Karl Kraus


His life and work      Kraus & Weininger      Pictures      Quotations

Hypocrisy or Merely Condradiction?:

A brief look at the Life and Work of Karl Kraus

by Jessica Van Campen

(The Undergraduate Review, SUNY)

Throughout the last decade of the nineteenth century, Austria underwent tremendous economic, social and political changes. As a new form of government grew on the horizon posing a threat to the long established Habsburg Empire, a number of intellectuals began to transform Austrian life. Vienna, the center of the territory ruled by the Habsburg monarchy, was the site where Social Democrats and Liberals formed and touted new ideas that promised higher living standards.

Amidst transitions in political and social reform developed overwhelming aesthetic appreciation. Though fine art, theater, architecture, poetry, literature and music had been the focal point of the upper and middle classes all along, transformations in aesthetics were occurring. Modernism was replacing the conventional notions. New ideals were romanticized by many second generation nouveaux riches, and instead of striving for high political office or a superior role in commerce, they lived the life of artists. Often this bohemian life-style was supported financially by the family and one was allowed ample time to create rather than worry about an income.

These individuals who provided a diversion for society were often admired, however they were not always liked. One writer in particular who quickly joined the ranks of Vienna's acerbic satirists was Karl Kraus (b. 1874). Most of his focus was on criticism of people and events, as well as fallacies in political and social elements of fin de siecle Vienna. When examining the life and work of Karl Kraus, the question arises whether he was a man who sought reform through conservatism (in language) and liberalism (in the realm of women's liberation and pacifism), or merely a sardonic wit who relished pointing out the evil and hypocrisy in the world.

Kraus found his societal niche along with many other struggling composers, composers, artists, and writers of the time in the coffee house. It was here where dilettantes and true artists alike found refuge from a censorious world. Cafe Griensteidl was considered the primary sanctuary for the intelligentsia most removed from society, either by personal choice or societal pressures. Here, those who fled public criticism joined those who wanted to be surrounded by artists. It served as the ideal location where one could have a cup of coffee while looking over various papers available without having to purchase any of them. It was a more convenient place for people to write, sketch, and think than were the typically shabby, overcrowded apartments of the struggling middle and lower class. For some, the cafe was a permanent address where they received mail. Most important in many cases was the exposure to a progressive society. It was a place where ideas were formed and came to fruition, and the minds of the Stammgaste (patrons) were stimulated by debate and a constant flow of thinking.

Alfred Polgar, essayist and critic, best describes the social climate of a coffee house that served as a haven for many in his essay "Theory of Cafe Central." In his essay, he examines the social climate of the cafe, which became the primary haunt in place of the Cafe Griensteidl. "Cafe Central," begins Polgar, "is indeed a coffee house unlike any other. It is instead a world view and one, to be sure, whose innermost essence is not to observe the world at all" (Segel 1933:267). He describes the patrons as those who have a deep animosity towards society, yet a need to be amidst people. There is a hatred and envy felt for others in the cafe, but it mingles with adoration. Mutual respect is felt between those who frequent the cafe because they are all there for the same reason: to kill time before it kills them.

Karl Kraus wrote similarly uncomplimentary essays on the cafe life-style. In 1896, his essay "Die Demolierte Literatur" ("The Demolished Literature") appeared it the Wiener Rundschau in response to the Cafe Griensteidl being burned to the ground. The essay was a mock obituary which lamented the loss of the intellectual oasis, and raised the question as to where literati would now go. Kraus did not hesitate to satirize the fear that with the loss of the cafe. its patrons would simply vanish. However, they simply relocated to Cafe Central, and Kraus followed. The work not only exhibits his satirical talent and the animosity that he felt for his contemporaries, but also the fact that he thrived on the love-hate relationship he had with many people. Though he eventually formed this rapport with most of Vienna, it did nothing to impede his success as a satirist. Kraus defined this relationship best himself when he wrote: "I and my public understand each other very well: it does not hear what I say, and I don't say what it wants to hear" (Zohn 1976:33).

