The Middling Hater: On Jonathan Franzen’s The Kraus Project

Every book provides indications of how it should best be read. Jonathan Franzen’s recent work The Kraus Project provides a particularly singularly explicit instruction for its reception: “Kraus spent a lot of time reading stuff he hated,” Franzen writes, “so as to be able to hate it with authority.” (11) This, indeed, is a useful, even a necessary reminder to the reader that even if we hate the book in our hands, there may well be reason to keep reading– there may well be a political or aesthetic urgency vital enough to keep us in our chairs, no matter how many other things we would rather be doing with our time. I know I would never have managed to make it to the end of Franzen’s self-indulgent annotations were it not for these early words of encouragement.


Plenty of critics have pointed to the spiteful, embittered quality of much of Franzen’s commentary; a few brave, misinformed souls have attempted to recover his half-informed, simplistic vitriol against the complex system of information transmission we call the Internet as belonging to a space of properly literary discourse, necessary to the preservation of a specific form of subjectivity. Given the exceedingly wide reception of these aspects of the book, and the fact that Franzen’s claim, to take just one example, that Salman Rushdie should have known better than to “succumb to Twitter” (12) demonstrate their petty irrelevance without much help at all, I’d like to focus my comments here on a shortcoming of the work that has received far less attention: Franzen consistently misrepresents German literature, history, thought, and culture, even as he musters it in support of his claim to be the inheritor and defender of The Tradition. If, as Franzen claims, he has learned, over the course of years of diligent work, “to participate in the community of past writers,” (293) then I can only conclude that he’s somewhat akin to an old lady on the parish board whose incessant blathering is tolerated only because she always whips up a casserole for funerals. Daniel Kehlmann and Paul Reitter might have saved the book, had they been given a chance to speak as Franzen’s equals– or better yet, as his instructors. Instead, Franzen treats them like pretty, well-trained whores, brought to a party when he couldn’t find a date: they wear the right clothes, laugh at the right jokes, and, most of all, only speak when spoken to.

Some of Franzen’s misrepresentations seem harmless enough. His repeated characterizations, for example, of a German stereotype concerning the linguistic facility of the Jews is half-true. There was a deep-seated cultural concern, throughout Europe, that the Jews were particularly adept at manipulating language with deceitful purpose. There was also, however, a corresponding accusation, as Sander L. Gilman, among many others, has pointed out that the Jews were responsible for degrading the German language– proof positive, for the generations of racialists who provided the allegedly scientific justification for the holocaust that the subhuman brains of the Jews were incapable of fully grasping the language of Goethe and Schiller. Another, less dramatic example, is his claim that, “the German term ‘Romantic irony’ is synonymous with Heine….” (83) This strikes me as massively misinformed: Schlegel, Fichte, and Tieck are beloved in Germany, too, and, in my experience, Germans who know the term Romantic irony also know their work. No serious reader of German literature, at any rate, would ever make this mistake. Other omissions and half-truths seem insignificant enough– until one realizes that they serve to instrumentalize German thought to soothe Franzen’s fragile ego and promote his particular brand of reactionary politics. The first example comes, fittingly enough, with the first annotation of Kraus’s “Heine and the Consequences.” Reitter, a scholar of Krauss points out a rather subtle allusion to Schiller’s “The Song of the Bell” in the first paragraph of “Heine and the Consequences.” But Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man, his philosophical magnum opus, doesn’t merit a mention here. How, after all, could Franzen say smugly that, “even now, Germany insists on content over form,” if he’d acknowledged that one of the central texts of the German canon had insisted that it was the drive to form, along with the drive to play and the drive to content, that gave birth to any creative work. It’s worth mentioning, too, that Schiller thought that the interplay of these three drives was the precondition for any true political freedom. And Schiller wasn’t alone in his praise of form, in his insistence that form was fundamental to any true aesthetic activity. Had Franzen ever finished any of the myriad books of critical theory he brought with him to Berlin in his Fulbright year there, he might have learned of Kant’s claim that the appreciation of beauty is the appreciation of “purposive form,” and had he bothered to attend more than a seminar and a half during his time there, he might have access to a whole tradition of German thought on the importance of form in the generation of both aesthetic and political content. Had he spent his time reading, instead of proclaiming the greatness of his own ambition, we might all have been spared the truly ludicrous claim that the centuries of political and cultural tension and exchange between Germany and the Romance countries can be reduced to the dichotomy between Mac and PC. Instead, though, he holed himself away in a hovel on the outskirts of the city and wrote long letters to the one person capable of tolerating his pretentions.

