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On Karl Kraus

To the Editors:

It is a pleasure to read Erich Heller, and in NYR, May 3, I immediately turned to his review of Karl Kraus’s Werke (14 vols. with two supplements) and of two books on Karl Kraus. But Heller said nothing at all about the big German edition of the works, and only the last three sentences of his essay referred to the two books about Kraus, of which he merely said that both were “intelligently conceived and knowledgeably executed” and hence most welcome. Given Heller’s unfailing charm and graceful prose, it would be ungrateful to complain. But there are signs that the myth of Karl Kraus is gaining currency in the English-speaking world.

Some recent German studies have dealt critically with Kraus, but Heller ignores them and writes about Kraus very much as he did over twenty years ago in The Disinherited Mind. One would never gather from Heller’s essay that Wilma Iggers’s Karl Kraus, which he ostensibly reviews, was published in 1967, or that Iggers says in her preface: “The avoidance of the problem of Kraus’s attitude toward his own Jewish background is quite general in the Kraus literature,” although the problem is “essential to the understanding of Kraus.” Heller still avoids this problem, nor would one learn from his essays that Kraus, though born a Jew, converted to Catholicism, that he later left the church again, that his writings were widely considered stridently anti-Semitic, and that he was in other respects as well a very questionable figure. Here are some criticisms that his admirers should consider.

  1. Kraus was above all an arbiter of taste, but his literary judgment was undistinguished. He considered himself an incomparably greater writer than he was, and his megalomania often becomes tedious.1 He failed to recognize the best writers of his time, largely ignored Kafka and Rilke, denigrated Stefan George and Hofmannsthal, quite failed to recognize Freud’s genius, and in 1922 proclaimed Else Lasker-Schüler and Peter Altenberg the greatest German writers of the last fifty years!2 In one of his not infrequent tapeworm sentences, Kraus assured the readers of his journal, Die Fackel, that “…the least of the ten thousand unprinted letters that I have written for the publishing house of Die Fackel, prompted by the most insignificant occasion…contains more Sprachwesen than…[Stefan George’s The Seventh Circle“; and he went on to say: “…and as true as it has become [owing to my demonstration] that Heinrich Heine was no lyrical poet, and as certainly as, by virtue of the edition I have prepared, I shall make the enduring Peter Altenberg, this most enchanting and freest of all spirits, the successor of Nietzsche;…” etc.3 Kraus’s admirers insist that Kraus is untranslatable. Sprachwesen is untranslatable because the term is vague; but neither such braggadocio nor the lack of Kraus’s judgment is greatly affected by the question whether he did or did not mean “linguistic character.” In 1921 Kraus wrote of Nietzsche: “He was untimely and thirty years ahead of his time. Now he is timely; in twenty years not one sentence of his will survive.”4

  2. Kraus’s judgment was warped by his violent prejudices. Heller quotes Kraus’s dictum that German is “the profoundest of all languages” and tries to make this view respectable. But it is not respectable, although it is central in Kraus’s famous attack on “Heine and the Consequences.”5 I quote Kraus: “It is the French disease that he [Heine] has imported into Germany. How easily one becomes sick in Paris! How the morality of the German feeling for language is loosened! The French language surrenders to every filou. Faced with the German language a fellow has to be a real man to make her come around…. With French everything is easy….” Hans Weigel, who quotes this passage, comments: “Karl Kraus had learned French, to be sure, but did not master the French language. How clairvoyantly did he grasp the decisive features of the unique, blessed, and productive superiority of German over French!”6 Sic!

