LAST Sunday, the 100th anniversary of the armistice of the war to end all wars, our news was full of quasi-religious, militaristic memorialising, writes Gerard Howlin.
It stirs me, which worryingly speaks of its efficiency. But it also puzzles me. Why do we remember the appalling, in so sanitised a way? In a calendar of memorial, to which has been added the Irish fallen in World War I, an alternative answer was found. I saw it not in Paris or London or in Lutyens Irish War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, but in the Leith Theatre beside the Firth of Forth on the edge of Edinburgh.
It was epoch-making theatre. The Last Days of Mankind by Karl Kraus is the longest play ever written. Impossible to ever fully produce, with more than 500 characters, it is the most famous play you have never seen. The author, Jewish, with family wealth and living in Vienna, is a giant in the German-speaking world, and a major writer and controversialist in his time.
He claimed the play would stretch out over 10 days. We had nearly four hours, but the sense of something much greater.
It was a great performance and a complete unsettling of established memorial. This is as Kraus intended.
For him the war was a grotesque, grinning carnival of destruction, ending up as a butcher’s stall in swamps and trenches.
The Irish involvement at Leith, as in the war itself, is part of the story. Irishman Patrick Healy translated the epic and his work remains the only single source translation in English. A notable presence in Dublin in the 1980s and ‘90s, he has lived in Amsterdam for more than 20 years. His complete recording of Finnegans Wake, produced by Lilliput Press in 1992, remains one of a kind. The scale and variety of his scholarship in between is astonishing. Surprisingly, but perhaps not, he remains largely beyond the horizon of the cultural scene here. Perhaps his anticipated novel will now excite interest.
His translation, and the production directed by John Paul McGroarty and Yuri Birte Anderson, are seminal gifts to the English-speaking world. Comedic, scabrous and savage, it is interspersed with music and song by The Tiger Lillies. Smashing Times Theatre and Film Company, in the persons of Michael Bates and Michael-David McKernan, were the Irish part of a European-wide ensemble of 30 on stage.
It was an opposite and antidote to State memorialising. At the very least, it leavens our understanding. Focused on the eastern front, set in one of three great empires, Hapsburg, Hohenzollern and Romanov propelled towards collapse, Kraus’s great rage is against the press.
Anticipating President Emmanuel Macron’s description last Sunday — in the presence of Donald Trump — of nationalism as the betrayal of patriotism by a hundred years, Kraus wrote of how “nationalism is a stew in which all other ideas are mixed”. He belittled “the love which ties me to the blockheads of my country: those who insult my sense of morality and degrade my language”.
It was the crime of degrading language which he visited ferociously on the press: “Journalists write because they have nothing to say and claim to have something to say because they write”.
These people with “no ideas and the ability to write them” and are the opposite of the artist, whose work can only come “from intense protest, never from smugness”. “The painter has this in common with the dauber: they both get their hands dirty. That is what precisely distinguishes the writer from the journalist”.
In a speech from The Grumbler, the contrarian character who is Kraus in The Last Days, the “whore of Babylon” is that press “who persuaded us in all the languages of the world that we were ever each other’s enemy and that there should be war!” The cutting edge of the 100-year-old accusation in the era of Trump, Brexit and fake news is unnerving. For Kraus they are “the arch enemy” “bombarding our brains with lies on a daily basis”. The enemy too is the smugness of settled, impermeable power whose destruction comes astonishingly quickly with hubris.
We should recall as hubris the ill-liberal triumphalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the astonishing stupidity of a boast about the end of history. A generation later the ground is shifting beneath again. Certainties are sliding. Globalisation is not the antidote to nationalism, nor metropolitanism a readymade substitute for patriotism. There is a clear and present menace to the structure and stability of our society. Kraus’s “whore of Babylon” is remerged, fuelling nationalism, racism and fear. The Austro-Hungarian Empire constrained those forces to a point, until it tried to exploit them once too often and went to war with Serbia. That was the end of a thousand years of history. The European Union, largely with more idealism and deeper values, seeks now to be the constraint to which the strong submit in order to prosper.
A generation after Kraus, George Orwell anticipated or perhaps inspired Macron’s exact use of words. It is “probably true” he wrote “that patriotism is an inoculation against nationalism”. “The worst follies” he believed “have been made possible by the breakdown of patriotism and religious belief”. Restraint, in whatever dimension it comes, is essential for saving any society from itself. Nearby Trump, as Macron spoke, sat President Putin.
For those who 100 years ago paid with the ultimate sacrifice, Kraus offers a critical rebuke to them and us. Having escaped “the ultimate goal of glory” they had become “sick, impoverished, destitute, louse-ridden, starving, killed in battle so that the tourist trade might flourish”. He prophesied that “the hyenas become tourist guides”, “offering your graves as a sightseeing attraction”.
This is the sanitation of time and memorial. It is Hell reinvented as Disney. It is remembering without understanding for our time.
On Sunday, in Catholic churches universally, the gospel of the widow’s mite [a small coin] was read. She gave “everything” with two copper coins, while others gave out of their abundance. Tellingly, He had then sat down opposite the treasury in the Temple. This, biblically, is the posture of judgment. Apocalyptically it is the moment when having stood up, he left the Temple for the last time, foretelling its destruction. Preparing to give everything Himself, He had promised “the greater condemnation” for those who “devour widows’ houses”. What was monumental, would not last. So it is with empires and small conceits alike. Parables about giving all are more about those who take.
It is more than 100 years since Karl Kraus began writing the greatest, certainly the longest, dramatic account of the war. He anticipated with astonishing perception how we live now. My own astonishment is realising we are closer to the 1920s than to the swinging 60s. What Kraus wrote about echoes strangely in our ears. His great documentary is enduring prophecy.