When I focused my research on Karl Kraus in June 2012, I had—apart from reading a number of his works—already come to know him through the eyes of one of his closest friends. I had been working on a biography of the Austrian writer and director Berthold Viertel (1885-1953)—you can read more about him in German here—for some time and had analyzed Kraus as an important influence on Viertel. It was one of the few friendships in Kraus’s life that not only lasted for thirty years (1905/6 until his death in 1936), but also advanced to a first name basis in 1924. Viertel’s accounts of Kraus—largely unknown today—of course influenced my attitude towards and examination of Kraus.
On the one hand, Viertel strongly identified with Kraus; he had read Die Fackel since it first came out in April 1899: in a way he grew up with Kraus’s ideas on how to live and to think in the twentieth century and on how to criticize conventions and the establishment. Time and again he made very clear that he stood in the tradition of Kraus’s “critical modernism” (cf., Beller and Janik 16, 31, 41–43 and Janik 16–22 and 226)—and this influence is quite visible not only in his opinions, but also in the language he uses. On the other hand, Viertel soon became aware that “you don’t eat of this Karl with impunity” [my translation], as he put it in an undated letter to Alfred Polgar (91.15.218, K32, A: Viertel, Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach). It was important for Viertel not to be completely absorbed by Kraus’s mind-set (as many admirers were), but also to remain critical of Kraus’s positions and to maintain the “innocuousness of one’s own creativity” [my translation] (188).
This worked—at least to a certain extent: not yet fourteen years old, Viertel first objected to Kraus’s account of Jewish religious education teachers in a letter to the editor of Die Fackel (F 13: 31). He disagreed with him on “Heine and the consequences” after hearing the first reading of Kraus’s text in May 1910; a heated debate ensued and continued even after Kraus’s death, when Viertel reflected on Heine again (67). After working very closely with Kraus for two years, Viertel took a job as a director for Stefan Großmann’s Freie Wiener Volksbühne in 1911, also because Kraus had chosen to henceforth write Die Fackel alone—without any contributions or assistance. While Großmann was an established satirical figure in Die Fackel and Kraus loathed his intermingling of art and enterprise, Kraus did not mind Viertel’s dealings with Großmann; nor did he mind Viertel’s later dealings with Max Reinhardt, whom Kraus also frequently mocked. In a way, he understood Viertel’s need to be pragmatic as a theater director and accepted his increasing enthusiasm for film and jazz. He even praised Viertel for showing him how that direction could also be art. Above all, however, he believed in Viertel’s humanistic standards and held him in high esteem for his personal charm and his writing (F 649–656: 2-10).
Two disagreements did, however, have a critical impact on their friendship. The first took place at the beginning of the First World War, when Viertel—with his work at the Freie Wiener Volksbühne likely playing a co-causative role here—was out of touch with Kraus: with poems such as “Kote 708,” Viertel was one of the many poets who glorified the war. Witnessing terrible losses of the Austro-Hungarian army in Serbia, where Viertel was stationed as an officer, he soon regretted his initial enthusiasm and apologized to Kraus by writing the essay “Karl Kraus. Ein Charakter und die Zeit” (“Karl Kraus: a character and the times”). And Kraus accepted his apology (F 423–425: 23). The second arose over Kraus’s partisanship for Engelbert Dollfuß in 1934. Viertel, reading Die Fackel (F 890-905) in London, was shocked that Kraus did not defend the Austrian labor movement. For some time, there was silence between them, and Viertel—for the first time—even refused to congratulate Kraus on his birthday. In December 1935, Viertel came to, and the two discussed the issue all through the night. They could not reach a consensus, but, as Viertel writes, they parted as friends. Kraus died just a few months later (312).
From Viertel I had learned not to submit to Kraus’s “spell” too easily. I chose to engage “anti-biographically” with his papers, a form of engagement that aims at the deconstruction of “‘the man himself’ into a pattern of contradictions” (23f). Yet, after four years in Kraus research, watching myself and others, I realized how difficult it is to take a differentiated approach to Kraus, even within academia: somehow it always comes down to either you take his side or you don’t. There is still little established “analytical ground” between remnants of a “cult of the genius,” on the one hand, and sometimes hateful rejection of Kraus’s intellectual tradition, on the other. This is likely due to Kraus’s inclined position between canonization—all his works are available online and in print, big research projects on Kraus are funded, and some biographies were written—and (paradoxically) neglect.
Kraus is, as Jonathan Franzen has put it, strangely “foreign,” or at least “more so than his better-known contemporaries, because his work was so particularly tied to his own time and place” (5). But, in Franzen’s view, “Kraus has more to say to us in our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment than his more accessible contemporaries now do” (ibid.). And before Franzen, Edward Timms, the renowned Kraus expert whose two-volume study is considered a benchmark in Kraus studies, tried to “rescue Karl Kraus from neglect and misinterpretation” and wanted to “take up the torch of a great tradition” (76 & 87, respectively).
When—openly or not—aiming at continuing applications of Kraus and the transmission of an intellectual tradition, Kraus scholars betray an affirmative deference to the ideals and values of their intellectual hero and, by extension, a certain humanistic worship of genius. Avoiding this is no easy matter. It is, after all, strongly enmeshed with claims to the relevance of one’s subject and one’s own position, and it proves especially challenging when it comes to matters biographical (this may also be one of the reasons why there continues to be a certain anti-biographical impulse for and about Kraus).
Is it still necessary to “rescue” the “greatest modern satirist” (88)? Maybe. For in a way, of course, I agree with both Franzen and Timms: Kraus is great, his thought is important, and more people should read him. Certainly, there are problematic and controversial aspects to Kraus’s life and work as well; scholars such as Timms have already given a differentiated account of Kraus’s political development and addressed difficult topics such as Kraus’s sexual relationship to the fourteen-year-old Irma Karczewka.
However, it remains, I think, important to reflect on the peculiar kind of “cult of the genius” that persists among Kraus readers and researchers—sometimes snidely called, sometimes proudly calling themselves “Krausianer.” This “cult” has a history in both the life and the afterlife of Kraus; it is entangled with identity politics, modern history, and intellectual traditions. It can still easily get ideological and emotional. Unexamined this “Geniekult”—that Kraus was opposed to a certain extent during his lifetime—impairs critical thinking and contradiction. As Viertel’s example shows, however, critical thought and antithesis was not only Kraus’s most important intention but also possible with regard to his own person. This should inspire us—even though he may be canonized and thoroughly researched—to engage critically with and to reinterpret Kraus as a “cultural hero” time and time again.