No Laughing Matter

Karl Kraus, The Last Days of Mankind, Translated by Fred Brigham and Edward Timms, Yale University Press, 2015.

Though dangerous to draw direct parallels between past and present, we use knowledge of the familiar to grapple with the unknown. While flawed, this approach helps to orient thinking about people we cannot meet and places we cannnot visit.

The early 20th and 21st centuries differ in innumerable ways, but there are similarities as well. As historian Philipp Blom has noted: “Then as now, rapid changes in technology, globalization, communication technologies, and changes in the social fabric dominated conversations and newspaper articles; then as now, cultures of mass consumption stamped their mark on the time; then as now, the feeling of living in an accelerating world, of speeding into the unknown, was overwhelming.”

At minimum, the nervous uncertainty brought by large-scale transformation is something to sympathize with, and as notable as the trends Blom lists are the media revolutions that define both eras. Then, literacy rates were rising, people were moving to cities and low cost newsprint proliferated. Now, it is 24-hour news channels, the spread of broadband Internet and wireless technology. Karl Kraus, the poison-penned early 20th century Vienna-based journalist and social critic would likely have been comfortable in either environment.

In many ways, Kraus was the original blogger. Rather than report on the news of the day he opined on the reports of others. Kraus targeted the mainstream press, with particular ire reserved for the middlebrow newspaper Neue Freie Presse. In more recent terms, his style and influence is perhaps most akin to the American Jon Stewart, whose Daily Show targeted news narratives and characters with wit, intelligence, and snark.

Like Stewart, Kraus was a force to be reckoned with and he ignited conflict with his self-published periodical Die Fackel (The Torch). Vienna was the diverse capital of a multinational empire and the locus of intellectual movements that would change psychology, architecture, art, literature, and music. Krausian critique shied away from little—Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis were favored targets—but the media and its negligent use of language were his main adversary. Kraus saw the careless discussion of public affairs as the root cause of World War I, and blamed the media’s uneven blend of subjectivity and objectivity for pushing public opinion toward war.

For Kraus, the results came not so much from coordinated propaganda as laziness, ignorance, and staid thinking. In contrast, he advocated for what he called “apocalyptic exactitude” in language. In a 1910 essay attacking Heinrich Heine—one of the most admired and imitated German language writers, who was then already dead some 50 years—Kraus blamed Heine for laying the foundation for flawed journalism. Such reportage represented “a dangerous mediator between art and life, a parasite on both, a singer where it should only be a messenger, filing reports where a song would be in order, its eye too fixed on the goal to see the burning color, blinded to all goals by its pleasure in the picturesque, the bane of literary utility, the spirit of utiliterature,” he wrote.

This hostility toward pseudo-intellectualism would coalesce in his magnum opus, the totemic drama The Last Days of Mankind, which is only now available in its entirety in English for the first time. A century after it was written, this 645-page edition still looks unlikely to draw a mass readership. But Kraus admirers are myriad and translators Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms (the latter has also penned a lengthy two-volume Kraus biography) have done a service to newcomers and devotees alike.

Kraus’s precise use of language made the translation challenging and the play is no easy read. Kraus once wrote—with pride—of a rival critic: “If he understands one sentence of the essay, I will retract the whole thing.” One could fault The Last Days of Mankind for being convoluted, but not for a lack of innovation. America’s best contemporary novelist, Jonathan Franzen, has called The Last Days of Mankind “the strangest great play ever written.”

Far more than the backbone, indeed the entire skeleton and a good part of the flesh in The Last Days of Mankind is comprised of actual quotations from periodicals, editorials, speeches, minutes from government meetings, postcards, or cartoons from the time. Thus, Kraus’s use of collage techniques in 1915 (the text was revised in 1918) predates similar efforts in more lauded works of Modernist literature, like Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) and John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (1930–36), by more than a decade. “The most improbable conversations conducted here were spoke word for word; the most lurid fantasies are quotations,” Kraus writes in his preface.

Though the chronology is flexible, the play unfolds in five acts, all of which are pegged to a specific World War I event and the public’s reaction to it: Act I is tied to the August 1914 ultimatum to Serbia that launched the war, Act II to Italy’s May 1915 entry, Act III takes place as Romania declares war in July 1916, Act IV as the United States joins the conflict in April 1917, and Act V details difficulties on the southern and eastern fronts and the October 1918 collapse of the Central Powers.

Reading The Last Days of Mankind is a challenge, but performing it even more so. There is no obvious plot, and only the epilogue was ever staged during Kraus’s lifetime. As the playwright himself noted, a full performance would take “some ten evenings in terrestrial time” and the play is “intended for a theater on Mars.” However, portions of the play found their way to an audience through public readings (especially in distilled form through poems in the play, like “The Ravens” or “The Dying Soldier”) and the themes were a mainstay of the pages in Die Fackel.

