The Correctionists

Jan Mieszkowski


One of the most widespread diseases is diagnosis.

—Karl Kraus

 

For an American audience, the first reaction to the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project is presumably: who is Karl Kraus? A quick survey reveals only a handful of English-language translations of this Viennese author, who lived from 1874 to 1936. Even academics with an interest in German studies are more likely to be familiar with what members of the Frankfurt School had to say about Kraus than with his writing itself, of which there is an enormous quantity yet no obvious place to start.
            In 1899, Kraus founded a journal called Die Fackel (The Torch), which in its first decade showcased a range of leading artists, writers, and composers. It was soon a must-read for German-language intellectuals, and it proved formative for many of the young thinkers who would become the most important philosophers and cultural theorists of the Weimar period, including Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Gershom Scholem. After 1911, the independently wealthy Kraus became the journal’s sole contributor, and by the end of his life he had not only composed around 80 percent of its more than 30,000 pages, but had proofread them with such vigilance that, as the novelist and essayist Elias Canetti relates, “anyone trying to find a typographical error in Die Fackel could toil for weeks on end.”This extensive body of work, only some of which Kraus published as separate volumes, included aphorisms, essays (some book-length), poems, and plays. Having aspired in his youth to become an actor, Kraus was also a performance artist of considerable renown, staging hundreds of events in which he entertained audiences of thousands by singing operettas and reading aloud from his own writings and canonical works of literature.

One might suppose that Kraus would have achieved fame as the intellectual godfather of Viennese modernism, presiding over the cultural milieu of a capital whose denizens were making significant contributions in modern literature (Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Robert Musil, Arthur Schnitzler), music (Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schönberg), philosophy (Ernst Mach, Ludwig Wittgenstein), economics (Friedrich Hayek), psychology (Sigmund Freud), architecture (Adolf Loos, Otto Wagner), and the visual arts (Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele). Kraus’s Vienna also counted among its inhabitants several men who would become some of the most influential political leaders of the 20th century—in 1913, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Josip Broz Tito, and Leon Trotsky all lived within close proximity of one another in the city center.

Die Fackel, volume 1 by Karl Kraus/Wikimedia Commons

Why did Kraus not follow these figures in establishing a lasting legacy? For one thing, much of his writing is rooted in the particulars of its time and place. Die Fackel was famously savage in its attacks on politicians, judges, the church, and the follies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s flourishing bourgeoisie, but the details of most of these contretemps will mean little or nothing to us now. If contemporary scholars take it as a given that we must situate works in their cultural and historical contexts, the contours of Kraus’s writings are not easily delineated—the trees go on forever in all directions; the forest is always already lost. Something similar can be said of his language, invariably a candidate for the label of “untranslatable.” His incessant wordplay exploits the considerable polysemic potential of the German lexicon and the idiomatic nuances of local dialects and slang.

Even more savage than Kraus’s attacks on politicians or the would-be gentry was his sustained war against the press, in particular the feuilleton, its cultural wing. Journalists, quipped Kraus, are little more than chatty philistines, people with “no ideas and the ability to express them.” They write “because they have nothing to say, and have something to say because they write.” In a period of expanding literacy, with no competition from radio or television, the Empire’s major newspapers enjoyed enormous power. Their commercial aims were paramount, almost entirely eclipsing civic or social ambitions, and many of their reports were really paid advertisements. Every day Kraus scoured their pages for text and pictures to reprint in Die Fackel, sometimes accompanied by his mordant commentary, sometimes left to speak for themselves. Beyond his conviction that the “fourth estate” was not filling its role as a check on the powers that be, Kraus argued that journalism was making it “unnecessary for humankind to have any ability to experience and to extend experience intellectually.”The news was presented as if it were being made available to the reader for his personal evaluation and judgment, but in truth it had been entirely predigested and prejudged by the writers, each of whom trumpeted his unique perspective on the material while in fact relying on the same generic formulas as everyone else.