Iggers, in her “intelligently conceived and knowledgeably executed” book on Kraus, has dealt at length with Kraus and “The Jewish Problem” (pp. 171-191), and there is no need here to pile up loathsome quotations. Iggers also points out that “Kraus published numerous articles against the campaign to give Dreyfus another trial,” that he considered sympathy for Dreyfus more reprehensible than all the anti-Semitism of France, and that, in the face of a ritual murder trial, in 1900, “he was primarily concerned with the fact that good newspapers should bother writing for weeks about ‘…a vegabond whose guilt or innocence is not proven at all.”’7

Weigel documents Kraus’s turn against Freud around 1910 and wonders what caused it. Surely, in part the fact that Kraus had heard that Fritz Wittels had analyzed Kraus in a paper read to the Vienna psychoanalytic society. Ernest Jones reports that Freud found the paper “clever and just, but urged special discretion in the study of a living person lest it deteriorate into inhumanity.” Kraus heard about the paper and “responded by making several fierce attacks on psychoanalysis.”8 Personal incidents frequently influenced Kraus’s judgment. But Weigel overlooks Jones’s report and answers his own question: “What brought about the turn around 1910?…It is the turn to God….”9 One might discount this explanation if it were not for the fact that Kraus’s turn against Nietzsche was so clearly related to his conversion to Catholicism. “In his poem ‘The Antichrist’ Kraus bases his repudiation of Nietzsche on Nietzsche’s break with Christianity and its scale of values.”10 The poem is hard to translate, but not because it is especially profound. It may suffice here to quote two of its thirty-two rhymed lines: “The Christian God is good enough / to save us from evil.”

  1. Kraus was not a shining example of intellectual integrity, as Allan Janik keeps suggesting in Wittgenstein’s Vienna.11 It has often been remarked how Kraus demolished those he despised by simply quoting them. But in a recent study of Kraus’s attack on Heine, Mechthild Borries shows how “the insidiousness [Tücke] of this procedure…depends on mutilations that falsify the meaning. The effectiveness of this method is magnified by the satirical technique that emphasized some quoted words by using italics. Thus the original is supposed to stand revealed as a satire of itself…. Since Kraus is convinced that for him ‘in art…one line reveals the whole personality’ (W. II, p. 85), he has no scruples about saving himself the trouble of acquainting himself with the whole work. What misinterpretations can result from this procedure is shown by the following examples….” The author goes on to furnish convincing illustrations of Kraus’s utter lack of scruple in his attack on Heine, before concluding: “That Kraus did not deceive himself about the dubiousness of this way of quoting is shown by his panic fear lest this weapon…might be turned against himself.” Thus he insisted in self-defense: “They take what suits them…. The organic whole from which the part was torn is then no longer recognizable…by omissions one can turn a platitude into a thought, but also a thought into a platitude….”12

  2. Finally, one gains the impression from some of Kraus’s admirers that his peers looked up to him, and that the greatest spirits of the age, at least in Vienna, considered themselves his disciples. Janik says this repeatedly. But although Janik quotes Robert Musil again and again, often at great length, to show us what Vienna was like, Janik never mentions, any more than Heller, that in Musil’s diaries Kraus is mentioned frequently, but never favorably. Here are a few examples. “How sterile, for example, are Nordau and Kraus. Fruitful: Nietzsche.” “Long before the dictators, our time produced the worship of intellectual dictators. See [Stefan] George. Then also Kraus and Freud, Adler and Jung. Add also Klages and Heidegger. The common element is apparently the need for lordship and leadership, for a savior.” “KK and H[itler]…. H’s failures similarly increase people’s love of him. That is what is so devastating about the Krausianerei. Everything that happened later was preformed here. They remain faithful to him even when he does not deserve it…. A need for illusions?”13

Janik simply does not know Kraus and the other men about whom he writes well enough, while Heller, in his graceful essay, coasts on remembrance of things past without facing up either to the recent literature on Kraus, including Igger’s book which he reviews, or to the questions I have raised here. If anyone could persuade me to esteem Kraus more, it would be Heller, I suppose; but it is precisely because I share some of Kraus’s passionate concerns that I feel so disappointed by him. In the end he remained a pedant whose flashes of wit did not compensate sufficiently for his consuming resentment, his appalling lack of judgment, his bigotry, and his unscrupulous methods.

