Elias Canetti

Satire in the Coffee House

By Ari Linden

‘A German comedy is like a German sentence…’   

Stereotypes and George Eliot reflections aside, there is a long tradition of both satirical literature and theoretical speculation on comedy and satire in the German language. The German Idealist G.W.F. Hegel was among the first philosophers to take the comic seriously. For Hegel, however, genuine comedy reached its apex in the work of the Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes; he found the (Romantic) irony and satire popular in his day aesthetically unworthy. Hegel’s privileging of comedy over satire would leave a lasting impression on the subsequent trajectory of philosophical aesthetics.

If we move from nineteenth-century Prussia to early twentieth-century Vienna, we see a different picture altogether. Hermann Broch referred to this period as the ‘joyful apocalypse’, which demanded nothing less than a scathing, ‘absolute satire’. Such thoughts may have been on the mind of Sigmund Freud as well, who published Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten (Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious) in 1905. Indeed, the precarious combination of competing nationalisms throughout the Dual Monarchy, a vibrant and assimilated Jewish population in the metropole, and a decaying but still powerful Catholic aristocracy produced a literary culture informed by mordant irony and acerbic satire.

We ought to begin with Karl Kraus (1874-1936), the Jonathan Swift of Vienna. From 1899 until his death in 1936, two years prior to the Anschluss, Kraus mercilessly pilloried journalists, bureaucrats, the literati, conservatives and liberals for their role in contributing to an ethically and culturally bankrupt empire. Die letzten Tage der Menschheit (The Last Days of Mankind, 1915-1922) – an over 800-page lampoon of the First World War, half of which consists of real quotations –, is peerless in the history of German drama. Perhaps only Elias Canetti’s novel Die Blendung (Auto-da-Fé, 1935), which ridicules the fascist mentality spreading throughout Europe, measures up to Kraus’s play in intensity. Robert Musil’s Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften (The Man without Qualities, 1930-1943) addresses the decline of Habsburg Austria with more philosophical aplomb than either Kraus or Canetti, but not without its own satirical impetus.

Beyond the major modernist works and authors listed above, the pre- and interwar period in Vienna witnessed a veritable cultural outburst of what we can loosely refer to as the ‘small form’ in literature. Broadly conceived, this genre – encompassing the miniature, the aphorism, the gloss, and the short essay – is defined by its laconism and wit, and its most prolific practitioners were often associated with the Viennese Kaffeehausliteratur. Many of these authors first published their texts in the Feuilleton sections of prominent German-language newspapers and journals, such as Die Schaubühne (later Die Weltbühne). Among the more popular figures associated with Kaffeehausliteratur was Peter Altenberg, the bohemian author of ‘prose poems’ that were published in collected volumes such as Wie ich es sehe (‘The Way I See It’, 1896) and Was der Tag mir zuträgt (‘What the Day Brings Me’, 1901). Egon Friedell and Alfred Polgar are similarly representative of this cosmopolitan type, whose writings deftly blended the boundary between literature and journalism and are almost always informed by a trained satirical eye. Polgar’s brief and biting reflections on World War I were eventually published in volumes such as Kleine Zeit (‘Small Times’, 1922) and An den Rand geschrieben (‘Written on the Margins’, 1926). Many of these pieces can be read as the understated counterpart to Kraus’s hyperbolic satire.

While several others belong to this tradition – including Joseph Roth, known to us today more as a novelist – Anton Kuh deserves the final mention. In 1925, Kuh delivered a devastatingly witty polemic against Kraus titled Der Affe Zarathustras (‘Zarathustra’s Ape’), which embodied a dominant cultural trend: satire that was at once personal and political, cutting deepest when it raised a single character flaw into a symptom of collective pathology (in this case, the phenomenon of ‘intellectual plebeianism’). Satirical laughter thus proved to be one of the more effective antidotes to the political instability that defined these times.