Karl Kraus
Karl Kraus; drawing by David Levine

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 his Vienna. (1967); and Thomas Szasz’s Karl Kraus and the Soul-Doctors. (1976) dealt entertainingly with Kraus’s attitude toward Freud and his followers, though Timms insists that Kraus’s strictures were directed against the followers rather than Freud himself. Szasz quoted not only the famous epigram, “Psychoanalysis is the disease of which it claims to be the cure,” but also Kraus’s fundamental principle, “Language is the mother, not the maid, of thought,” as well as that useful distinction, “The agitator seizes the word. The artist is seized by it.”

The greatest step forward was surely Harry Zohn’s selection from Kraus, In These Great Times,. originally published in Montreal in 1976, which subverts the assumption, promoted by Heller and half-accepted by Zohn, that Kraus is untranslatable. We recognize an element of truth in the assertion, since for much of the time Kraus was dealing in the German language, idiosyncratically, with usages and perversions of the German language, but it remains true that—again, for much of the time—his concerns, like those of any satirist or polemicist worth his salt, are universal and (alas) timeless in their nature. “Kraus is being taken up by a younger generation of radical readers for whom his critiques—of the mass media, the military-industrial complex and technology that is running out of control—have clear application to the late twentieth century.” Whether this claim, made in the catalog of the publisher of Timms’s book, is strictly true I don’t know. But it could be, and ought to be.

Untranslatable—that high yet ambiguous accolade often means that the right translator hasn’t come along, or that for various reasons not many people desire a translation and hence publishers have evinced no interest. In Kraus’s case the situation has been aggravated by the discomfort felt among German-speaking critics: he doesn’t fit into any “school,” any of the great, well-founded, well-thought-of categories—and that, where taxonomy rules, is a sin. English-speaking Germanists have tended to follow suit or else, as with J.P. Stern,1 their opinions have been confined to academic circles, where popularization or vulgarization (which includes translation) is itself a solecism if not a sin.


Paradoxes are fairly easily come by; we can pluck them out of the air. They are virtually bound to manifest themselves where people commit themselves to opinions and causes, and they serve the critic and the commentator as a good old standby. Paradoxes and contradictions flourish in Timms’s commentary. Kraus attacked ideological thinking in all its shapes or forms: “His reformist campaign could only be implemented with political support. But his intransigence toward organized factions effectively precluded it.” If politics is the art of the possible, Kraus’s art was that of the truth. We cannot regret that he forfeited the power that political affiliation would theoretically have supplied. Had he enrolled in a party, it would have been the end of him, or of the party.

Timms quotes Kraus’s remark that if scoundrels cannot be improved then it is still an ethical aim to vex them, and juxtaposes it with Swift’s objective: “to vex rogues, though it will not amend them,” adding somewhat truistically, “Both formulations reflect the difficulties inherent in any attempt to set the world to rights by means of the pen.” Not even the consciousness that no one is going to read him can stop a writer writing. Related is “a paradox which runs right through Kraus’s writings”: “As a reformist critic he certainly wished to raise the standards of Austrian journalism; but as satirist he proclaims that the press is irredeemably corrupt.” The theory that the satirist must be optimistic—or at any rate not pessimistic—since otherwise he wouldn’t go to the trouble of launching his assault has never convinced me. One could as well maintain that no optimist would ever bother with satire since he knows that time or some other benign agency will rectify whatever is amiss.

In a Brechtian avant la lettre,. Kraus stated that he did not wish “performance” to overpower an intellectual understanding of the text. “When I give public readings, I am not making literature into a performance.” Yet contemporary reports of his recitations—some seven hundred, from Shakespeare, Goethe, Offenbach, Johann Nestroy (his predecessor in satire), and his own work—dwell on his declamatory and histrionic style. “This paradox can only be resolved by seeing his public role as a quest for authentic identity.” It could be that, to Kraus’s way of thinking, when he did it, it was right, and when others did it, it was wrong. Perhaps that is what Timms means by a quest for identity.

