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Tod und Tango

In response to:

Master of Horror from the November 6, 1986 issue

To the Editors:

Your review of Karl Kraus’ work in translation [NYR, November 9, 1986] is not up to your usual standard. It almost seems as if the reviewer has not read any of Kraus’ work except the bits presented in the books reviewed. And his condescension is misplaced. Kraus, he says, gets overworked about minor incidents. He cites as an example, a long poem in which a young man pardoned for a crime of passion provides Kraus with a pretext for a general vision of earthly doom.

Has your reviewer read the whole of this remarkable poem, Tod und Tango? First of all, the young man is let off after murdering his wife while women who murder their husbands, as Kraus points out in the poem, get the death sentence. The double standard of Austrian justice was a serious matter for Kraus. Secondly, the young man is a banker and godchild of an important judge. His exoneration is only possible in a society of class privilege, the same privilege that a year later (the poem was published in 1913) would see sons of munitions makers escape military service while factory workers were sent into combat for complaining about working conditions. 1913 was not too soon to be foreseeing the end of a world based on terrible inequities of rank and sex.

Finally, Kraus’ main target in this poem is the Viennese public that takes even the grimmest news as a form of titillation and entertainment. A year later he would begin The Last Days of Mankind with a newsboy hawking the thrilling headlines. This was Kraus’ main grief throughout the play, that to the home front, the war was a form of entertainment, a kind of television avant la lettre or avant l’image.

Das Leben starb, Die Mörder tanzen Tango. This amazing last line is another example of the clairvoyance Kraus achieved by pursuing relations most of us, including book reviewers, would rather overlook, between our own petty deeds and the “great” events we imagine we are victims of. Now more than ever Kraus’ works need to be read and not, literally or figuratively, put down.

Suzanne Ruta

Santa Fe, New Mexico

D.J Enright replies:

I mentioned the story of the young man in order to illustrate what Canetti (a better witness than I could ever be) had to say about “the evenness of assault” in Kraus’s writings—and to illustrate how a dedicated, indefatigable moralist and satirist can fall foul of the law of diminishing returns.

I may have underreacted to the poem—as Suzanne Ruta, I think, has overreacted to my comment—but I am still of the opinion that it is one of Kraus’s less persuasive pieces. The “double standard” manifest in the affair is of course shocking and likewise, if less so, the public “titillation,” but you won’t improve the world by telling it that it ought to drop dead in toto. Incidentally, isn’t the most grievous thing about war the fact that some people get killed in it, not the fact that other people find it exciting entertainment?

At all events, I am distressed that Ms. Ruta should have detected condescension in my review. Surely there was much more admiration in evidence?

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