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Dark Laughter

Werke

by Karl Kraus, edited by Heinrich Fischer
Kösel-Verlag (Munich), 14 vols with 2 supplements pp.

Karl Kraus

by Harry Zohn
Twayne, 178 pp., $5.95

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. 1

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 theater on Mars”; no, the reason was that the audiences here and now would not be able to bear it. For it is “blood of their blood,” presenting as it does “those unreal, unthinkable years, out of reach for the wakeful hours of the mind, inaccessible to memory and preserved only in nightmares….”

But he saw the horror of the war not simply in its obvious violence, its cruelty and slaughter; the horror lay in the casting of a perverse stage director who allowed “the tragedy of mankind to be enacted by characters from an operetta.” This was Karl Kraus’s great and inexhaustible theme.

Our imaginations, he believed, had fed too long on the leftovers of the Renaissance and romanticism; instructed by that past, we assumed that only heroic greatness could bring about great upheavals, and therefore relied upon the mediocre for our safety, and upon the trivial for the conduct of our affairs. Karl Kraus’s satire relies on the recognition of the infernal dimension of the inferior, the gigantic shadow and freezing chill which the banal can cast over the world. In a way he anticipated Hitler long before anyone knew his name, just as he had, long before 1914, foreseen the bloodshed in the anemia of civilized life, and discerned in the restless boredom of that life the menacing thud of marching armies.

When war did break out, he wrote and delivered his celebrated oration whose first words are: “In dieser grossen Zeit…,” “In these great times,” the cliché he extracted from countless editorials that celebrated Europe’s descent into the depths of ignominy as the long-awaited triumph of the age, and the rout of the human spirit as proof of its ultimate glory. His first sentence fills half a page. Like most of Kraus’s work, it cannot be translated, only paraphrased:

In these great times which I knew long before they had become great and, if time permits, will be small once again; which, because in the realm of organic growth such transformations are impossible, we had better call fat times (for war profiteers) and surely hard times (for everyone else); in these times when things happen that could not be imagined, and in which the unimaginable must indeed happen because it would not, if one were able to imagine it; in these serious times which were dying with laughter at the thought that they might become serious; which, overtaken by their own tragedy, reach out for distractions and, catching themselves in the act of doing the unspeakable, grope for words; in these loud times which resound with the abominable symphony of deeds that bring forth reports, and reports that are responsible for deeds; in these times here and now you should not expect from me any word of my own.2

The main clause is, of course, “In these great times you should not…,” but the predicate is postponed again and again, just as in a world where wartime deeds and mendacious reports feed on each other, endlessly multiplying through their obscene couplings, the “great times” could return to their proper scale only after an unconscionable delay. Indeed they would not return until the will to perform bloody deeds of war was as exhausted as the imagination must have been before the deeds could be done. The construction of the sentence is the product of Karl Kraus’s superbly realized ambition not merely to express his thought but to do it so precisely that language itself would appear to be the thinker, would catch the rhythm of events in the rhythm of words, and make sentences the mirror of the world they describe—the mirror as well as the judgment passed on the world.

It should be clear that this use of language cannot be reproduced in any translation. For Karl Kraus’s work is more deeply rooted in its own language than is the writing of any other writer of prose. Of the German language he said—echoing Goethe—that it is “the profoundest of all languages” even when, as of course he had to add, German speech is the crudest and shallowest.

It was Goethe who believed that German, “this strange and wondrous tongue,” was so responsive to the subtlest stirrings of soul and mind that it could attune itself even to the spirit of any other language. He who knows German, he said, is well-equipped for the literatures of the world, for German translations are more successful than any other. And it is certainly true to say that, compared to the awkwardness of Goethe’s Faust in English, Hamlet in German is almost a German drama; and to render any philosopher’s thought in German is child’s play by comparison with the practically insurmountable difficulties of translating Heidegger. Neither the idea that language in its logical essence mirrors the world (Wittgenstein) nor the idea that it is “the house of Being” (Heidegger) could have been thought in any other language. For German is—or seems: a difference that vanishes in faith as well as in love—“the profoundest of all languages.”

A sober view of the matter may well be that modern German, having become a literary idiom later than French or English, is an adolescent language, malleable and ready to let the inarticulate, which lies buried beneath all languages, show on the surface of its articulations. It is easily seduced by genius, idiot, and villain. Of course no language is immune to the mendacity of rhetoric and to pretentiousness, but German has the lowest resistance. No translations of Hitler’s oratory, alas, could convey the resonance of hell in it (had it been otherwise, perhaps the resistance of the world might have come earlier and at less cost). And if, to pass from the base to the sublime, all great lyrical poetry can only be approximated in any translation, Hölderlin’s is nearly unapproachable; and this is so largely because he is a German poet. While every language is capable of purification by a writer of integrity, Karl Kraus’s epigram about his love affair with language, his mistress who was a whore before he restored her virginity,

Sie war eine dreiste Dirne,
die ich zur Jungfrau gemacht

would seem excessive, were it not said by him and in German.

In these times you should not expect from me any words of my own.” This is the statement of his satirical method: he often spoke merely in quotations. Merely? It was enough. For his genius for quoting was such as to perform the magic by which the real, faithfully rendered, was transformed into the stuff from which art is made. “The most improbable deeds which are here reported,” he says in the preface to The Last Days of Mankind,

…really happened; I have registered only what was done. The most improbable conversations which are here conducted took place; exaggerations and inventions are quotations…. Documents assume a living shape, reports come to life as persons, persons die as leading articles. The feuilleton is given a mouth to deliver itself as a monologue; clichés walk on two legs—men have kept only one. Inflections of voices rush and rustle through our days and grow into the chorus of the unholy plot. People who have lived amidst mankind and survived it, the executive organs and spokesmen of an age that has no flesh but blood, no blood but ink, are reduced to shadows and marionettes, the forms befitting their busy sham existences. Cyphers and lemures, masks of the tragic carnival, have living names because this must be so, and because nothing is accidental in this time conditioned by chance. But this gives nobody the right to regard it as a local affair. Even the noises of a Viennese rush hour are directed from a cosmic point.

Cosmic points” are not easily come by in a time of skepticism, psychology, and relativity; and yet when Karl Kraus speaks of them it is not a façon de parler. He had no systematic theology or “cultural anthropology,” but his life was lived and his work was done from a firm center of belief, so firm indeed that it refuses to be penetrated even by the sharpest definition. He was, however, able to see the history of his time from that perspective in which events, despite their satirical distortion, showed their true face; and by “cosmic point” he meant the place where nature and spirit, world and language meet. Although Karl Kraus may not have believed in a god known to theologians, he had the right to say that his satire did not deny God, but only everything that is denying Him; and if He wills it so, everything will once again be miraculous:

  1. 1

    In the intervening years he published Sprüche und Widersprüche (Dicta and Contradictions), 1909; Die chinesische Mauer (The Wall of China), 1910; Pro Domo et Mundo, 1912; Weltgericht (Day of Judgment), 1919; Nachts (Night), 1919; Untergang der Welt durch schwarze Magie (The Destruction of the World by Black Magic), 1922; and Literatur und Lüge (Literature and Untruth), 1929.

  2. 2

    The first words in German show clearly enough why Kraus is untranslatable: “In dieser grossen Zeit, die ich noch gekannt habe, wie sie so klein war….” This manner of phrasing, with the highly colloquial relative clause set up against the solemnity of “this great time,” would not usually be used of “times” but of people remembered from the past when they were still children (“klein“), just as children look forward to a time when they will be “gross” (which here does not mean “great” but grown-up, adult).

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