Books: Cultural Amnesia — Karl Kraus |
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Karl Kraus (1874–1936) was the satirical voice of Vienna from the Jahrhundertwende—the turn of the century that marked the last glorious epoch of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire—to the eve of the Anschluß, which luckily he did not live to see. As a Jew whose comprehensive contempt for bourgeois complacency also embraced virtually every Jewish artist whom he suspected of a taste for success, Kraus had found abundant material for mockery in the old society as it decayed. During World War I he had been tirelessly eloquent on the subject of how the debased language of patriotic journalism had helped to feed lambs to the slaughter. But when the time came, he had comparatively little to say about the advent of the Nazis, and lived just long enough to confess that Hitler struck him dumb. “Mir fällt zu Hitler nichts ein,” he confessed in July 1933. He followed the confession with a 300-page essay about “the new Germany” which J. P. Stern later called “one of the greatest political and cultural polemics ever written,” but it remained true that Hitler’s personal success left Kraus speechless, because it was beyond satire. Even with due allowance for the famous satirist’s waning powers, this was a remarkable, if tacit, admission of a failure of imaginative energy to match a new reality. The new reality was at least as absurd as the old one, but it left him with less occasion to expose its hidden purpose, mainly because the purpose wasn’t hidden: instead, it was blatant. The open face of Nazi evil left Kraus wrong-footed. Published, edited and largely written as a one-man enterprise, Kraus’s magazine Die Fackel had worked mainly as a sottisier of all the self-deluding things said in the newspapers and periodicals; his cabaret act had worked in the same way; and so had his endless, endlessly self-renewing epic play The Last Days of Mankind. But even at the time, the debunking emphasis of Kraus’s effort raised the question of whether his satirical view of society was really all that informative, since any society that allows free expression of opinion is bound to spend a lot of time talking foolishly anyway, and can be quoted against itself without limit, and indeed, if it is free enough, without penalty. After Kraus’s death the question came rapidly to a head when the Nazis, far from needing to wrap up their intentions in fine phrases, proved that they could be quite frightening enough by saying exactly what they meant. The problem posed by Kraus’s high reputation as an analyst of language was repeated later on with the advent of George Orwell, who so convincingly identified the misuse of language with fraudulent politics that it became tempting to suppose the first thing caused the second, instead of the second causing the first.

Today, Kraus’s satirical vision, far from being an intellectual lost cause, is a show-business success story: the continuous and unrelenting mockery of the language of official power is institutionalized in the liberal democracies, and especially in the United States, which, since the heyday of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce in the 1950s, has teemed with political and social satirists, many of them holding stellar positions in the media. It is now part of the definiton of a modern liberal democracy that it is under constant satirical attack from within. Unless this fact is seen as a virtue, however, liberal democracy is bound to be left looking weak vis-à-vis any totalitarian impulse. An ideology, especially when theocratic, runs no risk of demoralizing its young adherents through questioning its own principles, because it never does so. A bright child of his time, Kraus was unusual for his capacity to express his disgust that a free society could be full of things that intelligent people might not like. If, at this distance, he looks naïve, it is only because of the devastation wrought since by systems which suffered much less from disunity. We have come to value, in other words, the humanist approximations that made him impatient. One of them was the female aspiration towards personal liberty. He found the idea embarrassing, forgetting that all aspirations sound shrill until they are fulfilled.

* * *
A liberated woman is a fish that has fought its way ashore.

BUT KRAUS NEEDED a woman to liberate him. He found her in the person of the Baroness Sidonie Nadherny von Borutin, the great love of his life. He had loved the beautiful actress Annie Kalmar and after her pitiably early death he never forgot her: but he worshipped her as a symbol. She fitted his idea of the sensual woman whose eroticism would provide the fuel for the intellectual man. Another actress, Bertha Maria Denk, was harder to fit into the same frame because she was very bright, but Kraus managed to talk his way free. From Sidonie there was no escape. Sidonie was the living woman, and didn’t even need his money. (Kraus had a private income, but Sidonie’s wealth was on a different scale.) The luxury of her company offered him the chance to become fully himself: to live like a prince, lose himself in a passion, cry on a fine-boned shoulder. Knowing that, we can see why so much of his supposedly scorching satire now strikes us a fire in straw. There were people at the time who thought the same, and not all of them were his victims. He had admirers who spotted that by giving the society he lived in more scorn than it warranted he might have too little left over for something worse. His satirical attack was based on the analysis of clichés: in politics, in the arts and above all in journalism. He did for German what Swift had once done for English, and Flann O’Brien would do again. Nothing got past him. He was a one-man watch committee, the hanging judge of the sottisier. Anyone who let slip a loose phrase lived to rue it if Kraus caught him. As the self-appointed scourge of self-revealing speech, he was a linguistic philosopher before the fact, a blogger before the Web.

