Books

Shadows Now Throw Bodies, Progress Celebrates the Pyrrhic Victory Over Nature, and Reality Is a Meaningless Exaggeration of All the Details that Satire Left Behind Fifty Years Ago: The Whole Thing Makes Me Very Sad (Part 2)

[Read Part 1 of “Shadows Now Throw Bodies…” here.]

Well, okay. We’ve heard a fair amount of this from Franzen over the last fifteen years or so; what does Kraus, the Viennese curmudgeon whose inventory of bêtes noires—including, inexhaustively: Herman Heine, the feuilleton, practitioners thereof, the fin de siècle Austrian press, travel writing, France[1]—doesn’t on initial inspection yield much in the way of topics or memes trending in 2013 USA, have to contribute to the discourse of our times? Why bother with this guy? Here’s Franzen in the book’s prefatory first note:

Kraus is foreign, more so than his better-known contemporaries, because his work was so particularly tied to his own time and place—to long-forgotten controversies, to rivals now obscure, to newspapers and literary works that only scholars read anymore. And yet, paradoxically, Kraus has more to say to us in our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment than his more accessible contemporaries now do. […] he was a farseeing prophet whose work was always focused on what was right in front of him.

After which appeal follow the two long “essay/polemic/satire/manifesto”s that make up the bulk of translated material here. The first, “Heine and the Consequences” quickly transcends its fifty-years-post-mortem-critical-autopsy-of-beloved-cultural-icon[2]-undertaken-with-large-ax trappings and reveals within its opening lines a much more sweeping ambition and present-day-relevant, intent:

“[I]n cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads.”

To which Franzen appends: “You’re not allowed to say things like this in America, no matter how much the billion (or is it two billion now?) ‘individualized’ Facebook pages may make you want to say them. Kraus was known, in his day, to his many enemies, as the Great Hater.” Similarly, Jonathan Franzen hates Bright Eyes, and he hates your blog.[3]

“[T]hey all have a tone of discovery, as if the world had only just now been created, when God made the Sunday feuilleton and saw that it was good,” which Kraus observation Franzen suggests would apply “beautifully to today’s cable-TV news anchors”—and just as well, I think, to the kind of daily-minutia reportage dutifully posted to Facebook pages, Vine-ly transcribed six-second glimpses of existenz, domesticated-feline footage and retouched photography, hipshot philosophical riffing uploaded sans edits and left out like last night’s pizza for communal consumption until the next epiphany usurps its pride of place.

In notes to the companion piece, “Nestroy and Posterity,” we get more meta-resonance. Here Kraus is advocating for an undervalued artist—Johann Nestroy, “a leading figure in the golden age of Viennese theater, in the first half of the nineteenth century… virtually unknown outside Austria (owing in part to the Austrian inflection of his lower-class characters’ language) [but] widely loved at home for his comic genius. […] he had a Shakespearean gift for rendering his buffoons at once ridiculous and sympathetic. […] In ‘Nestroy and Posterity’ (1912), Kraus was doing the inverse of what he’d done two years earlier in ‘Heine and the Consequences’—championing an underrated writer rather than taking down an overrated one”—i.e., exactly what our translator is up to here with Kraus.

And just as Franzen, in his sometimes sermon-like supplementary notes’ urgency, seems to betray an annoying certainty on the subject of what’s left of reading-America’s cognitive decline,[4] a sighing concession to 2013’s facts on the ground (i.e., since just about everyone’s already exchanged the habits of serious thought for personalized digital fun, taken his place in the Let’s Celebrate Our Individuality! parade, upgraded from the outmoded tedium inherent in skeptical social analysis to better-each-market-cycle models of techno-efficiency, Kraus’s wisdom in these challenging essays will fail to find its mark without a little[5] help from Franzen and his friends); so Kraus in the original unloads a nose-bone-crunching rhetoric on enemies and rivals, the benighted, disingenuous, misguided, sophisticate and ordinary reader—all of whom he basically conflates—that bobs and weaves with lepidopteran unpredictability, a mesmerizing flutter-step through syntactic complexity abruptly interrupted at critical junctures for clinical dispensation of his signal apitherapy: aphoristic one-two-threes that dispatch satirical targets to supine cartoon-bird-circle contemplation on the mat.[6][7] Neither seems especially vexed by concerns for reader-sensitivity. Neither is reluctant to deploy the rhetoric of stern paternity. Neither’s shy about asserting a wisdom-derived authority, nor will either waste his time with specious gee-whiz modesty.

