Start thinking

Michael Wood

  • Dicta and Contradicta by Karl Kraus, translated by Jonathan McVity
    Illinois, 208 pp, £18.50, May 2001, ISBN 0 252 02648 9

Karl Kraus had many enemies, but his friends and admirers are something of a liability too. They insist on his unremitting probity and passion for justice, but his justice was all his own – there was no one else on the bench. ‘His vision was never unsteadied by scepticism,’ Erich Heller wrote. Walter Benjamin asserted that ‘Kraus never offered an argument that had not engaged his whole person. Thus he embodies the secret of authority: never to disappoint.’ It’s easy to see why unsteady, disappointed people would be attracted to such a figure, but the more general virtues of unfailing dogmatism are not so clear. Jonathan McVity, in an afterword to his excellent translation of a volume of Kraus’s aphorisms, says that Kraus ‘miscalculated badly in the Dreyfus Affair’. A remorseless critic in Kraus’s own mould might well argue that if you were wrong about Dreyfus it wouldn’t matter too much what you were right about.

And Kraus could be shallow as well as dogmatic. All his views on the relations between men and women have the scent of old Vienna about them: they are courtly, chivalrous and deeply discriminatory. Of course it’s better to adore women than be a misogynist, just as it’s better to defend prostitutes than to beat your wife, but many women will prefer not to be adored for their lack of brains and their closeness to nature. ‘Love in men may be merely a drive,’ Kraus writes in Dicta and Contradicta, ‘but even the most thoughtless woman loves in the service of an idea. Even the woman that merely sacrifices to a stranger’s drives is morally superior to the man who only serves his own.’ Shouldn’t that be ‘the woman who’? McVity is going a little further than Kraus here. In any event this moral superiority, even in the service of an idea, has no intellectual element for Kraus. ‘I enjoy carrying on a monologue with women,’ he writes, ‘but a dialogue with myself is more stimulating’; ‘The best women are those one speaks with least’; ‘A beautiful woman has understanding enough for one to talk to her about everything and with her about nothing.’ At times Kraus’s language on this subject rises to levels of genuine provocation, and it would be absurd to mistake an extravagant posture for a serious proposition: ‘A woman is more than just her exterior. The lingerie is also important’; ‘Since keeping wild animals is illegal and I do not enjoy house pets, I prefer to remain unmarried.’ But Kraus is out to provoke us by expressing his opinions extremely, not by being in any way ironic about them, or by pretending to have opinions he doesn’t have. He’s unsteadied by scepticism, remember. Wasn’t he just being a man of his time? Sure, but not all the men of his time were such men.

This kind of material is all the more tiresome because it occupies most of the first two sections of Dicta and Contradicta, entitled ‘Womankind, Fantasy’ and ‘Morality, Christianity’. I do recommend staying with the book, though, or starting in the middle. These are aphorisms, after all; each one has its own plot. And it is truly exhilarating to read Kraus in full form, even on the subject of old Vienna. He is amazed that ‘even jealous men allow their wives to mingle freely at masked balls. They have forgotten how much they could once permit themselves there with other men’s wives, and believe that public licentiousness has been repealed since their wedding.’ ‘If a murder has occurred in a place where two people have met for sex,’ he says, ‘the two would rather bear the suspicion of murder than of fornication.’ And the following miniature story is all the more haunting because of its apparent (and for all I know real) lack of point: ‘It was a flight through the millennia, on the coldest night of winter, as she ran from a masquerade ball out onto the street, half-naked, into the deepest Prater, with waiters, cavaliers and coachmen in hot pursuit . . . a lung inflammation and death brought her back to our century.’

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