Like many literati, Kraus was the son of a successful businessman, was financially supported by his family, and had the opportunity to do what he wished. When Kraus was three years old, his family moved from Jicin (Bohemia) to Vienna. Despite the fact that Kraus found the noise of the city intolerable, and felt a great anxiety about the busy streets, he made it his home until his death in 1936. Kraus first attended the University of Vienna in 1892, where he studied law under the advisement of his father. After two years, with the support of his father, he switched to philosophy and Germanistic. After six years at the University, Kraus left without having attained a degree. Shortly after that time, he left home, and with the financial support of his father founded his own magazine, Die Fackel (The Torch).

On the first day of April in 1899, the city of Vienna was literally made to see red. A small journal with a bright red cover and a sketch of a torch circulated for the first time. After two weeks, demand for the periodical rose to 30,000 copies. Kraus' original intention was for the magazine to appear three times a month, but this frequency varied. It remained in existence until four months before Kraus' death in 1936, totaling thirty-seven volumes and over 30,000 pages, only a fraction of which can be credited to anyone other than Kraus alone.

In all thirty-seven volumes, Kraus spoke with unrelenting truth and wisdom concerning the amalgamation of Viennese issues. Taking no pains to avoid insulting thousands of readers, Kraus attacked other publications (in particular the Neue Freie Press), political leaders, artists, and authors while always understating the entirety of each issue to its fullest. His satires and stinging opinions were based on knowledge, insight, and research most often (and ironically) carried out in Cafe Central. Kraus' precocious attitude towards public life did not impede his success. Despite the fact that sales of Die Fackel dropped after the first few years, sales in 1911 rose to approximately thirty-four thousand copies for each issue, and remained so until his death.

Success was not the primary concern of Karl Kraus,; rather, it was perfection. He was known to sit for hours hovering over daily newspapers and magazines. When he had read every bit of news available, he would begin his arduous task of clipping out the articles that captured his attention, and pasting each one to a large sheet of paper. On each sheet he would painstakingly document his sardonic attacks in a minuscule scrawl, one that was nearly indecipherable for most, including his printer. Kraus worked throughout the night, and after each printing he would insist on editing it himself so as not to miss a single flaw. With a few exceptions, Die Fackel contained only polemical and satirical essays by Kraus. This was due to the high fees demanded by those he wished would write for him, as well as the need to have full control over his periodical.

Because Kraus was financially independent, only very few advertisements appeared in his periodical, and these only in the very beginning. Kraus detested partiality of the press, and hoped to remain neutral. The irony is that his essays were extremely opinionated and kept him in constant debate with the public. More ironic is Kraus' overall view of the press in general. He considered journalism "the goiter of the world" (Zohn 1976:72) while he himself was a journalist. This could be easily deemed as hypocrisy, but becomes clearer when taking into consideration what Kraus hated about journalism. The primary motivation behind his strong feelings about the press was that he felt the standards of writing were plummeting. Sloppy journalism full of cliches and plagiarism was rampant and Kraus aimed to inform the public of such atrocities. Kraus believed in informing the public rather then overwhelming it with propaganda. As aforementioned he tried to eliminate such propaganda by excluding advertisements from Die Fackel. Another journalistic form which Kraus deplored was the feuilleton. This French form of writing only recently introduced to Vienna was a section of the newspaper that could be removed easily and then circulated. The style was informal with no distinct form, and the topics discussed ranged from political events to theatrical reviews. Most often the author's personnel opinions were portrayed, often politically charged, always awaiting debate. Felix Salten, Leo Ebermann and Arthur Schnitzler are just a few contemporaries of Kraus who praised the style of the feuilleton. It was an insider of the cafe where they congregated who launched a serious campaign against the literary form.

