Karl Kraus is among the most important and remarkable writers in modern German or any other literature, and yet he is hardly known in the United States. Born in 1874 in a provincial Bohemian town, the son of well-to-do Jewish parents, he spent almost all his life in Vienna, and died there in 1936. When he was young he thought of working for a newspaper or as an actor, but in 1899 he founded his own journal Die Fackel (The Torch). It was immediately obvious that a satirical talent of great force had arrived on the Viennese scene, a writer supremely thoughtful in his use of language and recklessly determined to attack those whom he regarded as the journalistic, literary, and political corrupters of the human condition.
Among the early contributors to Die Fackel were such diverse writers as Wilhelm Liebknecht, Franz Werfel, Frank Wedekind, and Peter Altenberg, but before long the editor was writing everything himself, and did so until his death at sixty-two. From these writings for Die Fackel he selected the contents of his books. Nine volumes of his satirical essays and aphorisms alone were published, beginning in 1908 with Sittlichkeit und Kriminalität (Morality and Criminality) and concluding with the posthumous Die Sprache (Language) in 1937.
It is not fanciful to suggest that “Language” would be a fitting name for all these books—“Language,” or “The Apocalypse.” For Kraus examined the language written, spoken, and degraded by his age and knew that Armageddon was at hand. Yet his tone was not at all reminiscent of Biblical prophecy. The place evoked was Vienna, not Babylon, and the time was every day, not the last one. And yet he wrote, “I hear noises which others don’t hear and which interfere with the music of the spheres that others don’t hear either.” The noises were in the speech of both prominent public men and hack journalists, passers-by, tip-greedy waiters, passengers in railroad cars, and patriotic or rebellious demonstrators in the city’s squares. The satirist perceived evil omens in these voices: their pretense, foolishness, or illiteracy announced to him catastrophes to come. The voices drowned out “the music of the spheres,” upsetting, that is, what he believed was, or should be, the natural and spiritual order of the human domain.
The end of the world is frequently alluded to in the very titles of Kraus’s books—for instance, Day of Judgment (1919) or The Destruction of the World by Black Magic (1922). But he is at his most apocalyptic in his vast assemblage of scenes about and from World War I, Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind), written during the years of the war and finally published as a book of 800 pages of which thirteen are taken up with a list of characters. If performed on earth, Karl Kraus says in the preface, the drama would consume ten evenings, but this is not the reason why it was meant for “a …