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All Hail the Grumbler!

Abiding Karl Kraus


The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus,
translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen,
with assistance and additional notes from Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann,
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27

Drop the names of Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, or Leo Strauss at a highbrow dinner party, and everyone will nod, and feel a bit smarter. Like many twentieth-century central European Jewish intellectuals, Arendt, Benjamin, and Strauss have played outsized roles in American letters. The same cannot be said of Karl Kraus, whom few remember. For thirty-seven years, Kraus, a satirist and critic who died in 1936, was a one-man show in Vienna, publishing his own periodical, Die Fackel, until shortly before his death. He owned the journal, he edited it, and after the first years, he wrote all of its 922 issues.

Kraus, who had a cult following in Vienna, has had virtually no readership in the American world. In Anglo scholarship one bumps into Walter Benjamin often—probably too often. He is endlessly cited, studied, and translated. One database shows more than five hundred articles in the last fourteen years with Benjamin’s name in the title, compared to just seventy-seven for Kraus. Other writers from his generation have also been surfacing of late in English: Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig, for instance, who inspired Wes Anderson’s movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. Kraus has not joined this company.

The reason for this scant attention is clear. Kraus was drenched in Viennese culture. He was obsessed with the German language and its misuse by the Viennese press. He wrote scathing attacks on Viennese newspapers. His own writing not only was meticulously wrought, but also tended to be aphoristic, if not gnomic. All this has limited his exportability.[*] He does not travel well.

You don’t have to be a satirist to see that the enterprise of a bestselling American author translating and annotating an Austrian satirist has comic possibilities.

But now Jonathan Franzen, the bestselling novelist from Western Springs, Illinois, has assembled The Kraus Project (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013),an annotated and bilingual edition of two essays by the Viennese satirist. The first essay concerns Heinrich Heine, after Goethe perhaps the best-known nineteenth-century German writer, and the second, Johann Nestroy, a nineteenth-century Viennese playwright. While both essays might seem distant from twenty-first-century society and its ills, for Franzen they hit on an issue that is as contemporary as ever: the yawning divide between technological and cultural progress. According to Franzen and Kraus, advances in science cannot be doubted, but the larger culture remains backward. “We are complicated enough to build machines,” wrote Kraus in 1908, “and too primitive to make them serve us.”

You don’t have to be a satirist to see that the enterprise of a bestselling American author translating and annotating an Austrian satirist has comic possibilities. If an ordinary writer or scholar proposed to a commercial publisher—even to a university press—a bilingual edition of two Kraus essays, one of which marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of a Viennese playwright no one has ever heard of (Nestroy), he would be laughed out of the office—or deleted. The project flies by virtue of Franzen’s star power.

What would Kraus himself make of this? In an early issue of Die Fackel, he took swipes at the attention paid to a famous American author gallivanting around Vienna, Mark Twain, who was showing up at multiple events. The hoopla of a famous writer making headlines simply by being present at public functions irritated Kraus. “Before now,” Kraus wrote in 1899, “we have been unable to boast a sufficient number of personalities who, if incapable of contributing anything else to the age, were constantly prepared to be present among others, and so to fill this pressing need, Mark Twain hastened to Vienna and courageously threw himself into the forefront.”

Let’s give Franzen his due. He’s a serious student of German and German literature; he studied for several years in Germany, and has said he feels a deep affinity with the Viennese critic. Kraus’s savage criticism of popular newspapers, suspicion of technology, and defense of art all appeal to Franzen, whose nonfiction essays strike similar notes. For instance, in the spirit of Kraus, Franzen has attacked the intrusiveness of cellphones and the loss of private space as people bark out the dreck of their lives. Much links these writers from Austria and Illinois.

Franzen cannot be blamed if the system fawns over stars like him. And we should be glad that he uses his spotlight to bring figures like Kraus out of the shade. But while Franzen champions Kraus, he seems reluctant to cede the stage to the Viennese critic. The numerous annotations by Franzen overwhelm the text by Kraus. On some pages Kraus does not appear at all; it is just Footnote Franzen. On others, the footnotes squeeze Kraus to a few lines at the top of the page.

