A great American writer's confrontation with a great European critic—a personal and intellectual awakening
A hundred years ago, the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus was among the most penetrating and farsighted writers in Europe. In his self-published magazine, Die Fackel, Kraus brilliantly attacked the popular media's manipulation of reality, the dehumanizing machinery of technology and consumer capitalism, and the jingoistic rhetoric of a fading empire. But even though he had a fervent following, which included Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, he remained something of a lonely prophet, and few people today are familiar with his work. Luckily, Jonathan Franzen is one of them.
In The Kraus Project, Franzen, whose "calm, passionate critical authority" has been praised in The New York Times Book Review, not only presents his definitive new translations of Kraus but annotates them spectacularly, with supplementary notes from the Kraus scholar Paul Reitter and the Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. Kraus was a notoriously cantankerous and difficult writer, and in Franzen he has found his match: a novelist unafraid to voice unpopular opinions strongly, a critic capable of untangling Kraus's often dense arguments to reveal their relevance to contemporary America.
While Kraus is lampooning the iconic German poet and essayist Heinrich Heine and celebrating his own literary hero, the Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy, Franzen is annotating Kraus the way Kraus annotated others, surveying today's cultural and technological landscape with fearsome clarity, and giving us a deeply personal recollection of his first year out of college, when he fell in love with Kraus's work. Painstakingly wrought, strikingly original in form, The Kraus Project is a feast of thought, passion, and literature.
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About the Author
Jonathan Franzen is the author of five novels, including The Corrections, Freedom, and Crossroads, and five works of nonfiction, most recently Farther Away and The End of the End of the Earth, all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.
Karl Kraus (1874–1936) was an Austrian satirist, playwright, poet, aphorist, and journalist. From 1899 until his death, he published the literary and political review Die Fackel.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:1959
Place of Birth:Western Springs, Illinois
Education:B.A., Swarthmore College, 1981; studied as a Fulbright scholar at Freie Universität in Berlin
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The Kraus Project
By Jonathan Franzen, Matt Buck
PicadorCopyright © 2013 Jonathan Franzen
All rights reserved.
Heine and the Consequences
* * *
Two strains of intellectual vulgarity: defenselessness against content and defenselessness against form. The one experiences only the material side of art. It is of German origin. The other experiences even the rawest of materials artistically. It is of Romance origin. To the one, art is an instrument; to the other, life is an ornament. In which hell would the artist prefer to fry? He'd surely still rather live among the Germans. For although they've strapped art into the Procrustean Folding Bed of their commerce, they've also made life sober, and this is a blessing: fantasy thrives, and every man can put his own light in the barren window frames. Just spare me the pretty ribbons! Spare me this good taste that over there and down there delights the eye and irritates the imagination. Spare me this melody of life that disturbs my own music, which comes into its own only in the roaring of the German workday. Spare me this universal higher level of refinement from which it's so easy to observe that the newspaper seller in Paris has more charm than the Prussian publisher. Believe me, you color-happy people, in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads. And spare me this mediocre chicanery in place of one's own stupidity! Spare me the picturesque moil on the rind of an old Gorgonzola in place of the dependable white monotony of cream cheese! Life is hard to digest both here and there. But the Romance diet beautifies the spoilage; you swallow the bait and go belly-up. The German regimen spoils beauty and puts us to the test: how do we re-create it? Romance culture makes every man a poet. Art's a piece of cake there. And Heaven a hell.