Horkheimer credited Kraus with giving “impetus to the concept of a sociology of language in which the starting point is the language itself rather than the social sciences.” Staunchly opposed to a positivistic notion of language as communication, Horkheimer argued that Kraus diagnosed the “dehumanization of man” from “the bastardization of sentences and words. The decisive schemas of this project were stylistic. One of the defining features of Kraus’s work was his bravado about his own grammar and diction, coupled with a tendency to draw dire conclusions from the errors of others. In the misuse of ohne (“without”) or the inability to distinguish nur noch (“only”) from nur mehr (“only”), he saw evidence of far-reaching misconceptions about time, space, and negation. His denunciation of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig discerned the author’s complicity in the destruction of Bildung (“education,” “learning”) in a single misconjugated verb. As Benjamin described it, Kraus’s critical procedure was grounded in his ability to “lift the intellectual universe of an author … whole and intact from a single fragment of sentence, a single word, a single intonation,” or, as was more often the case, from a single stylistic or grammatical infelicity. In turn, Kraus repeatedly boasted that he held himself and his journal to unparalleled standards: “I have often stopped the press and destroyed a print run just because the milligram scales of my stylistic sense rejected a word.”

Karl Kraus (1928). Photograph by Trude Fleischman. Vienna Museum

On this basis, scholars have proposed that Kraus equated political, linguistic, and artistic praxis. During the Japanese invasion of China in 1932, Kraus told the Austrian composer Ernst Krenek that if the relevant people had seen to it that their commas were in the appropriate places, there would have been no shelling of Shanghai. More conventionally, Kraus has been regarded as an exemplar of the Modernist aversion to treating words instrumentally, as a means rather than as an end in themselves. Those who have made this claim, however, have not been as attentive as Kraus to the challenges involved in distinguishing between the instrumental and the non-instrumental uses of language. “The written word,” he writes, “is to be the necessary embodiment of a thought and not the social cover of an opinion.” In these terms, a text must repeatedly confirm the intimate connection between its form and content.

The problem is that Kraus’s own oeuvre testifies to the precariousness of both the distinction between thoughts and opinions, and the distinction between a “necessary embodiment” and a “social cover.” Much of his satire delights in citing sources and juxtaposing them with one another and his commentaries. Of course, the resulting parodies rely on and even perpetuate the very reports they disparage. At every moment, Die Fackel is open to the charge of elevating the journalism it attacks by conferring far too much authority on it. Kraus is never more than one step away from the insight that the press’s solipsistic reflections on itself are of significance to no one but the press.

Even more importantly, Kraus gives us reason to be concerned that the written word, which “is to be the necessary embodiment of a thought,” will never achieve its intended form. His account of what it means to write is a sustained eulogy to the inevitable specter of mistakes. As much as a text should reveal that its own mode of expression is necessary, it stands permanently exposed to the menace of contingency. Kraus is thus markedly ambivalent about what it means to be finished with one piece of writing and prepared to begin another, for there is no systematic way to be sure that all the errors have been purged from the previous document. From this perspective, Die Fackel is one long work in progress, a monstrous constellation of provisional forms. If Kraus believes that he can extrapolate an author’s entire philosophy from a single turn of phrase, none of his own formulations are ever finalized. This is why Adorno can argue that “[Kraus] makes the reader a potential guilty party—if he has not read every word of Kraus.”

With the relations between part and whole forever in flux, Kraus’s writing style is simultaneously minimalist and maximalist. Nothing feels like it is the right length: what is pithy begs for expansion and clarification; what is lengthy feels like a rant that would be more effective if condensed. Many of his individual aphorisms published together as collections are actually lines taken from essays that, in turn, read as if they were strings of one-liners rather than sustained arguments. Having averred that language should reveal that form is true to content and content true to form, Kraus discovers that no individual text can prove that it meets these standards.

“The closer the look one takes at a word,” wrote Kraus in one of his best-known apothegms, “the greater the distance from which it looks back.”


“The closer the look one takes at a word,” wrote Kraus in one of his best-known apothegms, “the greater the distance from which it looks back.” This raises the question of whether he actually thought that his mission was to “rescue” language from the degraded state in which journalism had left it, or if he suspected that even the most vigilant efforts at linguistic precision would fail. Throughout Die Fackel, Kraus rails against Phrasen—“phrases,” here in the sense of clichés or buzzwords (catchphrases). More than simply vehicles of obfuscation, delusion, and mystification, these phrases, argued Kraus, threaten to subsume social and political experience in their automatism and abstraction. But what would a language freed from such formulas look like? Are Kraus’s texts an alternative to the journalistic discourse he despised, or its most hyperbolic form?

