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Jonathan Franzen: While We Are Busy Tweeting, Texting and Spending, the World is Drifting Towards Disaster

The problems of our modern world.

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Like any artist, Kraus wanted to be an individual. For much of his life, he was defiantly anti-political; he seemed to form professional alliances almost with the intention of later torpedoing them spectacularly. Given that Kraus's favourite play was King Lear, I wonder if he might have seen his own fate in Cordelia, the cherished late child who loves the king and who, precisely because she's been the privileged daughter, secure in the king's love, has the personal integrity to refuse to debase her language and lie to him in his dotage. Privilege set Kraus, too, on the road to being an independent individual, but the world seemed bent on thwarting him. It disappointed him the way Lear disappoints Cordelia, and in Kraus this became a recipe for anger. In his yearning for a better world, in which true individuality was possible, he kept applying the acid of his anger to everything that was false.

Let me turn to my own example, since I've been reading it into Kraus's story anyway.

I was a late child in a loving family which, although it wasn't nearly prosperous enough to make me a rentier, did have enough money to place me in a good public school district and send me to an excellent college, where I learned to love literature and language. I was a white, male, heterosexual American with good friends and perfect health. And yet, for all my privileges, I became an extremely angry person. Anger descended on me so near in time to when I fell in love with Kraus's writing that the two occurrences are practically indistinguishable.

I wasn't born angry. If anything, I was born the opposite. It may sound like an exaggeration, but I think it's accurate to say that I knew nothing of anger until I was 22. As an adolescent, I'd had my moments of sullenness and rebellion against authority, but, like Kraus, I'd had minimal conflict with my father, and the worst that could be said of me and mother was that we bickered like an old married couple. Real anger, anger as a way of life, was foreign to me until one particular afternoon in April 1982. I was on a deserted train platform in Hanover. I'd come from Munich and was waiting for a train to Berlin, it was a dark grey German day, and I took a handful of German coins out of my pocket and started throwing them on the platform. There was an element of anti-German hostility in this, because I'd recently had a horrible experience with a penny-pinching old German woman and it did me good to imagine other penny-pinching old German women bending down to pick the coins up, as I knew they would, and thereby aggravating their knee and hip pains. The way I hurled the coins, though, was more generally angry. I was angry at the world in a way I'd never been before. The proximate cause of my anger was my failure to have sex with an unbelievably pretty girl in Munich, except that it hadn't actually been a failure, it had been a decision on my part. A few hours later, on the platform in Hanover, I marked my entry into the life that came after that decision by throwing away my coins. Then I boarded a train and went back to Berlin, where I was living on a Fulbright grant, and enrolled in a class on Karl Kraus.

As a wedding present, three months after I returned from Berlin, my college German professor George Avery gave me a hardcover edition of Kraus's great critique of nazism, The Third Walpurgis Night. George, who had opened my eyes to the connection between literature and the living of life, was becoming something of a second father to me, a father who read novels and embraced every pleasure. I'd been a good student of his, and it must have been a wish to prove myself worthy, to demonstrate my love, that led me, in the months following my wedding, to try to translate the two difficult Kraus essays I'd brought home from Berlin.

 
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