In fact, the book sometimes feels like a three-ring circus, since Franzen has enlisted Paul Reitter, an American professor who has written a book on Kraus, and Daniel Kehlmann, a German novelist and Kraus aficionado, to help. Not only do they contribute to the footnotes, but sometimes they argue among themselves over how to interpret a Kraus passage. The first essay of The Kraus Project is about Heine’s impact on German literature, which Kraus considered disastrous. Kraus thought Heine, a Paris-based German-Jewish writer, had dumbed down journalism in Germany by introducing the feuilleton, a culture column that appeared (and still appears) in many European newspapers. In a footnote, Reitter challenges Kraus’s genealogy of the feuilleton, Franzen challenges Reitter, Reitter answers back, and so it goes for page after page.

Well, you could do worse than to listen to several smart fellows argue about Karl Kraus. But the footnotes take on a life of their own, and Kraus is pushed aside. That is the irony of this edition. Franzen is more eager to tell us about his own life or give us his ruminations than to let us hear from Kraus. In one example of this, Kraus avers that Heine brought about a literary decline that was interrupted in the nineteenth century only once—by Ludwig Speidel. Who? Reitter fills us in and questions the validity of Kraus’s interpretation. Franzen chips in:

Point taken. But, again, Kraus isn’t even pretending to write a conventional history. I confess I haven’t read Speidel, but I like to imagine that his writing was striking for the same kind of freshness, humor, and authenticity that Russell Baker’s old columns in the Times had.

What is this? A late-night bull session in footnotes? Franzen, who prizes Kraus’s acidity, sounds off about authors he’s never read. Of course Reitter replies, and the footnotes continue.

What would Kraus, who revealed almost nothing about his personal life in print, make of his all-American editor, who lets it all hang out?

Franzen fills the footnotes with thoughts about Apple ads, Amazon, tweets, the AOL homepage—all of which he hates. What has this century achieved? “High-resolution smartphone videos of dudes dropping Mentos into liter bottles of Diet Pepsi and shouting ‘Whoa!’ while they geyser.” But what Franzen turns to the most is his own past and how, like Kraus, the child of a comfortable family, he became a “Great Hater.” He traces his hatred back to an afternoon in April 1982 in the Hannover railway station. He keeps returning to the story and adding details. More than eighty footnotes and a hundred pages later, we learn that during his troubled engagement to “V.,” Franzen stumbled upon a “breathtakingly beautiful” lady working as an au pair for a year in Germany. He had known her in college. “I was wildly attracted to her.” Thirty-six hours later he was in bed with her, but she would not make love with him unless he broke it off with V., which he could not do. In the morning at the Hannover railway station, he cursed his and mankind’s fate. He became a Great Hater, headed back to Berlin, and enrolled in a class on Karl Kraus. (Later he married and divorced V.) One wonders what Kraus, who revealed almost nothing about his personal life in print, would make of his all-American editor, who lets it all hang out.

Linguistic Tickling

Amid his meanderings and mullings, Franzen has done us the service of translating two key essays that have not been previously available in English. For that alone we should tip our hats to him. Franzen has done this because he believes that Kraus speaks directly to the present and to the cultural decay of modern life. For Franzen, “Vienna in 1910” equals “American in 2013.” This proposition, however, seems doubtful. Kraus is a figure of such complexity that he resists simple lessons. Yes, he was a trenchant critic of lax journalism, but he also got a lot wrong.

For starters, Kraus dabbled in anti-Semitism. He was Jewish himself—or rather he was born Jewish but joined the Catholic Church in 1911 and left it in 1923. Many of the leading Viennese figures of his time, including journalists and newspaper patrons, were also Jewish, and Kraus easily and often referred to them as the “Jewish press.” Most of his polemical targets were Jews, which he made plain. Scholars and followers of Kraus regularly comment on his Judaism or flight from it. Gershom Scholem, the German-Jewish savant (who changed his first name from Gerhard and emigrated to Palestine in the 1920s), remarked that anything one could say about Kraus’s “relationship to Jewish issues” would be wrong. This seems accurate.

