How to be Viennese

Adam Phillips

  • Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist by Edward Timms
    Yale, 468 pp, £20.00, October 1986, ISBN 0 300 03611 6
  • Half-Truths and One-and-a-Half-Truths: Selected Aphorisms of Karl Kraus translated by Harry Zohn
    Carcanet, 128 pp, £3.94, May 1986, ISBN 0 85635 580 1

In Fin de Siècle Vienna, politics had become the least convincing of the performing arts. Life, Kraus wrote, had become an effort that deserved a better cause. By the turn of the century, it was not politicians but actors, painters, writers and musicians who had captured the imagination of the upper-middle classes. As the Hapsburg Empire disintegrated, it seemed to Kraus that life in Vienna was no longer imitating art: it was parodying it. And for Kraus it was the ‘mental self-mutilation of mankind through its press’ that had done most to trivialise and misrepresent what was becoming a terrifying political situation. Kraus exposed, often by imitation, the new decadent facetiousness. Journalists, he wrote, were now capable of ‘launching a premiere one day and a war the next’. They ‘write because they have nothing to say, and have something to say because they write’. Editing and writing most of his own newspaper Die Fackel (the Torch) in Vienna from 1899 to 1936, he believed that the collapse of the Empire and the drift to world war could only be accurately documented as satire. Only the satirist was honestly suspicious. All forms of representation, advertisements, the wearing of beards, the way people strolled in the streets, had to be understood in terms of what it was they were being used to misrepresent. Events, and the reporting of events, had to be interpreted now as artistic genres concealing vested interests. In May 1916, in the middle of the war, it was still not clear to Kraus what play of Shakespeare’s was actually being performed. By October 1918 he was clear that it was Hamlet.

A certain vigilance was required, Kraus began to realise, to deal with the ‘masquerade’ of modern life. The unprecedented number of competing ideological claims, the sheer volume of other people’s words that the new mass-media made available, was turning character into a kind of cultural ventriloquism. People suffered from other people’s ideas and never recovered themselves. The individual was becoming merely a repertoire of identifiable voices, a collage of new vocabularies. ‘In these times,’ Kraus wrote, ‘you should not expect from me any words of my own.’ It was an age of unavoidable quotation, and the newspapers, in Kraus’s view, were playing on the prevailing air of unreality. The gradual breakdown of political consensus had estranged people from the old sense of a shared world, and in its place a new one was being fabricated by a press committed only to the business interests it served. Language had to be redeemed from its new status as a commodity depreciated, but for Kraus never inspired, by mass consumption. ‘Contemporaries,’ he wrote, ‘live from second-hand to mouth.’ His passionate denunciation of social injustice was accompanied by a pious fantasy of purity, of a language being violated.

It was Walter Benjamin, in 1931, who wrote what is in many ways still the most revealing essay on Kraus and his ‘struggle against the empty phrase, which is the linguistic expression of the despotism with which, in journalism, topicality sets up its dominion over things’. The muted violence of the empty phrase could only be countered by the shrewdest form of ridicule, a contempt close to the heart. His aphorisms turned empty phrases inside out. The goat-like satyr on the front cover of Die Fackel suggests, as Edward Timms says, ‘that for the Kraus of the 1890s satire was a vaguely defined primitive force disrupting the civilities of a philistine society.’ But as the political situation worsened, Kraus embarked on the graver, more apocalyptic project of seeing the signs of the end of the world.