And if it’s too much to expect that Franzen read Schiller and Kant and Hegel before appointing himself an expert on German culture, one might at least think that he’d bother to pick up the occasional feuilleton before launching his book length attack against one of the richest and most vital sources of cultural commentary in the world. Yes, as Kraus so hilariously laments, feuilletons in fin-de-siècle Vienna often featured poorly written and self-indulgent writing designed to serve the interests of the tottering Austro-Hungarian Empire. They and their counterparts in Berlin, Munich, and Frankfurt, however, also published the work of Joseph Roth, Walter Benjamin, Richard Wagner, Stefan Zweig, and Hugo von Hoffmansthal, among many others. Today, in an era when, as Franzen himself bemoans on several occasions over the course of the book, the book review is in danger of disappearing entirely from the American newspaper, the German feuilleton continues to bring broad and sophisticated cultural commentary to a wide audience, and features regular contributions from leading novelists and social theorists as well as from journalists. Here, as elsewhere, Franzen relies on Reitter for his intellectual authority, though he excises the complications that make The Anti-Journalist, Reitter’s book on Kraus so fascinating. Vocalized through Franzen, Reitter says: “for such figures as Robert Musil, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and, above all, Kraus, the key problem with the feuilleton is that it objectifies what should be most subjective.” Fine, but when they complained about the feuilleton, they complained about it the way that we insult our siblings or moan about our parents: from long and intimate experience, often filled with love, if also marked by deep frustration and occasional rage. This was the world they published and wrote in, the world that both enabled and limited their thinking. Of course they hated it sometimes. Who doesn’t hate the conditions placed on their work sometimes?

German modernism being German modernism, these frustrations were articulated using a complex and varied philosophical and critical vocabulary. This discourse can be very hard to follow. Reitter, clearly, knows how to read these distinctions: his book is an interesting and lucid, if occasionally polemical, reading of Kraus within the context of German modernism’s complex relationship to journalism. Franzen, however, strips Reitters observations of all of the sophistication and subtlety of his earlier work on the subject to make space for dithering observations on 21st-century American life. Franzen divides all of German modernity into two camps: Kraus’s friends, who agreed with pretty much everything he wrote, and Kraus’s enemies, who were philistines. This is a massive oversimplification: Adorno’s objections to the feuilleton were not the same as Musil’s; Hoffmannsthal’s were not the same as Benjamin’s, were not the same as Döblin’s, as Rilke’s, as Brecht’s, etc., etc., etc…. Their readings of Krauss, too, were nuanced, malleable, and highly complex. None of this, however, comes through in Franzen’s commentary.

There are, of course, general trends in the period, and sometimes identifying such trends can be useful. So let me offer the following as a broad, hesitant outline of the kinds of theoretical positions that were informing many of these critiques. I’ll try to use language simple enough that even Franzen might understand it: Marxism was hugely influential. Marx believed that history was progressing (dialectically, if that word isn’t too difficult) towards an inevitable revolution and eventual communist utopia. But things would have to get worse before the revolution happened. If you want revolution, then, if you believe that there is a communist utopia in store for us, then the last thing you want to do is hold up the progress of technology. It’s certainly true, as Reitter points out, that Marx thought of “liberal faith in technology as the worst sort of ideology,” (154) but neither Marx nor later Marxists took this to imply that one should refuse to engage with new technologies: that’s why Benjamin’s most famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproducibility,” argued that the cinema was capable of undoing the “auratic effects” that had been so risible in earlier forms of artistic production. It’s also why Adorno found the scratches made by record players to be one of the most interesting and beautiful kinds of modern music: they revealed the technological artifact, made it present, made it real, and forced us to engage with it. Yes, German modernism critiqued technology, but it did so from a position of intimate familiarity– it did so only after long and careful study of the use, reception, distribution, and conditions of production of the new or newish media of that age: the phonograph, telegraph, telephone, photography, and cinema, for example.