Heinrich Heine, however, has brought the Germans tidings of this Heaven, to which their heart is drawn with a longing that has to rhyme someplace and that leads in subterranean passages directly from the countinghouse to the Blue Grotto. And, on a byway that German men avoid: from chopped liver to the blue flower. It was inevitable that the one with their longing and the other with their longings would consider Heinrich Heine the Fulfiller. Tuned by a culture for which the mere material of daily life suffices as a complete artistic experience, Heine provides mood music for a culture whose experience of art begins and ends with the attractions of its content. His writing works from the Romance feel for life into the German conception of art. In this configuration it offers the utile dulci, it ornaments German functionality with French spirit. And so, in this easy-to- read juxtaposition of form and content, in which there is no discord and no unity, it becomes the great legacy from which journalism continues to live to this very day, a dangerous mediator between art and life, a parasite on both, a singer where it should only be a messenger, filing reports where a song would be in order, its eye too fixed on its goal to see the burning color, blinded to all goals by its pleasure in the picturesque, the bane of literary utility, the spirit of utiliterature. Instrument made into ornament, and so badly degenerated that even the current mania for decorating consumer goods can scarcely keep up with the progress of applied art in the daily press; because at least we have yet to hear that the Wiener Werkstätte is manufacturing burglary tools. And even in the style of the most up-to-the-minute impressionistic journalism the Heinean model does not disavow itself. Without Heine, no feuilleton. This is the French disease he smuggled in to us. How easy it is to get sick in Paris! How lax the morality of the German feel for language becomes! The French language lets every filou have his way with her. You have to prove yourself a man in full before the German language will give you the time of day, and that's only the beginning of the trouble you're in for. With French, though, everything goes smoothly, with that perfect lack of inhibition which is perfection in a woman and a lack in a language. And the Jacob's ladder that leads to her is a climax you'll find in the German dictionary: Geschmeichel, Geschmeide, Geschmeidig, Geschmeiß. Anybody and everybody can procure her services for the feuilleton. She's a lazy Susan of the mind. The most well-grounded head isn't safe from flashes of inspiration when it deals with her. We get everything from languages, because they contain everything that can become thought. Language arouses and stimulates, like a woman, brings joy and, with it, thought. The German language, however, is a companion who will think and make poetry only for the man who can give her children. You wouldn't want to be married like this to any German housewife. And yet the woman of Paris need say nothing except, at the crucial moment, très jolie, and you'll believe anything of her. Her mind is in her face. And if her partner had beauty in his brain as well, Romance life would not be merely très jolie but fecund, ringed not by bibelots and dainties, but by deeds and monuments.
If they say of a German author that he must have learned a lot from the French, this is the highest praise only if it isn't true. For it means: he's indebted to the German language for what the French gives to everybody. People here are still being linguistically creative when people over there are already playing with the children, who came blowing in, nobody knows how. But ever since Heinrich Heine imported the trick, it's been purely an exercise in diligence if a German feuilletonist goes to Paris to fetch himself some talent. If somebody nowadays actually goes to Rhodes because people dance better there, he is truly an excessively conscientious swindler. That was still necessary in Heine's day. You'd been to Rhodes, and back here people believed that you could dance. Today they'll believe that a cripple who has never left Vienna can dance the cancan, and many a person who never had a single good finger now plays the viola. The profitable return on distance from the reader should never be underestimated, and foreign milieus continue to be what gets taken for art. People are very talented in the jungle, and talent begins in the East around the time you reach Bucharest. The writer who knocks the dust off foreign costumes is getting at the fascination of the material in the most convenient way imaginable. And so a reader with a brain has the strongest distrust imaginable of storytellers who knock about in foreign milieus. The best-case scenario continues to be that they weren't there; but most of them are unfortunately so constituted that they actually have to take a trip in order to tell a story. Of course, to have spent two years in Paris isn't merely the advantage of such Habakkuks, it's their definition. They strew the drifting sand of French, which finds its way into the pockets of every dolt, into the eyes of German readers. And let the inverse of an epigram of Nestroy, this true satirical thinker, apply to them: things go well enough from Paris to St. Pölten, but from there to Vienna the road gets very long! (If the local swindlers don't make a killing of their own along this stretch.) Now, with Paris, not only the content was acquired but the form as well. The form, though—this form that is only an envelope for the content, not the content itself; that is merely dress for the body, not flesh to the spirit—this form only had to be discovered once for it to be there for all time. Heinrich Heine took care of that, and thanks to him our gentlemen no longer need betake themselves to Paris. You can write feuilletons today without having personally sniffed your way to the Champs Élysées. The great trick of linguistic fraud, which in Germany pays far better than the greatest achievement of linguistic creativity, keeps working in generation after generation of newspapers, furnishing casual readers everywhere with the most agreeable of excuses for avoiding literature. Talent flutters aimlessly in the world and gives sweet nourishment to the philistine's hatred of genius. Writing feuilletons means twining curls on a bald head; but these curls please the public better than a lion's mane of thoughts. Esprit and charm, which presumably were necessary in developing the trick and becoming adept at it, are now passed on by it automatically. With an easy hand, Heine pushed open the door to this dreadful development, and the magician who brought talent within reach of the unendowed surely himself doesn't stand all that far above the development.
