Karl Kraus: What a century-old literary critic can teach us about journalism

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Karl Kraus won't quite go away. He was a literary and journalistic figure in Vienna a century ago. For 37 years, starting in 1899, he published and basically wrote The Torch, 922 issues overall. At its height it had just 30,000 readers but they included Kafka, Brecht, Freud, Wittgenstein, Thomas Mann and Walter Benjamin.

Here's what's perplexing about Kraus's persistence. He wrote minutely on events of his time, as refracted through major newspapers. In a way he was the first critic of mainstream media: their lies and the damage wrought. He dissected their biases and methods, in a German so intricate it can't be translated effectively. He analyzed their coverage of war, crime, operetta, advertising -- almost all of it local, specific and long gone. Yet the minutiae never quite dissolves into ancient dust; it keeps niggling and regularly resurfaces. Last fall U.S. novelist Jonathan Franzen published The Kraus Project: two translated, energetically annotated Kraus essays.

It's true Kraus can seem startlingly contemporary. He wrote a 1909 piece on the idiotic race to "discover" the North Pole; just the other day, Canada's government got into a pissing contest over who owns it. He deplored advertising's demeaning effects way back then, including gun makers to whom he suggested the slogan: Murder yourself. That's not out of date. He also wrote poetry and perhaps the longest play ever written -- about World War I -- which may have been the first docudrama.

So he produced larger works on grander themes, but it's his narrow, angry, even petty journalism -- "anti-journalism," scholar Paul Reitter calls it -- that won't leave you alone though you can barely penetrate it from this distance. He obsesses about and critiques word choices along with (like Freud) slips of the tongue. He rages about dehumanizing interviews by narcissistic reporters of soldiers at the front being asked, Oprah-like, "What emotions does dropping bombs arouse in you?" He's the only German language writer who opposed "The Great War" from the start, and he held journalism largely responsible for it.

How so? Journalists, he argued, don't just manipulate facts or lie. They also pre-empt reader responses by interposing their own reactions. This deprives readers of a chance to cultivate their own responses, especially in the literary journalism -- or "feuilletonism" -- of Kraus's time. So people gradually lose the ability to react and judge for themselves. They mislay the faculty of imagination itself. Then anything becomes possible, since no one can picture reality; instead they picture what's been "reported": heroic warriors' deeds, for instance, instead of trench warfare atrocities.

"The war guilt of the press is not that it set the machinery of death in motion," Kraus wrote, "but that it hollowed out our hearts so that we could no longer imagine what it would be like." And what can no longer be imagined becomes, more or less, inevitable. It's this kind of detestable journalism -- which numbs and limits what the public can and can't envisage -- that Kraus documents, satirizes and decries.

It's this dark perspective that attracted Franzen, who's bedevilled by the media crimes and trivializations of our own era: what he calls "The work of yakkers and tweeters and braggers. . ." But Franzen is so distressed by Twitter and other social media that he tends to idealize the mass media of earlier days, like the New York Times of the 1960s. Kraus was writing a half-century before that and already found media distortions dire. It was the whole world of mass media and mass mentalities formed by them that appalled him. If anything, social media today might hint at a counterforce, since on them at least voices aren't monopolized by an elite journalistic few. I'm not making that claim -- I think the jury's still out -- but I do find reading Kraus more pertinent than reading Franzen about Kraus.

So what does Kraus amount to? Is it simply torrents of kvetching and grumbling, elegantly phrased? In line with the way he came to be known as The Great Hater, or The Grumbler, a chorus character in his vast play? Or is there more, does it go deeper -- and is that why he keeps sticking around?

Kraus himself yearned for depth and lasting values -- not just bitching. His poetry is often about nature and its abiding truths. He revered art and literature for their depth. He lamented the superficiality of journalistic tale-telling precisely because it lacked moral and philosophical underpinning. It's as if, like Thoreau a century before, he'd have preferred to read not The Times but The Eternities. Yet he was stuck with The Times because the rush of current events, (mis)represented by journalism, had become unavoidable. We're ensconced in events; we can't escape them as Thoreau could, for a while anyway, by moving to the woods.

It's as if Kraus felt, sadly, that it would be delusional in the modern era to think it was possible to vault above the "noise," as he called it, of daily events, yearn as he might. So instead he plunged into them, resentfully, furiously, but determined to yank out their false roots and expose what was missing or distorted. His aim was "to listen to the noises of the world as if they were the chords of eternity." His anti-journalism had that positive thrust.

Not just positive but messianic according to two astute Jewish readers and fans: Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem and omni-critic Walter Benjamin. That's striking since Kraus was often called a self-hating Jew and Jewish anti-Semite. They argued that Kraus was in the Biblical, prophetic tradition: he denounced the journalism of his day in the light of absolute moral and aesthetic standards. And he did it, said Scholem, in a traditional Jewish way: by painstaking textual commentary, like the medieval commentators who scoured and parsed every Biblical verse. Benjamin compares Kraus to an angel in the original sense: a divine messenger created fleetingly to deliver one devastating message, who then vanishes, his task done -- much as a newspaper or the daily news arrives with a flourish -- then vaporizes. In this way, they "redeemed" Kraus's anti-journalism just as they said he redeemed journalism "from within."

Today newspapers aren't the dominant journalistic force they were in Kraus's Vienna. Their very survival is in question. But they still matter. We've seen an amazing display of that in Toronto over the past year with the Rob Ford story. They can still play a vile or almost angelic role in the grand drama of public life and debate. Meanwhile, the multiplying forms of journalism and the expansion of what counts as "news" simply magnify all the Krausian dilemmas.

Thinking about him makes you think about how we're still inundated by the rush of daily events and about what that does to us, in ways even more distracting now than in his time. And how to retain a sense of lasting values in the maelstrom of the passing scene -- without fleeing to "higher" realms like art or abstract thought. He loathed and lacerated journalism yet, paradoxically, clung to it. Kraus practised journalism in its most paradoxical form, said Benjamin; he even mused about "a new form of journalism." Presumably then, he'd be just as ill at ease and uncomfortably at home now as he was then.

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This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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