Kraus died on the eve of the Nazi annexation of Austria, which for a left-leaning Jewish-born intellectual would have spelled either a concentration camp or exile. And while Franzen—or rather his second collaborator, Daniel Kehlmann—addresses Kraus’s supposed silence confronting Nazism, the truth is that the satirist’s idiom has not worn well in light of what happened. It is not so much Kraus’s attack on “Jewish” this or that, but his repeated eulogies to German national tradition and the German mind. These appeals might have seemed acceptable when his essay on Heine was published in 1910, but not later in the century. Kraus attacked Heine for his Frenchified, romantic, and “feminine” prose—and his “rootlessness.” Against all this, Kraus celebrated German culture and masculinity. “The German mind,” he opined, “will rise again only when the intellectual flood of filth in Germany has run its course: when people again begin to appreciate the mental labor of linguistically creative manliness and to distinguish it from the learnable manual labor of linguistic ticklings.” Such talk of filth and German manliness seems a half step toward Nazi rhetoric.

But only a half step. Kraus also attacked anti-Semitism, albeit sometimes indirectly. In April 1933, some months after Hitler became chancellor and anti-Semitic measures had been enacted, a German radio station wrote to Kraus asking for permission to use his Shakespeare translation in a broadcast. Kraus declined to provide a free copy and said he felt “obliged” to prevent a “mistake” that would bring the station into “conflict” with the current German “regulations on cultural criticism.” The mistake? He pointed out that his translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets appeared without an essential notice: “It was actually a translation from the Hebrew.” This was, of course, a joke or, more precisely, a dig at anti-Semitic Nazi edicts.

It wasn’t just Heine’s prose that drove Kraus to denounce him. It was the failure of Jewish emancipation that, in his mind, Heine represented—an observation T. W. Adorno makes in his 1956 essay on Heine. Europe’s Jews remained vulnerable, since they were largely middlemen and professionals such as lawyers, doctors, and journalists with no land or property. In the bourgeois era, “artists have to earn their livelihoods without patrons,” notes Adorno, and that meant attending to the imperatives of the market. But at the same time, they had to uphold the fiction of the “pure and autonomous” artist. For Jewish writers such as Heine and Kraus, this balancing act proved especially fraught. Heine, however, “the advocate of enlightenment,” punctured the illusion of artistic autonomy and brought to the fore the character of art as commodity. “He has not been forgiven for that,” remarks Adorno; he elicited “the rage of the person who sees the secret of his own degradation in the confessed degradation of someone else.” This allusive formulation probably refers to Kraus. Both were Jewish artists, but in Kraus the cash nexus remained discreetly veiled, while in Heine it was visible for all. This was Heine’s affront.

The offense can be formulated more concretely—or biographically. Kraus rarely referred to his economic situation. “In economic terms,” writes his biographer, “he was a rentier, because he derived a significant part of his income from capital inherited after the death of his father.” Kraus lived very well as a rentier artist. He occupied the best part of Vienna, took long vacations, and stayed at the best hotels. In 1914, when automobiles were rare, Kraus purchased one and hired a chauffeur. Money was never an issue for him. Heine’s life was the opposite. He grubbed for jobs, loans, lines of credit, book contracts. Money was always an issue. This may have discomfited Kraus. Even their respective conversions to Christianity reflect differences of style and sensibility. Kraus’s was done secretly and remains to this day unexplained. Heine’s was overtly practical or cynical, to improve his career prospects, and he did not hide that reality. He gave his conversion no religious significance. In fact, he considered it “a disgrace and stain upon my honor that in order to obtain a position in Prussia, I had to allow myself to be baptized.”

Franzen is more interested in Kraus as a cultural critic than he is in Kraus’s relationship to Heine. Nevertheless, that relationship remains important, in part because it highlights the dilemma of the cultural critic, who, in railing against modernity, risks becoming a reactionary. Heine exemplified a liberal cosmopolitanism that Kraus both shared and detested. In his flight from this urbane liberalism, Kraus often sounds like—and perhaps becomes—a backward-looking traditionalist. In following Kraus, Franzen faces the same issue: At what point does the critique of what Franzen calls “the infernal machine of techno-consumerism” become retrograde? At what point does the denunciation of mass media turn into a lament for a past Austria or America? What politics emerges from this cultural criticism?

