Other Literary Forms
Karl Kraus, widely regarded as one of the greatest mid-twentieth century satirists, is not known primarily as a poet. His powerful cultural criticism took several forms, and poetry was but one of them. Kraus was most effective as a writer of prose, producing thousands of essays and aphorisms. He is also important as a dramatist, his greatest work in that form being his pacifist play Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (1922; The Last Days of Mankind, 1974), written during World War I. Most of Kraus’s writings first appeared in his own journal, Die Fackel.
The vitriolic Karl Kraus, a man who hauled the powerful and the pitiful alike before a tribunal of total satire, was a legend in his lifetime, both adored and vilified by his contemporaries. Following a decade of desuetude, his work was rediscovered and reissued in Germany and Austria after World War II. Numerous editions, studies, and translations have focused critical attention on this satirist, whose dictum (Spruch) or contradiction (Widerspruch), “I have to wait until my writings are obsolete; then they may acquire timeliness,” seems to be coming true. As literary critic and historian of German literature Erich Heller has put it, “Karl Kraus did not write ‘in a language,’ but through him the beauty, profundity, and accumulated moral experience of the German language assumed personal shape and became the crucial witness in the case this inspired prosecutor brought against his time.”
Kraus’s timeliness and, at long last, his relative exportability derive at least in part from certain parallels between his age and the late twentieth century, which has need of his vibrant pacifism, his principled defense of the spirit against dehumanizing tendencies, and his “linguistic-moral imperative,” as literary critic and expert of German literature J. P. Stern puts it, which equates purity of language with purity of thought, a return to the sources of spiritual strength, and steadfastness of moral purpose. Kraus lived a life that oscillated between love and hate. “Hatred must make a person productive,” he once wrote; “otherwise one might as well love.”
The thirty-seven volumes of Die Fackel represent a gigantic effort to fashion the imperishable profile of an age from such highly perishable materials as newspaper reports. The journal was an enormous pillory, a running autobiography, a uniquely personal history of Austria-Hungary (an empire which Kraus regarded as a “proving ground for the end of the world”), and a world stage on which Kraus dramatized himself and his satiric mission. His markedly apocalyptic stance as a “late” warner derives from his epoch’s Zeitgeist: transitoriness, disintegration, and inner insecurity.
Kraus’s unremitting satirical warfare against the press (and in particular the influential Neue freie Presse of Vienna) was motivated by his view of journalism as a vast switchboard that concentrated and activated the forces of corruption, dissolution, and decay. Recognizing a disturbing identity of Zeit and Zeitung, the age and the newspapers it spawned, with Worte (words) usurping and destroying Werte (values), he had apocalyptic visions of the world being obliterated by the black magic of printer’s ink. Decades before Hermann Hesse coined the phrase das feuilletonistische Zeitalter (the pamphleteering period) in his utopian novel Das Glasperlenspiel (1943; The Glass Bead Game, 1949), Kraus recognized his age as “the age of the feuilleton,” in which newspaper reports took precedence over events, form eclipsed substance, and the style, the atmosphere, the “package” were all-important. Excoriating the press, that “goiter of the world,” for its pollution of language and its poisoning of the human spirit, Kraus anticipated the judgments of contemporary critics of the media, and his diagnosis still has relevance.
Karl Kraus was the son of a prosperous manufacturer of paper bags, and the family fortune supported him to a large extent for most of his life. In 1877, the family moved to Vienna, and Kraus spent the rest of his life in that city, with which he—like Sigmund Freud—had a love-hate relationship. After attending the University of Vienna without taking a degree, Kraus attempted a career on the stage. His failure as an actor irrevocably steered him to journalism and literature, though his talent for mimicry and parody as well as his penchant for verbal play found ample expression in his later public readings as well as in his writings. In 1892, Kraus began to contribute book reviews, drama criticism, and other prose to various newspapers and periodicals. In his twenties, however, his satirical impulse became too strong for any kind of accommodation, and Kraus rejected the prospect of becoming a sort of “culture clown” absorbed by a deceptively slack and effete environment and accorded, as he put it, “the accursed popularity which a grinning Vienna bestows.”
Because work within the establishment seemed to be hedged in with multifarious taboos and considerations of a commercial and personal nature, Kraus rejected a job offer from the Neue freie Presse and founded his own journal, Die Fackel, the first issue of which appeared on April 1, 1899, and which from the beginning had an incomparably satiric genius loci. After 1911, the irregularly issued periodical contained Kraus’s writings exclusively: “I no longer have contributors,” he wrote. “I used to be envious of them. They repel those readers whom I want to lose myself.” Kraus’s periodical did continue to have numerous “contributors,” albeit unwitting and unwilling ones: the people who were copiously quoted in its pages and allowed to hang themselves with the nooses of their own statements, attitudes, and actions.
