Karl Kraus was twenty-five years young when, after failing to finish courses in law, German literature and philosophy, his first published reviews and articles and an unsuccessful attempt to become an actor, he founded the magazine Die Fackel (‘The Torch’) in Vienna in 1899. After 1912 Kraus was its only author – in addition to being editor in chief and publisher all rolled into one, producing 922 editions with a total of over twenty thousand pages by the time of his death in 1936.
The Fackel which appeared at ‘unforced intervals’ served Kraus as both a mouthpiece and a forum, where, refusing to belong to any single party or ideology, he could read the riot act to his age. His ‘executions’ – ‘It is my doom that all the people I wish to kill keep dying off in front of me!’ – rhetorical attempts to destroy people and mercilessly fought disputes with important and not-so-important personalities, which regularly ended up in libel actions before the courts, were legendary.
He castigated the press which he christened ‘Journaille’ – ‘reproduction is progress in as much as it makes it facilitates the dissemination of simple-mindedness’, he unearthed double standards and restrictive moral conformism ‘Scandal starts when the police put an end to it.’ – and was simultaneously both a conservative scourge of liberalism and a convert to Catholicism. ‘In order to believe that one being made all this, one certainly requires more thoughts than knowing that he didn’t make it, you free-spirited idiots.’ In addition to this he was irrepressible in his demands for linguistic precision: ‘The phrase and the cause are one!’
Large sections of the tragedy The Last Days of Mankind which he intended not for the stage but as a play to be read were first published in the Fackel the book edition came out after censorship was lifted in 1922. It brings together over 200 scenes, a third of which are quotations from newspapers, army reports, court judgements and similar texts. Its cast is gigantic, its locations constantly changing, its length some 800 pages, its technical demands insurmountable and its playing time estimated by Kraus himself at around six days. This was not the only reason why Kraus turned down applications from such famous directors as Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator. Kraus, who gave some 700 public readings of his works over the course his lifetime, the proceeds of which he donated to good causes, did however compile a stage version which is also published in book form.
After he had kept silent since the outbreak of the war, Kraus held a lecture on 19th November 1914, entitled: ‘In This Great Time’ which he later printed in the first wartime edition of the Fackel in December 1914 beginning with the following words: ‘In this great time, which I still knew when it was this small; which will become small once again, if there is time; and which we – because such transformation is not possible in the area of organic growth – prefer to refer to as a fat time and truly a heavy time too; in this time, in which precisely that happens which one could not imagine, in which what one can no longer imagine has to happen, and if one could, then it would not happen –; in this serious time, which has died laughing at the possibility that it could become serious; surprised by its tragedy, grasping at dissipation and catching itself red-handed, searching for words; in this loud time which resounds from the ghastly symphony of actions which spawn reports and of reports which bring about actions: in this you may not expect to hear a single word from me. None except this, which is to protect my silence from misinterpretation. My awe for irreversibility, the subordination of language in the face of disaster, is too great. In the realms of imaginative poverty, where man dies of starvation of the soul without feeling any of the soul’s hunger, where pens are dipped in blood and swords in ink, that which is not thought has to be done, but that which is only thought is unspeakable. Do not expect a single word from me. […]
Those who have nothing to say because actions are speaking, can carry on talking. Whoever has something to say, step forward and be silent!’
Kraus was not silent. He became the chronicler and accuser of his time – or, as his character in The Last Days The Grumbler puts it: ‘I have saved the essence and my ear has found out the echo of the actions, my eye the gestures of the speeches and my voice, when it was only repeating, quoted in such a way that the keynote remained fixed for all time.’
Translated by David Tushingham