This letter was written to the NYRB in response to Michael Hofmann’s recent review of The Kraus Project: Essays by Karl Kraus (translated and annotated by Jonathan Franzen, with assistance and additional notes from Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann):
Early in his review of The Kraus Project, Michael Hofmann observes that “most of Kraus’s writing was ad hominem.” My initial, naive assumption was that Hofmann intended this as a criticism. But it appears instead to be an acknowledgment of common ground, as he goes on to inform us that Kraus was a hypocrite (“Is he the wretched, off-the-peg French-hater in ‘Heine and the Consequences’ or the much-garlanded visitor to Paris fifteen years later, suspicious of Prussia now, and happy to be proposed for the Nobel Prize by nine professors at the Sorbonne?”), a litigious bully, a dictatorial snob (“Kraus is writing to enforce—to inflict, I would almost say—his authority on randomly chosen terrain, along the lines of ‘the very popular is very bad, the popular is very good, only for reasons you need me to understand’”) and most damningly, a self-hating Jew guilty of “dog-whistle anti-semitism of the foulest kind.”
If this has an oddly familiar ring, it may be because it is more or less the same indictment leveled by Walter Kaufmann in a letter to the New York Review of Books in 1973; and even then—as Erich Heller wrote in his lucid response to Kaufmann, still probably the best rebuttal of the charges raised here—it was “not so ‘recent’ that it [did] not tediously repeat arguments that are as old as the shocks of the first readers of Die Fackel.” But what is more troubling than this familiar litany of complaints, is Hofmann’s blithe assurance that they release us from any troublesome obligation to take Kraus seriously, allowing us instead to substitute the free play of elegantly expressed contempt for actual criticism:
It was suggested in 1976, and again in 1986, by Karl Kraus’s early torch-bearer in English, Harry Zohn, and by others at other times, before and since, and probably in between as well, that there is a particular timeliness about the work of this Viennese Jewish writer, who was born in Bohemia in 1874 and died in Vienna in 1936. […] As for “Kraus’s timeliness,” just when was it? Was it 1900, the year after he started his magazine Die Fackel (The Torch)? Or 1910, when he phased out other contributors…Or 1920, when his “vibrant pacifism” would have had, as the Germans say, Hochkonjunktur —a boom? Or 1930, when he was shading into irrelevance and repetitiousness (again)?
One possible answer to this question is that a writer may have something important to say to us now, and still have something important to say to us a decade later. It is suggested with remarkable frequency that Shakespeare, Goethe, and indeed Heine are “timely” as well, and these claims are not usually treated as prima facie absurd or mutually contradictory. And after all, the source of Kraus’s continued relevance is not such a mysterious thing: he was not a “helpless priest of language,” as Hofmann puts it, but its custodian, fanatically alert to its distortion by journalistic mendacity, political and bureaucratic double-speak, and the self-perpetuating jargon of ideologues. His great subject, then, was the tragedy of language’s corruption by power, reflected in his aphoristic remark, with its paradoxical evocation of Faust, that “he who encourages deeds with words desecrates both word and deed and is doubly despicable.” This passage, from his anguished protest in Die Fackel against the outbreak of the First World War, epitomizes the true Krausian aphorism: not an arbitrary witticism surrounded by laborious waffling, as Hoffman would have it, but a flash of insight that emerges with seeming inevitability from the surrounding argument, crystallizing its import and driving it home with terrific force.
Kraus’s concern for language was thus always a passionately moral one. In his role as scourge of the press, he defended prostitutes against the hypocritical censure of the Viennese, striking out at newspapers that condemned prostitution in print while advertising for “escort services” in their own back pages. As a critic of psychoanalysis, he lambasted the psychiatrists’ collusion with the state in horrifying abuses of individual freedom. In each case, what he found most terrible was the ease with which language could be made to paper over atrocity. This is not a unique insight—it is at least as old as Thucydides’ description of the civil war in Corcyra, and is of course found in Orwell—but Kraus was perhaps the single person most possessed by it, and he pursued its implications with remarkable (and frightening) tenacity. It is this, rather than his status as some kind of shadowy influence-broker, that accounts for the esteem in which he was held. It is true that this is not fundamentally a “literary” insight, and in this sense Hofmann is correct to say that Kraus’ place is not in the history of literature. But why should this count against him? Kraus’ Vienna produced not only Hofmann’s favored triumvirate of “Artur Schnitzler in drama, Georg Trakl in poetry, [and] Robert Musil in epic prose,” who had little use for Kraus, but also Adolf Loos in architecture, Arnold Schoenberg in music, and Ludwig Wittgenstein in philosophy, all of whom admired him deeply (if not without reservations.) The works of Schoenberg and Wittgenstein, at least, would have assumed a vastly different form without him, which is to say that much of music and philosophy in the twentieth century would have as well. For a man who belongs “in the history of aggression, Publizistik, boosterism, feuding, polemics, [and] PR,” and whose intellectual milieu was a “pissing contest,” this is a rather impressive accomplishment. I can only conclude that we need more such pissing contests.
What is at issue here, in any case, is something more important than Kraus’ “historical” importance, however broadly or narrowly construed. Does it even need to be said that the abuses of language against which he protested have only multiplied over the intervening century? We spend each day amidst a welter of comfortable phrases—examples of which most of us could easily cull, according to our political persuasion, from the dialects of the military, politics, advertising, business, journalism, academia, or countless other sources—that conceal and beautify realities which, if we confronted them directly, we would find unbearable to look upon. The question, then, is not why Kraus is timely, but how, in the foreseeable future, he could possibly stop being so.