Karl Kraus

Karl Kraus

To whom in Prussian Germany did this name mean anything five or three years ago? A small circle of young men of letters valued the bearer of this name as the spirited and brilliant editor of the Viennese journal Die Fackel, and delighted in the brilliant firework of satirical commentaries which exploded violently three times a month in it. But Karl Kraus was no more than a wit to them.

And even in Vienna, Karl Kraus’ permanent home, people saw in the publisher of the little red Fackel magazine only the merciless mocker, to whom nothing was sacred.

It has been clear for some time now, in Berlin and Vienna, that Kraus has seriously disappointed the hopes of those who read the Fackel for a laugh.

With a speed which made contemporaries dizzy, Kraus’ jokes turned into satire, and his satire into cultural criticism.

And then, in quick succession, three volumes of Selected Writings which suddenly made their author famous far beyond the borders of Austria, and established Karl Kraus among the best German writers, appeared.

What these three volumes offer is certainly not meant for the German philistines, but nobody any longer has the right to speak about cultural issues without first getting to grips with Kraus’ intellectual production. The works Morality and Criminality, Sayings and Contradictions and The Chinese Wall are not ‘entertaining’ books. They are cultural works which demand intensive study. I once said that Karl Kraus is the rare case of a journalist who fills up his work so completely with his personality that it wins an independent aesthetic value. From the relentless concentrating force of the cultural critic emerges the aphorism, the ideal of an art form which, concentrating on the essential and discarding all incidentals, expresses the entirety of the intention in consummated expressiveness, by striking a single tone.

Kraus’ aphorisms are infinitely shortened essays. His essays are mosaics of aphorisms. They illustrate, in a short, tremendous flash, feelings, misapprehensions, deeds and opinions, from the perspective of someone who has seen through the meaningless conventions of modern society. Someone who is striving for a purer, freer world, in which passion and strength are not paralyzed by the prejudices system-supporting parties.

Karl Kraus is an artist.

Perhaps the thing which most speaks for the artist in Karl Kraus, but which is more likely to incline casual observers against him, is his intense emotionality, which sometimes even descends into sentimentality. Some of his sentences abandon themselves so completely to recollections and feelings that it takes a spirit with a fine sense of discrimination to distinguish them from vulgar wallowing in the murky waters of sentiment. Here is an example from the Sayings and Contradictions. Read it aloud. “It should be a temptation to recreate the imaginary life of a childhood day. The peach tree in the yard, which used to be so big, has now become very small. The Laudon[1] hill[2] was a Chimborasso[3]. One should be able to recreate these childhood dimensions. The imagination sometimes does so, in the moment before one falls asleep. Everything is suddenly there again. A fox-skin bedside rug is terrifying, the dog in the neighbouring house barks, a wave of classroom recollections brings a whiff of chalk and the echo of the song Young Siegfried was a Valiant Hero. The teacher plays the fiddle as though he were Volker[4] himself. The old, familiar beating of the heart in case the teacher calls you out. Larkspur blooms in the garden, cow-warm milk, the first equation with one unknown, the first encounter with an unknown girl, the tact calls of the swimming teacher. Cholera in Egypt, and the unwillingness to read the names of the towns of Damiette and Rosette[5] (two hundred deaths a day) in the newspaper, because they could be infectious. The smell of a stuffed squirrel, and a barrel organ in the distance playing the latest songs Only for Nature, and He Wants to be Your Lord. All of that in half a minute. Whoever cannot call it up when he wants should ask for his school fees back. A good brain should be able to imagine every childhood fever, with all its symptoms, so exactly that its temperature actually rises.”

Karl Kraus is a cultural critic.

His critic of bourgeois morals is not only the most manly, it is also the most humane stance in relation to our bog of empty phrases and hypocrisy in comportment and education.

Karl Kraus is the re-creator of the German language.

And: Karl Kraus has destroyed the paper halo which threatened to bury him

…This essay was already ready for print when I received a new work, the broschure Heine and the Consequences, by Karl Kraus, from the publisher Albert Langen in Munich. I don’t have the space here to even fleetingly characterize this latest work by Kraus. And I do not have the legitimation to reply appropriately to the Kraus of this broschure. But I do want to say one thing: the cultural critic Karl Kraus, with whom my essay deals, should be thoroughly ashamed of this text.


[1] Austrian general

[2] Battlefield feature

[3] High mountain

[4] Troubadour in the Nibelungen legend

[5] Towns in the Nile delta

Published in: PfemfertFelixmueller Pfemfert

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One thought on “Karl Kraus

  1. Pingback: Quote From Karl Kraus About Possibilities | Consilient Interest

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