Karl Kraus

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  4/01/09 5:42 PMKarl KrausPage 1 of 10 Karl Kraus His life and work Kraus & Weininger Pictures Quotations Hypocrisy or Merely Condradiction?: A brief look at the Life and Work of Karl Kraus by Jessica Van Campen (The Undergraduate Review, SUNY) Throughout the last decade of the nineteenth century, Austria underwent tremendouseconomic, social and political changes. As a new form of government grew on the horizonposing a threat to the long established Habsburg Empire, a number of intellectuals began totransform Austrian life. Vienna, the center of the territory ruled by the Habsburg monarchy,was the site where Social Democrats and Liberals formed and touted new ideas thatpromised higher living standards.Amidst transitions in political and social reform developed overwhelming aestheticappreciation. Though fine art, theater, architecture, poetry, literature and music had been thefocal point of the upper and middle classes all along, transformations in aesthetics wereoccurring. Modernism was replacing the conventional notions. New ideals wereromanticized by many second generation nouveaux riches, and instead of striving for highpolitical office or a superior role in commerce, they lived the life of artists. Often thisbohemian life-style was supported financially by the family and one was allowed ampletime to create rather than worry about an income.These individuals who provided a diversion for society were often admired, however theywere not always liked. One writer in particular who quickly joined the ranks of Vienna'sacerbic satirists was Karl Kraus (b. 1874). Most of his focus was on criticism of people andevents, as well as fallacies in political and social elements of fin de siecle Vienna. Whenexamining the life and work of Karl Kraus, the question arises whether he was a man whosought reform through conservatism (in language) and liberalism (in the realm of women'sliberation and pacifism), or merely a sardonic wit who relished pointing out the evil andhypocrisy in the world.Kraus found his societal niche along with many other struggling composers, composers,artists, and writers of the time in the coffee house. It was here where dilettantes and trueartists alike found refuge from a censorious world. Cafe Griensteidl was considered theprimary sanctuary for the intelligentsia most removed from society, either by personal choiceor societal pressures. Here, those who fled public criticism joined those who wanted to besurrounded by artists. It served as the ideal location where one could have a cup of coffeewhile looking over various papers available without having to purchase any of them. It was amore convenient place for people to write, sketch, and think than were the typically shabby,overcrowded apartments of the struggling middle and lower class. For some, the cafe was apermanent address where they received mail. Most important in many cases was the  4/01/09 5:42 PMKarl KrausPage 2 of 10 exposure to a progressive society. It was a place where ideas were formed and came tofruition, and the minds of the Stammgaste (patrons) were stimulated by debate and aconstant flow of thinking.Alfred Polgar, essayist and critic, best describes the social climate of a coffee house thatserved as a haven for many in his essay Theory of Cafe Central. In his essay, he examinesthe social climate of the cafe, which became the primary haunt in place of the CafeGriensteidl. Cafe Central, begins Polgar, is indeed a coffee house unlike any other. It isinstead a world view and one, to be sure, whose innermost essence is not to observe theworld at all (Segel 1933:267). He describes the patrons as those who have a deep animositytowards society, yet a need to be amidst people. There is a hatred and envy felt for others inthe cafe, but it mingles with adoration. Mutual respect is felt between those who frequent thecafe because they are all there for the same reason: to kill time before it kills them.Karl Kraus wrote similarly uncomplimentary essays on the cafe life-style. In 1896, his essay Die Demolierte Literatur ( The Demolished Literature ) appeared it the Wiener Rundschauin response to the Cafe Griensteidl being burned to the ground. The essay was a mockobituary which lamented the loss of the intellectual oasis, and raised the question as towhere literati would now go. Kraus did not hesitate to satirize the fear that with the loss of the cafe. its patrons would simply vanish. However, they simply relocated to Cafe Central,and Kraus followed. The work not only exhibits his satirical talent and the animosity that hefelt for his contemporaries, but also the fact that he thrived on the love-hate relationship hehad with many people. Though he eventually formed this rapport with most of Vienna, it didnothing to impede his success as a satirist. Kraus defined this relationship best himself whenhe wrote: I and my