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Karl Kraus's biting satire set a `torch' to corruption in 20th-century Europe

In These Great Times: A Karl Kraus Reader, edited by Harry Zohn. Manchester, England: Carcanet Press. 263 pp. $14.95. The Austrian writer Karl Kraus was certainly the fiercest and is probably the greatest satirist of the 20th century, but he is little known outside German-speaking countries for the same reason he is well known within them: His work is so subtle and singular as to be almost untranslatable.

Kraus was the conscience of the German language. He has no counterpart in English or American literature, but if you can imagine a synthesis of George Orwell and Jonathan Swift, you will have some idea of him. Like Orwell, he was particularly concerned with the corruption of language as both symptom and cause of moral and political corruption; like Swift, he wrote with a savage indignation, an intensity of irony and paradox, that lifted his work above the issues of the day into the realm of great literature.

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The son of a prosperous Jewish paper manufacturer, Kraus was born in Bohemia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1874. When he was three, the family moved to Vienna, where he was to spend the rest of his life.

While still a student he began contributing articles and satirical sketches to newspapers and magazines, and in 1899 he founded his own satirical journal, Die Fackel (The Torch). At first he welcomed other contributors (including Oscar Wilde, August Strindberg, and Heinrich Mann), but beginning in 1911 he wrote every issue entirely by himself.

The brilliant iconoclasm of Die Fackel quickly won Kraus a loyal and distinguished following (philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and composer Arnold Sch"onberg both acknowledged his influence). The most frequent target of his satire was the Viennese press, which he regarded as hypocritical, corrupt, and corrupting, polluting the language with clich'es and destroying the right to privacy. But his real quarrel was with what the press advertised and symbolized: the commercial and industrial civilizaton that had established itself only recently in Central Europe.

Yet Kraus was not so much a political as an antipolitical writer, one who believed that freedom is first of all freedom from politics and from its deformed modern offspring, ideology. The same uncompromising individualism led him to attack the fledgling movement of psychoanalysis with its denial of moral autonomy and its reduction of the whole spiritual life of mankind to a matter of thwarted physical impulses. (``Psychoanalysis,'' he wrote, ``is itself the mental illness that it purports to cure.'')

In his satire, Kraus's method was to condemn the guilty with their own words, quoting an offending passage from a newspaper editorial, advertisement, or speech, and caustically dissecting it until its absurdity or depravity was made inescapably clear. He gathered material by reading the newspapers during late afternoon breakfasts at a coffeehouse. Then, after talking with friends, he would return to his apartment to write relentlessly until dawn.

With the coming of war in 1914, Kraus's independence served him well. He was almost the only prominent Germanic writer to oppose the war, which inspired (or provoked) his greatest work, the bitter, monumental antiwar drama ``The Last Days of Mankind.'' In its 209 scenes, hundreds of characters -- from emperors to prostitutes -- appear, all self-absorbed and blind to the catastrophe that was engulfing them.

The war, for Kraus, was a tragedy played by operetta characters, the culmination of the prewar culture's divorce from reality. Half the dialogue is simply quoted from newspapers and other sources, for in the play ``news reports stand up as people, and people wither into editorials. Clich'es walk around on two legs while men are having theirs shot off.''

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Eventually, the evils spawned by the war spawned an evil too terrible for satire. In the shadow of Nazi Germany, Kraus realized that his satire was a lost cause. It had ironically belonged to the culture it attacked and, with its fall, fell silent. The last issues of Die Fackel were devoted to questions of language and discussions of Shakespeare and Goethe, whose plays Kraus had often recited in public. The final issue (No. 922) appeared in February 1936, a few months before Kraus died -- and two years before the Nazis marched into Vienna, destroying his possessions and arresting his friends. Kraus's satire is so dependent for its effect on nuances of word and syntax, on puns and allusive echoes, that any translation can only be what a pencil sketch is to an oil painting.

Nevertheless, this volume is a useful introduction to his work. It encompasses a broad range of pieces from Die Fackel, a selection of his poetry (in translation, and in German), and a condensed version of ``The Last Days of Mankind.'' I only regret that Mr. Zohn didn't include a selection of Kraus's aphorisms, some of which are as subtle and penetrating as Nietzsche's.

Kraus was not always right, nor always fair; even the most sympathetic reader will sometimes find him too rancorous. But he proved himself a prophet of the Central European tragedy, and if there is any doubt of his relevance to our own time, it is sufficient to quote him: ``The end of the world is the destruction of the spirit; the other kind depends on the insignificant attempt to see whether after such a destruction the world can go on.''

L. S. Klepp is a free-lance editor focusing on philosophy and religion.

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