The Frown Prince

Or, the social distance of Karl Kraus

City Enters Phase 4 of Pretending Coronavirus Over” was The Onion headline of the week, and it’s been a long while since we’ve had one of those. 

It’s sharp pessimism in the tone perfected by Karl Kraus (1874-1936), the Vienna critic vaguely known to English audiences as one of history’s great curmudgeons. When this pandemic was just stretching its legs, it was a good time for H.L. Mencken’s American scorn; now that we’re six months into bungling it, Kraus’s stronger Austrian acid is the right prescription. But then, as Kraus said:

Today's literature: prescriptions written by patients.

Does anyone really know what they should be reading? Or more generally, what the hell they’re doing? Kraus thought not, and he founded Die Fackel (The Torch) to show them the light. For 37 years, he filled his newspaper with his own words, commenting on every part of Vienna’s intellectual life. He started off accepting the contributions of others, but eventually he pushed them out:

I no longer have collaborators. I used to be envious of them. They repel those readers whom I want to lose myself.

If you win more flies with honey than vinegar, Kraus was a really expensive bottle of balsamic vinegar, the kind you can pour over vanilla ice cream. And he had no interest in attracting flies, friends, or readers:

I and my public understand each other very well: it does not hear what I say, and I don't say what it wants to hear.

What he said was that the powers that be were corrupt hypocrites, that consumerism and capitalism were destroying society, and that the sloppy use of language was their main tool for doing so. And so, he devoted his time to critiquing the press:

The most incomprehensible talk comes from people who have no other use for language than to make themselves understood.

He read and decoded it all, often in such complex and subtle ways that his targets never knew they’d been hit. 

I trim my opponents to fit my arrows.

He wasn’t trying to score points because he wasn’t playing their game. He was thinking on a much grander scale, and by critiquing the daily newspapers he aimed for something eternal.

Let my style capture all the sounds of my time. This should make it an annoyance to my contemporaries. But later generations should hold it to their ears like a seashell in which there is the music of an ocean of mud.

Kraus didn’t make friends with his opinions, but he claimed that was the point:

Many desire to kill me, and many wish to spend an hour chatting with me. The law protects me from the former.

He elevated rudeness to an art form: 

If I return some people’s greetings, I do so only to give them their greeting back.

And if people started to agree with him, he took that as an ominous sign:

It so often happened to me that someone who shared my opinion kept the larger share for himself that I am now forewarned and offer people only ideas.

As with Mencken, it’s natural to wonder why someone who hated everything with such a scorching intensity devoted his life to obsessing over it all. Naturally, Kraus had an aphorism for that:

Hate must make a person productive; otherwise one might as well love.

Karl Kraus wasn’t really a misanthrope, though. He hated to be with people, sure, but he longed to be among people. 

One’s need for loneliness is not satisfied if one sits at a table alone. There must be empty chairs as well. If the waiter takes away a chair on which no one is sitting, I feel a void and my sociability is aroused. I can’t live without empty chairs. 

As our cafes reopen with wide gulfs of space between patrons, why not take a page from Kraus and think of this as an ideal state? As he might have said:

What is social distance but a world of empty chairs?

Quick quips; lightning

Real misanthropes are not found in solitude, but in the world; since it is experience of life, and not philosophy, which produces real hatred of mankind. — Giacomo Leopardi

I think of a pessimist as someone who is waiting for it to rain. And I feel soaked to the skin. — Leonard Cohen

The people who live in a Golden Age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks. — Randall Jarrell

That makes 51 issues of Get Wit Quick. I wrote Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting while sitting in an empty chair. If I didn’t not say what you wanted to hear, or perhaps the opposite, please tap the ♥️ below.