But the world is made up of more than language, and a truly penetrating view, if it is to have scope as well as depth, must get through not just to the awkward facts beneath the lies, but to the whole complexity of events that give the facts their coherence, and to the networks of necessary human weaknesses that even the most developed civilization can’t realistically hope to eradicate. The archimandrite of a linguistic monastery, Kraus found human beings guilty of being human, and society of allowing them to be so. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a monument to theatricality, and it was certainly true that hyprocrisy was universal, especially in matters of sex. But at least hypocrisy was human. He was unable to envisage what a society would be like that eliminated the human factor altogether. The Nazi future was not yet available to tell him, but he might have found instruction in the despotic past, had he been historically minded.

He conspicuously wasn’t. He belittled the forces that held his world together because he was not sufficiently educated by the incoherence within himself. Had he been, he would have expressed it. His whole stance was to say the unsayable. If he didn’t say it, it was because he hadn’t thought it: or, having thought it, couldn’t face it. Hence his confident ability to say a thing like this: a rock through a window. There are a thousand other Krausian moments like it. He is made up of such moments. The complete run of his magazine Die Fackel—given to me by a cultivated young Austrian aristocrat in expiation for what his country has never been able fully to admit, it occupies a whole shelf of my library in Cambridge—is an asteroid belt of pebbles that have passed through glass. They all share the same unfaltering tone of the self-elected elect: the oracle who can see everywhere except into its own being, and sees through everyone because it has no insight into itself.

Kraus’s self-assurance was a pose that he believed was real. If he could have admitted it as a pose, his work would have more to astonish us with than its glowing surface. The golden bowl was cracked, and its richest secrets were in the flaw: but he could not go in there. Schnitzler, whom Kraus had the arrogance to patronize, could interpret the world through knowledge of his own failings. Klimt, another of Kraus’s targets, was being lastingly self-exploratory in the very paintings that Kraus found cliché-ridden and sentimental. (The Nazis, with their gift for practical criticism, paid Klimt the tribute of pulverizing his greatest set of murals, in which they saw what Kraus had missed: an unashamed celebration of desire.) It never occurred to Kraus that his vulnerable contemporaries had something to gain through not being self-protective. The loophole in his own armour was his love for Sidonie, but he did not, and obviously could not, make it an energizing subject for his main work. He shunted it aside into his lyric poetry, which is weak precisely because it contradicts his prose without complementing it. Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart: Byron meant that as an emphasis. Kraus meant it as an axiom.

What finally happened between the two lovers will always be a secret. The long affair ended too gradually to bequeath the memory of a revealing crisis. (“K.K. so kind, so good,” Sidonie told her diary in English, while Kraus was tearing his hair out waiting for a letter.) But it seems fair to suggest that he put on too much pressure, and it was all the wrong kind. He wanted to own her. She wanted to be free. (“I want freedom, solitude... .”) She told him that his enslavement enslaved her. All the usual things happened. When he showed signs of taking back his independence, she enslaved him again. She was no stranger to guile. But her heart was good—on the testimony of her many friends, she was one of those aristocrats with all the bourgeois virtues—and Kraus, given a modicum of acumen, should have been able to drink from the fountain of her loving kindness for the rest of his difficult life. One would prefer to blame Rilke, who had his eye on Sidonie’s sumptuous estate at Janowitz as a plush staging post in which he might one day write a cycle of poems. Rilke was always scouting the country seats of the great ladies for a suitable ambience in which to connect himself with eternity. As his nauseating letters to Marie von Thurn und Taxis Hohenloe reveal, Rilke knew no shame in such pursuits. His bread-and-butter letters are always hard on the reader’s stomach. But to shut Kraus out from his possible claims on Sidonie’s hospitality, Rilke truly disgraced himself by hinting to her that she courted degradation by keeping company with a Jew. (In his letter of February 21, 1914, Rilke carefully avoided the word “Jew,” but she knew exactly what he meant when he warned her that Kraus could only ever be a stranger: to help her figure it out, Rilke underlined the adjective fremd. Admirers of Rilke’s spiritual refinement will find the letter quoted on page 52 of the second volume of Friedrich Pfafflin’s two-volume edition of Kraus’s letters to Sidonie.) Kraus, all unknowing that he had been betrayed, went on helping Rilke’s literary career, and Rilke went on accepting the help.