‘The satirist,’ Benjamin suggested in his essay, ‘is the figure in whom the cannibal was received into civilisation.’ Because satire is so overtly reactive to circumstance, and because of the satirist’s complicity with his victims, academic research can be useful, as Timms’s book is, in explaining the occasion for what Benjamin calls the ‘devouring of the object’. Kraus was not, as both Benjamin and Timms make clear, an indiscriminate consumer, but his work was seriously compromised by the confusion of divided loyalties. Despite the fact that, as Timms writes, ‘the greatest enterprise of his career’ was ‘his satirical campaign against the inhumanity of war’, there was ‘an unresolved tension between Kraus’s growing opposition to the war and his continuing respect for the army’. All satirists run the risk of being paralysed by their own self-contempt. Admirers of Kraus have had to accommodate a number of these ‘unresolved tensions’: a loathing of racism alongside an occasionally virulent (Jewish) anti-semitism; a commitment to women’s political rights which was not incompatible with embittered misogynistic attitudes. These things, one might say, merely make Kraus a representative figure: but there is something elusive about him which has to do with the fact that while the targets of his contempt have always been clear, the nature of his allegiances has not – except in the case of his often acclaimed allegiance to language itself. ‘My language,’ he wrote as the ironic proprietor, ‘is the common prostitute that I turn into a virgin’ (for Kraus the question was always: what kind of woman is the German language, and what kind of relationship will she allow him to have with her). ‘I only master the language of others, my own does with me as it pleases,’ he wrote, describing his favourite version of the romantic triangle. But the romance too easily lent itself to what Benjamin described as ‘the strange interplay between reactionary theory and revolutionary practice that is found everywhere in Kraus’, and which has become a familiar contradiction in cultural criticism. The few commentators in English on Kraus have tended to simplify him by a curious sort of idealisation, suggesting either that he was a man of consistent positions, many of which were astonishingly prophetic of events – ‘Progress makes purses out of human skin’ – or that his self-elected role as guardian of the German language, the mother tongue, exempted him in some mysterious way, as he himself sometimes claimed, from taking sides. What they don’t see is that his particular brand of satire was to show how the use of a language was always a form of investment. In what amounts to a series of linked essays in his immensely informative book, Edward Timms has restored Kraus’s contradictions, though not always with the gusto of his subject. From the different intellectual and biographical perspectives that Timms provides, Kraus becomes a more puzzling kind of prophet.

Kraus was born in 1874 in northern Bohemia, the youngest son of a Jewish paper manufacturer who would eventually finance his son’s newspaper. The family moved when he was three to Vienna, the city which he despised and to which he was deeply attached, and which was to become within twenty years the most spectacular setting for what Timms calls Kraus’s ‘passionate parochialism’. ‘The streets of Vienna,’ he would write, ‘are paved with culture, the streets of other cities with asphalt.’ In the work of his contemporaries, the poetry of Hofmannsthal, the plays of Schnitzler, the paintings of Klimt, the writings of Freud and Wittgenstein, the links between new, recondite kinds of private experience and the public world were being radically re-described. In a period of political disintegration and extraordinary cultural production, Kraus served his apprenticeship as a journalist in the thriving literary coffee-houses of the 1890s. Timms gives a compelling account of the way Die Fackel was made possible by an audience, at least in retrospect, unwittingly prepared for it. So enthusiastic was this audience that the first number sold thirty thousand copies. By 1900, Vienna was one of the great artistic capitals of the world, and the sophisticated city culture created by the emergence of a prosperous bourgeoisie was unusually receptive to Kraus’s ridicule. ‘I and my public understand each other very well,’ he noted: ‘it does not hear what I say, and I don’t say what it wants to hear.’ This was the kind of profitable misunderstanding that for Kraus characterised the beglamoured crisis of everyday life in Vienna, in which people learnt from the theatre ‘how to be Viennese’. The city itself was like a stage set, the facade, Timms writes, ‘moulded and embellished according to the principle that opulent appearance was more important than functional design’. The architecture of the city, like much else, revealed ‘the triumph of facade over function’. In an interesting chapter on Kraus’s relationship with the architect Adolf Loos, Timms shows how Kraus began to incorporate ‘the motifs of ornament and facade into his satire’. ‘In Austria,’ Kraus wrote, ‘the painters are being overshadowed by the decorators, just as the writers are being swallowed by the journalists.’ Cultural pastiche was being used to mask social contradictions. As the dynastic centralism of the old Empire gave way to various multinational claims, political instability was being concealed by ostentatious display. What Timms refers to as ‘the ideological saturation of everyday life’, Kraus saw as a ‘masquerade’ brash with contradictions. The cover of the most influential Viennese newspaper, the Neue Freie Presse, published earnestly instructive articles about the sanctity of family life while the back cover of the newspaper ran advertisements for ‘Miss Birch, Box No 69’. There were so many prostitutes on the streets that it was more difficult to avoid them than to find them, the novelist Stefan Zweig recalled.

