Among the brilliant writers and thinkers who emerged from the multicultural and multilingual world of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. For them, the trauma of World War I included the sudden loss of the geographical entity into which they had been born: in 1918, the empire was dissolved overnight, leaving Austria a small, fragile republic that would last only twenty years before being annexed by Hitler’s Third Reich. In this major reconsideration of European modernism, Marjorie Perloff identifies and explores the aesthetic world that emerged from the rubble of Vienna and other former Habsburg territories—an “Austro-Modernism” that produced a major body of drama, fiction, poetry, and autobiography.
Perloff explores works ranging from Karl Kraus’s drama The Last Days of Mankind and Elias Canetti’s memoir The Tongue Set Free to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notebooks and Paul Celan’s lyric poetry. Throughout, she shows that Austro-Modernist literature is characterized less by the formal and technical inventions of a modernism familiar to us in the work of Joyce and Pound, Dada and Futurism, than by a radical irony beneath a seemingly conventional surface, an acute sense of exile, and a sensibility more erotic and quixotic than that of its German contemporaries. Skeptical and disillusioned, Austro-Modernism prefers to ask questions rather than formulate answers.
“What Perloff’s account provides is an understanding of a Viennese modernism within the history of a fallen Austrian state, where, with compelling clarity, she reconstructs and conveys a sense of the gravity specific to those conditions. . . . [A] powerful account.” ―Los Angeles Review of Books
“Perloff’s approach to these writings combines perceptive stylistic analysis with telling biographical detail, shrewd historical observation with a sense of continuing relevance.” ―Times Literary Supplement
"Perloff’s subjects seem to be in mourning not just for an empire and a way of life, but for the transparency and meaningfulness of language itself. As Austrians and, in many cases, as Jews, these writers had a unique vantage point on the crisis of language that was to become so central to modernism in all its guises. The edge of irony, Perloff shows, was an uncomfortable place to live, but a fruitful place to write from." ―New York Review of Books
"At a moment of increasing nationalism and populism around the globe, and in an era of 'fake news' that calls the very idea of truth and reality into question, we are well served by studying these writers who chronicled the decline of their empire." ―Modern Philolgy
“Always on the cutting edge of whatever she investigates, Perloff throws light on the subtleties and contradictions—inner and outer—of the literary universe of Celan and Canetti, Kraus and Freud, Musil and Roth. She interweaves, as no one else could, the examination of Celan’s poetry with his personal life. The majestic coda to her study, dealing with Wittgenstein’s fascination with the Christian Gospels and his complicated involvement with his own traces of anti-Semitism, forms a particularly convincing refusal of closure, the enemy of the historical modernism she so brilliantly studies and espouses.” — Mary Ann Caws, author of Surprised in Translation
"Most critics have dealt with Austrian modernism—and modernism in general—from a prewar perspective. Perloff rightly sees the aftermath of the war, the breakup of empire, as informing the Austro-Modernists’ boldest works.Edge of Irony presents a model for attuning literary study to the political complexities with which writings like these are eternally embroiled."