Rilke reminds us of the young man who wanted to be a suspect when he grew up. Alas, Kraus looks like a better bet as the culprit. He wanted all the social credentials that an official alliance with an aristocrat would have brought him; and the wish seems understandable, if not particularly edifying. But he didn’t want to modify his exalted stance as the seer who needed no other viewpoint than his own. When he went to her he was on holiday, and by marrying her he wanted only to make the holiday official. The biographers seem agreed that she grew to want less of him. It might have been equally possible, however, that she wanted more: some evidence of a change of heart, an expansion of sympathy that she might have ascribed to her own influence. She knew how she inspired him to poetry, but there was nothing of her in his prose, which from first to last was one long tirade of self-assertion. Clearly he felt free to fall apart when safe on her estates: that was the attraction of her comfortable ambience. But he always put himself back together in the same form, and returned to work as the universal castigator of The Last Days of Mankind. Too much is made of the discrepancy between the grande dame and the self-despising Jew, and not enough of a more usual difference, between the housekeeper and the nihilist.

Later on, when the Nazis came to Schloss Janowitz, she met some real nihilists and must have had cause to look back fondly on a warrior violent only with words. But in view of her intrinsic worth she had been right to freeze him out. He had loved her for her beauty, position, charm, cultivation and savoir faire. But her intrinsic worth went deeper than that. She was the product of a social order, which Kraus had admired only for its accoutrements: i.e., he wanted its benefits without understanding their provenance. Though he was pleased to appropriate the concept of gentility as a talisman against modern opportunism, he had no real capacity for valuing noblesse oblige, which is the long-gestated product of a society of obligations, not of rights, and is almost wholly unwritten. Kraus lived in the written world. He thought that the misuse of language was an incitement to crime. (In his tireless analysis of the bad journalism that came out of the war, he came very close to suggesting that the war had been caused by bad journalism: if only it had been that simple.) But there were worse incitements to crime than misused language, and if he had lived a little longer he might have been caught up in a crime it was beyond his powers of reason to predict. All the politicans and journalists whose bad prose he had laughed at were unexpectedly silenced by a new range of orators who meant exactly what they said, and who took their satisfaction from mangling a lot more than syntax and vocabulary. He would have found that there are forms of speech to which satire does not apply. He lived just long enough to entertain the possibility, and we can be sure that the possibility did not entertain him. When he said that he had nothing to say about Hitler, he was really saying that his life’s work had come to nothing.

Famous while he lived, Kraus is cited now as a byword for hard-headed wit by people who have never read more than few paragraphs: his name is invoked rather in the way that Cole Porter invoked Dorothy Parker’s, as shorthand for a quality. It’s the same sort of lazy journalistic reflex that once made him spit tacks. So was his career a waste of time? Not really, although he might have died thinking so. Though to read him for long at a stretch is like trying to make a meal out of Mexican jumping beans, some of his aperçus are more than enough to make you see why the scholarly commentators should enrol him honoris causa among the Vienna school of philosophers. Anyone who reads a few random pages of Kraus will write more carefully next day, with fear of his blue-pencil eyes as the spur to revision. He knew how to cut the inessential. “Female desire is to male desire as an epic is to an epigram.” Try saying the same thing quicker. It was a production in English of The Last Days of Mankind that led Niall Ferguson to learn German, and so helped him towards laying the learned foundations of his fine book The Pity of War, in which Kraus’s debunking of patriotic rhetoric is frequently acknowledged. The whiplash speed and snap of Kraus’s reasoning can be heard even through the language barrier.

But his negative example is the one that lasts. He embodied the unforeseeable tragedy—made actual only by a cruel trick of history—of those bourgeois Jewish intellectuals who caught out Jewish artists for their bourgeois vulgarity: by helping to undermine the bourgeoisie s a class, and by helping to establish Jewish origins as a classification, the intellectuals unwittingly served two future masters whose only dream was to annihilate them. Above all, his supreme mastery of verbal satire served to prove that satire is not a view of life. It can be a useful and even necessary by-product of one, but it can have no independent existence, because the satirist hasn’t either. Any writer who finds the height of human absurdity outside himself must find the wellspring of human dignity inside, and so lose the world. The secret of a sane world view is to see virtue in others, and the roots of chaos within ourselves. Kraus had the secret right in front of him, in the soul and body of Sidonie. She was his best self, come to save him. He had his arms around her, but he lost her. We will never know quite how, but there is something about this deadly little aphorism to make us think it more plausible to blame him than to blame her.