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October 25, 2013

“The Kraus Project”

by Anne Paddock

Our Far Left may hate religion and think we coddle Israel, our Far Right may hate illegal immigrants and think we coddle black people, and nobody may know how the economy is supposed to work now that our manufacturing jobs have gone overseas, but the actual substance of our daily lives is total electronic distraction. We can’t face the real problems; we spent a trillion dollars not really solving a problem in Iraq that wasn’t really a problem; we can’t even agree on how to keep health care costs from devouring the GNP. What we can all agree to do instead is to deliver ourselves to the cool new media and technologies, to Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, and let them profit at our expense.

No one but Jonathan Franzen could say so eloquently what Karl Kraus, the Austrian writer would say about US culture if he were alive today. Most Americans haven’t heard of Karl Kraus, (1874-1936), a man known for his strong opinions about journalism – especially sensationalism and propaganda, Jewish assimilation (an uncompromising advocate of), the dumbing down of culture, Freud, corruption, and a myriad of other topics.

Kraus recognized – before a lot of other people – that technological innovation (i.e. newspapers in his day) could be a great resource but also a very dangerous tool. The dissemination of information serves a public good but if the reporting is false, a partial truth, personally invasive, or deliberately omits information in order to profit the owners, discredit a competitor, or support a cause (i.e. war) that wouldn’t be supported otherwise, then modernization needs to be viewed differently.

Never one to hold back or filter his opinions, Kraus caught the attention of Jonathan Franzen in the early 1980’s. While studying in Berlin on a Fulbright scholarship, Franzen enrolled in a seminar on a play called The Last Days of Mankind (by Karl Kraus). As supplemental reading, the professor assigned two essays, also by Kraus:  Heine and the Consequences and Nestroy and Posterity. Franzen’s work that semester formed the foundation of what would become The Kraus Project, published 30 years later in 2013. Knowing that an interpretation and appreciation of Kraus’s work depended on an understanding of his writing style (not easy, even in German) and of the times in which Kraus lived (a century ago), Franzen took these two essays (and two others), and a poem (Let No One Ask…), translated them (with assistance from Paul Reitter and Daniel Kehlmann), and provided an annotated interpretation, often noting how Kraus’s opinions are still relevant today.

Franzen, author of  four novels including The Corrections, Freedom, and most recently a collection of short essays entitled Farther Away, has never shied away from speaking out about controversal issues including the internet, social media, consumerism, and his distaste for cats, cell phones, technology, people who abuse sales clerks, bird hunters, reality shows, AOL, APPLE, newspapers, journalists who don’t do their job well, and like Krauss, a myriad of other topics. In a way, he is a modern-day Kraus which makes him an ideal source to explain Kraus to those of us unfamiliar with his work.

KRAUS-PROJECT-243x366I bought The Kraus Project because Jonathan Franzen translated Kraus’s work and because I knew I would enjoy reading all of Franzen’s rants in the annotated notes – for me, an immensely entertaining way to spend an afternoon or two. The book is divided into five sections with the original Kraus essay in German on the pages to the left, Franzen’s interpretation on the pages to the right, and the annotated notes on the bottom of both pages.

Initially, I read the interpretation and then the annotation but I quickly decided to tackle this book a different way. I read the complete annotation first and then went back and re-read the interpretation using the annotations when I didn’t quite grasp the meaning of a sentence or needed help with the poetry. Admittedly, I enjoyed Franzen’s annotations the most but I finished the book knowing more about a writer who clearly understood what was happening a hundred years before anyone else.

I first heard of Kraus, the satirist when I read The Reader in Exile (1995) – a brilliant essay on the novel and readers by Franzen, who sparked my curiosity. Born in what is now the Czech Republic, Kraus moved to Austria when he was 3 and therefore considered himself Austrian. A strong advocate of the German language and Austrian culture (although he didn’t hesitate to write criticisms of the Hapsburg empire), Kraus, at 28 years old started his own newspaper called Die Fackel (The Torch) which he used as a vehicle to tell his readers exactly what he thought about journalistic reporting, Zionism, Heinrich Heine (the German poet and essayist) and other writers, cultural commentary (“feuilleton” –  which Franzen compares to the blogosphere today) – especially by “well-educated cultural authorities who embraced a phony individualism” – psychoanalysis, World War I, and any topic or person that he felt strongly about.

Franzen asserts that one of Kraus’s most important messages is that newspapers, publications, and journals are inherently good resources for information but when those responsible for the content veer from the journalistic road of truthful reporting, these resources no longer serve the public good and can, in fact make the world a horrible place. Taken in today’s context, witness the erroneous reporting of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the 10-year war that followed; or consider the internet – a time-saving vast resource but also a black hole where people get sucked into social media spending their time playing Farmville, CandyCrush, telling people they are at Target buying toilet paper, and posting intimate photos of themselves and their families so their 567 friends (and the rest of the world) can reinforce the “look at me” narcissism that has evolved. Franzen accurately concludes that people have been seduced into conducting their lives using a keyboard on the internet which would more than likely lead Kraus, were he still alive to tell us all  “to get a life.”

The Kraus Project is a book as much about Franzen as it is about Kraus.  In his early 20’s while in Berlin, Franzen was by his own admission a chain-smoking, ambitious, and angry young man determined to be one of the greatest fiction writers of his generation. In studying Kraus, Franzen found a paternal figure who he identified with (Franzen’s own father was a number-crunching engineer who never acquired an appreciation of fine literature). As Franzen writes:

…Kraus had changed me. When I gave up on short stories and returned to my novel, I was mindful of his moral fervor, his satirical rage, his hatred of the media, his preoccupation with apocalypse, and his boldness as a sentence writer. I wanted to expose America’s contradictions the way he’d exposed Austria’s, and I wanted to do it via the novel, the popular genre that he’d disdained but I did not.

In that way, The Kraus Project can also be considered The Franzen Project.

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