On 5 October 1915, Karl Kraus published the following aphorism: “Künstler ist nur einer, der aus der Lösung ein Rätsel machen kann” (F 406-412: 138). One English translation of this aphorism has—so it would seem—become the most proliferated mistranslation of any Kraus aphorism in English. The mistranslation omits the word ‘nur’ (‘only’), turns ‘Künstler’ (‘artist’) into ‘writer’ and ‘Lösung’ (‘solution’) into ‘answer,’ and reads: “A writer is someone who can make a riddle out of an answer” (see here, here, and here for just three examples). In a word, this mistranslation constitutes a crass misrepresentation of the aphorism that Karl Kraus published on 5 October 1915.
This mistranslation gives rise to the impression that Kraus is defining what a writer is. But Kraus does no such thing. On the one hand, this aphorism does not pertain particularly to writers (Schriftsteller); it pertains generally to artists (Künstler)—a group that includes writers, painters, actors, actresses, etc. On the other, the impression that Kraus is offering a definition can arise only if we (i) view this aphorism in isolation from other texts where Kraus opines on art as an endeavor in contravention to established norms of reasoning and (ii) ignore the tone of the aphorism. … What follows is therefore an attempt to set the record straight on two counts. The first count consists in brief and non-comprehensive exegesis showing what this aphorism might mean. The second count consists in a discussion of both the tone of this aphorism and a true and complete translation of it, which is compatible with the letter and spirit of Kraus’s text. First things first…
Kraus’s aphorism quoted above appears in the Die Fackel as part of a compendium consisting of various texts—aphorisms, poems, inscriptions (Inschriften), and a monolog of the Grumbler (Nörgler)—all set under the title “Nachts” (F 406-412: 94-168). It reappears verbatim at the end of chapter II of a separate work also entitled Nachts, a collection of aphorisms first published in 1919; that chapter bears the title “Kunst” (“Art”). And while Kraus does not reproduce this aphorism verbatim in any later editions of Die Fackel or—to the best of my knowledge—in any other writings, he does hold fast both to the letter and to the spirit of this aphorism in two other pieces: (i) in an inscription entitled “Analysis” from October 1925 (F 697-705: 91) and (ii) in an essay entitled “The Rhyme” from April 1927 (F 757-758: 36). … Not in any of these four places in Die Fackel does Kraus stray from the thought that it is artists (and not writers) who are capable of turning solutions (and not answers) into riddles.
The beginnings of this thought appear to go back to the first half of 1912. In his essay “Nestroy und die Nachwelt” (“Nestroy and posterity”), first published on 13 May 1912 (F 349-350: 1-23), Kraus laments:
For our understanding failed to understand that it was indeed capable of growing within a generation once it was removed from mind and spirit, but that it would and did lose its ability to propagate itself upon that removal having been effected. If two times two is really four, as they claim it is, then this product is owed to the fact that Goethe has written the poem “Meeresstille.” But now we know what two times two is with such exactitude that we shall become incapable of doing the math ourselves in a hundred years hence. Something hitherto non-existent must have gotten into the world. A devil’s work of humanity. An invention for shattering koh-i-noor in order to provide its light to any and all who do not have it. For fifty years now, the machine has been running, that machine where mind and spirit are put in the front in order to come out the back as print, dilutive, disseminative, destructive. The givers lose, the presentees become poor, and the middlemen are meant to live. An intermediary entity has been established to trip up the values of life in entangled conflict with one another. It is subject to that blight of intelligence that art and mankind make their peace… [my translation] (F 349-350: 2-3)
The thought that artists can turn solutions into riddles has its beginnings in the interplay between cultural goods (poems, art) and mathematics. And on 19 September 1913—ca. one and one-half years later—Kraus expands on the idea of an interplay between cultural goods (art) and mathematics. As in May 1912, Kraus believes that art is of primary import for understanding mathematics/logic and, by extension, for our ability to reason. He writes:
Logic is art’s enemy. But art may not be logic’s enemy. Logic must have but tasted of art and have been digested by it in its entirety. To claim that two times two is five, you have to know that two times two is four. But whoever knows the latter will say that the former is false. [my translation] (F 381-383: 72)
Here, Kraus conflates logic with mathematics (justifiably or not) and asserts the truth of a mathematical contradiction in terms. He believes that art and logic/mathematics are not mutually exclusive and that art ought to be used in our reasoning; because they are not mutually exclusive, we may doubt the veracity of neither. That much seems to be clear. Yet, it is unclear as to how art is (to be) used in our reasoning, what role it plays, and how it gets us to two times two is five.
