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The Uncivil Servant: Karl Kraus vs. the Criminal Human Race

Mitchell Abidor
December 20, 2015

by Mitchell Abidor

Discussed in this essay: The Last Days of Mankind by Karl Kraus. Yale University Press, 2015, 645 pages.

karl_krausTHE VAGARIES OF TRANSLATION have resulted in huge gaps in our knowledge of world literature, leaving English-language readers ignorant of essential writers and books. The result is regular bouts of head-scratching when the Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded to a writer unknown to us because no publisher has taken the risk to translate them. A case in point was the 2014 winner, Patrick Modiano, author of over two dozen books, only a handful of which had been translated into English, all of which had then fallen into oblivion. The awarding of the prize has resulted in almost all of his other books being translated, but Modiano’s case cannot but lead us to wonder what else is out there that we don’t know. Whatever the good work done by publishers like NYRB Classics, Europa, Open Letter, and Dalkey Archive, American readers remain far behind those in Europe in our knowledge of international letters.

Modiano is a writer most Americans were unaware of, an “unknown unknown,” but one “known unknown,” has finally been made available to English-language readers with Yale University Press’ publication of one of the great classics of German-language literature, the Viennese writer Karl Kraus’ epic play, The Last Days of Mankind. Kraus has been particularly ill-served in English, with a couple of anthologies and a small fraction of the 600-page Last Days published decades ago. And so we can’t but be grateful for finally having available to us this remarkable achievement — in a translation by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms that is itself a remarkable achievement.

The timing of this book could not be better: The Last Days of Mankind, Kraus’ unsparing evisceration of Austrian hypocrisy during World War I, deserves to be considered one of the classics of that war’s literature, and like all great works, its specific criticisms continue to resonate a century later. Writing of the supposed heroism of fighter pilots when compared to guerrillas, Kraus wrote, nearly a century ago, that

even in the present state of mankind it would be unique for aviators who bomb infants to have internationally sanctioned license to do so... Don’t ask me to judge the moral difference between an aviator who kills a sleeping child and a civilian who kills a sleeping soldier. Decide yourself which is the more courageous choice — taking into account only the danger and not the responsibility — to attack a sleeping soldier or a wide-awake child?

KRAUS (1874-1936) was born into a wealthy Jewish family and, like many of his peers, converted — and, like many a converted Jew, was not immune to anti-Semitism. For facility’s sake he can perhaps be described as a kind of Austrian H.L. Mencken, a man disgusted by his homeland, who could say “belonging to Habsburg Austria was intolerable.” He was a man who refused to go along with the herd and possessed an unerring ability to pick out and pick at the flaws in his own country, tracking them into every corner of the society, up to and including its grammar, a particular hobby horse of his. As he says in Last Days, “Now I even accuse clichés of murder” for the banalities of clichés — his most hated one was ‘shoulder to shoulder,’ as in ‘fighting shoulder to shoulder’ — blinds readers to the realities behind them. Kraus didn’t hide his game: “You can depend upon my unfairness.”

But was he unfair or was he simply telling the brutal truth when he said, puncturing the sentimental attachment to the empire and the emperor, that “day after day it was a reign marked by intellectual decline, casual neglect, and corruption of the noblest national characteristics, unparalleled in history,” and characterizing the ruling Habsburgs as “feudal, bloodsucking leeches” and “parasitical buffoons”?

The main outlets for his righteous venom were his one-man magazine, Die Fackel (The Torch) and his public readings, which attracted huge and fanatical followers. (The best portrait of the Kraus effect can be found in the second volume of Nobel Prize laureate Elias Canetti’s autobiography, The Torch in My Ear, the torch in the title a reference to Kraus, whom Canetti and his wife worshipped as a god). In his articles in Die Fackel, writers and particularly journalists were Kraus’ particular bêtes noires, and he carries this over to Last Days, which is as forthright an indictment of the role of the press in wartime as has ever been written.

The press’s dishonesty, its role in whipping up war hysteria, is pilloried throughout the book. The main representatives of the profession, Hans Muller and Alice Schalek, real journalists whom Kraus really hated, popped up throughout the play mouthing patriotic platitudes and lies. Both journalists sued Kraus for libel (Kraus said of Schalek in Die Fackel that she was “one of the worst war atrocities committed in this war against the dignity of man”), both of them losing their cases.

But the press is only one of the guilty parties. Politicians and their mendacity, universities that give generals and admirals honorary degrees, physicians whose sole role is getting men back onto the battlefield, psychiatrists who deem insane anyone who finds the war abhorrent, musicians, merchants, war profiteering industrialists, all take it on the chin. All are revealed as hypocrites complicit in mass murder. Children mouth propaganda platitudes and play at “encirclement,” and poets, too, are judged guilty, they who “instill in soldiers the courage poets don’t themselves possess.”

HOWEVER MUCH Kraus hated those who mislead the people, he didn’t give the people a free pass. Interspersed throughout the play are dialogues between the Optimist and the Grumbler, the latter standing in for Kraus, the former for the too-easily swayed public. The Grumbler refuses to accept anything the leaders are selling, but that they are able to sell at all is put down to the failings of the people:

Grumbler: ... Greater cretins than our statesmen —

Optimist: — are those of our enemies?

Grumbler: No, we ourselves. With our enemies we share only the stupidity of making one and the same god responsible for the outcome of the war, instead of ourselves for the decision to wage it. As far as the statement of our enemies are concerned, they can be no more stupid than ours, for that would defy nature.

L'esecuzione_di_Cesare_BattistiThe angriest set piece in the Last Days of Mankind is Kraus’ reading of a photograph of the freshly-executed Italian Cesare Battisti, the Italian socialist and irredentist who joined the Italian army after serving in the Austrian parliament and, after being captured, was hung as a traitor. The photo, which Kraus called an “imperishable snapshot of our civilization,” appears as the frontispiece to Last Days, showing the dead Italian surrounded by grinning Austrians who represented everything Kraus hated:

But I would like to offer a special prize to whoever identifies the wretched oaf of an Austro-Hungarian lieutenant who has positioned himself in front of the suspended corpse and presented his fatuous visage to the photographer; also those loathsome dandies, gathering as if for a cheery stroll on the Ringstrasse or hurrying with their Kodaks to get into the picture... a picture that would not be complete without a so-called savior of souls, surrounded by a hundred expectant spectators... No crime could expose us to the world more starkly than our triumphant confession, the pride of a criminal who even ha himself photographed, smiling, at his deed, because he’s tickled to death to be caught in the act.

The accomplishment of translating a work like this is not to be underestimated, though reading words like ‘nerd’ and ‘wimp’ under the pen of Kraus was jarring. An unavoidable issue is that the translators are British, and so when translating people speaking with working class accents we get things like ‘E loiks t’arroive rund sevun,’ making the characters sound like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. There are moments one would almost prefer they left the text in German, so impenetrable is their transcription of the dialect.

If Kraus’ dark vision can be connected to that of our Mencken and even France’s Louis-Ferdinand Céline, there is a contemporary writer and book that The Last Days of Mankind very closely resembles. Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, Submission, has been incorrectly viewed as an anti-Muslim screed. In reality the book, in which Muslims take over France, is not an attack on Islam, but on the French intellectual class, which in its quest for success submits willingly to the blandishments of wealthy Muslims. Last Days of Mankind, like Submission, portrays what happens when intellectuals abdicate their responsibility — of which Karl Kraus could never be accused.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His other new books are Voices of the Paris Commune and his collection of writings by and about the anarchist “propagandists of the deed,” Death to Bourgeois Society.

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.