The trick keeps working. Paralleling the kitschification of practical life via ornament, as traced by the good American Adolf Loos, is an interlarding of journalism with intellectual elements, but here the resulting confusion is even more catastrophic. Instead of draining the press intellectually and restoring to literature the juices that were "extracted" from it—extorted from it— the progressive world proceeds ever afresh with the renovation of its intellectual decorations. The literary ornament doesn't get demolished, it gets modernized in the Wiener Werkstätten of the mind. Feuilleton, mood reporting, fluff pieces—the motto "Feather Thy Nest" brings the poetic flourish, too, into the homes of the masses. And nothing is more important to journalism than restoring the gloss, again and again, to the glaze of corruption. The more it adds to the profiteer's intellectual and material wealth, the greater its need to cloak its ill intentions pleasingly. In this, the Mind itself lends a hand, sacrificing itself, as does the spirit that was stolen from the Mind. A Sunday edition's catch can no longer take place without dangling the highest of literary values as bait, the Economist no longer goes in for robbery unless the surviving representatives of culture act as fences. But far more disgraceful than literature's marching in the triumph of this pillage, far more dangerous than this attachement of intellectual authority to the villainy, is the villainy's interlarding, its gilding, with the Mind, which it has siphoned off from literature and which it drags along through the local pages and all the other latrines of public opinion. The press as a social institution—since it's simply unavoidable that the dearth of imagination get filled up with facts—would have its place in the progressive order. But what does the news that it rained in Hong Kong have to do with the Mind? And why does an arranged stock-market catastrophe or a small extortion or even just the unpaid suppression of a fact demand the entire grand apparatus, in which academics don't shy from collaborating and for which even aesthetes will hustle so hard that their feet sweat. That train stations or public toilets, works of utility and necessity, are cluttered up with decorative junk is tolerable. But why are thieves' dens fitted out by van de Velde? Only because their purpose would otherwise be obvious at a glance, and passersby would not willingly have their pockets turned inside out twice a day. Curiosity is always stronger than caution, and so the chicanery dolls itself up in tassels and lace.
It owes its best advantage to that Heinrich Heine who so loosened the corset on the German language that today every salesclerk can finger her breasts. What's ghastly about the spectacle is the sameness of these talents, which are all as alike as rotten eggs. Today's impressionistic errand boys no longer report the breaking of a leg without the mood and no burning of a building without the personal note that they all have in common. When the one describes the German kaiser, he does it exactly the same way the other describes the mayor of Vienna, and the other can't think of anything to say about wrestlers except what the one has to say about swimming in a river. Everything suits everything always, and the inability to find old words counts as subtlety when the new words already suit everything. This type is either an observer who in opulent adjectives amply compensates for what Nature denied him in nouns, or an aesthete who makes himself conspicuous with his love of color and his sense of nuance and still manages to perceive things in the world around him as deeply as dirt goes under a fingernail. And they all have a tone of discovery, as if the world had only just now been created, when God made the Sunday feuilleton and saw that it was good. The first time these young people go to a public bath is when they're sent in as reporters. This may be an experience. But they generalize it. The method for depicting a Livingston in darkest Leopoldstadt is obviously of great help to the impoverished Viennese imagination. For it cannot imagine the breaking of a leg unless the leg is described to it. In Berlin, despite foul ambitions, the situation is not so grave. If a streetcar accident occurs there, the Berlin reporters describe the accident. They single out what is exceptional about this streetcar accident and spare the reader what is common to all streetcar accidents. If a streetcar mishap occurs in Vienna, the gentlemen write about the nature of streetcars, about the nature of streetcar mishaps, and about the nature of mishaps in general, with the perspective: What is man? ... As to the number killed, which might possibly still interest us, opinions differ unless a news agency settles the question. But the mood—all of them capture the mood; and the reporter, who could make himself useful as a rubbish collector for the world of facts, always comes running with a shred of poesy that he grabbed somewhere in the crowd. This one sees green, that one sees yellow—every one of them sees color.