Listen, son: Heine’s grossly overvalued and Nestroy’s been neglected because you know nothing; likewise: Kraus has never caught on here, America, but you need him more than you know—trust me.

(I’ve gone ahead and translated the German for you.)

And yet, even if both figures offer themselves as easy skeet for the snide-takedown-loving set, for all the eye-rolling this kind of avuncular admonishment is almost destined to induce, it’s hard for me not to believe that on a number of points, Kraus was and Franzen probably is right.

Even if Franzen, in a typical display of the self-knowledge that a very unselfaware post-millennial reliably fails to perceive, accurately IDs the “monstrous sort of privilege” that a non-starving artist with warehousefuls of ideological axes to grind gets to enjoy—but meanwhile reveals no pressing inclination to pack up, relocate, leave or at least lease the choice property to some less ethically conflicted resident; instead continues to abide, and from this vantage issues the occasional expression of displeasure with various aspects of a disintegrating culture whose enthusiasm for his last two novels largely lends these ornery bits of criticism their authority or weight; even, that is, if he frequently comes off as a snob, I think there’s something more happening here:

Just as Kraus can seem a touch too apocalyptically intense on the subject of flip feuilleton mass-production and -consumption’s alarming contribution to and indication of a culture in decline right up until the institutionalized breezy journalistic optimism he’s had his Mannlicher’s sights locked on for more than a decade cheerfully helps instigate and drum up patriotic fervor for participation in mankind’s first attempt at species-wide self-termination, a very real apocalypse, so Franzen, in his démodé reluctance to let go of grumpy doubts about the dawning new era depicted in sunny TV adverts encouraging viewers to capture each miracle of personal experience in high-def permanence, consult with fellow smart-consumers on the cost-quality-longevity question with respect to oral-hygiene products, confirm the evening’s table-reservation at that trending Ethiopian place, all on the same device, is less dismayed by each new generation of technology’s promise to take us to a new world in which the very chance of solitude or boredom evaporates in the sunbeams of Constant Connection and Total Fun than by his probably accurate observation that we’ve pretty much already all happily hopped aboard. And the ship’s left port.

If you’re of the opinion that the way things are doesn’t much resemble the way they might, let alone ought to be, that they’re in all kinds of ways actually much worse than ever, if, here on the poop deck of your packaged-tour’s titanic cruising vessel you find yourself losing enthusiasm for the voyage, for your fellow passengers, for the almost-mandatory recreational activities, the close quarters, the noise, communal bathroom stalls… the whole gestalt just isn’t your thing… well, what do you do? Yes, you can complain, provided you restrict your grousing to a tonal register that won’t ruin other people’s fun; you can’t ascend the high-dive ladder’s rungs with bullhorn in hand in order to inform the gathered swimmers and sunbathers that YOU AREN’T REALLY HAVING FUN! ALSO: THIS SHIP IS SINKING: WE’RE ALL GOING DOWN as if you’d been driven to issue such ill tidings by some preternatural attunement to susurrations detectable only in the deep space of auditory perception, ethereal communications whispered from Somewhere Else, beyond the scope of human note secret wisdom or insight that only you can hear, as if somehow you’ve got some unique sort of… I don’t know, thing that makes you different from the rest of us, everyone else thinks you’re insane, also an ungrateful arrogant prick, Get off the diving board, you fucking snob!!

Might as well register hive-directed grievances in a more lyrical mode, slip your Hibiscus-print trunks’ ties, render more porous the border between private and public domain, got the cantilevered high ground here, commence with micturition, only, hmm, actually no reason to aim: any compass point you pivot on the slip-resistant surface to face—even as a burly first-responding volunteer member of Public-Space-Behavior Regulation Agency, Youth-Perversion-Intervention Squad hauls ass upladder bellowing creative variations on near-future-tense narratives that all conclude with you experiencing pain—you’re still somehow pissing against the wind.

It isn’t snobbery so much as the kind of discrimination David Foster Wallace alludes to in his introduction to 2007’s Best American Essays: the identification of value-driven discernment as a bulwark against our time’s surging tide of casual mediocrity, mass-contribution of substance-less written content cluttering blogs and banal thought pieces and social network back-and-forth, reveals his real concern to be the terminal stage of the previous century’s storm-and-raze campaign against already long-decomposing quaint notions like merit, value, quality: The backside of egalitarianism’s emphasis on freedom of choice and expression, the utter subjectivity inherent in assessments of artistic and intellectual quality in an age when “Everyone’s a critic” has been drained of its last drops of humorous hyperbole… Value has been devalued; if anything can be considered valuable, then valuable ceases to mean anything.

