Notes From the Margins…

Sour Times

  • September 14, 2012
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Years ago, in the midst of World War I, the great Austrian satirist Karl Kraus wrote – or rather compiled – a massive play entitled The Last Days of Humanity, which remains one of the most ferocious anti-war polemics ever written.

In it the pacifist Kraus brought all his formidable satirical skills to bear as he excoriated the militarism, jingoism, war profiteering, propaganda and stupidity that had brought Europe to disaster.

Much of the material for the play was culled almost verbatim from newspaper articles, editorials and actual events and speeches of the period.   Consisting of 203 scenes, with a cast of hundreds, and stretching to 800 pages when it was first published in 1922, ‘Last Days’ has been rarely been performed.

In the prologue, Kraus’ alter ego ‘the Grumbler’ memorably declared that his play was never meant to be performed on earth at all, but on a theatre on Mars’.   This was not because of its unwieldly size, but because

‘Earthly audiences could not bear it.   For it is blood of their blood, and its contents are the contents of those unreal, incomprehensible years beyond the reach of conscious memory, which live on only in nightmares where clowns act out the tragedy of man.   The action, running through a hundred scenes and a hundred hells, is improbable, disjointed, and heroless.     The events shown in this play, no matter how unlikely, actually took place; the words spoken in this play, no matter how unlikely, are true quotations.’

There have been many moments during the last decade when I have found myself thinking of Kraus, when the morbid events of our times seem to elude not just the capacity of the satirist but call into question the value of making any kind of commentary at all, when it seems incumbent on writers not to try and understand events or come up with analyses and rational explanations, but simply to record things as they happen, like a secretary taking a dictation from history.

Or perhaps, as Kraus argued in another essay, writers should simply shut up altogether and accept the fact that whatever they say or think really makes no difference or serves any practical purpose.

The latest global ‘Islam moment’ has provided one of those episodes.     On the surface it seems incredible, yet depressingly predictable, that a reprehensible piece of anti-Islamic hatespeak should have ignited a chain of protests and violent events across North Africa and the Middle East.

Once again, tv screens are filled with angry crowds of Muslims burning US flags and promising vengeance, while the bigots and fundamentalist whackjobs who made the object of their anger can sit back and enjoy the consequences of their handiwork.

Of course they should never have been given this opportunity.   There are many more important reasons for Muslims to take to the streets than this latest low-level provocation, that ought to be treated with contempt by both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Nor is it fair – or logical – to blame the United States government for something that it had nothing to do with.   Of course these events cannot be written off as   a mysterious eruption of religious fanaticism and irrationality.     Because it is really difficult to believe that a bunch of fired-up Salafists in Libya suddenly took it on themselves to launch an RPG attack on the US Embassy on September 11 because of an obscure film that hardly anyone has seen.

Whether this attack was the work of ‘al-Qaeda’ or the Islamist militias who became the de facto allies of the US and the West in their opportunist toppling of Gaddafi remains to be seen.   Hilary Clinton, who once collapsed into schoolgirlish giggles at her little ‘we came, we saw, he died’ joke about the death of Gaddafi, has declared that ‘violence is no way to honor religion.’

Well maybe not.   But when Clinton asks ‘ How can this happen in a country we helped to liberate?’ one is tempted to answer with the Spanish proverb cria cuervos y te sacaran los ojos – breed crows and they will pluck out your eyes.   Because this is what the US has done again and again, through its choice of allies and proxies, in Afghanistan, in Libya and now in Syria

It is clear that the attempts by the US to ‘manage’ the Arab Spring and turn it to its political advantage have not been successful.   After decades of supporting dictators and autocrats across the MENA region, it will take more than strategic political u-turns   at the last minute or the selective promotion of democracy to make America popular with the Arab masses, particularly when some countries, such as Yemen, have become battlegrounds in the Obama administration’s drone wars.

Of course there is no shortage of demagogues throughout the MENA and beyond,   both in and out of government,   who will seek to use this latest episode to mobilize popular support around an Islamist agenda, or simply to distract attention from their own failings.

It is really a grotesque and shameful act of political cynicism for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to call for another ‘million-man’ march to protest the film, when there are so many more pressing issues both inside and outside the country that are far more worthy of popular mobilisation.

But it is clearly in the interest of the Brothers – and not only them – to present themselves as ‘defenders of the Prophet’ against squalid attacks that originated in the gutter and belong there,   and provide convenient tributaries to siphon off frustration and discontent that might otherwise turn on them.

On one level these events belong to what Kraus once called ‘these loud times which boom with the horrible symphony of actions which produce reports and of reports which cause actions.’