A more interesting paradox is seen in Kraus’s dealings with women, or with women and Woman. His public emphasis was on women as the brainless but bountiful vehicles or vessels of sensuality, in contrast with men, whose strength and purpose lie in ideas. “The sensuality of woman,” he wrote, “is the primal spring at which the intellectuality of man finds renewal.” In private, however, his taste was for intelligent women, such as the actresses he loved, and likewise the blue-blooded and cultivated Sidonie Nadherny. We may well apotheosize the pure (in one sense, at least) and elemental Weib. or Earth Mother, while in personal matters preferring a woman, a lady even, we could converse with as well as embrace in bed. Intelligence, we might reckon, is more likely to stimulate or enhance sensuality than to deter it. Not infrequently one is oneself the great exception to the rule one is proclaiming, possibly the exception that proves it.

There is no compelling reason for surprise when we hear that, according to his acquaintances, in private life the fierce and intransigent battler was sociable, charming, relaxed, and kindly. But George Steiner touched on another oddity when reviewing Kraus’s letters to Sidonie Nadherny, although he was too wily to invoke the word “paradox”:

One may, in one’s public writings and utterances, be a ferocious rationalist, contemptuous of human lies and illusions. But one is privately, and almost obsessively, involved with a graphologist and clairvoyant whose interpretations of Sidonie’s handwriting and of the handwriting and horoscopes of her friends seem “miraculously accurate” and fill numerous letters.2

The best comment on the phenomenon I know of occurs in Johnson’s Rasselas,. when Imlac, asked why his father desired to increase his wealth when he already had more money than he could enjoy, answers: “Inconsistencies cannot both be right, but, imputed to man, they may both be true.” This isn’t an explanation, but there are those things that can only be described. The rationalist tells you that why he doesn’t walk under ladders is simply that a brick or a pot of paint might fall on him. Instead, he steps off the sidewalk and risks being run down.


So marked were Kraus’s attempts to discard his Jewish identity, Timms comments, that he has been associated with the notion of “Jewish self-hatred.” He no more wanted to be categorized as a Jew than Heine did. Jews were prominent in commercial, financial, and journalistic life, and hence among the enemy, but when Kraus described himself as “Aryan” he set the word inside inverted commas. He meant he was unaligned, and therefore uncompromised; or, tout court,. “ethical.” He embraced Catholicism in 1911, seemingly without much passion, and remained within that faith for twelve years, though always silently. “Baptized Jews”: that was another category to be avoided. And there was little trace of Christianity in his writing. Perhaps the point was not so much entering one religion or community as extricating himself from another. (There is a faint suspicion of his leaning over backwards in these “liberating” maneuvers, especially as regards his Jewishness.) As Timms notes, it is not the redeeming Christ who informs his satire, but rather the retributive and Judaic Jehovah.

“If the roles of satirist and Christian are incompatible, what of those of satirist and lover?” Timms asks. Incompatibles, or what look like them, are a more extreme form of paradox, equally handy as a trellis on which critics and biographers weave their deliberations. To understand a love affair from inside is hard enough; to assess it from outside can be impossible. Timms is suitably prudent. Kraus fell in love with Sidonie Nadherny, a Catholic and an aristocrat, in 1913; between that date and his death in 1936, although the decisive break came in 1918, he addressed nearly eleven hundred letters, post cards, and telegrams to her. Their love remained clandestine, less because satirists are forbidden love than because Sidonie needed to make a socially acceptable marriage. Kraus was well off: he inherited an income from his father, a paper manufacturer, and—another paradox?—Die Fackel prospered, its first number, published on April 1, 1899, having sold almost thirty thousand copies. But affluence alone wouldn’t suffice. In 1914 Sidonie wrote in her diary, “He is the only man living….K.K. shall always remain the glory & crown of my life!”; yet apparently she felt she could not remain faithful to one man, even the only man living, and a diary entry of 1918 reads, “The greater his love grows, the less I can return.”

The most striking feature of the relationship, Timms observes, is that it made so little impression on Kraus’s published writings. (Kraus’s love for Sidonie does evince itself in his poetry, but disguised; and the poems are elegiac in mood.) In this respect love resembled religion. Satire seems to rule out, at least as themes, the very matters you might expect to inspire it. But then, inspiration can work in devious ways.