Franzen, while white, male, and comfortably upper-middle class, doesn’t care who produces quality (and has throughout his career championed the works of female writers, from Lorrie Moore to Rachel Kushner)—but on the difference-effacing new playing field on which anyone with enough virtual friends (or purchasing power) can ensure his creative product generates sufficient “buzz,” the voice of dissent, the voice of skepticism about all this fantastic production’s quality, the voice of the guy who’s already got what many perceive as more than his fair share of buzz, when heard issuing urgent calls for quality control, whose pointed emphasis on the self-cognitive dissonance inherent in the notion that now everyone can be uniquely unique—comes off as a serious killer of buzz.

Here’s either Kraus or Franzen on the zeitgeist of either 1910 or 2013:

A time […] [w]here standards are universally raised and no one meets them. Where everyone has individuality and everyone the same, and hysteria is the glue that holds together the social order.

[…]

Art is what outlasts its subject matter. But the test of art becomes the test of times as well, and if past times in their succession always managed to experience art in their remoteness from its subject matter, these times of ours experience remoteness from art and hold the subject matter in their hands. For them, anything that isn’t telegraphed is over with. Their reporters replace their imagination. Because times that can’t hear language can judge only information value. They can still laugh at jokes, if they were personally party to the occasion. How are they, whose memory extends no further than their digestion, supposed to make the leap into anything that isn’t explained to them directly? Applying the mind to things that people no longer remember upsets their digestion. They grasp only with their hands. And machines make even hands unnecessary.

And here is Franzen, on one of many such incisive tears, spotlighting foundation-fissuring internal tensions observable when a privileged prophet of wrath denounces a culture within which he has thrived:

Satire, too, thrives on contrasts, and so the prospect of liberal democracy, in which everyone is identically entitled and eventually comes to speak identically, threatened Kraus’s very foundations as an artist. This specter of uniformity—modernity’s effacement of difference—would later haunt thinkers as various as the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, with his notion of “cultural entropy,” and the postmodern novelist William Gaddis, with his lament for a lost era of Status in which high art was high and low was low. The uncomfortable dissonances of their positions (Levi-Strauss’s “Please don’t change until we’ve thoroughly studied you” and Gaddis’s “Please hold still while I kick you”) are versions of the more general discomfort with which creative people view the levelings of modernity. To write well about slum dwellers, or about Andaman islanders, you need to have sympathy with them—precisely the kind of liberal sympathy that also makes you want better schools for the slums or Western-style amenities for the Andaman Islands. Good narrative art thus tends toward liberalism. But good artists also crave contrast. Unless you want to tell the same story of global monoculture’s triumph over differences, again and again, you want slum dialogue to keep sounding distinctly like the slums, and you don’t want Andaman islanders to start using the same iPhones and wearing the same sensible sneakers as Americans; you want them to keep doing intensely, interestingly, Andaman islander things. This makes you a conservative. Or, actually, worse than a conservative, because you, as an artist, want to be able to move liberally and sympathetically among various classes and cultures—just like Shakespeare did—while secretly hoping that everyone who’s not an artist will stay fixed in place.

Quite a well-placed flight of darts on the board of ridiculous hypocrisy inseparable from liberal piety. And while here the scope is limited to dubious liberal sentiment in art that makes appropriately sympathetic claims on behalf of the bereft and beaten-down, it seems to me a shot across the bow of the whole liberal-upper-middle-class elite.

I can’t justify my high salary unless my intrepid reportage continues to come from putrefying-carcass-strewn map-sectors left to fester once the riptide of exploitative capital recedes.

I wonder if some of the bitterness directed Franzen’s way with respect to the obnoxiousness of a white male who comes from relative privilege (and has reaped copious rewards of the sort whose ever-dangling-out-of-reach allure all but ensures religious submission to a controlling economic creed designed to maximize inequality, to keep the body-politic thumb-crushed under its own outlandish greed—a greed stoked, of course, by visions of windfallen luxury, rapture-like upsuck into the ranks of global elite [whose hoarding of the world’s riches you denounce the evil of, and if you’re a member of the pontificating-class, make enough money from excoriating to ensure you’ll be able to host tastefully themed dinner-and-cocktail party-panels on the moment’s pressing social issues; or at least keep you from being poor])… if, that is, some of this bitterness doesn’t smack of an unseemly desire to reap rewards similar to what Franzen’s reaped by making use of the very kind of “difference” his lack of is cited as evidence of the game’s being rigged.

Sometimes you’re only against privilege until it’s granted you a ticket to the dance.