— Thomas Harrison, University of California, Los Angeles
“Edge of Irony is a beautifully written account of Austrian modernism. In this important contribution to European literary history, Perloff reveals the rich contexts and surprising contemporaneity of mid-twentieth-century Austrian literature.” — Patrick Greaney, University of Colorado Boulder
“This book takes us into the undiscovered country of Austro-Modernism in all of its historical complexity, and in the process requires us to address in new ways the questions of literary innovation, the sources of authorial identity, and how to read texts whose distinctive language and formal ingenuity confront us with the inadequacies of our received critical concepts and practices.Edge of Irony is without doubt the most impressive achievement of Perloff’s distinguished career.” — Gerald Bruns, University of Notre Dame
"As text corpus, Perloff presents an interesting mix of canonized texts from different genres, starting with Karl Kraus’s monster dramaThe Last Days of Mankind, proceeding to Joseph Roth’s novel Radetzky March, Robert Musil’s voluminous essay-novel The Man without Qualities, Elias Canetti’s autobiographical writings, Paul Celan’s love poetry, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ‘Gospels’." ― Modern Language Review
"After her many books on American and European innovative poetic traditions, Marjorie Perloff published her multi-genre survey of Habsburg modernism, with individual chapters devoted to Karl Kraus, Joseph Roth, Robert Musil, Elias Canetti, Paul Celan, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, reading them all in the context of the lost empire." ―Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies
About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Edge of Irony
Modernism in the Shadow of the Habsburg Empire
By Marjorie Perloff
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
List of Illustrations,
Introduction: The Making of Austro-Modernism,
1: The Mediated War Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind,
2: The Lost Hyphen Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March,
3: “The Subjunctive of Possibilities” Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities,
4: Coming of Age in Kakania Mother Tongue and Identity Theft in Canetti’s Autobiography,
5: The Last Habsburg Poet Paul Celan’s Love Poetry and the Limits of Language,
Coda: Becoming a “Different” Person Wittgenstein’s “Gospels”,
The Mediated War
Karl Kraus’s The Last Days of Mankind
My business is to pin down the Age between quotation marks.
What has been proposed here is nothing less than a drainage system for the huge swamps of phraseology.
KARL KRAUS, Die Fackel
Act 1, scene 1. The stage directions read, “Vienna. Ringstrasse at Sirk Corner. Flags wave from the buildings. Loud acclamation for soldiers marching by universal excitement. The crowd breaks up into small groups.” The newsboys with their “Extra, Extra,” announcing the outbreak of war, are interrupted by a drunk demonstrator who shouts, “Down with Serbia! Hurrah for the Habsburgs! Hurrah! For S-e-r-bia!” and is immediately kicked in the pants for his mistake. A crook and a prostitute exchange insults, as two army contractors, talking of possible bribes the rich will use to avoid the draft, cite Bismarck’s words, in the Neue Freie Presse (Vienna’s major newspaper at the time of the assassination of the archduke in Serbia), to the effect that the Austrians deserve kissing. One officer tells another that war is “unanwendbar” (of no use) when he really means, as his friend points out, “unabwendbar” (unavoidable). A patriotic citizen praises the coming conflict as a holy war of defense against “encirclement” by hostile forces, and the crowd responds by making up rhymes (in Viennese dialect), denigrating the enemy:
STIMMEN AUS DER MENGE: Serbien muß sterbien … A jeder muß Sterbien!
EINER AUS DER MENGE: Und a jeder Ruß —
EIN ANDERER (brülend): — ein Genuß!
EIN DRITTER: An Stuß! (Gelächter)
EIN VIERTER: An Schuß!
DER ZWEITE: Und a jeder Franzos?
DER DRITTE: A Roß! (Gelächter)
DER VIERTE: An Stoß!
ALLE: Bravo! An Stoß! So is!
DER DRITTE: Und a jeder Tritt — na, jeder Britt!
DER VIERTE: An Tritt!
ALLE: Sehr guat! An Britt für jeden Tritt! Bravo!
VOICES IN THE CROWD: Serbia must die. … Each one must die.
MAN IN THE CROWD: And every Rusky
ANOTHER: (shouting): Fun for usky!
A THIRD: What a hoot! (laughter)
A FOURTH: In with the boot!
THE SECOND: And every Frog?
THE THIRD: Dies like a dog. (laughter)
THE FOURTH: Kick him!
ALL: BRAVO! Kick him!
THE THIRD: Kick after kick — for every Britt!
THE FOURTH: Attention!
ALL: Terr-ific! A Britt for every kick! Bravo!
If this dialogue, written in 1915, strikes us as cleverly mimetic of street slang, think again. For the rhymed insults of the Russians, French, and British were actually taken from a German cartoon postcard (August 25, 1914), in which two soldiers wearing spiked helmets (here designated as Willi and Karl) are attacking the enemy (figure 2).
