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.

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