public understand each other very well: it does not hear what I say, andI don't say what it wants to hear (Zohn 1976:33).Like many literati, Kraus was the son of a successful businessman, was financially supportedby his family, and had the opportunity to do what he wished. When Kraus was three yearsold, his family moved from Jicin (Bohemia) to Vienna. Despite the fact that Kraus found thenoise of the city intolerable, and felt a great anxiety about the busy streets, he made it hishome until his death in 1936. Kraus first attended the University of Vienna in 1892, wherehe studied law under the advisement of his father. After two years, with the support of hisfather, he switched to philosophy and Germanistic. After six years at the University, Krausleft without having attained a degree. Shortly after that time, he left home, and with thefinancial support of his father founded his own magazine, Die Fackel (The Torch).On the first day of April in 1899, the city of Vienna was literally made to see red. A small journal with a bright red cover and a sketch of a torch circulated for the first time. After twoweeks, demand for the periodical rose to 30,000 copies. Kraus' srcinal intention was for themagazine to appear three times a month, but this frequency varied. It remained in existenceuntil four months before Kraus' death in 1936, totaling thirty-seven volumes and over 30,000pages, only a fraction of which can be credited to anyone other than Kraus alone.In all thirty-seven volumes, Kraus spoke with unrelenting truth and wisdom concerning theamalgamation of Viennese issues. Taking no pains to avoid insulting thousands of readers,Kraus attacked other publications (in particular the Neue Freie Press), political leaders,artists, and authors while always understating the entirety of each issue to its fullest. Hissatires and stinging opinions were based on knowledge, insight, and research most often(and ironically) carried out in Cafe Central. Kraus' precocious attitude towards public lifedid not impede his success. Despite the fact that sales of Die Fackel dropped after the first  4/01/09 5:42 PMKarl KrausPage 3 of 10 few years, sales in 1911 rose to approximately thirty-four thousand copies for each issue,and remained so until his death.Success was not the primary concern of Karl Kraus,; rather, it was perfection. He was knownto sit for hours hovering over daily newspapers and magazines. When he had read every bitof news available, he would begin his arduous task of clipping out the articles that capturedhis attention, and pasting each one to a large sheet of paper. On each sheet he wouldpainstakingly document his sardonic attacks in a minuscule scrawl, one that was nearlyindecipherable for most, including his printer. Kraus worked throughout the night, and aftereach printing he would insist on editing it himself so as not to miss a single flaw. With a fewexceptions, Die Fackel contained only polemical and satirical essays by Kraus. This was dueto the high fees demanded by those he wished would write for him, as well as the need tohave full control over his periodical.Because Kraus was financially independent, only very few advertisements appeared in hisperiodical, and these only in the very beginning. Kraus detested partiality of the press, andhoped to remain neutral. The irony is that his essays were extremely opinionated and kepthim in constant debate with the public. More ironic is Kraus' overall view of the press ingeneral. He considered journalism the goiter of the world (Zohn 1976:72) while he himself was a journalist. This could be easily deemed as hypocrisy, but becomes clearer when takinginto consideration what Kraus hated about journalism. The primary motivation behind hisstrong feelings about the press was that he felt the standards of writing were plummeting.Sloppy journalism full of cliches and plagiarism was rampant and Kraus aimed to inform thepublic of such atrocities. Kraus believed in informing the public rather then overwhelming itwith propaganda. As aforementioned he tried to eliminate such propaganda by excludingadvertisements from Die Fackel. Another journalistic form which Kraus deplored was thefeuilleton. This French form of writing only recently introduced to Vienna was a section of the newspaper that could be removed easily and then circulated. The style was informal withno distinct form, and the topics discussed ranged from political events to theatrical reviews.Most often the author's personnel opinions were portrayed, often politically charged, alwaysawaiting debate. Felix Salten, Leo Ebermann and Arthur Schnitzler are just a fewcontemporaries of Kraus who praised the style of the feuilleton. It was an insider of the cafewhere they congregated who launched a serious campaign against the literary form.Kraus thought its language base and lacking in literary value. He even went as far as toattack the grammar of particular