Ultimately, all amalgamation of the intellectual with the informational, this axiom of journalism, this pretext for its plans, this excuse for its dangers, is and was thoroughly Heinean—be it now also, thanks to the more recent Frenchmen and to the friendly agency of Herr Bahr, somewhat psychologically inclined and garnished with yet a bit more "meditativeness." Only once was there a pause in this development—its name was Ludwig Speidel. In him, the art of language was a guest at the greasiest dives of the Mind. The press may feel that Speidel's life was an episode that cut disruptively into the game begun by Heine. And yet he seemed to side with the incarnate spirit of language, summoning it on holidays to the filthiest entertainment places, so that it could see the goings-on. Never was a colleague more dubious than this one. They could parade the living man around, all right. But how long they resisted giving the dead man the honor of a book! How they sensed that a complete edition here could bring that humiliation which they once imbibed by the spoonful as pride. When they finally decided to let the "associate" into literature, Herr Schmock had the cheek to undertake the commentary, and the hand of the editor, making things cute and topical, saved for the Viennese viewpoint as much as could be saved by a grouping of Speidelian prose around the Viennese viewpoint. An artist wrote these feuilletons, a feuilletonist compiled these works of art— the distance between Mind and press becomes doubly appreciable thereby. The journalists were right to hesitate so long. They weren't idle in the meantime. People yearned for Speidel's books—the journalists invoked his modesty and gave us their own books. For it is the evil mark of this crisis: journalism, which drives great minds into its stable, is meanwhile overrunning their pasture. It has plundered literature—it is generous and gives its own literature to literature. There appear feuilleton collections about which there's nothing so remarkable as that the work hasn't fallen apart in the bookbinder's hands. Bread is being made out of bread crumbs. What is it that gives them hope of enduring? The enduring interest in the subjects they select. If one of them chatters about eternity, shouldn't he be heard for as long as eternity lasts? Journalism lives on this fallacy. It always has the grandest themes, and in its hands eternity can become timely; but it gets old just as easily. The artist gives form to the day, the hour, the minute. No matter how limited and conditional in time and location his inspiration may have been, his work grows the more limitlessly and freely the further it's removed from its inspiration. It goes confidently out of date in a heartbeat: it grows fresh again over decades. What lives on material dies before it does. What lives in language lives on with it. How easy it was to read the chitchat every Sunday, and now that we can check it out of the library we can barely get through it. How hard it was to read the sentences in Die Fackel, even when we were helped by the incident they referred to. No, because we were helped by it! The further we're removed from the incident, the better we understand what was said about it. How does this happen? The incident was close and the perspective was broad. It was all forewritten. It was veiled so that the inquisitive day couldn't get at it. Now the veils are rising ...
Excerpted from The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen, Matt Buck. Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Franzen. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents
Heine and the Consequences (1910)
Nestroy and Posterity (1912)
Afterword to "Heine and the Consequences" (1911)
Between two Strains of Life: Final Word (1917)
Let No One Ask (1934)