Something does, on occasion, fall from a torch. A bit of pitch.
Karl Kraus (F 279-280: 5)

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post № 19

5 April 2015

 

Paul Schick: Karl Kraus’s subjective moments

In December 1965, Paul Schick published a short monograph comprising some 170 pages and entitled Karl Kraus mit Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten. While there is, regrettably, no English translation of this monograph, it underwent at least eleven editions through 1999. And for good reason: Schick is quite good at making and keeping Kraus interesting; he is especially good at chasing up connections between Kraus the person and Kraus’s work. Schick even goes so far as to claim that Kraus’s “fight [against the corruption of the mind (Geist)], which made up his life, emanated from his own experiences, exercised influence over them, and was stimulated by them time and again” (9).

 

Schick refers to such personal experiences, influence, and stimulation as “subjective moment[s]” and claims that they are “evident even in notes of facts that have no apparent reference to Kraus himself” or “in outwardly objective glosses” (ibid.). Yet, the brevity of Schick’s monograph means that he has space only to show that there are connections between certain subjective moments and Kraus’s work; it means that he has no space to go into them in any detail. Despite the brevity and the restricted space, however, Schick engages in considerably rich discussions regarding Kraus, which very often rely upon and attempt to link together three kinds of evidence: biographical, personal (subjective moments), and empirical.

 

Of course, Schick’s discussions never present the evidence as neat and clean as all that; they very often involve complex, cross-pollenating thematizations of different aspects of Kraus and his work. And of course this division of evidence, too, has its issues. But it is helpful; it helps us understand the value of Schick’s contribution to our understanding of Kraus, which—to the best of my knowledge—has gone more or less unnoticed in biographies of and biographical discourse regarding Kraus, where the focus has, by and large, remained on Kraus’s views and activities as satirist and publisher of Die Fackel. Let me give one example from Schick’s monograph to illustrate his contribution.

 

Schick cites certain biographical evidence given by Helene Kann (69), whom Kraus met in Bad Ischl in 1904 and with whom he remained close friends until his death in 1936. Kann recalls a work habit of Kraus’s; she writes:

 

[Kraus] seemed to work out a clear view of an entire event before he said anything about it. Based upon his silence, often spanning a time period of several days, we would know that he was going to write about the event. When he was done thinking, he would, in long debates, state his position to his friends, refute objections, and rebut with glaring logic any arguments that seemed incorrect to him (Aus großer Nähe: Karl Kraus in Berichten von Weggefährten und Widersachern 183) [my translation].

 

On the basis of Kann’s biographical evidence, Schick intimates the existence of a link between Kraus’s thinking in silence before writing and Kraus’s public silence between 10 July 1914 and 19 November 1914, the date on which Kraus publically broke his silence about the war and delivered his speech “In these great times.” While Kraus’s silence during this time is complex and includes both his abhorrence of the war and his relationship with the Baroness Sidonie Nádherny von Borutin, Schick sees a subjective moment capable of explaining more than the mere fact that the outbreak of World War I had caused Kraus’s silence; he sees a subjective moment capable of explaining the personal reasons behind Kraus’s silence at least between July 1914 and August 1914.

 

Schick claims that Kraus, “plagued by apocalyptic visions,” had a sense of what was to come and that the outbreak of the war had, for that very reason, hit him quite hard (75)—so hard, in fact, that he had to travel to Innsbruck in order to speak with friends about it. Schick writes:

 

In August 1914, Karl Kraus traveled to Innsbruck in order to speak with friends. In private talks, he expressed his abhorrence of the war, but he still underestimated just how long it would endure. His anticipation at the time that the war would be over in two years meant that his friends believed him to be a pessimist; no one believed that the war could have went on for more than a year. “In such cases, however, we are capable of working only with apocalyptic, and not with any mathematical, precision” (F 462-471: 171), Kraus went on to confess in the third winter of war (76) [my translation].

 

On Schick’s view, then, the outbreak of World War I was—to borrow from Kann’s register—an event that Kraus was unclear about, and it is because Kraus was unclear about such event that he is silent about it between July 1914 and August 1914. There is certain textual evidence in “In these great times” that supports not only Schick’s view, but also the contention that Schick’s view seems to provide an accurate accounting of Kraus’s silence through 19 November 1914 (cf., the entire first paragraph of that essay). In a word, Schick is telling an intricate story where Kraus’s work habits, world events, and his fears about those events seem to have motivated both his public silence and his trip to Innsbruck.

 

While Schick’s view certainly seems plausible, a discussion more comprehensive than the one he provides would be required to show whether it is true or false. His story leaves us with a palpable absence of information; he does not mention Kraus’s friends by name, although Ludwig von Ficker, writer and publisher of Der Brenner, was presumably among them. He does not mention to what extent, if any, Kraus’s relationship with Nádherny contributed to Kraus’s silence during this time. The sudden citation of Die Fackel raises more questions than it answers: e.g., to what extent is Kraus’s recollection from 1917 (the “third winter of war”) representative of or congruent with his actions in 1914; to what “cases” is Kraus referring? And the structure of Schick’s paragraphs and narrative here leaves unanswered whether Kraus’s trip to Innsbruck is—on a personal level—commensurate with or constitutes a break from his work habit regarding events in the world, as described by Helene Kann: did Kraus go to Innsbruck with an already formed opinion or did he go to Innsbruck to get help from his friends in forming such an opinion?

 

Be that as it may: the value of Schick’s contribution to our understanding of Kraus does not depend upon the truth or falsity of any particular story he is telling or trying to tell. The value of Schick’s contribution is a requirement for our method of investigation: namely, that we do justice to the intricacies of the biographical, the personal (subjective moments), and the empirical facts of Kraus’s life and work whenever it is possible to do so. Schick’s monograph has shown that exploring these intricacies are capable of leading to a fuller and richer understanding of Kraus than has hitherto been the case, which in its turn leads to a better understanding of his work.

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