Walter Kaufmann

Princeton, New Jersey

Erich Heller replies:

The sentence in which Karl Kraus, according to Walter Kaufmann; “proclaimed Else Lasker-Schüler and Peter Altenberg the greatest German writers of the last fifty years” occurs in an essay he wrote in 1913 by way of answering a letter to “the editor of Die Fackel.” The correspondent wanted to know how Karl Kraus managed to reconcile his frequent “anti-Semitic” satires with his being himself a Jew. The reply, included in the volume Untergang der Welt durch schwarze Magie, should have made it impossible ever after to speak of his “anti-Semitism” as if he had been an ally of the fabricators of aggressive racial ideologies. No, his “anti-Semitism,” in all its problem-ridden complexity, was a new form of the prophet’s indignation at the worshippers of the golden calf and other idols made of lesser stuff. Were it not for the exorbitant difficulty of translating the essay, I would be tempted to ask for the space to quote it in its entirety. Here, in any case, is my attempt at rendering the one sentence:

I do not know whether it is due to my Jewishness that I find the Book of Job worth reading, or to my anti-Semitism that I threw a book by Schnitzler14 against the wall; or whether it is my Jewish or my German sensibility that causes me to judge the writings of the Jews Else Lasker-Schüler and Peter Altenberg to be closer to God and language than anything that German literature has produced during the last fifty years—the lifetime of Hermann Bahr.

To Walter Kaufmann this shows that Karl Kraus’s “literary judgment was undistinguished.” If he really means what so kindly he suggests: that I, if anyone, might persuade him to “esteem Kraus more,” I might begin my persuasion with a “close reading” of that essay. But even this one sentence reveals that the “literary judgment” is the satirist’s hyperbole, meant not so much to lavish praise on the two Jewish writers—whom indeed he did love—as to ridicule the charge of anti-Semitism, and at the same time to point to the mediocrity of a literary scene over which the non-Jewish and modishly successful Hermann Bahr richly presided, with Lasker-Schüler and Altenberg living in neglect and poverty. Nonetheless, Jewish “anti-Semitism” is an intriguing and problematic phenomenon, and insofar as Karl Kraus had a share in it, he was a fellow “anti-Semite” of Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, Otto Weininger, and even Franz Kafka. But this “anti-Semitism” is certainly not the same as anti-Semitism and cannot be discussed in a hurry.

It was probably hurry that made Kaufmann overlook one of Kraus’s main points in his polemics against the Jewish pro-Dreyfus journalists in Vienna and Berlin: that they had turned into all but anti-French chauvinists, behaving as if Austrian and German anti-Semitism hardly existed in comparison with the French outrage. If I avoided the whole question in my essay, this was not because I did not “face up to the recent literature on Kraus” (which in most cases is not so “recent” that it does not tediously repeat arguments that are as old as the shocks of the first readers of Die Fackel) but for the same reason that, without critically reviewing them, I merely drew attention to the two books on Kraus: I wished to introduce uninitiated readers to him rather than debate intricate problems that, at this point in the emergence of “the myth of Karl Kraus,” could only blur what to me are his most firmly drawn features.

Karl Kraus was no “literary critic” and knew of no professional obligation to be “just.” By the standards of “critical evaluation” his judgments were often distinguished by inconsistency and injustice, but they were never “undistinguished.” They always possessed the distinction of attending to character rather than to talent, human substance rather than virtuosity, art rather than artistry. It was in this spirit that he revived the memory of many a forgotten poet of the German seventeenth century (much as T.S. Eliot, unjust toward Milton, did with the English “metaphysical poets”), honored the poetry of the “simpleton” Matthias Claudius, and published in Die Fackel contributions by Strindberg, Wedekind, and Liliencron. The same spirit informs his luminously biased and distinguished polemic against Heine and above all against Heine’s “consequences,” the part he played in the evolution of a style of light virtue, of feuilleton and journalese.

