By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.
Karl Kraus, the Austrian satirist, playwright, and critic of the mass media, was born in 1874 and ran the magazine Die Fackel (“The Torch”) from 1899 until his death. And according to novelist Jonathan Franzen, he was the first-ever iteration of what we might now call a media theorist. Franzen’s new book of Kraus translations, titled The Kraus Project, characterizes Die Fackel as something like the first news-criticism blog: Kraus cut and pasted pieces of news and applied his own individual, withering commentary to them all.
Kraus, largely obscure to American audiences until now, excoriated "light" writing—the complacent, sentimental, and celebrity-driven feuilleton, meant to be read and discarded—by treating fluff pieces with academic rigor in order to expose their artistic failings, ethical assumptions, and ideological underpinnings. Though his merciless analyses earned him a reputation as “The Great Hater,” his critique today seems prescient.
Throughout The Kraus Project, Franzen’s copious annotations combine comic personal reflections, close textual analysis, historical background, and precise, sometimes hilarious takedowns of Internet-era writing—from bizarre and offensive headline juxtapositions on AOL’s homepage, to vapid, adjective-laden travel pieces in The New York Times. Together, Kraus and Franzen urge us to think more critically about the aesthetic, economic, and ethical implications of the media we encounter—and suggest we should be troubled by much of what we see.
In our conversation for this series, Jonathan Franzen told me how he found Kraus, grew disenchanted, and came back again. We discussed the line that distills Franzen’s anxiety about digital technology, his skeptical attitude towards “progress,” and why he feels the Internet is dangerous for people who want to write serious fiction.
Jonathan Franzen is the author for four novels, including Freedom and The Corrections, and three books of nonfiction, including How to Be Alone. He spoke to me by phone from his home in New York City.
Jonathan Franzen: By weird curricular accident, I found myself a German major in college. I ended up spending two years in Germany—one in Munich and a second in Berlin on a Fulbright. In the years after that I was very isolated, and one of my main contacts with the world was reading newspapers. I needed them, but I also hated them. I was trying to be a rigorous writer, trying to be a novelist, and the clichés and problematic language even in a good paper like The New York Times really upset me. I didn’t think the press was paying enough attention to the issues I was passionate about—the environment, nuclear weapons, consumerism—and for a while I felt they were giving Ronald Reagan a free pass. It seemed like everything was wrong with the world and no one could see it except me. Me and Karl Kraus.
I’d encountered Kraus’s work in college and then again in Berlin. Here was this guy who was absolutely morally certain, and his critique of Vienna’s bourgeois press was incredibly rigorous, angry, and funny. He particularly attacked a corrupt coupling of two things: that a small number of media magnates were getting extremely rich, and that the newspapers they owned kept reassuring their readers that society was becoming ever more democratic and advanced. More empowered, more enlightened, more communal. And it drove Kraus crazy, because he saw these naked profit-making enterprises masquerading as great equalizers—and succeeding, because people were addicted to them.
Kraus was so smart and funny and fanatical that he developed a big cult-like following in Vienna, with thousands of people coming to his readings. And 70 years later I became kind of a virtual cult follower of his. His sentences were hard, but they really popped. There’s nothing like moral certainty to give an angry edge to the prose, and I fell for it, because I was looking for that kind of angry, funny edge in my own writing, and because I felt so alone with my anger at the press. I was also attracted to Kraus’s conviction that we were heading toward an apocalypse. For me, at the time, that meant nuclear apocalypse, because we were still very much in the saber-rattling late stages of the Cold War. As long as I remained convinced that I was right and the world was wrong—basically, throughout my 20s—I was really under his spell.
Then I entered a dark wood in my 30s, and everything that had seemed black and white to me began to seem gray. When newspapers stopped seeming like the cultural enemy, and became embattled as the Internet came along and journalists started losing their jobs, I realized, You know, these are actually hardworking people doing their best to cover news responsibly. They’re not pretending to be something they’re not. It’s wrongheaded to fault them for their linguistic crimes. At the same time, my parents were dying, I was going through a divorce, and you really can’t go through those things—if you’re honest—and come out convinced that you’re right and everyone else is wrong. It was demonstrated to me quite plainly in my mid-30s that things that I had been absolutely certain of in my personal life, I’d actually been quite wrong about. And once you’re wrong about one thing, the possibility is open that you might be wrong about everything.
So I lost interest in Kraus, though I’d been translating him for presumable future publication. I gave up that project and didn’t go back to it until a couple of years ago, when I met some people who were Kraus fans. They encouraged me to go back to him, and when I went back I realized that he was more right about our technological and media moment than he was about newspapers in the ’80s. That a lot of what he’s saying seemed unbelievably prescient. You could apply his critique almost directly to the blogification of the newspaper, to the rise of social media—he really saw all of this coming 100 years ago. Even though I’d outgrown his fiery brand of moral certitude, I decided to return to my translations and try to make his writing as accessible as possible to an English-reading audience.
One of the lines from Kraus that matters the most to me is “Ein Teufelswerk der Humanität,” an infernal machine of humanity. In the mid-’90s, when I started to feel worried about what was happening to literature with the introduction of the third screen, and with the increasingly materialistic view of human nature that psychopharmacology was producing, I was looking for some way to describe how technology and consumerism feed on each other and take over our lives. How seductive and invasive but also unsatisfying they are. How we go back to them more and more, because they’re unsatisfying, and become ever more dependent on them. The groupthink of the Internet and the constant electronic stimulation of the devices start to erode the very notion of an individual who is capable of, say, producing a novel. The phrase I reached for to describe all this was “an infernal machine.” Something definitionally consumerist, something totalitarian in its exclusion of other ways of being, something that appears in the world and manufactures our desires through its own developmental logic, something that does damage but just seems to keep perpetuating itself. The sentence that summed this up for me owed a lot to Kraus’s writing: “Techno-consumerism is an infernal machine.”