writers while harshly criticizing their work. One suchexample was his hostile review of Felix Salten which instigated the latter to physically attackhis critic. Kraus strongly believed in language not only expressing truth, but being used inits most authentic form. Consequently he maintained that the feuilleton aided in thedestruction of language. Criticism of authors of this genre included his opinion that bywriting the feuilleton the author was forced to forsake his true talent; this would result in thedownfall of the writer, the language and eventually society (Timms 1986:40). The animosityKraus felt for fellow writers was often misunderstood. His prime nemesis was the previouslymentioned Felix Salten, the very successful author of Bambi (1923). Many maintained thatKraus' abhorrence of Salten was simply jealousy expressed as derision. However, Kraus hada more urgent reason, for it was Salten who was one of the most notable feuilletonists inVienna. In 1914 Salten became the feuilletonist for the Sunday edition of the Neue FreiePresse. This position put him in the forefront of wartime propaganda as well as on the top of Kraus' list of enemies. Kraus had not only anti- feuilleton sentiments, but anti-war ones aswell.  4/01/09 5:42 PMKarl KrausPage 4 of 10 The outrage that Kraus evoked in many of his readers rarely matched his critics. The factwas that Kraus' aphorisms rang true. His agenda to reveal the truth was not limited to social-political events expressed in essays, for Kraus was also a poet and a playwright. His mostnoted play was Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind) whichdramatizes man's inhumanity to man (Zohn 1986:13). Within the play linger multipleaphoristic analyses concerning life, politics and in particular World War I. The work is amontage of scenes and characters varying from wounded army officers in hospitals, toprostitutes in coffee houses. It is composed of five acts and two hundred and nine scenes thatinclude dialogue depicting brutality, harshness, fatality, and desperation associated withwartime. Phrases such as Seberien muss Strebien ( Serbians must die ) and Jeder Russein Schuss, jeder Franzos ein Stoss, jeder Britt ein Tritt ( [For] every Russian a shot, everyFrenchman a push, every Brit a step ) are chorused throughout the play (Zohn 1971:72). Thewords are manipulated into rhyming which further increases the sense of brutality by givingit a sing-song effect, despite the harsh message. Written between 1915 and 1917, it wasobviously a pacifistic statement by Kraus, a plea of sorts expressing his fear of anapocalypse and his loathing of the military.Kraus' aggressive expression of his attitude toward life casts a haze over his peacefuldemeanor which surfaces in his writings. His poetry however, is eloquent and conveys agreat deal of tenderness and anxiety that he felt toward life. Some of his poems enlightenone to his preoccupation with death and the end of existence. Such an example is Hour of the Night in which Kraus laments time's flight in the context of a day, a year and a lifetime.The first two lines of each stanza exemplify this by reading Hour of night time, fleeingfrom me,/ While I am conceiving, reflecting, and weighing (Ungar 1977:240). Anotherexample of Kraus' submissive attitude toward death is in the last stanza of Beneath theWaterfall  Far behind me is all the woe and weakness. How constant is the waterfall; How does this sunny land bless all My crowding thoughts before night's darkness. (Ungar 1977:258) Here the publicly bitter, unrelenting critic of society exposes his peaceful reflections on theinevitable. Kraus did not simply lash out at those who posed a threat to himself or hisbeliefs. He was not against the world for the sake of being so while sitting in the midst of asociety that he took pleasure in tearing to shreds. Kraus praised those whom he admired andsupported those who he thought deserved success. A beneficiary of Kraus' benevolence wasPeter Altenberg. In 1815 S. Fischers publishing house in Berlin released the first print of Altenberg's Wie ich es sehe (How I see it). It was a selection of writings that Kraus hadcollected from Altenberg's possessions and then secretly sent to be published. The work wasan immediate success, and despite the terrible condition of his nervous system and failingmental health, Altenberg continued writing until his death in 1919. Throughout the time of altenberg's worsening health and repetitive institutionalization, Kraus remained a very closefriend, at one point organizing funds to pay for his comrade's outstanding medical bills.Though this does not prove that Kraus' feelings for others, namely Salten, were not jealousy,it does force one to consider other rational explanations for Kraus' animosity. Krausrespected the work of Altenberg, and this was essential in their friendship. Although Kraus
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