And this seems to me of a piece with a general and perhaps inevitable trend accompanying the proliferation of virtual “communities,” online “presences,” Facebook “friendships,” and all the other interpersonal pseudo-spheres in which serious criticism in the uncompromising Kraus/Franzen mode is in grave decline—if it hasn’t simply ceased to exist. If your projected public persona is increasingly tough to separate from the person with a very real material stake in, say, the response to a forthcoming book, then friendliness, tact, at the very least loose acquiescence to the etiquette that governs online social mores are just as important as they would be in a face-to-face interview with an individual possessed of the power to further your career—perhaps much more so, since while a weak handshake or inability to look a lone patrician gatekeeper directly in the eye might cost you a particular opportunity, a single online faux pas can demolish an entire career.

But you can’t ever be known if both construction and response thereto are built of under-240-word blips of wittiness within the bounds of readily parsable modes, thumbs-up links to the day’s most rewarding content encountered thus far, updates to your current status, clever alterations of your program-particular avatar.

It takes the very kind of engagement with your less marketable parts, the stuff that can’t be cut from the tweet or packaged with suitably wry deprecation to clue the clued-in in on your awareness of the personality-mar—Yeah, I’m working on it, man—necessarily messy stuff that can’t be rubbed out with a winking nod to the most relevantly trending meme.

In the end I’d like to say something to the effect that when, at twenty-two, I first read Franzen’s reputation-making novel, The Corrections, I was impressed by many aspects of its virtuosity; that the author had spent many hungry years apprenticing as an aspiring writer of Great Work was transparent in the technical mastery; but what moved me was his preoccupation with (to quote 1996’s “Why Bother?”) “people, people, people.” I hadn’t yet read many of the books that now line the shelves within arm’s reach of my desk. That it was possible to invest multiple major players in such an ambitious work with genuine sympathy was somewhat epiphanic for me.

Jonathan Franzen was doing what I subsequently realized I would one day like to do: investing acute-skin-pustule-&c.-afflicted souls with the humanity we’d all like to believe other people will be willing to look past, our frailties, indiscretions, poorly chosen turns of phrase, and—perhaps for no better reason than an understanding that they’d ask us for the same—nakedly perceived.

 



[1] Or rather “France,” as metonymic stand-in for a contingent of Kraus’s contemporaries’ habit of sojourning to Paris, Venice, Buenos Aires or wherever in search of cultural bona fides, then relying on the chosen foreign theater’s novel cultural bouquet to mask the stench, in dispatches sent back to Austrian newspapers and journals, of mediocrity.

[2] Says Franzen, “Along with Goethe, Franzen was the most famous literary German figure of the 19th century… [known] for his lyric poetry and for the characteristic wit and irony of his reportage and travel writing and polemics.”

[3] C.f. compendia of Things Jonathan Franzen Hates, easily found online.

[4] (and indeed in so doing has seemed to alienate some readers if the Don’t-let-your-dislike-for-Franzen-keep-you-from-checking-out-Karl-Kraus! approach to several early reviews means much of anything)

[5] Or actually a lot: can’t confirm this with a hard-fast word-count, but a quick flip through my desk copy sure seems to indicate more notes than annotated text, a good bit of which is admittedly not strictly exegetical but rather the space in which Franzen sneaks in his memoir-ish account of an unhappy year spent courtesy of the Institute of International Education’s Fulbright Program in Germany that, for a number of reasons, including Gravity’s Rainbow, a secret betrothal, outsize ambition, black and deep desires, cigarettes, solitude in extremis, the Cold War, and Harold Bloom, culminated in his coming to Kraus… but given their substantial explicative contributions, I’m still not sure why Kraus scholar Paul Reitter and Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann aren’t at least listed on the book’s front cover.

[6] (A formidably challenging diction that may sometimes seem a touch, mmm… a bit, well, overdone? begins to speculate one piece of soot-encrusted kitchenware whose own reflected excesses he’d maybe rather not much dwell on in the teakettle’s gleam…)

[7] For years I’ve wondered whether my finding Franzen’s birding hobby both stupid and pretentious speaks more to his annoying privilege or my own crass indifference to genuine idiosyncrasy.

Jonathan Callahan’s first book, The Consummation of Dirk, winner of Starcherone Press’s 8th Prize for Innovative Fiction, was released in April. His writing has appeared in The Collagist, Pank, The Millions, Fiction Writers Review, Unsaid, Witness, Used Furniture Review, The Lifted Brow, Quarterly West, and elsewhere. He grew up in Hawaii and currently lives in Queens.