Kraus’s first major works were a literary satire titled Die demolirte Literatur (1897; the demolished literature), a witty diatribe about the razing of a Vienna café frequented by the literati, and an anti-Zionist pamphlet, Eine Krone für Zion (1898; a crown for Zion). (Kraus left the Jewish fold as early as 1898 and was secretly baptized as a Roman Catholic in 1911, but he broke with the Church eleven years later and thereafter remained unaffiliated with any religious group. He has been called everything from “an arch-Jew” and “an Old Testament prophet who pours cataracts of wrath over his own people” to “a shining example of Jewish self-hatred.”) If Kraus’s early writings were directed largely against standard aspects of corruption, the second period of his creativity may be dated from the appearance of his essay Sittlichkeit und Kriminalität (1902, reissued in book form in 1908; morality and criminal justice), in which Kraus concerned himself, on the basis of contemporary court cases, with the glaring contrast between private and public morality and with the hypocrisy inherent in the administration of justice in Austria. In turning a powerful spotlight on a male-dominated society with its double standard, shameless encroachments on privacy, and sensation-mongering press, Kraus dealt with many subjects and attitudes that are germane to present-day problems: education, women’s rights, sexual mores, child abuse. The gloomy, bitter wit of such essays gave way to lighter humor in Kraus’s next collection, Die chinesische Mauer (1910; the Great Wall of China).
The outbreak of the war in 1914 marked a turning point in Kraus’s life and creativity, and the outraged convictions of the pacifist and moralist inspired him to produce his most powerful and most characteristic work. Following several months of silence, Kraus delivered a sardonic public lecture on November 19, 1914. “In dieser grossen Zeit . . .” (in these great times . . .) may be regarded as the germ of his extensive wartime output. Kraus set himself up as the lonely, bold, uncompromising chronicler of what he termed “the last days of mankind” and “the Day of Judgment” for the benefit of a posterity that might no longer inhabit the planet Earth. Kraus’s mammoth and all-but-unperformable play The Last Days of Mankind, written between July, 1915, and July, 1917, first appeared in several special issues of Die Fackel and then in book form. Its 209 scenes, with prologue and epilogue, take place “in a hundred scenes and hells” and feature people who, in Kraus’s view, had all the stature, substance, and veracity of characters in an operetta yet were bent upon enacting the tragedy of humankind. The play is a sort of phonomontage in that the hundreds of real as well as fictitious persons reveal and judge themselves through their authentic speech patterns, with the satirist attempting to make language the moral index of a dying way of life as he uses actual speeches, newspaper editorials, war communiqués, and other documents.
The story of Kraus’s postwar writings and polemics is basically the history of his disillusionment as his “homeland’s loyal hater.” The best that Kraus could say about the Austrian republic, a small country that was still bedeviled by “the parasites remaining from the imperial age and the blackheads of the revolution,” was that it had replaced the monarchy and had rid Kraus of “that burdensome companion, the other K. K.” (The reference is to the abbreviation of kaiserlich-königlich, “royal-imperial,” the designation of many Austro-Hungarian institutions.) In the 1920’s, Kraus engaged in extended polemics with the publicist Maximilian Harden (once an admired model), the critic Alfred Kerr, and the poet Franz Werfel (one of several apostles turned apostates). He castigated the unholy alliance between a police chief, Johannes Schober, and a crooked press czar, Imre Békessy, and Kraus succeeded with his spirited campaign to “kick the crook out of Vienna.” The literary harvest of the Schober-Békessy affair was another documentary drama, Die Unüberwindlichen (pb. 1928, pr. 1929; the unconquerables). Another of the plays written in the 1920’s was Wolkenkuckucksheim (pb. 1923; cloudcuckooland), a verse play based on Aristophanes and presenting a sort of Last Days of Birdkind but with a Shakespearean solo by the lark at the end promising conciliation and peace.
Beginning in 1925, Kraus used “Theater der Dichtung” (theater of poetry, or literary theater) as a designation for many of his public readings of his own works and those of others, spellbinding one-man shows in which he presented poetry, prose, and entire plays to large audiences. (By the end of his life, he had made seven hundred such presentations in various cities.) These readings must be regarded as an integral part of his creativity and perhaps even as the apogee of his effectiveness. Kraus may be credited with the revival of interest in the nineteenth century Viennese playwright and actor Johann Nestroy, whom he...