‘Digested’ is an earthly, even beautiful, metaphor, but a metaphor all the same. Absent any true understanding of Kraus’s view here, it will remain difficult to say what he means. … But maybe Kraus does not mean anything more than that art ought not to inform our reasoning solely for the purpose of riddling out solutions to problems. Maybe he means nothing more than that art ought also to inform our reasoning for the purpose of riddling out solutions per se: viz., the solutions themselves ought to be riddles given the facts of the problem or situation. It is in this spirit that Kraus’s aphorism—“Künstler ist nur einer, der aus der Lösung ein Rätsel machen kann”—is to be understood. Kraus’s view seems to be that solutions of artists’ can be riddles in contravention to established norms of reasoning. … But what does that mean? Is it a call for finding new ways of thinking and reasoning? I don’t know. Nor am I sure that anyone really does.
Whatever it means, it is unlikely to suffice as a definition. Admittedly, Kraus’s view could conceivably be brought into the form of a definition. But definitions require more than just the right form; they also require clarity and coherency, and it is unclear whether Kraus’s view is clear or coherent in any way which may satisfy the criteria of a definition. When shall we know whether something has satisfied this definition? Incertitude seems to be built into it. Established norms of reasoning apply, but they may not lead us to correct outcomes. When and how shall we know whether we have gotten something right? … Yet, neither the lack of clarity, nor the lack of coherency, nor the built-in incertitude ought to take away from the beauty or the importance of Kraus’s aphorism, whatever it means.
Like most of his writings, Kraus’s aphorism is intended to provoke and to incite us to our own thoughts. Yet, understanding the particular provocation or incitement requires that we understand both the text and the tone of the particular aphorism. … To understand Kraus’s aphorism as a definition would be to misunderstand its tone. Such misunderstanding is understandable in the English-speaking world if for no other reason than that Harry Zohn, a forerunner in Kraus translation and a brilliant translator in his own right, has also translated Kraus’s aphorism as a definition. His translation reads: “Only he is an artist who can make a riddle out of a solution” (Zohn 51). (As an aside: my discussion of Zohn ought not to be understood as negative criticism of Zohn; it’s not, nor is it intended to be. It is critical engagement with him. If we are going to make mistakes—and we all make mistakes—then we should all strive to make the kind of mistake that Zohn makes here: i.e., a mistake that is well thought-out, critically engaged, and based upon the (textual) facts.)
Zohn’s translation is, in one sense, a true and complete translation; he translates all the text accurately: he translates ‘Künstler’ as ‘artist’ and ‘Lösung’ as ‘solution,’ and he does not omit the word ‘nur’ (‘only’). But Zohn misses the tone; his translation does, at any rate, not capture it in English. While Kraus’s aphorism is doubtless to be read as an insight into what artists are, his tone suggests a kind of resignation. I read “Künstler ist nur einer” as “An artist is only someone”—I read this, that is to say, as Kraus throwing up his hands, shrugging his shoulders, and raising his voice a bit, as if he were saying “that’s as good as I’m going to get it, I’m done.” This is not the tone that definitions are made of. This is the tone that challenges are made of. It is as if Kraus were saying: “leave it be or do it better.” Kraus is provoking us; he is inciting us to think about artists, solutions, and riddles. But how do we get this provocation and incitement into English? How do we improve on Zohn’s translation?
A true and complete translation of this aphorism—i.e., a translation true to the letter and spirit of the text—might run: “An artist is only someone who is capable of turning solutions into riddles” [my translation]. This translation is combatable with other texts from Kraus such as the excerpt from “Nestroy and posterity” and the “logic is art’s enemy” aphorism quoted above. And its tone is one of provocation and incitement. It forces readers, so I would like to believe, to read it as if they were throwing up their hands, shrugging their shoulders, and raising their voices a bit.