After World War I, in a partial “correction” to his Heine piece, which Franzen also translates, Kraus retracted some of his more reactionary formulations and altered his politics, inching toward the political left. Kraus initially greeted the war with qualified support; he liked the rectitude of soldiers and generals, and he preferred straightforward military bulletins to the phoniness of the civilian press. He even praised the proclamation of war by the emperor and in his journal visually contrasted the imperial announcement with cheap advertisements for restaurants and shoes. For a moment, conservatives praised Kraus as a defender of Austrian honor. But the slaughter, fake nationalism, and corruption soon repelled him.

In this afterword to the Heine essay, Kraus admitted that “an explanation” was needed for his change of heart. In so many words, he said that he oversimplified the situation in his Heine essay; that his hatred for cheap sentimentality and facile prose, which to him Heine exemplified, led him to prize honest power, which turned out to be worse. “In my desperation to escape the machine,” he wrote, “I said I preferred an already fully dehumanized zone to that beauty-smitten thing that resisted the relentless progress with the leftover wreckage of humankind.” But he discovered that “Mind and God and poison,” referring to poison gas of the trenches, went together and that a pure aestheticism is no longer possible. He now knew that a “beauty-smitten” world that “defends its wreckage” is the best choice: “In my flight from it, I was compelled to commit an injustice. I’ve never rejected the party of human values, and now, when, oh, the standpoint has been reached where I’m able to side with it, I owe the world Spirit an apology.” For Kraus, who never admitted a mistake, this afterword was a major step.

But what is the “party of human values”? For Edward Timms, Kraus’s meticulous biographer, the party of human values meant the Austrian socialists, and the piece marks a shift in Kraus’s politics from right to left. For much of the 1920s, Kraus drew close to the Austrian socialists. It was a partial shift—and toward the end of the Austrian Republic in the early 1930s, Kraus broke with the socialists and supported the Austrian fascist Engelbert Dollfuss as the best alternative to Nazism.

Grumbling to the End of Time

Kraus’s politics never showed much consistency. Or if he was consistent, it was in his loathing of the shabbiness of contemporary life, its newspapers and its technology—and this, it seems, is what draws Franzen to Kraus, who was apt to quote verbatim from the newspaper, like so: “Yesterday’s competition at the ‘Dumb Fellow’ saw the first prize go to Fräulein Luis Kemtner . . . for the smallest foot and to Herr Moritz Mayer for the largest bald spot. Prizes will be awarded today for the narrowest lady’s waist and the biggest nose.” Of this Kraus commented, “This is what Vienna looks like in 1912,” before offering a typically aphoristic remark: “Reality is a meaningless exaggeration of all the details that satire left behind fifty years ago.” The irrepressible Franzen pops in: “I love this line just as it is, but it’s also tempting to update it to begin, ‘Reality TV shows are. . .’” In a previous footnote, Franzen, citing a newspaper article that gushes over the games available on smartphones, decries “the ideology of Progress.” He adds, “Aren’t we lucky that our phones are so smart now!”

Kraus’s attack on progress was hardly confined to swipes at silly contests; he also denounced the technological mind and its role in violence. “Why should it not be possible for technology,” he wrote during World War I, “which makes today’s miracle into tomorrow’s commodity, to invent an apparatus which by means of some button, lever, or handle would enable a person unfit for military service sitting at a desk in Berlin to blow London to pieces or vice versa?” In the Vienna of 1908 he foresaw the Auschwitz of 1944. “Progress will make wallets out of human skin.”

Leftists give a pass to technology. The hoary term “progressives,” still used by some leftists, captures this affinity.

Denouncing capitalist technology has rarely flourished on the left, which, in general, believes in progress. Leftists give a pass to technology, which, they say, can be misused or squandered—and often is—but basically moves in the proper direction. The hoary term “progressives,” still used by some leftists to designate themselves, captures their affinity with technological improvements. Lenin famously defined Communism as “Soviet power plus electrification.” This needs little elaboration; ordinary Leninism and ordinary leftism saw the future as democratizing technology, not refashioning it. We just have to make it cheaper or more available. We need to expand and improve Internet connections.