Timms has an excellent passage on Kraus’s “mythopoeic imagination,” remarking that you do not need to know anything about the Viennese journalist Felix Salten to appreciate the power of Kraus’s portrait of him. Historically accurate though the portrait is, the individual has become a type; Kraus moves from the particular to the general while retaining all the persuasive force which the particular carries. “Am I to blame,” he asked, “if hallucinations and visions are alive and have names and permanent residences?” Every great satirist must be a great creator, a myth maker as well as a realist. The proponent of Swift’s “Modest Proposal” for preventing the children of Ireland from being a burden to others takes on mythic stature as we listen to him. He is a counsel whom we would eagerly hire for our defense, were we guilty as charged; if we were innocent we would not desire to be prosecuted by him, let alone judged. He is au fait with political implications; as an economist he cannot be faulted; he is a skilled demographer, a sound psychologist (his plan will preserve pregnant wives against being kicked by their husbands), and not a bad butcher (he knows about salting meat). A veritable Nestor, a Daniel come to judgment! Finally he is an archetype of the highest kind of hypocrite. Not only does he abhor abortion and infanticide, which his scheme will surely eradicate, but you can see him cast up his eyes to heaven as he declares—for it is important that proposers should be known to have no vested interest in their proposals—that his own children are grown up and his wife is past the age of childbearing. If there is nothing in Kraus that reaches this level of reasoned insanity, then it is not surprising.

Kraus is a superb aphorist. “A school without grades must have been concocted by someone who was drunk on non-alcoholic wine.” (Very timely. The school I live next door to has banned competitive sports such as running because someone might win, ergo others might lose, and this offends the golden rule of equality.) And apropos in an age of revisionist bishops is this:

It is a mystery to me how a theologian can be praised for having brought himself to disbelieve dogmas. I’ve always thought that those who have brought themselves to believe in dogmas merit the true recognition owing a heroic deed.

If “it is the mission of the press to disseminate intellect and at the same time destroy receptivity to it,” then what is left to say about television? Some things haven’t changed since Old Vienna:

If something is stolen from you, don’t go to the police. They’re not interested. Don’t go to a psychologist either, because he’s interested in only one thing: that it was really you who did the stealing.

And this state of affairs, perhaps, has only changed in part: “It is not the custom to marry a woman who has previously had an affair. But it is the custom to have an affair with a woman who has previously got married.” And something for reviewers to bear in mind: “They judge lest they be judged.”3

In his longer set pieces Kraus sometimes employs the same heavy artillery to demolish minor offenders as he has brought to bear on major menaces; we recall what Pope said of those who do not deserve the lash since they are responsive neither to satire nor to sense: “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” Thus a young man who has been acquitted of a crime passionel, the murder of his wife, is seen a few months later dancing in public: writing about the incident, in heroic couplets of which Pope himself wouldn’t have been altogether ashamed, Kraus deduces from it the moral bankruptcy, indeed the living death, of the whole world. He was too ready to equate a badly written sentence with moral degeneracy, and a good literary style with truth and moral virtue—even reasoning in the opposite direction: “A poem is good until one knows by whom it is.” A tendency to take shortcuts is at least understandable in one who was always on the go. But it is central to Kraus’s mode of thinking that, in Timms’s words, “apocalyptic conclusions are drawn from…apparently commonplace material and trivial symptoms.” And Heller’s gloss is to the point here: “It was Karl Kraus who discovered to what satanic heights inferiority may rise.”

Highly pertinent are two essays in Elias Canetti’s The Conscience of Words. In the second of them, a lecture given in Berlin in 1974, Canetti says that “what annoys today’s reader of the Fackel, what makes it unbearable for him over long stretches, is the evenness of assault.”

Everything happens with the same strength, everything is drawn as equally important into one and the same language. One senses that the attack is an end in itself, a superior strength is demonstrated where absolutely no strength would be necessary; the victim vanishes under the incessant blows, he is long since gone, and the fight continues.

Nonetheless Canetti insists on Kraus’s place as the greatest German satirist, largely by reason of the vast drama The Last Days of Mankind, a war against war, against World War I, conducted by one man, the most belligerent of pacifists, concurrently with World War I, without the benefit of hindsight.4

In the earlier and more personal essay, dated 1965, Canetti tells of the first time he heard Kraus lecture, in 1924. Kraus’s law was certain and inviolable, it “glowed: it radiated, it scorched and destroyed.”

