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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Reading Karl Kraus

It's a rainy weekend, perfect for catching up on some reading.

I'm enjoying Harry Zohn's biography and critical analysis of the Viennese writer and satirist Karl Kraus (1874-1936). Zohn published his book in 1971, and I was a student of his at Brandeis University where I failed to learn even basic German rather quite miserably. But Zohn, who chaired the Germanic and Slavic Language Department, was a real expert in turn of the century Vienna, and in particular the artistic, literary, and musical movements of that fascinating time.

Harry Zohn (1923-2001) was an excellent translator - bringing to English such works as Freud's "Delusion and Dream," the complete diaries of Theodor Herzel, and some 40 other volumes. He was a violist in the Brandeis Symphony Orchestra, and made all of his students (including yours truly) sing Viennese wine garden songs in class (I still have the sheet music). We also sampled a wide-variety of German Beer and pub food during a research-oriented field trip to Boston's Jacob Wirth House.

Kraus was a creative force of nature who embodied the Zeitgeist of his generation. Today we would probably call him a Performance Artist. For example, he held some 700 recitals in his traveling show billed as "Theatre of Poetry." It included readings of poetry and prose, satire, opera, and lieder. His circle of intellectuals included composers such as Schoenberg and Mahler, painters such as Klimt and Schiele, and scientists and philosophers such as Wittgenstein and Freud.

Kraus was not a musician. According to Zohn...

Kraus's inability to read music was not compensated for by any great vocal resources. His singing voice was really Sprechgesang in the manner of Schönberg or Berg, but it was considerably enhanced by this great intuition and empathy, his rhythmic acuteness, his talent as an imitator, and his pervasive moral fanaticism.

The pianists who accompanied him were among the best, including composers Ernst Křenek and Josef Matthias Hauer. Zohn observes, "In January, 1932, he gave a program of poems and scenes by Bert Brecht, accompanied on the piano by Kurt Weill."

Kraus's 60th birthday was celebrated with a musical-literary matinee and a film about him. Composer Alban Berg was in attendance. Musicians Eduard Steuermann and Rudolf Kolisch were also amongst Kraus's close friends.

In Zohn's concluding statement ends with the following observation"...Karl Kraus may have been a failure. But surely he was one of the grandest failures in world literature."

Zohn's scholarly but assessable book on Kraus ends with "An Aphoristic Sampler." Here are just a few of the choice translations Zohn made of Kraus's work:

I can say with pride that I have spent days and nights not reading anything, and that with unflagging energy I use every free moment gradually to acquire an encyclopedic lack of education.

I dreamt that I had died for my country. And right way a coffin-lid opener was there, holding out his hand for a tip.

Am I to blame if hallucinations and visions are alive and have names and permanent residences?

In one ear and out the other: this would make the head a transit station. What I hear has to go out the same ear.

I ask no one for a light. I don't want to be beholden to anyone - in life, love, or literature. And yet I smoke.

I hear noises which others don't hear and which interfere with the music of the spheres that others don't hear either.

I already remember many things that I am experiencing.

Solitude would be an ideal state if one were able to pick the people one avoids.

Kokoschka has made a portrait of me. It could be that those who know me will not recognize me; but surely those who don't know me will recognize me.

"He masters the German language" -that is true of a salesman. An artist is a servant of the word.

I have decided many a stylistic problem first by my head, then by heads or tails.

Today's literature: prescriptions written by patients.

The superman is a premature ideal, one that presupposes man.

A journalist is stimulated by a deadline. He writes worse when he has time.

Diplomacy is a game of chess in which the nations are checkmated.

A Gourmet once told me that he preferred the scum of the earth to the cream of society.

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

Democracy means the permission to be everyone's slave.

Medicine: "Your money and your life!"

I do not trust the printing press when I deliver my written words to it. How a dramatist can rely on the mouth of an actor!

The development of technology will leave only one problem: the infirmity of human nature.

If the earth had any idea of how afraid the comet is of contact with it!

More satirical quotes of Kraus can be found on the web here...

Karl Kraus Quotes



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