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Karl Kraus and Walter Benjamin

In response to:

The Torch of Karl Kraus from the October 23, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of Paul Reitter’s book on Karl Kraus [ NYR, October 23], Adam Kirsch is right to highlight the chapter on Walter Benjamin’s and Gershom Scholem’s reception of the satirist. Exploring the apparent contradiction between Kraus’s reputation as a self-hating Jew and the undeniable fascination he exerted on these two great figures of Jewish modernism constitutes one of Reitter’s most impressive achievements.

Kirsch does a grave disservice to both Kraus and Benjamin, however, by insisting that Kraus “dismissed Benjamin’s essay as ‘abyssal feuilletonism,’ reducing Benjamin to yet another example of sterile ‘Jewish journalism.’” First of all, Kraus was perfectly capable of using “feuilletonism” without anti-Semitic undertones, and the phrase “Jewish journalism” is not linked to Benjamin in the context of the remarks about the essay “Karl Kraus” or anywhere else in The Torch.

Furthermore, the phrase “abyssal feuilletonism” (” mit abgründigem Feuilletonismus ” in the original) certainly does not mean ” abysmal feuilletonism,” as Kirsch implies. The adjective abgründig almost always has ambivalent connotations; and Kraus employs it here also in the sense of “profound,” in order to give Benjamin an underhanded compliment. In any case, he is not describing the entire essay with this phrase, but rather a passage in it that characterizes one of his famous one-man reading performances of Offenbach operettas.

If Benjamin was, as Reitter reports, disappointed by Kraus’s muted reaction to the essay as a whole, he should have taken heart in what followed. In subsequent issues of The Torch, Kraus twice referred to it in the irregular gatherings of bibliographical notices of his own work. As close readers of the journal knew, being cited without being torn apart was in itself a mark of high distinction.

Leo A. Lensing
Middletown, Connecticut

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