Kraus’s newspaper was revolutionary because Austria had no tradition of independent critical journalism. Austrian newspapers represented government policies and the vested interests of their owners, most of whom had links with the large banks and finance corporations. It was routine practice, for example, to disguise advertisements as news articles. August Zang, the founder of Die Presse, was quoted as saying that ideally he would like ‘a newspaper that did not contain a single line that had not been paid for’. Maximilien Harden, the editor of Die Zukunft in Berlin, had managed to maintain his independence only by owning the newspaper he edited. Inspired by the example of Harden, Kraus got his father to back the first issue of Die Fackel. Its extraordinary success made it self-financing, though Kraus’s independence was in any case to be guaranteed by the private income he inherited after his father’s death in 1900. But the uniqueness of his position misled him into believing that he had invented himself, that he could be, as he said, ‘a writer without preconceptions who observes things without party spectacles’. He thought that to be aligned in any way was to be contaminated. As part of his ‘draining of the vast swamp of slogans and clichés’ he used Die Fackel at first to attack all ideological affiliations: socialism, capitalism, anti-semitism, Zionism, Pan-Germanism, Pan-Slavism, liberalism.

He satirised the idea of militant conviction. ‘His reformist campaign,’ Timms comments, ‘could only be implemented with political support. But his intransigence towards organised factions effectively precluded it.’ His reformism was too broadly based to lead to recognisable policies, and this was surely connected with what Timms calls ‘the tension between vigorous polemical commitment and self-absorbed verbal artistry’ in his writing. ‘Let language be the divining rod that finds sources of thought,’ he wrote: but he believed he could then exempt himself from ideological commitment through his obligation to language. In this way, his early, and often brilliant, fanatical unmasking of others turned into diffuse self-justification, perhaps in an unconscious attempt to find a position beyond criticism in a language without history. ‘It is deeply rooted in Kraus’s nature,’ Benjamin wrote, ‘and it is the stigma of every debate concerning him, that all apologetic arguments miss their mark.’ Kraus was only ever fickle by necessity, not by conviction, and this may be bound up with what Timms calls, in one of his chapter titles, ‘the dilemma of the baptised Jew’. Born a Jew, Kraus finally renounced his Judaism in 1899. In 1911, he converted to Catholicism, which he renounced in 1923. A committed journalist who condemned journalism, he was also, as Timms says, ‘a Jew by birth, an Austrian by nationality, a Viennese by residence, a German by language, a journalist by profession, bourgeois by social status and a rentier by economic position. Amid the ideological turmoil of Austria-Hungary, all of these ascribed identities seemed like falsifications.’ Or the idea of coherent identity had itself become meaningless for the increasing number of people who had never settled. It may have been Kraus’s nature to assume, often unwittingly, impossibly self-contradictory positions out of fear of being misrecognised, even by himself. ‘I don’t like to meddle,’ he wrote, ‘in my private affairs.’

By the same token, Kraus was a great critic of psychoanalysis, who saw that it was pernicious only in so far as it seemed to be conclusive and who understood its crucial paradox: that its method was inspired, but its stated aims were not. ‘One of the most widespread diseases,’ he wrote, ‘is diagnosis.’ In one of the most interesting chapters in his book, Timms gives a persuasive account of Freud and Kraus as ‘essentially complementary’. It was Freud’s followers, rather than Freud himself, that Kraus was wary of. Freud had described an unconscious of ferocious inventiveness yet psychoanalysts seemed to have an ominous anxiety about loose ends. The discoveries of psychoanalysis, Kraus believed, were being used by Freud’s followers in a pre-emptive strike against the imagination. Psychoanalysis seemed merely to have created one more cramping kind of seriousness. Psychoanalysts were full of greedy explanations and peculiarly ironic blind-spots. ‘So-called psychoanalysis,’ he suggested, ‘is the occupation of lustful rationalists who trace everything in the world to sexual causes – with the exception of their own occupation.’ Kraus evolved a style, which could never be turned into a method, to show how ideas could be subtly dogmatised into propaganda.

