Karl Kraus: Apocalyptic Satirist
Culture and Catastrophe in Habsburg Vienna
In These Great Times: A Karl Kraus Reader
Half-Truths & One-and-a-Half Truths: Selected Aphorisms
A common misfortune of cultural historians, scholars who propose to supply the background to the work of writers, is that the writers have already supplied not only a foreground but, by implication, a background as well, and, if they are writers of account, one of considerable brilliance and intimacy. We know medieval England through Chaucer, and Victorian London through Dickens; we know Hanseatic life in the nineteenth century because of Buddenbrooks;. we know Hapsburg Austria because of The Man Without Qualities,. and because of Karl Kraus. Of course such knowledge is incomplete—what knowledge of the past, indeed what knowledge, isn’t?—and an able historian or biographer can fill in gaps. If these are small or trivial, he is condemned to mere exhaustiveness. If they are truly large, if the impressions derived from the literature are radically false, then the writer in question is one that no serious historian or critic would concern himself with. A species of Catch-22 is operating here.
Kraus’s magazine Die Fackel. (“The Torch”) ran for thirty-seven years and 922 numbers, between 1899 and 1936, and, more than the writers mentioned above, perhaps more than any other writer, he occupied himself with the minutiae of the local life of his time, the personalities and practices of what Schoenberg called “our beloved and hated Vienna.” Edward Timms’s task—to trace Kraus’s literary career and personal life up till the founding of the Austrian republic in 1919—would seem to be even more supererogatory than usual. Except for one factor: Kraus is little known to the larger English-speaking public, but interest in him has been mounting for some time now, and hence Timms’s book arrives opportunely. That it makes heavy weather of describing the fragmented condition, ethnic, social, political, and religious, of Austria-Hungary, and especially of Vienna, is no great matter, although room could surely have been found in the present volume for the last seventeen years of the subject’s life had Timms gone easy on the background and left more to the reader’s imagination, itself capable of feeding on Kraus’s imagination. (The lively illustrations themselves tell a story: photographs of the leading characters; a literary coffeehouse; the Kaiser kitted out in medieval armor, fearing God but nobody else; a repulsive grinning male face advertising the virtues of Lysoform, “the most perfect disinfectant. Indispensable for ladies.”) But much can be forgiven in return for such insights as the quotation from Arthur Schnitzler to the effect that before one joined a cycling club one would need to ascertain whether it was a Progressive, or Christian Social, or German Nationalist, or anti-Semitic organization.
Erich Heller wrote on Kraus in The Disinherited Mind. (1952) and in The New York Review. (“Dark Laughter,” May 3, 1973: an excellent introduction, reprinted in Heller’s collection of essays, In the Age of Prose,. 1984). Honor should be accorded Frank Field’s early study, The Last Days of Mankind: Karl Kraus and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.