Friday, 20 September 2013

More Weekend Reading (Heavy Division)

This, by Jonathan Franzen in last Saturday's Grauniad review, is the best essay I have read for several months.  Based on his translation and exegesis of the writings of an Austrian I'd never heard of - Karl 'The Great Hater' Kraus (1874-1936), a kind of proto-blogger - the piece is hard to summarise.  (The Graun's sub-editor has failed hopelessly in this task, so don't be offput by the rubric.)

So I've assembled a little set of extracts.  If you like them you'll read it ... 
"... rather live among the Germans. For although they've strapped art into the Procrustean Folding Bed of their commerce, they've also made life sober, and this is a blessing: fantasy thrives, and every man can put his own light in the barren windowframes. Just spare me the pretty ribbons! "
"Believe me, you color-happy people, in cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads." You're not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays, no matter how much the billion (or is it 2 billion now?) "individualised" Facebook pages may make you want to say them. 
Vienna in 1910 was, thus, a special case. And yet you could argue that America in 2013 is a similarly special case: another weakened empire telling itself stories of its exceptionalism while it drifts towards apocalypse of some sort, fiscal or epidemiological, climatic-environmental or thermonuclear. 
For Kraus, the infernal thing about newspapers was their fraudulent coupling of Enlightenment ideals with a relentless pursuit of profit and power. With technoconsumerism, a humanist rhetoric of "empowerment" and "creativity" and "freedom" and "connection" and "democracy" abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it's far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people's worst impulses, than newspapers ever were. 
"An invention for shattering the Koh-i-noor to make its light accessible to everyone who doesn't have it. For fifty years now it's been running, the machine into which the Mind is put in the front to emerge at the rear as print, diluting, distributing, destroying. The giver loses, the recipients are impoverished, and the middlemen make a living"
Amazon is well on its way to making writers into the kind of prospectless workers whom its contractors employ in its warehouses 
... the next thing you know, you're translating The Last Days of Mankind as The Last Days of Privileging the Things I Personally Find Beautiful. And maybe this is not such a bad thing. Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal. I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. 
Kraus's signal complaint – that the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past ... something that has become a fixture of modernity. The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connection of the key values of the past have been lost. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity. 

You get the picture ...



andrew said...

Not for the first time I recommend when money dies by adam fergusson Before WW1, Austria was one of the richest countries in the world - as you can see from some of the architecture in Vienna. The book basically says that the austro-hungarian empire was hit by hyper-inflation even more than Germany.
It basically says that the middle classes were effectively exterminated by hyper-inflation.

Interesting parallel in process here as the middle classes (us) are under being squeezed.

Graeme said...

it is better to read karl Kraus directly rather than mediated through Franzen -

especially his play "The Last days of Mankind" - if you know the paintings of Otto Dix and Georg Grozs, they all fit together. The lies being told by the German government - the fictitious "stab in the back" etc.

Nick Drew said...

thanks for the recommendations, both

Electro-Kevin said...

"I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness ..."

Oh cheer up, Karl - it's far less bleak than that.

There are many versions of our lives going on simultaneously. So long as they accord to universal laws of physics all histories are played out. We are likely to be in that central bundle of events that have the highest probability of happening.

While Kraus laments I rejoice.

In some parallel history close by to our own we are getting everything right and life is one long session of beer and skittles - followed by the most enormous bowl of cherries.

But given a view of the awfulness of most of those histories I think we'd rather stick with our own.

Free will is an illusion. Turns of events are simply the product of universal trial-by-error played out in infinite ways at the same time.

I suppose that all I'm saying is that IT'S NOT MY FAULT that I've behaved like a bit of a twat in this realm. By extension that means no-one else can be blamed for taking the 'wrong' course either.

Elby the Beserk said...

And whilst we look at the end of days, I must recommend Niall Ferguson's excellent "The Great Degeneration", the book version of his Reith Lectures, in which he dissects the decline of the West. It's a sobering read, and one which made a lot of sense to me indeed. I've also recently read Volume 1 of Oswald Spengler's dense and difficult "Decline of the West", which is in essence a recounting of the author's philosophy of history through his vision of the decline of Western civilisation.

One of the things which stuck with me from my hippy days is the saying "Be here now". I like it. It works for me, to be in the present. It would seem that for many, these days, it is a case of "Be everywhere else but here now". I shall be interested to see how social networking, the perfect manifestation of this, plays out with regard to society and indeed our civilisation, or what is left of it.

Timbo614 said...

Cheer up you lot! I ain't that bad yet despite all the problems. Things change, pining for rose-tinted glory days is pointless. I agree much is wrong, but hey seriously - What can one or two or even hundreds of independent voices going to do to upset the worlds of the politicians and the masters of the EK's Multiverse?

Live like your dog! He welcomes every morning, every meal, every walkies and you every time you come home! :) Never thinks about tomorrow being a total disaster, and if it is, like us, he'll live with it and survive as best he can and (if he's interested) find pleasure and laughter where he can...

(c) 2013 Pep talks R us.

Tattoo-faced Chav said...

My dog's a Pitbull.

Timbo614 said...

@TfC and your point is?...

Tattoo-faced Chav said...

I live like my dog.

Ryan said...

Wow, what a ranting depressive he was! A lesson to us all....

I love my kids, love my parents and I'm even finding I love my wife these days, after many years of not even liking her much at all. Life's good. In fact it's heading towards perfect.

Frankly I've stopped spending money, shortly after realising that the only things I own that I would actually miss would be my music collection and my photograph collection.