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

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post № 21

7 May 2015

 

Kraus’s nieces and Arthur Schnitzler

In a diary entry dated 4 July 1910, Arthur Schnitzler notes that he saw two young ladies, Kraus’s nieces, at Schönbrunn, who claimed to know—because Kraus is supposed to have told them so—that Peter Altenberg was

 

well-to-do, even rich, and that, while he was sick, he hid his money under his headboard (Kopfpolster)—and this is supposed to be the reason he didn’t want to get up. (?) On this account, then, all his begging would have to be traced back to some perfectly pathological parsimony (159) [my translation].

 

Schnitzler believes not a word. He seems perplexed and slightly amused. His question mark is one of the most expressive I’ve ever seen in print; it seems to be saying “who could believe such a thing.” And he goes on to demonstrate with a hyperbolic (even rude) reductio ad absurdum precisely why that account ought to be regarded as non-sense.

 

Non-sense aside, however, and assuming that Kraus’s nieces are telling the truth (i.e., that they were not just pulling Schnitzler’s leg): did Kraus ever say such a thing in earnest? It is difficult to believe that he would have. He was good friends with Peter Altenberg and certainly knew him well enough to know that he was, as a matter of fact, neither well-to-do nor rich. But would Kraus have ever said such a thing in jest? The story is ridiculous enough that it may have been intentionally contrived, perhaps as some kind of a bad joke, perhaps to play on his nieces’ credulousness. Kraus did, on occasion, play on people’s credulousness (cf., F 445-453: 5), and he did, at times, go to great lengths to have a bit of fun at someone else’s expense. He prank-called Alfred Kerr everyday for an entire week, and he and Sigismund von Radecki set up a somewhat elaborate scheme to catch out a couple of private detectives hired by Imre Békessy (you can read about these two episodes here). And the story has non-sense lurking directly beneath the surface in a way that may have appealed to Kraus—perhaps in the same way that patently fake editorials being sent to and published in newspapers of repute had appealed to him (cf., F 336-337: 5-9). Just think of all the things that would have to be true in order for this story to be true; it would have to be true that Kraus really said it in earnest, that Altenberg really was well-to-do or rich, that Altenberg was faking his poverty, that at least one person knew and held in (general?) confidence that Altenberg was faking his poverty, that a considerable sum of cash fits in a Kopfpolster, that Altenberg really hid his money there, and that there was some connection between Altenberg’s illness and his bed beyond the obvious. But this is all speculation.

 

And none of it suffices to establish that Kraus did, either in fact or with any probability, tell his nieces the story which they claim to have heard from him. And until more information comes to light proving or disproving Schnitzler’s account, we are left with but an amusing diary entry and some speculation. We can take it or leave it.

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