by Walter Benjamin [translated from the German by Edmund Jephcott]
"Monster [Unmensch]," to my mind the least linguistically explosive of the three sub-sections in Benjamin's study on Karl Kraus although of course only relatively speaking at that, still begins with a typical Benjamin bombshell in which he compares "the genuine satirist" Kraus with "the scribblers who make a trade of mockery and who, in their invectives, have little more in mind than giving the public something to laugh about" (378). What makes a true satirist like Kraus stand out from this pack of lightweight jokers?
In contrast, the great type of the satirist never had firmer ground under his feet than amid a generation about to mount tanks and put on gas masks, a mankind that has run out of tears but not of laughter. In him civilization prepares to survive, if it must, and communicates with him in the true mystery of satire, which consists in the devouring of the adversary. The satirist is the figure in whom the cannibal was received into civilization. His recollection of his origin is not without filial piety, so that the proposal to eat people has become an essential constituent of his inspiration, from Jonathan Swift's pertinent project concerning the use of the children of the less wealthy classes, to Léon Bloy's suggestion that landlords of insolvent lodgers be conceded a right to the sale of the lodgers' flesh. In such directives, great satirists have taken the measure of the humanity of their fellow men. "Humanity, culture, and freedom are precious things that cannot be bought dearly enough with blood, understanding, and human dignity"--thus Kraus concludes the dispute between the cannibal and human rights. One should compare his formulation with Marx's treatment of the "Jewish question," in order to judge how totally this playful reaction of 1909--the reaction against the classical ideal of humanity--was likely to become a confession of materialist humanism at the first opportunity. Admittedly, one would need to understand Die Fackel from the first number on, literally word for word, to predict that this aesthetically oriented journalism, without sacrificing or gaining a single motif, was destined to become the political prose of 1930. For this it had to thank its partner, the press, which disposed of humanity in the way to which Kraus alludes in these words: "Human rights are the fragile toy that grownups like to trample on and so will not give up" (ibid.).
From this beginning on genre matters, Benjamin traces the satirist's career arc through operettas (Benjamin: "Just as prattle seals the enslavement of language through stupidity, so operetta transfigures stupidity through music" ), through his public readings, through his "hate poems" (383) and finally back to his polemics--all making me wish I knew more about Kraus than I do. Perhaps Benjamin felt the same for, despite a poetic summation at the end in which he seeks to portray the protean "monster" Kraus as the archetypal angel of "a humanity that proves itself by destruction" (387), it's this earlier quote on our corrosive hero's "combative aspect" that ironically feels like the most revealing R.I.P. to me: "No one can grasp the necessity that compelled this great bourgeois character to become a comedian, this guardian of Goethean linguistic values a polemicist, or why this irreproachably honest man went berserk" (386).
As previously noted, "Karl Kraus" appears on pp. 361-390 of the Walter Benjamin anthology, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, and Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge & London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008).