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This article is taken from PN Review 1, Volume 4 Number 1, October - December 1977.

Karl Kraus and 'The Last Days of Mankind' Frank Field

THE HISTORIAN Burckhardt once pointed out that, in periods of great crisis, everything that was formerly accepted loses its meaning and that this process is mirrored in the disintegration of language. Since Burckhardt's time innumerable writers-Mallarmè, Joyce, Eliot, Orwell, for example-have each in different ways confessed to a sense of impotence before the intractability of language, a perennial problem, but one which has become increasingly serious as western civilization has slid deeper and deeper into a state of spiritual anarchy.

Certainly the intellectual life of Vienna in the first decades of this century points to the truth of Burckhardt's observation. In an old and highly sophisticated civilization now moving to its dissolution, torn by ideologies of race, nationality and class, the young Hugo von Hofmannsthal, shattered by the withering of the inspiration which had produced his early poetry, found that his feeling of helplessness was reflected in the decay of language.


For me everything disintegrated into parts, those parts again into parts: no longer would anything let itself be encompassed by a single idea. Single words floated around me: they congealed into eyes which stared at me and into which I was forced to stare back-whirlpools which gave me vertigo and, reeling incessantly, led into the void.


After the crisis which had produced that agonized cry Hofmannsthal abandoned lyrical poetry and attempted, through the medium of drama, to reintegrate himself into a civilization which he desperately hoped to save. ...


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