Kraus thought its language base and lacking in literary value. He even went as far as to attack the grammar of particular writers while harshly criticizing their work. One such example was his hostile review of Felix Salten which instigated the latter to physically attack his critic. Kraus strongly believed in language not only expressing truth, but being used in its most authentic form. Consequently he maintained that the feuilleton aided in the destruction of language. Criticism of authors of this genre included his opinion that by writing the feuilleton the author was forced to forsake his true talent; this would result in the downfall of the writer, the language and eventually society (Timms 1986:40). The animosity Kraus felt for fellow writers was often misunderstood. His prime nemesis was the previously mentioned Felix Salten, the very successful author of Bambi (1923). Many maintained that Kraus' abhorrence of Salten was simply jealousy expressed as derision. However, Kraus had a more urgent reason, for it was Salten who was one of the most notable feuilletonists in Vienna. In 1914 Salten became the feuilletonist for the Sunday edition of the Neue Freie Presse. This position put him in the forefront of wartime propaganda as well as on the top of Kraus' list of enemies. Kraus had not only anti- feuilleton sentiments, but anti-war ones as well.

The outrage that Kraus evoked in many of his readers rarely matched his critics. The fact was that Kraus' aphorisms rang true. His agenda to reveal the truth was not limited to social-political events expressed in essays, for Kraus was also a poet and a playwright. His most noted play was "Die letzten Tage der Menschheit" (The Last Days of Mankind) which dramatizes "man's inhumanity to man" (Zohn 1986:13). Within the play linger multiple aphoristic analyses concerning life, politics and in particular World War I. The work is a montage of scenes and characters varying from wounded army officers in hospitals, to prostitutes in coffee houses. It is composed of five acts and two hundred and nine scenes that include dialogue depicting brutality, harshness, fatality, and desperation associated with wartime. Phrases such as "Seberien muss Strebien" ("Serbians must die") and "Jeder Russ ein Schuss, jeder Franzos ein Stoss, jeder Britt ein Tritt" (" [For] every Russian a shot, every Frenchman a push, every Brit a step") are chorused throughout the play (Zohn 1971:72). The words are manipulated into rhyming which further increases the sense of brutality by giving it a sing-song effect, despite the harsh message. Written between 1915 and 1917, it was obviously a pacifistic statement by Kraus, a plea of sorts expressing his fear of an apocalypse and his loathing of the military.

Kraus' aggressive expression of his attitude toward life casts a haze over his peaceful demeanor which surfaces in his writings. His poetry however, is eloquent and conveys a great deal of tenderness and anxiety that he felt toward life. Some of his poems enlighten one to his preoccupation with death and the end of existence. Such an example is "Hour of the Night" in which Kraus laments time's flight in the context of a day, a year and a lifetime. The first two lines of each stanza exemplify this by reading "Hour of night time, fleeing from me,/ While I am conceiving, reflecting, and weighing" (Ungar 1977:240). Another example of Kraus' submissive attitude toward death is in the last stanza of "Beneath the Waterfall"

   Far behind me is all the woe and weakness.

   How constant is the waterfall;

   How does this sunny land bless all

   My crowding thoughts before night's darkness.

                                   (Ungar 1977:258)

Here the publicly bitter, unrelenting critic of society exposes his peaceful reflections on the inevitable. Kraus did not simply lash out at those who posed a threat to himself or his beliefs. He was not against the world for the sake of being so while sitting in the midst of a society that he took pleasure in tearing to shreds. Kraus praised those whom he admired and supported those who he thought deserved success. A beneficiary of Kraus' benevolence was Peter Altenberg. In 1815 S. Fischers publishing house in Berlin released the first print of Altenberg's Wie ich es sehe (How I see it). It was a selection of writings that Kraus had collected from Altenberg's possessions and then secretly sent to be published. The work was an immediate success, and despite the terrible condition of his nervous system and failing mental health, Altenberg continued writing until his death in 1919. Throughout the time of altenberg's worsening health and repetitive institutionalization, Kraus remained a very close friend, at one point organizing funds to pay for his comrade's outstanding medical bills. Though this does not prove that Kraus' feelings for others, namely Salten, were not jealousy, it does force one to consider other rational explanations for Kraus' animosity. Kraus respected the work of Altenberg, and this was essential in their friendship. Although Kraus attacked contradictions and hypocrisy in the world, there were several in his own microcosm. In his essay "Sittlichkeit und Kriminalitat ("Morality and Criminality"), Kraus demanded that the views toward sex and gender differences be reviewed and reformed. He argued that the private lives of people should remain just that, private. He also argued that women should be protected by the law and not victimized by the creators of law, primarily men. Kraus was a fervent advocate of gender equality and criticized those who were against the women's movement. In another work however, Kraus maintained that women were of lesser intellectual capability and that they were simple creatures driven by emotions. The complementarily between men and women was the reason for their union. Aside from the tremendous contradiction this poses, one must look at the personal life of Kraus.