Reframed, the verses appear in what is probably the first — and perhaps the most remarkable — documentary drama written: Karl Kraus’s devastating Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind). Kraus’s dialogue, as in the scene above, sounds colloquial and nothing if not “natural,” representing as it does a variety of linguistic registers based on social class, ethnicity, geographical origin, and profession. But a large part of the play is drawn from actual documents, whether newspaper dispatches, editorials, public proclamations, minutes of political meetings, or manifestos, letters, picture postcards, and interviews — indeed, whatever constituted the written record of the World War I years. “The most improbable deeds reported here,” writes Kraus in his preface, “actually took place. … The most implausible conversations in this play were spoken verbatim; the shrillest inventions are quotations” (Russell, 20; LTM, 9). The technique is montage: quotations from Shakespeare and Goethe are interspersed with cabaret song, patriotic ode, tableau vivant, vaudeville, puppet play, and, in the later acts, even photomontage so as to create a strange hybrid — part tragedy, part operetta, part carnival, part political tract — in which “high” and “low” come together in a new blend. “A document,” as Kraus puts it, “is a character; reports rise up as living forms while the living die as editorials; the feuilleton gains a mouth and delivers its own monologue; clichés stand on two legs — some men are left with only one” (Russell, 20–21; LTM, 9). And throughout, the comic, the hilarious, the grotesque, the surreal dominate. “In Berlin,” as Kraus had famously quipped, “things are serious but not hopeless. In Vienna, they are hopeless but not serious.”
In his analysis of the role the media play in disseminating the case for war, Kraus is startlingly contemporary: turn on CNN at this moment and you find yourself witnessing the spin familiar to readers of Kraus’s devastating exposures of mediaspeak in his own famous paper Die Fackel (plate 4) as well as in Last Days of Mankind — a spin made possible, as Kraus knew only too well, by the simple fact that journalists are never held responsible for the accuracy of their reports, much less their predictions. When, for example, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was covering the Egyptian uprising of January 2011, he couldn’t say enough about the marvels of the Arab Spring with its “Facebook Revolution” and ostensible thirst for “democracy.” Today, with the el-Sisi military dictatorship in full command, Cooper’s evening dispatches almost wholly ignore the Egyptian situation (there’s now ISIS and Syria to cover!), as if the CNN anchor had always known the Arab Spring was doomed. How information is disseminated in a world where truth is subject to the daily news cycle: this is the condition Kraus tackled with uncanny prescience.
The large-scale reliance on citation and documentary “evidence” distinguishes The Last Days of Mankind from its avant-garde counterparts in Russia, Italy, and France. Unlike the zaum (beyond-sense) poetry of the Russian avant-garde, unlike the parole in libertà and “destruction of syntax” of Italian Futurism, or the fragmentation, hyperbolic “non-sense,” and elaborate verbal play of Dada, in both its French and German incarnations, Kraus’s writing opts for the seeming transparency of coherent sentences and “normal” paragraphs. His political manifestos in Die Fackel are written in straightforward prose rather than experimenting with innovative typographical page design as do F. T. Marinetti and Tristan Tzara. But Kraus’s satiric vision depends as much as theirs upon the technology and dissemination of printed matter only recently made available to poets and artists of his moment, and he made the most of it so as to convey what Karl Kraus called the unimaginable — a world of war whose purpose was never really defined and yet which literally shattered the lives of the empire’s citizenry. Indeed, rupture for the citizens of the Dual Monarchy was much more extreme than for Germany, which did not, after all, forfeit its basic identity: its geographic and ethnic prewar contours, like those of France and Great Britain, remained essentially intact.