In undertaking the formidable task of translating Kraus into English, Jonathan Franzen offers us an opportunity to engage with aspects of Kraus’s language that the energy and tone of his polemics can obscure. The overarching claim of The Kraus Project is that Kraus has become a peculiarly timely thinker for us because his critiques of the Viennese press prove uncannily relevant to today’s media. With Kraus as his ally, Franzen derides the decline of contemporary journalism and the loss of standards in publishing in the face of social media and the blogosphere. This sorry state of affairs is emblematized for him by the cultural standing of Macintosh computers (you are cool just for owning one) above the PC (whose poor owner actually has to write something of substance to be cool). With such protestations, the lament is clearly half the fun; Franzen offers no solutions beyond the suggestion that people should try to produce quality novels like he does.

The Kraus Project comprises Franzen’s translations of two lengthy Kraus essays and some brief supplements, with the German and English en face. This is not Franzen’s first translation from German; his edition of the drama Spring Awakening by the German playwright Franz Wedekind (1864–1918) appeared in 2007. The Kraus essays are accompanied by extensive footnotes, most of them by Franzen, with some written by his friend Daniel Kehlmann, the German-language author of the best-selling novel Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World), and others by the American Germanist Paul Reitter, author of The Anti-Journalist: Karl Kraus and Jewish Self-Fashioning in Fin-de-Siècle Europe. Reitter plays the role of the scholarly counterpart to Franzen and Kehlmann to good effect. While Kraus has long had a reputation as the quintessential self-hating Jew, Reitter has persuasively made the case that Kraus deploys anti-Semitic tropes for strategic purposes, engaging in complex forms of parody and pastiche to critique assimilationist strategies as well as reactionary social and moral logics. 

Die Fackel, volume 272–273 by Karl Kraus / Wikimedia Commons

Reitter’s work suggests the possibility for a similar analysis of Kraus’s many statements regarding sex and gender that on the surface appear quite objectionable: “I enjoy carrying on a monologue with women, but a dialogue with myself is more stimulating”; “Nothing is more unfathomable than the superficiality of women.” It may be possible to show that these are also parodic gestures designed to critique as much as to perpetuate the dominant bourgeois morality and its patriarchal conceptions of language. Some of Kraus’s more overtly ambiguous dicta hint in this direction: “I am not for women but against men”; “Moral responsibility is what is lacking in a man when he demands it of a woman.”

The footnotes in The Kraus Project address these and many other intriguing issues, often in considerable detail. There are points at which Franzen’s ruminations become so lengthy that Kraus’s essays are absent for entire pages, making it difficult to read the text and commentary at the same time. Franzen is perhaps most eloquent in recounting his trials and tribulations as a student on a Fulbright grant in Germany, where he first encountered Kraus’s work. This Bildungsroman-like story of maturation in which the accomplished middle-aged author translates, comments on, and publishes the essays he first grappled with in his youth is underscored by Franzen’s decision to translate Kraus texts that themselves betray vexed dynamics of influence. In “[Heinrich] Heine and the Consequences,” Kraus aims to kill the father, as it were, denouncing a writer who was ostensibly one of his major forerunners: the German Jewish poet, journalist, essayist, and satirist who was renowned for his wit and irony as well as for having paved the way for the rise of Kraus’s despised feuilleton. Continuing the family romance, the second essay, “[Johann] Nestroy and Posterity,” sees Kraus promoting a lesser-known Viennese playwright, in effect naming him—rather than Heine—as his true predecessor.

Some reviewers have reacted negatively to Franzen’s implicit equation of early 20th-century Vienna with the contemporary United States, not least because it underwrites a more basic equation between Kraus and Franzen. In the London Review of Books, the novelist Joshua Cohen points out that this is a case of “a writer who resurrects a writer who would have hated him.” At the same time, any academic will recognize how unusual it is for an author such as Kraus to be introduced to the American reading public in this way. The idea that the regular readers of Granta or The New Yorker might be puzzling over the Goethe references in an early 20th-century critique of a late 19-century romanticist is novel, to say the least.
            There is also something appealing about Franzen’s reflections on the loneliness and isolation he experienced when first attempting to live and study abroad. At heart, The Kraus Project is a book about how different European and American culture are from one another. As ever fewer Americans learn to speak or read most European languages, the central figures of foreign literary traditions become increasingly unknown on this side of the Atlantic, even in universities. If a well-known novelist like Franzen is willing to lend his celebrity to buck this trend, so much the better.

