Karl Kraus: The Last Days of Mankind. God created Man not as a Consumer but as a Human Being
May 23rd, 2015 by Klaus Rohde
We are living in a world in which conflicts, be they economic, military, cultural or religious, are getting worse with little inclination of the various “players” to compromise and find a solution acceptable to all. Each side believes or pretends to believe that it has the right on its side, or, in other words, that it has reached the pinnacle of history. In this, the world situation closely resembles that just before the first world war. If we want solutions, it may be helpful to look at how the world situation 100 years ago was reflected in intelligent/perceptive minds. One such mind was Karl Kraus, the famous Viennese satirist and critic who died in 1936. The “grumbler” or “begrudger” (original German “der Nörgler”, a character based on himself), in his satirical antiwar play “The last days of mankind” (Die letzten Tage der Menscheit, 200 loosely connected scenes largely based on actual events and characters, written during and in the first years after the first world war) says, according to http://www.thebaffler.com/salvos/hail-grumbler
“God created man not as a consumer or producer but rather as a human being. That the means of life should not be the goal of life. That the stomach should not outgrow the head. That life is not exclusively based on the profit motive. That a human being is allotted time in order to have time and not to arrive somewhere faster with his legs than with his heart.“
And, according to: http://thelastdaysofmankind.com/, referring to Kraus’s readings of portions of the play,
organized group travels to the battelfields of the war and the graves of the dead are a disgrace:
“The dead in their millions are hardly cold in the ground. What Kraus reads invokes the sacrifices made in passing, barely, cynically, tritely, before the details of itineraries, highlights, hotels, travel arrangements, their great advantages and pleasures of first class seats and tickets, etc., are expounded with an extraordinary gusto. This is some holiday! It is as grotesque and shameful as Kraus’s reading makes it.”
The play terminates in an apokalyptic scene, the extinction of mankind. Mankind in its entirety is the “antihero”, unworthy of life on earth because it has permitted the cruelties of war.
Kraus had written earlier in the play: “Lord forgive them for they do know what they do.”
Not to forget, Kraus wrote for German/Austrian readers and audiences. I am not aware of any English writers, excepting perhaps Thomas Hardy on a much milder note, who attacked their leaders and compatriots with a similar degree of causticity.
Karl Kraus has been largely neglected in the anglophone countries, but translations of some of his works are now becoming more frequent. And considering the situation in the world today, his insights are of considerable importance. Indeed, it seems that little has changed over the last 100 years. The political situation worldwide is now as unstable as it was before the first world war when Karl Kraus wrote his play (conflicts between Russia and the EU over the Ukraine, between China and the USA over Southeast Asian islands; almost total collapse of social structures in Libya/Syria/Iraq/Afghanistan/some African countries largely as the result of wars; overpopulation pressure in Bangladesh and many other countries in Africa and elsewhere leading to mass migrations of refugees into more affluent countries). And: the economic outlook of the populace and its rulers in the so-called “Western”countries is similar: consume! consume! steered into this fallacy by much of the media which are largely under the thumb of the rich “elite”. Elections are won or lost not because of the merits of a policy concerning the future of the nation and indeed of mankind, but because of promises of short-term profits. – The results of the first world war were disastrous, directly leading to the vastly more devastating events of the second world war. However, what is happening now may be even worse: the survival of mankind is under threat if the effects of overpopulation, overconsumption and enviromental destruction, particularly that caused by climate change, are not brought under control.
Abridged English translation: The last days of mankind; a tragedy in five acts. an abridgement translated by Alexander Gode and Sue Allen Wright. New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co. 1974. ISBN 9780804424844.
In the preface to the book edition Karl Kraus wrote ” Die Aufführung des Dramas, dessen Umfang nach irdischem Zeitmaß etwa zehn Abende umfassen würde, ist einem Marstheater zugedacht. Theatergänger dieser Welt vermöchten ihm nicht standzuhalten.” (The performance of the play, which would comprise about ten evenings, is meant for a Mars theatre. People of this world would not be able to take it).