Arnold Schönberg, Satire (Karl Kraus), 1910. Oil on paper. Belmont Music Publishers, Pacific Palisades, CA.

[Karl Kraus’s] life stands as an example of moral uprightness and courage which should be put before anyone who writes, in no matter what language. … I had the privilege of listening to his conversation and watching his face, lit up by the pale fire of his fanatic love for the miracle of the German language and by his holy hatred for those who used it badly.

— Gregor von Rezzori

Looks like I should have extended my recent outing to Vienna. At the Arnold Schönberg Center, an anniversary exhibition marking the 150th birthdays of Arnold Schönberg and Karl Kraus will be open to the public through May 10. Any student of Viennese Modernism like myself will look forward to this program that features music manuscripts, texts, paintings, and drawings, as well as letters and photographs. The Center says:

Advocating progress in music, Schönberg embodied the courage to break with conventions. In keeping with the interdisciplinary orientation of Viennese Modernism, the composer also expressed himself as a writer and painter. As a censor of language, Kraus fought an unrelenting battle against corrupting newspaper phrases, double standards and esthetic uniformity. The two jubilarians were united by an unspoken understanding of artistic and social matters, and by a shared ethical program which aimed at a claim to truth in all areas of art.

I wrote briefly about Kraus’s Last Days of Mankind here, and I hope to write about Schönberg (one day, one day …). Those of us who can’t be there can comfort ourselves with the English-language catalog of the show, available here. And below is a trailer for the exhibition.

The last days of mankind

Deborah Sengl, The Last Days of Mankind. Stuffed rats and requisites on wooden pedestals, height dimension of the scene: variable, © Deborah Sengl, 2014. Photo: Mischa Nawrata, Wien.

Satirist Karl Kraus called Vienna “an experimental laboratory for world destruction” early in the 20th century, and described the results of these experiments in his massive satire The Last Days of Mankind, first published in his magazine Die Fackel in 1918 and 1919. It begins with the start of World War I and ends in apocalypse; the final words of the play, spoken by God, are “This is not what I intended.” It has over time come to be considered a masterpiece of the documentary play — “The most improbable conversations conducted here were spoken word for word; the most lurid fantasies are quotations,” Kraus said — as well as a central work in pacifistic literature.

The play runs to 588 pages in the English translation by Fred Bridgham and Edward Timms; Kraus in his preface estimates that a performance of the full play would run to “ten evenings in terrestrial time.” Two theaters in Vienna attempted to perform the play in 2014, the centenary year of the start of World War I, but perhaps the most effective “production” of the play was Deborah Sengl‘s series of dioramas based on scenes from The Last Days of Mankind, with stuffed rats standing in for human actors, displayed at Essl Collection for Contemporary Art in Klosterneuburg from January through May of that year. (Alas, the Essl Museum closed permanently in 2016.)

Kraus’s satire, like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, transcends the immediate moment and aspires to universal significance, not only about war but also about the greed and violent inhumanity of the human race; we are all implicated and we are all guilty; neither Kraus, nor Swift, nor Heller exempted themselves from their satiric attacks. Sengl’s rats, posed like human beings in human situations, lead to an uncanny sense of identity between these animals and the characters they portray (dead though unstuffed as those people are), and thereby to the spectator’s own identification with these anthropomorphic figures. “The decision for the rats was taken relatively quickly, because I find that they are most closely related to people,” Sengl said. “They bear a resemblance to us. … It is not for nothing we humans … use them in order to pursue advances in research. There is a lot of common ground between us and the rats.” And every laboratory — whether at a university or a city itself — needs its research subjects.

I find Sengl’s work haunting even when divorced from Kraus’s play, its immediate inspiration. Born in 1974, Sengl says that her work is compelled “by an inner imperative … to react to my environment. … I think that, at his core, Karl Kraus was actually a very kind, tenderhearted, generous person who used his pen as a kind of protective device. … I do the same thing.” While there was no European land war going on in 2014, there is one now, and another war not so far away, rendering Sengl’s work, and Kraus’s, disturbingly contemporary once again.

I’m still looking forward to my visit to Vienna in two weeks, and I’m not sure that it still deserves Kraus’s characterization as “an experimental laboratory for world destruction”; I can think of at least one city that better deserves that honorific. But the point is well taken even so, given the experience of the past century.

You can see more of Sengl’s The Last Days of Mankind here, see her more recent work here, and there is a splendid American book based on the exhibition published by DoppellHouse Press, which includes a fine introduction by Marjorie Perloff. Alas, the catalog of the show published by the Essl Collection itself appears to be out-of-print, but I’ll be keeping an eye on Ebay.

What, me worry?

Mad magazine is still staggering along lo these past 71 years — I started reading it myself in 1971 or 1972, when I was about 10, and moved on a few years later to National Lampoon. Even though my subscription was short-lived, I credit Mad with changing my perspective on the world in a way that a lot of other Mad readers acknowledge too — and it still makes me laugh when I page through the collections I still own. It was best put perhaps by Brian Siano in a 1994 issue of The Humanist:

For the smarter kids of two generations, Mad was a revelation: it was the first to tell us that the toys we were being sold were garbage, our teachers were phonies, our leaders were fools, our religious counselors were hypocrites, and even our parents were lying to us about damn near everything. An entire generation had William Gaines for a godfather: this same generation later went on to give us the sexual revolution, the environmental movement, the peace movement, greater freedom in artistic expression, and a host of other goodies. Coincidence? You be the judge.

Similar encomiums came from Art Spiegelman (“The message Mad had in general is, ‘The media is lying to you, and we are part of the media.’ It was basically … ‘Think for yourselves, kids'”) and R. Crumb (“Artists are always trying to equal the work that impressed them in their childhood and youth. I still feel extremely inadequate when I look at the old Mad comics”), though Mad publisher William Gaines topped them all when he said, “We must never stop reminding the reader what little value they get for their money!”

Though National Lampoon‘s efforts in other media — including films, television, and the stage — were far more successful, it’s possible that the magazine went Hollywood too quickly, leading to it and its form of satire having perished many years ago. Mad tried too: a moderately successful stage show in 1966 (with original music by Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim) and a moderately successful television show beginning in 1995, but a disastrous 1980 Mad film Up the Academy destroyed any ambitions the magazine had of finding its way to success in movie theatres. In 2006 its director, Robert Downey Sr., touchingly observed that it was “one of the worst fucking things in history.”

I myself have written about National Lampoon in the past, and that magazine recently enjoyed the documentary treatment, but it’s been surprising that Mad, which played such a central role in humor and comedy in the post-war era, has remained without similar recognition from documentary filmmakers — until now, that is. Now in post-production, When We Went MAD!, directed by Alan Bernstein, may be the documentary we’ve all been waiting for. Featuring a history of the publication as well as interviews with many of its staff and enthusiasts, the film promises to be to Mad magazine what Ken Burns’s The Civil War was to the Civil War. No release date has been announced, but the trailer for the film is below.