The unimaginable had been anticipated by Kraus as soon as the war broke out in August 1914. In Die Fackel for December 5, 1914, the lead article was called “In dieser großen Zeit” and begins as follows:
In this great Time
which I still remember when it was so small; which will become small again if there is enough time, and which, because in the realm of organic growth no such transformation is possible, we prefer to address as a fat time and also a hard time; in this time where the very thing happens that one could not imagine, and in which that must happen which one can no longer imagine, and could one imagine it, it wouldn’t happen —; in this serious time which died laughing at the possibility that it could become serious: which, surprised by its tragedy, longed for distraction, and which, catching itself engaging in some new action, searches for words; in this loud time, which threatens to disclose the horrible symphony of deeds, to bring forward reports — reports that lead to action: in this time you should not expect a single word from me. … Let him who has something to say come forward and be silent.
The unimaginable war is not mentioned once in this anti-manifesto, which generates mutations on the word time (Zeit), repeated here eight times — a time that from Kraus’s particular perspective was entirely out of joint. His, it should be noted, was a wholly atypical reaction to the Great War: from Rainer Marie Rilke’s patriotic “Fünf Gesange” (“Five Songs”), which begins with the words “Zum ersten Mal seh ich dich aufstehn / hörengesagter fernster unglaublicher Krieger-Gott” (For the first time I see you stand up / you legendary most distant unbelievable Warrior-God), to Hugo von Hoffmansthal’s “Österreich’s Antwort” (Austria’s Reply), the initial response of Austrian writers to the outbreak of war was enthusiastic support. Even Robert Musil, later to take such a different stance, wrote in 1914,
A new feeling was born. … A stunning sense of belonging tore our hearts from our hands. … Now we feel gathered into a ball, fused together by an inexpressible humility, in which the individual suddenly counts for nothing besides his elementary task of defending the tribe. This feeling must always have been present: it has now awakened … a bliss; and over and above its earnestness, a huge security and joy.
Here and elsewhere Austrian writers echoed their German counterparts, the most famous (or perhaps infamous) example being Thomas Mann, whose 1914 essay “Thoughts in Wartime” (“Gedanken im Kriege”) argued that the resort to war was entirely justified, a tremendous creative event that would bring about national unity, moral elevation, and the values of genuine “culture,” as represented by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Wagner, vis-à-vis the shallow “civilization” of a corrupt France and England.
When, in the late war years, artists and writers began to understand the very real horror of the Great War, they turned their attention from politics and culture to the ordeal of those who had actually fought in the trenches. Here the most striking German work was Ernst Jünger’s The Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern) of 1920, with its graphic account of frontline combat. By the time Eric Maria Remarque’s pacifist All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen Nichts Neues) was published in 1928, the mood had shifted completely. “This book,” says Remarque in a headnote to what was to become an international best seller and later a celebrated film, “is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”
But — and here things get complicated — Kraus’s Last Days of Mankind has no more in common with All Quiet on the Western Front than with the odes or cartoons in praise of war of 1914. For whereas Jünger or Remarque or, for that matter, the English war poets (Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, among others) wrote highly subjective and graphic accounts of warfare itself, bearing sympathetic witness to the ostensibly innocent young soldiers who were its victims, Kraus’s documentary drama uses every device in its poetic arsenal to dramatize the complicity, cravenness, and often inadvertent cruelty, not only of those who make war but also of those who carry it out or remain behind. From the first shrill cry of the newsboy announcing the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, to the petty controversies between waiters and diners in the local cafés, to the dispatches from the Ballhausplatz (the offices of the ministry) and the sermons preached in Vienna’s churches, few, if any, are seen as exempt from the fevers and follies of war. What often begins as accident rapidly turns into status quo, revealing a latent viciousness that seems to permeate not only public discourse but the entire social fabric. High Culture versus mere “civilization”: the dichotomy counts for little to the hungry children in the schoolroom, forced to recite patriotic pieties, or to the new recruits at military headquarters, trying to bribe the petty bureaucrats in charge to give them a few hours of leave.