In what he called ‘this pseudonymous civilisation’, it was literature that had to be ‘an independent force, countering the pernicious influence of the press’ in particular, and all the other potential forms of propaganda that disarmed criticism. Kraus’s first ambition had been to be an actor. His contemporary, the playwright Frank Wedekind, thought Kraus had missed his vocation by not working in the theatre. He would describe himself instead as ‘perhaps the first case of a writer who simultaneously experiences the process of writing as an actor’. Just as the mask was one of the unifying motifs of Die Fackel, and featured on the early covers, so the writer as actor was increasingly the role in which Kraus was to cast himself. It was Shakespeare who had shaped what Timms calls Kraus’s ‘histrionic imagination’. By the age of 30 he had seen 12 productions of King Lear; he was himself to do remarkable translations of Shakespeare into German. Shakespeare, for Kraus, was the exemplary artist. And from about 1905 he came to believe that the artist alone could resist the ideological pressures of the age – any age. Wilde was the contemporary artist who became Kraus’s model for the artistic identity he was consciously trying to cultivate in his search for a true mask. He conceived of the artist, Timms writes,

as a self-sufficient figure. His sensitivity sets him apart from the philistinism of the surrounding world. And he tends to stand disdainfully aloof from the nexus of human society. He is essentially an inner-directed figure.

Although, as Timms shows, genial by inclination, Kraus always struggled to find a way of being sufficiently isolated to give an accurate warning of the catastrophe that he foresaw. ‘I hear noises which others don’t hear,’ he wrote, ‘and which disturb for me the music of the spheres, which others don’t hear either.’ The idea of the artist which Kraus had evolved was only a temporary solution to the general bewilderment of a culture that was disintegrating around him. Under the pressure of events, he began to do public performances of his own and other writers’ work. Between 1910 and 1936 he gave over seven hundred recitals. Timms explains in convincing detail how in the same period the tone of his work changes to one of foreboding. He becomes, in Timms’s phrase, ‘a visionary satirist’. Timms quotes, with his own translation, what he calls a ‘dream-aphorism’ of February 1911:

I dreamed that they refused to believe that what I said was right. I maintained that there were ten of them. No, 12, they said. As many as there are fingers on a pair of hands, I said. Then one of them raised his hand and behold it had six fingers. All right then, 11, I said, appealing to the other hand. And behold it had six fingers. Sobbing I ran into the forest.

Although Die Fackel was the only Austrian newspaper critical of the war effort, the war itself was to reveal what Timms calls the ‘glaring deficiency’ in Kraus’s critique of newspapers as propaganda. In March 1914 he reminded his readers of the Austrian Government’s bribing of the press, yet by November of the same year he is suggesting that the authorities are not in fact to blame and that the Government should curb the freedom of the press. Kraus appeared to be mystifyingly naive about the actual workings of the press, vilifying individual editors and journalists, several of whom were Jews, who he must have known were not in charge. Timms’s detailed account explains Kraus’s ‘fundamental argument ... that an apparatus now exists with an almost unlimited capacity for corrupting the public mind ... and that at moments of crisis it actively participates in a process of self-mystification.’ But he also shows that Kraus’s eagerness to name names and ride his contradictions undermined some of his shrewdest insights. During the 1914-18 war, six thousand men were killed every day. The Austrian press spoke of the war as a heroic crusade, but, in Kraus’s view, made it sound more like an operetta: they were, he insisted, making it impossible to believe that people really died.

Between 1915 and 1922 Kraus worked on his epic documentary drama of the First World War, The Last Days of Mankind. He tried to find a form commensurate with the horrific magnitude of the event. Virtually unperformable with over two hundred scenes and an enormous cast of characters, Kraus described it as a ‘tragedy’ performed by ‘figures from an operetta’. Timms defends the play as ‘the submerged masterpiece of the 20th-century theatre’, but it is possible that Kraus might have appreciated the irony of its present status as a symptomatic and intriguing failure. There is, of course, no full English translation available, and this raises the question of how Kraus is best represented to non-German readers. Great claims have been made for the importance of his work – in English most notably by George Steiner and Erich Heller – but he is known, if at all in England, as an influential contemporary of Wittgenstein and Freud, and as a writer of aphorisms. Auden, for example, in his Faber anthology has 24 entries by Kraus. So Harry Zohn’s Selected Aphorisms, from which I have quoted in this review, is welcome, but also, in a sense, misleading. The aphorisms are inevitably taken out of context, which is of course in the nature of aphorisms: but what kind of picture would one get of Bacon, or Johnson, or Hazlitt from a comparable selection of aphorisms translated into German? Timms’s book will be indispensable when we have that most unlikely thing, an English Kraus.