The two people who made the greatest impressions on Kraus' life were women, Annie Kalmar and Baroness Sidonie Nadhery. His relationships with them were the most steadfast and fulfilling of any of his other alliances. The brief relationship between Kalmar and Kraus grew out of the theater of which she was part of and ended in her death of tuberculosis in 1901, a year after they had met. Ten years later, he met Sidonie Nadhery and their love affair is documented in thousands of letters that Kraus wrote to her between 1913 and 1936. After years of traveling with one another and frequent visits to her estate, she married aristocrat Max Thun und Hohenstein. After only a few months, the marriage disintegrated and she and Kraus joined one another again. Despite their relationship and Kraus' several proposals, they never married for class reasons. Kraus was to die a man who had never joined in holy matrimony. Karl Kraus lived a life full of contradiction, but not one of hypocrisy. His constructionist attempts such as the annihilation of corruption and ignorance, the education of the public and the spreading of the truth may have been in vain, but it was certainly not hypocritical. He was not simply a bitter, lonely man who lashed out at the world. By examining the work and life of Kraus it becomes difficult to dispute the number of altruistic intentions that Kraus had and has left behind. Perhaps he knew his view when he wrote:

"Let my style capture all of my time. This should make it an annoyance to my contemporaries. But later generations should hold it to their ears like a shell in which there is a music of an ocean of mud" (Zohn 1976:55).



Works Cited

Johnston, William. The Austrian Mind. Berkley and Los Angeles:

University of California Press, 1972.

Schick, Paul. Karl Kraus in Selbstzeugnisen und Bilddokumenten. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1965.

Schorske, Carl E. Fin-de-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York: Knopf, 1979.

Segel, Harold. The Vienna Coffeehouse Wits, 1890-1938. West Lafeyette: Purdue University Press, 1993.

Timms, Edward. Karl Kraus, Apolyptic Satirist: Culture and catastrophe in Habsburg Vienna. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986

Zohn, Harry. In These Great Times. Montreal: Egendra Press, 1976.

, tran. Karl Kraus. New York: Twayne Publishing, 1971.

, tran. Half Truths and one and a half truths: selected aphorisms. Montreal: Egendra Press, 1976.


Kraus and Weininger


Kraus is famous for being a fervent admirer of Otto Weininger. Like Weininger, Kraus had a complex attitude towards feminism and contemporary culture, and did not believe that women and men could easily become politically or intellectually equal. For both, women symbolized the primeval power of sexuality and both argued that contemporary culture was effeminate and degenerate. Weininger's Sex and Character also served Kraus as an Anti-Freud-Compendium, an antidote against psychoanalysis. Weininger's theory of the ineffable, microcosmic genius endeared him to Kraus and his followers, who were infuriated by the "reductionist" and "pansexualist" analyses of great works of art that were being attempted by the more unrestrained disciples of Freud.