It takes a reactionary sensibility—rare on the left—to damn the whole enterprise or much of it. It requires an almost visceral revulsion to technology to perceive its advances as hostile to life and letters, and this reaction undermines sympathy for the critic from “progressives” of most stripes. This is why the politics of the best recent critics of technology, such as Jacques Ellul or the almost forgotten Ivan Illich (himself a Viennese), stood in an uncertain relationship to the left—and the left to them. Kraus belongs in this company of independents. They damned technology with few qualifications. The rub is this: politically, this stance usually leads nowhere. In a time when everyone asks, “What’s your positive proposal?” the independents have few answers—except to flee into the past.

In comparing the authoritarianism of the early nineteenth century with the democracy of the later part, Kraus did not hesitate to choose the earlier period. Newspapers may have become free, but “one decade of phraseological enslavement has supplied people’s imagination with more stage-prop rubbish than a century of absolutist tyranny.” Or this: “In the age of absolutism, passion for the theater was an outgrowth of the artistic feeling aroused by political suppression. In times of universal suffrage, theater gossip is the residue of a culture impoverished by political freedom.”

Such pronouncements smack of elitism and aestheticism. Once upon a time, Kraus suggests, we enjoyed culture. And then—to use the title of Ortega y Gassett’s classic book—the masses revolted. Now, their babble pollutes the air. Kraus’s megalomania probably fed his stance. “According to a census,” he wrote, “Vienna has 2,030,834 inhabitants—that is, 2,030,833 souls and me.” But numbers have always been used to silence the critic. Presumably, if enough people like SUVs, reality TV, and over-priced athletic footwear, little more may be said. The majority has spoken.

Franzen is anxious to rebut charges that he himself is a technophobe. He tells us that he is “enchanted” with his new Lenovo ultrabook computer—except for its name, “Ideapad.” But he rants often enough about smartphones, tweets, selfies, and consumerism to leave one in doubt. And why shouldn’t he, or we, have doubts? To challenge progress is to challenge its impact; it is to suggest that society not only progresses but regresses. Things not only get better, they also get worse. Compared to the era of the concentration camp, Adorno once remarked, prisons were the good old days. “I was born in 1959,” writes Franzen, “when TV was something you watched only during prime time and on weekends, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust Books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers.” That world is gone, but is the newer in all respects better?

I was born before Franzen and attended university in the sixties, and like students always are, we were sometimes bored in lectures. We yawned, daydreamed, and napped. I remember filling pages of my spiral notebook with intricate doodles. Sometimes we surreptitiously read the newspaper. On more than one occasion, our very German professor, George L. Mosse, would suddenly stop the lecture and cry out, “You! In the back row! Put down your newspaper!” I think of this interjection now when I lecture in a “Wi-Fi enabled” lecture hall. Three quarters of the students are plugged in—or out. Their eyes and concentration are on screens. They are looking at their computers or cellphones; and they are not taking notes, but playing games, updating their Facebook pages, shopping online, or texting. I give seminars in which students have cellphones nestled into their laps, texting. Is this progress in education or in distraction?

Kraus’s work sparks such thoughts. With all his flaws and contradictions, he stands as a permanent provocation to the ideology of progress, technology, and cheeriness. “The Grumbler” was the name he gave to the character based on himself in his antiwar play The Last Days of Mankind. “The Grumbler” calls for a new religion based on the idea that

God created man not as a consumer or producer but rather as a human being. That the means of life should not be the goal of life. That the stomach should not outgrow the head. That life is not exclusively based on the profit motive. That a human being is allotted time in order to have time and not to arrive somewhere faster with his legs than with his heart.

This is Kraus at his best. Franzen’s edition may not succeed in gaining Kraus the place in Anglo-American letters that he deserves, but it is a small step in the right direction—progress amid regression.


[*] The few editions of Kraus’s work in English have been put out by refugee or immigrant scholars, most notably the late Harry Zohn, a Viennese-born professor at Brandeis University, and they have largely consisted of excerpts.