Drawing by Oskar Kokoschka
Stupidity and the fatigue of language were bitter enemies of the writer, journalist, poet, playwright and satirist Karl Kraus.
Dante believed that the grand style, suited to high poetry, was ill-suited to telling the truth. Therefore, in Canto XX of the Inferno, when his master Virgil must correct his own poetic version of the founding of Mantua in the grand-styled Aeneid, Virgil reverts to a prosaic, almost unpoetic style, because what matters here is not the lyrical vision of our world but the word as immediate referent.
Six centuries later, the German writer Karl Kraus (1874–1936) redefined this dichotomy: artificial verbal constructions opposed to clear-cut, grammatically precise language, the banal volutes of the Jugendstil to the sober clarities of the Bauhaus. “A phrase and a thing are one and the same,” he wrote. From the precision of language, truth (or an approximation of truth) can be told; otherwise the writer is guilty of babble, which even the loftiest subject cannot exculpate. Subjects are temporal, fashionable or not, dependent on the conventions of those interested in them; language is our humble eternity. “What lives from its subject dies with it,” Kraus declared. “What lives in language, lives with it.”
I’ve been reading Karl Kraus with astonishment and gratitude. He is one of the strangest creatures of that strangest of literary bestiaries: German- language literature of the early twentieth century. He lived almost all his life, from the age of three to his death in 1936 at age sixty-two, in Vienna, where he founded his own periodical, Die Fackel (The Torch), and wrote most of the articles in it.
What mattered to Kraus, above all, was language. In its defence, he was ruthless. He attacked individuals, parties, ideas and political events, but above all bad grammar, which he saw as the root of all evil. This led him to oppose the Austrian Liberals in the early years of the twentieth century, and then their opponents, the Social Democrats, because they seemed to him “dishonest in their language.” He also berated the dramatist Hermann Bahr, the drama critic Alfred Kerr and the journalist Maximilian Harden, because they wrote badly. “The German language,” Kraus declared, “is everyone’s whore and I make her a maiden again.” Nationalism was for Kraus a loathsome distortion of adjectives, and he vituperated: “those illiterate Prussians who think that the adjective deutsch has a comparative and superlative form.”When he chose an event in particular, it was because he could see its evil verbal roots: he wrote his “monstrous drama,” as he himself called it, The Last Days of Mankind, against the 1914–18 war, because, he said, it had massacred the German tongue. In this colossal play, Kraus reinvents the street talk of coachmen and the despised Yiddish of the ghetto, as well as the jargon of politicians and journalists and the conventional literary voice impotent to carry or combat ideas. National Socialism, when it appeared, became for Kraus the sum of all evils because its abuse of the language was proof, in his eyes, of absolute moral corruption. Language, through which we learn the world, must be defended with language. And the style through which, Kraus believed, language serves most strongly, is that of satire—mordant, unanswerable satire. “Satires the censor understands should be banned,” he advised. He had no patience with fools.
There are writers whom we think of as bodies of work, such as Balzac or Borges, and others who are single books, such as Whitman or Cervantes. But there are also writers who are statements, aphorisms, brilliant one-liners. They express themselves in snapshots and begin and end in pronouncements. In the worst cases, they become dogmatists, political or religious, or inventors of commercial jingles; in the best, they become Karl Kraus, in whose blazes of lightning we can’t pretend to be fooled. There were Karl Krauses before Karl Kraus: Menander, Lichtenberg, Sydney Smith, Voltaire, Léon Bloy. But Karl Kraus surpassed them all.
Kraus is a perfect writer for our time. To read him in Sarkozy’s France, in a society that is visibly and daily sliding toward fascism, is a salutary experience. It is useful to imagine Kraus’s comments after the French minister of economic affairs, Christine Lagarde, told the National Assembly in July 2007 that “we have enough stuff in our libraries to last us for centuries to come. That’s why I tell you: think less and work more.” It is important to guess what Kraus would say upon learning that protesting French citizens are punished a priori for crimes they might one day commit (or not) and held in prison for months without a scrap of evidence (as happened to students who demonstrated peacefully against the government in Poitiers). It is illuminating to invoke Kraus’s comments on turn-of- the-century Austria in understanding what it means for a society to drag an eight-year-old before the courts for fighting with a friend in the playground (something that took place here in France a few months ago). It is essential that Kraus give us words that will echo to us the evil nonsense of politics, of reality shows and games, of propaganda interviews, of stultifying advertisements, of the best-selling prose of summer blockbusters, of the pretentious claptrap of would-be philosophers and artists.
Stupidity and the fatigue of language: these were Karl Kraus’s bitter enemies, and he continues to battle against them every time a reader turns to one of his pages.