Karl Kraus: APOCALYPTIC SATIRIST: CULTURE AND CATASTROPHE IN HABSBURG VIENNA by Edward Timms (Yale University: $32.50; 433 pp.)

"F in de siecle Vienna" is very much with us these days. The dazzling cultural remains of the last decades of the Habsburg empire now grace our museums (Oskar Kokoschka, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele) and our concert halls (Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg); their most influential thinkers (Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ernst Mach) have shaped the thought of subsequent generations in all Western countries. In its last decades as capital of the heterogenous Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna doubled in size and attracted a striking array of idiosyncratic talents in all areas of human endeavor. In retrospect, however, we can discern that over this social excitement and intellectual stimulation there hovered the cloud of impending doom, of apocalypse.

Such a fascinating, turbulent society was ripe for a major satirist and found it in Karl Kraus. Though not well-known outside of German reading or speaking circles, Kraus was one of the most influential figures in the intellectual life of Central Europe. He published his satirical journal, Die Fackel (The Torch), from 1899 until he died in 1936, two years before the Anschluss ended the last brilliant period of Viennese cultural efflorescence.

His acerbic, elegantly phrased strictures spared no person or act that he thought lacked integrity: the Viennese press, bourgeois morality, the Jews, psychoanalysis, the mystique of war during World War I, modern technology, bad taste. The 922 issues of Die Fackel were essentially a one-man enterprise; though he invited outside contributors until 1911, he wrote every issue after that. He gave more than 600 concert readings of his satirical pieces to enthusiastic audiences. His witticisms and aphorisms were widely quoted.

Since Kraus reacted several times each month to the events that outraged him, it has always been difficult to form a coherent picture of his attitudes or account for some of his obsessions. Though thoroughly bourgeois and Jewish--his family fortune came from a paper mill in Bohemia--he attacked the bourgeoisie and the Jews with relentless fury.

He rejected Judaism and turned to Catholicism; then he rejected Catholicism. He was first a conservative and then, after the war, a Social Democrat. He was genial in private but brutal in print.

In this study devoted to Kraus' literary works (mostly the satires and his play, "The Last Days of Mankind") through the early 1920s, Edward Timms attempts to make sense of the seemingly contradictory positions Kraus took during his career. Building on a sound familiarity with Vienna of the period and previous Kraus scholarship, Timms adds new information derived from archival research and fresh interpretations of some of the central issues of Kraus' life: his attack on psychoanalysis, his daring publication of critical articles during the war, detailed information about Kraus' personal wealth. Ironically, Die Fackel was a moneymaking enterprise.

Timms follows several angles of attack at the same time--an ultimately productive but often confusing method. He rejects the notion that the man and his works are an inseparable whole. He argues that in public, i.e., in the satires and lectures, Kraus was speaking through a carefully contrived satiric persona, often castigating those aspects of his own identity that he detested.

Kraus did articulate on occasions his theory regarding the origin of pure being, i.e., the fusion of the rational male and the fantastic female elements in human existence. But one would imagine that the proper place to search for an explanation of this agonized confusion to identity is in the psyche of the satirist himself, in his relations to his family and his immediate environment.

It is precisely here that Timms fails us, since little attention is given to probing the personality of Kraus himself. What is offered is scattered throughout the book, which is structured partly chronologically and partly thematically. Kraus, after all, is a classic example of the Jewish self-hatred that was so common in major Central European cities of the period--and this avenue should be pursued.

Timms, in addition, could have developed further his shrewd insights into Kraus' compositional techniques: He usually began from a specific newspaper article around which he would write marginal satirical notes; after many drafts he would produce a composite text, part collage, part commentary.

In essence, Kraus saw reality through or as newsprint; his technique and attitude engendered a process of deconstructing the newsprint text to reveal the abyss behind it--truly an apocalyptic venture. Kraus, to be sure, did not react to every item in the newspaper, and a comparison between what outraged him and what didn't is revealing.

Timms notes in several places that the great events of the period might elicit little reaction, while relatively minor items assume cosmic symbolic importance for the satirist. Similarly, while Kraus was admirably courageous in his lone opposition to the war mania, he was careful not to insult the emperor in whose name the country entered the war.

After the war and the disintegration of the empire, Kraus, like other Austrians, had to adjust to the life of the new, diminished republic. During the catastrophic inflation he wrote much of his epic drama, "The Last Days of Mankind," a play in more than 200 scenes, never produced in its entirety.

One realizes that the satirist, who considered himself the prophetic voice rising above the flood, was the most characteristically conflicted intellectual of his day.

Timms, like other Kraus critics, calls our attention to the disturbing resemblance between some of the sentiments found in Kraus' satires and in Hitler's "Mein Kampf," also a manifestation of the apocalyptic mood of the times. Both indulged in the same anti-Semitic and anti-liberal images that were prevalent in Vienna at the end of the last century. Kraus was appalled by the rise of Nazism in the 1930s but never seemed to realize that he, too, for all his moral posturing, was part of the same historical picture.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°