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


post № 11

28 January 2015


A brief note: three views on satire and violence

Like Charlie Hebdo, Kraus’s satire is at times intentionally offensive. And he gave offense in the quite personal knowledge that satire can result in a physical attack on the satirist: Kraus himself was attacked on several occasions. On one such occasion, Felix Salten—who, as you may know, will go on to write Bambi—boxed Kraus’s ears as a response to Kraus’s satire “Die demolierte Literatur.” And in a diary entry dated 15 May 1896, Arthur Schnitzler reports that the assault was a welcome sight to everyone at the coffee house that the incident took place in. On another such occasion, Kraus was assaulted shortly after the launch of Die Fackel. In a “Statement of Accounts” closing out the first quarter of Die Fackel (F 9: 27), Kraus lists anonymous hate mail (236), anonymous threats (83), and assaults (1). Kraus goes on to cite a “beloved loudmouth,” a member of “Concordia or something,” as having stated that “Herr Kraus shall have to change his writing style a bit, if he places any value on surviving the first quarter of his Fackel.”


These two incidents and the responses to them intimate two views of satire and violence which may have been acceptable in Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century. On the one hand, Schnitzler seems to be of the view that violence is sometimes a welcome response to satire whenever it results in Schadenfreude occasioned by socially accepted retribution for hurt pride. On the other, the “beloved loudmouth” seems to be of the view that violence is sometimes an inevitable response to satire, a kind of professional hazard that the interests of self-preservation should make it advisable to avoid. I do not know whether these two views have any adherents today or whether they have been modified by scholars, intellectuals, or the public at large. But I do know that the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the murder of its staff have been the occasion of a new view on satire and violence. In any event, it is a view that I have never heard and am unfamiliar with. And I am presenting it here without comment.


In his “The Limits of Satire,” Mr. Tim Parks, an associate professor of literature and translation at IULM University in Milan, offers us the view that the staff of Charlie Hebdo appear to have provoked their own murders by having failed at art and satire. Mr. Parks writes:


Since satire has this practical and pragmatic purpose [i.e., to bring about change through ridicule], the criteria for assessing it are fairly simple: if it doesn’t point toward positive change, or encourage people to think in a more enlightened way, it has failed. That doesn’t mean it’s not amusing and well-observed, or even, for some, hilarious, in the way, say, witty mockery of a political enemy can be hilarious and gratifying and can intensify our sense of being morally superior. But as satire it has failed. The worst case is when satire reinforces the state of mind it purports to undercut, polarizes prejudices, and provokes the very behavior it condemns. This appears to be what happened with Charlie Hebdo’s images of Muhammad (third paragraph).


Mr. Parks’s view of the satirist as a sometimes suicidal provocateur is a novelty. He seems to believe that the failings of satirists’ cause them not to be the occasional victims of violence, but to be the occasional victimizers of themselves through other people. He seems to believe that failed satirists sometimes commit suicide by violent maniac at involuntary times and places—in the case of Charlie Hebdo, at work just before noon.


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