Does Walter Kaufmann really wish to uphold the “motivational fallacy” that sees in Kraus’s attacks upon psychoanalysis and its practitioners the reflex gestures, before anything else, of injured vanity? Karl Kraus’s animosity toward the new theory of the soul was so obviously of a piece with his other animosities that surely it had no need to be animated by a paper analyzing him. It is more likely that, on the contrary, the rumored paper was provoked by the aversion to psychiatry and psychoanalysis that Die Fackel had displayed long before 1910. But even if it had been a personal grievance that inspired his polemic, this would not affect in the slightest our sense of the truth or untruth of the utterances thus inspired, their importance or irrelevance, their profundity or shallowness. It is the oyster, not the resultant pearl, that is pathologically irritated by the intruder grain of sand.

Surely, one who has spent many fruitful years with Nietzsche need not be reminded of this. Subjective motivations abound in the genesis of Nietzsche’s judgments, but the brilliance of the judgment is not in the occasion; it is in the mind of the judge. And the—by no means consistently—negative relationship Karl Kraus had to Nietzsche is almost as complex and often contradictory as that of Nietzsche to Socrates. Altogether Nietzsche! I share with Kaufmann an absorbing interest in Nietzsche’s work, a fascination publicly affirmed. Yet would we not both be able to compose a long list of opinions uttered by Nietzsche that, stated in isolation, would sound at least as abhorrent as Karl Kraus’s “anti-Semitism”? This, regrettably, is not the place to discuss the grand and too-much-avoided task of distinguishing between opinions, occasionally held, and the enduring quality of the minds that hold them. If, for instance, I knew of Robert Musil only that diary entry concerning a similarity between Kraus and Hitler—just as if the kinds of enthusiasms they evoked, or their successes and “failures” were not worlds and hells apart—I might rashly conclude that he was a jealous imbecile. He was not.

  1. 1

    For examples see Hans Weigel, Karl Kraus oder die Macht der Ohnmacht, Fritz Molden (Vienna, Frankfurt, Zurich, 1968), p. 139f.

  2. 2

    Untergang der Welt, 365f., quoted by Wilma Abeles Iggers in Karl Kraus (Nijhoff, The Hague, 1967), p. 175f.

  3. 3

    Fackel 795/799, p. 3ff. (December 30, 1928). Quoted and discussed by Joachim Stephan in Satire und Sprache: Zu dem Werk von Karl Kraus, Anton Pustet (Munich, 1964), p. 154.

  4. 4

    Fackel, 577/582, p. 62ff., ibid., p. 138, and also Iggers, p. 216.

  5. 5

    Heine und die Folgen, Langen, Munich, 1910.

  6. 6

    Hans Weigel, op. cit., p. 106.

  7. 7

    Op. cit., pp. 183-185.

  8. 8

    Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 2 (Basic Books, New York, 1955), p. 118.

  9. 9

    Weigel, op. cit., p. 270.

  10. 10

    Mechthild Borries, Ein Angriff auf Heinrich Heine: Kritische Betrachtungen zu Karl Kraus, (Kohlhammer, Stuttgart, Berlin, Cologne, Mainz, 1971), p. 31. The Kraus poem appeared in Worte in Versen, VI, 1922, p. 17.

  11. 11

    With Stephen Toulmin (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1973).

  12. 12

    Borries, op. cit., pp. 82f. and 85.

  13. 13

    Robert Musil, Tagebücher, Aphorismen Essays und Reden, edited by Adolf Frise (Rowohlt, Hamburg, 1955), pp. 300, 398 (cf. 382), and 565. Hitler’s name appears in the book and has not been added by me. For Freud’s opinion of Kraus, see Sigmund Freud, Arnold Zweig, Briefwechsel, edited by Ernst L. Freud (S. Fischer, Frankfurt, 1968), p. 11.

  14. 14

    Karl Kraus disliked Schnitzler’s later works as much as Kafka did. Kafka said of them—in a letter to Felice—that they are “replete with the quavering hollowness of literary pretensions.”

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