind”) went to press, Kraus, whose work has long been neglected in the Anglophone world, suddenly found himself at the center of lively controversy in the press. The occasion was the publication in October 2013 of Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Ironically, it has taken the attention of a celebrated novelist like Franzen to bring a great figure like Karl Kraus to the attention of our own literary/intellectual community....


Whether praised or denigrated, Franzen’s eccentric study can hardly be taken as any sort of beginner’s guide to Kraus’s oeuvre: it is much less about Kraus than about Franzen himself—his own progress as a writer, his studies in Berlin, his own withering contempt for the world of the internet and social media


posted by chavenet at 6:18 AM on June 11, 2014

A remarkable article; thank you for posting this.
posted by Atrahasis at 7:04 AM on June 11, 2014

I admire Kraus for his bitter wit; I used to admire him more, but Michael Hofmann's 2013 NYRB review of Franzen's The Kraus Project crystallized some doubts I'd been having and made it impossible for me to take him as seriously as I used to. Some excerpts:
Kraus’s principal art and expertise was that of hearing and reading. He sampled. He cut and pasted, and then he commented. A provincial newspaper perpetrated the delicious typo “King Lehar,” the conflation of the lonely tragic hero and the composer of hit operettas. Speaks for itself, you’d have thought. But no, the whole culture got a kicking. Kraus was a crocodile: he swiped his prey with his tail, dragged it down to depths where it wasn’t meant to be, and drowned it; then he worried at the cadaver over months. He was a helpless priest of language, a logomancer: “words b4 things,” as an earlier reader with toe-curling helpfulness marked my library copy. I suppose his chef d’oeuvre is his eight-hundred-page play in 209 scenes—and still the conventional five acts—Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind) from 1917, all of it actually heard or overheard by its author, the stuff of ten evenings, rarely read, much less performed and only translated (so far) in abridgment. [...]

One might remember that Kraus failed to make it as an actor in the 1890s before resorting to writing, and that live performances, talks, and readings were nevertheless the basis of his immense popularity in Vienna, and certainly his most effective, defining mode. “When I read,” says Kraus, “it is not acted literature; but what I write is written acting.” He gave seven hundred public performances—that’s one every two or three weeks in his prime—and was, according to Franzen, “a world-class mimic.”

People became addicted to Kraus, many going to hear him scores of times. (Elias Canetti had a particularly bad case and, I think I read somewhere, clocked up three hundred.) The occasions seem to have been a mixture of lecture, sermon, soap-box harangue, and kangaroo court. “All charges were presented in a strangely cemented diction that had something of legal paragraphs”; thus Canetti. The accused—the guilty parties—were subjected to “a process of annihilatory punishment.” “This law glowed: it radiated, it scorched and destroyed.” “Heine and the Consequences,” his intended dismantling of Heinrich Heine, was several times given as a talk before it was ever printed. [...]

In this culture, which nevertheless managed some astonishing literary achievements—Artur Schnitzler in drama, Georg Trakl in poetry, Robert Musil in epic prose—Kraus is perhaps best understood as a sort of center of power with very little radiating effect, a nimbus with barbs. At this distance, it’s hard even to see what effect he had. In his lifetime, he was an arbiter, a controller, a dictator: the books, Die Fackel, the personal appearances, all of them together one perpetuum mobile of solipsistic self-reinforcement. A multimedia campaign, KK on every channel, cock of the walk, dominator, top dog. I see his place not so much in literature as in the history of aggression, Publizistik, boosterism, feuding, polemics, PR.

Not to forget actual litigation. One of the Karl Kraus anthologies, No Compromise of 1977, edited by Frederick Ungar, imaginatively and correctly includes a brief section of “Libel Suits.” Take a bow, Kraus’s “(busy) lawyer Oskar Samek.” Thus, Anton Kuh was successfully sued by Kraus and left Vienna because he couldn’t afford his fine; some effects are beyond the reach of aphorism to procure. Kraus was so much a bully that I actually feel sorry for the distinguished Viennese newspaper Die Neue Freie Presse, his most reliable target—but then, as he says, “I trim my opponents to fit my arrows.” [...]

Basically, Kraus comes out of two unmarked taps—one gushes hotly, one gushes icily, and you take your chances with him. It doesn’t “mean anything.” I don’t see much sign in either essay of the vibrant pacifism praised by Harry Zohn, or defense of the spirit against dehumanizing tendencies, or steadfastness of moral purpose: not when he is flaying a great German-Jewish poet [Heine] (who can at least look after himself), or when he is boosting a non-Jewish Austrian playwright. Kraus is in both cases holding himself up to his own admiring gaze: look, he is so much more principled (and less “French” and above all, so much less Jewish) than Heine, and more literary and more sophisticated in his theatrical popularity or his popular theatricality than Johann Nepomuk Nestroy.

It is rare for Kraus to be called anything less than brilliant, even though it’s sometimes said with a there-now-go-away-please undertone. I find his writing too artificial, too conniving, and above all too squalid to rate brilliant. Surely nothing brilliant would accommodate as much opacity (or shameless triviality: the gripes about the awarding of the Bauernfeld Prize). “There’s a whole little outbreak of subpar sentences in here,” the notes signal on occasion, with lovable truthfulness—as though it were acne. Often the whole editorial troika confesses itself stumped. “Who the hell knows what Kraus is really saying here?” Kehlmann remarks. Who could call writing like this—from the essay “Nestroy and Posterity”—brilliant?
Fragmented times would have driven his essence to concentrate itself in aphorism and glosses, and the world’s more varied screechings would have introduced new cadences to his dialectic in its penetration to the core of the apparatus.

Graver is the anti-Semitism that pervades the Heine piece. The editors—as I say, they are honest—draw attention to some of it, but there is more dog-whistle anti-Semitism of the foulest kind, Jews as fiddlers and drapers, rootless and self-ingratiating, chancers and frauds and parasites. If this is “brilliant,” then surely only because other words like “grotesque” or “incoherent” or “disgusting” have been forgotten.
So yeah, a remarkable writer and occasionally a rare voice of reason when all about him were baying idiotically, but not what he's often cracked up to be.
posted by languagehat at 11:19 AM on June 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

(By the way, someone should fix the misspelled tag "krauss.")
posted by languagehat at 11:29 AM on June 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thank you, languagehat, for that NYRB review of which I have not read, and am now going to.

(tag fixed, too)
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 12:25 PM on June 11, 2014

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