This edition of The Last Days of Mankind includes a helpful translator’s introduction and an extensive glossary to provide much- needed context. In addition to introducing public figures a present-day reader has no way of knowing, the glossary explains the ample allusions to Goethe, Shakespeare, and classical mythology that tie together what can otherwise appear almost schizophrenic. As the translators write in the afterword: “The sprawling play gains an inner coherence from networks of recurring imagery.”

Considering The Last Days of Mankind was written as the war was just underway, its pacifist thrust pushed against patriotic currents of the time. It also differs from most anti-war literature that endures from World War I, as rather than focus on the horrors of trench warfare, it emphasizes general complicity in the slaughter. No doubt its focus on the perpetrators, rather than the victims, of the bloodshed made it an uncomfortable reading and a factor for keeping it outside the First World War literary canon.

Kraus, born to a wealthy Jewish family in what is today the Czech city of Jičín, moved to Vienna when he was three years old. He went on to study law, then philosophy and German literature at the University of Vienna, before dropping out and joining the Young Vienna group. This collection of writers, poets, and dramatists first met at the Cafe Griensteidl and later the Cafe Central. They toyed with the tenets of Modernism and then—much to Kraus’s chagrin—Expressionism. These former friends would end up early victims of Kraus’s biting wit in an essay that saw him break from the group in 1897. Two year later, Kraus founded Die Fackel. From 1911 until his death in 1936, he would write virtually every article himself.

Another of Kraus’s targets was Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, and this along with repeated attacks on media staffed by Jewish elites led some people brand him an anti-Semitic Jew. It is clear that Kraus had a complicated relationship with the writings of the Torah and Talmud, but it does seem difficult to imagine him comfortable with any sweeping ideology. Kraus’s longtime girlfriend Sidonie Nádherná of Borutín carried on a lengthy correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke, and the poet appears to have scuttled imminent marriage plans by repeatedly pointing out Kraus’s Jewish roots and the potential shame this would bring to her aristocratic family. Though Kraus renounced Judaism and was baptized, he later disavowed Catholicism as well.

Nothing and nobody was sacred to Kraus, but everybody who was anybody took note of what he thought. Novelist Stefan Zweig called Kraus “the Thersites of Viennese literature,” a reference to a Greek soldier in the Iliad who criticizes King Agamemnon as the monarch rallies troops for war with Troy. Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti said Kraus’s writing held him in “psychic enslavement.” And though he disliked Kraus personally, the novelist Joseph Roth almost certainly took the plot of his 1924 novel Rebellion from a report in Die Fackel that mocked the case of a Viennese organ grinder charged with insulting a public official.

If Kraus’s mark in his own time is unquestioned, it is less clear why his name is not better known today. A combative style that brought few friends, the density of his texts and his fixation on the detail of his immediate surroundings no doubt harmed his cause. However, there is also no denying that his overarching thesis was largely rendered moot. If careless use of language could lead to war, then the inverse—the proper use of language—was the way toward a more rational politics. The interwar years would prove this false.

Many a rational thinker drifted toward pacifism in the wake of World War I, but this almost certainly contributed directly to the carnage to come in World War II. Kraus dedicated his career to pointing out how imprecise language can spur catastrophe, but reasoned debate could do little to prevent the rise of the Nazis. Instead, blunt language translated into brute force. In other cases Nazi lies were so egregious as to disarm the subtle mockery that was Kraus’s trademark. Discourse analysis was no match for thugs with clubs.

Though spared from seeing Austria (and his native Bohemia) fall under Nazi control, Kraus died a dispirited man in 1936. Many of his intellectual contemporaries were similarly discouraged. The aforementioned Zweig killed himself, and Roth drank himself to death. German satirist Kurt Tucholsky committed suicide, and the playwright Ernst Toller did the same. Another 60 million people would die in World War II more directly.

Kraus did not see the Nazis coming, but neither did anybody else. He may have failed to predict the future, but Kraus’s analysis of the world he was in—as events unfolded—was ahead of its time. If it is an oversimplification to draw direct connections with the present day, Kraus’s focus on media is instructive for today’s information age. One need only recall the run up to the most recent Iraq war to find timelessness in Kraus. “How is the world governed and made to fight wars? Diplomats tell lies to journalists and believe them when they see them in print,” he wrote.

Words may not be enough to win a war, but they remain sufficient to start one.

Benjamin Cunningham

writes for The Economist, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Le Monde Diplomatique and The American Interest. He is an opinion columnist for the Slovak daily Sme and a PhD candidate at the University of Barcelona.

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