These sentences, built like cyclopean fortresses and always carefully dovetailing, shot out sudden flashes of lightning, not harmless, not illuminating, not even theatrical flashes, but deadly lightning. And this process of annihilatory punishment, occurring in public and in all ears at once, was so fearful and dreadful that no one could resist it.

Canetti became a devoted and passionate follower of Kraus’s dictatorship, for a time. Gradually he rebelled against it, against the ever-extending Chinese Wall of relentless judgments, against “the general shrinkage of the desire to do your own judging” that set in after a brief exposure to Die Fackel. A man so potently and comprehensively “responsible” left little responsibility to his followers. Yet Canetti acknowledges his indebtedness—Kraus opened his ear to a new dimension of language—and his account of “the master of horror,” the man’s energy, his gift for condemning people out of their own mouths, his courage and relish, the sheer necessity of him, is eloquent.

A defter breaking of a butterfly happens in a short item, included in In These Great Times, concerning the announcement in a St. Gallen newspaper of 1912 of a forthcoming performance at the municipal theater of what must have been a hitherto unknown tragedy by Shakespeare—King Lehar. “The printer was not trying to make a joke. The word that he was not supposed to set, the association that got into his work, is the measure of our time. By their misprints shall ye know them.” Nearer the knuckle is the advertisement spotted in the Neue Freie Presse in 1900: “Travelling companion sought, young, congenial, Christian, independent. Replies to ‘Invert 69’ poste restante Habsburgergasse.” Kraus’s design was to bring out the discrepancy between the paid ads and the sanctimoniousness of the editorials.

A more sustained, and quite irresistible, example of his humor and lightheartedness is the story of his beaver coat. It has been stolen, the whole of Vienna knows about his loss, people pity him, they forgive him, they admire him, they stop him in the street to condole with him. “I wrote books, but people understood only the coat.” His life has been transformed: the solitary and estranged satirist is suddenly “in the thick of it, the earth has me again.” (“Die Erde hat mich wieder”: the words come towards the end of the first scene of Goethe’s drama, when Faust’s superhuman aspirations have been knocked on the head and only the sound of Easter bells dissuades him from drinking poison.) But all this attention, this unwonted solidarity, is too much for him. Next the tax collectors will realize that he was rich enough to own a fur coat. “But I still had one hope left: by publishing a new book I might manage to make the Viennese forget me.”

Harry Zohn’s selection also demonstrates Kraus at his most serious, where the indignation and the punishment truly fit the provocation and the crime. For instance, parts of The Last Days of Mankind, even though there have been other last days since then, and the title-piece, “In these great times,” dated 1914: “Is the press a messenger? No, it is the event itself…. Once again the instrument has got the better of us.” (A near-anticipation of Marshall McLuhan.) And most notably an extract from the late work, The Third Walpurgis Night (following the two in Faust), written in 1933 but not published until 1952. In neighboring Germany, according to press reports, unusual events are taking place. Despite efforts to save them, people taken into protective custody are dying, because—the doctors say—they have lost the will to live. Others are so perverse as to inflict wounds on themselves while in transit to a camp. A Polish workman “died of heart failure; in any case, he was stateless.” Many of these people are sickly, no doubt owing to their regrettable mode of life, and liable to have fainting fits while standing near open windows on upper floors. Nonetheless great things are expected, and indeed claimed, in the way of spiritual rehabilitation, but unfortunately—Kraus interjects coolly—the patients themselves cannot testify to this because their astonishment results in speech disorders, or because “the spiritual transformation which often occurs at a stroke not infrequently results in unconsciousness or at least an impaired memory.” Here the subject matter is heavy, the writer’s hand light.

As for paradoxes, Kraus provided one for himself, along with an explication, in a poem entitled “Mein Widerspruch” (“My Ambivalence”):

Where lives were subjugated by lies
I was a revolutionary—
where norms against nature they sought to devise
I was a revolutionary….

Where freedom became a mean- ingless phrase
I was a reactionary—
where art they besmirched by their arty ways
I was a reactionary….

This Issue

November 6, 1986