Kraus’s cruel apocalyptic vision may well have struck Modernist readers as excessive: unlike, say, Bertolt Brecht, he saw no political alternative to the capitalist competition that drove the war engine. If anyone was to blame for the cult of war, it was, in Kraus’s view, the press corps of which he was himself a member. Such obsession with the media will strike many readers as misconceived or at least excessive. Walter Benjamin, a great admirer of Kraus’s, reminded readers that “the newspaper is an instrument of power. It can derive its value only from the character of the power it serves.” This was in 1931, shortly before the Nazis came to power. But by 1939 Benjamin is less sure about the source of press power:
If it were the intention of the press to have the reader assimilate the information it supplies as part of his own experience, it would not achieve its purpose. But its intention is just the opposite, and it is achieved: to isolate events from the realm in which they could affect the experience of the reader. The principles of journalistic information (newness, brevity, clarity, and, above all, lack of connection between the individual news items) contribute as much to this as the layout of the pages and the style of writing. (Karl Kraus never tired of demonstrating the extent to which the linguistic habitus of newspapers paralyzes the imagination of their readers.)
This assumes, of course, that there is in fact an individual imagination to undergo paralysis. But what happens when the media take on a life of their own as they have today, when the “imagination” is itself the product of mediation? The Last Days of Mankind is extraordinarily prescient about this situation, but until recently critics had been slow to give the drama its due. Stanley Corngold’s acute survey of World War I German literature, for example, mentions the play only in passing in discussing the theme of war profiteering as dramatized in some of its nasty satirical scenes. And even here, Corngold distances himself from Kraus (indeed he cites him from a secondary source), referring to the author as a “Jewish anti-Semite.” The designation is not inaccurate, but it ignores the context of Kraus’s invective. His argument about the making of World War I is that the public media, in their inevitable reliance on headlines, captions, and sound bytes, create an atmosphere in which citizens no longer understand how barbaric and pointless a given policy may turn out to be. Patriotic prowar Jewish editors and publishers — the signal example was Moritz Benedikt of the Neue Freie Presse — thus came in for the same scathing critique as did their non-Jewish counterparts.
After the war — Last Days of Mankind was not completed until 1922 — such intramural battles gave way to more urgent problems. In the face of the violent anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories brought on by military defeat in 1918, Kraus turned his attention to the rise of National Socialism. Germany, he wrote in Die Fackel (22, nos. 557–60 [January 1921]: 59) as early as 1921, is the country “where the swastika rises above the ruins of the global conflagration.” Indeed, the Hakenkreuzler (swastiklers) were soon gaining steady ground, but then, as Timms points out, Kraus had predicted the postwar mood (whether Fascist or Communist) as early as 1915:
The returning soldier will nevertheless not readily allow himself to be reintegrated into civilian life. He will break through into the home front and start the real war there. He will grab for himself the successes that have been denied him, and the war will be mere child’s play by comparison with the peace that will break out there. May God protect us from the offensive that awaits us then. A terrible activity, no longer constrained by any system of command, will start wielding weapons and pursuing pleasures in every sphere of life, and more death and disease will come into the world than could ever have been contrived by the war itself.
Whereas British World War I poetry is written from the perspective of the trenches themselves, and hence foregrounds the victimhood of the hapless soldier, Kraus focused more broadly on the home front. Modern warfare, he wrote in Die Fackel (19, nos. 462–71 [October 1917]: 171) is no longer a matter of “the crossbow and the tyrant” — he is alluding to Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell — but rather of “technology and bureaucracy.” As such, its “principle of ghastly contrast” (“Schauerliche Kontrasthaftikeit”) demands a poetry characterized not by “mathematical” but by what Kraus calls “apocalyptic exactitude” — the exactitude, we might say, of hyper-detail. It is a principle all too familiar to us in the age of information glut and social networking. Peli Gritzer, contemplating current Conceptualist writing, remarked in 2012, “What literature can’t do to our modern satisfaction by describing or evoking the things of our world, it can do by taking into itself a large part of the stuff that’s actually in the world: tax forms, chats, indexes, letters, daily speech, radio jabber, e-mails: everything that’s ever been on the internet, even literature itself.”
(Continues…)Excerpted from Edge of Irony by Marjorie Perloff. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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