I don’t mean to imply that Franzen should accept the positions of these thinkers unquestioningly – I certainly don’t. But when he writes, “In Berlin I went further and articulated a principled rejection of politics. I did still like the Marxist theorists, the Frankfurt School especially, because their critique of the ‘reifications’ and ‘hypostasis’ and ‘one-dimensionality’ of consumer capitalism was New Wave in spirit,” I think it gives us very good reason to be guarded against his deployment of these very figures in service of an understanding of literature, of history, and of politics that explicitly rejects nearly all of the most fundamental beliefs of the figures he invokes: German modernism was, with important exceptions, committed to difficulty and to an aesthetics that alienated the reader, listener, or viewer. Franzen argues that difficulty introduces a “moral danger.” (170) German modernism considers nostalgia to be a precursor of fascism; Franzen sees the disappearance of the world he grew up in as equivalent to the apocalypse. (276-277). German modernism was marked by the emergence or reinvigoration of formalist tendencies throughout the arts; Franzen insists that only content matters (7-315). German modernism was marked by an enthusiastic, if critical, engagement with new technology; Franzen writes his critiques of Twitter and Facebook without ever giving any indication that he’s ever actually used them, actually tried to find forms of writing or thinking on the Internet that might be interesting or valuable.
Franzen’s book is a tragically missed opportunity: someone of Franzen’s status could have introduced a whole world of English-speaking readers not only to Karl Kraus, but to a wide-variety of writers and thinkers who have been long neglected in our literary and political discourse. Instead, he’s reduced them to fashion statements, deployed to bolster a politics that he himself describes as caught between liberalism and conservatism– a tension that he claims is essential to the production of any good narrative art (158). The kind of liberalism he describes, however, would be better termed reactionary: he bemoans the “corporatized Internet” (12) as encroaching on the sanctified space of literary production, but never deigns to mention that the book we’re holding in our hands was published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux– a subsidiary of the MacMillan Company, itself a subsidiary of Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck, whose annual profits, which accrue to a singlefamily, are measured in the hundreds of millions. And Franzen proposes literature as a means of resistance to the onslaught of contemporary capitalism? Does he think the Holtzbrinck family made all that money creating a safe space for fragile subjectivities? If not, it would seem to me that the capitalism he opposes isn’t the one that’s worst for the world– it’s the one that’s worst for him and his friends. And how sad that they might not be able to afford that villa in Tuscany they’ve had their eye on if big bad Jeff Bezos keeps going the way he has been. Is it any wonder, then, that one of Franzen’s few critiques of Kraus unites the language of the American war machine with the language of papal authority: “It’s not clear that Kraus’s shrill, ex cathedra denunciations were the most effective way to change hearts and minds.” (12)

And this, much more than his relentless oversimplification of German culture, is the real danger of Franzen’s public navel-gazing: he claims to speak for the left, but ends up doing little more than bemoaning the loss of a world in which, even if there were “bomb shelters and segregated swimming pools–” (276) the only faults of those halcyon days that Franzen cares to identify– at least he felt safe and comfortable enough to spill his ambitions onto the page. Similarly, he claims to speak for literature, but devotes most of his energy to talking about how much he dislikes reading. He hates Heine, of course, but also: ‘theory’ generally, especially Harold Bloom and anything French, post-modernism, especially Pynchon and Gaddis, Phillip Roth, John Updike, Jennifer Wiener, Richard Condon, everyone on Twitter or Facebook, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, Gerhardt Hauptmann, blogs, the feuilleton. It’s enough to make one think of a line from Ernst Lubitsch, another great Jewish wit of German modernity: Franzen, it seems, “acquires the finest novels only in order to smell the bindings.”

What does he like? We know he likes, “people who want to communicate in depth, individual to individual, in the quiet and permanence of the printed word, and who were shaped by their love of writers who wrote when publication still assured some kind of quality control and literary reputations were more than a matter of decibel levels.” (273) The problem is, I’m not sure what tradition he’s talking about: could someone tell me when exactly most publications weren’t filled with trivial garbage and when the most talented and committed poets, novelists, and critics didn’t have to fight and scream for the chance to make themselves heard, or die in penniless obscurity? When did the best and bravest writing not exist in a complex and problematic relationship to power and money? When did magazines and newspapers and journals and publishers not put out a thousand puff pieces for every work of genius? The only answer Franzen seems able to provide: the world that made him, the world that led to the formulation of his own particular genius– everything must have been better then, and we can gloss over the racism, the sexism, McCarthyism, and all of the many, many wars, because, well, they didn’t drop the atom bomb on Moscow after all, and Jonathan Franzen felt safe enough to become the author of The Corrections and Freedom, so everything can’t have been all that bad.

Franzen reduces literature generally to nothing more than the manic stroking of his own subjectivity, and thinks of political discourse as the process of people coming to agree with him. Perched high above Manhattan, noise-cancelling headphones on and UltraBook open, Franzen wades through the shallow, murky space of his own experience and concludes that anything that threatens to disturb his own vapid and limited engagement with the world threatens Literature, and should therefore be subjected to his half-educated fear-mongering. In his criticism, as in his novels, Franzen turns the world of letters into the domain of a reclusive reactionary, terrified of anything– including the possibility of genuine spaces of public discourse– that might disrupt the silence he needs to maintain his delusions of grandeur. Me, I prefer my writers be engaged with the world– sometimes bitterly, like Kraus, Mencken, or Hazlitt; sometimes wildly, like Whitman or Kerouac; sometimes cautiously, like Kafka or Pynchon, but always, always, always trying to understand.

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