Where all this process will lead I have absolutely no idea.   But it is unlikely to produce any kind of positive outcome, and will most likely generate more bitterness, anger, resentment, and violence, at a time when the prospect of another war with a Muslim country is looming on the horizon.

Proponents of a ‘Fourth World War’ between the West and ‘the Muslim world’ – whether American hegemonists, Christian fundamentalists or Israel firsters on one side to assorted jihadists and reactionary Islamists on the other will doubtless find more grist for their respective mills.

And watching it all unfold, I can’t help feeling weariness and disgust at the malice, incoherence and stupidity that is evident on all sides, and wonder when – if – the many men and women of goodwill who are also part of these sour times can find the ability to transcend them and take this tormented world to a better place.

Or whether those who come after us will one day look back on this period of history, as Kraus did, as a nightmare ‘where clowns act out the tragedy of man’ in a drama that is ‘  improbable, disjointed, and heroless.’



  1. Nik Hermann

    16th Sep 2012 - 3:50 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with you about Karl Kraus, Matt. I first read “Die letzten Tage der Menschheit” a few years ago, ever since then I keep coming back to his thoughts and observations after spotting 1:1 copies of some of his characters in public debate some hundred years later.

    On your last point about those who will come after us and the way they will look back at us I am not sure though. The “malice, incoherence and stupidity” that is so predominant in nowadays worldaffairs will make sure that in a hundred years from now people will probably have little interest in looking back, for they will most likely be involved in a daily struggle against a devastated planetary climate, and a daily struggle against their fellow human beings in order to secure the last bits of natural resources and livingspace.

    Now, I know that such finis mundi lines of argument are somewhat silly and not really a good basis for a constructive conversation I still think that, while Kraus probably chose his title “The last Days of Humanity” in order to provoke or stir up debate, nowadays public debate, for the first time in history, is facing at least “last decades of Humanity”.

    That is exactly where my weariness and disgust stems from. No matter which one of the big problems facing humanity we were to solve in theory, there would still be another and grimmer one looming in the background. Restore true democracy in the arab/muslim world, who would cure the global thirst for oil and the sideffects? Save the planet, who saves us from our cannibalistic financial system? Save or, even better, change the financial system, who saves the planet?

    Kraus knew that whoever lost the war, it wouldn’t be the end and thus kept on writing so brilliantly, hoping to inspire future generations with his amazing talent for irony and satire. I wonder if he would have kept on writing or done exactly what you mentioned: “…simply shut up altogether and accept the fact that whatever they say or think really makes no difference or serves any practical purpose.”

    • Matt

      16th Sep 2012 - 6:31 pm

      I agree with you that ‘Last Days’ often seems alarmingly contemporary. And it’s also true that however despairing Kraus may have felt, the fact that he still felt passionate enough and angry enough to write at all meant that he didn’t really see the period he was living through as the end. Even the title ‘Last Days of Humanity’ contains for me the implicit idea that it wasn’t humanity as a species that was imperiled by the war, but the things that make humanity admirable and worthwhile.

      Kraus sometimes came close to misanthropy in his writings for sure, without ever entirely succumbing to it – that tension is one of the things that makes his writing interesting. In one of his essays, I think it was, In These Great Times, he did suggest that there were times when writers ought to take a step forward and then say nothing at all, but he was too much of a writer to follow his own recommendations.

      So I rather suspect that even if he were around now, he still wouldn’t. As for the bleak possibility that you outline, well you may be right, but as Gramsci once said ‘pessimism of the mind, optimism of the will’…

      • Nik Hermann

        16th Sep 2012 - 8:04 pm

        I have to agree with you. Though I think I simply got stuck on the german original “Menschheit” which is only used for “mankind”. “Menschlichkeit” would be the word of choice to catch the meaning of the english word “humanity” the way you understand it. Oh dear, I just turned this into a german lesson, sorry.

        Then again I am sure that the tragedy of Menschheit without Menschlichkeit was exactly what Kraus tried to expose, so I guess that brings us closer again to your interpretation of the title.

        Well, one thing is fore sure though, tonight I am going to reread the scene in the viennese restaurant, in which the waiter refuses to serve macaroni, for they had to be called “Treuebruchnudeln” since 1915, “treacherous noodles” (roughly translated) of the italian enemy, who so cowardly joined the war on the side of the Entente. Freedom fries anyone?

  2. Nik Hermann

    16th Sep 2012 - 5:58 pm

    Little correction to clear up what I meant:

    “I wonder if he would have kept on writing or done exactly what you mentioned in a situation like we face today (!) or: “…simply shut up altogether and accept the fact that whatever they say or think really makes no difference or serves any practical purpose.”

    Should clear up the last few lines I wrote.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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