Although Kraus would presumably have hated blogs, Franzen allows that it is difficult not to liken Die Fackel to a blog followed by every important intellectual of the day. This is not necessarily a compliment; Franzen regards Salman Rushdie’s decision to begin tweeting as something just short of a sign of the apocalypse. Still, one suspects that Kraus would have been interested in exploring the online jungles, if only in order to help him attack them more effectively. His witty one-liners would surely have made him an overnight sensation on Twitter.
            Some of Franzen’s laments regarding new forms of authorship and self-publishing almost appear to have been designed to invite Kraus’s critical wrath:

 

But what happens to the people who became writers because yakking and tweeting and bragging felt to them like intolerably shallow forms of social engagement? What happens to the people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of self-promotional decibel levels?

 

It is hard to know where Kraus would have started with this string of clichés. One of the primary impulses of his oeuvre was to challenge the notion that the essence of writing is communication, much less communication “in depth.” The phrase “individual to individual” represents the quintessence of a liberal bourgeois sociability that Kraus despised, the “quiet” word a nod to the gentleman smoking a pipe in his sitting room, an entirely unthreatening book or journal in his lap. Kraus never viewed the printed word as “permanent”—as much as he strove to perfect his texts by correcting any and all errors, this was invariably a salute to their fragility. Finally, if there was ever a writer whose literary reputation was a product of his self-promotional decibel level, it was Karl Kraus, who undoubtedly would have regarded “quality control” as a euphemism for something altogether low and base.

But such lapses are more than made up for by the way in which The Kraus Project deftly frames and foregrounds some of the most fascinating features of Kraus’s writing, particularly his critique of Heine. For Kraus, there is no doubt that Heine “masters” language, whereas he himself is condemned to play the role of the corrector, forever striving to find and repair his mistakes. Such mastery comes at a cost, however, since Heine can never submit himself to language or allow himself to be mastered by it. At the end of his Heine essay, Kraus invokes the final scene of Goethe’s Iphigenia in Tauris, a reworking of Euripides’s drama about a Greek priestess who longs to escape her exile on a barbarian island. The closing lines present us with an eminently Krausian juxtaposition of the pithy and the verbose: the barbarian King Thoas gives Iphigenia her leave with a laconic “Then go,” to which Iphigenia responds with a 23-line speech, entreating him to send her away with a kind word. Thoas rejoins with the play’s final utterance, the equally terse: “Lebt wohl” (“Farewell”). For Kraus, these last two words are genial:

 

When Iphigenie begs for a kind parting word and the king says to her, “Farewell!” it’s as though leave were being taken for the first time in the world, and a “Farewell!” like this outweighs the Book of Songs and a hundred pages of Heine’s prose. The mystery of the birth of the old word was foreign to him.

 

Goethe’s achievement—something, Kraus suggests, that Heine could never have accomplished—is to have taken the most familiar and mechanical of utterances, an almost sub-semantic instance of politesse, and transformed it into a new expression that performs leave-taking as if it were an originary act. For Kraus, Goethe’s “Lebt wohl” is an anti-phrase. Almost indistinguishable from a cliché or buzzword, it nevertheless transcends the social economies of formality and ritual in which verbal acts become commodities in a system of reproduction and exchange governed by the rules of a linguistic quid pro quo. Far from simply fulfilling the request for a kind word, “Lebt wohl” supersedes its own banality to the point that it ceases to be hackneyed and becomes sublime.

For Kraus, language is one name, perhaps the most important name, for freedom, a freedom achieved through order. His entire oeuvre can be seen as a sustained effort to win this freedom by submitting himself to a perfectionism—or correctionism—that may seem more like a form of slavery than liberty. A very different kind of writer, Franzen is drawn not just to Kraus’s satirical spirit and his uncannily apposite denunciations of his contemporaries, but to his embrace of the authority of language as an ethical and political force. While The Kraus Project may ultimately leave us uncertain about where Kraus would have found a niche among today’s critics and pundits, we should laud Franzen for having posed the question in a provocative and engaging fashion. Hopefully he will not be the last contemporary author to find a kindred spirit in one of the great figures of Viennese modernism.