Kraus himself described his age as a "vaginal epoch", a phrase that Weininger would surely have appreciated - for formlessness in art, language, and character. Kraus and his journal fought for a masculine reorientation of culture, an impeccably Weiningerian goal. Culture and civilization, argued a typical essay in Die Fackel, had been created by males. Women had advanced or impeded cultural development solely by stimulating or inhibiting male efforts; their role in society was exclusively erotic and aesthetic. Unlike Weininger, however, the Fackel circle esteemed female sensuality, which Kraus himself once described as "the primal spring at which the intellectuality of man finds renewal".

Kraus agreed with Weininger that the male was intermittently sexual while the female was perpetually so. Realizing, however, that Weininger would never have stooped to using women to revitalize his intellect, Kraus penned this epigram to Weininger's memory: "An admirer of women agrees enthusiastically with your arguments for misogyny" (Die Fackel, no. 229). This crucial difference notwithstanding, Kraus's admiration for Weininger remained constant over the years.

Weininger's great classic Sex and Character might not have become so widely read and influential had it not been championed by Kraus.



Portrait of Karl Kraus, 1925
by Oskar Kokoschka
                



Some Quotations


I and my public understand each other very well: it does not hear what I say, and I don't say what it wants to hear.


When someone behaves like a beast, he says: 'After all, one is only human.' But when he is treated like a beast, he says, 'After all, one is human.'


The secret of the demagogue is to make himself as stupid as his audience so that they believe they are as clever as he.


The real truths are those that can be invented.


You don't even live once.


The devil is an optimist if he thinks he can make people meaner.


The world has become uglier since it began to look into a mirror every day; so let us settle for the mirror image and do without an inspection of the original.


How is the world ruled and how do wars start? Diplomats tell lies to journalists and then believe what they read.


Sentimental irony is a dog that bays at the moon while pissing on graves.


A child learns to discard his ideals, whereas a grown-up never wears out his short pants.


Education is a crutch with which the foolish attack the wise to prove that they are not idiots.


Democracy divides people into workers and loafers. It makes no provision for those who have no time to work.


Democracy means the opportunity to be everyone's slave.


Language is the mother of thought, not its handmaiden.


Matrimony is the union of meanness and martyrdom.


Progress celebrates Pyrrhic victories over nature. Progress makes purses out of human skin. When people were traveling in mail coaches, the world got ahead better than it does now that salesmen fly through the air. What good is speed if the brain has oozed out on the way? How will the heirs of this age be taught the most basic motions that are necessary to activate the most complicated machines? Nature can rely on progress; it will avenge it for the outrage it has perpetrated on it.


Progress, under whose feet the grass mourns and the forest turns into paper from which newspaper plants grow, has subordinated the purpose of life to the means of subsistence and turned us into the nuts and bolts for our tools.


The closer the look one takes at a word, the greater the distance from which it looks back.


To be sure, the dog is loyal. But why, on that account, should we take him as an example? He is loyal to man, not to other dogs.


Hate must make a man productive. Otherwise one might as well love.


Feminine passion is to masculine as an epic is to an epigram.


A woman occasionally is quite a serviceable substitute for masturbation. It takes an abundance of imagination, to be sure.


Psychoanalysis is that mental illness for which it regards itself as therapy.


My unconscious knows more about the consciousness of the psychologist than his consciousness knows about my unconscious.


Psychoanalysis: a rabbit that was swallowed by a boa constrictor that just wanted to see what it was like in there.


Stupidity is an elemental force for which no earthquake is a match.


I am already so popular that anyone who vilifies me becomes more popular than I am.


Christian morality prefers remorse to precede lust, and then lust not to follow.


No ideas and the ability to express them - that's a journalist.


Education is what most receive, many pass on, and few possess.


An illusion of depth often occurs if a blockhead is a muddlehead at the same time.


Curses on the law! Most of my fellow citizens are the sorry consequences of uncommitted abortions.


To me all men are equal: there are jackasses everywhere, and I have the same contempt for them all.


A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer.


Morality is a venereal disease. Its primary stage is called virtue; its secondary stage, boredom; its tertiary stage, syphilis.


Satires which the censor can understand are justly forbidden.



The Thinking Man's Minefield