In Fin de Siècle Vienna politics had become the least convincing of the performing arts. Life, Kraus wrote, had become an effort that deserved a better cause. By the turn of the century it was not politicians but actors, painters, writers and musicians who had captured the imagination of the upper middle classes. As the Hapsburg Empire disintegrated, it seemed to Kraus that life in Vienna was no longer imitating art: it was parodying it. And for Kraus it was the 'mental self-mutilation of mankind through its press' that had done most to trivialise and misrepresent what was becoming a terrifying political situation. Kraus exposed, often by imitation, the new decadent facetiousness. Journalists, he wrote, were now capable of 'launching a premiere one day and a war the next'. They 'write because they have nothing to say, and have something to say because they write'. Editing and writing most of his own newspaper Die Fackel (the Torch) in Vienna from 1899 to 1936, he believed that the collapse of the Empire and the drift to world war could only be accurately documented as satire. Only the satirist was honestly suspicious. All forms of representation, advertisements, the wearing of beards, the way people strolled in the streets, had to be understood in terms of what it was they were being used to misrepresent. Events, and the reporting of events, had to be interpreted now as artistic genres concealing vested interests. In May 1916, in the middle of the war, it was still not clear to Kraus what play of Shakespeare's was actually being performed. By October 1918 he was clear that it was Hamlet.
LRB 5 March 1987 | PDF Download