Kraus Revisited


Algis Valiunas in The Weekly Standard.

Vienna in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a hotbed of genius, and the arch-journalist, poet, and playwright Karl Kraus (1874-1936) presided over this efflorescence of art and thought, knowing everything and everybody, making all the right friends and all the right enemies. From 1899 until his death, Kraus edited Die Fackel (the Torch) and for many years was the sole contributor to this landmark journal, which appeared whenever some gross fatuity in public life or telling grotesquerie in the daily press inflamed him—and which, on an especially inauspicious occasion, might run to some 300 pages of closely argued and eviscerating animadversion.

His admirers were legion, as one learns from Edward Timms's recent masterly intellectual biography. Freud wrote him fan letters in praise of his enlightened attitude toward sexuality; Kraus, in turn, congratulated Freud for recognizing that homosexuality ought not to be considered criminal or insane. (In due course Kraus soured on Freudian theory, and his most famous aphorism declares that "psychoanalysis is the mental illness for which it claims to be a cure.")

The modernist architect Adolf Loos, who disdained ornament and was bemused by the way Kraus excavated elemental truths buried in everyday palaver, designed the starkly elegant covers for Kraus's books. The Expressionist artist Oscar Kokoschka illustrated an apocalyptic Kraus essay with a lithograph of subhuman hordes poised to descend upon an overripe Europe. For Frank Wedekind, author of the scarifying Lulu plays, Kraus produced (and played a small role in) Pandora's Box, and the two friends took turns with the beautiful actress who starred in the show.